Professor Andersen

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Professor Andersen’s Night

Dag Solstad

With sublime restraint and subtle modulation, Solstad conveys an entire age of sorrow and loss.

A dark and moving examination of one man’s derailed life, by the Norwegian master who is “without question, Norway’s bravest, most intelligent novelist” (Per Petterson)

Professor Andersen’s Night

Fiction by Dag Solstad

In this existential murder mystery, it is Christmas Eve, and fifty-five-year-old professor Pål Andersen is alone, drinking coffee and cognac in his living room. Lost in thought, he looks out the window and sees a man strangle a woman in the apartment across the street. Failing to report the crime, he becomes paralyzed by his indecision. Professor Andersen’s Night is an unsettling yet highly entertaining novel, written in Dag Solstad’s signature concise, dark, and witty prose. “He’s a kind of surrealistic writer, of very strange novels,” Haruki Murakami wrote. “I think he is serious literature”.

Editions: Paperback Ebook

Paperback (published July 30, 2020)

Ebook

Dag Solstad

With sublime restraint and subtle modulation, Solstad conveys an entire age of sorrow and loss.

Solstad, regarded by Norwegians as arguably their finest and surely their most critically praised and influential contemporary novelist, pairs his deep political engagement with an ever-renewed formal invention. With each new novel, he startles us, his readers, yet again with something unexpected. I find him, with his spirited intelligence, a delight and an inspiration to read, whether (haltingly!) in Norwegian or, over the past few years, happily, gratefully, in English translation.

There’s an undeniable beauty in the way he raises tedious self-reflexivity to the level of music.

I find him an utterly hypnotic and utterly humane writer.

His language sparkles with its new old-fashioned elegance and radiates a unique luster, inimitable and full of élan.

Professor Andersen’s Night

Dag Solstad (Trans. Agnes Scott Langeland)

In Which Professor Andersen Stakes Out a Murderer

It was New Year’s Eve. The light was on in the window of the apartment opposite. Professor Andersen had purchased food and drink for a New Year’s Eve alone in his own apartment. Fillet steak. Horse. A good red wine. Italian, a Barolo. At any rate, he would treat himself to a good meal, while he kept an eye on the man in the apartment in the building over on the other side of the street. He had also decided to read the latest Shakespeare translation by the poet Edvard Hoem, chiefly to see what misunderstandings were to be found in the translation or adaptation. He thought he learned a great deal by studying the misunderstandings which were liable to arise when the English spoken by mysterious beings living in the Renaissance period was translated into Norwegian, a stubborn minority language in the twentieth century. “Hmm, hmm,” he thought, with a sudden burst of good humor and anticipation. But then the light was turned off in the apartment. In that one over on the other side of the street. He saw it from his study, from where he had a sideways view. He went quickly into the dark living room and stationed himself behind the curtain. A little later he saw the man coming out of the main entrance, dressed up for a party in thin, black shoes and a thick overcoat with a white scarf slung nonchalantly around his neck. He saw him walk up to a waiting taxi and get in. The sight almost annoyed Professor Andersen. He felt a little offended. Here he was, forced to spend New Year’s Eve all alone in a darkened living room, and then he, the other, goes out to amuse himself. “But he won’t amuse himself,” thought Professor Andersen. “After all, he can’t do that any longer. It’s impossible for him, poor man. It’s just a game he has to go through with because life has to go on as before, as though nothing has happened.”

Actually, he was glad the other had gone out. Henrik Nordstrøm, as he probably was called. It meant he was in for a quiet New Year’s Eve. At any rate, until well after midnight, he could with certainty bargain on that. Indeed, why make plans for some imaginary hour after midnight? He definitely didn’t need to sit up waiting for him to come home. He wouldn’t vanish for good tonight; possibly tomorrow, or the day after tomorrow, but not tonight, he wasn’t dressed for that. So New Year’s Eve passed quietly. He laid the table in the dining room, and savored his meal at about half past eight. Afterward he sat down in his study with coffee and cognac and Edvard Hoem’s translation of Shakespeare. He got out his English version of Shakespeare, along with a previous translation of the same play into Riksmål, in addition to the most recent translation into New Norwegian prior to Hoem’s, and then compared Hoem’s translation, or adaptation, to the others. To his great relief he was soon engrossed in this. He noticed a few doubtful things that Hoem had done, and pondered for a long time as to what he meant by them; in fact, his solutions impressed him a little, but he did wonder how the poet himself would explain them, and to what extent his explanation would stand up. Indeed, it would be interesting to meet Hoem one day and discuss Shakespeare translations with him, thought Professor Andersen, in as satisfied a mood as one might reasonably demand of him. When it was approaching twelve, he got up from his comfortable armchair and decided to go out, in order to hear the ships’ sirens from the docks and watch the fireworks display.

