Eventually, each of us is an other.
In an essay completed not long before his suicide in 2012, Stig Sæterbakken wrote: "How strong would our passions be, separated from our fear of dying? We want to live, sure. But we want to die as well. We want to be torn apart. We want to drown in the wonders of ecstasy." Both the craft of this passage—a single rhetorical question opens a rich vein of content—as well as its sentiment seem to me to epitomize Sæterbakken's personal philosophy and artistic ambition. As with all of his writing, the question posed by the author is simple, but deceptively so, situated as it is at an existential crux. And, as with all of his writing, it cannot be ignored, nor easily grappled with. Sæterbakken seems fearless when examining the heart of his own experience, swiftly identifying a painful and unavoidable paradox, an impossibility that nonetheless must be negotiated and further explored. His prose, which so often conveys the mandatory ugliness and sadness of existence, is nevertheless charged with beauty and great tenderness, and thus infused with paradox. The author of endlessly interesting novels and essays, Sæterbakken is an indispensable artist, one whose work must be reckoned with, and whose day in the Anglophone world is, I believe, shortly at hand.
Through the Night, Sæterbakken's last published novel, centers around Karl Meyer, a middle-aged man who, prompted by the suicide of his teenage son, Ole-Jakob, is forced to confront his past disgraces and contemplate his complicity in this death, all while enduring overwhelming feelings of grief. The novel, which almost reads as two separate works, opens in the immediate aftermath of Ole-Jakob's suicide, with Karl's wife, Eva, having just lodged an ax in the screen of the family television set. The act is a statement of protest (Karl has been binge-watching since their son's funeral), but it could also be interpreted as a message from Sæterbakken to his reader regarding what is to come: there will be no further distraction from the situation at hand, however terrifying and all-consuming it becomes. Indeed, the novel quickly delves into Karl's past through a series of short vignettes, which trace the history of his life's two defining love affairs—with Eva, and with another woman, Mona, for whom he had recently, if temporarily, left his family.
The portrait that Sæterbakken offers of Karl Meyer—or, rather, seeing as the narration is strongly anchored in Karl's consciousness, that he gives of himself—is frank, unreserved, and terribly recognizable. Karl is a man possessed of many shadowy selves. For a few weeks, the passion of his affair with Mona sustains him: he is its delirious and blissful servant, free of the unhappiness his decision has brought to his family and of the guilt and shame he has brought on himself. But the passion fades, as it must, and when he ends the affair, everything comes crashing in. Attempting, pathetically, to rejoin his family, his indiscretions result in the chaos and anger that drive Ole-Jakob to destroy himself. His death is the punctuation mark ending the novel's first half.
The prose in much of this first half of the novel shows Sæterbakken at his best: his language is raw, visceral, unrelieved by authorial commentary or interpretation. There is a bloodhound-like intensity to Karl's struggle to grasp the essence of his experience leading up to and just after Ole-Jacob's death, but the trauma of events prevails. Karl has not yet created the narrative that would give structure and allow comfort to this period of his life. As such, the first half of the book is largely composed of highly charged vignettes or scenes, bursts of memory, many of which have only a glancing association with others. Almost any passage chosen at random would illustrate the artistry of Sæterbakken's prose in these pages. In a snapshot scene of Ole-Jakob's infancy, for instance, Karl encapsulates the simultaneous wonder and crisis of fatherhood:
I looked at Ole-Jakob as he lay wriggling and dribbling on our colorful carpet. Come on, you little fucker! Grow! Think! Talk! I had to make a real effort to pull myself together every time I bent over the confused little creature to tickle him. I felt like an idiot. I felt utterly insignificant. Something dawned on me: I had never really experienced anything other than myself. I had been a person, but only for myself. But now that person had actually been reduced to meaninglessness. Because I was part of something bigger, something infinitely big, something I couldn't compare myself to.
In many of these early scenes we find one of Sæterbakken's great strengths: his fiction's ability to convince us that the essential questions of our experience can be teased from even the most seemingly commonplace moments. Time and again, Sæterbakken's characters brush up against that which they need and desire most—that is to say, they brush up against oblivion, as Karl does while watching Ole-Jakob's attempts to crawl. And such moments are often recognized by the overwhelming fear they inspire. In Karl Meyer, Sæterbakken has created a near-inexhaustible inner landscape, and a character who, because he has surrendered himself to his own sense of desperation, will no longer allow it to go unexplored. There is a powerful sense of intimacy here resulting from Sæterbakken's insistence that his readers' eyes never stray from his narrator's innermost workings, his slightest shifts in thought and emotion. With the greatest of care and compassion, detail by detail, Sæterbakken lays bare Karl's absolute vulnerability as the man engages in a final reckoning with himself. Because there is no higher order in Sæterbakken's fictive realm (there is only us: small, isolated, bent on satisfying our own private and low-hanging gods), the novel consciously avoids any moral reflection as it progresses: we are not allowed to pass judgment on Karl (we may find too much of ourselves in him to dare); rather, we must bear witness to—and indeed experience, if only in brief moments—these natural processes of grieving and self-reckoning, without the comfort of interpretation. Another way of putting this might be to say that Sæterbakken has attempted—and largely succeeded—in removing himself from the page.
