The Brummstein

My newest review, of Danish author Peter Adolphsen’s The Brummstein,  is actually a little dusty at this point–it was published on Three Percent in May. But I think it’ll still be of interest, especially since the book was actually published in July of last year, so this wasn’t an of-the-minute review anyway.

I think Adolphsen is a fantastic author–his obvious fascination with the natural world and geological processes, paired with a real respect for form and brevity–gives his work a unique twist, too. The Brummstein was written before Machine, which was Adolphsen’s first work to be translated into English, and while I do prefer the latter, I think that this one has some definite merits that make it a worthy read.

To get the full effect, I’d suggest you take an afternoon–it won’t take longer than that–and read both books back to back. They won’t be your typical “summer reads,” but will certainly be entertaining and worth your while.


By examining the minute connections, unlikely coincidences, and painstaking natural processes that give shape to the daily world, the work of Danish author Peter Adolphsen encapsulates—both in form and content—Blake’s image of “a world in a grain of sand.” This has never been more literally true than in his most recently translated work, The Brummstein. Beginning in 1907, and ending over eighty years later, the novella follows a mysteriously humming stone found deep within a Swiss cave through its series of unlikely owners: a hapless German anarchist and his young Jewish sweetheart, a retired ticket clerk at a railway station lost & found, an orphan boy living alone in the woods, an avant-garde artist, and a museum curator. In following the ownership of the stone, The Brummstein also traces a crash course through European (German) history—in less than 80 pages, the reader experiences both World Wars, Spanish Flu, the rise of the Soviet GDR, and the fall of the Berlin Wall. But, rather than focus on a larger, more sweeping narrative, The Brummstein is told on a much more personal, human scale.

Adolphsen has not yet been fully translated into English, but a good start has been made with the 2009 translation of his excellent novella Machine, and excerpts from his collections Small Stories I and Small Stories II, which were included in 2011’s Best European Fiction Anthology. Readers familiar with these other works will recognize many of the author’s prevailing thematic interests, as well as his favorite formal constraints in The Brummstein.

The book starts with a playful explanation of “the constant orogeny of the Alps,” and how the formation of the earth might be conceptualized on a time-line. “. . . if we apply the famous metaphor which depicts the Earth’s age as a calendar year,” the narrator begins,

when dinosaurs became extinct on Boxing Day, hominids emerge on New Year’s Eve, and when, at the time of writing, ten seconds have passed since the Roman Empire’s five seconds expired, then these events took place on December 19 and 23 respectively. In the West, the process of comprehending this vast expanse of time commenced just one and a half geological seconds ago . . .

There’s a PBS-narrator quality to Adolphsen’s explanations of the natural world, which manage to be clinical and dignified while simultaneously geeking out about how awesome geology is. (Machine, with its first page explanations of the petrification of a prehistoric horse, which eons later becomes a drop of gasoline, maintains the same delightful tone.)

But the book’s concern is not really the Brummstein—the mysterious humming stone that an amateur explorer looking for the entrance to another world finds at the beginning of the story is basically a MacGuffin. This has been true for many other “lives of objects” narratives as well—Jenny Erpenbach’s Visitation and Nicole Krauss’s Great House come to mind—and is not in itself that unique a premise. What makes The Brummstein special, then, is Adolphsen’s incredible specificity and gift for compressing deeply incisive observations into just a few short passages.

It’s rare that the full emotional weight of a relationship or a life can be concisely summarized—just think of how bland many obituaries are. But this is precisely what Adolphsen excels at. Consider a passage in which we’re introduced to Georg Wiede, an elderly retiree in Germany during WWII. After his apartment was destroyed by Allied air raids, Georg moves to a railway station lost and found hut:

It wasn’t until December 1943 that Georg finally overcame the inhibitions which had so far deterred him from helping himself to the lost items. He was driven by a noble motive: hunger. One of the suitcases might contain a tin of goulash or a bag of boiled sweets. He organized clothing such as coats and hats in neat piles at one end of the hut, making sure that each item retained its original ticket. Then he turned his attention to the suitcases, briefcases, et cetera. One by one he placed them on the table, and feeling like a surgeon with a patient on the operating table, he opened them up and laid out the contents in regimented lines. Then he returned the items in reverse order less anything he needed, which included two fountain pens, a small pile of books, a little money, some clothes, and an antique pocket watch. Whenever he took something, he would replace it with a small note with a brief description of the object and the following sentence: “I, Georg Weide, took this item of lost property in a time of great need.”

