Wednesday, February 3, 2016

The Dark Terminus Of All We Know

through the night by stig sæterbakken

Is this what death looks like? A house with nothing in it?

Driven from his home by his irate wife, Eva, following her discovery of his affair with a young woman in town, the narrator, a modest Norwegian dentist named Karl Christian Andreas Meyer, has just returned home to his sullen and resentful family after a period of contrition, when his teen-aged son, Ole-Jacob, commits suicide, shaking him to the core of his being:

Grief comes in so many forms. It’s like a light being turned on and off. It’s on, and it’s unbearable, and then it goes off, because it’s unbearable, because it’s not possible to have it on all the time. It fills you up and it drains you. A thousand times a day I forgot that Ole-Jakob was dead. A thousand times a day I remembered it again. Both were unbearable. Forgetting him was the worst thing I could do. Remembering him was the worst thing I could do. Cold came and went. But never warmth. There was only cold and the absence of cold. Like standing with your back to the sea. Ice-cold ankles every time a wave came in. Then it receded. Then it came in.

An arresting, truly brilliant study of guilt and misgiving, Through the Night is a the story of one man’s deeply affecting struggle to come to terms with his grief. Yet to say this, to state it in such prosaic, conventional terms, is to trivialize the force of such feeling, as it is described in this novel. Indeed so consuming, so total, is the loss this narrator feels that even of this commonplace objective—his own mental health—he remains fearful, unsure: “What will we do, I wondered. When this is over. When we’re finished with all the grief. When we’ve gotten through it, if we get through it, what on earth will we do then.” 
Perhaps one of the most frightening aspects of grief, as it is depicted in this darkly radiant tale, is its potential to isolate one from others, from the people one knows and loves. The writer C.S. Lewis captured this poignantly in his famous 1961 book, A Grief Observed, a work—written immediately following the death of his wife—in which, fumbling brilliantly for the words to do justice to the experience, he describes it as something akin to fear, though not fear itself, only to add, "At other times it feels like being mildly drunk, or concussed. There is a sort of invisible blanket between the world and me."

This is very much the case with Karl Meyer, the protagonist of this novel. And no wonder. Can even someone who has experienced grief firsthand truly fathom the grief of another? Is such an experience actually relative, commensurable, at all? Or is it—like its sister, love—in fact stubbornly, intrinsically personal, always and necessarily unique? For how else could we bear so many depictions of it—in the literature we read, in the films we watch, in the music to which we listen at night—but as signal variations on this grave and universal theme. 

As with any fresh depiction of grief, indeed with the fresh depiction of any emotion in fiction at all, the devil lies squarely in the detail. One has only to think of Joyce’s story “Araby” with its ‘high, cold, empty, gloomy rooms,’ its ‘dark, dripping gardens,’ its rusted bicycle pump, and the ‘brown imperturbable’ faces of the houses in the streets to reminded of this fact. Sæterbakken himself is especially adept at stringing his protagonist’s grief upon the nails of so many stark and original details. Undoubtedly one of the most effective, most jarring of his touches in this novel, that single detail that opened up this character’s grief to me, that made me feel it in the pit of my stomach, in the marrow of my bones, is the narrator’s habit, started almost by accident one day, of calling his dead son’s cell phone number, which continues to glow, to implore him, in the directory of his phone.

Ole-Jakob. I know that you’re there. You’re there somewhere, and I’ll find you.

Stig Sæterbakken (1966-2012) was one of Norway’s most acclaimed contemporary writers. His novels include Siamese and Self-Control, both published by Dalkey Archive Press. He committed suicide in 21012. Through the Night was translated by Seán Kinsella.

Peter Adam Nash

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