[Graywolf Press; 2022]
Tr. from the Norwegian by Ingvild Burkey
In 1933, the Danish-Norwegian author Aksel Sandemose published A Fugitive Crosses His Tracks, a satirical novel in which a fictional Nordic town, Jante, establishes its own Ten Commandments, all variations on the first, cardinal rule: “You’re not to think you are anything special.” Sandemose was satirizing an ethos that dated back to at least as far as the Protestant Reformation, and which had come to dominate much of Northern Europe by 1933. But the “Law of Jante” was unironically embraced as quintessentially Scandinavian by the end of the twentieth century. Some have celebrated the Law of Jante as a guiding principle behind the establishment of Scandinavia’s relatively social-democratic, egalitarian societies. Critics have warned that the social code stifles individual achievement — or engenders a sense of shame in those who have been individually successful.
In interviews, contemporary Norwegian authors such as Karl Ove Knausgaard and Per Petterson have acknowledged the influence of the Law of Jante on Scandinavian society and on their writing. In his six-volume autobiographical novel My Struggle, Knausgaard writes of the prohibition placed on standing out from his peers as a child, which extended even to such superficial acts as wearing colorful hats. Since becoming one of the most recognizable people in Norway (where it is said that one in ten Norwegians owns a volume of My Struggle), Knausgaard has repeatedly stated that he is a “shame-ridden” person. He famously concludes My Struggle by expressing his desire to “no longer be a writer” — a desire which has not stopped him from writing no fewer than eight books in the decade since the Norwegian publication of volume six.
Similarly, Petterson has said that he is “grateful” that his family did not congratulate him when he published his debut novel in 1989. He has described the impossibility of even writing in notebooks, instead preferring loose scraps of paper, as the notebooks too closely resemble published books and imply a hubristic “attempt at literature.” Hubris or not, Petterson has now published eight novels, five of which revolve around a recurring protagonist, Arvid Jansen, first introduced with his breakthrough 1987 short story collection Ashes in My Mouth, Sand in My Shoes. In Petterson’s latest novel, Men in My Situation, published simultaneously in the US with his debut novel, Echoland, Jansen, a writer with a bibliography like Petterson’s, “feels [his] own skeptical gaze on the back of [his] neck” when he sits down to write, and shares his author’s distrust of notebooks.
Unlike Knausgaard with the My Struggle series, Petterson has with the Arvid Jansen books sought to distance himself from his protagonist, referring to Jansen in interviews not as his alter ego, but as his “stunt man.” Still, the author and his double share a singular, life-changing experience: the loss of a mother, a father, and a brother in a ferry boat fire that killed 159 people in 1990. Petterson has written about the ferry boat fire before, in his 2007 novel In the Wake, originally published in Norwegian in 2000. The novel saw Jansen actively avoiding any acceptance of his loss, turning instead to the oblivion of the bottle. In Men in My Situation, Petterson’s stunt man once again attempts to hurdle the grief of losing his parents and brother, as well as his wife and children, who leave him a year after the tragedy due to his increasingly self-destructive behavior.
Jansen’s life is falling apart. He drinks too much, writes “almost nothing,” and now that his wife Turid has left him, wakes up with women whose names he either can’t remember or never learned. When Jansen isn’t out on the town, he spends his time behind the wheel of his Mazda, either driving aimlessly through the countryside or sleeping in his driveway, a habit he picked up before Turid left him. Every other weekend, Jansen drives to pick up his three young daughters from their mother’s house and fights off the urge to drink while they stay with him. One Christmas, Jansen’s daughters decide that they no longer want to visit him as regularly. By his own admission,Jansen is “in a state of bottomless despair.” Having “always believed,” as a stoic, that he could “decide for [himself] when it [would] hurt,” Jansen is suddenly “not so sure.” And yet, he refuses to seek help or to admit to others that he is struggling for fear that he will inconvenience them or appear weak-willed. This reflects his observance of rule nine of the Law of Jante: “You’re not to think anyone cares about you.”
