Per Petterson’s new novel, I Refuse, focuses on a complicated friendship between two boys, Tommy and Jim, whose paths cross again in later life. ‘A masterful novel about friendship, violence and destruction’ (Information, Denmark), Tasja Dorkofikis PEN Atlas editor talks to Per Petterson about violence, absence, and the ongoing popularity of Norwegian literature
Tommy’s father is violent and his mother moves out of the family home, leaving him haunted by the past for ever. Families and their complicated dynamics seem to be central to your writing even though your characters often live outside the safety net of a family set up. Why are you fascinated with this subject? And do you think that the ferry tragedy that affected your family made you focus on this subject of a family even more?
I certainly didn’t start out to have this as my ‘subject’. To be honest, I didn’t start out with any subject at all, I wanted to be a writer because I wanted to be a writer. Period. I wanted to do to readers what the writers I loved did to me. Although, of course, I didn’t know what that was or how to get to it. Looking in my rear-view mirror, I can see the pattern that you’re referring to, it surprises me, because I had no intention of going down that road. If I’m fascinated by it, and it seems I am, surely I don’t want to know why. All I can say is that I have always had a strong sense of family, I talk with my one living brother about it, and we agree we haven’t had any especially strong family bonds, just a strong sense of belonging to one. I don’t think the ferry fire changed anything in that respect, I had published two books and was halfway into my next before the deaths, and the two my family had the opportunity to read, were planted well within the family, and although most of what happened in the books hadn’t happened, it was all true and I guess very recognisable. I didn’t really choose it as a subject, though, it was just something I thought I was able to do at the time. None of the books were mentioned in the family, by the way, only the one Saturday when my mother called me and said, … ‘and then I hope the next book won’t be so childish’. I didn’t know what she meant, she hadn’t said anything before, I was in my bed, feeling pretty depressed about a recent divorce, and then she more or less hung up. The next Saturday, she was dead. I didn’t even talk to her in the week between. Being outside the safety net, being apart, is a feeling I have always had, despite family, living or not living. Family can be a place of safety, of belonging, identity, but it can also be a dangerous place.
Many of your protagonists are wounded by the deaths of siblings and disappearance of parents. I Refuse is clearly marked by the absence of Tommy’s mother and Jim’s father. Why these absences in your work?
Well, they are not really planned. When Jim on the first page of the book nearly hits an old man with his car, he thinks: for a moment I thought it was my father, but it wasn’t my father. I wrote that because someone I know told me of thinking the same in a similar situation, and then I added without really going into it: I had never seen my father. And I didn’t go back on it, although there was no story there yet, nothing but this page. I have learned that ‘absences’ can be very productive. Hemingway once said that you can take anything out of a novel, as long as you know exactly what it is. I think that’s just one of his so-called ‘profound’ sayings. I have taken 50 years out of a novel, not having a clue what might be in there. Sometimes I think the not-knowing is the good thing. Taking out a father without worrying about what he might have represented for, in this case, his son, is what makes the writing of the book interesting. Hopefully also for the reading of it.
You also often write about friendship even though your characters tend to be unmoored and vulnerable. Jim and Tommy meet by accident again after many years but they both never stop thinking of each other. Can friendship save them? Or do you think that we cannot escape the sense of loneliness?
When you are, as you say, unmoored and vulnerable, that is when friendship is really potentially all-important and in fact possible, then it can be very intense, deep, but also tragically fragile. I guess I think both, that friendship can be possible and liberating, even rescuing, and at the same time, we cannot really know each other. We simply cannot. It’s tragic, and at the same time, productive, energising.
Your characters are haunted by the past and its consequences for the present. They often contemplate their childhoods. In the case of this book, they have flashbacks to their past as children and teenagers. Do you think that we cannot avoid thinking about the past?
