The Twin Sister’s Twin Sister

Adam Mars-Jones

  • Armand V.: Footnotes to an Unexcavated Novel by Dag Solstad, translated by Steven Murray
    Vintage, 256 pp, £11.99, May 2018, ISBN 978 1 78470 846 7
  • T. Singer by Dag Solstad, translated by Tiina Nunnally
    Vintage, 272 pp, £9.99, May 2018, ISBN 978 1 78470 306 6

A bid of ‘Misère’ in a game of solo whist means that the player undertakes to lose every trick – it’s a sort of grand slam in reverse. Dag Solstad’s contract with the reader, on the basis of these two books, is similar: he undertakes not to make the best of his materials, producing an apparently methodical collapsing of novelistic machinery. The conventional priorities of fiction – drawing character, creating drama and a sense of movement – are turned inside out.

The protagonists of both books are Everyman figures – Singer more obviously so, as a librarian in a provincial Norwegian town. Armand V., though imagined as ‘some sort of story about Everyman’, has developed differently according to the writer-narrator, since ‘the story has now taken a turn away from what I previously meant to be its central focus.’ Quite a drastic turn, in fact, with Armand V. now a distinguished Norwegian diplomat near the end of his career.

Armand V. is described in the subtitle as ‘Footnotes to an Unexcavated Novel’. The sly authority of the footnote, auxiliary by definition but in a position to distort or encrust the meanings of the primary text, has been exploited before in fiction, in Pale Fire above all, where the deranged Kinbote smothers with his self-obsessed commentary the poem he imagines he is serving. Here the situation is different. The annotator is also the novelist, who has somehow become separated from the novel he meant to write, or ‘excavate’, as if it existed already in every detail, and is offering the mass of footnotes as a substitute, perhaps a consolation prize. His separation from the novel is described, in the same paragraph, as being the result of some sort of block (‘The novel is invisible to the author in the sense that he is unable to write it. He can see it, see into it, but he can’t write it’) and as being an act of will: ‘The shape the novel takes is unknown, since the author at some early point refused to enter into it and lead it forward.’

The distance between the two texts, the unexcavated novel and the footnotes, is sometimes expressed in lateral terms (with the novel ‘over there’ and the footnotes ‘here’), sometimes with the extra dimension of height, so that the novel is ‘the text up there’ as opposed to the footnotes, which are down here but conceivably correspond to the higher geography, as the sewers of Paris closely follow the street plan above. It seems obvious that a novel must occupy a higher plane of reality than its footnotes, though in this case the footnotes exist and the novel doesn’t, so you could say that the ontological shoe is on the other foot.

The principles of the novel’s construction are expounded in two places, one near the beginning and the other towards the end, with a fair amount of contorted logic both times. ‘But who wrote the novel originally, if I’m simply the one who discovered and excavated it?,’ the first passage asks. ‘This is a comment to a place in the text above that deals with, or conceals, a metaphysical concern of the highest order.’ The difference between ‘deals with’ and ‘conceals’ here has to be a moot point, at a fairly extreme remove of mootness, since ‘the text above’ isn’t on offer to the reader. In the second passage we’re told that

a novel comes together little by little, but does that contradict the fact that it has been there all along, from the beginning? Hidden. Slumbering. Buried. No matter how much I repudiate the notion that the novel has been there from the beginning, I can’t escape the possibility, at any rate, that it might be true after all. In fact, the more I contradict myself, the more convinced I am that I’m not contradicting myself, but that writing a novel means not inventing it, but uncovering it.

There’s no shortage of apparent contradiction, certainly with the sentence ‘Of course I could have delved into the novel above and written it down’, which comes just before the second passage and seems flatly opposed to the statement earlier in the book that that author can see the Ur-Armand V., even see into it, but not write it.

