Tomas Espedal, Against Nature, Trans. by James Anderson, Seagull Books, 2014.
In contemporary Norwegian fiction Tomas Espedal’s work stands out as uniquely personal; it can be difficult to separate the fiction from Espedal’s own experiences. Against Nature, a companion volume to Espedal's earlier Against Art, is an examination of factory work, love’s labor, and the work of writing. Espedal dwells on the notion that working is required in order to live in compliance with society, but is this natural? And how can it be natural when he is drawn toward impossible things—impossible love, books, myths, and taboos? He is drawn into the stories of Abélard and Héloïse, of young Marguerite Duras and her Chinese lover, and soon realizes that he, too, is turning into a person who must choose to live against nature.
“A masterpiece of literary understatement. Everybody who has recently been thirsting for a new, unexhausted realism, like water in the desert, will love this book.”—Die Zeit
“A masterpiece of literary understatement. Everybody who has recently been thirsting for a new, unexhausted realism, like water in the desert, will love this book.”—Die Zeit, on the Norwegian edition
Against Nature is, like its predecessor, Against Art, barely even veiled as fiction. It begins with the beginning of a love-affair, the forty-eight year-old Tomas hooking up with a much, much younger woman at a New Year's Eve celebration, almost immediately professing his love for her ("It's too early to say that sort of thing", she says). She's hesitant -- "I can't see you again", she says at one point, leery of where this might be leading so fast -- and this opening section, describing only that first encounter, is inconclusive; it is only much later in the novel that the narrator returns to this relationship, and what became of it.
This opening section begins in the first person -- with the admission: "I'm starting to grow old; I don't recognize myself." -- but quickly switches to a different perspective, the narrator distancing himself from what actually happened by replaying the event as through a camera lens, an outside observer: "He rests. He is content. He's sitting in a chair", he writes, the person he was perhaps unrecognizable in that same way he finds "I don't recognize myself" when he sees his mirror-image. No names are affixed to the two figures whose encounter he describes. It is just he and the much younger she and their moments of intimacy and conversation, where:
All at once he feels acutely tender towards her, holds her, feels her trembling, he runs his hands through he hair, kisses her cheek, as if she's already his girlfriend, his closest and most beloved, it happened so quickly, so unexpectedly and powerfully, he didn't know how much he yearned for her, how much he needed her.
In describing that encounter, he turns away from it too and tells of another, a literary parallel, the story of Peter Abélard and his love for the girl less than half his age, sixteen-year-old Héloïse. He resorts to literature to deal with the actual; not surprisingly, too, in the rest of the novel he turns far back and takes considerable time before getting back to this particular passion, and to finally addressing its effect on him more directly.
Only at the conclusion of the opening section does the I resurface: he walks her home, and it is still: "They walk together through the city", but in the intimacy -- "hand in hand" -- he can finally admit to and see himself in the role again: "We walk past St. Mark's Church". They go to her apartment; he reveals her name (only now), Janne. But otherwise it's too early to describe anything more, to reveal what came after, and the narrative abruptly jumps far back in time, starting in a new section, to when Tomas was sixteen
Against Nature describes stations from the author's life. The second section centers on a summer the teen spent working in the factory where his father was a manager, a dirty, awful job. He has a girlfriend, a year younger than him; she is an important figure to him -- "the girl I loved and with whom I wanted to spend the rest of my life" -- but remains peripheral here.
In the next section, the flighty, complicated actress Agnete has a more prominent role. Theirs was a tempestuous relationship: they'd (briefly) marry -- more for convenience than any other reason -- and she was the mother of his beloved Amalie; they ventured to Nicaragua together (her idea); she died young.
Eventually Tomas, at forty-eight, gets to the relationship that had its beginnings in the novel's opening section. A point in both their lives where the other was exactly what they were looking for:
The young girl and the older man. We needed each other.
He describes a time of great happiness with Janne -- "simple and mundane", but perfect. They enjoy a life together and then, just as suddenly, it's done, as she moves on: "I live alone. Janne has moved to Oslo.":
The final section is a diary-like one, dated short excerpts from The Notebooks -- the exercise already familiar from Against Art. As Tomas explains:
I've written eleven novels. And I've filled more than forty exercise books with notes. I regard them as bona fide books.
