[Graywolf; 2014; tr. Don Bartlett]
The easy way of saying it is that Before I Burn is a novel about a pyromaniac who, in 1978, deliberately started a number of dangerous fires in Finsland, a region in rural Norway. But these fires really happened. Of course, that isn’t so surprising: many novels involve the retelling of terrible historical events in order to provoke the imagination of readers. Typical also is that the action is narrated in a conventional, free, indirect discourse. An example: ‘He made short work of it. There wasn’t a moment for anything else. Cars might pass by on the road at any moment. He doused a number of poles with the remains of the petrol. A single match and the flames raced high up the wall.’ So this seems to be a novel that creates fiction from actual events by using a traditional novelistic technique. So far, so familiar. That Gaute Heivoll is not just the author of Before I Burn, but also its principal character and narrator, of course, complicates things.
In 1978, Heivoll was a newborn child living with his mother and father in Finsland. Barely a year old, he was naturally unaware of the fires that terrorised his community. Years later, however, as a young writer in search of a subject for a novel, Heivoll began researching the pyromaniac who had devastated the scene of his childhood. Much of what he discovered were personal details about his family and friends, information that brought to the surface childhood memories, dreams, and fantasies, and which implicated Heivoll himself in the novel he was writing. So, Before I Burn is not merely a conventional retelling of historical events (a novel based on a true story, as they say in the movies); it is also a novel that describes the circumstances of its own creation, otherwise called a work of metafiction. The problem, of course, is that on face value (without researching beyond the pages of Before I Burn), I don’t know if Heivoll really grew up in Finsland in 1978, or if the writer-narrator character named “Gaute Heivoll” is the very same Gaute Heivoll as the author. Metafictions, that is to say, don’t just describe the circumstances of their creation: they invent those circumstances.
The tension between Gaute Heivoll, the author, and “Gaute Heivoll”, the seemingly fictional writer-narrator, is (far more so than the story of Dag the firebug) what gives Before I Burn its insistent credibility. This tension, which is for the most part unspoken, is established early in the book as the narrator traces his earliest awareness of the fires: ‘Ever since early childhood I have been told of the story of the fires. At the beginning it was my parents who told me, but it wasn’t until I grew up and heard it from others that I realised in fact it was all true.’ This child-like uncertainty between fact and fiction that Heivoll describes is the condition of his novel, and the condition that binds the two Heivolls. In order to understand and recreate the fires, Heivoll must return to his childhood, and to the time before he was grown up, before he ‘knew it was all true.’
Of course, Heivoll must also write his novel about Dag, the loner adolescent son of the chief fire fighter of Finsland, who has an uncontrollable urge to burn things. The duality of his aim is felt most acutely at a moment early in the novel when Heivoll is, ‘rummaging through boxes of old text books, yellowing exercise books and miscellaneous papers,’ searching for material relevant to his novel, and discovers, ‘a pile of black and white photographs wrapped in plastic.’ As he browses he recognises faces he is ‘unable to place,’ until he comes across ‘a photo of a small boy singing on a stage. His hair had recently been cut and he was wearing a knitted jumper with a shirt that barely protruded over the top.’ After further description, a revelation: ‘It took me four, maybe five seconds. Then it clicked: That’s me!’ This is the secret fictional self Heivoll places at the centre of Before I Burn; a recognisable double for Heivoll, but also may be something else: a boy with recently cut hair, just another character, someone he sees but does not see. He is an unreliable narrator in this sense, but Heivoll’s unreliability is compounded by the fact he must invent himself. He is a narrator who must know and be the story.
The emphasis of his narration isn’t on the experience of loss, or fear, or pain, or any other impression that might instinctively be associated with an out of control pyromania, but instead on a visceral, physical proximity to fire. And those fires are intensified for the fact that they erupt in the still, cool Scandinavian countryside, ‘in the midst of this serene landscape, the peaceful woods with all the shining pools and lakes, among the white houses and red barns and the placid cows in the summer.’ And Heivoll, the narrator of destruction, is happy to luxuriate in the awesome, elemental inimitability of fire. As the elderly couple Johanna and Olav, two of the victims of the pyromania, flee their house, Heivoll’s mind’s eye is caught by the sheer materiality of the scene: ‘She grabbed Olav’s hand, and they had to fumble their way across the floor until they reached the front door. The cool night air was sucked in at once, and in no time at all the fire had a better grip; they heard several dull thuds and then a roar as the flames broke through the ceiling into the upper storey and were soon licking at the inside of the windows.’
