By this still hearth, among these barren crags Monday, Jun 18 2007 

Per Petterson’s Out Stealing Horses

In what I’ve always considered his finest poem, Alfred Tennyson offers us a unforgettable portrait of a Ulysses who, having seen and known “cities of men and manners, climates, councils, governments” and having “drunk delight of battle…far on the ringing plains of windy Troy” now finds himself trapped in domestic suffocation, “an idle king, by this still hearth, among these barren crags, matched with an aged wife”. It is a life that Tennyon’s Ulysses finds unbearable, and it isn’t long before he sails off into the sunset on yet another quest, leaving his kingdom to “my son, mine own Telemachus”, who, he argues, is better suited to govern the kingdom anyway. It is a glorious escape, a rising of the heroic spirit to its true proportions, and it would be a dull heart indeed (not to mention a deaf one) that did not beat faster on hearing Ulysses’s rousing call “to strive, to seek, to find and not to yield”.

But this, after all, is only one side of the story. Stirring as Ulysses’ embarkation into the unknown is, it is also an abandonment – one that comes close on the heels of thirteen years spent gadding about while his wife and son struggled to keep their home from being taken over. There is something deeply chauvinistic and self-centered about Ulysses’ heroics, his prodigious spirit masks a contempt for things womanly and domestic, a restlessness with the idea of commitment, of being tied down, that is, alas, too much a part of what we consider masculine. No one, after all, can accuse Ulysses (at least not the Ulysses of Tennyson’s poem) of being that most unglamorous of all things – a family man.

But what happens to the people that Ulysses leaves behind? To the debris of wife and family left trailing in the wake of these adventures? That is the question that lies at the heart of Per Petterson’s IMPAC winning novel Out Stealing Horses (translated by Anne Born). (more…)

The Dark Side Sunday, Jun 10 2007 

Haruki Murakami’s After Dark

“You are the town and we are the clock.
We are the guardians of the gate in the rock
The Two
On your left and on your right
In the day and in the night,
We are watching you.”

– W.H. Auden, The Two

That sense of dread, of something sinister lurking beneath the surface of things, is the keynote of Haruki Murakami’s new novel After Dark, a searing and magical book that is part poetry and part noir, like reading a combination of Resnais, Godard and Hideo Nakata in novel form, with shades of Bunuel thrown in for good measure. Set in the witching hours between midnight and dawn, After Dark takes its main protagonist, the nineteen year old Mari, on a Persephone like descent into an urban underworld, a landscape of bars and seedy love hotels and all night supermarkets that is at once a kind of inverted negative of the city and an existential dystopia, a place that is both science fiction and frighteningly everyday. Add to this a second line of narrative that could come straight out of Beckett, and you have a minor miracle of a novel by someone who is indisputably one of the greatest writers of our time. (more…)