When it doesn’t work, The Brummstein tends to undercut its emotional resonance with an unsettling sense of absurdity that borders on nihilism. More than one character is dispatched in a freak accident—for instance, a married couple survives Spanish Flu only to be crushed by a chaise lounge falling from an apartment window. The narrative also drops off abruptly and unresolved, which may be alluding to the continuation of the story outside of the novella, but instead feels slightly apathetic.

If, in the end, The Brummstein has some shortcomings, these are mostly recognizable only in comparison to Adolphsen’s more polished Machine which, it should be noted, was written a few years later. Overall, it is a remarkably creative, unique, and resonant work, which can—and should—be read in one satisfying sitting.


Amsterdam Stories

My latest review (on The L Magazine website here) is of the Dutch short story collection Amsterdam Stories by Nescio.

Nescio (“I don’t know” in Latin) was the pen name of businessman J.H.F Grönloh, who, born at the end of the 19th century and dying in the 1960s, lived through a rather fascinating time period in the world, which is certainly reflected in his writing. He wasn’t a prolific author by any means, but he is beloved to this day in his home country–as recently as 2007, a newspaper survey of Dutch readers included his major short story collection in list of the ten Best Dutch Novels of all time (“novels” is a bit of a misnomer, but still).

A few reviews/articles of interest related to Nescio:

“I am nothing and I do nothing”: On the Untranslated Nescio
An article on Bookslut written by Kevin McNeer, prior to the NYRB publication of Amsterdam Stories

Amsterdam Stories reviewed on The Complete Review

Amsterdam Stories reviewed in the KGB Bar & Lit Journal

My own review is below.


A slim collection of novellas, short stories, and excerpts from an unfinished novel, Amsterdam Stories introduces English readers to the complete works of Nescio, one of the most beloved Dutch authors. Neither a particularly prolific nor commercially successful author during his lifetime, Nescio’s fiction now resonates as a love song to Amsterdam, a snapshot of The Netherlands in an era of profound change, and a bittersweet reflection on talent and youth fallen short of its promise.

Latin for “I don’t know,” Nescio was the pseudonym of J.H.F Grönloh (1882-1961), a co-director of the Holland-Bombay Trading Company. In his professional life, Nescio embodied the middling bourgeois existence that haunts nearly all of his bohemian characters. Four of the best pieces in Amsterdam Stories explore this tension and follow the lives of a motley group of disaffected artists, including Koekebakker, a struggling journalist, and Bavnik, a self-deprecating painter.

In “The Freeloader,” Bavnik befriends Japi, an echo of Melville’s Bartleby who declares “I am nothing and I do nothing.” This pursuit intrigues as much as irks his acquaintances, each of whom is attempting to evade the numbing grind of office jobs and banal respectability. The story also showcases Nescio’s poetic use of language and lyrical repetitions: “The freeloader you found lying in your bed with his dirty shoes on when you came home late; the freeloader who smoked your cigars and filled his pipe with your tobacco and burned your coal…”

Koekebakker narrates in retrospect, balancing light-hearted nostalgia with loss. “We were on top of the world, and the world was on top of us, weighing down heavily,” he sighs in “Young Titans.” And yet, even though these young men were poor, working jobs which “confiscated the better part of our time… [and] kept us out of the sunshine,” even though Bavnik couldn’t paint the world as he really saw it, and their hopes came to nothing—the wonder of this age of possibility is clearly what matters to him in the end.

The romantic undertone of the Koekebakker stories may be attributable to the time of their writing—all between 1909 and 1914, prior to World War I. Contrast this with the “world in tatters” that Nescio describes in the astounding “Insula Dei,” which was written and set in 1942, during the Nazi occupation. Where his young artists spent their days wandering outside Amsterdam, admiring the setting sun “blazing yellow” on the dikes, “Insula Dei” finds its narrator, Dikschei, freezing on a “gray, icy day” waiting for a meager share of milk at the market. Meeting an ailing old friend, Dikschei takes him to a cafe, splurging his ration tickets on bread and ham. “These aren’t the first eventful times I’ve lived through,” he says, resigned. “[A]nd if I’m granted even more years… I will most likely get to my third war.” But in his friend’s declaration that he is “an island,” that no man can himself be occupied, Dikschei recognizes and embraces a quiet self-possession, an internal rebellion against forces beyond one’s control.