Soon afterward, he was on Drammensveien. It was a wintry night. The snow was frozen and hung on solitary city trees under the street lamps. The pavement was slippery, dirty white, and the night was, of course, dark. It was cold, but he had dressed warmly, apart from his head, which was bare. He didn’t own a hat and he would rather not wear a cap, therefore he could feel the tips of his ears beginning to get cold. He walked briskly toward Tinkern Park, and followed the paths around it and over to the footbridge which stretched across the motorway between the sea and Skillebekk. Up there was a thick crowd of people, who were all out on the same errand as he was. He positioned himself in their midst, and soon the town-hall bells could be heard as they sounded twelve, followed by the sirens from all the boats in Oslo docks, and all the car horns from the taxis in Oslo city center. The fireworks exploded in the sky in a powerful and entrancing spectacle. He heard people wishing each other Happy New Year, and champagne corks popping. From this footbridge over the motorway which passed right through Norway’s capital city, one had a very good view of the fireworks which were sent up from most parts of town, from both Skillebekk and Frogner, as well as from Aker Brygge and the docklands. They sparked and whined in the dark winter sky and the rockets whizzed off into boundless space, only reaching the edge of it right enough, but seeing them whine upward, small red and yellow shots of lightning, gave one a good impression of the boundlessness of space, even here where it began, before they exploded, and unfolded themselves in glittering harmonious formations, a real fireworks display, with lots of bangs and beautiful colors against the bleak and cold night sky. It was a joy to behold, not least because all the others thought it was so joyful, thought Professor Andersen with a little smile. He stood there for a while among all the festive people, before he retraced his steps. By then the time was half past twelve, and up in his apartment he had a good glass of cognac, both in quantity and quality, he thought, before sitting down in his comfy armchair for a little quiet reflection. He had another good glass of cognac, both in quality as well as quantity, he thought, and then another. It had turned half past one, and Professor Andersen had no wish to go to bed. So he decided to go for a nighttime walk.

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Professor Andersen went out for the second time that evening. He wandered in the streets round Skillebekk, where there was no longer anyone firing up rockets. It was cold and he noticed that he had too little on his feet. He really ought to have worn his boots and not ordinary shoes, even if they were thick-soled. Inside the apartments a surprisingly large number of lights were still on. “This is one of the biggest party nights of the year,” thought Professor Andersen, “now that champagne plays a part, people neither want to go home nor go to bed. Cheerful,” he thought. He arrived at Drammensveien, and began to follow it out toward Skarpsno. It was after two now, and taxis continually drove past him, and the whole of Drammensveien became quite crowded with people who were walking home because they hadn’t managed to hail a taxi. He walked along Drammensveien and passed a number of embassies. The Russian, the French, the stately English residency, the Egyptian, the Iranian, Israel’s, Venezuela’s, Brazil’s. Had they also sent up rockets tonight? Professor Andersen wondered about that, and hoped so, for that would cast a reconciliatory light over everything, wouldn’t it? “Which I appreciate more and more as the years pass,” he thought. He turned immediately after reaching the park out at Skarpsno, and walked back again. He passed more people, who hurried home while they glanced sideways and backward, on the lookout for an empty taxi. But the taxis which passed, and there were many, were all engaged. Outside his own building he remained standing for a while, relishing the fact that it was half past two in the morning and, although it was cold, he enjoyed being out so late. Then a taxi came to a halt by the pavement right in front of him, and he got out. The other. The murderer, who had now returned home. He walked straight past him, and Professor Andersen was able to see him up close for the first time. It lasted only a few seconds, before he bustled off across the street and unlocked the door in the gleam from the lamp outside the main entrance to the building where he lived. He fumbled a little with the keys, Professor Andersen noticed, but he wasn’t unsteady on his feet. “He’s neither drunk nor sober,” Professor Andersen thought. And he didn’t seem unlikable, but neither was he the opposite, in other words, instantly likable. “This whole thing is strange,” he thought, but no more than that. Somehow it was a bit empty. But he noticed all the same that his knees were shaking as he walked up the steps to his own apartment.

