Shyness And Dignity, by Dag Solstad, trans. Sverre Lyngstad

Back to the Doll's House: man's search for meaning in modern Oslo

Boyd Tonkin
Tuesday 28 November 2006 01:00 GMT

At first glance, this short Norwegian novel sounds like one tough sell. During a double-period on Ibsen's Wild Duck, "on a rainy day in early October", the morose schoolteacher Elias Rukla throws a wobbly after he decides that his pupils' mocking scorn for him, for Ibsen and for high culture in general has crossed the line from old-fashioned boredom and disrespect into full-blown postmodern barbarism.

He storms out, mildly curses a pupil in the schoolyard, and wrecks his umbrella in a moment of black farce with more than a touch of Tati to it. This is "goodbye to his entire social existence", thinks the pedagogic miseryguts, as he wanders through a damp Oslo and remembers scenes and people from the timid, dutiful life of "one of the nation's loyal educators" - a real pillar of society.

Grim enough for you? Persist. There's a lot happening, on several levels, in this compact and layered book, and Solstad has a revered role in Norway as the chronicler of his country's changing times. Obviously, Elias's plight focuses on a clash between traditional canons and values, and the unruly energies of fashion- fixated youth. But Solstad is writing a novel, not a tract on dumbing-down. He lets us see the teacher's tedious smugness, and grasp why the kids would groan at his leaden efforts to make Ibsen "relevant".

Once Elias makes the final break (in his own mind), his frantic recollections add up to a snapshot history of a society that has swung from high-minded, social-democratic consensus to brash media populism. Solstad embodies that shift via the trend-hunting figure of Elias's old friend Johann, the first husband of his fading beauty of a wife, Eva.

Johann veered from Kant to Marx during his glittering academic career. Then he fled abruptly to New York, becoming a wealthy corporate spin-doctor - a "dream interpreter" for the new consumer age. He has sailed with the free-market winds of change; Elias, meanwhile, has stuck with the dowdy public-sector spirit until it died on him.

The teacher's ruminations vividly bring to mind the savage introspection of that earlier master of ennui in Oslo, Knut Hamsun. Yet he also carries a sense of comic bathos: Elias is sad, in more ways than one. All the same, his worst day ends with thoughts of his love for Eva: flawed and fragile, but still a truth that may endure beyond both the old solemnity and the new vulgarity.

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