"Art teaches people to become someone else," Sæterbakken writes in the same essay quoted at the beginning of this review. "What work of art could possibly be worth studying that doesn't—by evoking the antagonisms of life—bring us to the brink of tears?" The rapturous potential of art exists in its ability to provoke in us the most powerful forces we are capable of experiencing. In order for this potential to be realized, the line between the viewer/reader and the artistic object being experienced must completely disintegrate. Stated another way, the abandonment or forgetting of one's self is necessary for the deepest and most total engagement with art. To be moved to tears, we must have lost, however briefly, our conception of who we are. Sæterbakken's achievement of this disintegration must be measured in degrees, but the ambition is clearly evident in Through the Night, as it is in all of his writing currently available in English.
Through the Night's second half opens with Karl having once again abandoned (what remains of) his family in order to trek to Redenburg, Germany, which he refers to as "Christmastown" because of the "idyllic impression [it gives] of a closed world free of anxiety and suspicion," and, eventually, to a house in Slovakia that is rumored to confront its visitors with their greatest and most private fears. Once Karl reaches Christmastown, Sæterbakken abandons any pretense of realism, though his writing remains vivid and engaging, as a series of events brings Karl closer and closer to absolute solitude. On his way to the house of horrors, Karl meets a host of enigmatic characters, many of whom are borrowed from myth and fairy tales. At a circus performance, he witnesses a dwarf undergo a startling and painful metamorphosis; he also briefly engages with a woman whom he believes to be on the verge of suicide; and all the while, he seeks that essential experience he increasingly sees as being his only hope: the annihilation of self. At one point, Karl comes across a passing train: "I stood so near the tracks that I only needed to take a couple of steps forward in order to be obliterated, and in the silence after it passed I was filled with regret, having let such a marvelous opportunity slip away from me." Here Sæterbakken unveils the dual—and apparently contradictory—aspects of death: the extinction, which we fear, and the flowing away into the universe, which we desire. The conflict within Karl is always present. But it may not be entirely accurate to say that it is death, per se, that attracts Karl—perhaps it is the experience of total consumption and, thereby, total release that he most desires. In his novel Sauermugg, Sæterbakken's narrator seeks a similar sort of ecstasy, a place where the incessant stream of his thoughts will be cut off at last, allowing him to experience the purity of solitude, which he acknowledges as a form of non-existence. For Karl Meyer, physical self-destruction is merely another form that this totality might take. But the rapture and ecstasy he seeks, in whatever form, remain elusive. Karl lifts one veil only to find another.
Finally, Karl's experience within the house of horrors is exquisitely rendered. Everything that has occurred previously, in the world outside, falls quickly away like a myth that has passed from all memory, and this new interior—the house's ever-darkening interior, as well as Karl's new and equally dark frontier—emerges in its myriad of details. Suddenly, we are fully entombed with Karl, and we accept our imprisonment with pleasure.
Sæterbakken was correct in his assessment of great art. It is at once shocking and wonderful to encounter a piece of art that reminds us that we are capable, as individuals, of experiencing something so fully that it is as if we were somebody else, or as if we have lost our sense of self. I believe this is why Karl seeks out and enters the house, not as an act of self-retribution (that would be too simple a treatment for a Sæterbakken novel, and besides we are far beyond any moral realm by now), but because he seeks the limitless in whatever form the house sees fit to bestow upon him. Within the house, Karl meditates:
The only thing they had found, and which made them lose their minds, the ones who'd been in the house before me, was themselves, their own spooky emptiness, I thought, overwhelmed, suddenly, by a despair so intense that I couldn't manage to restrain a scream, drawn-out and as unfamiliar to me as a the voice of another man.
True, there is certainly a part of Karl that wishes misfortune on himself, perhaps even grievous misfortune, but I believe he is hoping, rather, to be saved by casting himself into the inferno. He is in search of the sacred experience that has eluded him his entire life, that he could not find in a house of god, nor in Mona's room, nor the empty bedroom of his son (who had also wished to experience otherness in its most irrevocable form). As Georges Bataille observes, "In the disorder of my laughter and my sobbing, in the excess of raptures that shatter me, I seize on the similarity between a horror and a voluptuousness that goes beyond me, between an ultimate pain and an unbearable joy!" Indeed, the forces at play within Karl are too complex to extricate one from another, and we readers are left with no choice but to accept our own disintegration into the orgy of the man's struggle, willingly giving ourselves over to his infinite and thrashing sea, since this is, after all, why we opened Through the Night in the first place, in the reluctant, and perhaps secret hope that this was where we might be led. To another self, a completed self.
Through the Night was written by an author of insatiable curiosity, a man who loved the world deeply but who desperately wished it were different. There is a central conflict here between man and the world that Sæterbakken expertly reveals and investigates. But there is another conflict as well, inherent in his novels and essays, one that provides, I believe, their true drive: the conflict between the author and his innermost self. Sæterbakken's writing is deeply personal. The bravery and sincerity he displays is remarkable: we bear witness to an artist utterly immersed in his creation. The peculiar intensity and intelligence of Sæterbakken's writing comes from his willingness to plunder his own weaknesses, to use his craft to challenge the processes and methods by which he makes sense of his own emotional experience. It is emotional accuracy Sæterbakken doggedly pursues, the pinpoint calibration of emotional insight—a rare concern, one that lends his writing a deeply humane quality and that arises out of his pressing need to understand better, to experience more profoundly, and to deepen the mystery.