on February 19, 2009
There are bound to be people annoyed and disappointed by 'Out Stealing Horses', as it is not the traditional narrative they may be used to. Instead of building toward a climactic finish, or revealing a fateful detail that ties together several unrelated events, 'Out Stealing Horses' is a dreamy recitation of memories and the present day, as experienced by an aging widower in rural Norway. The 'payoff', if it can be called that, is not a gratification of the reader's curiousity, but an impressionistic portrait of the sum total of a life.
Alternating between the summer of 1948 and the present, Per Petterson writes of Trond Sanders, who is essentially trying to disappear from the world after three years of mourning for his wife. He has moved to the country, and obsesses over tiny details of his new existence. At the same time, he examines the events from 60 years earier, when he spent a season with his father, a former member of the underground during the Nazi occupation.
It's surprising how big this story is, considering the fragmentary approach Petterson uses. Big in the sense that every page seems loaded with meaning, as if even Trond's stumbling around his run-down cabin hides a secret parallel with an earlier part of his life, or else foreshadows things to come. This sort of storytelling almost promises a compelling denouement, though if that is what the reader is lookng for, he may feel cheated. Instead, Petterson hews closer to reality, shunning the contrived shortcuts fiction is capable of and portrays a complex man who has no more answers to his life's meaning than any of the rest of us.
I found Petterson's style very rustic and refreshing - like a drink of water from a clear stream, or a walk through an untended, leafy wood. Though this may not be entirely apt, he seemed to strip his narrative of any modernity, or at least seperate it from a materialistic point of view. There is nothing concrete in the story to support that feeling, it is more of a general sense I had from his crafting of the novel. Unfortunately, I also found it almost too tenuous in its connections, and some events at the beginning a little too coincidental. Petterson even addresses that, saying (as Trond) after one such event that if he'd read it in a book, he would have disliked it.
In one sense, 'Out Stealing Horses' could be considered a coming of age story - a genre I usually am not interested in - but in another, deeper sense, I believe Trond revisits this critical summer in his youth subconciously looking for connections to the life that followed from it. Not so much a 'coming of age' story then, but an examination of the past to determine personal meaning. If there are any clues, he knows that they lie in this remote part of his life, but as I mentioned before, Petterson arrives at the same answers we all do when embarking on such a errand. Because he does so with such a poetic pace and with calmly quiet observations though, it is a sublime task for us to follow along.
'Out Stealing Horses' is not liable to become a classic in and of itself - I do not think it has quite that much staying power - but as a meditation on the intertwining of past and present, it is powerful without plucking at the reader's emotions, or sliding into melancholy. Simple and intelligent, there is room for different interpretations, and at the same time, it is a relief from the frenetic page turners churned out by publishers today. Petterson has created a calm and quiet place, one perfectly suited for the tale he has to tell.
"Out Stealing Horses," by Per Petterson, is a magnificent gem of a novel. It's a contemplative book that slowly builds momentum for the compelling mystery of human suffering at its core. The story is constructed around a bare sliver of a plot, but there is enormous emotional impact in the telling. The prose is deceptively simple, but so vivid with nuanced detail that the reader immediately becomes caught up and lost in the telling.
The book takes place in 1999 with frequent flashbacks to 1948. The story concerns Trond Sander, a 67-year-old man coming to terms with his aging body and still grieving three years after the deaths of his wife and sister. Telling no one, not even his two grown daughters, Trond takes his pension and moves to an isolated lakeside cabin in the wilds of northern Norway. There he plans to live out the rest of his life in quiet solitude. He spends his days repairing his ideally situated but ramshackle cabin, taking walks with his beloved dog, absorbing the beauty of nature that fill his senses with pleasure at every turn, and dealing with the mundane necessities of everyday life. He has an acute desire to be alone, and is, in every way, perfectly content with this isolation.
Circumstances bring Trond together with one of his neighbors, Lars Haug, another solitary man. It doesn't take both men very long to realize that they share a mysterious common heritage of heartache some fifty years earlier when Trond was 15 and Lars was a 10-year-old neighbor boy, the little brother of his close friend Jon. Long dormant memories are awakened, old wounds opened; yet both men avoid discussing their common history of emotional pain.
