Though already well known in his native Norway and throughout Scandinavia, Per Petterson didn't gain a wide readership in the English-speaking world until the 2005 publication of his award-winning novel Out Stealing Horses. The story of a 67-year-old man contending with the memories of his father and of his youth during the Nazi occupation, Out Stealing Horses is an exquisite, sparely written masterwork.
Petterson's new novel, I Curse the River of Time, is equally astonishing. Once again he lays bare the power of memory in a riven individual. The year is 1989 and Arvid Jansen finds himself navigating the difficult relationship with his dying mother and the crumbling of his marriage, all of it in synchronous collapse with that of the Berlin Wall. As in his other work, Petterson has created a narrative of grief, wonder, and regret unspooling in a single thread of memory irregularly (and rarely) knotted with joy.
Publishers Weekly raved in a starred review:
Like an emotional sucker punch, the latest novel from the much-acclaimed Petterson...examines lives half-lived, ending, and perhaps beginning anew....Petterson blends enough hope with the gorgeously evoked melancholy to come up with a heartbreaking and cautiously optimistic work.
[Editor's Note: We're pleased to have chosen I Curse the River of Time for Volume 20 of our Indiespensable subscription program. Subscribers receive a signed, exclusive slipcased edition, along with special surprises.]
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Gin Enguehard: I've been consistently moved by your work. I love it. Are there plans for any more of your stories to be translated into English?
Per Petterson: Yes, I think so. Harvill Press in England has bought the rights to some: one short story collection, a small novel, a little bigger novel, and then some essays.
Gin: Do you ever write in English?
Petterson: No, I don't. But I participate in the translation. I say a little jokingly that the translator should translate the book and then I'll write it in English, which is rather coquettish to say. But I need a translation; I need something to use my hatchet on. I always work through the editor, because the translator may not be so happy with me, so I need the guy in between. [Laughter]
Gin: Are you ever surprised by what translators come up with? Does it ever seem like it's a completely different book?
Petterson: Oh, yes. [Laughter] There are always problems with the translation, but for me the most important thing is that they get the rhythm. I rely heavily on rhythm when I write. You should tap your foot when you read it, all the way through. Sometimes, maybe they don't understand that the rhythm is there because their Norwegian is not good enough, or they just can't make it happen in English — sometimes the rhythm won't translate. ButI have a clear notion of what the book should not be in English. That's where I start.
Gin: Someone once told me that Norwegian is a tonal language, like Cantonese or Mandarin. Is that true?
Petterson: I wouldn't know. I haven't the faintest idea how it sounds when I speak Norwegian. It must sound strange.
Gin: The only Norwegian I've heard people speaking is Bokmål. I like the sound of it, but I have no idea what other forms sound like.
Petterson: I write in a so-called radical Bokmål, because I come from the working-class area of Oslo, on the east side of the river. That's where the workers live, or used to live, so what we speak is different from the nice Bokmål. And what I try to do in my books is to make this sort of radical Bokmål, based in the spoken language, into a kind of literary language, by writing it so that the critics can't really take me on that. Although they don't like the radical Norwegian Bokmål, I'm really happy when they have to say it's good, because they don't write that way themselves.
But it's not a problem understanding it. Everybody understands everything here. When you come from my place you naturally understand everything because you have to or you wouldn't get an education; you just have to listen. But some people think they don't have to. The first review of my first book was by a very famous anthropologist in Norway. He was really criticizing me on a class basis. He's an anthropologist. He knows everything about society, and at the same time he's snubbing me.
Gin: You were talking about the working-class aspect of the east side of Oslo. Is it still that way?
Petterson: The working class has moved a little farther out of town. The old working-class areas are now gentrified — the intellectual middle class is moving in. Immigrant workers from Pakistan, India, and Morocco also used to live in this part. They have to move farther out as the middle class moves in. It's the usual thing. It happens everywhere.
Gin: You now live a little bit farther outside of Oslo?
Petterson: Yes, I moved out 17 years ago now. I live on this small farm, not far from the Swedish border, east of Oslo. I like it here, but you can't go into town to get a beer with the boys because you have to take a taxi, and it costs two thousand kroner, which is a lot. So I have to stay at home. But if I hadn't lived here for so long I wouldn't have been able to write Out Stealing Horses, because where the old family lives looks like where I live. Everybody here thinks that it's this area. They like that.
Gin: I don't doubt that. It sounds beautiful. Portland [Oregon] is a little bit like that, too. You can go a little ways outside the city and end up in beautiful forested areas.
