Professor Andersen’s Night
by Dag Solstad
New Directions Publishing, 2019
Dag Solstad is a boring writer. To wit, the very first sentence of Professor Andersen’s Night: “It was Christmas Eve and Professor Andersen had a Christmas tree in the living room.” It would be hard to imagine an opener more head-scratchingly bland, more painfully self-evident, but in fact, in the very act of attempting to decoct a drabber first line, you quickly become aware of how shrewd and calculated the sentence really is. Give it a few seconds, and the complete passivity of the construction becomes apparent, ringing out like an off-key kazoo, or like a cinderblock wall painted a curiously intense shade of beige. It’s not, after all, that our dear professor is staring at, or decorating, or even actively contemplating the piney triangle before him. He simply has it, mutely and passively possesses it, exists without comment alongside, and in the same space as, this Christmas tree.
So: Why does he have a Christmas tree? Not, as it turns out, out of any familial obligation (he lives alone), and not because of any strong religious feeling (he’s probably an atheist, though a self-identification that strong would be anathema to your typical Sosltadian hero), not even because the tinselly impedimenta of the holiday provide him any great nostalgic comfort. He has a Christmas tree, it turns out, simply because he is alive in a time and place that have been utterly pervaded by the spirit of Christmas. He has a Christmas tree because to rest transparently in the palm of his culture (something that he very deeply wants to do) means to have a Christmas tree.
Professor Andersen’s Night, freshly reissued by New Directions, appeared in Norwegian in 1996, and like many of Solstad’s turn-of-the-millenium works takes as its tacit subject the glum ongoingness of late capitalism. Consequently, Solstad’s recent novels, among them Armand V. and T. Singer, which were put out by New Directions last year, are stippled with astonishing longueurs (T. Singer, for instance, contains a passage relating the history of a hydroelectric plant that’s so bone-dry it reads like the prose equivalent of a daytrip to Death Valley) and peopled with glassy wraiths, characters that, for the most part, refuse to engage in big political or ideological debates; they resist the thickening reagent of cultural engagement, clinging to their anonymity and amorphousness like a life preserver.
The power of these novels lies in the fact that, unlike similarly ennui-infused works like The Corrections, they tackle the issue from hellaciously ordinary standpoints; their protagonists are usually only vaguely aware of larger cultural trends and unable to grasp their effects in any rigorously analytical way. It’s typical of Solstad’s later works that out of the painfully self-evident emerge profound reflections on the banal. Professor Andersen, like the eponymous, ectypical protagonists of Armand V. and T. Singer, is characterized most strongly by his unwillingness to completely forbear, to go entirely without:
He celebrated Christmas. Mainly because he felt very uneasy at the thought that he might have done the opposite. Not given a damn about anything connected to Christmas Eve, let Christmas be Christmas and dropped Christmas preparations and Christmas celebrations, and behaved as though it were any old day, and thereby gained an additional and sorely needed working day. … The idea that he could have done that, without arousing any particular reaction, upset him.
Solstad’s prose is efficient, curlicued with self-reflection, wrapping itself around patches of dry irony with ease. His vinegary sense of humor leaves pungent, evanescent puffs along the page, while his relatively detached style of narration imbues his artifice with an interesting elasticity; though Professor Andersen’s Night is devoid of them, his other works are prone to lazily metafictional intrusions, reminders, for instance, that certain characters simply can’t be fleshed out because of the constraints of fiction-writing, time, authorly energy, und so weiter.
Plot-wise, Professor Andersen’s Night revolves around an act of sufferance. Having witnessed a murder occurring in the apartment building across from his, Professor Andersen demurs and defers, carrying the information about with him like a sordid package as he proceeds through a gauntlet of post-holiday obligations, including a dinner with friends and a skiing trip with a colleague. He runs through a quick geometry of hypothetical counter-stories, and convinces himself that, if the murder he witnessed was indeed that of a husband killing his wife, it’s only a matter of time until the woman’s absence is noted by friends and family. The mystery of his inability to turn in the murderer powers the text, though the charm of the novel lies mostly in Solstad’s ability to inflate the scenario, allowing Andersen’s temporalizing to bleed into larger and more abstract concerns. Andersen, an Ibsen scholar who’s started to doubt the point of his work, bemoans, for instance, the modern age’s loss of historical consciousness. “Our relationship to the past,” he thinks, “is marked by deep indifference, even if we do say something to the contrary, and even if we mean what we say when we say that it’s a matter of the greatest significance.”
The teflon character of modern consciousness, which is ultimately incapable, even, of accusing itself, comes in for a stiff skewering, as Solstad nimbly lines up the humaniora—chief among them the literary arts—en brochette. Andersens’ acquaintances and friends, many of them of the same postwar generation that proudly viewed itself as nonconformist, are “strongly disinclined to regard themselves as pillars of society” despite the glaring evidence indicating otherwise: “They just fundamentally did not conform in their own eyes, when all was said and done, to what they actually were.” These reflections eventually bleed into a dialogue, conducted with one of his colleagues, on the significance of art, and its ability to be translated through the ages: “When were you last strongly stirred by watching or reading a Greek tragedy? I mean really stirred, shaken to the depths of your being. Not just nodding in recognition, quietly enjoying it.”
Professor Andersen’s suspicion that “human consciousness was not sufficient to create works of art fit to survive their own period” seems connected to the spiritual doldrums of the 1990s, but his overwhelming dread at the non-transmissibility of great literature is also, as we gradually learn, a sublimation of his own deep loneliness. As the book progresses, Andersen learns the name of the murderer—Henrik Nordstrøm—and even, in a moment of kismet-rich happenstance, shares a meal with him at the bar of a Japanese restaurant. In the book’s final pages, Andersen contemplates why he’s incapable of turning Nordstrøm in, eventually settling on his feeling that the reporting of a crime seems somehow primitive, archaic, and violent, a holdover from the age of the “Desert God.” It’s for a similar reason that he’s unable to divulge his dilemma to his colleagues—they would be sure to understand his refusal to denounce the murderer, but they would never understand his dilemma: “[A]nd thus abruptly: my own terrifying loneliness.”
There are hints of Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling in all of this, as well as intimations of Jurgen Habermas’s observation, in his essay “Modernity—An Incomplete Project,” that modernity is fundamentally a relational concept, one that traditionally has hearkened back to antiquity. Habermas’s central contention, that “the emphatically modern document no longer borrows [its] power of being a classic from the authority of a past epoch” but instead “becomes a classic because it has once been authentically modern,” amounts to a radical curtailing of tradition, one that manifests, in Andersen’s concerns, as a loss of historical consciousness. The strange, galvanic energy of Professor Andersen’s Night ultimately derives from its cloaking of these heightened notions in the pedantic thought-processes of a small-time professor. Professor Andersen, in the last analysis, is an old soul trapped in the iterative loop of postmodernity, a ghost in the machine of late capitalism. He’s a man obsessed with ethics, but lost in an age of pure relativism.
—Bailey Trela is a writer living in Bushwick.