Per Petterson: A Family Approach To Fiction

Per Petterson i i

Born in Oslo, Per Petterson worked as a bookseller, a translator and literary critic before becoming a full-time writer. Finn Stale Felberg hide caption

itoggle caption Finn Stale Felberg
Per Petterson

Born in Oslo, Per Petterson worked as a bookseller, a translator and literary critic before becoming a full-time writer.

Finn Stale Felberg

Let's get one thing straight: Norwegian author Per Petterson is not Stieg Larsson — the phenomenally successful author of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo series. They may both be Scandinavian, but Petterson's books are as quiet and contemplative as Larsson's are violent and action-packed.

Petterson is happy to leave crime novels to others. “I write about families," Petterson says. "That is who we are."

Petterson's last book, Out Stealing Horses, was a surprise hit in the U.S. In his new novel, I Curse the River of Time, he draws on tragedies in his own family to explore the thorny relationship between a mother and son.

I Curse The River Of Time
I Curse the River of Time: A Novel
By Per Petterson
Hardcover, 224 pages
Graywolf Press
List price: $23

Read An Excerpt

Fiction Of Family

Petterson's own mother died in a ferry boat accident that also killed his father, a brother and a nephew. It was a devastating event. Some time afterward, Petterson realized his mother's death freed him to write fiction based on her life. He never would have done it when she was alive, he says.

“Everybody would have thought it was about her,” he explains, laughing. “Even she would. And she would be mad at me.”

Petterson's nervous laughter seems well founded if indeed his fictional creation is anything like his own mother. This character is not the kind of person who suffers fools gladly — and her son Arvid seems determined to play the fool.

As the novel begins, Arvid's marriage is ending — just as his mother learns that she is dying of cancer. She wants nothing more than to be alone, and so she heads out to the family's summer cottage in Denmark. Arvid, obsessed with his own problems, follows her, determined to repair their broken relationship.

The year is 1989, in the days before the fall of the Soviet Union. Petterson says he initially chose to set his novel in that time because it was the year before his own mother died — but it was a politically pivotal year, as well.

“I realized this was big politics,” Petterson recalls. “1989 was such a very, very important year in Europe. The wall fell, the Soviet Union was crumbling, and so many things happened — in 15 minutes the world changed.”

In Petterson’s novel, the fall of communism has a special significance for Arvid. As a young man he became a Maoist, and dropped out of college to work in a factory — despite the fact that he was raised by working class parents. It was this decision that caused the rift between Arvid and his mother.

“It's not because he was a communist or a Maoist,” Petterson explains. “It was because he left school to work in a factory for idealistic reasons, whereas [his mother’s perspective is], ‘Hey, your family is a working family. The point is you should not be because you are our son.’”

“I think that's the clash,” he adds. “He really is insulting his mother and everything she hoped for.”

When Arvid tells his mother of his decision in a cafe, her first response is to slap him. Years later, as Arvid pursues her in the present, he is overtaken by memories of the past. His hoped for connection with his mother seems constantly beyond his reach.

Out Stealing Horses
Out Stealing Horses: A Novel
By Per Petterson
Hardcover, 256 pages
Graywolf Press
List Price: $14

Read An Excerpt

'Stieg Larsson Is Stieg Larsson'

Though Petterson often returns to the same themes or concepts — family, loss — his books are never driven by plot. Petterson draws the reader in with his spare, eloquent use of language. Its rhythms force the reader to slow down, to pay attention.

“Making sentences is what I do,” he says. “I mean the story will come as I write. When you are a sentence-based writer they have to be good, they have to be really on the spot. Because when you don't have a plot what will you rely on? Just language.”

Petterson is a painstaking writer. He remembers when he was writing Out Stealing Horses — he got to the last chapter, and everything just stopped.

“I was really looking forward to it, because this was downhill,” he remembers. “I really wanted to cherish the moment.  But I was so afraid of starting on the wrong foot I think I waited two months.”

Petterson was surprised and grateful that Out Stealing Horses did so well in the U.S.  And though his writing is nothing like Stieg Larsson's, he knows that the popularity of those books has created an interest in other Scandinavian writers.

“Stieg Larsson is Stieg Larsson,” Petterson says. “I think it is something different, but it may be that publishers look to Norway or Sweden or Denmark because of that. It's a good moment for us.  Norwegian literature is strong now. Stronger than it has been for a long time.”

