Selected Stories (translated by Sean Kinsella)
Dalkey Archive Press, paperback, 100 pages,
Before I’d reached the bottom of the first page, Norwegian writer Kjell Askildsen’s Selected Stories had transported me back to my A-level Drama lessons. It prompted flashbacks of studying Bertolt Brecht’s Mother Courage and her Children, and my teacher announcing to a roomful of fidgety teenagers that Brecht “held his characters up for scrutiny”, that he wanted his audience emotionally distanced from them, judging them. Askildsen, who has translated works by Brecht, similarly shines a spotlight on his characters, and that light is alienating and unforgiving, illuminating selfishness and stagnant relationships.
These eleven stories employ a distinctive prose style that is almost entirely based on action and dialogue, with simple sentence structures and little description; acts of sex or violence are frankly reported alongside trivial thoughts or deeds. Dialogue is focused on the mundane, thus highlighting the fact that something is not being said, and petty squabbles and power-struggles hide deeper, unresolved or irresolvable, issues. One narrator, having been attacked in a station toilet, tells us: “I wanted to say something, but I wasn’t able to”. In each story, characters fundamentally lack the ability to communicate.
Indeed, quotation marks are absent throughout the prose, so that we are often initially unsure whether something is being spoken or thought. Such confusion between notion and action forms a theme across the narratives. After fantasising about lifting up his sister-in-law, one narrator is “left to contemplate the gap between a risqué thought and a concrete act”, while other protagonists’ life experiences are entirely dependent upon their perceptions of the world – perceptions that are often clearly paranoid, skewed, and driven by total self-involvement. In “The Unseen”, one of several stories to revolve around a funeral, Bernhard feels an uncharacteristic tenderness towards the aunt who cared for him in childhood, but later defends himself against this emotion by coldly laughing at her approaching death; he tells his sister, “Everything that I do, I do because that’s how I am, and it’s not my fault that I’m the way that I am”. Despite frequently being gripped by feelings of anxiety and desertion, none of the stories’ protagonists, all of whom are male, make any real attempt to connect with another person; they chat indifferently about an acquaintance who has died of cancer, or of a child born with spina bifida, unable to empathise, unable to see past their spheres of self-obsession.
Guilt runs through each story, but it is a superficial, self-indulgent guilt, the fear of being caught out and exposed rather than a concern over morality or the feelings of others. Husbands repeatedly lie to their wives about where they are going when they leave the house, although this is never to conceal an affair but rather to enable a brief escape, a chance to wander aimlessly. Protagonists also lie to strangers they meet, assuming whatever identity is imposed upon them: one does not correct a man who mistakes him for someone else, while another lets a cab driver believe he is heading to a wedding rather than a funeral. Despite lacking ethics themselves, they still try to inspire guilt in those around them. In “The Grasshopper”, yet another story about alienation between a couple, Jakob uses his father’s ill health to silence Maria during an argument, lying about having been to visit him. Each man is driven by a wish to appear a victim, greedy for kindness but lacking gratitude when kindness presents itself. In “My Sister’s Face”, the narrator avoids someone who once saved his life, apparently deeming the circumstances embarrassing and inconvenient.
Such guilt and narcissism lead characters to treat family members with suspicion, constantly watching each other and guessing at what the other is thinking. They are also inescapably aware of others’ returned gazes upon them, and sneak around one another, trying to fathom whether they have been “seen”. One protagonist, after spying on his wife from the laundry room window, reflects: “I wouldn’t have noticed it if there had been someone standing in the laundry room looking at me”, almost sensing the reader’s gaze. But we are not only looking at him: we are looking at ourselves. These are narratives about human nature rather than about individuals, for the different protagonists blend together in thoughts and attitudes, and character names are reused from story to story. We recognise the behaviours as our own – standing in a room waiting for time to pass, snooping through a sister’s diary – but are presented with them as things alien and ugly.
While the male protagonists merge into one, there remains a stark divide between men and women. Men entertain violent sexual fantasies about the women around them, fantasies which are never acted upon in any significant ways, adding to the sense of social and sexual paralysis, but which highlight the absence of love within these troubling relationships. In “A Great Deserted Landscape”, the narrator leers at his sister’s breasts during his young wife’s funeral, while, in another story, a man wishes his wife dead but still lusts after her sleeping body. Jealousy, resentment, and incestuous desires are all painfully contained by social conventions and habits, and relationships are tortured by stasis.
Ultimately, Askildsen’s stories are about the horror of the mundane, the emptiness of everyday life, and the paradox of both wanting and fearing change. Vomit is mentioned in several, reflecting an abject reaction to domestic entrapment. Many stories end with the dismal assertion that nothing has changed. Characters frequently search for ashtrays, underlining a sense of absence while alluding to the build-up of waste in their lives, to their need to deposit emotion, gain relief. These stories depict the final struggles before inevitable resignation, with characters spending much time looking out of windows, observing rather than participating, adopting passive stances. One tells himself “all you have to do is just let everything take its course”, while another relates how “I realized that it didn’t matter what I did”.
Askildsen’s first short-story collection, From Now On I’ll Walk You All the Way Home, published in 1953, was banned from his hometown library; reading Selected Stories, it is easy to see how his bleak view of humanity might have upset a mid-century readership. The worlds presented in this volume are all empty and grimy and uncomfortably recognisable; these tales are unconcerned with plot, but rather focus on the subtleties and impossibilities of human interaction. They provide us with windows through which we, like the characters, may watch each other, may be held up for scrutiny.