Per Petterson : Men in My Situation

Per Petterson has had a tragic life. In 1990 his parents, his brother, and his niece all died in the Scandinavian Star ferry disaster, where passengers were trapped in a fire. The case is still under investigation, and it appears it was a deliberate scheme to scuttle the boat for insurance purposes. In the Wake, published in 2002, was the first novel in which he wrote about this. His character Arvid Jansen, whom he describes as not an alter ego but a ‘stunt man’ is here shown to be overwhelmed by grief. He has lost his parents and his marriage has broken down.

Petterson is now over seventy years old, but the same devils still haunt him. In his earlier novel Arvid reflects on his relationship with his father and drives around to various parts of Norway trying to find some meaning in revisiting places where he has lived. Men in My Situation is more focused on Arvid’s lost marriage; his relationship with Turid his former wife, and his three daughters. Turid had been about to leave him when the Scandinavian Star tragedy occurred, and she postponed her leaving for a year. There is an agreement that Arvid will see his daughters regularly but after a car accident and other mishaps the daughters decide they don’t want to visit him again. After this Arvid gives up

And I let go. And it was just as I had always feared. A trapdoor opened abruptly under my feet, and deep down the water was black as oil, and it was twilight, or dusk, and I fell down through all this moist and sticky grey disgusting swampiness and felt the ice-cold shock against my skin and could even hear the splash as I hit the surface, and it grew dark and silent all around me, and there was nothing I could hear, nothing I could see, and when I woke up it was night and the room was dark.

Men in my Situation is Petterson’s eight novel, but the same ghosts haunt (him) Arvid. As in I Curse the River of Time he reflects on his craving for his mother’s approval, which seems to have extended into a need for the love and approval of women he encounters. Arvid, when he is not driving around at night in his old Mazda, hangs out in bars, where he often leaves with a woman. These encounters rarely end satisfactorily. Arvid is too sad and too needy to be able to make love, or even take much interest in another individual. Even though he is a committed Maoist, in his desperation thoughts of God cross his mind, but nothing can help him.

This book is deeply sad. Arvid is grieving, but so immersed in his own pain he has little time to care about others. Towards the end of the book, it appears his daughters have been affected by his darkness.

I love Petterson’s writing, but here the repetition of the actions of a man going through the motions can be wearying. I love it when he goes into poetic riffs

It was spring It was April. Nothing had bloomed yet, but you could feel it in the air, even within the city the sweet fragrance of restless birches drifting through the streets, in the parks the lime trees stood sated with their own scent, and it pressed against the bark from the inside so hard the bark burst open in big gashes, and in Nordre cemetery you felt the warmth of stones and granite slabs when you held your palms against them. 

But this is towards the end of the book when a number of years have passed. In the main it feels as though Petterson is writing out his own tragedy, trying to rid himself of the trauma that causes stagnation to his emotions. Arvid is still the boy crying, ‘What about me?’

This book is sad and repetitive, with a solipsistic protagonist locked in his own grief.; but it is still a master work from a master craftsman.

I hope now he can move on; I await his next book with interest.

( I don’t think the translation by Ingvild Burkey works as well as previous translations of his work by Anne Born or Don Bartlett.)



19 thoughts on “Per Petterson : Men in My Situation

    1. I think I liked I Curse the River of Time the most so far. Arvid is such a mess and going round in circles in this book. I still haven’t read Out Stealing Horses yet though, which I think is his most popular book.

      1. Yes there was a lot of word of mouth hype around that Out Stealing Horses book, which then makes it more of a challenge to the reader, I remember being disappointed that I didn’t love it in the same way as my friend who gushed over it and pressed it on me to read, whereas there was something quieter but more profound in I Curse the River of Time that resonated for me, though it never reached the heights of popularity that earlier book did.

  1. Beautiful quotes. especially the one about spring. I didn’t know about the tragedies that haunt these books, but now that you’ve mentioned them I can see how they would fit with Petterson’s tone and themes. I Curse the River of Time sounds like your favourite, so I’ve made a note.

  2. From your review everybody, including me, seems to agree this is rather grim! In present times, more than normally, I think we mostly require uplifting reads…

    1. Not so easy to find. I’ve tried Golden Age detective stories and found the classism and racism intolerable. But I do love a good laugh Might have to re read James Hamilton-Paterson. Cooking with Fernet Branca always makes me laugh.

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