Ole Robert Sunde - This is a total novel which wants to contain the whole world, and the structure it follows needs to be as complicated as everyday life. It is a Norwegian Ulysses in the strictest sense of this outworn characterization
Ole Robert Sunde, Naturligvis måtte hun ringe [Of course she had to call], 1992.
This is a novel which hasn’t been re-issued since its original publication in 1992. Fredrik Wandrup, critic of the Norwegian newspaper Dagbladet, wrote that it didn’t “generate any suspense, any associations, any entertainment, […], any laughter, any tears” – just because he had expected a novel which would build a “clearly arranged system in a chaotic world”. Wandrup deemed Sunde’s book as unreadable; it “thundered down literary dead ends, defying death”. His scathing critique was titled “Literary root canal therapy” – of all things, the novel begins with a dentist’s call to the first-person narrator. Wandrup had delivered a witty characterization which began to haunt him: even twenty years after his review, the critic was constantly reminded of what he had done to Sunde. According to Eivind Røssaak, he had favoured a conventional, realistic plot over a text which was unclassifiable, even hostile in its difficulty. Thus, Wandrup contributed to the image that Sunde was an unenjoyable and elitist writer who didn’t care about his readers’ expectations. Another critic stated that Of course she had to call was more difficult than the theories which were designed to deconstruct it; this is clearly a book which must be approached in small, hesitant steps. “Read slowly, word for word”: This advice, given by Dag Solstad at the very beginning of his Telemark-novel, is an appropriate guideline for every Barthesian aristocratic reader intending to tackle this behemoth of a book.
Titles are crucial for Sunde. They seem to live a life of their own. Take these gems: the long text history. short novel; An ordinary height; The dust’s applause; Fourth person singular; The sleeping voice; I am a wild notion; War was my family’s history. In the anthology Som fra mange ulike verdener (Like from many different worlds), edited by Audun Lindholm and published by Gyldendal, Svein Jarvoll wrote about his long and strenuous friendship with Sunde – incorporating every single of his succinct book titles and thus demonstrating their comic potential. Certainly also Of course she had to call: This is laconic. This is self-sufficient. This is hopeless in the sense that the reader isn’t expected to expect anything. So, what is the book about? Does it have a plot? “No!” –“Yes, but …?” A double hesitation: The novel’s protagonist, a first-person narrator, stays in an apartment in Oslo; he moves from one room to another; he remembers his childhood, his early youth, and books he has read (without referring explicitly to them); his dentist calls him. The sudden pinging of his telephone is the novel’s starting point. The narrator has forgotten his appointment, his dentist prompts him to come to her. But he doesn’t want to. A situation everyone at least once in his life has experienced: dental anxiety and the way how (not) to overcome it. Instead, the narrator concentrates on a stream-of-consciousness-like musing on everything in his world. He sees; he listens; he records. The result is a kaleidoscopic text which can be described, in Wandrup’s words, as “exhaustive”. This characterization is a double entendre: First, Of course she had to call creates a world of its own; second, the reader can easily get lost in the splintered and rearranged narration. The novel isn’t complex because of its plot: it’s complex because it consists of a single run-on sentence of about 400 pages, a sentence which itself is divided into many subsections, subclauses, sub-subordinate clauses, sub-sub-subordinate clauses, parentheses, semicolons, commas. Paal Bjelke Andersen, who also contributed to Lindholm’s anthology, accepted the dodgy syntax as a grammatical challenge: He took page seven and effaced every word of it; the punctuation marks remained, demonstrating the novel’s symphonic mechanism. The text has many different layers: it begins with the dentist’s phone call; it switches over to a description of the so-called Alexander mosaic; it continues with something else which seems to be another ekphrasis, this time of a photograph. There are many other layers, and they have in common that none of them appears only once. They replace each other; they follow an apparently impenetrable plan; nevertheless, they seem to be part of a composition. “Composition” is the right term for that which is managed here: Expressions like “huff og huff”, an irritated and malcontent interjection, occur frequently throughout the text; there are also epithets, such as “kalkunmannen” (“the turkey cock man”). The whole novel seems to be structured like a musical piece: Elements are repeated and follow a kind of ‘plot’, and they’re varied (they’re wearied as well – until the reader dies of fatigue).
The cover of the novel consists of a so-called “structure map”: In the first instance, it is just an array of caskets, lines and connections which seem to indicate a secret architecture, but which are too detailed for an illuminating suggestion of the whole composition. Throughout the novel, the card reveals its mysterious sense: It is not to be read as a plan which has to be strictly followed; it is rather an organized entanglement which intends to give the reader a rough impression of what is waiting for her. This is a total novel which wants to contain the whole world, and the structure it follows needs to be as complicated as everyday life. It is a Norwegian Ulysses in the strictest sense of this outworn characterization: It centres on one man who is a modern wanderer; but unlike Leopold Bloom, he doesn’t leave the house. He embarks on a mind journey which takes him everywhere: to his neurotic mother; to the family’s connection with World War II; to other wars, especially to the battle between Alexander the Great and the Persian king Darius III. The whole novel demonstrates a strenuous effort to capture the fleeing time; writing is the only possibility to catch the ringlet of Kairos; therefore, it offers an opportunity to heal the wounds left by all the conflicts with war, family and death.
