For about 80 years, novelists have been trying to figure out how to deal with their biggest competition, a form of storytelling that in many ways is far superior: the film. Some trek to Hollywood, hoping for benediction and cash (Faulkner, Fitzgerald, Sherman Alexie), some write brisk screenplay prose (Jerzy Kosinski, Elmore Leonard, plenty more), and others try to capture a film’s essence—the fluid motion of characters and camera, the sudden shifts in mood. Cormac McCarthy sits squarely in this last category, as does Norwegian writer Per Petterson, author of Out Stealing Horses, a novel that’s won four top honors in Norway, Britain, and Ireland, including the $135,000 IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, the biggest international prize for a work of fiction appearing in English. There’s no doubt that this cinematic story of memory, aging, and grief is tender and serious, but—risking impudence to say it—Out Stealing Horses ends up being disappointingly inert.
An earnest, straight-laced writer, Petterson doesn’t disguise his movie-like effects, but displays them freely: thunderstorms that appear from nowhere after emotionally charged moments; frequent jumps between the present and past; direct comparisons (“The light outside seems almost artificial, as in films I have seen . . .”); a reliance on atmosphere (Petterson barely describes his characters); and the movement of tightly framed, concatenated images:
“Down there outside the barn the dairymaid was washing her buckets and tubs in the stream with water and soda, and the sun flashed in the metal and in the icily clear water pouring into the buckets and splashing out again, and we waved to her, and she raised her hand and waved back, and a shining streak of water flew up in an arc through the air before it fell to the ground.”
Despite the novel’s title, there’s no rough-edged compulsion here. Rather, it’s a style similar to the quiet Scandinavian restraint of Carl Dreyer, the Danish filmmaker of long takes and deliberate pacing, that guides Petterson’s approach. His story begins in the autumn of 1999, not long after the narrator, 67-year-old Trond Sander, has lost his wife (car accident) and sister (cancer). He’s moved with his dog Lyra into a remote house in eastern Norway, where he hopes to find some peace in simple, everyday tasks. But in a let’s-get-things-rolling coincidence that Trond candidly admits is “far-fetched” and Dickensian, he discovers that his neighbor is Lars Haug, the same Lars that Trond knew on a summer excursion in 1948—the 10-year-old boy who accidentally shot and killed his own twin brother.
Soon, other troubling memories of the same excursion, which the 15-year-old Trond took with his father, come to the reader in flashbacks: a cruel act of destruction by Lars’s older brother; Trond’s glimpse of his father’s continuing affair with Lars’s mother, a woman who also inspires the teenager’s awkward lust; a logging accident that injures the cuckolded husband; a story about his father’s secret life in the Norwegian resistance; and his father’s eventual disappearance, which helps launch Trond into manhood. All this is strong material for drama—effectively rendered scenes that you’d expect would build on each other—but Petterson oddly chooses to keep them disconnected, as remembered fragments. The death of Lars’s brother, for example, appears as an early central event, but never comes back with greater significance. The physics of cause and effect—what gives a novel momentum—hardly comes into play.
There’s a similar flattening in the sections of Trond as an adult. Here Petterson uses the first-person present, a cinematic device that keeps the focus close and full of tension, like the view from a handheld camera, and it’s especially effective in suggesting an imminent clash whenever Trond encounters the mysterious Lars, who hints at violence. But where you expect, finally, a crack in the cold formality between the characters, Petterson simply lets the moments fall off into more melancholy. Too often, the author can’t resist the temptation—always strong in the literary realm—for the forlorn fade (“I look out at the yard, but there is nothing but my own reflection in the dark glass”). Interestingly, Out Stealing Horses had its origins in far higher energy: The opening paragraph first appears in a manuscript penned by the jittery narrator/writer of Petterson’s previous novel, In the Wake, a story on similar themes that reads like a manic tribute to Petterson’s professed idols Raymond Carver and Knut Hamsun. What Out Stealing Horses could use, in fact, is one of Carver’s occasional vicious jabs, or a touch of the madness from Hamsun’s Hunger.
Anne Born’s translation, first used for the U.K. publication, stays generally smooth and unobtrusive. But it has come across the pond unaltered, and those British equivalents can sound—excuse the coarse American ear—irritatingly fey (“duvet,” “arse,” “Wellingtons,” “in a trice”) or laughably maladroit, as when, upon seeing the rain-soaked Trond, the father declares, “Blow me, what a wet lad.”
Maybe that same bias colors the overall frustration with this novel: A story mostly of expositions and denouements is bound to fall short of American expectations of showdowns and knockouts. That said, there’s pleasure here—Petterson’s spare sentences are frequently lyric—but it’s like the pleasure you get from a film’s scenes and cinematography, not from the complete film itself.