Mister Blue

My latest review is of Mister Blue by Québécois author Jacques Poulin. I discovered Poulin last year when I read his Translation is a Love Affair, a slender, whimsical, shaggy-dog sort of novel which, in its sweetly roundabout way, manages to convey quite a lot about human connections and the importance of reaching out to other people–strangers–to find those connections.

Although he is much lauded in Canada and France, Poulin is not (as far as I can tell) well known outside of either country (and honestly, the one Quebecer I asked about  Poulin’s work had never heard of him, either), so I’ll direct your attention to his bio in The Canadian Encyclopedia. According to the entry, he “is among the most widely read Québécois novelists of his generation and the most respected by critics”; additionally, his novel Spring Tides (also available in an English translation published by Archipelago Books), is said to be “one of the most profound Québécois novels.”

Poulin’s most recent novel to be translated into English, Mister Blue, didn’t appeal to me quite as much as Translation is a Love Affair, but it was still a very affecting, empathetic, and quirky story and emphasized many of the the themes that were raised in TiaLA. It also opens with one of the best poems I have read in a really long time, by Jean Tardieu (from The Hidden River):

(amiably, standing in the doorway)

How are things on earth?

-Fine, fine, very fine.

Are the little dogs flourishing?

-Oh my goodness, yes, indeed they are.

What about the clouds?


And the volcanoes?


And the rivers?




And your soul?


the springtime was too green
my soul ate too much salad.

My full review is below, or you can read it on Three Percent here.


The fictional world of Québécois novelist Jacques Poulin can, poetically speaking, be likened to a snow globe: a minutely-detailed landscape peppered with characters who appear to be frozen in one lovely, continuous moment. Mister Blue, recently published in a new English translation, captures this timelessness in a fluid and deceptively simple story about the complex bonds that can develop between completely unlike people, if only they are allowed to.

Brooklyn’s Archipelago Books has previously released two Poulin novels—Spring Tides and Translation is a Love Affair—both of which share some basic fundamentals with Mister Blue. Each of these slender novels feature reclusive literary types (authors and translators), their beloved cats (all with names worthy of T.S. Eliot’s Practical Cats: Matousalem, Mr. Blue, Charade, Vitamin), and enigmatic strangers who quickly insinuate themselves into the lives and imaginations of the aforementioned writers. But although Poulin frequently returns to the same themes, the same hyper-specific scenarios and characters in his work, each of his novels retain a freshness and idiosyncratic sweetness that reward readers with small revelations and happy coincidences.

Mister Blue opens on Jim, “the slowest writer in Quebec,” a former Hemingway scholar turned full-time novelist who now summers in his dilapidated childhood home, a ramshackle cottage in a quiet, uninhabited bay on the Ile d’Orleans. Jim’s daily writing follows a quiet routine with little to punctuate it other than semi-regular tennis matches with his brother, feeding and tending to his cats and the scrappy strays that invite themselves into his home, and solitary walks on the beach in front of his home. It is on just such a walk that Jim discovers footprints in the sand leading to a cave where someone has been camping. Finding a copy of The Arabian Nights in the cave with the name “Marie K.” written on the flyleaf, Jim becomes instantly besotted with this mysterious unseen stranger, whom he nicknames Marika.

Here, as in Translation is a Love Affair, real life quickly begins to intermingle with fiction and vice-versa. For Poulin’s characters, life itself is a process of composition, improvised and redrafted as unforeseen events take place. As Jim struggles to write a love story, he becomes convinced that his authorial problems can all be chalked up to the fact that he has ignored Hemingway’s rule: “a writer must stick to the subject he knows best.” He surmises that his story has stalled because “I was trying to write a love story without being in love myself.” Ergo, he whimsically decides, he must “take a closer interest in that person named Marika.”

But matters of the heart, much like matters of fiction, are not so easily constructed. Instead of meeting Marika, he meets a woman named Bungalow, a former housewife who left her “gilded cage” to run a shelter for young women in Old Quebec, and La Petite, who lives at the shelter but increasingly becomes a regular visitor at Jim’s cottage. The arrival of these two women takes both Jim’s fictional and real life love stories off course: the mysterious Marika continues to elude him, and obstinately, his fictional characters become friends instead of lovers, despite his frequent attempts to revise their relationship. The romantic story that he set out to write (and to live) gives way, ever so slowly, to a gentler, more protective, tender kind of love—that between himself and the curious, lovable, but often volatile La Petite—the love between a parent and child.