If there is lucidity to be had on this topic, it must be here: ‘wishing to write a novel about the Norwegian diplomat Armand V., I’ve decided the best way to realise this is not by writing a novel about him, but by allowing him instead to appear in an outpouring of footnotes to this novel. The sum of these footnotes, therefore, is the novel about Armand V.’ Anyone who gets as far as page 194 has presumably made peace with the book’s procedures. The truth-value of the passage would be unchanged by its appearing on page 1, but the use-value would be mightily enhanced. It seems that obsession with the writer’s struggles is accompanied by indifference to the reader’s – an indifference that may border on hostility. Armand’s son, present from the beginning of the book, is given a name only on its penultimate page, as if to advertise the arbitrariness of its previous omission and to reveal something that became detectable rather earlier – an element of power play nested inside the aesthetic and philosophical speculation.

The dramatic scene is hardly the currency Solstad trades in, but he does start Armand V. with one. A compelling opening scene is a classic way of involving readers, except that this one comes with a caveat, spelled out in the opening paragraph:

This footnote, the very first, suffers from having a displaced time perspective … [it] is a commentary on something that took place in a completely different time, and at a completely different place, and with characters who are altogether different, such as Armand, or those who aren’t even included here in this text at this time (such as Armand’s son, who wasn’t born yet).

The context being offered is a context with no context. This is the equivalent of being blindfolded and spun round until you can hardly stand up, a ritual of welcome indistinguishable from the humiliation of a hazing.

In the scene that follows, Armand, returning early after a lengthy trip abroad to his Oslo flat, where his son Are has been staying, finds him and a woman in a tableau he takes to be charged with erotic humiliation: ‘A young man, wearing only underpants, was kneeling before a young, fully dressed woman … The girl tossed her head, and her hair swung softly around her; she gave him such a look of contempt, while his son trembled in his abject state.’ Armand manages to leave the flat unnoticed. Not exactly a comfortable moment for a parent to witness, though it’s hardly an extreme of perversity. Armand’s reaction is given a starkness verging on expressionism: ‘It was impossible to erase. Forever. The image was bloody and true. He didn’t know what to do about it. Bloody. True. The blood flowed, in the worst way imaginable, the worst conceivable, it was as if he waded in it where he stood.’ The decontextualised reader can either assume that Armand has a fiercely conservative attitude to sexual morality, though nothing later in the book confirms this, or that Solstad feels the need to produce a tonal climax that has no real connection with the novel’s business, when it gets round to declaring what that might be. Although there are painful differences between father and son (more often suppressed than openly rehearsed), sexual morality isn’t one of the issues that divide them, and anyway Armand never mentions what he has witnessed to Are.

The longest scene in the book is a shrewd though inert account of the dynamics among a group of students seen mainly in their leisure hours, chatting in the university cafeteria, playing chess, or in the ‘totally distinctive and Norwegian setting’ of a timbered cabin in Nordmarka, basic accommodation for skiers provided by the Oslo Student Athletic Association. The section starts as if recounting part of Armand’s history – ‘In the mid-1960s, Paul Buer and his best friend Armand arrived in Oslo to study at the university at Blindern’ – but the focus soon shifts to Paul, and then to Jan Brosten, ‘with whom Paul would eventually become strongly linked’, and from there to a whole fistful of characters luxuriating in the possession of both first and last names, commodities strictly rationed elsewhere, and withheld even from the title character. These characters play no part in the novel’s development, though development is exactly the point of novelistic interest that this writer refuses.

More than two pages are devoted to the games of chess played between Paul Buer and Jan Brosten, and the strange contrast between Brosten’s apparently impulsive style of play and his attitude to life generally, a passage that would be a tangent even if Paul Buer and not Armand were the protagonist of the novel. Paul isn’t even built up as a foil to Armand, though at this point Armand is so vague a presence that it’s hard to imagine what might constitute a foil. At the moment when Armand’s name finally recurs, on page 88, it has been absent for exactly 44 pages, as if to avoid infringing a rule that fictional protagonists must have been present, at any given point, for at least half of the book – a statute applying even to the anti-novel, which may be Armand V.’s category. If Solstad is playing a game with the form of the book it’s certainly a game like chess, inherently manipulative and attritional, rather than anything more ludic.

