It’s about four years ago now since I stumbled across Jan Kjaerstad’s The Seducer (ISBN 978-1905147014). Kjaerstad is a Norwegian author and The Seducer was the first of his great trilogy to be translated into English. It hooked me from the very start. I loved it, wallowed it, swam in it, just became totally absorbed by it. Why? Well I’m quite clear why. It’s the quality of the writing. I’m a great lover of stories and the whole trilogy is not only one great web of hundreds, if not thousands of stories, but the whole premise of the books is that we understand each other and ourselves through the stories of our lives. Now that’s a theme very close to my heart. I am convinced that we construct a narrative self. Who I think I am is the result of the ever evolving, ever developing, intricate web of stories I tell myself about my life. And the way I communicate my self, my life, even my single experiences to others, is by telling them stories. That’s my first reason for loving these books so much. The second reason is the quality of the writing. On the back of The Seducer, Kjaerstad is described as a post-modern writer. I don’t know what the word “postmodernism” does for you. I know that for many people they have almost an allergic response to it, but I have the view that it’s had a bad press. I find the fundamental insights of postmodernism appealing and I really, really enjoy good postmodernist art, and, wow, can Jan Kjaerstad write great postmodernist art! What do I mean by that? Well, he is a complete master of telling a story involving an object, an event, or a particular word, then pages later, in another totally different story that same object or word arises again but now in a different context, but because it’s already gained a certain, particular significance from the previous story, in it’s second appearance it has a different meaning from what it would have had if you hadn’t read the story where it appeared the previous time. Then, later, in yet another story, up it pops again, and again with a new significance and meaning, related to the other two, but different, so echoes and ripples of the prior meanings deeply condition the third usage. And so it goes. Again and again. I find it exciting, thrilling, breath-taking even. This is how life is. Everything we experience has a unique meaning and significance for us which comes about through the precise and particular narrative of our life. It is absolutely true that none of us experience the same song, the same madelin, the same colour or scent even, in exactly the same way. Maybe if you’re not convinced of that then this trilogy might convince you. I do think this is writing which provokes, which challenges and which enlarges and deepens how we see ourselves, how we understand ourselves and how we might engage with our lives.
So what’s the main story? The Seducer is the first title, The Conqueror (ISBN 978-1905147168) the second, and The Discoverer (978-1905147366) the third. They tell the story of Jonas Wergeland, a Norwegian TV producer who makes the greatest series ever seen in Norwegian TV, Thinking Big. The series explores the lives of famous Norwegians and challenges the average viewer to give up his or her preconceptions in order to obtain a much deeper and clearer understanding of who each of these people were, and what made them tick. He designed the series to get his fellow Norwegians to wake up, to stop being passive observers of life, to think big! Yeah, I’m sure you’ve already thought it…..to become heroes not zombies! (he doesn’t use those terms of course, but he’s definitely writing about the same issue). At the outset of the first book, Jonas returns home to find his wife lying in a pool of blood, shot dead. As he stumbles about the house trying to make sense of what’s he’s experiencing we read story after story from his life. How did this happen? Who is Jonas? Who is Margrete who lies dead on the carpet? By the end of the novel, Jonas has been charged with her murder and he’s plead guilty. But did he actually do it? We still don’t know. In the second book, The Conqueror, Jonas is in jail, and a professor with the help of a mysterious, exotic woman, are writing a biography of him to try to uncover not just the truth of what happened but to answer the question, how could this great, creative man, also be a murderer? How is that possible? The third book, The Discoverer, opens with Jonas now having served his time, and it’s in this novel that we get to hear directly from him for the first time. Some of the chapters are his writings from his own notebooks, and with this element, he suddenly becomes much more real. I had the experience of feeling that although I knew a lot about Jonas from the first two books, I still didn’t know him. Now I get to know him. It’s only about three quarters of the way through the third novel that the truth is revealed. What actually happened? How did it all come about? I won’t tell you here of course but this was the point where suddenly the book hit my heart, moving me to tears.
This is a BIG read. The Seducer is about 600 pages long, and the other two about 450 pages each. Maybe The Discoverer could stand alone and be read without the other two, but I suspect the reader would miss a lot of full significance of many of its stories. However, for me, the best was left till last. I loved them all, but The Discoverer is my clear favourite.
I could say much more about these novels, about their overall structure, about the themes that he weaves together and the echoing questions he asks which are the essential questions in all our lives, but I’ll stop now. Let me just finish by making two further points. There’s a lot of very explicit sex in these books. Especially in The Seducer, (there’s a hint in the title!) If that would disturb you don’t read these books! Secondly, this is not the kind of novel that will appeal to everyone. It’s not a thriller. It’s not a whodunnit. It’s a massive web of interconnecting stories which explore a man’s life.
In my opinion, I’ve never read anything better. I had to wait about two years between each of the books as they were translated into English and then published and I re-read both The Seducer and The Conqueror over the last couple of months while waiting for Amazon to send me The Discoverer on publication, then dived right into The Discoverer. I am seriously tempted to start reading it again straight away, and I have a notion I’ll go back to the beginning and read The Seducer, The Conqueror and The Discoverer one after the other yet again.
(By the way, who on earth is in charge of book design at Arcadia Books? I’m sure it’s very clever how the front covers of books two and three fit together but just how does the cover of book one fit in with that design??!)