Petterson: I've been to Portland. In 1989, I'd had one book published and the next was coming out, and a friend of mine and I decided we wanted to visit Raymond Carver. So we called him and talked to him on the telephone in the night, and he said, "Come on. Just come." I was a little timid so we waited for a year, and then he died. It was so sad. Later we talked to Tess Gallagher, his widow, the writer, and she said, "Come anyway." So we did. We went to Seattle and took the ferry out to Port Angeles and stayed a couple of days. I saw his library! Then somebody told us there was a poetry festival in Portland, so we drove down there and we took part in the festival and the party afterwards. I think it was in September, 1989.
Gin: What was it like in Raymond Carver's library?
Petterson: Not as many books as I have, but what I noticed as I was lying there on the sofa was that he had the Ecco Press edition of collected Chekhov short stories, which is the same one I have! I worked in a bookstore in Oslo, importing the English-language books. And I had just imported the collected stories of Chekhov from Ecco Press. It was so strange to lie there on his sofa, looking at the same books I'd been looking at at home. I liked it very much. You could see that his study was just the same as when he died. Tess hadn't changed anything. I sneaked in at night and looked at his desk. It wasn't quite religious [Laughter], but it was a little bit awesome.
Gin: Did it smell smoky at all?
Petterson: You had to smoke outside. I was a great smoker then, but he also had to go outside to smoke. Tess's orders.
Gin: Your new novel is set in 1989, the year you were here in Portland. I hope you got to Powell's while you were here.
Petterson: I did, and I found exactly what I was looking for.
Gin: How long were you a bookseller?
Petterson: Twenty years. At first I wanted to go to university, but I really didn't dare to. I was too self-conscious, being a working-class kid. It was really difficult. I was going to study history but the professor asked me some questions I didn't understand, and I didn't dare to ask what they meant. I left university and went to work in the Post.A lot can change because you are embarrassed by something.
Gin: Nineteen eighty-nine was also when the wall came down, and the incident in Tiananmen Square happened. There are obvious parallels with the main character, Arvid Jansen, who has everything crumbling around him. You use the phrase "a failed experiment" when talking about the collapse of the USSR. Other people use that phrase, too, to talk about Soviet-style communism. Is Arvid's life up to that point a failed experiment, or just the opposite?
Petterson: Arvid shares a lot of my views. I agree with him that the Soviet Union was a failed experiment. It was an experiment that perhaps was worth doing, but it definitely failed. I think Stalin had something to do with that.
Gin: Do you think of yourself as a leftist?
Petterson: Of course. It would be stupid not to be. I've always been a leftist. I'm a pinko, as they say in America. What's typical in Europe about being a leftist is that most of the countries have a very strong trade union movement, and it's always been like that. They have had a really big influence, especially after the Second World War, but also before. I think that political parties have come undone, but that trade unions are still there. They're doing a good job. I think that in a society where trade unions are strong, they're the basis for the common man to associate with colleagues, co-workers. I'm a trade union follower.
Gin: Regarding class, there are two scenes, one where Arvid's mother slaps him across the face and calls him an idiot for leaving school, because she wanted to see him get out of the working class. There's also a scene earlier when he's talking about the brothers' preference for Glenfiddich or Chivas Regal whisky over the Norwegian Upper Ten, and his mother replies, "And you're my sons?" She seems like she's of two minds about where Arvid should be. What would she have done if Arvid hadn't left school?
Petterson: That's a good observation. She is like that. My mother was a little like that, a very independent woman. She didn't slap my face, but my brother told me she was very close to doing that.
My brother became an architect. She pushed him into school. He couldn't enter the one in Oslo so he accepted a place in England. He was homesick and wanted to come home and she forced him to stay in England, at that school. Later, when he became an architect, he talked a little like that [like the British] and she said, "Who are you to talk like that?" And my younger brother said, "Hey, he's worked all these years to get to where he is and now you're slapping him."
She didn't want us to be snobs or haughty; at the same time she didn't want us to stay and work like she did. The conflict in Arvid's family is more or less the conflict in my family. I write most of my books, not about what really happened, but what could have happened given different circumstances. That's why Arvid behaves a little like me. His exterior resembles mine, but he makes different choices. I recognize myself in him.
I do think that what happens in books, as long as it's literature, is just as true as what could have happened. I could have behaved like Arvid given a different set of circumstances.What the novel does is make things even more true than they are, taking things all the way out — usually we don't take our feelings all the way out — to see where they end up. So I made Arvid go a little further than I dared to go in my own life.
In the Wake is also about Arvid Jansen. What he goes through in two weeks, the stress that he's under, I experienced over two years. So I could experiment with how I would do if I had but two weeks to go through all that. What I found was that, under great pressure, people tend to stumble around; the small muscles don't work any more. So I was stumbling around like Arvid does in that book. Sometimes I call him not my alter ego but my stunt man.