By Dag Solstad, from Professor Andersen’s Night, copyright © 1996 by Dag Solstad, English translation copyright © 2020 by Forlaget Oktober A/S. Reprinted by permission of New Directions Publishing Corp.

Professor Andersen’s Night: A Novel by Dag Solstad

Reviews

by Wilson McBee

L ast year New Directions released English translations of Dag Solstad’s novels T. Singer and Armand V. I had never heard of Solstad, but one blurb referred to him as the “Norwegian Philip Roth,” so I felt like I had to check him out. And boy, did I not regret it. I inhaled both books across a few long sittings, transported by Solstad’s incantatory prose, after which I found the other two novels by Solstad that have been translated into English (Novel 11, Book Eight and Shyness and Dignity) and devoured them as well. Since then, Solstad has been the first name that comes out of my mouth whenever someone asks if I’ve read anything good lately. And yet, trying to explain what makes Solstad’s novels so compelling is not an easy thing to do. It’s akin to telling someone why you like watching golf on television—another pastime I struggle to justify. He writes about lonely, awkward nebbishes who fall into personal crises entirely of their own making. Nothing really happens, and the endings are usually unresolved. Convinced? Probably sounds about as thrilling as The approach on the seventeenth hole is a real nail-biter.

The first thing one notices about a Solstad book is its unique prose style. Marked by hyper-formal constructions as well as casual asides, it is difficult to sum up, but it might be best described as making an attempt to mirror the circuitous pathways of thought. His short, chapterless novels progress from one lengthy movement, composed mostly of long paragraphs, to another. Seemingly minor details are restated again and again, as with the reappearance of a theme in a musical composition. Take this passage from the opening pages of T. Singer:

Ordinarily, Singer, as seen from the outside, was an affable person, well liked by those around him, though a bit reserved; he tried not to stand out in any way, but those who knew him liked him because he was both open and had a quiet sense of humor, which at times could seem astonishingly pithy, at times downright biting, though that was rare, and afterward he had a peculiar habit of taking off his glasses to polish the lenses. Perhaps he did this, because it was his way of trying to take the sting out of his biting remark, which—if you looked closely at him as he took his glasses and polished the lenses—he personally seemed to enjoy; it was visible in his pleased expression, if you happened to look at his face instead of his hands polishing his glasses, or directly into his eyes, which now squinted nearsightedly without the wall of glass in front of them.

This mode of self-consciously verbose writing is clearly not for everyone. Those few sentences might be enough to dissuade some readers from Solstad altogether. But for us fans of the writer, there’s an undeniable beauty in the way he raises tedious self-reflexivity to the level of music. Notice the way the phrase about polishing the lenses of his glasses keeps recurring. Most writers strain to avoid repeating the same word in the same paragraph or even on the same page—Solstad turns that rule on its head. This image of a fastidious gesture made in the wake of a cutting remark would have bloomed and quickly faded had Solstad followed the conventional writerly preferences for elision and compression. Instead, the image solidifies by virtue of being repeated.