Jansen maintains a sense of personal and social responsibility that in 2022 — even for the early 90s — seems hopelessly outdated, to a sometimes tragic and sometimes comical degree. Humorously, on the second page of the novel, Jansen admits that he “always had, and still [has], the notion that answering the phone is mandatory,” and that if he ignores a call, he “might be taken to court.” More tragically, on the eve of the Soviet Union’s collapse, Jansen, a former factory worker like Petterson, hangs a “semi-communist red Christmas star” in his kitchen window, a tribute to the flickering internationalist movement. Jansen is a man of the mid- or early-twentieth century, born fifty years too late. His fidelity to the Law of Jante’s sixth rule — “You’re not to think you are more important than we are” — is also a fidelity to a collectivist vision of the trajectory of history, even as the “end of history” and the triumph of individualism have been all but proclaimed.
Jansen sees signs of this flowering individualism all around him, most notably in the fashion sense of his peers. Before Turid leaves him, Jansen, echoing Knausgaard, notes disapprovingly that the group of friends she increasingly spends her time with wears “particularly colorful, almost hippie-like” clothing. Soon, Jansen refers to the group only as “the colorful.” Suspecting that Turid is having an affair with one of the cohort, Jansen realizes that “the colorful had Turid, and they’d had her for a long time.” The colorful, according to Jansen, are “all bourgeois,” in contrast with the “communists and poets, trade unionists, welders and lathe operators” he once associated with but now avoids for fear that they will “want to talk about the burning ship.” It’s impossible for Jansen to reconcile what leads him to identify with the working class — “You’re not to think you are more important than we are” — with what renders him unable to seek help from the community — “You’re not to think anyone cares about you.” In truth, he fears he has left behind this community through his promotion to a man of letters: “You’re not to think you are anything special.” It’s also clear in his identification with not only “communists and poets” but also “welders and lathe operators,” that Jansen feels insecure not only in his class position but also in his masculinity.
For Jansen, the colorful symbolize a changing, deindustrializing Norway — one that’s perhaps moving away from the Law of Jante and toward a country with more billionaires per million people than the United States. This change suggests to him a form of emasculation. In a scene that recalls Knausgaard’s refusal in My Struggle to use a suitcase with wheels so that he can “feel the weight of the world,” Jansen becomes worked up while serving as a pallbearer at his parents’ and brother’s funeral, frustrated that he is not actually carrying their coffins, “as [he] would have done a generation ago, or two,” but wheeling them along on carts. “People today are no longer strong enough to carry the coffins themselves,” he opines, “which probably has to do with our no longer being an agricultural nation nor an industrial nation and that children don’t climb trees as much as they used to.” But Jansen trails off his complaints with a limp “et cetera,” no doubt aware that he himself no longer works as a manual laborer and that he squanders his little time with his children in front of the TV. Jansen fears that his status as a man of letters is itself emasculating, and it is perhaps for this reason that he projects his insecurities onto the colorful who flout the Law of Jante without inhibition.
Jansen is defeated, and his wife and children know it. “I was certain they’d expected me to put up more of a fight,” he admits, “a final effort to make right what I thought was wrong . . . but nothing came . . . so they gave up on me.” In what might be an apt definition of major depression, as well as a sign of his resignation to the “end of history,” Jansen states, “I was not able to think forth a life that was different from the life I was living now, at this time, to see another world unfolding.” This is a line that recalls Jansen’s earlier reflection, in 2010’s I Curse the River of Time (originally published in Norwegian in 2008), that the moment of death is the moment “you suddenly realize that every chance of being the person you really wanted to be, is gone forever, and the one you were, is the one those around you will remember.” When the first line is read together with the second, it’s clear that the stunt man is a dead man walking.
There have now been six Arvid Jansen books since the 1987 Norwegian publication of Ashes in My Mouth, Sand in My Shoes. Remarkably, with the release of Men in My Situation more than three decades later, Jansen’s story has only progressed as far as the early 90s. Half of the Jansen books, including Ashes in My Mouth, Sand in My Shoes ( 2015), Echoland ( 2022), and It’s Fine By Me ( 2012), deal with the protagonist’s childhood. The other half, including the trilogy In the Wake ( 2007), I Curse the River of Time ( 2010), and Men in My Situation ( 2022), all center around three pivotal years of the protagonist’s adulthood — when his parents and brother died in the ferry boat fire, his wife and children left him, and the Soviet Union disintegrated. For two decades now, Petterson’s stunt man has been unsuccessfully attempting to hurdle his grief. The result is the most compelling trilogy of Petterson’s oeuvre. The writer returns to the trauma every decade or so to see if this time his stunt man can catapult himself into the twenty-first century or whether the Law of Jante will continue to hold him behind.
Marcus Hijkoop is a writer and editor based in New York.