Friday 27 May 2022


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Armand V.: Footnotes to an unexcavated novel by Dag Solstad (translated from Norwegian by Steven T. Murray)  {Reviewed by THOMAS}

1]  Wishing to write a review of the novel Armand V. by the Norwegian author Dag Solstad, I’ve decided the best way to realise this is not by writing a review of the novel but by allowing it instead to appear in an outpouring of footnotes to a review that will not be or can not be written. The sum of the footnotes, therefore, is my review of the novel Armand V.
1 B ]  Although admittedly ludic, possibly to the point of irritation, some attempt to justify this approach could be made on the basis that it corresponds to the approach of the author Dag Solstad in this writing of his novel comprised entirely of footnotes to a novel that the author considers in some way pre-existing but which he has determined will remain “unexcavated”, a novel that he refuses to write, or feels himself incapable of writing, or a novel that is unable to be written, or that, if written, would be of no interest to the writer (and therefore unable, presumably, to be written). Solstad writes, “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 the footnotes, therefore, is the novel about Armand V.”
1 C ]  Solstad is aware of at least some of the problems inherent in this approach, but it is problems such as these that allow him to explore problems inherent in the writing of novels per se, and in the relationship of an author to her or his material. “But who wrote the novel originally, if I’m simply the one who discovered and excavated it? … It is indisputable that this novel, the sum of the footnotes of the original novel, which is invisible because the author refused to delve into it and make it his own, is about Armand V. … It is by no means certain that the theme of the novel is the same as that of the original novel. … Why this avowal? Why does the author refuse to enter into the original novel? Put more directly: why don’t I do it, since I’m the one who’s writing this?”
1 D ]  The air of a footnote hangs over Solstad’s entries, if a footnote can be said to have an ‘air’, giving them a greater perspective and distance from their subjects, but a greater alienation, or perhaps a resignation, also, a feeling that a narrative continues upon which we (and the author) have no control, and of which we (and the author) are only very incompletely aware. This said, we can safely say that the footnotes also provide less perspective, concentrating often, as footnotes often do, on matters of detailed fact, with a topography very different from the text to which the footnote ostensible refers. The author from time to time notes his relief from the expectations of the received novel form, comparing the unwritten novel ‘up there’ with his work in the footnotes to that novel: “Of course, the novel up there attempts to explain why their marriage failed. But not here. Here it is simply over. No comment.” The novel-as-footnotes form allows Solstad to explore aspects of the life of Armand V. (including a very long exploration of the contented blandness of a one-time school-mate, which is implicitly contrasted with the angst-ridden nullity of Armand V.’s life (about which see the footnote below)) without subjecting these explorations to an overall schema or narrative that would restrict the usefulness of these explorations.
1 E ]    Some of the footnotes are very long.
1 F ]    Perhaps our awareness of our life has always and only the relationship to our actual life that a footnote has to the text to which it refers. Plot and purpose are as artificial when applied to our lives as they are when used as novelistic crutches to make stories, and for much the same reasons.
1 G ]   “All these footnotes seem to be suffering from one thing or another. The footnotes are suffering. The unwritten novel appears as heaven.”
2 ]   Armand V. is a diplomat nearing retirement. He has “mastered the game” of concealing his personal opinions and performing his role to perfection. “He assumed that his bold way of behaving helped to divert attention from what might have been perceived as more suspect qualities that he possessed, whatever they might be.” So perfect is his performance that at no time does he act in a personal way or express his beliefs in any way that could risk their having any effect. The visible and invisible aspects of Armand V.’s life  share little but his name. He is, in effect, a non-person.
2 B ]   Complete separation between the invisible and the visible aspects of one’s life, or, we might say, between the inner and outer aspects of one’s life, is impossible to sustain indefinitely, but the resolution of such separation, whether this be metaphorised as lightning or as rot, is seldom satisfactory. For instance, Armand’s deep-seated hatred of the United States for its death penalty, and for the war that disabled his son (see the footnote below) is expressed in no practical way, but releases its pressure in disturbing misperception and an embarrassing slip of the tongue during an otherwise bland conversation with the American ambassador in the toilets during an official dinner.
2 C ]  “Armand V. knew that he lived in a linguistic prison, and he knew that he could do nothing else but live in a linguistic prison.”
3 ]  The unbridgeability of the schism between his inner life, so to call it, and his outer circumstances, so to call them, has led to an unsatisfactory personal life, so to call it, for Armand V. He was married to N, the mother of his son, but only felt close to her when he thought of her twin sister, thinking of N. as “the twin sister’s twin sister.” Other examples abound.
4 ]   The novel is particularly concerned with the relationship of Armand V. with his son, who is first a student and then becomes a soldier, much to the disapproval of the father, and loses his eyesight during the US-led invasion of Afghanistan. The novel is particularly concerned with the alienation of Armand V. from his son.
4 B ]  Armand goes regularly to pay his son’s rent, both when his son is a student and when he is a soldier and mostly absent, and is reluctant to stop doing so even when his son can easily afford it and asks his father to stop.
4 C ]  Armand does not speak to his son about what is making the son unhappy but sneaks out of the apartment. When his son later expresses the idea of joining an elite army unit, Armand makes a scornful outburst which cements the son’s intention. Armand V. does not act when action is appropriate, and acts inappropriately when action is unavoidable. Armand V. feels he has sacrificed his son to the US, or God, the two malign forces becoming for Armand almost indistinguishable.
4 D ]   When his son returns disabled, Armand returns him to child-like dependency, assuming the suffocating Father-provider role he had not exercised during his son’s childhood due to his separation from N.
4 E ]   In the earlier footnotes, when his son is a student, Armand spends a lot of time considering the time, decades ago, when he himself was a student. When his son is blinded and at an institution in London, Armand stays in his son’s flat in Oslo. It would not be unreasonable to see a conflation between father and son, and, after the ‘sacrifice’ of the son by the father, an assumption of the son’s place by the father. This can also be seen, due to the conflation of the two, as a return to the father’s own youth, a trick against time.
5 ]   “What does Armand have instead of hope? Don’t know. But: no sense of destiny, a lack of purpose … that makes a novel about him readable, or writable.” Only footnotes, then.

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