Arcadia £12.99 (534pp) £11.69 (free p&p) from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030
Beatles, By Lars Saabye Christensen, trans Don Bartlett
Friday 07 August 2009
It is a testament to Lars Saabye Christensen's stature as an author that Beatles is finally being published in this country. This novel, set in the Sixties, was first published in Norway in 1984. Yet far from feeling dated, it has grown into a classic. It will probably find as profound an intellectual and emotional resonance here as with every generation that has read it elsewhere.
The title refers to four teenage boys growing up in Oslo at the time when Beatlemania hit Norway. Kim, Gunnar, Ola and Seb each takes on one of the Fab Four's names, and they plan to start their own outfit, The Snafus. Like many teenage dreams, this one never comes to fruition, but the need to save up for instruments becomes the drive behind much of what they do as they blunder through their formative years, struggling with archaic textbooks and ancient teachers, discovering girls, being beaten up by rival gangs, experimenting with drink and drugs, and finding their footing as activists.
Saabye Christensen has neatly given every chapter the name of a Beatles song. He has said that "Penny Lane" inspired him to become a novelist, while "Strawberry Fields" set him off on his course as a poet. Even though the setting is unmistakably Oslo, and it serves as a social document of a city that was something of a backwater at the time, the backdrop to a teenager's rites of passage had by the 1960s become internationalised. Never did there seem to be a greater generation gap; parents' insistence on their sons having their hair shorn became an obsession, as laughably naïve as their hysterical ignorance about drug use. Inevitably, the changing times also shake up their parents' world. The author describes with great empathy how seemingly minor mishaps can set a course for a whole life, be it the sons' or the fathers'.
With a superb knack of bringing characters to life with a few broad strokes, the prose flows deceptively easily, with a true master's witty choice of words. However, the upbeat language and drive never conceals a sense of foreboding. Don Bartlett's expert translation masterfully captures the author's distinctive style. Saabye Christensen, widely regarded as Norway's greatest living author, has won numerous awards including the highest accolade in Scandinavia, the Nordic Council literature prize, for his international breakthrough The Half Brother.
Unbelievably, Beatles was almost lost to the world. Having written the entire tome by hand, Saabye Christensen thought it might interest his old schoolmates at most, and carelessly stuffed the script in a suitcase travelling from France. The suitcase got lost, but found its way back to Oslo after a two-week European round trip that took in London. "Which was only right and fitting," the author says. "Now the book has come home, so to speak."
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