Soul food from a writer's farm: Per Petterson returns to his working-class roots

With Out Stealing Horses, Per Petterson captured the hearts of readers around the world. His new novel returns to his working-class roots. Boyd Tonkin meets a city kid at home in rural Norway

Friday 09 July 2010 00:00 BST

I miss the haymaking by a day. In the fields around Per Petterson's home, 60 rolling, forested kilometres east of Oslo towards the Swedish border, the cut bales stand as neat witness to his and his farming neighbours' joint annual push to make the most of a fitful Norwegian summer. "I love physical work," the writer says, unreproachfully, to the late-arriving interviewer who has dodged the hard bit. "I always did. My father liked it, and I take after him I think."

The new roof on the main house stood firm against the winter's heavy snow – "It was so cold for so long". A rooster struts around the barn. In addition to a dozen chickens, he and his wife, Pia, have a few lambs. The slaughterman comes out to kill them in the yard; they never face a journey to the abbatoir. "The day I can't do that, I won't keep them any more."

In season, hunters deliver to the door bloody packs of elk meat shot in the woods on his land. In the grounds, a cabin for work holds richly-stocked bookshelves, neat as sheaves. Back in the newly-built conservatory, we eat herb omelette from home-laid eggs and syllabub fruited with last season's berries. Dog and cat pad companionably around. Even late in June, local firewood soon crackles in the grate.

Perhaps nothing in this idyll would really surprise lovers of Out Stealing Horses, the novel with which Per Petterson lassooed the admiration of the world. In 2006, I and my fellow-judges met for a final session to choose the winner of the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize. It quickly emerged that we had a unanimous, clean-sweep victor: a Norwegian writer until then hardly known here. Out Stealing Horses, Petterson's sixth book, cantered round the planet stealing hearts.

Set in the summer forests of 1948, with an old man's memories of youthful bliss and loneliness opening onto a landscape of wartime betrayal and family division, it struck readers with the beauty, clarity and sheer inevitability that marks out a classic of the future. After its Independent victory, it took the International IMPAC Award. US critics hugged it close. It dominated "best of the year" picks from the New York Times to Entertainment Weekly. A story carved so deeply with the grain of its place, time and people had – in an irresistible translation – stepped past every obstacle in its path.

Especially in the US, Petterson's work settled into that rustic corner of the literary landscape where backwoods lyricism meets homespun wisdom. For many American critics, he had also acquired the holy nimbus that comes with great tragedy. They knew that Petterson had lost four family members – mother, father, brother, nephew – in the fire of 7 April 1990 that killed 158 people aboard the Scandinavian Star ferry between Oslo and Denmark. In an author so scarred by fate, so illuminated by nature, transcendentally-minded Americans understandably sought a Nordic sage.

But, for all the weight and grace of Petterson's prose, that really isn't him at all. He's a sociable city boy and, although he enjoys the farm work, "It's not Tolstoyan. I don't have a deeper meaning in living here." His wife's passion for country life first brought him to this lovely spot (both have children from first marriages). And its isolated glory has a downside. "What I really miss the most out here is to have a beer with the boys and then go home by bus." Once he took a cab back from central Oslo. It cost 2000 kroner (£210). A lifelong fan of Valerenga football club in Oslo – more West Ham than Chelsea – he is now fretting about whether to flout his principles and sign up for pay TV to watch the rest of the World Cup, rather than depend on patchy reception from the Swedish public channel over the border.

The stocky, chatty 57-year-old I meet comes from proud working-class Oslo stock: his father a shoe-factory and print worker; a Danish mother who toiled in a chocolate plant, then cleaned ships and schools. "Everyone I grew up with worked in factories or drove lorries". His father respected good books: in the writing cabin sits a handsome set of shelves he owned. Yet the volumes within went unread: "He was afraid to approach these books for fear of not understanding them." His mother, in contrast, was always "a big reader, but she went to the library": weekly, on Wednesdays. "She read heaps of books, and really high quality... She realised she would never get an education, but she couldn't stop reading. Literature was nothing like a career opportunity for her".

Given this background, it's not that hard to grasp the deep youthful commitment to the Maoist fringe of Communism in Norway that kept Per himself on the factory floor for years. Indeed, he worked with his father in a large print works. "Some of best times I had with colleagues was in that place – we had so much fun... You'd come home in morning having worked a double shift – it was almost like being on dope; a light-headed, strange feeeling". Even then more of an avid reader than a wannabe Red Guard, young Per dreamed of authorship as he clocked on to help raise his workmates' consciousness. On the shop floor, he saw the gulf between himself and his father, who "wasn't a revolutionary. But he liked being in a collective: he liked working in a factory; he liked singing in a choir. And I was a Communist – and I didn't like that at all! I liked the people, yes – but when I went home, I was alone. I went to my books."

