Alone, Not Lonely
Several Decembers ago, while walking up a side street in the Colorado Rockies, I experienced a sense of being transported across time to another life. It should have scared me. Yet I knew exactly where I was - the Silver Boom-era Victorian houses, the approaching winter storm’s metallic taste in the air – and knew to a certainty that I had not been there before in this life. I was in surroundings that felt like home, just not my then current home. This effect happened to me again when I read the first page of PER PETTERSON's novel OUT STEALING HORSES, which begins:
Early November. It’s nine o’clock. The titmice are banging against the window. Sometimes they fly dizzily off after the 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.
That paragraph evokes sense memories that clarify and transport. Per Petterson has said that he worked extensively on the English translation with Anne Born and that he prefers the English text to his original Norwegian. Reading this, it is possible to understand why.
We imagine other lives in the flickering cinema or while reading a good book. This is the effect when Per Petterson’s narrator in HORSES, Trond Sander, includes us in his thoughts as he adjusts to life in the rural cottage to which he has retreated after the death of his wife and a career as an Oslo professional. We are drawn into his shrinking world and the occasional tricks of his memory as he shares past events with candid, unassuming, transparent detail. Trond is without artifice. We like him immediately. Even when he is not so accepting of himself, perhaps the more so because of his mild surprise at his own decay.
It is this contract of decent, at times self-deprecating truth-telling he establishes with us that enables some significant coincidences to pass into our accepting state of mind. His meeting the former boyhood friend, Lars, half a century after life altering tragedy seems right in Trond’s contracting universe. His daughter Ellen’s sudden reappearance after his abrupt escape to anonymity brings still more validation of his life’s choices and in Trond’s chosen time. We trust that we will learn what we need to know. And we do.
Literary Northern Light
OUT STEALING HORSES is a book for writers. We read, hope to occasionally glimpse a little of how he does it, perhaps detect a pattern, some clue to technique, yet Petterson’s style is organic, so thoroughly in tune with his mind that it is unlikely any of us can parse it successfully for its underlying machinery. He may not even be aware of precisely how he accomplishes such precise emotional resonance. One gets the sense that Per Petterson trusts himself to navigate the cross currents of the average life’s rapids, like when as a boy he discovers one of his father's secrets, he knows he should be troubled yet intuits that he should keep it to himself until he can determine its meaning. When young Trond drops from a high branch to a horse’s back, he trusts that Zorro’s ghost will guide him to a suitably valiant flight on the mare’s back through the ancient Norwegian forest. When instead his crotch meets the horse’s fence line of bone at the withers, he suffers the ignominy of busted balls and blinding, legendary pain, we wince and shift in our seat, relive our own first such catastrophe and invest a little more of ourselves in Trond’s story.
There is an intimate quality to Petterson’s writing here that brings Barry Lopez’s writing to mind. It is hard to imagine a more unexpected connection. Lopez, who is best known for his excellent non-fiction accounts that compete for impact with the best fiction, is a master of erudition, intimate detail, ethics and how the individual relates to him/herself. Petterson's writing is simultaneously understated and precise, a daring combination for fiction.
OUT STEALING HORSES won the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award in 2007. I have added Per Petterson to my list of authors to watch and look forward to reading his other work.
OUT STEALING HORSES is the story of a man who has settled into a rustic cabin in an isolated part of eastern Norway to live the rest of his life with quiet deliberation. A meeting with his only neighbor, however, forces him to reflect on a fateful childhood summer. Petterson’s subtle prose and profound vision make OUT STEALING HORSES an unforgettable novel.