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Reading the World - Book Review - Shyness & Dignity by Dag Solstad - Translated from the Norwegian by Sverre Lyngstad

Many thanks go out to Mary Matze of Graywolf Press.  She noticed the Reading the World coverage this month, and sent me an advance copy of this novel due out in August.  I'd suggest pre-ordering it now to get it as early as possible.

Shyness & Dignity by Dag Solstad - Translated from the Norwegian by Sverre Lyngstad

To be published in August 2006 by Graywolf Press, 144 pages.


Shyness and Dignity are two nearly perfect words to include in the title of this book that quietly sneaks up on the reader and just engrains itself in his/her memory.  Solstad’s writing is fantastic, with sentence structures ranging from Hemingway’s quick and to the point, all the way up to Faulkner’s multi-layered, multi-comma’d efforts.  In either case, he captures the reader’s attention and doesn’t let go.

Shyness & Dignity is the story of Elias Rukla, a high school level teacher in Norway.  He teaches Norwegian Literature to students on the verge of graduation and a momentary new insight into Ibsen’s The Wild Duck pulls him deep inside himself while he lectures.  A broken umbrella later in the day provokes from him an uncharacteristic explosion of rage, directed at the umbrella and at students in the schoolyard.  He leaves the schoolyard, and begins walking the city, a bit unsure of where exactly he’s headed.

While up to this point, Solstad has written a very interesting tale, even for one with absolutely no knowledge of Ibsen, or any Norwegian writing, it is here that the novel takes off.  And Solstad leads Rukla through an Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge moment – where he begins thinking about his wife and how he’ll let her know that he’s just blown their only income, and it leads to a long, internal discussion of his life.  Solstad handles this so well though, and digs into that life so thoroughly, that the reader falls into his life prior to the schoolyard incident quite easily.

Solstad smoothly transitions from phase to phase of Rukla’s reminiscing, beginning with his friendship with Philosophy Ph.D. candidtate, Johan Corneliussen and the discussions they would have about culture, politics, sports, literature, etc. that would last for days at a time.  This then flows into Corneliussen’s meeting and eventually marrying the indescribably beautiful Eva Linde, and how that affected their friendship and Rukla’s life.  Solstad continues to make these smooth transitions right up through the end of the novel as Rukla contemplates how he’s become alienated from the rest of the world.  Solstad nicely shows all of this, when it would be so much easier to simply tell it as events of the past.

Another aspect of Solstad’s writing is his usage of repetition.  At first, it seems to be very upfront – a means of making sure the reader understands the point he is making.  However, his usage is much more subtle, and captured extremely well by the translator Sverre Lyngstad.  An example is the aforementioned “indescribable beauty of Eva Linde.”  This five word grouping appears over and over through the early mentions of Linde.  Solstad does have a reason, though, for doing this and it isn’t simply to get the reader to envision their own perfect physical female specimen.  Later in the novel, when Linde has allowed her body to widen, fill out, wrinkle, etc., and Rukla argues with himself that “Eva Linde could not lose her indescribable beauty.  The biologically conditioned change that had taken place with her had to be described otherwise than with reference to what had been the very sign of the beauty she had once possessed.”

Little things like his sentence structure and use of language only add to the effect that Solstad’s writing has on his reader.  And when adding that to the extremely powerful capturing of a man who has lost his way in society that Solstad has rendered?  It makes for an extremely memorable book.  One can only hope that this book is successful enough to convince publishers to take on more of Dag Solstad’s work.

5 stars

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