Perhaps by the conventions of the book a defective or missing name denotes importance in a character, but by that logic Are’s mother would loom large, since she’s not named even in part. In fact, she hardly features at all: ‘Armand’s second wife showed up in the early 1980s and became the mother of his son’ – that’s about it. It’s mentioned that she has an ‘untranslatable name’, curious in itself since a name’s function is to designate one person rather than another, not to have an independent meaning. Armand’s first wife, N, gets the perk of an initial, a reasonable enough mark of favour considering that she is ‘an utterly decisive woman in Armand’s life’. Armand also has a long-lasting connection – one that outlasts the marriage, though in an attenuated form – with N’s twin sister, but she’s only ever that, ‘the twin sister’. The advantages of withholding a name (or initial) must be very great, to compensate for the disagreeable texture it gives to the prose, somehow both abstract and clogged:

Sometimes, when Armand was lying with N, he would suddenly wish he was lying with her twin sister. But sometimes the opposite, when he lay with N he was glad it was N he lay with and not her twin sister, because just then he remembered her twin sister, and recalled that her twin sister had never been the way N was now … In any event he visited the twin sister again. It could well be that it was after an experience with N that was not of the type first mentioned – meaning that he longed for the twin sister while he lay with N – but of the latter type, meaning he had lain with N and been clearly aware that he, at that moment, was glad to be lying with N, and not with the twin sister, and yet he decided to visit her twin sister again.

At one point N is referred to as ‘the twin sister’s twin sister’.

In this entanglement there’s a hint of Nabokov, not the Nabokov of Pale Fire but of Ada, with its exploration of the forbidden degrees of intimacy. Nabokov also liked to thin the texture of novelistic illusion, but he went about it subtly. The puppetmaster showed his hand only slyly and discreetly, to point up his skill in hiding it when he chose to. And of course Nabokov would have produced cascades of rapt sensual detail – nothing could be less in his vein than the bare description of Armand carrying the twin sister into her bedroom, ‘laying her down on the bed and sating his desire’. If Solstad had wanted to discourage his readers from making the comparison, he might have considered choosing initials other than V and N for his characters – he virtually stamps the prose with Nabokov’s monogram.

If a fiction writer constantly usurps the position of protagonist, as Solstad does in Armand V., not just in the book as a whole but in individual passages – ‘As Armand searched for the house at the end of a specific cul-de-sac it occurs to me that I’ve been here before’ – he or she needs to deliver in areas where a protagonist would also be expected to shine, areas such as vitality or charm. There are tiny sparks of seductiveness in the text, but they’re rapidly stamped out. The suggestion that N can be characterised as carrying a lamp, while her twin sister carries a torch, shining it ‘on her path as she walked, cautiously but precisely, on the path she never took with Armand’, has a passing eloquence that doesn’t survive elaboration: ‘In the end it turned out that the opposite was also true, that it was the twin sister who carried a lamp, and N who led the way with a torch.’

The subject of smoking, or the increasing legal restrictions on the practice, prompts navel-gazing writerly reflection (reader engagement is low on Solstad’s list of priorities):

The main point is that the vulgar Smoking Law will lead to an increased focus on the literary significance of cigarettes. I have to consider how little the characters in my novels have been depicted in relation to the cigarette they’re smoking; it has been such a natural thing, both for them and for me, that it hardly needed to be mentioned. But that’s over now. It’s time to revive the cigarette as a stylish accessory. A literary symbol, something of significance. A prop that unites my century, the 20th century.

When he plays host in a Norwegian embassy, Armand provides a discreet room for smokers. Sometimes it’s his own office. In this way he mediates between the two factions he thinks of as the hypochondriacs and the mortals, without concealing his preference for joining the mortals, ‘since he too is just that’.

