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…)