It is this mystery of what really happened between their two families in the summer of 1948 that holds the book together. Slowly, over the course of the novel, bits and pieces of their shared history become known. Petterson artfully chooses to reveal mere tidbits of facts, barely hinting at any deeper emotional impact, always leaving questions unanswered. The author leaves it up to the reader to put the pieces together, and add meaning to the whole. In order to do this, readers must use their own experience to help them supply feelings, opinions and assumptions about each character's motivations. This technique is certainly the genius behind this novel: it makes the reader an active participant in the figuring out all the "what," "how," and "why" of events. Among any group of readers discussing this book, there will be significant differences in how the events are interpreted and found meaningful. That is why this book has such a profound emotional impact: readers must take it into their hearts and make it meaningful in terms of their own life experiences.
There is a lovely passage early in the book when Trond is thinking about his quiet, arms-length assimilation into the village community near his cabin. This passage is noteworthy because it reveals not only a great deal about the main character's personality and mature understanding of life, but also lets readers in on how the author plans to reveal Trond's story over the course of the novel. In this passage, Trond thinks about his basic interactions with village people and reasons:
"People like it when you tell them things, in suitable portions, in a modest, intimate tone, and they think they know you, but they do not, they know about you, for what they are let in on are facts, not feelings, not what your opinion is about anything at all, not how what has happened to you and how all the decisions you have made have turned you into who you are. What they do is they fill in with their own feelings and opinions and assumptions, and they compose a new life which has precious little to do with yours, and that lets you off the hook" (page 73).
So, don't be surprised at the end of this book when you find the author doesn't put himself on a hook and reveal every crucial detail about how the events actually play out. Enjoy finding your own meaning, and trusting your own interpretation. If you do, you'll join legions of readers around the world who hold this book close to their hearts.
This book gets my unqualified highest recommendation.
on July 29, 2007
This book is the deserved winner of various prestigious literary awards, and has received considerable critical acclaim as an important work of literature. Translated from Norwegian, the prose is simple although a bit sparse, but both the piecemeal unfolding of the story and the abrupt chronological changes complicate Petterson's novel. The narrative begins in November of 1999, and is told in first person by 67 year old Trond, who has just isolated himself in a remote forest village in Norway where he plans to live out the rest of the years alloted him.
After the first twelve pages, in which he does not divulge a whole lot about himself, Trond begins relating an incident from 1948 when he was fifteen, and so he continues switching back and forth from the last months of 1999 to a period ranging from 1948 to 1942. The major part of the novel takes place during this latter time span. Because of the way that the narrative develops, I did not feel that I knew the whole story until I had read the very last line--"and we do decide for ourselves when it will hurt." This line first appears in the second chapter and runs like a refrain throughout the story. The episodes that Trond recalls in a rather elliptical fashion deal with formative events from his adolescence. During this period, he spent a summer with his father in a remote forest village in Norway, learned about his father's resistance activities during World War II, and suffered the loss of his father.
Outside of his memories from this adolescent past, Trond tells the reader little about his life. The novel as a whole, however, is extremely powerful. Upon finishing the book, I found it completely logical that a man in the last stages of his life would reflect back upon a time when his identity was formed. Trond's selective memories are inextricable from the essence of the person he has become. Whether he has turned out to be the hero of his own life, the pages of Trond's story (like the pages of David Copperfield's story) must show!
OUT STEALING HORSES is an extraordinary novel, one of the best contemporary novels I have ever read.
The story continually switches back and forth between 1948, when the narrator, then fifteen, spent the summer with his father in a rural, forested area near the Norway-Sweden border (a sort of coming-of-age summer, and the last summer he spent with his father), and the present (actually 1999) as the narrator attempts to make for himself a new, quiet life as a semi-recluse in another forested area of Norway. The narrator, Trond Sander, has experienced in his 67 years more than his fair share of psychic and physical blows (most of which are only implied or very lightly sketched), but he seems to have absorbed the lesson his father taught him in the summer of '48 when, after Trond balked at weeding a plot of nettles, his father pulled the nettles out of the ground with his bare hands, saying, "You decide for yourself when it will hurt."