In simple, clean prose (musically rendered in Sheila Fischman’s translation) Poulin delivers his bittersweet tale with a restraint that belies true joy, the dogged optimism that complete strangers from totally different backgrounds and circumstances can find in each other real empathy and kindness. That such connections are right there in front of us, if only we trouble to look for them.

“What matters are the emotional ties that connect people and form a vast, invisible web without which the world would crumble,” Jim realizes. “Everything else to which people devote the greater part of their time, looking very serious as they do so, is of only minor importance.”

Aiding and Abetting

I’m planning a trip to Scotland in the not-so-distant future and so I thought it would be a good time to familiarize myself with the work of Muriel Spark. I gather from the little I’ve read about Ms. Spark thus far that Aiding and Abetting is not one of her more “important” works, but as a slim volume of truly imaginative, satirical, and irreverent fun, I think it really holds up. For a work of less than 200 pages, there’s just an incredible amount of plot—three equally creative and crazily spiraling plot lines all together—but somehow she makes it work. There are books in which “nothing happens” and yet everything happens. This, I would say, is a book that demonstrates the opposite principal. There’s a lot going on, and yet, very little has come to anything at the end of the novel.

Aiding and Abetting takes a historically factual murder case as its (loose) premise. In 1974, the 7th Earl of Lucan (nicknamed Lucky), an inveterate and generally unsuccessful gambler, decided to murder his wife. Instead, he accidentally murdered his children’s nanny and only injured his wife. He went into hiding the same night, and was never found by the police. It’s generally assumed that he was able to evade capture because he had the help of a network of other titled friends in England, who for various reasons, elected to help him escape rather than turn him in for his crime.

From here, Spark “absorbed creatively” and “metamorphosed” Lord Lucan’s story, blending it with a parallel tale of Hildegard Wolf, a famed German psychiatrist whose unorthodox method of spending most of her clients’ very expensive sessions talking about herself has gained her a high level of prestige in Paris, where she now lives. Dr. Wolf has a secret of her own, however: as an impoverished student in Germany, she infamously defrauded faithful Catholics all over Europe by posing as a stigmatic. When she was exposed, Dr. Wolf (then “Blessed Beate Pappenheim, the Stigmatic of Munich”), escaped the country, went into hiding, and completely reinvented herself as a successful, but actually uncertified psychiatrist.

The story begins as Dr. Wolf is introduced to not one, but two, Lord Lucans, both of whom want to employ her as their psychiatrist, and both of whom attempt to blackmail her on the basis of her background as a false saint. Spark adds one last thread to the increasingly complicated—but not difficult to follow—plot: the daughter of one of Lucan’s former friends and one of his former gambling partners are both engaged in an impromptu manhunt for Lucan, who they are certain is still alive.

I gobbled the story down easily over the course of a rainy weekend (the would-be hurricane Irene); the novel is broken down into 19, short, segmented chapters which each follow one or two of the running storylines. It’s made for fast reading. And while the psychology employed throughout the book is not particularly deep or convincing, there is a delightful, whimsical absurdity that forgives any false analysis that Spark might throw in. It’s all very much kept at the level of farce. Consider the reaction of Jean-Pierre, Hildegard’s companion of five years, when she finally reveals her past to him: “Why…did you not tell me before about your exciting early life as a stigmatic?”

The novel is not without more complex themes, of course. Overall, it could be argued to be a book about self-created myths, about the false personas that everyone creates to hide either their real selves, or the selves they no longer choose to be. We are who we choose to say we are; we are the product of the stories we tell about ourselves. And there’s always some truth in those stories. Hildegard, for instance, continues to insist—even while on the run, fearing exposure from her blackmailers—that “I caused miracles. I really did cure some people. Strangely enough I did.” The story that she told about herself—that she was a blessed stigmatic—may have been untrue, but it was real enough to feel like a genuine miracle to the people who believed in her.

The one element of the novel that I felt a bit ill at ease with was the final sequence wherein one of Hildegard’s patients, a grandson of a chief in central Africa, arranges for both Lucans to be invited to Africa (therefore out of Hildegard’s hair), only for one of the men to be eaten by cannibals.

