A man. A woman. Intimacy. Distance. These are the elements, according to Norwegian writers Bjarte Breiteig and Øyvind Ellenes, writing in the literary magazine Vinduet, that make up a Kjell Askildsen story. And indeed, in Selected Stories, a collection of 11 of Kjell Askildsen’s stories translated by Seán Kinsella from Dalkey Archive Press, characters who approach each other yet are repelled by each other and by themselves are the thread running through the work. The four elements are like the last few impossible letters you are stuck with at the end of a Scrabble game. You can arrange and rearrange them and study the board, and while they will combine in umpteen ways, they will never resolve into one word you can lay out, cleanly.
Askildsen, at 84, is one of the grand old men of Norwegian literature. Frequently mentioned alongside other greats like Jon Fosse and Tor Ulven—also to be published by Dalkey Archive in its series of translated Norwegian modern writing—Askildsen’s first story collection From now on I’ll follow you all the way home was published in 1953. The last stories in the book are from the collection The dogs of Thessaloniki, published in 1996.