Forty books of notes, sketches, diary entries, drawings and letters. I have no idea how many pages my otebooks cover; these black-bound volumes in which I give substance to my days.
So which work is more important, is it the novels or the notebooks ?
I think it's the notebooks.
In ending this novel with a section titled 'The Notebooks' and presented excerpt-like, the two writing-forms come to overlap, the one bleeding into the other. And it feels like it bleeds, because he writes of a time of great pain and anguish. To him it's as simple and complex as:
My situation is the worst imaginable; I love her and she isn't there.
His decline and wallow are familiar, but he's strikingly direct in his expression, getting to the hearts of the matter:
Haven't written for a week. Haven't washed for a week, I'm completely clean. Getting cleaner and cleaner.
Unshaven, dirty, like nature, that's total purity.
Writing is part of the process; writing is also a (last) hold in a world that has collapsed around him (and becomes ever more elemental: "it's almost like living in the wild", he finds).
Against Nature is rawly confessional, a compact, elliptical life-account that in some ways feels like a radically pared-down variation on Knausgaard's My Struggle. Janne and Tomas are both great readers and, in fact:
We lay side by side and read. We read our separate copies of the Knausgaard books, began at the same time and read in tandem, suddenly she'd put down her book and look at me: Did you read that ? she'd ask. How does he dare, it's quite extraordinary, he must have a screw loose, she'd say.
The we'd read on.
Until I put down my book and looked at her; Did you read that ? I'd ask. How does he dare, it's quite amazing, he's destroying himself, I'd say.
Yet Espedal's novel is similarly revealing and forthright -- if also in many respects more guarded, more cautious (or deliberate) in its presentation. Yet it is also more radical in its creative restructuring of life and events than Knausgaard's word-flood.
'Nature', in its broadest sense, is something the narrator/author struggles with. "I've never had a relationship with nature", he admits, while, for example, Agnete is drawn to the elemental -- in childbirth as then also in death, for example:
She'd given birth to both her daughters at home, now she wanted to die in the same way, in her own bed.
It was natural.
Tomas, on the other hand struggles -- against nature, in all its different manifestations. Writing -- an imposition of some order, an act against nature -- is his hold, and what he ultimately turns to. Much of Against Nature in fact recounts periods when he isn't a writer, whether as sixteen-year-old, learning the lesson that he detests factory-work, or later, living with Agnete, encountering writer's block, or then trying to get over Janne, when he can't seem to get much beyond the occasional scribbled notebook-note. But writing, against nature, is ultimately and repeatedly his salvation, too.
A powerful, well-wrought novel. - M.A.Orthofer
Tomas Espedal, Against Art, Trans. by James Anderson, Seagull Books, 2011.
In contemporary Norwegian fiction Tomas Espedal’s work stands out as uniquely personal; it can be difficult to separate the fiction from Espedal’s own experiences. In that vein, his novel Against Art is not just the story of a boy growing up to be a writer, but it is also the story of writing. Specifically, it is about the profession of writing—the routines, responsibility, and obstacles. Yet, Against Art is also about being a father, a son, and a grandson; about a family and a family’s tales, and about how preceding generations mark their successors. It is at once about choices and changes, about motion and rest, about moving to a new place, and about living.
“One of the most beautiful, most important books I\'ve read for years.”—Klassekampen
“Espedal has written an amazingly rich novel, which will assuredly stand out as one of the year’s best and will also further fortify the quality of Norwegian literature abroad.”— Adresseavisen
“Against Art attacks literature while at the same time being intensely literary. Our greatest sorrows and torments, the individual experiences often so anemic in art, find a voice of their own.”—Morgenbladet
“Against Art moves me with its maternal history and proves yet again that Tomas Espedal writes great novels.”—Dag og Tid
Against Art is an autobiographical novel, a text in which Espedal considers his place and his writing, and how he got to the point where he is. The work is subtitled: The Notebooks, and at one point he suggests: Notebooks: the dream of a book.
