Solstad’s two newly translated novels are Armand V (New Directions, May), composed of footnotes to a nonexistent novel, and T Singer (New Directions, May), which follows its protagonist through a lifetime of nonengagement a la Bartleby.
In Armand V, the narrator says, “I’m writing on overtime. My literary output ended with T. Singer, written and published in 1999. Everything after that is an exception, which will never be repeated. Including this.” What does that tell us about both T. Singer and Armand V?
In any case, that Armand V was an exception that will not be replicated. And that, as a working hypothesis, I consider T. Singer to be the conclusion of my authorship. After I finished writing T. Singer, I didn’t know what to do from that point on. I believed, and maybe I still believe, that I was incapable of writing a better novel than that, and here I was only 57 years old and not wanting to repeat myself for the next 20 years, perhaps getting worse and worse with each book. So I had to find something to do. To make a break, quite simply. Because, while I was writing those books which definitely did define my authorship, I was also always playing around with other forms of expressing myself without really developing them. I had a suspicion that there were all these fascinating opportunities laying around in the midst of that chaos, within me, undeveloped, in embryo. But I was very uncertain, though still fascinated at the idea. The solution was to declare my authorship over, and that from now on anything could happen. Anything that I might write henceforth would be billed as overtime. To be taken purely as a bonus. The whole concept was a cheap trick from my side to help me work up the courage to pursue the freedom offered me by my aging career as an author. When I came up with that explanation, I thought I had it in me to write 3 more novels. It’s been four novels so far. The first one is told in first person perspective by a Norwegian author living in Berlin and wandering around the city reflecting on existence, the title is 16-07-41, which is my date of birth. The second is Armand V. The third is 17th Novel from 2009, which is the only novel in which I continue with the same main character from an earlier book written in 1992, 17 years prior, something which would have been unthinkable before I started writing bonus-books, and the fourth was a book about my mother’s ancestors, The Insoluble Epic Element in Telemark During the Period from 1596-1897, an undertaking which I would never once have dreamt of writing in my wildest fantasies until after my authorship was officially ended.
Armand V is a series of footnotes to a book that doesn’t exist. How much of that non-novel had you mapped out? And what was the experience of writing when so much of the plot was beneath the surface?
I have never in detail excavated the unexcavated novel. And I fortunately haven’t really imagined it either, because that would require imagining a whole series of boring scenes that it’s best to spare myself, and not the least my reader. However, I did work quite a bit with the correspondence between the footnotes and what they were building upon, that is, the unexcavated novel. Because the novel was there all the time, beneath the surface, even if it was never expressed. It mostly has to do with language, with linguistic pleasures. Getting the footnotes to function linguistically, and creating a kind of abstract and almost formal, outlandish novel-language through correspondence and elaboration, yes, condensing the hidden unexcavated novel was a task I found extremely meaningful.
T Singer opens with a focus on T Singer’s recurring guilt. Why start there?
I decided to start by describing T Singer’s peculiar form of shame, which doesn’t bother him at all on a daily basis, but which now and then surfaces like a reminder of some embarrassing misunderstanding, and then I continued with a novel which, at that point in time, I had no idea where it would end up. Regardless of how it developed, I wanted this opening to be fixed. The opening of a novel means a lot to me. Once that is clear, the entire novel can open up for me. There’s no particular process, unfortunately—or fortunately. If there was, I could write a novel a week.
Both books have self-contained sections centered on supporting characters—the Paul Buer sequence in Armand V; the surreal encounter with Adam Eyde in T. Singer—what led you to invest so much space in these vignettes?
The Paul Buer sequence, I assume you are thinking about the long footnote (footnote 7) about 50 pages in or so. It was in fact written first, as a stand-alone piece in which Paul Buer is the main character and Armand is his friend, a minor character in this version. After I had spent a while writing it, the novel–this piece–stopped working, to my great surprise since I thought I had figured it out, but it kind of just petered out. So I set it aside, for six years actually, but dusted it off again when it became apparent that Armand V was to be the main character of the new novel I wanted to write. Armand V is, after all, a footnote novel, where the order of the footnotes has little bearing to the point of time in which they are originally written. The long footnote about Paul Buer is footnote 7 in the novel Armand V and it is Paul Buer that keeps popping up as the main character within this footnote, and Armand his friend and minor character.
One of the reasons I was able to use this abandoned novel idea was that it fit into the new novel’s theme, or atmosphere, or the aesthetic, if you will, the way it’s hinted at in footnote 1, and which was also the very first thing I wrote for the novel Armand V, that is the first thing that I wrote after I understood that the jumble of notes, the so-called footnotes I had scribbled down, were going to be used in a novel about Armand V. This footnote starts like this:
“This footnote, the very first, suffers from having a displaced time perspective. It originates from a specific place that has to do with Armand’s youth, though it does not deal with Armand’s youth, but with his son’s youth, as viewed by Armand, a man in his sixties.”
This first footnote was followed by footnote 1b, which sets the scene for the rest of the new novel, not the one about Paul Buer, but about Armand. There is one scene in which the father witnesses his son being humiliated by a young woman. I call this scene The Repetition, I don’t quite know what I mean by that, but it is what it is. It’s all or nothing, that’s the way I work.
In the abandoned novel about Paul Buer, which appears as footnote 7 in Armand V, I had an idea, admittedly a kind of fuzzy one, about how things ended up going with Paul Buer. This is further developed in the novel Armand V in footnotes 34, 35, 36, 37, 38, 39, 40, 41, 42, 43, 44, 45, 46, 47, 48 , all of which deal with the fate of minor character Paul Buer as seen through the self-scrutinizing gaze of Armand, layer by layer, in which he acknowledges that he, as a successful ambassador, never took the time to listen to his boyhood friend’s despair over not being heard when, as a meteorologist, he discovered a fabrication in a decisive weather report influencing the location of Norway’s new international airport. That he didn’t look into Paul Buer’s documentation for fear that he might be right. He would have given a lot in order to avoid coming to this acknowledgement. Nonetheless, Armand maintains that he could not possibly have acted differently. That is, the book’s author, the “I”, concludes this, perhaps as a result of the energy between the Paul-Buer-Armand constellation, the metamorphosis from an abandoned novel project to a new novel, with a reversal in main character/minor character, something which, incidentally, corresponds with other reversals and dislocated perspectives in and between the text, written by a free and independent author about a main character who is a totally dependent ambassador in a society like ours, and where it is increasingly more difficult to conclude, when everything is said and done, who is “I” and who is Armand.
Regarding Singer’s meeting with Adam Eyde in T. Singer, I have set it up very differently. Singer’s meeting with Adam Eyde is a dream. A dream I had one night while I was working on the novel in the daytime. That is, only the first part, the train ride from Hjuksebø to Notodden, the meeting with Adam Eyde, who brought along lukewarm champagne and champagne glasses in his suitcase. The rest of it, the invitation to Hydros’s magnificent executive residence and the dinner and the infallible tipping system are all things I came up with myself. By the way, I had one other important dream while I was writing T. Singer. In my dream, I received a message that T. Singer, who was originally named Ingemann, was actually named T. Singer, and that it was rather his best friend who was named Ingemann, and that’s how it turned out.
Your books are being released in English in a different order than in Norway. How do you think that alters the experience of reading them?
There is certainly a difference. There is of course a measure of trust between an author and his readers when the readers have been able to follow an author from book to book over the years, as my Norwegian readers have done. But these readers in Norway have become fewer and fewer as we age and pass away. But does that matter so much? Not for me, I believe. The most important thing is the experience of every single book by itself. Its potential to be completely unique.