Over summer 2009, I read Jan Kjærstad’s epic Wegeland trilogy in its entirety, a project that was both extremely satisfying (it’s not been often that I’ve read a whole trilogy back-to-back) and, at times, a little exhausting. Understand that I don’t mean ‘exhausting’ in a negative way, really, just that it isn’t so often lately that I read something that really requires such a high level of focus and analysis and consideration. The Wergeland trilogy is beautifully written and really engaging, but it’s not what you might call a light summer read.
Ostensibly about the murder of famous Norwegian TV producer Jonas Wergeland’s wife, each of the books in the trilogy explore and question themes of identity-creation and revision, storytelling and narrative, The Truth (of the capital letter variety), and, of course, the question of “how the pieces of a life fit together”–how we become the person, or, in Wergeland’s case, the persons, we become.
The good people over at The L let me co-opt one of their summer book pages to write about the trilogy in its entirety. The full text to my ‘review’ is below; it can also be read on The L‘s website, here.
(Also, just for the record, I’d like to add that I was lucky enough to meet Mr. Kjærstad last year and he was a truly nice person. Given that he is such an accomplished author/critic/editor, I was not a little intimidated at the prospect of meeting him, and yet he was so down-to-earth and disarming! We talked about one of my favorite Danish authors, Henrik Pontoppidan, which I got an enormous kick out of…)
If the debate around last year’s Nobel winner and Roberto Bolaño’s breakthrough success should have convinced the American reading public anything, it’s that there is, unsurprisingly, a world of significant fiction of which even our most avid readers are embarrassingly unaware. So we should count ourselves lucky to now have eminent Norwegian author Jan Kjærstad’s epic and endlessly inventive “Wergeland Trilogy” available in English. The first installment, The Seducer, was translated in 2006, but the remaining two—The Conqueror and The Discoverer—are only now available, a decade, it bears noting, after the last volume’s original publication.
Chronicling the rise and fall of television icon Jonas Wergeland, these novels upend expectations of genre, narrative chronology, and authorial privilege to create a dynamic portrait of a man who is alternately represented as a murderer, victim, genius, imitator, liar and visionary. Comprised of two hundred non-chronological stories and told in five different voices, the trilogy recalls the narrative pyrotechnics of Cervantes and the storytelling prowess of Arabian Nights, but the story remains contemporary—deeply rooted in the media-saturated, hyper-connected present day.
Although each novel presents a unique picture of Wergeland, they all share a common interest: to determine whether a person’s present is dictated by his past—whether one can make sense of a life by revealing all of its moments—its stories. “How do the pieces of a life fit together?”
As The Seducer begins, the wildly famous Wergeland has been found guilty of his wife’s murder. The novel postures as hagiography, passionately defending Wergeland from the “scurrilous and untrue things” that have been said about him. Here, he is an artistic savant whose erotic talents (and “magic penis”) enlarge his creative abilities and stimulate the brilliance of his bedmates. Following him from Greenland to Timbuktu, from Sinai to his working-class suburb of Grorud, each fantastical anecdote prods the reader to consider: “Is this the most crucial story in Jonas Wergeland’s life?” Nevertheless, that the narrative purposefully circumvents what is perhaps that most important moment—when he discovers his dead wife—implicitly questions the validity of our heroic image of Wergeland.
The suspicions sown within The Seducer grow in The Conqueror, the trilogy’s most masterful installment. Two more narrators are introduced—a professor hired to write a biography of Wergeland while the latter is imprisoned, and a mysterious woman who shows up, unbidden, to assist. Hoping to save Wergeland’s life from “pointlessness,” the woman reveals his darker side: his mediocrity, passivity, festering jealousy, and violent tendencies. While reading as a far more accurate and nuanced account of Wergeland’s life, The Conqueror admits the most fictionalization. As the woman narrates episodes, the professor records them by hand so that “the stories will be not as I tell them, but as you perceive them.” The resulting picture of Wergeland is distinctly fragmented—pasted together from fact and invention, from misinterpretation and inference. “[S]omehow…” the professor writes, “the story has gone from being half-true to half-false.”
Wergeland tells his own story in The Discoverer. Far from establishing a definitive truth, however, his perspective further complicates the reader’s understanding. Having served a murderer’s sentence, he is working as a ship’s secretary and writing, reconstructing his wife’s death. “I… could survive by telling my own story,” he explains. “But which story? That was the problem.” Searching for reasons, for explanations in his past, Wergeland reminisces on his wife and marriage and is changed. “All the writing had helped me to evolve… I was not the person I had been when I started.”
Read together or separately, these novels celebrate the expansiveness of a human life and challenge our notion of what it means to know someone—to know ourselves. Our lives, we discover, exist primarily in the memories of others. “The future belongs to the storytellers,” one character remarks. Should we find ourselves remembered by one as adept as Kjærstad, we’d be lucky indeed.