Gaute Heivoll: Before I Burn


This is a book as deep, still, and reflective as Lake Livannet, which is everywhere in the book, accompanying the writer Gaute as he sits as his desk trying to reconstruct the story of the deliberately-lit fires that terrorised his peaceful rural hometown thirty years ago, the year he was born.

It’s a book about the love between parents and children, the trust between neighbours, and the consciousness of death. It’s a book about becoming a writer, and about the way the writer voyages in his imagination every day, hesitantly, then more surely, at times exultantly, at times with blankness and despair. It’s about how a book can arise from memory with a truth that is utterly unadorned. You can’t help but compare with Knausgaard, who gives the book a glowing recommendation on the cover. This is work of a higher order than Knausgaard’s.

Heivoll doesn’t hide from us who the young pyromaniac is, though it’s a mystery to the townsfolk. The imaginative force goes into making us see him from the outside and the inside, and from an identification the writer feels with what fire means to the young man.

I have seen all of this. A house is burning at night. It is the first few minutes, before people have been alerted. The house stands there alone and no one can save it. It has been left to its fate, to its destruction. The flames and the smoke are being sucked up into the sky, or so it seems; there are creaks and groans, like distant responses. It is frightening, it is terrible and it is beyond comprehension.

 And it is almost beautiful (11)

There are parallels between the two young men: both are outsiders among the other teenagers, not disliked but seen as other, and both fall off the rails of the ordinarily achieving life it seems they were meant to lead. Who can say why one becomes an arsonist and the other finds himself as a writer?

I read with a passion and voracity no one understood, perhaps not even me. They were books that filled me with dreams. They were books that slowly did things to me, that made me wish myself in other places. Something inside me began to wander. At the beginning no one noticed anything, but something inside me had left a long time ago and I was in a slow outward drift. At that same time there was also something in me that wanted to stay. There was something that would remain forever in the safe and the secure, the familiar and the simple, in the region I, in my heart of hearts, loved so much I felt so bound to this place, partly because my father was. (109)

Something inside me began to wander….I was in a slow outward drift…there was also something in me that wanted to stay. This is as true of the young pyromaniac as it is of Gaute.

There are so many pleasures in this book: its beautiful pacing and layering, the visual clarity  and resonance of the natural world,  the subtle conveying of character and relationship, the wonderful depiction of the last months of Gaute’s father’s life until the point where the father, once a champion aerial skier, lies on his bed:

It was as if he were floating, he was stretched out in the air, he had taken off from the ramp and lay flat, and he was floating, he had the air and the darkness roaring in his face. (191)

It’s a book to read slowly and to savour, a book that will stay with you. A best-seller in Norway, it won the Brage Prize and was nominated for the Critics Prize and the Booksellers’ Prize, and has been sold to more than twenty countries. Norwegian director  Erik Skjoldbjaerg is said to be interested in a film.

Gaute Heivoll Before I Burn (Atlantic books 2010, tr Don  Bartlett).

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