shining the spotlight on short story collections
“The sun was nearing the mountains in the west; a haze lingered over the town, and there wasn’t the slightest nip in the air. I noticed I was reluctant to go home, and suddenly I thought, and it was a distinct thought: if only she were dead.“
About the author: Born in 1929, Kjell Askildsen published his first collection of short stories at the age of twenty-four. He has written six novels and nine short story collections. His books have twice won the Norwegians Critics Prize for Literature, and he has won numerous other awards.
A kitchen, a veranda, an upstairs bedroom, a vegetable garden, cigarettes and glasses of wine. These elements keep recurring in Askildsen’s minimalist stories. They all feature a male character who has his secret thoughts, his self-hatred or sexual fantasies, and who has a strong craving to escape from being observed. These male protagonists cling to their deviances as to the last vestiges of a real self. The banal minutiae of domestic life are related in such a way that they become tinged with unexpressed anxiety.
Askildsen’s prose has the subtle power of seeping out from the page and shifting the reader’s perception of the world, narrowing it down, drawing out the oxygen. A gap opens up between action and awareness, a space for doubt and redundant self-awareness. Or put another way, the stories can get you down.
In The Dogs of Thessalonika the narrator and his wife Beate drink their morning coffee in the garden. Beate hums to herself, she throws a cigarette butt in the wrong place. The man walks down the garden and out the gate, and sits on a tree stump, almost concealed. Beate calls in his direction and when he doesn’t answer she pretends not to have seen him. Later he leaves the house without saying anything and walks all the way down to the fjord. Norway is famous for its beautiful landscapes, but through the eyes of this first-person narrator the only description is: “I had the fjord and the distant, wooded hillsides in front of me.”
On the way across the fields he casually thinks: “if only she were dead”. Back home again there is more juking and covert observation and restless walking on his part. As evening falls they bring a bottle of wine out to the garden. They reminisce about a vivid moment together some years ago on holidays. Beate gets up from her chair in the semi-darkness and stands behind him. In a scene of uncanny realism, when she puts her hands on his neck he starts forward in terror, perhaps thinking she will try to strangle him. Later both he and she seem to deny the significance of that moment. He feels compelled the next day to apologise for starting, but even bringing up the topic is to ascribe it significance.
This story perfectly captures a sense of horror pushed down below a thick blanket of domesticity. The men in these stories seem bereft. We don’t know what has gone missing from their lives, or if they ever had other aspirations. They cherish their subversive thoughts, often only hinted at, but their only rebellious action is to drive down to the railway bar without telling the wife, or simply to hide in the trees out of sight.
There is much left unsaid in these fictions. At the risk of being flippant, in a style so marked by absence, the book must be judged by what is not in it. Is this ubiquitous angst due to something specific, as for example an incestuous desire in A Great Deserted Landscape? Is it a typically male problem of inability to communicate? Or is it a pointer to areas of human experience mapped out by the likes of Beckett and Hamsun? Are these men ‘Last Men’ – for whom everything is small and whose only purpose left is to have a little pleasure in life?
In A Great Deserted Landscape the protagonist is recovering from injuries received in a car crash that killed his wife. His mother and sister are looking after him. He thinks about how, when he is better, he will be all alone in the house. “… there would be no one who’d know when I was coming and going, and no one would know what I was up to. I wouldn’t need to hide.” At such points the reader is liable to laugh out loud. The humour is pitch black, if indeed it is intentional. For in general the authorial vision is restrained and clings to its brand of authenticity. The narrative perspective runs tangent to the perspective of these disaffected men.
The final story Everything Like Before is not like the ones before. The male character is more articulate, even expressing clearly his core syndrome: “Slave, damned slave soul, every time you try to exact some justice for yourself, you collapse with compassion for your tormentor!” The story is about a couple on holidays. Their age is not mentioned, but they are evidently in a relationship which has settled into a pattern. On a night out together Nina, seems hell-bent on provoking Carl. She gets drunk, and when a native man befriends the couple she openly flirts with him. Back at the guesthouse an argument flares and a drunk Nina tries to choke Carl. The next day they soberly discuss the topic. Carl is unable to get her to see their relationship has a problem. “Jesus, Carl. That’s nothing to be getting worked up about, I was drunk. And after all, I didn’t do anything wrong.” Askildsen sets out the dynamics of this relationship with a cool neutrality, yet drawing the reader into taking sides.
These stories achieve perfection of a kind, and may make for uncomfortable reading. The style is so neutral it leaves lots of space for the reader’s interpretation. But for some readers this pared-down style will be too much of a good thing.
About the reviewer: Aiden O’Reilly lived for nine years in Eastern Europe and is now based mainly in Dublin. He has worked variously as a mathematics lecturer, translator, building-site worker, and property magazine editor. His fiction has been published widely, including The Stinging Fly (x4), The Prairie Schooner, The Irish Times, and The Dublin Review (x3). In November 2008 he won the biannual McLaverty Prize for short stories. His debut short story collection Greetings, Hero was published by Honest Publishing in 2014