Excerpt: 'I Curse The River Of Time'

I Curse The River Of Time
I Curse the River of Time: A Novel
By Per Petterson
Hardcover, 224 pages
Graywolf Press
List price: $23

All this happened quite a few years ago. My mother had been unwell for some time. To put a stop to my brothers' nagging and my father's especially, she finally went to see the doctor she always saw, the doctor my family had used since the dawn of time. He must have been ancient at that point for I cannot recall ever not visiting him, nor can I recall him ever being young. I used him myself even though I now lived a good distance away.

After a brief check-up, this old family doctor swiftly referred her to Aker Hospital for further examination. Having been for several, no doubt painful, tests in rooms painted white, painted apple green, at the big hospital near the Sinsen junction on the side of Oslo I always like to think of as our side, the east side that is, she was told to go home and wait two weeks for the results. When they finally arrived, three weeks later rather than two, it turned out that she had stomach cancer. Her first reaction was as follows: Good Lord, here I've been lying awake night after night, year after year, especially when the children were small, terrified of dying from lung cancer, and then I get cancer of the stomach. What a waste of time!

My mother was like that. And she was a smoker, just as I have been my entire adult life. I know well those night-time moments when you lie in bed staring into the dark, with dry, aching eyes feeling life like ashes in your mouth, even though I have probably worried more about my own life than leaving my children fatherless.

For a while she just sat at the kitchen table with the envelope in her hand, staring out of the window at the same lawn, the same white painted fence, the same clothes lines and the same row of identical grey houses she had been looking at for so many years, and she realised she did not like it here at all. She did not like all the rock in this country, did not like the spruce forests or the high plains, did not like the mountains. She could not see the mountains, but she knew they were everywhere out there leaving their mark, every single day, on the people who lived in Norway.

She stood up, went out into the hallway, made a call, replaced the receiver after a brief conversation and returned to the kitchen table to wait for my father. My father was retired and had been for some years, but she was fourteen years younger than him and still working; though today was her day off.

My father was out, he always had something he needed to see to, errands to run my mother was rarely told about, the results of which she never saw, but whatever conflicts there had been between them were settled long ago. There was a truce now. As long as he did not try to run her life, he was left in peace to run his own. She had even started to defend and protect him. If I uttered a word of criticism or took her side in a misguided attempt to support the women's liberation, I was told to mind my own business.

It is easy for you to criticise, she would say, who have had it all handed to you on a silver plate. You squirt.

As if my own life were plain sailing. I was heading full speed for a divorce. It was my first; I thought it was the end of the world. There were days I could not move from the kitchen to the bathroom without falling to my knees at least once before I could pull myself together and walk on.

***

When finally my father returned from whatever project he thought was the most urgent, something at Vålerenga no doubt, which was the place he was born, where I too had been born seven years after the end of the war, a place he often returned to, to meet up with men his own age and background, to see the old boys, as they called themselves, my mother was still sitting at the kitchen table. She was smoking a cigarette, a Salem, I guess, or perhaps a Cooly. If you were scared of lung cancer you ended up smoking menthols.

***

My father stood in the doorway with a well-worn bag in his hand, not unlike the one I used in years six and seven at school, we all carried a bag like that then, and for all I know it was the same one. In that case the bag was more than twenty-five years old.

***

'I'm leaving today,' my mother said.

'Where to?' my father said.

'Home.'

'Home,' he said. 'Today? Shouldn't we talk about it first? Don't I get a chance to think about it?'

'There's nothing to discuss,' my mother said. 'I've booked my ticket. I've just had a letter from Aker Hospital. I've got

cancer.'

'You have cancer?'

'Yes. I've got stomach cancer. So now I have to go home for a bit.'

She still referred to Denmark as home when she spoke about the town she came from, in the far north of that small country, even though she had lived in Norway, in Oslo, for forty years exactly.

'But, do you want to go alone?' he said.

'Yes,' my mother said. 'That's what I want.'

And when she said it like this she knew my father would be hurt and upset, and that gave her no pleasure at all, on the contrary, he deserves better, she thought, after so much life, but she did not feel she had a choice. She had to go on her own.

'I probably won't stay very long,' she said. 'Just a few days, and then I'll be back. I have to go into hospital. I may need an operation. At least I hope so. In any case I'm catching the evening ferry.'

She looked at her watch.

'And that's in three hours. I'd best go upstairs and pack my things.'

