IT'S FINE BY ME | Per Petterson

True, Lonely, and Uplifting

Rare is the author or his/her work that I can order sight unseen and know. Know that the book will be a permanent presence on my shelf of quality literature, revisited and reread often. Per Petterson's novels are among the rarest for me.

I promised myself that I would understate these observations about Petterson's third book, the novel, IT'S FINE BY ME (1992), but I've failed already.It's Fine By Me

With the exceptions for love and great ambition, restraint is a desirable quality in most things. Writing, in particular. Petterson's mastery of restraint shows in his spare use of adjectives, and his refusal to embellish any description of setting or action. He simply writes what is, what happens, period. It's up to us to figure out the why of it. Just like life. And he does this without affectation or apparent effort, which reinforces his credibility with the reader and simultaneously sets the stage for profound, moving and often tender human insight.

Audun Sletten is Petterson's 13-year old protagonist in IT'S FINE BY ME, a working-class teen who identifies with Jack London and Ernest Hemingway, and is annoyed by adult hypocrisies, and his sister's choice of her James Dean wannabe boyfriend. He has outgrown the rules of childhood and is experiencing the contradictions of adulthood as he strives to understand his emerging identity, which is being defined as he responds to the messes that parents, sisters, friends, strangers and co-workers create for themselves. The culture of adulthood is a strange and chaotic bazaar of public selves and private rules that his elders seem to have accommodated in their own failed personal dreams of freedom and success. In this world seen through Audun's adolescent senses, adulthood is life lived under a succession of truces in which the line between what might be and what is shifts and morphs like light under water.

Previous Reviews of Per Petterson's works:

IN THE WAKE 

OUT STEALING HORSES

A trained librarian, Petterson worked as a bookstore clerk, translator and literary critic before he became a full-time writer. He cites Knut Hamsun and Raymond Carver among his influences.

IN THE WAKE | Per Petterson

When the Old Life is Gone

Per Petterson's novel of personal grief, guilt and redemption is palpably authentic as release, if not renewal.

Petterson's set-up is inventive - Arvid Jansen regains consciousness pressed against a bookstore's closed glass door - and his writing is masterful. He hews close to a minimalist style with just enough character bubbling through to reinforce our sense of the narrator as human, in pain, and shouldering on. Arvid is flawed, not very much of the good person most of us hope for ourselves, yet he possesses the strength of the genuine loner. He is not railing against God or others. He is just afloat and fighting the drift.

Disoriented and beside himself, Arvid is buffeted by flashes of sorrow. We discover that his parents and brother are dead, killed in a ferry fire that was nearly his own fate. He is estranged from his wife and daughters, one of whom recognizes her father's free fall and is showing signs of  the girl child mothering the grown man. Arvid navigates turbulent dark emotions, confronts the paralyzing losses, climbs back to his feet and takes the first courageous steps toward resumption of life. Not his former life, for that is utterly gone, but a life to be lived.

IN THE WAKE is the novel that Petterson wrote prior to his breakout bestseller, OUT STEALING HORSES, which is a more restrained and ultimately more timeless work.

 

OUT STEALING HORSES | Per Petterson

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.

Publisher's Blurb

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.

Graywolf Press