T Singer
by Dag Solstad (1999)
translated from the Norwegian by Tiina Nunnally (2018)
New Directions (2018)
232 pp

Because it has to be admitted that at this point in the story it may seem mysterious that Singer could be the main character in any novel at all, regardless of quality, but here it can be divulged that it’s precisely this mysteriousness that is the topic of the novel, and attempts will be made to turn this into reality.

Dag Solstad’s three novels that have previously been translated into English all featured in the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize (now the Man Booker International Prize). These were:

  • Novel 11, Book 18 (1992; translated by Sverre Lyngstad, 2008; longlisted)
  • Shyness and Dignity (1994; translated by Sverre Lyngstad, 2007; shortlisted; my review)
  • Professor Andersen’s Night (1996; translated by Agnes Scott Langeland, 2012; longlisted; my review)

In 1999 Solstad published his next novel, T Singer, which is now available in an English translation by Tiina Nunnally. In an interview with The Paris Review, Solstad stated that this novel had perfected the form he had been aiming for with the three previous novels, marking an end to that phase of his writing career. Although that in turn freed him to write different works, notably Armand V (2006),”Declaring that I was finished made me feel like I could do whatever I damn well pleased, which again opened up entirely new ways of thinking.”

T Singer is a difficult book to summarize, a character study of the eponymous librarian, but a rather unusual one as Singer is self-effacement personified.

The novel opens:

Singer suffered from a peculiar sense of shame that didn’t bother him on a daily basis but did pop up occasionally; he would remember some sort of painful misunderstanding that made him stop short, rigid as a post, with a look of despair on his face, which he immediately hid by holding up both hands as he loudly exclaimed: ‘No, no!’

One such specific childhood memory that filled him with this sort of intense shame happened to pop up when he was in the process of moving to Notodden, he was thirty-four years old back then; but it also popped up now, more than fifteen years later, at the time this is being written, and right now it was as raw and unexpected as when he was thirty-four or even twenty-five, for that matter. 

The incident itself, although described in great detail, is rather trivial and the narrator (who is not Singer but later admits that ‘his language ceases when Singer’s pondering ceases’) spends a lot of time saying what didn’t bother Singer about it, and some similar incidents, but ultimately:

When someone who has your confidence happens unintentionally to observe you as you are displaying a confidentiality towards someone else, that’s when this ‘nakedness’ occurs in you, the person being observed. K sees an unfamiliar and different, more ingratiating, Singer, filled with affectation when he shows this other person his confidence; it’s a Singer who has been revealed in his ‘nakedness’. Singer completely stripped of all clothing, behind which he might hide before K, as he usually does in all his confidentiality. 

We learn that in his 20s, Singer, something of a perpetual student, has desires to be an author but:

When it came right down to it, all his attempts to become an author consisted in fine-tuning a single sentence: ‘One fine day he stood eye to eye with a memorable sight.’ That was how the sentence was formulated when he was twenty, and over the next years — at the height of all his years as a young man — he brooded over and revised that single sentence. 

And indeed the novel spends several pages taking us through the many iterations of his brooding, which doesn’t progress beyond variations on this first sentence. Ultimately Singer decides he needs to take action, but it is hardly dramatic:

Not until he turned thirty-one did he feel it was time to make a decision. That was when he enrolled in the Oslo College of Library Science of all things.

When this book begins, Singer is thirty-four years old and in the process of moving to Notodden to start a new phase in his life. Looking back, he sees that his life has been marked primarily by restlessness, brooding, spinelessness, and abruptly abandoned plans.

He was a spineless brooder, a denier of life lacking all identity, a purely negative spirit, who observed everything in an almost selfeffacing manner. He allowed himself to be carried along with such tremendous indifference that it might have given him a liberating sense of freedom or independence. He was an anonymous and impractical wanderer on life’s highway, walking stooped forward and staring at the ground, in the midst of the springtime of his youth, year after year. 

As this suggests the novel proper starts with Singer moving to Nottoden, a small (population 12,000) city in Telemark, to take up a modest position in the local library.

But before the story takes us there we are sent on a rather unusual set-piece diversion, as en-route Singer meets (the fictional) Adam Eyde, head of (the real large company) Norsk Hydro in Notodden. Eyde on the train and later in the company mansion goes into considerable detail on both the history of Norske Hydro, which was founded in the town, and his plans for the company and the town’s future.

Eyde then doesn’t reappear in the novel, although a “foolproof” betting system he bequeaths to Singer does play a key role at two points.

Singer is comfortable in his anonymity in Nottoden, taking pleasure in simple variations of his walk to work (the different routes than can be taken from A to B reappears throughout the novel as a signature pre-occupation):

The mere act of having a different route to walk, or drive, to work at the library seemed to him, when he thought about it — and he thought about it often — to be something close to happiness.

But eventually Singer settles to a more conventional life, marrying an artist, who has a small child from a previous relationship.

Under the influence of his love, Singer has undeniably changed. You would hardly recognise in him the man who was previously described in this book. If you see him now, he’s a person who has been created and kept going by Merete Sæthre. Yes, you can safely say that the Singer we now see is a man created in the image that Merete Sæthre has of him. But we also need to add that this is Singer’s own choice, freely taken.

At home they spent a lot of time in the kitchen. Merete Sæthre liked to cook, spending a lot of time turning the simplest and cheapest ingredients into the most delicious dishes. If this had generally been a happier, not to mention a more light-hearted, book, then at the very end of the book there should have been a section with Merete Sæthre’s best recipes; unfortunately that’s not going to happen, for reasons that we’ll soon explain. 

Those reasons are twofold. Firstly that the self-effacing Singer finds their our limits to how much of himself he can erase:

She would have liked to see him in bright red trousers, for example; Singer was sure of that, and he knew what that looked like because he’d seen men walking around wearing bright red trousers, and that wasn’t for him. And honestly, it would have been impossible, it would have been a breach of something deep-seated in him, something he wasn’t able to breach.

And then later as he grows increasingly distant they plan to divorce, only for tragedy to strike, leaving Singer with a dilemma. Does he take charge of his step-daughter, Isabella; a child that, had the divorce gone through weeks later he likely would have never seen again? He thinks of various people he could discuss this with but can’t countenance the actual conversations, so, in another hallmark Singer trait, “Singer decided not to call him but instead invited him over as an imaginary friend.”

The conversation doesn’t go as Singer had planned, but, given it took place purely in his head, it is one he can ignore and he, making use of the betting system to generate funds, buys a flat in Oslo and takes a job in a library there.

The second half of the novel has Isabella growing up in Oslo to a teenager, focusing on Singer’s relationship with her, one where he decides: “He might obliterate his own being, or distort it, simply so that she would be able to live out her youth in a normal manner.”

But as Isabella becomes independent and Singer ages, he has cause to reassess his life:

He was fast approaching fifty and was fully aware that if his daily life weren’t marked by some solemnity and by constantly repeated, though simple, ceremonies, it would be difficult to seize hold of and endure it, at least for a man so marked by irreparable loneliness, or distance, as he was.

I’m going to die, after all. And what good does it do me that I’ve been a mystery both to myself and to others?

And yet as the novel ends it is as if Singer has come full circle. He finds himself obsessively worried about a minor incident involving cinema tickets, an incident that the colleague involved likely didn’t even notice or remember, and he plans in detail the hypothetical conversation they might have the next day:

That’s what Singer thought he would say if his female colleague, the next day at lunch, and in the presence of all the other librarians, happened to ask. 

Overall, a fascinating novel.

I hope and expect to see T Singer (and/or Armand V) featuring in the 2019 Man Booker International running.

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