Typically lucid and glowing snapshots from a radical youth unroll through Petterson's new novel, I Curse the River of Time (Harvill Secker, £12.99): always a close collaborator on his English editions, now he is credited as co-translator with Charlotte Barslund. The book joins the series of novels that explores the life and family of Arvid Jansen – a fictional variant of the author's younger self. Here, in 1989, he faces his mother's illness, the mysteries of her past life, and the stress of a failing marriage as the world tilts on its axis. "The reason for choosing that year was that it was the year before my mother died," Petterson explains. "Of course, it dawned on me very quickly that a lot of stuff happened that year – both in China and Europe."

As it switches between daily life and haunting memory - "one now and many thens" – the novel abounds in Peterson's delicate dialogue between present and past selves. "I can change from now to then in the middle of a sentence and it feels very natural to me," he comments. Add this sense of the deep archaeology of emotion to a tact and nuance in each sculpted paragraph that ought to make clumsier authors weep with envy, and you have another masterclass in the alchemising of time and loss into the gold of art.

It took the worker, and reader, a long shift to reach this point. After leaving school he tried to enrol at university but found himself baffled by the rigmarole. "A professor said, well you have to make a 'colloquy group'. I didn't know what that meant! And because I didn't dare ask, I took a tram back to the city and never returned. I think that's very common: something that you're embarrassed by, and it changes your life."

In 1973, the young bibliophile went to train as a librarian, a routine he liked for its regularity and discipline. Then the revolution called. "I was the one who loved the school the most – but I was the one who dropped out to become a factory worker." Now he reflects that "It was commitment, yes, but at the same time I sort of knew that it was doomed." But he looks back in kindness at the idealism of that ardent kid. His Arvid "loves the world, he loves people. I feel very tender towards the boy, almost, that I was myself."

In 1981, Petterson took a fateful step towards a career in literature when he began to work as a buyer for the Tronsmo bookstore in Oslo; he stayed a dozen years, and only left to write full-

time. "It was my university. They said, 'You can import any book you like – but you have to sell it'." And he did.

He read, hungrily, and was inspired: by new-wave Americans such as Jayne Anne Phillips and Raymond Carver, or radical British voices such as James Kelman. "In Norway I'm considered very American-influenced, and yet I feel much more at home with the British writers". In I Curse the River of Time, the bloody-minded irreverence of Alan Sillitoe's Saturday Night and Sunday Morning – another Petterson touchstone – unites mother and son.

He had already published two books and was working on a third when the ferry disaster stole so much of his family in 1990. In the immediate aftermath, "What had happened didn't change anything". He finished It's Fine With Me – a "working-class Catcher in the Rye" – in the same vein as he had started it. But, over time, he could hardly escape. "What happened was so big! It was huge... It was so awesome – that's what they say in America." His voice mimics a US talk-show gravitas: "Awe...some." Eventually, "I think I became a little braver about writing about death. You learn something about death. And that is: anybody can die at any time. Just through going on vacation to Denmark."

Indirectly, his In the Wake explored the bereavement itself. To Siberia, meanwhile, imagined his mother's venturesome early life. "I couldn't have written it when my mother was alive," Petterson says. "And so it is written not in the light, but in the dark, of her death." Still, he and his surviving brother refused to become the slaves of their loss. "I didn't dare to be 'the Titanic writer'. I didn't want to be defined by what had happened." They did join a survivors' support group, but only for a while. "When two years had passed, the rest is private, we said."

Out Stealing Horses, his international breakthough, may have moved away from Arvid and his kin, but it dwelled equally on the sheer precariousness of family love. The immanence of loss – such an aching motif for Petterson – floods every scene with a sunset radiance. But its success, and the performance of a public self that brought, hit like a summer storm. "I got really sick for a time. I wasn't prepared for this. I am this Arvid Jansen kind of guy, from a place where nobody's famous for anything. So suddenly it crept up on me and...". He mimes an explosion. "I had really to take it easy for a bit."

These days, he reports, "It's very nice to go down Karl Johans Gate [Oslo's main shopping street] and people smile at you and say 'Thank you'." Still, "I'm not very good at being disturbed. I get very agitated." Petterson has cut down severely on the time he spends playing the part of "best-selling author". "I try not to go alone anywhere. I try not to go too often. I don't do very much in Norway, because I meet people and they say, 'Hey – this book of yours. I've been there, and it's not quite like that, you know'." If not, that's because Petterson has so deftly cropped the raw stuff of life, and seasoned it into the nourishment of art. The city boy brings his own kind of harvest home.

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