The novel is a marvel of mood and ambiance; it is psychologically astute; and, although almost meditative in nature, there is plenty of plot and action -- including the "stealing horses" of the title, a tragic shooting of one sibling by another, and Resistance activities in Nazi-occupied Norway. But it is the superb writing that most distinguishes the novel -- both the plain but lush, leisurely language (which reminds me of Cormac McCarthy in his "Border Trilogy") and brilliantly observed and described vignettes of small, everyday scenes and experiences.
One example: "I found a milking stool in the gangway between the gutters and sat down on it by the door I had shut behind me, and I closed my eyes and heard the cows' peaceful breathing behind each stall and their jaws working just as peacefully and the clanking sound of the bells and the creaking of the timbers and the soughing of the night over the roof which was not the wind but the combined hum of all that the night contained. And then I fell asleep."
Towards the end of the novel, Trond's adult daughter pays him a surprise visit (she had to call town councils for eighty miles around to find where he had holed up), and she recalls that when she was a girl Trond had always been reading Dickens. (Earlier in the novel Trond reflected that "when you read Dickens you're reading a long ballad from a vanished world, * * * where the balance of what was once disturbed must be restored so that the gods can smile again.") It turns out that both Trond and his daughter have always been fascinated by the first line 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 appears that for Trond, near the end of his life and looking back, it was not he but rather his father who was the hero of that life. But it also appears that that realization does not really trouble Trond -- because "we do decide for ourselves when it will hurt."
At least those are two of the many interpretations or lessons I come away with after my initial reading of the novel, all of which may well change upon re-reading it. One thing is certain: OUT STEALING HORSES warrants re-reading, likely even multiple times.
on July 30, 2007
Petterson has crafted a finely written and imagery-laden book in which the relationship between setting and personality is truly symbiotic. I found the book engrossing without the slightest hint of emotional sensationalism or intellectual posturing. Instead the narrator (Trond) comes across as painfully real, and the use of flashbacks and back story are integral to the entire narrative, not a simple plot device. Trond is a memorable, relatable character who in his youth experiences changes that cast a long shadow far into his adulthood. The writing maintains an excellence throughout rarely encountered in contemporary lit, and Petterson discloses a fine ear for dialogue and a strong yet subtle sense of narrative movement. One of the best novels out of Scandinavia in years.
on September 18, 2007
How many times have you encountered those two words in book reviews? How often have you found them to be appropriate? Almost never, in my experience, but Out Stealing Horses earns both of them.
The reviews I read put me off--it didn't seem the book offered much plot. An old man telling a coming of age story? Low on my list of things to read. Unpronounceable Nordic names? Not really a plus either.
But fortunately a friend insisted I give it a try, adding "Its very short." I took the line of least resistance, read a chapter, and in those few pages I was completely engaged. Stealing Horses turns out to have a lot more plot than one expects and a lot more mystery as well, some of which you have to resolve on your own. The style is spare, but never sterile, and the interplay between the natural world and the boy's emotional evolution was extremely moving in a way I find impossible to articulate.
There doesn't seem to be much of a marketing push behind this book, which is a shame, as it is so clearly a 10 Best candidate.
on May 29, 2007
This is one of the best novels to come out of Scandinavia in recent years. Written from the point of view of a 70-year old man reflecting on the time he spent with his father near the Swedish border during the Second World War, the narrative present of the novel alternates back and forth between his current solitude and his adolescent confusion over his father's wartime activities. The novel is enormously sad and haunting, and the language beautifully simple and evocative.
Picking up this novel (translated from its original Norwegian), it is easy to understand why "Out Stealing Horses" has earned such high praise from critics; its author, Per Petterson, is a writer of astonishing talent. There are moments where his astute observations and beautiful descriptions sent chills down my spine. Petterson's depth of understanding for his main character, Trond, is palpable, and he is carefully rendered in an achingly believable portrait of an aging, grieving man. The novel's setting gets an equally loving respect from Petterson, whose description of Norway's trees, rivers, and skies should do wonders for the country's tourism ("I shut my eyes into a squint and looked across the water flowing past below the window, shining and glittering like a thousand stars, like the Milky Way could sometimes do in the autumn rushing foamingly on and winding through the night in an endless stream"). I would compare Petterson's writing to the heartaching beauty of Pulitzer Prize winner Marilynne Robinson's prose (her novel Housekeeping: A Novel is every bit as poetic and haunting as this one). The problem I have with this otherwise stellar book is that I feel like I've read it before - many times at that.
