How I got to Out Stealing Horses

Haldor Laxness brought me to this book.  Here is how.

Carol has her hair cut in San Francisco.  The hair dresser is wild and truly hip. The salon sits in a line of roll-ups in a former industrial area – I think PG & E has a maintenance facility across the street from this pie-piece-shaped building – now converted to small, very small shops.  On the end, at the apex of the triangular building I was fortunate enough to find a coffee shop.  And in San Francisco, right there, I found sun roasting the little steel table outside.

I chatted, and flirted in my 60-something way, harmlessly, with the barista and when some regulars entered the tiny space, took my latte outside.  I sat with my coffee and Laxness’s book Independent People.  God, that book was a slog.  Worth it but sometimes tedious. Even though my grandson is half-Icelandic, still, how much do I want to know about sheep farming and local politics in rural Iceland? I have finished that book, and because i have, I can now recommend it, reservedly to be sure.

So, I am reading Independent People in the sun, and out comes the cute, young thing, the barista.  She wants to talk.  About the book.  “I’ve read that.  It was great,” she said.  I am astounded that another person has actually read Laxness.  Of course, he was prolific and won the Nobel Prize in Literature (1955), but he is far from a household word on the West Coast in particular.  In fact, after reading the book . . . well, enough. Let me just say that I have found no one else who can make the same claim.

Then we talked about Knut Hamsun, Hunger and Growth of the SoilGrowth fascinated us both.  One thing led to another and soon Miss Coffee was recommending Per Petterson’s Out Stealing Horses. She had studied in Copenhagen on a college semester abroad and had read some of this in the original.  Impressive? Yes.  But it took me almost eight months to get around to finding the book. I guess strong impressions are lasting ones.

That is what I think of the book, Out Stealing Horses, it makes a lasting impression.  It is the kind of book one decides to finish right away, within the first paragraph.

Petterson describes the invisible visually: “It is starting to blow. I can see the shape of the wind on the water.” Deceivingly simple, isn’t it.

Remarkable, too, is the fluidity of time in Petterson’s narrative. Cemented by memory the incidents of 1948 and 1999 sail together throughout the story, shifting, trading places and turning back on each other. It is too easy to reuse Faulkner’s “it isn’t even past” to describe the effect and the root of it.  Memory, feelings and dreams bring the whole of life to the surface of the present in this book.

Even as I sped to the end of the story, hungry for all the resolution I could get, I knew I did not want to reach the end. And I was disappointed that the important questions were left unanswered. After a book about a son and father running for over 200 pages, how could it end in seventeen, introducing and finishing with the mother.  But like the narrator, I was stuck. Life is like that.  You get what comes. You do not go back, fruitfully, to see what is left. Or as Petterson’s Trond repeats his father’s dictum, “You decide for yourself when it will hurt.”

Is it Petterson who is described as a writer’s writer? He is cheeky about his own ingenuity.  His allusions to Dickens Tale of Two Cities and David Copperfield enrich his themes.  But his narrator’s  commentary on his creator’s plot twists is even wryer than wry: “I did not recognise him [Lars] the first few times I saw him,” Petterson tells of a long-lost childhood persona.  “Lars is Lars even though I saw him last when he was ten years old, and now he’s past sixty,” and he continues with the cheeky part, “and if this had been something in a novel it would just have been irritating.” Well, it is in a novel, and it would have been irritating if the narrator had not said as much. As it is, Petterson disarms our disbelief and has a laugh doing it.  The laugh is not on the reader, either.

Remarkable as well among much that is remarkable is the measure the narrator takes of his life and the lives of others.  Why didn’t he go back? Why didn’t he seek out Jon or his father? Many of us would. Perhaps it would have been dancing in the mire. Or grabbing a stinging nettle.  No, this narrator takes an equitable measure of his fellows: “Neither Jon nor his father had come, although I had been certain they would, because they had been there the year before, but maybe they had other things to do, things of their own.”  After meeting Lars, Trond goes home: “For some reason I locked the door behind me, something I have not done since I moved out here.  I did not like doing it, but all the same I did.” Petterson’s narrator examines and comments on his own and other’s behaviors. Still he doesn’t judge so much as describes, and, perhaps, that’s where I, too, shall stop.


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