Now, don’t get me wrong: I think the level of absurdity in this crazy ending is just pitch perfect, and on a narrative level, I’m actually all for the cannibals. Unfortunately, for a book published in 2001 and set in the 1990s, this turn of plot (and the various scenes of dialog leading up to it) has a rather anachronistic, Olde Worlde colonialism about it. The chief is referred to as “a wily fellow” who later decides that his grandsons “would benefit by consuming an earl.” In the best case scenario, this seems a reductive portrait of an African chief; in the worse, it’s simply ethnocentric and racist. It doesn’t help that a Mexican character earlier in the book is referred to as a “sage brown fellow.” It’s possible in both cases that Spark is affecting the prejudices of her emphatically stupid and dull Lord, but I’m not sure these scenes can be attributed to character flaws—it’s a little too implicit in the narrative itself.

For sheer imagination, flowing plot, and a dark sense of humor, though, the book is rather stellar. I look forward to reading more of Spark’s work in the future.

The Girl in the Green Raincoat

My latest review is of The Girl in the Green Raincoat by Baltimore-based crime novelist Laura Lippman. This was my first foray into Lippman’s substantial oeuvre, and I was intrigued not only by her headstrong female PI, Tess Monaghan, but also the fact that the whole of the novella was serialized by The New York Times Magazine. This, I think, is completely delightful–the serialized novel was once a very popular form, particularly in the Victorian era, and I love the idea of returning to a gradually building narrative each week or month, like waiting for a new episode of your favorite TV show. And given our culture’s flagging attention spans and general enjoyment of serial narratives, it seems like an ideal format for contemporary readers to embrace again. Also, what fun for the author.

Fun is the word on Lippman’s Raincoat–it’s an unabashed take off of Rear Window, which is admitted outright by one of the characters in an early sequence. Lippman also happily drew inspiration from a variety of other sources, including, among other things, Daughter of Time by Scotland’s turn of the century crime queen Josephine Tey. Says Lippman in her afterword, “Never Steal Anything Small,”

“T.S. Eliot said that immature poets imitate, mature poets steal. By that standard, The Girl in the Green Raincoat is felony larceny by an unrepentant recidivist. I stole my sister’s idea, I stole from the aforementioned Rear Window and The Daughter of Time, I stole my aunt Judy’s dog, Gabriel, to create the high-strung but loyal Dempsey. I stole from the casework for Detective Gary Childs, who did, in fact, come face-to-face with a modern-day Bluebeard. I even stole from Chekhov. Take his famous edict about a rifle on the wall, substitute “greyhound/bedpan” for rifle, and you have the framework of The Girl in the Green Raincoat.”

On the strength of this late entry in the Tess Monaghan chronicles, I plan to go back and start with the beginning of the series, Baltimore Blues, very soon. Also, since it is abundantly and repeatedly clear to me that Baltimorians have the sort of rabid love and fixation with their city which I’ve heretofore only ascribed to New Yorkers, I might have to make a trip to Lippman’s beloved burg sometime soon.

My review of The Girl with the Green Raincoat was published on the website of Reviewing the Evidence. Read it here, or the full text is below.

Originally serialized in The New York Times Magazine in 2008, Laura Lippman’s The Girl with the Green Raincoat takes a playful cue from Rear Window as its intrepid private eye, Tess Monaghan, finds herself subjected to two months of bed rest at the end of her pregnancy. Forced to endure a strictly healthful diet, minimal movement, and constant blood pressure readings, Tess quickly grows bored watching old movies and rereading her favorite novels, but takes some solace watching the comings and goings of the dog walkers and pets that frequent the park across the street from her home. One pair in particular catch her eye: a young woman in a striking green coat and her Italian greyhound who is decked out in a matching ensemble. When the woman disappears, ostensibly abandoning her dog in the park, Tess suspects that she may have been the victim of violence. And although her best friend, fiance, and plucky buisiness manager, Mrs. Blossom, doubt Tess’ suspicions, they agree eagerly enough to placate the whims of a bedridden mother-to-be and help her run down leads and interview suspects.

As her vicarious investigation progresses, Tess and Co. not only become the somewhat unwilling custodians of the abandoned dog—a fierce little beast with a fear of the dark and a penchant for antique chamber pots—they also locate the husband of the missing woman, a man whose wives (three previous) seem to have an unusually high mortality rate.

