March 29, 2012 by markstani
Dag Solstad’s Professor Andersen’s Night (pub. Harvill Secker), which has been longlisted for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, courts an interesting existentialist dilemma, but doesn’t quite hit the mark.
At just 154 pages, you might expect Solstad to make every word count, but in fact, for all its occasional moments of genuine insight, its points feel forced, its plot laboured.
The book centres around an eminent Norwegian professor, Professor Andersen, whose solitary but perfectly satisfactory Christmas Eve is shattered when he glances out of his window and sees a man strangle a woman in an apartment across the street.
The incident plunges the professor into a prolonged period of self-doubt; firstly over whether he ought to report the crime, secondly over his right to determine a person’s liberty, which presumably entertains the existentialist notion of the importance of human individuality and freedom.
Professor Andersen goes on to suffer a form of late-life crisis as a result of his dilemma, as he is impelled to reconsider long-time friendships and is increasingly drawn to consider the futility of his own existence, and the importance (or lack of) of his hard-earned status as one of the pre-eminent Ibsen scholars of his generation.
‘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. The curtains were still drawn in the window in the apartment on the other side of the street. Nothing indicated that anything unusual had happened there. Late Christmas Eve, the curtains drawn, quite common. ‘But I saw it with my own eyes,’ he groaned. ‘I have witnessed a murder, I must let someone know.’ He stared across at the window with the drawn curtains. He stared and stared.
Mercifully, while ‘Professor Andersen’s Night’ is existentialist to its core, it is not post-modernist, which means there is never much doubt about the veracity of what the professor witnessed, drawing all the focus to his subsequent reaction. The plot, such as it is, is also lent a clever twist later when he has a chance meeting with the alleged killer in a local sushi bar.
But while there is no suggestion here that Solstad should have steered his book more towards the realms of some trashy whodunnit, there is clearly something lacking: for all the author’s observational excellence, the dinner party scene, with its detailed histories of all its largely inconsequential protagonists, is tediously long, and the professor’s episodes of self-examination somewhat wearying.
If existentialism is your bag, you will probably consider this book a very good thing: everything you would have expected from an author who is apparently feted as one of Europe’s finest within his particular genre. If you can’t separate your Kierkegaards from your Kafkas, or more to the point, don’t much care too, the chances are this book will leave you fairly cold.