A young woman is strangled on Christmas Eve in an Oslo suburb a dramatic act which is seen by Professor Andersen from his apartment window. As a consequence of his shock at witnessing this, the 55-year old professor does not actually get around to reporting the murder. He rationalises this to himself, but the consequences he will face as a result are what fascinates in Solstad's novella. And naturally, the longer he leaves it the more unlikely it becomes that he will report it. Yet the victim in question is not reported missing and there is no mention of her on the TV news or in newspapers.
Thus we have a novella which begins like a sophisticated thriller. It continues in that vein for much of a narrative which, unbroken by any chapter divisions, unfolds seamlessly in long, questioning sentences, laden with sub-clauses. Andersen has lived on his own for years, following the break-up of his childless marriage. Indeed Solstad appears to be poking mild fun at a certain Scandinavian neurosis in his depiction of the professor, laying his table and preparing his Christmas meals for one.
The professor relaxes afterwards in seemingly contented solitude with coffee and cognac, but such contentment seems vaguely risible as the reader knows it will be well punctured soon enough. Most other Oslo folk are distracted by family gatherings at this Christmas time - poor old Andersen is set up for a fall, simply because he lives on his own and has time to observe.
He does, however, break his trappist silence to attend a dinner party with a group of liberal friends whom he has known since student days. Despite their friendship and common ground, he feels himself to be an outsider at the festive meal. This is chiefly because he has failed to confide in his host Bernt the fact that he has witnessed a strangling which he has not reported.
Described quickly, the murder is over in a flash, but its aftermath will bring Andersen to the brink of nervous breakdown and a period of sick leave due to stress. In his normal working life, he lectures students about Henrik Ibsen whose greatness he has begin to doubt. This doubt about a cherished national literary `great' is somehow in keeping with the collapse of all he knows in a hitherto reasonably familar, if claustrophobic daily life.
Mid-way or so into the action, the story turns into a kind of Dostoyevskian nightmare. What has initially seduced the reader in the guise of a thriller becomes a harrowing self-interrogation, as the professor confronts a host of philosophical questions.
The chief of these is: why does he feel damned for not reporting the murder, if, like his liberal friends, he doesn't believe in God? The fact that this eviscerating onslaught of self-questioning takes place at Christmas affords the perfect religious context for the internal dialogue he cannot resist. Indeed it takes over his daily thoughts.
This fascinating story runs to 154 pages, about the same length as Julian Barnes' recent Man Booker prize-winning work The Sense of An Ending. Curiously, the story is similar in that its protagonist is a middle-aged or late-middle aged male haunted by a past action whose fearful consequences he is uncertain of.
The difference though is that guilt by omission is in question in the case of this work, a fatal omission which continues to haunt, as the story concludes. Indeed that conclusion is a little brusque and unsatisfactory, and one senses there could be a sequel. Translated into English by Agnes Scott Langeland.
Also available by Dag Solstad:
Shyness and Dignity, Harvill Secker, paperback
Equally fascinating, but in in a different way, is Shyness and Dignity, originally published in Norwegian in 1999, and in Sverre Lyngstad's English translation in 2006. Solstad's novels are typically brief and, either by design or accident, this earlier novel runs exactly to 154 pages, which is also the page count of the above-reviewed book.
This time around, we are still in the groves of academe. Unlike Professor Andersen in the above work, disillusioned secondary teacher Elias Rukla is intensely engaged with the works of celebrated Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen. However, the fifty-something pedagogue would be far better off if he wasn't so obsessed with the playwright's deeply tragic work, The Wild Duck. This is because Rukla's pupils, just like school children the world over,would mostly prefer to be anywhere else when faced with compulsory study of a dead, national icon.
One day, after class, exhausted by his over-heated engagement with Ibsen and the anxieties of his private life (complicated marriage to a former beauty, previously the wife of his best friend) Elias suddenly snaps. Humiliatingly - and witnessed by his shocked pupils - he loses it over a dysfunctional umbrella in the school playground. In this, the most dramatic moment in the novella, he repeatedly bangs his useless article, as the rain beats down - think Basil Fawlty kicking his car (well, that's what your reviewer thought of anyway.)
The hapless teacher of Norwegian literature then escapes into the streets of Oslo, regretting his outburst, but not quite sure where he is going. All he is certain of is that his life as a teacher is over.
Teachers at the end of their creative tether may find nothing surreal or disingenuous about Shyness and Dignity. While it is a deeply convincing study, albeit of yet another Norwegian neurotic, Solstad understands the human condition far too well. Per Petterson, another fine Norwegian fiction writer (though very different in concerns and approach) has dubbed Solstad the "most intelligent novelist" in Norway.