LARS SAABYE CHRISTENSEN IS NOT very well-known in Britain. In fact, when he was invited to appear at the Manchester Literature Festival in 2010 one blogger who attended commented that she’d never heard of him and that many of the people lining up to have their books signed by Saabye Christensen weren’t locals – they were from his native Norway (the giveaway clue being that these die-hard fans had copies of his novels written in their original Norwegian in their hands).
Saabye Christensen has long been a top-selling author in his homeland – his novel ‘Beatles’ was recently voted Norway’s most popular read. He’s so famous across the North Sea that PhD theses have been devoted to his many published works and he’s even had a song dedicated to him by the (of course, Norwegian) musician, Anders Wyller. I wonder if Wyller had British readers in mind when he penned his little ditty – it’s called “Invisible Like Lars Saabye C”.
So with this post I like to think I’m doing my bit to get Lars Saabye C’s name flowing within the UK reading public’s consciousness. He’s one of my favourite authors and I think he deserves to be much more visible.
Saabye Christensen is a prolific writer. He’s written over 40 novels (including children’s books), several books of poetry – and even some film scripts. Yet only a handful of his books have been translated into English. These include ‘Herman’ (later made into a very good film which was co-written by Saabye Christensen), ‘The Model’, ‘Beatles’ and ‘The Half Brother’. I’ve read all of them and have even seen the film (!) – but it’s the latter novel that I will focus on here.
‘The Half Brother’ (aka ‘Halvbroderen’) was published in Norway in 2001 and received the Nordic Council Literature Prize a year later. It was translated into English for the first time in 2003 by the Scottish poet, Kenneth Steven (it’s a terrific translation, by the way). So successful is the novel that it’s recently been adapted into what looks like a lush 10-part television series. It’s a wonderful epic – ‘a great river of a book’ as one newspaper reviewer so rightly put it. It’s set in Oslo and covers the period from 1945 to the late 1990s. Revolving around the life of wannabe screenwriter Barnum Nilsen, the 45 year period it spans enables us to see how Norway gradually shifts from a state of wartime austerity immediately after the end of the Second World War to the consumerism of the 1990s. The novel opens with the violent conception of Fred at the hands of an unseen rapist in the final days of the war (May 1945). It is this rape and the consequent desire to discover the perpetrator which acts as a stain running through the novel’s 784 pages. Was the rapist a fleeing German soldier? Or was he much closer to home?
Moving forward to 1960s Oslo, we witness Barnum living with his eccentric family which spans three generations. Family members include Barnum’s grandmother (affectionately referred to as ‘the Old One’), his mother Vera, as well as his troubled older half-brother, Fred. It is far from an ordinary household. Worryingly, Barnum stops growing at a very young age so quite literally becomes the ‘half brother’ to Fred in the process; and after Fred is implicated in a tragedy that leaves a family member dead he becomes mute. The two half-brothers then embark on their distinctly separate courses: Fred becomes a boxer and Barnum a would-be screenwriter. But after over twenty years of estrangement a fax from the boys’ dying mother gives them the opportunity to see one another again. Will they grasp this chance with both hands?
So much for the narrative, but (as always) I’d like to focus more on the several interesting and intertwining themes which wind their way through Saabye Christensen’s novel:
Film dominates this book right from the outset when Barnum attempts to pitch a script at the Berlin Film Festival with his childhood friend, Peder. In the remainder of the novel we read how Barnum’s great grandmother, ‘the Old One’, was a Danish silent film star. For me, this brought to mind a real Danish film star of the silent era – Asta Nielsen – and somehow helped to make the Old One’s past fame and subsequent gradual decline more believable. We also witness scenes where Barnum meets Sean Connery in an Oslo cigar shop (I later discovered Connery visited Oslo in 1967 to receive treatment from the psychologist Ola Raknes, so this meeting does have its roots in reality); we hear how the mother of Barnum’s future wife (Vivian) resembled Lauren Bacall prior to her near-fatal accident; we see how Barnum ‘clicks’ with his two friends, Peder and Vivian, whilst watching classic films such as ‘The Big Sleep’ (featuring, incidentally, another famous height-challenged man: Humphrey Bogart); and we read hilarious sections where Barnum and his two friends are taken on as extras in a film. Much to their chagrin, the friends’ exploits later end up on the cutting room floor.
Film is so prevalent a theme that it is obviously the reason the cover of the edition I bought (see above) features a young boy staring at an (out of view) screen in an empty cinema. It reminds me of the poster for the 1980s Italian film ‘Cinema Paradiso’.