"Out Stealing Horses" finds Trond Sander living in a self-inflicted isolation as he heads into his twilight years. He has given up his former life for a solitary existence partially out of a life-long yearning to be left alone, but mostly out of grief for the sudden death of his beloved wife three years earlier. But when he realizes that his neighbor is a figure from his past it triggers a host of feelings and memories that Trond has been trying to avoid for a long time, and in flashbacks we are taken back with him to the summer of his fifteenth year - a summer that forever altered the course of his life, where friendly games of stealing horses gave way to tragedy and coming of age. Petterson acquits himself well enough in the unspooling of the narrative, but anyone who has ever read a Booker Prize winning novel will find the premise a little too familiar (The God of Small Things,The Sea, and The Gathering (Man Booker Prize), to name only a few, all have a similar premise with the main character reflecting on their tragic past). But the real shame of it is that "Out Stealing Horses" peters out in the climax, leaving it without the oomph that might have distinguished it from those novels. And what we are left with is a painfully standard story told with stunningly beautiful writing. I wanted to like the novel more than I did because of Petterson's talent as a writer, but the truth is that I just couldn't shake the boredom in the end. Which is quite a shame, because Petterson has a lot more to offer.
on June 23, 2007
I have not read much Scandinavian fiction, but this excellent novel will send me straight to the shelves to find Petterson's other books. I expected this to be a good novel because it's from Graywolf, and a friend who read it first gave it a rave review. Still, I was bowled over. This is a lean and taut narrative, which is much enriched by Trond's sad and careful memories of his parents and his lost friend, Jon. I felt myself falling into Trond's diminished life, its physical beauties, its losses. The translation is exquisite. It's great to know a "smaller" book like this one can win a big international prize. Congratulations to the author.
on September 11, 2008
"Out Stealing Horses" is a sad, readable tale of a man struggling with turgid emotionality beneath a placid exterior. It is narrated by Trond, a vigorous 67-year-old residing in rural Norway at the dawn of the 21st century. Flashbacks primarily focus on the summer of 1948, when, as a 15-year-old, Trond goes "out stealing horses" with his friend Jon. There are also flashbacks to World War II, when Trond's father smuggled documents into Sweden for the Resistance.
Petterson's writing is strong on setting but weak on action. You can practically hear the rush of the river, the crack of the wood, and the scent of the pines in the narrative. But the story drags at times. Not a whole lot is going on in Trond's current life, and that's the point. He's a recluse.
He spends his days working on his orderly cabin and walking his dog Lyra. He passes his nights listening to the radio and reading Charles Dickens. He has no phone.
Trond is much like his genial father, whom he helped with logging jobs in the summer of 1948. Like Trond, his father was determined, methodical, and meticulous in his work. Every plan was well thought out, every tool properly arranged.
Beneath this calm exterior lies great inner turmoil, which is reflected in both father and son. Glimpses of their troubled lives are gradually revealed over 264 pages.
While teenagers Trond and Jon are out stealing horses (more accurately, messing with them), Jon's younger brother, Lars, accidentally shoots his twin brother Odd to death at home with Jon's unattended gun. Jon, Trond's best friend, suffers permanent psychological damage from this tragedy. Over 50 years later, Trond and Lars are still uncomfortable in each other's presence.
As a widowed pensioner, Trond sought the rustic life in an attempt to escape from problems which he never resolved. His unease with people stems from his checkered relationship with his father. His father was frequently away from home while working for the Resistance. Trond grew close to him in the summer of 1948 but became enraged when he found that his dad was having an affair with Lars's mother, leading to a lifelong mistrust of both his father and women. The father eventually disappoints Trond even further, setting a pattern for his adult life.
Trond has two daughters with whom he was never particularly close. One tracks him down and spends an afternoon with him. She seems almost a stranger; Trond has to calculate her age and is uncomfortable hugging her. He is not entirely honest about being perfectly relaxed in solitude; he's sorry to see his daughter leave.
We never learn Trond's full story because he's always holding something back, but there is sufficient material to see that Trond has tried unsuccessfully to escape his problems by withdrawing from the world. He has gained a measure of peace, but at a considerable price.