This is a simple, fun story done very well—the type of story one reads in one sitting on a rainy afternoon or long trip. The plot  is relatively swift and poses few major setbacks, but Lippman adeptly keeps up the pacing and plot twists, pausing every so often to allow Tess to reflect on impending motherhood, or spend a little time learning more about her friends and loved ones. As Lippman notes in her afterword, the book differs somewhat from her previous novels because it “gave [her] multiple chances to write about love, marriage, and family. In almost every chapter someone tells Tess such a story.”

These anecdotes—Tess’ father’s story of when he first saw her mother, her best friend’s reflections successful but unsurprising career at her family’s trust—are where The Girl with the Green Raincoat really shines. A popular character who has featured in ten previous novels, Tess receives a fresh treatment here. As she goes forward, balancing motherhood and the life of a private investigator, Tess Monaghan is sure to be well-received by readers new to Lippman’s series as well as avid fans.

The Private Lives of Trees

I recently reviewed Chilean author Alejandro Zambra’s The Private Lives of Trees for The L Magazine. Zambra is an author who I hope we see more of in the coming years, and due to the critical success of his previously published novella, Bonsai, I think there’s a pretty good chance that his work will be actively translated in the future.

There’s a really nice piece called “Seed Projects: The Fiction of Alejandro Zambra” on The Nation that I would encourage you to check out–it puts both Zambra’s novellas in context and makes some insightful observations about their greater historical implications. It’s worth noting that the article’s author, Marcela Valdes, is somewhat skeptical of The Private Lives of Trees, at least as compared to Bonsai. Having really enjoyed Trees–but not read Bonsai–Valdes’ well-articulated criticisms made me want to read Zambra’s first novel even more than I already did.

For further reading, you might also check out Zambra’s short-short “Fantasy” which was published in Zoetrope: All Story‘s spring 2009 issue.

You can read my review of The Private Lives of Trees on The L Magazine’s website, or the full text is below.


Hailed by many as a leader in an emerging literary vanguard, and criticized by others for eschewing a more traditional novelistic approach, Alejandro Zambra has, with two novellas spanning less than 200 pages combined, ignited fresh debates about the direction of contemporary Chilean fiction. In his spare, reflexive novels, Zambra deconstructs the tropes of the modern novel while simultaneously declaring the importance of storytelling in our daily lives.

The Private Lives of Trees is a nesting doll of tales: Julián, a professor and author (who has written—like Zambra—a novella about a bonsai), tells his step-daughter a bedtime story about a poplar and a baobob who spend their evenings discussing “photosynthesis, squirrels, or the many advantages of being trees.” Waiting for his wife, Verónica, to return home, Julián is also himself the subject of a novel, which “continues until [Verónica] returns, or until Julián is sure that she won’t return.”

As Julián becomes increasingly concerned about his wife’s whereabouts, he begins to create scenarios to explain her absence—she’s stuck changing a tire, taking a pregnant friend to the hospital, spending the evening with a lover. When these stories cease to offer solace, he imagines the future through his step-daughter’s eyes, as a young woman whose mother disappeared many years before.

Each of the characters in the novel remain strictly that: fictional characters whose situations remain on the page, part of a tale in which the mechanics of authorship are privileged over the illusion of reality. But Zambra is not seeking to create introspective portraits. Rather, he’s drawing back the curtain between storyteller and reader, and showing us all to be authors in our own lives.

I Curse the River of Time

By now, most people are at least aware of Per Petterson, if not enthusiastic fans: his novel, Out Stealing Horses, made its way onto many ‘Best Of’ lists in 2007, when it was translated into English and also won the Dublin IMPAC award (beating out fellow contenders J.M. Coetzee and Cormac McCarthy, among others). So anticipation has been high for Petterson’s next novel, which comes to us in the form of his surprisingly funny, achingly self-aware, and nostalgic novella, I Curse the River of Time.

Of the (one and a half) other Petterson novels I’ve read, this one was by far my favorite. I loved this book and spent quite a lot of time reading passages out loud to people sitting next to me.  There’s one in particular which not only contains the source of the book’s title, but really shows the narrator, the story, and the overall tone of the novel at its best:

My youngest brother had gone to the Soviet Embassy in Oslo and persuaded the staff to give him a photo of their president…[M]y brother carefully carried the photo home and had it framed and gave it to my mother for her birthday.

“Hang that above your bed,” he said, “then you can talk to him before you fall asleep. Like Arvid talks to Mao.”