Here I tend to agree with Faulkner when he says: The past is never dead. It’s not even past. He may be speaking of a whole society here, but to me, it’s very true on a personal level. If you want to know yourself at all, you must realise that the past is a very contemporary thing, it’s working inside of you all the time, like a motor, and I guess the writer’s job is to lift that bonnet and take a good, bold look. And it’s important that you have access to your own unconsciousness, which is where the past is at work in its mysterious ways, it’s where poetry comes from, the doors that open unexpectedly and show you the way.
Your style very deliberately blends lyricism with realism. The reader has a sense of information changing and expanding from the particular to the more universal. Who are you stylistic heroes?
When you are a young male Norwegian author, it is, or at least it used to be, difficult not to admire Knut Hamsun’s earlier books. Their modernity, subjectivity, fierceness, flexibility, you name it. Hamsun is a problem here of course, he is our greatest prose writer ever, and he was a Nazi. Hemingway, no surprise, was also important when I was young. Nowadays I have no heroes, I think. I admire Jean Rhys, a wonderful discovery I made many years ago, I still read her. And some of Richard Ford’s stuff is high calibre. The Norwegian translation of José Saramago’s The Day of the Death of Ricardo Reis made some of us think: How can writing get better? Still, I hope my style comes through as my own.
The sense of landscape and place is very powerful in your book. I Refuse is set both in Oslo and just outside. Do you write about places where you live yourself? And how important is nature in your writing?
I do write about places I have lived, both in the city and way outside of it, as where I live now, on a small farm close to, or rather inside the woods. I couldn’t have written Out Stealing Horses anywhere else. The place where the adult Jim lives, in the book, is also a place where I lived for many years, my daughters were born there, I got divorced there. It’s more or less the same place as where my hero Arvid Jansens lives, in the novels In the Wake and I Curse the River of Time. You must remember that, wherever you find yourself in Oslo, there is not more than 20 minutes by tram or tube or bus to the woods or the Oslo fjord. Where I grew up, we children spent hours upon hours in the forest every week. Each Sunday my father would drag me and my brothers (often involuntarily) out for long hikes in the woods. I sometimes think I could be blind, and still find my way in them. I regret that I wasn’t man enough to thank my father for this when he was still alive. I have always loved to write about landscape, but as a reader myself, I have tended to skip those parts, we all have, I guess. But when I wrote Out Stealing Horses, I decided to make it impossible to separate what happened from where it happened. Writing about physical work is also something that gives me great pleasure.
This novel is translated from the Norwegian by Don Bartlett. How closely do you work with your translators?
Don is a wonderful and very hardworking translator. But when I take part in the work on the translations, I do it through the editor. It’s good to have a middle man/woman. I guess I am a little more than average involved.
Out Stealing Horses brought you much international recognition. Was it difficult to write a new novel after winning the IMPAC? Or was it in some way liberating to know that you have that official stamp of approval?
I can’t say it was difficult. I think writing itself is very difficult. The IMPAC and those other prizes and all that happened took up a lot of space in my life, in fact it took one year out of it, it made me very upset, in a way. And it could often make me feel highly uncomfortable at times. I come from a working class family of eastern Oslo. An overdose of class consciousness and inferiority complex made me leave university after two days of attending. I didn’t even dare ask where the toilet was. I just ran out of there and got a job at the Postal Service. Walking down the aisle in Dublin Town Hall in 2007 with the drums and the raised lances and all the people with black ties and long dresses was really upsetting, I felt very strange. But the money was amazing, as Colm Toibin put it the year before.
Norwegian literature became very popular recently internationally. What do you think makes it appeal so much to readers all over the world?
I don’t know. There is certainly a feeling at home of going through a strong phase, that a lot of which is published has substance and validity. Someone must have seen it and said: look to Norway, and then the ball started to roll. There are of course the crime novels, Jo Nesbø etc., but it really started before that. I hope the ball keeps rolling for some time yet.
About the author
Per Petterson was born in Oslo in 1952 and worked for several years as an unskilled labourer and a bookseller. He made his literary breakthrough in 2003 with the prizewinning novel Out Stealing Horses, which has been published in forty-nine languages and won the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award and the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize.
This interview was created by English PEN and first appeared in PEN Atlas.