Petterson, Per Entries

Out Stealing Horses


Although my interest in writing about books generally takes a more analytical bent—diving into an author's bag of tricks, dissecting how an effect was achieved or tracing the iterations of a motif along its winding course—there does occasionally come a book that elicits an unexpectedly more personal reaction, one that overshadows my analytical perceptions for a time, and such a book was Per Petterson's 2003 novel Out Stealing Horses. I hope, eventually, to return to a rather crafty meta-technique used by Petterson, but first I need to tell you about my grandfather.

My grandfather was Norwegian. Well, Norwegian-American: he grew up in Portland, Oregon just like I did, and there were a few generations between him and his European ancestors. But his parents were both of solid Norwegian stock, and they preserved a cultural milieu the remnants of which I've observed and heard about many a time, but have never felt evoked in literature quite so perfectly as in Out Stealing Horses. Petterson's narrator, the 67-year-old Trond Sander, is just slightly younger than my grandfather: a matter of three or four years which means the difference between active service in the Second World War, and witnessing the war from the sidelines as an adolescent. Throughout the novel, Trond flashes between his current situation (in retreat in the rural Norwegian forest) back to the summer of 1948, during which he comes to a more adult understanding of what happened during those war years. In the "now" of the novel, however—late autumn of 1999—Trond and Warren would have been contemporaries. And oh, how viscerally Trond reminded me of Warren—and to a lesser extent, my father, and of my whole paternal extended family, and of myself. Here, for example, is Trond explaining how he bought the car for his transition to rural living:

The car is a ten-year-old Nissan station wagon, and I could easily have bought a new car, I can afford that, but in addition to the house purchase it would have eaten into my resources quite a lot, so I opted against it. In fact I had plans for a car with four-wheel drive, it would have been useful out here, but then I decided that a four-wheeler was a bit like cheating and a bit new-rich, and I ended up with this one, which has rear-wheel drive like everything else I've driven.

Family members reading this: you already see, don't you??

It's not just the financial conservatism, the impulse to save on something that would actually be very useful and is within one's means. (My dad could tell you stories about his father's jerry-rigged lawn mower repairs that could have been fixed for real with the purchase of a few ten-cent washers.) It's not just the fact that Trond ends up with "rear-wheel drive like everything else I've driven," because to change his habits feels "a bit like cheating"—although this also rings true. The similarity actually lies deeper than that, in Trond's very style of narration: rooted in physical, everyday details; telling a larger story through remarks about engine dynamos and chainsaw-sharpening, through circumspect conversations with car mechanics. There is a reserve here, a protectiveness of one's independence that is remarkably familiar to me. And as when my grandfather severed his Achilles' tendon and taught himself a new mechanics of walking rather than go to the doctor and get it fixed, the stubborn independence of Trond's family extends even to their relationship with pain:

     "Why not cut down the nettles?" [my father] said.
     I looked down at the short scythe handle and across at the tall nettles.
     "It will hurt," I said. Then he looked at me with half a smile and a little shake of the head.
     "You decide for yourself when it will hurt," he said, suddenly getting serious. He walked over to the nettles and took hold of the smarting plants with his bare hands and began to pull them up with perfect calm, one after the other, throwing them into a heap, and did not stop before he had pulled them all up. Nothing in his face indicated that it hurt...

This insistence that "you decide for yourself when it will hurt" becomes both powerful and problematic over the course of Petterson's narrative. (Just like real life: my grandfather could still walk with no Achilles' tendon! On the other hand, he waited so long to go to the doctor that there was no possibility of repairing the tendon in the long run.) Interestingly, Trond's father only ever claims we can decide when something will hurt, not if it will hurt: the characters end up facing the results of putting off that inevitable pain.

As I suggested earlier, conversational reserve is a hallmark of practically everyone in Petterson's novel (as it was of my grandfather): these rural Norwegians find ways to enjoy and detest each others' company, but those ways are generally long on physical exertion and short on talk. Petterson evokes several memorable scenes of shared labor and shared leisure: in 1948 Trond and his father help their neighbors with the hay harvest, organize a timber float and go for a several-day-long cross-country horseback ride, while in the present day Trond's neighbor Lars spends the day helping him to cut up a large tree that has fallen across his driveway in a storm. These scenes are full of the Hemingwayesque: physical bodies moving in harmony with each other and with some version of the natural world seen through the lens of necessary labor. Even when circumstances are more propitious for conversation, the assumption is silence, and talk only the rare exception. In this passage, for example, Trond's friend Jon has stopped coming around the cabin he shares with his father:

And I did not see him by the river, did not see him with his fishing rod along the bank or in the boat on his way up or down, and my father did not ask me whether we had been out together, and I did not ask my father whether he had seen him. That's the way it was. we just had breakfast, put our working clothes on and went down to the old rowboat that had been included in the purchase of the cottage, and rowed across the water.

"That's the way it was": although conversations occasionally do manage to break through the boundaries of these characters' reserve, the assumed default is the absence of talk. My grandfather, too, was a reserved man; he did not easily open up to people. And yet my cousins, who both lived with him at various times, tell me that there were times—often late at night, sometimes when he had been drinking—when his words would suddenly become unleashed. And when that happened, according to my cousins, there was no stopping him: he would talk and talk, and they would listen. I thought about these floodgates of words as I made my way through Out Stealing Horses, because I kept expecting that the reserve of some character or other would break in a similar way: that there would be some moment of verbal communication when the barriers would fall away.

There isn't. The only long and revealing conversation in the entire book is one we get indirectly—not in the form of dialogue but as a further flashback—and Trond has this conversation with a third party, not his father (the primary person concerned).

In thinking back, though, it occurs to me that the book I read, Out Stealing Horses, is itself Trond's late-night flood of talk. The reader doesn't at first realize it, but she is the unwitting recipient of Trond's inner life—a bequest his daughter, for one, would probably appreciate but to which she is never admitted, nor is any other character. This probably happens a lot in first-person narration, that the reader knows more about the narrator than any other character knows. But since verbal restraint and the repression of pain are not always so front-and-center, I am not so much on alert for the point at which a character's reserve will crack.

Now, having realized the role that the narrative itself may play for the character Trond (although of course he never explicitly says so), it occurs to me that on a re-read I might focus on what the text has to say about Trond's relationship with his own words. There are several passages in which he mentions talking to himself: is that what he's doing throughout Out Stealing Horses, or is there an implied audience? If he is talking to himself, does the book count as an outpouring of pent-up words in the same way my grandfather's late-night talks to my cousins did? There is nothing to indicate that Trond is actually writing his story down as we're reading it; the narrative feels more like his thoughts, albeit very organized and well-constructed thoughts. Can merely putting one's thoughts in order perform the same function as telling someone a story? Can writing one's thoughts perform that function? These aren't questions that necessarily occupied my mind while reading Petterson, but the intersection of Trond and Warren brings them to mind. Perhaps more personally important, Out Stealing Horses brought to mind my grandfather as he was when I was a ten- or twelve-year-old kid, and that was an unexpected pleasure.

June 2012

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link to Wolves 2011 reading list
link to more disgust bibliography