Gin: One of my favorite quotes of yours, from To Siberia, is, "The air is as bright as glass and leaves everything sharply defined." That describes all of your work, crystalline and brittle at times, and also illuminatingly beautiful.
Petterson: I'm glad you liked To Siberia. It's perhaps my favorite book. The novel that I wrote before that is a hard book about a very tough father. When I finished it, I had to change a little. Some of the things in this book are taken from my mother's life, or how it could have been. I couldn't know what my mother had thought when she was 30 years old, so I had to create a new woman with her circumstances. It was pretty scary to write a novel seen from the mind of a woman, in the first person. I tried to research a little bit with my daughters and I found that was no use — I just had to trust that we were much the same, that men and women are much the same. I had to sink myself into this female body and see how the world looked from there. When I think of a man looking at a little girl, I know immediately what he sees, because I'm a man, so I tried to make myself react to that. When I finished the book I was rather proud, because I'd dared to go all the way through with it.
When my mother told me about her daughter who had died when I was born, she got a glint in her eye, like she was talking about something very important. But when she talked about my father, I didn't see that at all. It was a little more dull. I must have known that when I was little, that the man in my mother's life was not my father. It was her brother. The whole novel is based on that notion that I had as a little boy, which grew with me. After she died, I had to write about it.
Petterson: I have read it. I don't know why people don't talk about that book more. It's a very strong book, so fierce, so very good.
Gin: In I Curse the River of Time, when Arvid quit school, could part of Arvid's mother's trouble with it be that it would be considered patronizing or snobbish to quit school when you come from a working-class background?
Petterson: Some would say, "Oh, you don't mind slumming a little bit, do you?" Because on your way out of the working class, you can always go back. In the 1970s it was easy to get jobs, so we could always move back. I think Arvid's mother thought he was slumming a little. I wouldn't call it snobbish, that's taking it a little too far. Arvid isn't like that. He's more crazy like me, naive and accomplished at the same time. I can understand the mother's reaction. This is what they've all been working for, for so long. The mother feels like it's an insult to everything she's done. At the same time, she's been concentrating so hard to make ends meet that she's a little too proud, perhaps. Growing up in the '60s and '70s is a little different from growing up in the '30s and '40s. She's very hard, too hard on Arvid. She doesn't realize who this boy is.
Gin: It seems like she can't decide how to think of her son. Like they're both trying to figure out which new suit fits him best, and they don't always agree, or they agree on the same things at different times. In a different lifetime, Arvid would have been more like Jesper [the brother in To Siberia], in that desire to be as close to his mother as her brother was, and they're both really dissatisfied that that can't happen.
Petterson: Arvid's mother could be the same woman as the main character in To Siberia. She could very well be Jansen's mother, and she'd like Arvid to be another Jesper. I think he has the quality in him to be like that, but it doesn't turn out that way. She sees a Jesper in him, and she's not satisfied. He's a little more charismatic, but he doesn't have the self-confidence that Jesper had. And maybe he doesn't because of her. This is just guesswork.You know, I just wrote the novel, I don't know what's in it, really.
Gin: [Laughter] Well, certainly of all the people to ask about it, it would be you.
Petterson: I don't think about what Arvid's mother is thinking. I don't think too much about what anybody's thinking. What I do when I write is create scenes. I hope that they turn out in a way that's interesting, and I try to push these things as far as they can go. When I write about Arvid's mother, I think it could have turned out differently. I don't have a plan for them. I haven't decided on who they really are, how they would act in this situation. I just write the scene so that it satisfies me emotionally. Then I connect the scenes and try to make them make sense, but it's not always the way I thought they would.
Gin: Like people.
Petterson: Like people. Like truth. Of course, there has to be a little system in the novel behind the people, or it would be really bewildering.
Gin: It would have turned out something like Finnegans Wake, which is definitely like people. [Laughter]
I want to ask you about that whisky, Upper Ten. Is it really that much of an experience drinking it?
Petterson: [Laughter] Upper Ten is a Norwegian-produced whisky. It's a blended whisky. I think they make it out of what's left of the others. [Laughter] When it's produced in Norway, it's not like the Isle of Islay — it's just whisky. As a blended whisky, it tends to be very good, but it has a bad name. So when you grow up, make some money, and earn a living, especially with the ferries where you can buy tax-free, you tend to buy up-market.
Gin: People do that everywhere.
Petterson: So Arvid's mother thinks they're snobs because she only drinks the cheapest whisky because that's what she can afford, and she protects that position against her sons, who probably earn more money than she does.
