This little novella from Norway has been tagged crime fiction by the library, but I suspect that most readers of the genre might be rather disappointed in it. Because although there is a murder right at the beginning of the book, the mystery which unfolds within its pages is the mystery of life. Professor Andersen’s Night is more about French existentialism than urban crime.
Alone in his apartment on Christmas Eve, Professor Andersen looks out through his window onto the streets of Oslo. He has made himself a special meal, has dressed up for the occasion, has opened the two presents he had received and placed underneath his ostentatious Christmas tree that no one else will see, and now has nothing to do but mull over a cognac and look out at other families enjoying their Christmas festivities. Four apartments in particular attract his attention: through their windows he can dimly see them in that familiar post-indulgence torpor and he feels a sense of rapport because, he thinks, they are all sharing in a ‘deep-rooted cultural ceremony’ even if most of them had no religious sensibility at all. The reader can almost feel the cognac coursing through his veins as his mind wanders over the irony of these quasi-religious celebrations and his tortuous rationalizations for his own conformity to them despite his unbelief….
This benign feeling of being at one with the fellow-citizens of Oslo is abruptly shattered when he witnesses the murder. A young woman comes to the window of the apartment opposite and a man steps up behind her, strangles her and then draws the curtains. Professor Andersen’s immediate response is to call the police. But he doesn’t do it.
Not having immediately called the police, he then agonises over why he didn’t, and then over how to resolve the guilt he feels and how to stage-manage the belated report that he knows he should make in the morning. And eventually he goes to bed for a restless night.
What follows is a mid-life crisis writ large. The next day he goes for a walk to think things out, but never gets to the police station. He goes to a dinner party with his friends, arriving early so that he can confide in his mate Bernt, but he doesn’t do it. His inertia over this matter paralyses him into guilt, fear and denial. (This must happen more commonly than we know. How else does it happen that years after a crime has been committed, that a witness finally surfaces and the case is solved?)
But there’s more to it than that, of course. Professor Andersen’s pointless hand-wringing symbolises not just his generation’s ineffectual and long-abandoned attempts to make the world a better place, but also the West turning a blind, pseudo-helpless eye on the crimes of world poverty, environmental degradation, and so on. There is intermittent talk in global forums, but little action because most people in the West are more interested in The Good Life. Just like the Prof and his pals at their indulgent Christmas Day dinner party.
In this dinner party sequence Solstad pokes fun at the Baby Boomer generation. Professor Andersen and his friends were all radicals of the Sixties: Andersen’s radicalism manifests itself in struggling to understand avant-garde poetry, and he has made a successful career at the university out of trying to interpret it (and obscuring his frequent failures to do so). His friends were all involved in left-wing politics, opposing aspects of European politics which before long were firmly cemented as global institutions anyway: NATO, the Common Market, the European Union, nuclear armament and so on. These issues which so preoccupied that generation have faded away but Andersen and his friends still perceive themselves as progressive intellectuals. They justify self-indulgent extravagances which conflict with their high-minded intellectualism – Russian peas, sports cars, pleasure boats, holiday houses, and expensive Italian suits – by proclaiming them as aberrations or compulsions which they are not quite able to resist. The idealism of the Sixties has morphed into middle-aged men trading in long marriages for trophy wives, abandoning public service for work in the private sector with better pay and higher status, and bragging about their children’s minor accomplishments in shallow dinner party conversations.
Solstad’s next target is the meaning and purpose of literature in the modern world. Running away from himself, Professor Andersen goes to Trondheim where he meets up with a younger colleague who is also a professor of literature. They have a deep-and-meaningful conversation over what turns out to be an entire bottle of whisky, exploring whether it is enough to teach others to take quiet pleasure in classic authors such as Ibsen or Dante, or whether it is imperative to be stirred to the depths of the soul by the great works of literature. The next day when they go ski-ing this conversation is continued, descending into tirades by Professor Andersen, until the colleague wearies of the bleakness of Andersen’s position. Their relationship is further tested when, having enjoyed generous hospitality at the colleague’s home, Professor Andersen wakes up the next day and hurtles back to Oslo in a panic over some new aspect of the murder which has occurred to him, thus reneging on plans made to reciprocate by taking the couple out to dinner .
New Year comes and goes, Professor Andersen observing it all from the sidelines and then it’s time to start preparing for the academic year. Now comes some serious soul-searching about his pet subject and Norway’s literary hero, Ibsen. Professor Andersen has doubts, you see, about whether the subject of his own Ph.D really is great. He’s bothered about modernised versions of Ibsen’s plays, which feature
… Oswald as a neo-Nazi, long-haired punks, a peace negotiator with AIDS, a UN soldier stationed in Bosnia at home on leave, absolutely everything that one could imagine in the form of theatrical costumes to dress up poor fictive Oswald (p103)
because you can only ‘swallow’ all this if the spirit of Ibsen still lives, and still matters. (Well, yes, indeed.)
These literary conundrums are not the Professor’s only anxieties. Though he himself despises careerists, he acquiesced to studying Ibsen to advance his own career because in those days university orthodoxy was never challenged, but he is now somewhat peeved that everything gets challenged at university these days, including his own position. It might just be that he has become irrelevant.
Oh dear, what with worrying about all this and the murderer as well – especially when he meets up with him f2f in a sushi shop! – the Prof is drinking rather a lot. It comes as no surprise that he loses the plot and has to take time off from work due to the strain…
Is Professor Andersen’s Night destined for the Independent Foreign Fiction shortlist? I’m not sure. The translation by Agnes Scott Langeland reads well, but I found the very long paragraphs a bit disconcerting sometimes. (I can do Proust in long paragraphs, but this wasn’t Proust). I have to say that while I found it to be an interesting book that made me reflect about many things, and I’m glad it was longlisted because I probably wouldn’t have come across it otherwise, I don’t agree with the blurb that claims it’s ‘an unsettling yet highly entertaining novel’. Yes, there are some droll bits of humour, but overall, I think one needs a taste for existentialist angst to find this highly entertaining. So a lot depends on the judges’ criteria.
P.S. This book has only just become available in translation but it was actually first published in 1996. I didn’t realise this until I read the sequence in which Solstad plays with the idea of the dinner party group looking back on a photo of their night together from a time many years in the future. When the photo is ‘developed’ he writes, and suddenly what had seemed to be a contemporary novel shifts back to the pre-digital age when film was sent away to be developed and collected a few days later. That seems so long ago!
I wonder why it takes so long for the best of foreign fiction to make it into translation?
For reviews from other members of the Shadow IFFP team, click here.
Author: Dag Solsted
Title: Professor Andersen’s Night
Translated by Agnes Scott Langeland
Publisher: Harvill Secker 2011, (first published 1996)
Source: Yarra Libraries, via Z Portal search
Fishpond: Professor Andersen’s Night