04 September 2007

Reflections on a life lived

Once again on a Friday afternoon I found myself at the Amery (Wisconsin) Public Library. The newest books are on shelves just to the right as you come in the front door. That's where I begin.

Mary, the family book giver, had dropped off several mystery/adventure/thriller books, but I was in the mood for something different. I didn't know what.

I scanned two shelves of books and began to wonder if I'd find anything that in some mysterious way looked interesting.

Then I saw the title of a small book with a dark cover, Out Stealing Horses. I took it off the shelf. It's amazing how much a title and a book cover design can influence what I read. I don't know why I picked this book off the shelves full of new books. I guess the title might have been an invitation to something interesting.

The first thing I noticed was the author's name, Per Petterson [below at the right]. I flipped to the back flap. Sure enough, he's Norwegian, and this book was translated by Anne Born, who's touted as an experienced translator. "Aha," I said to myself, "It's another in our ongoing series of Scandanavian books."

Okay, what is this book? I flip to the front flap. "We were going out stealing horses. That was what he said, standing at the door to the cabin where I was spending the summer with my father. I was fifteen. It was 1948 and one of the first days of July."

A couple paragraphs down I learn that the book is about Trond Sander, who at age 67 has retreated to a cabin in the Norwegian countryside, without telephone, television, central heating, or indoor plumbing to "live the rest of his life with a quiet deliberation."

Hey, this guy sounds like a Hindu, going off to be a holy man. Hindu Net describes the Sannyasa Ashrama as "the final stage of life in which an individual mentally renounces all worldly ties, spends all of his or her time in meditation and contemplation and ponders over the mystries of life. In ancient times one would part company with one’s family and become a mendicant."

But a Norwegian Hindu? "That does it," I say to myself, "I'm going to try reading this over the weekend."

It's now Sunday. I'm sitting in the courtyard of Sidetrack, the little cabin on the little lake a few miles north of Amery. The sun is going down across the lake. I'm distracted by large, swallow-like birds floating overhead in their search for insects, by chipmunks chasing each other on the retaining wall (they're not used to people out here), by a quiet creaking or gnawing sound coming from a small wood pile at the top of the wall, and by the moving shadows in front of me. The sun will be down soon, and one distraction will be gone. The little solar lights next to the stairs will come on, but they won't offer enough light to allow me to see the chipmunks anymore, and another distraction will disappear from sight if not hearing.

Oh, the book? It was good. Petterson writes well. Amy Tan is quoted on the cover as saying, "I was completely taken with Out Stealing Horses from the first page." I agree.

Petterson seems to be best known as a short story writer, and it shows -- in good ways and not so good ways. The stories woven together in this book do become one. There are stories about the summer of '48, some about the winter of '43, and stories about old man Trond Sanders in the fall of 1999. The stories are narrated by participants and they are all good story tellers. Trond Sanders' questions about how the world works are vital parts of all the stories.

And, it's necessary to read nearly every word. Over and over again, just as I was tempted to skip to the end of a sentence or paragraph, I discovered that Petterson was saying something important, and I had to go back and read more carefully.

But, this collection of intimately related stories is at least a couple stories short of a whole novel. First off, there's no conclusion. I know, I'm supposed to invent my own. I prefer finding out what the author's creation is. Maybe I'm dense, but I don't think a meaningful ending is implied in the stories.

Secondly, there's too little outside perspective on this Trond Sanders character for my taste. In one of the last stories, his daughter tracks him down and visits unexpectedly. It seems the old widower had retired, sold his flat, left his old life in Oslo, and gone off to be a recluse without telling anyone. The episode reveals a lot about Trond Sanders. I would have appreciated more outsiders' perspectives. There are characters in the stories who could have told stories about the young man, but they don't.

There are other things I wonder about the pre-recluse Trond Sanders, but I readily see that those things are beyond the scope of a collection of stories about an old guy retreating from his apparently successful life and career only to confront an important, but ignored part of his childhood.

One of the reasons the stories resonate with me is that I'm nearly Trond Sanders' age. I recognize the urges to simplify and retreat to the wilderness.

Well, I'm not ready to retreat to an unheated place with an outhouse, but I did spend some time this summer searching for a place I could go next summer and look at some mountains while I hiked, read, wrote, and was quietly deliberate.

I liked this book a lot. I may read it again tomorrow. But that doesn't mean that you'll like it. You get to decide for yourself. I hope my reactions will help you decide.

Two more things:

ONE: Maybe Petterson's ending is implied in the stories. Maybe I just don't understand the Norwegian psyche well enough. Living in Minnesota, I'm well aware of the stereotypes of the silent stoic Scandanavian. Old Trond certainly fits that mold. As a youth he gets angry once, but resists acting on his anger. Several times he gets sick and throws up. Otherwise, he's as phlegmatic as Simon and Garfunkel's rock (see or hear the lyrics).

TWO: Translator Anne Born may have translated "many works from the principal Scandanavian languages into English," but she needs an English editor. When the baby deer are called fauns, when the young Trond jumps out of bed and runs out of the house without buttoning his flies, and when a train causes the sleepers to creak as it moves down the tracks, an American reader has to do some more translating. It keeps the brain working, but it does distract from stories Petterson is telling, where every word seems important.

The book is brand new, published by Graywolf Press in St. Paul with grants from NEH and Target. If your library doesn't have it, ask for it. Or find it at your nearest neighborhood bookstore.


Patrick said...

Thank you for reviewing OUT STEALING HORSES! I've linked to this on the Graywolf Press Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/graywolfpress

Ken Wedding said...

Minnesota Public Radio's Kerri Miller interviewed Per Petterson about his books. You can listen to the podcast.