Gin: Maybe that's the first sign that gentrification is underway, the kind of alcohol you buy.
Gin: It sounds like moonshine or bathtub gin, with the tears and the burning...
Petterson: It's not moonshine.
Gin: It's the image of her drinking that on the ferry — maybe she would have been crying anyway. That packs a punch, everything about Upper Ten does. To me it was a little comedic.
Petterson: It turned out to be kind of fun — I can be funny sometimes. [Laughter]
Gin: What kind of whisky do you have in your home?
Petterson: Famous Grouse. It's a blended Scotch whisky.
Gin: Is there a Norwegian national beverage?
Petterson: Like a beer?
Gin: Sure, or a spirit.
Petterson: Yeah, we have many. Like in the book, when you want to buy strong beer you have to go to the wine monopoly. Not in Denmark, but in Sweden and Norway you have to go to special state monopoly shops.
Gin: Yes, we have state stores here. Beer and wine you can buy anywhere, but spirits you have to buy from the State of Oregon. Why is it different in Denmark?
Petterson: They are so liberal there. There's a part of Copenhagen called Christiania where you can buy dope legally. But you can't do it outside of a sort of protected area. Have you seen the TV series The Wire? In it, they try to control the dope trade. They give them an area of a few blocks where they can trade whatever they want. They try to control it like that, which turns out to be not such a good idea. But it's been going on in Copenhagen for about 30 years.
Gin: Do you think it will continue?
Petterson: No, I don't think so, because they have a very conservative government in Denmark, now, who hates this. Not long ago they sent the police in and raided the whole place. But it's been going on for a very long time. The Danes and the Dutch in the '60s and '70s were fairly liberal with pornography and dope. For us, in Norway, we're very puritan, so that looked a little scary. At least, it did to me.
Gin: To what degree, would you say, is all of Scandinavia, or all of Europe, moving to the Right?
Petterson: We have a Socialist Left and a Center party. The Center is historically the population up in the country — the farmers, the forest workers. They're supposed to be the "green" party, but they're really right wing, and it's very big, and what in England you'd call the Tory party is also very big. If there was an election now, they would win and you'd have a two-party government which would be very right wing. It scares me to think about it. In Denmark they've had a rather right-wing government for a long time, and in Sweden the right wing won the last election. Sarkozy won in France, and in England the Tory party won. It's all over the place, and it's not good. The Left is buried so quickly, is very sort of pickled in a way, and it's our own fault.
Gin: Will we see things improve in our lifetime?
Petterson: I was a little like Arvid when I was young. I really believed that where we are now wouldn't come, that Scandinavia would be very left wing for a long time, more left wing than the Social Democrats. But I was wrong there, as we all were. I'm a little more pessimistic than I used to be. Like I said at the beginning, we have to support the trade unions.Governments come and go. There are so many lies. Politicians should start with the truth, but they don't.
Gin: Here in the U.S., we have this image of Scandinavia being left wing, almost a workers' paradise, where everyone is cared for. How much are we getting wrong, about Norway in particular, and how much of our dream is real?
Petterson: It's not a workers' paradise, of course, but these reports show Norway as the number one, two, or three best country to live in. The Filipino women who work in the hotels and are not members of the union, they have a bad time. But having a bad time in Norway is not the same as, for example, having a bad time in Greece or South America. Our social system looks pretty good. Of course, the Right is trying to attack it. But I think that our right-wing parties here are what you would call Social Democrats in the U.S. They are more apt to accept this kind of contract, which is very difficult to loosen up. Really, the politicians can't attack that. In Norway, Margaret Thatcher would be impossible... She crushed the unions.
Gin: I wanted to ask you about the Mao poem: What moved you to choose that for the title of the novel?
Petterson: I don't really choose a title for the novels. I just trust that they will come from the written text. Somewhere along the line I will write a sentence and say, "Hey, that's a title." That's what always happens in my books; I don't use a working title.
When I wrote that scene, I suddenly remembered that poem. I hadn't read it since the '70s, but something about it came to mind. I went to my bookshelves and found the poem immediately, and there was the sentence, and I saw that it would be the title. If you were to read English translations of Mao's poems, you wouldn't find that line, because it's differently translated. The only translation I found was a Norwegian one. So we should have to say that this is a new translation by Per Petterson of Mao's poem.
Gin: [Laughter] You should copyright that.
