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). Out Stealing Horses is the story of Trond, a 67-year old man, who, having recently lost his wife in an accident, has retired to a remote cottage in the Norwegian wilderness, there to live out the last days of his life. In the enforced isolation of his days and with winter (and mortality) fast approaching, Trond spends much of his time thinking about a long ago summer spent with his father in an idyllic riverside village. This summer has special significance for Trond because it is the last time he spent with his father, who abandoned their family soon afterwards.

This father, Ulysses to Trond’s Telemachus, is, like his Homeric counterpart [1], a natural leader – a charming and clever man, persuasive of tongue and well liked by all around him. In other words, a proper man’s man,  hero-worshiped by his son. As the novel progresses, however, we (and to a lesser extent the fifteen year old Trond) begin to see through this veneer of infallibility. The truth is that Trond’s father is a deeply frustrated human being. Having tasted the excitement of undercover work as a resistance fighter during World War II Trond’s father finds the ordinary life he returns to after the war unbearable. During the war, he was a heroic figure, involved in daring escapades, and, eventually, in an impromptu romance. Back in the civilian world, he is a man of little consequence, an insubstantial and somewhat inadequate person, restless with memories of times past. Little surprise then, that he retreats to the scene of his wartime exploits, and, after an ill-conceived money making venture that does little but salve his conscience, breaks away from his old life entirely, vanishing into the romantic unknown.

This desertion, however, becomes the central event in the life of his son, who finds himself callously abandoned by the father he has always admired. This is disillusionment with one’s parent taken to the extreme, yet somehow it does not cause Trond to turn against his father, or resent him. Instead this absent father becomes the specter that looms over Trond’s entire adult life, so that even now, at 67, we find him continuing to live up to his father’s standards (or, to be more accurate, to the standards that he imputes to his father). Every time Trond needs to figure out how to do something new, he shuts his eyes and imagines how his father would have done it. Coming from a 67 year old man, such almost childlike reliance on a father he hasn’t seen in over fifty years is both pathetic and a little frightening. It’s as though by disappearing from his son’s life, Trond’s father has become larger than it; staying true to the vision of what his father represented has become the central meaning of Trond’s life, his only way to hold on to this beloved parent. At some point in the story, one of Petterson’s characters quotes the opening lines of David Copperfield: “Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.” It is clear that Trond is not the hero of his own life – that place goes to his father.

Petterson’s book, switching easily between the present and the distant past, provides a stunning portrait of this beautiful yet melancholy relationship – showing us both the father’s obvious disinterest in his son, and the son’s almost slavish adoration for the father. This is all the more an achievement because the story is told in the first person, from Trond’s point of view, so that Petterson is making us see, in the narration by his character, more than the character sees himself.

Exquisitely portrayed as this relationship is, it is not enough to make Out Stealing Horses a truly great book. The trouble with the novel, I think, is that it gives us both too little and too much. Too much because we get a great deal of detail about Trond’s daily activities in his isolated cottage, with a couple of bizarre plot twists thrown in for good measure, all of which does little to add to the story. Sure, it evens out the pace of the book and provides a barren counterpoint to the vividness of Trond’s memories, but these sections of the book make for dull reading, and I can’t help feeling that this would have been a better book with less of them.

But the novel also gives us too little, in that its exclusive focus on Trond’s relationship with his father, and in particular on the summer they spend together, reduces everything else in Trond’s life to mere footnote. This is presumably part of Petterson’s plan – an effort to underscore the magnitude of importance his father’s ghost continues to have in Trond’s life – but it leaves us with a narrator who seems unsatisfactory, precisely because he is so one-dimensional. Sons obsessed with the ghost of their fathers, are, of course, a staple of literature, but it’s one thing for Hamlet to dwell morbidly on his father’s death so soon after it happens, it’s a completely different thing for a 67 year old man to spend all his time thinking about a summer over half a century ago, especially when that summer has been followed by a life richly and fully lived.

Overall then, Out Stealing Horses reads less like a novel and more like an extremely long short story – a one note tale that has all the psychological acuity of something by Chekhov, but lacks both the scope and the depth of characterization of Trond’s beloved Dickens. It’s almost as though the figure of Trond’s father, and the relationship he has with his son, so overwhelms not only the book’s central character but the plot of the book itself, that neither is able to achieve its full stature.

[1] This is not, I’m convinced, simply my fancy – Petterson provides several signals of the parallels between Ulysses and Trond’s father. The very title of the book (which comes from a phrase that Trond’s father and his fellow resistance operatives use to refer to their activities) – is doubtless also a reference to Ulysses’s excursion with Diomedes in the Iliad, in which the pair, out spying on the enemy end up stealing King Rhesus’s horses.