And she did, for fun really, but it was not true that I used to speak to Mao. That would have been childish. I did have a picture of Mao above my sofa bed in the early Seventies, that is true, because there was space for it above the bed. But I had a picture of Bob Dylan there too and one of Joni Mitchell on a beach in California (Oh California, California, I’m coming home) plus a reproduction of a landscape by the English painter, Turner, because I had read somewhere that he painted his pictures with brushes dipped in tinted steam and I thought that was beautifully put, so when I came across a poster of one of his paintings of the sea from outside the town of Whitby on the English coast, a town I had been to the year before, I bought it because I thought I could see that it was true.

The picture of Mao I had was the well-known retouched photograph where he sits hunched over his desk writing with one of those Chinese brush pens, and I always thought, or hoped, that it was not one of his political or philosophical articles he was writing, but one of his poems, perhaps the one which begins:

Fragile images of departure, the village back then.
I curse the river of time; thirty-two years have passed.

for it showed the human Mao, someone I was drawn to, someone who had felt time battling his body, as I had felt it so often myself; how time without warning could catch up with you and run around beneath my skin like tiny electric shocks and I could not stop them, no matter how much I tried.

There’s lots of good supplementary reading I’d like to point out as well. The book was reviewed in The Guardian and The New York Times, and while both reviews put I Curse the River in the context of the rest of Petterson’s work, the writers highlight pretty different elements of his work.

A really fascinating profile on Petterson was also published in The Washington Post in 2007, right after he won the IMPAC. Not least, The Guardian published a profile in 2009 (which seems to quote quite a bit from the Post article) and includes a number of Petterson’s personal anecdotes.

I reviewed I Curse the River of Time for The L Magazine. Read the piece on their website, or see the full text below.


It’s the fall of 1989 and although he doesn’t know it yet, Arvid Jansen’s life is in shambles. His wife is leaving him. His mother, just diagnosed with cancer, will die in a little over a week. The Berlin Wall is days from falling. On the cusp of these upheavals, Arvid—a fervent communist who left college to work in a factory—remains firmly entrenched in his own suffering. Discovering that his mother left Oslo alone to return to her small Danish hometown, he follows her, uninvited. He finds her sitting on a beach. “I knew she was ill, she might even die,” he recalls. “…[A]nd yet I said: ‘Mother, I’m getting a divorce.'”

Balancing regret with resignation, Per Petterson’s I Curse the River of Time is a novel in which the clarity of hindsight offers little comfort. Petterson set himself a high bar with his previous novel, the cathartic and introspective Out Stealing Horses. But he is unquestionably at his best in this newest work, a frank meditation on the youthful missteps and crippling self-absorption which have defined one man’s life.

“I am not Arvid Jansen,” Petterson has stated, but there is no doubt that this richly realized character is a natural conduit for the author’s own experiences: shades of Petterson’s family history have colored all of his works. Arvid was first introduced in In the Wake, which fictionalized the 1990 ferry disaster that killed two of Petterson’s brothers and both of his parents. Petterson also explored his mother’s childhood in Nazi-occupied Denmark in To Siberia; his distant father is a recurrent figure in many of his novels.

It is only natural then that a familial relationship—between Arvid and his mother—grounds I Curse the River of Time. A dedicated reader of three languages, Arvid’s mother never went to college, but rather spent her life working in a chocolate factory. When Arvid announces that he is leaving school to join the proletariat—despite his suspicions that “the working class I spoke of was not quite the same one my mother and father belonged to”—their relationship is irrevocably damaged.

In the course of Arvid’s recollections, however, it becomes clear that the maternal rejection he subsequently feels was the consequence of many previous injuries, not simply one choice. He is openly resentful of his father, an uneducated factory worker who went out of his way to get Arvid a job at the paper mill where he once made a living. When his younger brother dies, he wonders, watching his mother mourn, “…if I were the one… dying… would she be so unconditionally absorbed by what was happening to me?”

Petterson’s lovely prose draws the reader into Arvid’s mind, into a slow-building quasi-monologue where the simplest observation—stated almost plainly—becomes poetic. He describes “trees by the streams blown bare,” and hospital rooms “painted white, painted apple green.” Offset by Arvid’s fumbling, comical pronouncements—”I hated Stalin, he had ruined everything”—these lyrical passages attest to the sharp insight that Arvid has finally attained. Stranded in the present, Arvid can only now appreciate the missed opportunities of even the most troubled days of his young life. “Life lay ahead of me,” he realizes. “Nothing had been settled.”