Petterson: These things happen to me very often. You have to trust your subconscious. When I was writing Out Stealing Horses, I was about to start the last chapter. I was very excited, but I was also scared to start on the wrong foot, so I was stalling a little. And then one night, I woke up from a dream. I had these English sentences in my head. It was as if a curtain had fallen. I remembered that, and I thought, "Hey, that's in a book." And then I went out into my living room and found the book. It was Jean Rhys, do you know her? She's from the Caribbean. I took out the book, which I hadn't read in ages, and it was the opening paragraph of Voyage in the Dark. And I just translated that paragraph into Norwegian and put at the front of the last chapter. Your subconscious is working all the time. Don't stress it — just let it come.
Gin: It certainly has worked for you.
Petterson: You have to be trustful.
Gin: I will quote you on that!
You do write a little bit in your head in English. What other languages do you speak? Or write or read?
Petterson: The good thing is that it's just the Scandinavian and the English. I can read German, but I can't tell what's best. I only hear that the translator who's translating it into German is very good and that the reviews are good. I also hear that the French edition is very good, and that's about all I know. I don't think about it because if I understand the language, then I can't help interfering. I lie awake at night thinking about it, worrying that people will think I'm a bad writer because of a lousy translation.
Gin: That has happened to other writers. The first person who comes to mind is Knut Hamsun, whose work has met with all kinds of bad translation.
Petterson: Yes, he's famous for that. His first novels were written in the 1890s. If I had written, say, Hunger today, I would be considered very modern. Brilliant books. Hunger, and one called Pan, and Mysteries, and more. Fantastic books.
Gin: Also, Victoria. Pan was the first one that I read.
Petterson: That's too romantic for me.
Gin: I can see that. Quick, small, slight. So is Hunger, but Hunger is one of my favorite books. Maybe you could translate one of those yourself. You could put out a new translation by Per Petterson of "The Complete Works of Knut Hamsun." Now, if someone could translate Sigbjørn Obstfelder that would be wonderful. It breaks my heart that it's so hard to find anything in English. I can understand only a little of the Norwegian.
Petterson: He's fantastic. He's also very modern, ahead of his time... But perhaps that's not right, because it was a good time: Hamsun wrote then and Edvard Munch started to paint. It was a great period in Norwegian culture. There's also a writer you may not know, Alexander Kielland.
Gin: I do love his work. One of my favorite stories is "Karen". But again, it's so hard to find. More of his work is translated in English, but I can tell in reading it that something's missing, that the musicality you mentioned before is not incorporated.
Petterson: It was a great period in Norwegian literature. Everybody says Henrik Ibsen was the genius. But he's not very close to my heart. I remember reading Ibsen when I was very small. When I think about it today it still smells of dust. Victorian settings, more narrow... and I've never seen an Ibsen play on the stage.
Gin: In English, it sometimes does seem a little strangled.
Petterson: I think it is strangled. I recognize his greatness, of course, as do many contemporary writers. But to me, he's kind of dead. I prefer Alexander Kielland who is also writing with his heart and was a great stylist. He was an upper-class man and ended up as a mayor. But he wrote about the working class, too, and how untruthful the local bourgeoisie was. He described the economic crisis in Norway in the 1880s and '90s, similar to the one that's been more global these last few years. The bourgeoisie and the people in the town hated him. When he applied for the status that good writers have, he was denied that.
Gin: Because they hated him so much.
Petterson: Because he exposed them.
Gin: You mention Arch of Triumph, by Remarque, a few times in I Curse the River of Time. I think of likening Boris and Ravic to Arvid and his mother. You mentioned one of them is running from Hitler, one is running from Stalin, but in a way, Arvid and his mother are also, in sort of a delayed reaction, running from these two despots. Sometimes it's hard to tell which one is really running from which tyrant. Is it fair to liken your two characters to the characters in the Remarque book, or is that reaching too far?
Petterson: To suggest such a thing would always be to take it too far. I don't think that way at all when I write. I remember that book so well. I don't think my mother really talked about the book, but I read it at about the same age that Arvid did. I don't think that you can say that I made those two characters alike, or patterned them in any way. If I really did research and read the Arch of Triumph again, I might find out it was a really bad book or not very well written, or that it was a little too romantic. If I try to write about that book from memory, it will have some of the magic I felt then, but if I take out the book, that magic will die.
I really hate research. If you want to write about the Germans in Norway you have to check when they really were there, the color of their uniforms, and so on, so you don't get it wrong. You should do your research after you finish the book. I have this friend who wrote this love story, more or less about himself, set in 1968. He was in love with this woman and the Beatles' record Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band had come out. And then he checked and found out the record came out in 1967. So he stopped writing the story. Don't check a good story.
Gin: Yes, just write the story and fact-check it later. If it's a good story, just let it be a good story.
Petterson: Yes. It's also very funny.
Books mentioned in this post