The faint glow of companionability created by these passages lasts until just over the page, when Armand’s academic background is mentioned: ‘He had a minor in both German and French, which meant that he spoke three foreign languages fluently (for those slow on the uptake: German, French and English).’ That arsey parenthesis suggests an author who may want readers but doesn’t necessarily undertake to respect them. Armand’s major academic subject was history, and for many years he cherishes the idea of rewriting a multi-volume classic in the field, Aschehoug’s History of the World, published in 16 instalments in the 1980s and 1990s. At this point it seems to be the reader’s turn to look down on the nominal hero, since Armand’s objection to the books isn’t a matter of interpretation, but is wilfully formalistic. It bothers him that the arrangement of the 16 volumes divides time up so arbitrarily, so that Vol I stretches from the beginnings of humanity to 1200 bc, while four volumes are required to cover the period of his own life, and he’s not even fifty when the books appear. His revision will adhere to the principle of the 16-volume format, but will devote an unvarying two hundred years to each instalment. On second thoughts, he decides that five hundred years a volume will reflect a more disciplined sense of history, and will allow him to go back to 6000 bc. This is ‘Aschehoug’s History of the World, first revision of Armand’s original revision’, or it would be if this wasn’t a laborious thought-experiment, lasting quite a few pages, and building up to a question of only moderate sophistication: ‘When does the time end for descendants to legitimately pass judgment on the past?’ (A Norwegian publisher called Aschehoug has published Solstad’s fiction in the past, and Torkel Halvorsen Aschehoug (1822-1909) was a legal theorist and politician, but it may be more to the point that the word means ‘ash hill’.) Armand comes out of these pages looking pretty silly, treating past time as sausage meat to be parcelled up in casings, but Solstad’s procedures have their own waywardness, since he divides Armand V. into 99 footnotes, but needs to add extra numberings (1C, 98B) to make the tally work, as he ties off the material into essayistic chipolatas, with the occasional meaty narrative link.

Though he represents his country, Armand is an invisible dissident from Norwegian foreign policy, resenting its submission to American interests. There can’t be many ambassadors in constant instinctual accord with the government whose spokesmen they are, but Armand’s case is extreme, amounting almost to an unspoken nihilism. He lives in ‘a linguistic prison’, sometimes hearing his opinions shouted as slogans by demonstrators in the street, but still rejecting those who shout them. ‘He didn’t mean a word he said,’ except when he talked to himself as he prepared for bed after an official function, ‘nor did he stand wholeheartedly behind anything he did. It was all mimicry.’ His son, Are, has joined the army without consulting him, and late in the book reveals that he is enlisting in an elite unit. Presumably he’s unaware of his father’s bad faith, and is trying to exercise his own talents in a patriotic area where the currency happens to be actions rather than words. It’s possible that he’s calling his father’s bluff, but that notion seems to introduce nuance surplus to requirements.

This is a family conflict that could take place in a fair number of countries and in any decade since the 1960s. It’s one that the realistic tradition in fiction is well placed to handle – business as usual, grist to the mill. That’s not the way it plays out here, naturally. There are the beginnings of a reasonably compelling scene in Are’s room, complete with dialogue and physical detail – Are sitting on the edge of the bed, his back ‘ramrod straight’ – but then it’s time for a new footnote and a change of angle, analysing the scene in retrospect. Are’s idea of becoming an elite soldier had probably been transient, perhaps already reduced to a distant buzzing by the time he told his father; it was only Armand’s scornful reaction that made it a reality.

He, the diplomat, lost his temper when his own son told him he was thinking of enlisting to be an elite soldier. Honestly? The professional diplomat behaves undiplomatically towards his own son, and subsequently the son makes a choice that he probably wouldn’t have made if he had not been upset by his father’s undiplomatic reaction. Honestly? Let’s put it this way: Armand chose to lose his temper when his son told him about this unfortunate choice he was thinking of making. He chose to lose his temper and behave as the person he was. The boy’s father. He could have avoided this. He could have controlled himself. But he didn’t. He was who he was. Now his son would have to become who he was going to be.

This passage manages to seem both cursory and overdone. It’s not that drama and analysis are sworn enemies – Milan Kundera, for instance, specialises in the mid-novel seminar. But in his case when the action resumes it has been enriched rather than neutralised.