They lived in a terraced house with a kitchen and a living room on the ground floor and three small bedrooms and a tiny bathroom on the first. I grew up in that house. I knew every crinkle in the wallpaper, every crack in the floorboards, every terrifying corner in the cellar. It was cheap housing. If you kicked the wall hard enough, your foot would crash into your neighbour's living room.

***

She stubbed out the cigarette in the ashtray and stood up. My father had not moved, he was still standing in the doorway with the bag in one hand, the other insecurely raised in her direction. He had never been a champ when it came to physical contact, not outside the boxing ring, and frankly, it was not her strong point either, but now she pushed my father aside, carefully, almost lovingly so that she could get past. And he let her do it, but with so much reluctance, both firm and slow, it was enough for her to understand he wanted to give her something tangible, a sign, without putting it into words. But it's too late for that, she told herself, far too late, she said, but he could not hear her. Yet she allowed my father to hold her up long enough for him to understand there was enough between them after forty years together and four sons, even though one of them had already died, for them to live in the same house still, in the same flat, and wait for each other and not just run off when something important had happened.

From I Curse The River Of Time by Per Petterson. Copyright 2008 by Per Petterson. English translation copyright 2010 by Charlotte Barslund. Excerpted with permission of Graywolf Press.

Excerpt: 'Out Stealing Horses'

Out Stealing Horses
Out Stealing Horses: A Novel
By Per Petterson
Hardcover, 256 pages
Graywolf Press
List Price: $14

I

Early November. It’s nine o'clock. The titmice are banging against the window. Sometimes they fly dizzily off after the impact, other times they fall and lie struggling in the new snow until they can take off again. I don’t know what they want that I have. I look out the window at the forest. There is a reddish light over the trees by the lake. It is starting to blow. I can see the shape of the wind on the water.

I live here now, in a small house in the far east of Norway. A river flows into the lake. It is not much of a river, and it gets shallow in the summer, but in the spring and autumn it runs briskly, and there are trout in it. I have caught some myself. The mouth of the river is only a hundred metres from here. I can just see it from my kitchen window once the birch leaves have fallen. As now in November. There is a cottage down by the river that I can see when its lights are on if I go out onto my doorstep.  A man lives there. He is older than I am, I think. Or he seems to be. But perhaps that’s because I do not realise what I look like myself, or life has been tougher for him than it has been for me. I cannot rule that out. He has a dog, a border collie.

I have a bird table on a pole a little way out in my yard. When it is getting light in the morning I sit at the kitchen table with a cup of coffee and watch them come fluttering in. I have seen eight different species so far, which is more than anywhere else I have lived, but only the titmice fly into the window. I have lived in many places. Now I am here. When the light comes I have been awake for several hours. Stoked the fire. Walked around, read yesterday’s paper, washed yesterday’s dishes, there were not many. Listened to the B.B.C. I keep the radio on most of the day. I listen to the news, cannot break that habit, but I do not know what to make of it any more. They say sixty-seven is no age, not nowadays, and it does not feel it either, I feel pretty spry. But when I listen to the news it no longer has the same place in my life. It does not affect my view of the world as once it did. Maybe there is something wrong with the news, the way it is reported, maybe there’s too much of it. The good thing about the B.B.C.’s World Service, which is broadcast early in the morning, is that everything sounds foreign, that nothing is said about Norway, and that I can get updated on the position of countries like Jamaica, Pakistan, India and Sri Lanka in a sport such as cricket; a game I have never seen played and never will see, if I have a say in the matter. But what I have noticed is that 'The Motherland,' England, is constantly being beaten. That’s always something.

I too have a dog. Her name is Lyra. What breed she is would not be easy to say. It’s not that important. We have been out already, with a torch, on the path we usually take, along the lake with its few millimetres of ice up against the bank where the dead rushes are yellow with autumn, and the snow fell silently, heavily out of the dark sky above, making Lyra sneeze with delight. Now she lies there close to the stove, asleep. It has stopped snowing. As the day wears on it will all melt. I can tell that from the thermometer. The red column is rising with the sun.

All my life I have longed to be alone in a place like this. Even when everything was going well, as it often did. I can say that much. That it often did. I have been lucky. But even then, for instance in the middle of an embrace and someone whispering words in my ear I wanted to hear, I could suddenly get a longing to be in a place where there was only silence. Years might go by and I did not think about it, but that does not mean that I did not long to be there. And now I am here, and it is almost exactly as I had imagined it.