The dream is fairly fully realized here: while there are notebook-like aspects to parts of it, the novel coheres fairly well, with several unfolding storylines. Nevertheless, there's a looseness to the narrative, and it breaks up at times, even into poetry or jottings. However, rather than a prospective, looking-for-answers approach Against Art both is -- in much of the content -- and feels retrospective: even as he writes 'against art', Espedal has clearly constructed his book, rather than merely reproducing notebook-entries.
It begins with what is not a deliberate vagueness but an admission of it being impossible for him to say precisely when he is writing, suggesting repeated attempts to start in on and get on with what he is trying to do here: "I am forty-three -- forty-four -- forty-five -- forty-six years old", and:
Spring, autumn is the season I like most of all, the summer is past, I can begin working, November, September, the ninth or the nineteenth, the twenty-ninth; I start writing in the morning or in the evening.
There is no precise chronology to the work taking shape. It is divided into sections -- 'April', 'September' -- and yet these are only loose markers. The narrative looks back as much as it deals with the more immediate. Espedal tries to balance the artificiality of art -- of 'capturing' a story or a life -- with an examination of process,
"I must concentrate on writing", he tells himself (and us), as writing is both escape and necessity, "a necessity of life". A double-hit of loss is the specific trigger here, as Espedal finds himself living alone with one of his two daughters after the deaths of both her mother and of his, a few months apart; dealing with these, in writing and in life, proves difficult -- "There it ground to a halt, the language stopped". So he writes around them, approaching them from different angles, and from a greater distance, cautiously, slowly making his way back to them.
Family is central to the book, from his tenuous hold on and connection to the teenage girl who is growing evermore independent to the previous generations in whose footsteps they follow. He looks back at earlier generations, especially the courtships, and the coming together and drifting apart of the couples. And in trying to capture these other lives, he also tries to capture and identify his own -- recognizing, for example, that:
A mask, my mask, it looks like my own face, that's the subtlety of it; I take the mask off and look like myself, I put the mask on and resemble the other, the one in disguise; he clothes himself in words.
It's an impressive, multi-layered narrative, of the power and limits of art, of finding one's place -- within a family, as well as a place to live and work -- of dealing with grief and ever-changing intimate personal connections, whether abrupt -- the death of a loved one -- or more gradual -- a daughter coming into her own. It is a complete work, yet also feels like a stage, of his life and writing-career. It is clearly part of a larger, continuing struggle; not surprisingly, Espedal's now also translated next work, a companion volume, is titled Against Nature.
A quite fascinating, rich, and deeply personal work. - M.A.Orthofer
A writer sits at his desk and… what does he write about? Too often, perhaps, he writes about himself, the subject seductive, ready to hand.
The protagonist of Tomas Espedal’s novel of sorts, Against Art, is… Tomas Espedal. Unmoored by his mother’s death, he begins to relate the story of his family, and his life.
He tells of his great-grandfather, his grandparents and his parents; their stories intercut; starting, stopping, restarting, repeating. His parents’ meeting echoes that of his paternal grandparents and that of his great-grandfather with his second wife. Other such echoes abound. Circumstances and character traits recur across generations. Males notice females hanging around waiting to be noticed. Boys long for their mothers.
Sentences and thoughts, too, are repeated, restated, often contradicted – sometimes within themselves: “Spring, autumn is the season I like most of all.” “I sit there waiting for her to come home. I wait for her to come home.” “(I)t’s difficult to write the word lonely but I was lonely, I wasn’t lonely.” The author is either too fond or too unaware of these perseverations.
Espedal’s descriptions of the natural world can be vivid, his descriptions of loss and despair piercing: “(T)he only desire I had was the desire to give up.”
Yet such immediacy is rare. Little happens in the present, little emerges unmuted by the filter of Espedal’s introspection. More typical are elaborate recollections of places he has lived, rooms he has written in, diaries he has kept; the book often reads like journal entries, or notes. There is at one point a grocery list, at another, a listing of the days of the week.
Against Art documents a writer’s effort to heal through writing; less metafictional than baldly, transparently, self-involved. Grief has left Espedal bereft; he tries to write his way out, but finds nowhere to look but back. - Laurence Levey