Fire here is a restless, volatile, unknowable thing that opposes all the solidity of rural life. ‘In my mind’s eye,’ Heivoll explains, ‘I have seen this fire so many times. It was as if the flames had been waiting for this moment, for this night, for these minutes. They wanted to burst into the darkness, stretch skywards, illuminate, be free. And then they really were free.’ His descriptions of the fires are charged with an almost erotic energy (an energy which I think almost everyone has felt at one point or another in the presence of a campfire, or staring into the flame of candle, or with a cigarette lighter being held just in front of your eyes). But what counts isn’t that hypnotic effect of fire that Heivoll captures so well, but instead the fact that his own life as an author has been informed by the collective memory of what happened in Finsland when he was only a child. Those fires are not just fodder for fiction, but a tragedy that shook up Heivoll’s family and friends. And the fire he creates is less the typical fire of fiction, which might carry straightforward allegorical or symbolic meaning, and instead the fire of heat, burning photo albums, lost savings, destroyed houses, and fragile human bodies.
Like that of his compatriot Karl Ove Knausgaard, Heivoll’s prose is concerned with empirical details. (A puff quote from Knausgaard appears on the frontcover: ‘Before I Burn is a glowing depiction of the darkness in an isolated human being’s mind.’) Large parts of the action are described purely in terms of sensory detail. Very rarely does Heivoll ascribe psychological meaning to the behaviour of his characters. The setting of the book is ostensibly rural Norway, but its landscape is exclusively the world as seen and felt by Heivoll. Much of the events set in 1978 are told from the perspective of Dag, the pyromaniac, but via the imagination of Heivoll as he goes about reconstructing the events of the past. This is the fiction of memory; writing is recalling. At a certain point, however, Heivoll separates himself from someone like Knausgaard: Heivoll is not purely an empiricist who recalls and maps his passage through the physical world, but a writer who uses his own life as an intersection between imagination and memory, between invention and recollection.
As I read Before I Burn, I had in mind the opening lines of Javier Marias’s Dark Back of Time, another so-called novel that can shift and swerve from fiction to memoir and back again, and in doing so call into question their distinctiveness:
I believe I’ve still never mistaken fiction for reality, though I have mixed them together more than once, as everyone does, not only novelists or writers but everyone who has recounted anything since the time we know began, and no one in that known time has done anything but tell and tell, or prepare and ponder a tale, or plot one.
Those lines would not be out of place as an epigraph to Before I Burn, and not simply for the fact that they stress the inescapable coexistence of fiction and “reality” (a word which, as Nabokov once pointed out, always belongs in quotation marks) in novels, and indeed life, but as much for Marias’s small, deliberate solecism – “still never” – which gives the entire sentence an air of paradox, and suggests somehow that fiction and “reality” might at any moment suddenly, even retrospectively, and in spite of any author’s compartmental intentions, align.
The seemingly perfect alignment of fiction and “reality” is the prevailing achievement of Before I Burn. Dag’s maniacal excursions through the quiet rural Norwegian countryside are fiction, a very pure fiction that seeks to dramatise an otherwise unknowable consciousness, that of the pyromaniac. The memories of Heivoll’s childhood and return to Finsland, which unfold in the same space as Dag’s pyromania, are also fiction, but not a fiction of invention, but instead a fiction of memory, which lets the details of its telling self-select. (Heivoll can only describe, or only seem to describe, what he remembers, what comes to mind during his research into the events of 1978.) The tension between these two forms of fiction brings to life not just the volatility of a mind gripped by pyromania, but somehow the white hot experience of a writer (and therefore also a reader) confronted by an irrepressible story, one that dissolves all certainty, and which can hardly be contained by words without threatening to burn them to the ground.