Another way to appreciate Solstad’s books is as novels of manners, even though they are concerned with solitary figures and are meager with dialogue. Each takes place in the same, specific milieu—among the educated elite of late twentieth-century Western Europe—and their plots, such as they are, hinge on scenes of social unease or misunderstanding. If you’ve ever spent the early morning hours in bed agonizing over an innocuous encounter in which you wish you had said something differently, then you will relate to the contortions of self-questioning Solstad’s characters lose themselves in. T. Singer begins, for example, as the title character struggles to reconcile a moment from his boyhood in which he was overheard by an uncle laughing falsely at a friend. In Armand V., the titular diplomat accidentally witnesses his adult son engaging in a form of S&M and is frozen, “rigid with horror.” Solstad uses these instances of heightened self-consciousness to throw his characters into tumults of ethical confusion in which the search for the most acceptable course of action turns suddenly into a pondering of the spookiest existential questions. At the start of Shyness and Dignity, the protagonist, Elias, a secondary school teacher, suffers a public meltdown in response to a faulty umbrella. He embarrasses himself and expects to lose his job. Yet by the end of the book, we have only barely moved past the book’s opening events. Rather Solstad has led the reader deep into Elias’s backstory—describing his friendship with a fellow graduate student, the friend’s sudden disappearance to the United States, and Elias’s subsequent taking up with the friend’s wife and young daughter—in an effort to explicate the meltdown. As these examples show, Solstad’s books deal heavily in melancholy, yet they are far from dark. Even while confining himself to the consciousness of an obscure protagonist mired in suffering, Solstad eschews the brilliant anger often associated with the downtrodden intellectual. Rather, he consistently displays a deep understanding of—and a tender affection for—his subjects, no matter how absurd their predicaments.

The latest English edition of Solstad to be released by New Directions is Professor Andersen’s Night (the book was previously available in the UK and Australia). The opening pages introduce a different sort of predicament for what is an otherwise typical Solstad protagonist, the lonely literature professor of the book’s title. After finishing a solitary meal on Christmas Eve, the slightly tipsy Professor Andersen peers out the window of his Oslo apartment to gaze at the holiday revelries happening in the buildings around him. And then, in a shocking turn of events given what we have come to expect from Solstad’s understated plots, Andersen witnesses a murder—a man across the street strangles a woman in his apartment, then drags her body out of view. Yet, despite the Rear Window setup, what follows is hardly a standard-issue thriller. Shocked into stillness by what he has seen, Andersen decides not to call the police. His reasoning in the moment is complicated. For one, he’s afraid of not being believed because he’s had a little to drink. He talks himself out of making the call in a classic bit of Solstadian overthinking:

“What shall I say,” he thought, “that I have seen a murder? Yes, that’s what I have to say. And then they will laugh at me, and tell me to go and lie down, and to call back when I have sobered up, because it is a well-known fact,” he added, “that when you have drunk a bit and try to sound sober, you may easily be considered heavily intoxicated, because you get so anxious about sounding slurred that slurring positively takes hold of you. And so beside myself as I am now, it won’t work.”

This kind of excruciating self-analysis continues throughout the duration of the novel, as Andersen goes about various holiday-period activities, including dinner with friends and a visit to Trondheim, a city on Norway’s northern coast. Beyond searching within himself for a justification for his passive behavior, he searches the local news for mention of a missing woman and follows the movements of the murderer living across the street. There’s also a heavy dose of backstory: a flashback to Andersen’s student days includes a digression on Ibsen’s play Hedda Gabler that manages to be compelling even to this Ibsen-ignorant reader—such is the power of Solstad’s prose. Toward the end of the book, as the murder goes unreported and Andersen continues to dither over whether to approach the authorities, he stumbles into a personal epiphany that is more harrowing and spiritually explicit than anything I’ve encountered in Solstad before. In the end Professor Andersen’s Night comes across as far more bleak, and blunt, if no less rewarding, than previous translations of the author’s work. I wonder if part of this has to do with the utterly solitary nature of the main character’s existence—unfortunately for Professor Andersen, he has no Grace Kelly to stir him into action. In contrast, all of the other figures from the Solstad books translated into English experience some intense personal human interaction, whether familial or romantic. Andersen’s ex-wife is little more than a footnote in the book, which may be Solstad’s starkest lesson in the dangers of extreme solitude.

The caveats consistently employed here should have made clear a lingering frustration—English readers have only been exposed to a small slice of Solstad’s late oeuvre. All of the books mentioned above were written between 1992 and 2006; Solstad began writing in the late 1960s and has published over thirty books. Imagine having to make sense of Roth if you had access to American Pastoral and The Human Stain but not Portnoy’s Complaint or Goodbye, Columbus. Apparently Lydia Davis felt so keen a desire for more Solstad that she taught herself Norwegian. Had I even a smidgen of Davis’s facility with language, I might do the same. As it stands, we’re left to pine after, and speculate on, the treasures that might be still to come from this quirky Scandinavian master.