As a work of art, the Alexander mosaic is exemplary for the poetics displayed in Of course she had to call. Discovered in 1831, it dates from circa 100 BC. It is a so-called opus vermiculatum. This term, usually translated as “worm-like work”, describes a complicated technique where the mosaic’s stones are arranged in undulating circles. Such a procedure allows a finer coloration; furthermore, the artist can contour the figures and details very precisely. The mosaic evokes the impression of regarding an accurate, nearly three-dimensional and tightly woven picture. It has a textual, tactile quality; but in case of the work of art which was found in the casa del fauno in Pompeii, vermiculatum also has another meaning as the mosaic isn’t wholly conserved. The technical term hints at death, at decomposition, caused by worms and maggots, and at the viewer’s gaze desperately trying to combine the scattered pieces. This is impossible; Of course she had to call is a novel which is always aware of history’s complexity. It reiterates the top-down method of the Alexander mosaic; it induces a fragmentation by solely including crooked and broken plot lines; the text is an eroded corpse, eaten by the worms. It is a form to speak about death in a language which is damaged, broken, traumatized.
In an iconic passage, Sunde describes a picture of Marcel Proust’s, a photograph: The novelist “is unfettered by every form of hope”; his “accurate middle parting”, his “ringlet, formed like a procumbent s – this hair, greased with pomade, which avoided the daylight (because of the two societies he frequented – one of them in the memories (and which he called forth in a soundproof room at night) and the other (society) in the break of dawn in dark sheds where men search for other men’s company)”. Sunde evokes the key passage of À la Recherche du Temps Perdu where a madeleine, dipped in lime blossom tea, provokes a circle of memories, stating that Proust lived in an age of transition where one epoch was replaced by another; his heritage “was inescapably going under”, “decomposing”. Later, Sunde writes that “the physical envelope we have been placed in (as well carnally as geographically) is eaten away by ageing, but time itself (whatever it might be on a physical level, however it might exist in a metaphorical way) is without any age and escapes from the finale – death”. Of course she had to call tries to recapture the body as a sensing and palpable entity which has been consumed by history’s rage and greed. The body has a somatic record; it has wounds; it has been marked by death and failure. It speaks hesitantly. Sometimes, the pauses between the enunciations become unbearable. Nevertheless, it refuses to become silent. It shapes itself in spite of the negativity which threatens it.
In an interview with Dagsavisen, Ole Robert Sunde said that Of course she had to call had been an attempt to kill his darlings, such as Joyce and Faulkner; but he has also been especially interested in Claude Simon whose ultra-fractured plot lines and extraordinarily long sentences had provided a poetical means to transform history’s complexity into a literary form. The novel is part of an autobiographical project, begun in the mid of the 80s and completed in 2012 with Krigen var min families historie (War was my family’s history). In another interview, this time with Dagbladet, Sunde stated that his dentist refused to treat as well him as his wife, his children and his neighbour after she had read Of course she had to call; Sunde had described his fictionalized dentist as money-grubbing, malicious and outwardly unsympathetic. His novel is a precursor of Karl Ove Knausgård’s My Struggle in the sense that the text is grounded in seemingly authentic experiences; but it differs radically from the glittering spectacle we call ‘reality’ because it re-enacts the self’s development in a fragmented and distorted text which also influences the author’s environment. But unlike Knausgård, Sunde didn’t need to worry about being sued by his family members; he just had to look after a new dentist. - Matthias Friedrich https://theothermodernbreakthrough.wordpress.com/2018/01/05/sunde-series-part-one-naturligvis-matte-hun-ringe-of-course-she-had-to-call-1992/
The name is everything that counts: In his essay Om titler (On Titles), published in I Am A Wild Notion (2007), Ole Robert Sunde quotes Adorno’s statement that titles have nothing in common with shopping lists; they don’t indicate what the envelope contains. They are a condensed version of the book and tell what it is about without saying it directly; they are “the text’s point of divergence”; they are bound to their author. After having listed and described every title he is fond of, Sunde narrates the anecdote of how his editor at Gyldendal convinced him of changing the title of his first essay collection. Originally, he had envisaged Støvets applaus; but he chose 4. person entall (Fourth person singular). Years later, his new editor called him and encouraged him to write an essay collection called Støvets applaus. He appreciated the title’s dry quality, its “contrary composition”, as Sunde characterizes it in Om titler, of banality and mystery, and its “victory of volatileness”.
