Norway’s Nowhere Man: Dag Solstad’s T Singer

September 11, 2018
Author Dag Solstad juxtaposed with the cover to his book 'T Singer'

Norway is a country that shows up on the stage of Weltliteratur quite regularly. Henrik Ibsen had to live for more than two decades abroad to find the Archimedean point necessary for capturing the decaying mores of his time in an appropriate (realistic) idiom. His compatriot Knut Hamsun, too, had his pen firmly on the pulse of his times (modernism); most recently, Karl Ove Knausgaard has succeeded in pushing the limits of the autobiographical novel a few miles further north. (Editorial note: A review of My Struggle: Book Six appears in the September 2018 issue of WLT, and a review of Autumn can be found here.)

Dag Solstad, Norway’s dean of belles lettres, has been witnessing this battle longer than any of his peers—finally, two of his most celebrated novels have been made available in English translations by New Directions, Armand V (translated by Steven T. Murray) and T Singer (translated by Tiina Nunnally).

“One fine day he stood eye to eye with a memorable sight.” It is this sentence that T Singer, the most underwhelming hero of Dag Solstad’s 1999 novel of the same name, decides will provide the inspiration for his literary career. Singer returns to this sentence time and time again throughout his twenties, attempting to fine-tune its structure, lengthen it, shorten it, and contextualize it. One fine day, after losing himself in his own imagination, Singer renounces his writing career. His “secret calling” of authorship had been a daydream all along. In the Norwegian provinces of the 1970s, there appears to be no space for fancy self-delusions.

Dag Solstad, born in 1941, has had a brilliant career by any measure; as the author of over thirty books, he has made himself a name as one of Norway’s best-known writers. Thus it is not surprising that in his book he tilts the question from “What makes a good writer?” to a different one: “What makes a good hero for a novel?” How can the account of the “man without qualities” be updated for a new generation? Solstad takes this question head-on when his narrator wonders whether his protagonist indeed has any standing at all as the main lead in a story that eschews any attempt at touching the ceiling of the exceptional.

T Singer meanders through Singer’s unremarkable life, providing the reader with a clear view of his staunchly uninspiring mental landscape, until its depressingly mundane (and astonishingly underarticulated) end. This book was not written to rivet the reader with tales of adventure. No, T Singer purports only to confound the reader with its lack of even the possibility of a secret dimension in which this man could look to satisfy any desires denied to him.

T Singer harks back to a time in history when one was not yet called out when writing simply about a man growing old, without talking about the aging of the European nation and its difficulties accepting the challenges the world had in store for it.

Solstad’s style of writing is deceptively simple and can best be described as “honest”: winding clauses of sentences, decidedly minimalistic in their vocabulary and devoid of any metaphoric digressions, designed solely to explain, as clearly as possible, the mechanisms of the strange and yet deeply human workings of Singer’s mind. Readers may also recognize that this piece harks back to a time in history when—although only barely two decades ago—one was not yet called out when writing simply about a man growing old, without talking about the aging of the European nation and its difficulties accepting the challenges the world had in store for it.

T Singer’s homeland is an entirely self-contained Norway in which one cannot even fathom the arrival of migrants from foreign shores , environmental catastrophes, or terrorist attacks. The Norwegian provinces where Singer is trying to find refuge without ever having been chased away by anybody is a place that still is trying to deal with its nineteenth-century legacy. To be sure, in this novel, the twenty-first century appears to be still light-years away.

Lucie Nolden is a National Merit Scholar at Bowdoin College in Maine and an avid reader of European fiction.

Thomas Nolden (PhD, Yale) is the director of the comparative literature program at Wellesley College in Massachusetts and visiting professor in the English department at Brandeis University. He is the author of several books on European writing.