Out Stealing Horses

Per Pettersen, author of To Siberia, Echo Land, In the Wake and It's Fine by Me, won the IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, and the Norwegian Booksellers' Prize for his novel Out Stealing Horses (Picador, 2005 - English Translation, by Anne Born; Norwegian publication date 2003). Set in the borderlands between Norway and Sweden, the book tells the story of Trond Sander, an aging, widowed man who moves into a cabin of his own, intending to live out the rest of his days in solitude and seclusion; but when Trond meets his neighbor, he is unwillingly tossed into memories of his childhood, and of his father, who worked in the resistance movement during WWII and abandoned his family when his son was still very young. The saga of family and of the love between father and son is told fluidly and sometimes breathlessly, moving forwards and backwards within time as if the storyteller himself could not tell the difference between past and present. The effect, all to Pettersen's credit, is unforgettable. 

Read these first lines from the book: 

"Early November. It's nine o'clock. The titmice are banging against the window. Sometimes they fly dizzily off after impact, other times they fall and lie struggling in the new snow until they can take off again. I don't know what they want that I have. I look out the window at the forest. There is a reddish light over the trees by the lake. It is starting to blow. I can see the shape of the wind on the water. ... I live here now, in a small house in the far east of Norway." (3). 

Very early in my writing studies I was taught a simple equation for putting story down on the page: it was to first write I AM..., and then YOU ARE..., and then WE ARE HERE BECAUSE..., and then THE WORST THING IN MY LIFE IS..., (with each ellipses being the answer to the preceding prompt). If you look back at the opening lines of Pettersen's, he follows these prompts almost exactly. The author has effectively placed his character, the opposing factor (YOU - the titmice, the landscape), and the reason for it all: the character lives in a small house in Norway. And the worst thing in his life is... what? I would conclude: the solitude. 

"...I start out to the road down to the river and Lars' cabin with Lyra [the dog] in a yellow dance in front of me along the road. I turn into the path by the bridge and walk along the stream until I stop on the bank close to the river mouth. November, and I can see the bench where I sat yesterday evening in the windy darkness and two pale swans on the grey water of the bay and the bare trees against a pale morning sun and the dull green forest on the other side of the lake in a milky mist to the south. A quite unusual stillness, like Sunday morning when I was small, or Good Friday. A snap of fingers like a pistol shot. But I can hear Lyra breathing behind me, and the pale sunshine cuts my eyes..." (121). 

The back cover will tell you that this novel is one of "universal relevance and power," that it is "panoramic and gripping." The back cover will tell you that Pettersen's prose is "precise, irresistible." The back cover would not be wrong. 

But what it would not tell you is that sometimes the prose is confusing--that you might get lost in the sentences because they flow so fluidly, sometimes rapid and sometimes slow. As a reader, these sentences will make you get tangled, they'll get you a little mixed up. You might forget that an old man is telling this story, all from memory. You'll think of this man as still a young boy, and you'll wish, as a reader, that you had grown up in Norway, that you had lived by a river and had a father in the yard, a father whom you called to from your bed, asking about breakfast, asking about the work you would do that day. You'll wish, as a reader, that you too had a cabin that looked out upon a forest, upon low-lit, golden mornings and upon deep, dark evenings that nevertheless seemed to glow with a strange, gray light. You'll wish, as a reader, that in the quiet of those evenings you too could pull a duvet over your head, weary with tiredness, content from hard work, and you could slip into dreams, or memories, or the deepest of sleeps. 

"People like it when you tell them things, in suitable portions, in a modest, intimate tone, and they think they know you, but they do not, they know about you, for what they are let in on are facts, not feelings, not what your opinion is about anything at all, not how what has happened to you and how all the decisions you have made have turned you into who you are. What they do is they fill in with their own feelings and opinions and assumptions, and they compose a new life which has precious little to do with yours, and that lets you off the hook. No one can touch you unless you yourself wants them to. You only have to be polite and smile and keep paranoid thoughts at bay, because they will talk about you no matter how much you squirm, it is inevitable, and you would do the same thing yourself." (67-68) 

Trond Sander is a funny man; I like him. He's honest about life--but he has no reason not to be: he's in his late sixties, he's lived a long life and admits to his mistakes and struggles, (married twice, widowed on account of a horrible car accident, and a week later his only sister died). He has quirks, but the way they are written of, they seem so utterly normal: he lives alone, for instance, but still every evening for dinner he cleans himself up and dresses in a clean white shirt, sets the table with a cloth, napkin, candles, and sits down and eats. The image of this sort of man, paired with his ruminations about, for instance, the forest--"(the forest) was part of my life many years ago in a way that nothing later has been, and then it was absent for a long, long time, and when everything around me suddenly turned silent, I realized how much I had missed it. Soon I thought of nothing else, and if I too were not to die, at precisely that point in time, I had to go to the forest. That's how it felt, and that simple."  (113)-- well, this is the sort of man I could fall in love with.

And yet: it is to the praise of the author that I can feel such a longing for this character at all--any sort of a longing, even just wanting him to find joy, or happiness, or resolution, or. . . company. Well done, Per Pettersen, that you've created a character who speaks in a way that makes me--us?--feel as though we have kinship with him. We feel like we know him; yet as the above quote (67-68) proves: alas, we do not know him--just as so many people in our own lives do not truly know us, either. 

"There was the scent of new-felled timber. It spread from the track-side to the river, it filled the air and drifted across the water and penetrated everything everywhere and made me numb and dizzy. I was in the thick of it all. I smelled of resin, my clothes smelled, and my hair smelled, and my skin smelled of resin when I lay in my bed at night. I went to sleep with it and woke up with it and it stayed with me all the day long. I was forest. Carrying my hatchet I waded knee-deep in spruce sprigs and cut the branches off in the way my father had shown me; close to the trunk [. . .] I swung the hatchet to my left and my right in a hypnotic rhythm. It was heavy work. . . I was worn out without realizing it, and I just went on." (74). 

. . . 

Reader. I've now given you enough excerpts from Out Stealing Horses to either entice you to reading it or dissuade you from ever opening it at all. I hope you do the former. It's a book you won't regret reading. For myself, I found that the book allowed me to explore my own imagination--it painted a picture of Norway for me that I'd never have been able to myself. My family background is Norwegian; my great-grandfather immigrated in the early 1900s, and I've heard stories of my grandfather's bicycle trip through the valleys and mountains near Bergen (?) when he traveled by boat across the Atlantic to visit his grandmother at age 18. My family still has his collection of letters from those traveling days, most of which I still haven't read. I think it's high time. 

Memories are here to guide us, comfort us, and remind us that the past is the past and we are only ever in charge of our future. Out Stealing Horses is a book to remember, and I will remember it; but I'm also ready for the next book, Wallace Stegner's Second Growth (HoughtonMifflin, 1947). Stegner is one of my favorites. 

Here's to health, happiness, and good literature.