In less than two months' time this millennium will be finished. There will be festivities and fireworks in the parish I am a part of. I shall not go near any of that. I will stay at home with Lyra, perhaps go for a walk down to the lake to see if the ice will carry my weight. I am guessing minus ten and moonlight, and then I will stoke the fire, put a record on the old gramophone with Billie Holiday’s voice almost a whisper, like when I heard her in the Oslo Colosseum some time in the 50s, almost burned out, yet still magic, and then fittingly get drunk on a bottle I have standing by in the cupboard. When the record ends I will go to bed and sleep as heavily as it is possible to sleep without being dead, and awake to a new millennium and not let it mean a thing. I am looking forward to that.

In the meantime, I am spending my days getting this place in order. There is quite a lot that needs doing, I did not pay much for it. In fact, I had been prepared to shell out a lot more to lay my hands on the house and the grounds, but there was not much competition. I do understand why now, but it doesn’t matter. I am pleased anyway. I try to do most of the work myself, even though I could have paid a carpenter, I am far from skint, but then it would have gone too fast. I want to use the time it takes. Time is important to me now, I tell myself. Not that it should pass quickly or slowly, but be only time, be something I live inside and fill with physical things and activities that I can divide it up by, so that it grows distinct to me and does not vanish when I am not looking.

Something happened last night.

I had gone to bed in the small room beside the kitchen where I put a temporary bed up under the window, and I had fallen asleep, it was past midnight, and it was pitch dark outside. Going out for a last pee behind the house I could feel the cold. I give myself that liberty. For the time being there is nothing but an outdoor toilet here. No one can see anyway, the forest standing thick to the west.

What woke me was a loud, penetrating sound repeated at brief intervals, followed by silence, and then starting again. I sat up in bed, opened the window a crack and looked out. Through the darkness I could see the yellow beam of a torch a little way down the road by the river. The person holding the torch must be the one making the sound I had heard, but I couldn’t understand what kind of sound it was or why he was making it. If it was a he. Then the ray of light swung aimlessly to the right and left, as if resigned, and I caught a glimpse of the lined face of my neighbour. He had something in his mouth that looked like a cigar, and then the sound came again, and I realised it was a dog whistle, although I had never seen one before. And he started to call to the dog. Poker, he shouted, Poker, which was the dog’s name. Come here, boy, he shouted, and I lay down in bed again and closed my eyes, but I knew I would not get back to sleep.

All I wanted was to sleep. I have grown fussy about the hours I get, and although they are not many, I need them in a completely different way than before. A ruined night throws a dark shadow for many days ahead and makes me irritable and feel out of place. I have no time for that. I need to concentrate. All the same, I sat up in bed again, swung my legs in the pitch black to the floor and found my clothes over the back of the chair. I had to gasp when I felt how cold they were. Then I went through the kitchen and into the hall and pulled on my old pea jacket, took the torch from the shelf and went out onto the steps. It was coal black. I opened the door again, put my hand in and switched on the outside light. That helped. The red-painted outhouse wall threw a warm glow across the yard.

I have been lucky, I say to myself. I can go out to a neighbour in the night when he is searching for his dog, and it will take me only a couple of days and I will be OK again. I switched on the torch and began walking down the road from the yard towards where he was still standing on the gentle slope, swinging his torch so that the beam moved slowly round in a circle towards the edge of the forest, across the road, along the river bank and back to its starting point. Poker, he called, Poker, and then blew the whistle, and the sound has an unpleasantly high frequency in the quiet of the night, and his face, his body, were hidden in the darkness. I did not know him, had only spoken to him a few times on the way past his cottage when I was out with Lyra most often at quite an early hour, and I suddenly felt like going back in again and forgetting all about it; what could I do anyway, but now he must have seen the light of my torch, and it was too late, and after all there was something about this character I could barely make out there in the night alone. He ought not to be alone like that. It was not right.

From Out Stealing Horses by Per Petterson. Copyright 2003 by Per Petterson. English translation copyright 2005 by Anne Born. Reprinted with permission of Graywolf Press.

Books Featured In This Story

Out Stealing Horses

by Per Petterson

Hardcover, 258 pages | purchase

Purchase Featured Book

Title
Out Stealing Horses
Author
Per Petterson

Your purchase helps support NPR Programming. How?

I Curse the River of Time

by Per Petterson

Hardcover, 233 pages | purchase

Purchase Featured Book

Title
I Curse the River of Time
Author
Per Petterson

Your purchase helps support NPR Programming. How?

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and Terms of Use. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.