*

The tension between father and son can’t be allowed to stand and so a further opportunity to break the deadlock is arranged. A restaurant meal, a public setting which may either promote or sabotage the chances of harmony. Both father and son turn up, but they need hardly have bothered since the scene itself stays away. Solstad gives plenty of detail for once, including the name and location of the restaurant, Theatercaféen opposite the National Theatre (Are of course is still unnamed). He passes on the information that five o’clock is the traditional time to eat in Norway, even for formal Sunday dinners. The restaurant is quiet on an early Sunday evening, with family parties and groups of friends, while during the week it’s buzzing and even glamorous. Oh, and prices for the Sunday menu are much lower. They both choose traditional fare, cauliflower soup, steak and crème caramel. They finish a good bottle of red wine, so Armand orders two glasses of dessert wine to go with their pudding. They also have a liqueur with their coffee. Anything else, something that doesn’t seem to have strayed in from a TripAdvisor review? Oh yes, ‘they calmly and quietly conversed’. After the meal, Armand thinks about ‘life in general, and about his own life in particular’, feeling that ‘in spite of everything, something had happened at this dinner, something that might have to do with small, epic shifts.’ Whatever he has been privy to, it hasn’t been passed on, and the blocked communication in the book doesn’t seem so much to be between writer and reader as between the writer and his form.

Armand V. is self-consciously a late and baffled work: ‘Long ago I passed the age of sixty,’ Solstad writes, ‘and I’m occupied with looking forward, not to the future, but to the end … I have no future in what I write. Even my darkest novels were not without a future. They may have been without hope, but they weren’t without a future.’ Near the end of the book, he adds, ‘I’m writing on overtime. My literary output ended with T. Singer, written and published in 1999.’ (In fact he has published another two novels after Armand V., which appeared in Norwegian in 2006.)

It’s true that T. Singer withholds its co-operation from the reader in a much more straightforward and linear way. Singer, having spent his student years in Oslo at an oblique angle to the values and ambitions of his generation, moves to a provincial town to work as a librarian. His intention seems to be to institutionalise his marginal status, and to avoid exciting anyone’s interest. This ambition doesn’t even survive the train journey from Oslo to Notodden. Singer is nobbled on the branch line from Hjuksebø to Notodden by a strange young man called Adam Eyde. Eyde, who is carrying a briefcase modified to contain six crystal glasses full of champagne (sealed with plastic lids) and who announces himself as being ‘in charge of the bad times’, could be a travelling salesman out of a Flannery O’Connor story, though in a Norwegian literary context Solstad is more likely to be inverting a narrative trope of Knut Hamsun’s, the arrival of an enigmatic, vital young man in a sleepy town.

Eyde, as exaggeratedly particularised as Singer is bland, is already installed in Notodden, and as the regional head of Norsk Hydro may be the most prominent person in the area. Singer accepts a lift from the station in Eyde’s chauffeur-driven car and spends the evening with him in his grand villa, though it’s more like a small palace stuffed with priceless paintings, grandfather clocks, centrepieces made of gold and silver. Eyde monopolises Singer and the book for close to forty pages with his insistent hospitality and no less insistent opinions: ‘It’s good to taste the champagne. Did you notice that it’s not cold but lukewarm? Lukewarm champagne is best.’ He provides a detailed history of the town and Norsk Hydro’s attempt to become world leaders in the production of synthetic saltpetre. Singer simply submits to the personality onslaught. It’s not that he takes it in his stride, exactly, but he hardly says a word, except (librarian that he is) to correct an anachronistic reference to Oslo in the time when the city was called Kristiania.

Eyde might be a supernatural figure, a wizard or a troll, and before he parts from Singer he passes him an envelope containing the secret of how to make money betting on football scores. ‘The big system may be too much for your wallet,’ he says, ‘but if you make use of the little system, things will go your way.’ At that point he disappears from the narrative and, soon afterwards, from the town. The digression is brought to an end before it can overbalance the whole, as if a classical sense of proportion was being treated as sacred even while every principle of coherent construction is being ignored or violated.

Singer, whose defining characteristic is his desire to avoid entanglements, acquires first a wife and then custody of a stepchild. In the first case there’s no attempt to smooth the transition or explore its nuances: ‘Can a man like Singer fall in love? Yes, he can. But can he, under the influence of this love, move in with the one he adores in order to sleep with her and eat at her table, which they will now share? Yes, he can.’ The unravelling of love is dealt with more persuasively, in terms of Singer’s inability to be ‘a glorified figure of himself, created by her image of him’. It’s a shame that such similar reasons are advanced for the breakdown of Armand’s marriage to N: ‘nothing would satisfy her any longer except for his infatuated image of her, which she had now made her own and which he had to affirm again and again.’