Wilson McBee is a staff writer for SwR.

Professor Andersen’s Night, By Dag Solstad, trans. Agnes Scott Langeland

It is Christmas Day, and the Halvorsens are having a dinner party, long-planned with “elegant” seating arrangements. Their guests are, like themselves, successful professionals, friends since radical youth but now, lauded and into their fifties, arbiters of Oslo society with opinions that count. They skål one another with beer and aquavit over their raskfisk, which they follow with grouse washed down by Rioja.

Conversation is easy with much cheerful laughter. But for one guest, Professor Andersen, the occasion is more oppressive than enjoyable; he struggles “with a disturbing feeling that he had now parted from [his friends] for good”. This is not because of his growing doubts about his own position and achievement (he is a distinguished Ibsen scholar), though these plague him with a feeling that he is living in an “end-time”. Nor is it on account of his status as a childless, partner-less divorcé among married folk who exchange family anecdotes. No, the reason is that he alone witnessed a murder on Holy Night, that transition between Christmas Eve and Christmas Day which tradition cites as the time of Christ’s birth.

During this solemn hour, Professor Andersen dealt with his loneliness by looking out of his apartment’s main window at the block of flats opposite, to catch glimpses of other people’s lives. He saw a young woman appear at the lighted window of one of the smaller apartments – slim, fair-haired, young, beautiful. He saw her turn round as a young man came into the room. He saw this same young man put his hands around her neck, and squeeze it until her struggling body expired.

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Never throughout this exquisitely composed novel do we doubt that all this met Andersen’s bemused eyes. “‘I must call the police,’ he thought. He went over to the telephone but did not lift the receiver. ‘It was murder. I must call the police,’ he thought, but still did not lift the receiver. Instead he went back to the window.”

This consuming inertia does not leave him. Admittedly he turns up eccentrically early to the Christmas dinner party expressly to tell his old friend Bengt Halvorsen what he’s seen. But “he couldn’t bring himself to talk about it”. Weeks pass, and there’s no news of any young woman’s corpse being discovered. So has this astonishing event – death of unknown female rather than birth of male saviour – removed articulacy from one renowned for it? Andersen soon knows the name of the young man whose apartment the crime scene was, and what he looks like. Then, by happenstance, he encounters him in a downtown sushi bar, a mesmerically realised scene.

Despite murder’s centrality and the vivid Oslo setting, this novel is no piece of Nordic noir. Its progenitors are French existentialism, the nouveau roman with its subtle play of time on space, and Austria’s Thomas Bernhard with its long sentences following the contortions of a mind defying rational intentions. Dag Solstad is an unflinching explorer of the plight of educated humankind in the face of the inexplicable, whose artistry matches his ambitious theme.

Richard A. Andersen

Richard A. Anderson (1942 – 2020)

In Memoriam

It is with great sadness we report the passing of Professor Richard Andersen. Dick was a true scholar of the field, and he will be remembered by all of us as a dedicated colleague, an energetic teacher, and a good friend. He will be greatly missed. Read more >

Professor of Chemistry

email: [email protected]
office: 537 Latimer Hall
phone: (510) 642-4452

Research Interests

Synthetic structural, mechanistic organometallic, and inorganic chemistry of the d- and f-block metals is being studied and used to prepare molecules with unique stereochemistry and reactivity.

The Andersen research group is primarily interested in synthesis and reactions of molecules that alter the way chemists think. The traditional view of the f-block metals is that they do not form compounds with pi-backbonding ligands, such as CO. This classical view is no longer tenable since CO does bind to these metals, in their metallocene derivatives, with small but measurable bond enthalpies. A molecule that is somewhat similar to CO in its’ ability ot act as a pi-acceptor ligand is bipyridyl. The f-block metallocene derivatives of this ligand is used to change the population of various electron-exchange tautomers, which in turn changes their equilibrium population. Thus, the chemical identity and reaction chemistry of each species can be studied. Studies such as these are defining new ways to look at f-element chemistry. New preparations of f-block metallocenes with pi-donors, such as oxo and imido ligands, make available these multiply bonded species for reactions chemistry which is important in oxidation chemistry.

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