Long dark night of soul

Professor Andersen’s Night

Dag Solstad

Vintage, £7.99;Kindle, $10.82

Review: Billy O’Callaghan 

On Christmas Eve, Norwegian professor, Pal Andersen, a renowned Ibsen scholar and obsessive, is enjoying a succulent, traditional feast for one when he witnesses, in the lit window of an apartment across the street, a man strangling to death a beautiful young woman. He knows the right thing to do is to call the police, yet he hesitates. This hesitation grows and solidifies through the night, and the days that follow, until it seems too late to act, and until his path crosses with that of the killer, in a wonderfully realised scene in a downtown Oslo sushi-bar.

The witnessed murder is the catalyst for a thorough exploration of the self.

Invited by his closest friend, Bernt, to a Christmas Day dinner, Pal plans to share the occurrence and make sense of it. But the words won’t come, and, instead, he finds himself examining the lives of the other guests, all people he knows well, all successful in their respective fields, and drawing comparison with his own existence.

Pal is middle-aged, divorced, childless and utterly alone, his life and work have slipped into torpor, his once left-wing passions have dulled to an easier, but ultimately empty, condition of intellectualism and he is consumed by a sense of personal failure.

From the party, and in an effort to escape himself, he flees to Trondheim, meets up with a colleague, takes to the slopes and spends whiskey-sodden hours debating the worth of literature to a life. But thoughts of the strangled girl continue to trouble him, and by New Year he is back in Oslo, in the throes of a breakdown, and heading for the inevitable brink.

With Scandinavian noir currently among the loudest of bestselling voices in literature, the natural reflex, given the above premise, might be to assume a generic hybrid of Stieg Larsson and Alfred Hitchcock. Actually, though, apart from the vaguest of nods in those directions, this short-but-striking novel quickly reveals itself to be a very different beast: crime fiction, yes, but also a subtle and deeply introspective consideration of the inertia of lonely middle-age, its philosophy existentialist in the manner of Jean Paul Sartre, Ingmar Bergman and certain novels of Georges Simenon.

The result is a highly complex and accomplished work.

Since breaking through in the late 1960s, Dag Solstad has ranked as one of Norway’s most innovative and important writers. Professor Andersen’s Night was published in 1996 to effusive critical acclaim. Now, finally available to English-language audiences, it should bring him the wider renown that he has for so long deserved.


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