Singer’s decision to take responsibility for a child is presented very differently, in a 15-page scene of restless debate. Since he’s not the kind of person who has friends he can confide in, his partner in the conversation has to be imaginary, a situation which leads to some rather unplayful games:

Both of them sat in silence … When Singer looked up and glanced over at the other man, he saw that he was no longer there. He was gone. Singer was horrified.

‘Come back!’ he shouted. ‘I have a lot more to tell you. I’ve hardly even begun.’

Fortunately the other man came back and calmly sat down in the armchair again.

‘Go on,’ he said. ‘I’m listening.’

There are twinges of metafiction in T. Singer, but they manifest mainly on the level of the sentence, in for example a parenthetical piece of obfuscatory clarification like ‘this is the author’s, or for that matter Singer’s, remark.’ In Armand V. the insistence on radical self-doubt is present on every page. Its narrator is demonstrably less able to tell a story – though T. Singer set story elements against each other – to the extent that it’s surprising he still sees that as his enterprise (‘some sort of story about Everyman’). The conscious disintegration of technique can be a productive process, as Hugh Kenner argues apropos of Beckett, whom he sees as having made a long journey towards an ideal incapacity:

The early Murphy is at least something like a novel. It has even a timetable, and one would have expected practice to increase its author’s facility. Five novels later, alas, he seems unable to punctuate a sentence, let alone construct one. More and more deeply he penetrates the heart of utter incompetence, where the simplest pieces, the merest three-word sentences, fly apart in his hands. He is the non-maestro, the anti-virtuoso, habitué of non-form and anti-matter, Euclid of the dark zone where all signs are negative.

There can be a perverse exhilaration in the shedding or shredding of conventions and strategies, the demonstration that the basic building blocks of narrative can be broken up into rubble and then somehow worked with.

By that high standard Solstad’s incapacity is tragically partial. He holds on to stock elements, subjecting them to a certain amount of parody but still relying on them structurally. In T. Singer the envelope containing Eyde’s betting systems, the big and the little, resurfaces after an absence of nearly a hundred pages. The little system, on the third attempt (a further folkloric touch), yields enough money for Singer to move to a substantial Oslo apartment with his stepdaughter, Isabella. But the last sixty pages of the book, describing her teenage years and gradual emancipation from the structure Singer has provided for her, are – however reluctantly – conventional. It’s not that his approach to parenting is standard (in showing her round Oslo he takes care to point out the ‘famous black mailbox of the Aschehoug publishing company’) but that meta-narrative interventions such as this one seem wildly overdone, despite the conversational note struck with its opening phrase: ‘By the way, in every novel there is a big black hole, which is universal in its blackness, and now this novel has reached that point.’

The much more wilful and fragmented Armand V. also has a climactic episode that could easily be aligned with an entirely conventional approach to narrative. At a reception in London Armand and the American ambassador use adjacent urinals. Somewhat to adopt Solstad’s style: the Norwegian diplomat, accustomed to restricting his inner dissidence from his country’s submissive foreign policy to sessions of wild laughter as he prepares for bed after official events, is unable to ignore the fact that the American ambassador’s head resembles a pig’s. This was not something he had noticed before, though the resemblance was overwhelmingly obvious. He had been undiplomatic on a previous occasion, showing scorn for his son’s plan to become an elite soldier, but was now able to restrain the observation that his urinal neighbour had a head like a pig’s, even when the American ambassador washed not just his hands but his pig’s head, with a little contented squeal. He even tried to smile. But as the two men approached the door of the lavatory, and the man with the pig’s head held open the door, Armand hung back and gestured to concede the empty precedence. The American ambassador insisted with a wink. Armand repeated his gesture and said three words. He meant to say, ‘Youth before age’, but he was struggling to control himself and flustered by the fact that the American ambassador was more or less the same age as him, and the words came out as ‘Youth before beauty’, which was enough to make the pig’s snout turn malicious and frightening, the pig’s body go rigid with rage.

It’s not a bad scene, it’s even a good scene – and certainly it is a scene, though the previous two hundred pages have treated such things with great suspicion. It’s just odd to find Solstad relying, for the climax of his novel or anti-novel, on a set-piece that could appear, however differently handled, in a book by a whole list of journeyman authors.