AUGUST 20, 2021
“THE BOOK WHICH is to change your life stands next on the shelf to the book that you had come to take out from the library,” Geoffrey Hill once counseled during one of his Oxford Lectures, but in my case the book was in a package from Archipelago Books with a few other volumes, as an additional courtesy to my order. How nice, I said to no one, but I still didn’t have that teetering push I needed until a few months later, when I saw that critic Emmett Stinson, whose taste often resembles mine, had liked an update on Goodreads of someone who was enjoying a book from Kjell Askildsen — and wait, didn’t I have that book?
The stories in Everything Like Before, translated by Seán Kinsella, are very short, two to three pages. They are redolent of Chekhov and Isaac Babel (Askildsen is also a writer Lydia Davis would nod to) — the style is stripped — few adjectives, little setting or atmosphere, but all emotion, with tension often instantly delivered on the first page, sometimes in the first line: “When my wife was alive, I used to think about how much more room I’d have when she died,” and even in the title (many being dark): “The Wake,” “An Uplifting Funeral,” and “The Cost of Friendship.” The quotidian situations are the same ones we get in those aforementioned writers — marital friction, sibling friction, the old trying to live in a world not welcoming to them — with alcohol, that great loosener, making everything better and worse at the same time. Askildsen is 91, and there is an old-world pathos to these stories; their public face is stoic, but one often sees them in private hours where they pull the rug out on their personality to give the reader the chance to clasp their essences tighter, as their bitch, moan, and then laugh resiliency is just about the best way to get through a life that grows so easily painful and interminable. And though Askildsen is Norwegian, it set me in the mood of the gloomy but glittering Serbian poetry anthology (edited by Charles Simic) I read some years ago — “I read and read / Since I’ve nothing else to do, and time is slow to pass,” says one speaker in a Jovan Hristić poem. This is a thoughtful, but painful, European world, where people like to drink in silence, no ball game (not even football) to distract from their memories of good and sad times.
Because they are stripped down, the stories are almost parabolic, but the pungent dialogue and diabolic thoughts and feelings of the narrators often offer much more than commentary — they are the quicksand where the reader loses bearing because they are the disjecta we both live and unconsciously deal in each day: someone else’s anger, aggression, and confrontation drives us back to our own. The final tales, part of a series called “Thomas F’s Final Notes to the Public” are a good example. In one, “Maria,” the narrator, a very old man, bumps into his daughter: “She was the one I used to like best of all my children.” She tells him, in response to his “you look so well” that she’s drinking urine and eating raw vegetables. He thinks he has a daughter with a sense of humor, but he’s only mystified and out of touch, as many of the male narrators are. He says he thought she said “urine” to which she confirms it and adds that she’s a different person, leading him to silently muse, “I didn’t doubt that, it made sense, you couldn’t possibly be the same person once you started drinking urine.” After a few more misunderstandings, she announces, “Everything I say is wrong.” He makes no answer because “there are far too many words in circulation, the more you say the greater your chances of being wrong.” There is no moralizing finish to many of the tales, though the impulse flickers — this book is meant for people who’ve taken their licks in life, for those who know advice is paltry, even toxic.
Over and over again, after stumbling over the tripwires of Askildsen, I experienced a reverse zoom of perception — the term for the camera movement where the camera pulls away as the lens zooms in (used in Vertigo), which almost visually transmits Keats’s notion of negative capability. Yes, there is deep water, but also a few life preservers. Life is unfair, it hurts, and it’s beautiful — the birds sing in the trees of a graveyard. People want to love each other, but they also can’t help getting mad at each other — it pays to draw a line between lovers and the people you decide to spend the rest of your life with because your love interest has already silently demarcated the situation for themself. In “Sunhat,” a bickering couple play mind games and sometimes extract truth through their enfeebling dialogues:
“You remind me of my dad,” she said.
He made no reply for a while, then said:
“I thought you liked him.”
“Did you? Well I was fond of him.”
What a thing to say, he thought, what the hell does she mean by that!
Askildsen’s war of the sexes features a man often losing because he can’t feel, can’t understand another’s feelings — yet, in the stories of the very old men, they are disposable — no country for old men.
One may think of Raymond Carver, but there is the difference of soil and culture, which is finally too heavy to bear. People in Carver and Askildsen go out to look at the stars, but only in the latter will then go to a bar and read Céline. Still, the Gordon Lish–ian notion of swerve — that is “the process of deforming of what was prior so as to avoid predictability in the work” — often comes into play, especially in the three-page jewel “The Nail in the Cherry Tree.” The narrator is leaving home after his father’s death and continually comforts his mother, placing his hand on her chest to calm her, while also quibbling with his older brother, but he then finally heads to the train station and the last line is: “I walked along thinking that she must have loved Dad, and that Sam [the brother] … that she probably loved him too. And I thought: it doesn’t matter.”
This might not have been a book to change my life (does one really know that a book has changed their life until months or years later?), but it did something as powerful: it made me remember fiction-making is about communication, something someone as avant-garde as Donald Barthelme would proselytize for. What takes some writers 7,000 words, Askildsen accomplishes in 1,000, and though I wholeheartedly agree with Stanley Elkin that “more is more,” less — with ratcheted-up phrasing and feeling, as in a short poem of Wallace Stevens or Elizabeth Bishop, Lydia Davis’s short “The Old Dictionary” and the like, or the 700 words of Babel’s first razor-sharp Red Calvary story, “Crossing the Zbrucz” — is still enough to leave one with lifetime striations.
Greg Gerke’s work has appeared in Tin House, Film Quarterly, The Kenyon Review, and other publications. A book of stories, Especially the Bad Things, was published by Splice. Zerogram Press released a new and expanded version of See What I See in April 2021.