The Dust’s Applause is shaped like Dante’s head. Is it an artefact? A book object? An installation which has been robbed by a master thief? By no means: It is structured according to a rhetoric device which in Latin is called effictio – from effingo, “I fashion artistically”, “I portray”; it is a verbal description of someone’s body, usually from head to toe. The collection contains texts like Headdress, The Ears, Somewhere on the scalp, On the Scalp (On the Left Side), and it ends with The Mouth, Between the Lips and A Little Bit Onwards. The paragon of this effictio is Gustave Doré’s depiction of Dante Alighieri, an engraving dating back to 1860; the Italian poet wears his typical headdress (in A Journey to Australia, Svein Jarvoll characterizes it wittily as an østerdalslue – a typical Norwegian skiing cap which might prove to be useful in the depth of the Antenora). Sunde’s poetic self is conscious about the fact that Dante’s cap could be advantageous in a deep and snowy winter – and it asks where the storm in the Inferno might come from? How strong could this wind be? So strong that it “blows away every catachresis” – that “history is unthinkable without erosion and sacrifice”. The wind blows through these texts which can be classified as essays: they are clearly nonfictional, but don’t follow any straight line of thought; they install a speaking subject wandering from author to author, from fiction to fiction. They imitate the process of thinking; they reproduce a form of stream-of-consciousness-like contemplation; they intend to invigorate dead and voiceless letters with the aid of a strongly secularised afflatus; they bop around; they leave irritating rifts of equivocality and insecurity. The Dust’s Applause is the title which corresponds best to this irritation: The umbrella and the sewing machine are brought together on an autopsy table.
The Back of the Head (Bakhodet) contains a long paragraph about Robert Musil’s Man Without Qualities, entitled The Rider of Conjunctions: “There are sentences in all books which can remind of a magnetic pole”, Sunde writes, “that means that the other sentences are drawn in and flash up in our hope of having penetrated the work completely”. The problem with Musil’s work is that it is highly magnetic; everything points in every direction; there are thousands of possible interpretations and every single one of them is right. If the reader doesn’t undertake the strenuous effort to rewrite such a book in order to understand it, she has to stop at the margins of the work. The only approach to such a work lies hidden in the “conjunctions’ prosaic appearance”; they are the text’s sutures; they provide small and scrawly lines to walk on. It is known that the Man Without Qualities appears like a single essay; its centre is the so-called parallel action which intends to celebrate the Austrian emperor Franz Josef’s 70th jubilee as a regent in 1918. These celebrations take such a long time that they cannot be properly completed; the novel is a unique experimental space where references to the past and the grandeur of the Austrian-Hungarian monarchy result in a societal fresco which gives many poignant impressions of the declining era. The parallel action itself is, like the novel, a gigantesque essay; the characters move through its laboratory. “The essay as a genre and a notion”, Sunde writes, “is, so to speak, transformed, changed into a clothed thought, but what is it what happens to the inner life, and is this something which happens over a longer time or just for a moment?” Why has the essay ceased to be text, why has it suddenly become a member of the human space? The essay, trying to grasp a firmer notion of a given topic, is doomed to fail; it shrinks and becomes an insipid conception; but the ideal essay is the one which circles its topic without ever touching it completely. It has to provide a precise account of its own strategy; it’s a school of sight; it has to be conscious about its repertoire of devices.
In Om Titler, Sunde mentions Emmanuele Tesauro’s Il cannocchiale aristotelico (The Aristotelian Telescope). Without having read the book, a massive, up to now untranslated rhetorical treatise published in Italy in 1654, he states that this title has influenced him in many ways. At first, he cannot remember what the book is about and wonders what such a telescope could be like – “long-sighted”, “focusing physical life in all its physiological shapes”, but then he recalls that it is a “textbook on metaphors; that means, zooming into that which gives metaphors”. But what does the title picture? Does it represent “the philosophic sight, which at that time was Aristoteles’ own one; long drawn-out, thoughtful, particular, ancient, learned; the learned vision which enlarges every single object; meticulously examined until a metaphor which manages to make us tremble of indignation or grief can be found”? According to Jørn H. Sværen, who also contributed to Lindholm’s anthology, Sunde possesses a telescope which is similar to Tesauro’s: It is extractable; it is able to focus every single detail; it is a “movable construction”. Therefore, the cannocchiale offers a striking poetic metaphor of how Sunde clothes his thoughts and gives them access to the human space: He does not rely on fixity; vagrancy is suitable enough for his school of sight. His essays don’t install any system of definitions. They are long sentences, transformed into magnetic poles.
In Ørene (The Ears), Sunde asks what it is that lies between the book and the books: It’s a voice, a sleeping voice, which needs to be woken up in the reading process. It speaks exclusively when it is being looked at and read; it needs to be understood and heard; it cannot exist independently. Every human sense has its own vocabulary which can be written down: “Ponge’s transcribed acuesthesia makes me think of that the stones’ empire, the plants’ empire and the animals’ empire are elements of a continent, or smaller, yes, even smaller – that they pertain to the same substance, and that the impossible happens: The fruit bowl, the lemon and the hand become parallel objects.” The essay, as Sunde depicts it, offers itself as a tactile possibility, consisting of flesh and blood; and if its reader undertakes the effort to rewrite it in order to grasp it, she will recognize that the result is an effictio, a sleeping voice which needs to be reawakened in a constantly reiterated, hermeneutic process. - Matthias Friedrich https://theothermodernbreakthrough.wordpress.com/2018/01/19/sunde-series-part-two-stovets-applaus-the-dusts-applause/