With works such as ‘Hunger’, Knut Hamsun is arguably the most famous novelist Norway has ever produced – and his work pervades Saabye Christensen’s novel. From the novel’s opening pages we witness the Old One tearing Hamsun’s books from the family’s book shelves and stuffing them into the metallic green stove in order to burn them. She takes this drastic action because she is disgusted to learn of the novelist’s Nazi sympathies. Years later, Barnum and his friends become extras in Henning Carlsen’s 1966 film adaptation of Knut Hamsun’s novel, `Hunger’. Hamsun’s most famous novel is very much a touchstone for Christensen’s own. The perambulations of Barnum through Oslo echo the walks made by Hamsun’s protagonist around Oslo (then known as Kristiania) in ‘Hunger’. And Barnum’s screenplay ‘Fattening’ is, of course, the polar opposite of ‘Hunger’. This opposition (Hunger / Fattening) is also, I think, a comment by Saabye Christensen on the journey Norway has taken since Hamsun’s book was published in 1890. With the vast wealth it today derives from oil and gas exploration, it’s difficult to believe that Norway was a very poor country in the late 19th century – yet Hamsun’s work is a lens we can look through to see the dire poverty once experienced by Oslo’s less fortunate citizens. By contrast, in Saabye Christensen’s novel we see a Norway gradually moving towards prosperity – as well as wealth’s less desirable cousins: excess, consumerism – and ‘fattening’ (obesity).
As with the film references, music pervades ‘The Half Brother’ right from the very beginning. Popular music – especially British popular music – is a recurring theme throughout the the novel. In the first few pages Barnum meets Cliff Richard at a sauna in the hotel he’s staying at in Berlin whilst attending the film festival; we witness Barnum’s near-meeting with the (then largely unknown) Beatles in 1961 in Hamburg’s Reeperbahn. This is one of my favourite scenes in the novel, mainly because I’m a big fan of the Fab Four but also because the whole section dealing with Barnum’s family’s trek from Oslo to Rome via Hamburg is hilarious; Barnum’s farther, Arnold, buys (or does he steal?) a record player on which the family play pop records; we then go onto read how Barnum’s half-brother’s speech is restored courtesy of Cliff Richard’s recording of `Living Doll’ on the said record player.
Saabye Christensen admits to being heavily influenced by popular music. When he was recently asked how he became a writer he answered:
“At the age of 14, when “Penny Lane” and “Strawberry Fields Forever” came out, I decided I would become a writer, without having any idea what that meant, or what I wanted to write. John Lennon and Knut Hamsun made me a writer.”
So, in a sense, ‘The Half Brother’ is Saabye Christensen’s love letter to his mentors. I think he’s done them both proud.
The unknown/the unknowable
I really admire how Saabye Christensen puts forward a series of events but doesn’t comment on how they end. In life, we simply don’t know the answers to every event we encounter in our lives – and Saabye Christensen reflects this in `The Half Brother’. For example, we ask ourselves whether Fred pushed the Old One in front of the car which killed her? Was Arnold’s death by a discus thrown by Fred an accident – or was it murder? Was it Arnold who raped Vera? (All we know about the rapist is that he has a finger missing – as does Arnold when he leaves the family home in Lofoten as a young boy.) Why does Fred return to the family home? Does Barnum’s wife, Vivian, fall pregnant to him – or one of her lovers?
As in life, so many questions are left unanswered and remain unknown. So, in a sense, Saabye Christensen’s work is very existentialist: ‘existence is not only unknown – it is unknowable’.
The strength of women & the weakness of men
I think one area where Christensen’s writing truly excels is with the female characters in his novel. Unlike many male authors, the women in Christensen’s novel are strong, vivid and utterly believable. The Old One, Boletta, Vera and Vivian are drawn with such richness and depth that I found it difficult to believe they were the creation of a male imagination. And each one of these female characters has to deal with adversity as well as the disappearance or estrangement of the men in their lives. These men, it must be said, leave a lot to be desired. The Old One’s lover mysteriously disappears whilst on a polar expedition; Boletta’s lover leaves her to bring up Vera on her own and without any offer of support; Vera is raped by an unknown man and is left to bring up Fred; Vivian is abandoned by Barnum…. The catalogue of misfortunes faced by women at the hands of men just keeps stacking up. But the women just grit their teeth and get on with life.
The only complaint I can make against Christensen’s brilliant novel is that the closing pages dragged on a little too long and could have done with some editing. Except for this minor gripe I highly recommend Christensen’s Nordic Prize winning novel. This ‘great river of a book’ is a moveable feast.