Well, it’s been another difficult year for everyone, but I hope that the festive season sees you getting some restorative fun in whatever way you choose. For this Christmas post I’ve chosen two books that aren’t ostensibly about Christmas but which I can still proclaim as such for the purposes of this post 😀
Firstly, Professor Andersen’s Night by Dag Solstad (1996, trans. Agnes Scott Langeland 2011). This novella (154 pages in my edition) is my first encounter with Solstad which is clearly a big omission, as he’s described as ‘Norway’s most distinguished living writer’ on the back cover. While I didn’t love this novella, I did find it a very readable exploration of complex themes and I’d be interested to read more by this author.
It begins with the titular academic enjoying Christmas Eve on his own:
“Professor Andersen felt at peace, tonight. He had this feeling of inner peace which was not of a religious but of a social kind. He liked to indulge these Christmas rituals, which in fact meant nothing to him.”
His tranquillity is disturbed when he witnesses a young woman being strangled in an apartment opposite. In response to this shocking violence, he does precisely nothing:
“He went over to the telephone, but didn’t lift the receiver. ‘What shall I say,’ he thought, ‘that I have seen a murder? Yes, that’s what I have say. And they will laugh at me, and tell me to go and lie down, and to call back when I have sobered up’”
But he doesn’t call back when he’s sobered up either.
”Something had happened, something he had witnessed. He couldn’t warn them about something irreversible.”
Instead he ties himself in existential knots, wondering about his life in middle age and what happened to his generation of self-appointed radicals (a dinner party includes discussion on whether to join the EC or not – plus ça change…) As an Ibsen scholar, he wonders if Ibsen (and by implication, his own work) has any relevance in the twentieth century.
Witnessing the murder seems to fix the professor irreversibly in the position of observer, or throw into sharp relief how this has always been the case. Having done nothing about the crime, his intellectual explorations demonstrate how little he is the protagonist of his own life. He is acted upon by various societal forces (such as the Christmas ritual that is meaningless to him) but enacts very little himself.
So despite starting with a murder, this is not a crime novel. Professor Andersen’s Night is a long dark night of the soul, rather than a whodunnit. How much you enjoy the novella might depend on your attitude to Hamlet. If you find yourself carried along with Hamlet’s crises to a heart-breaking denouement, you’ll probably have sympathy with the Professor. If you find Hamlet torturous rather than tortured, maybe give this a miss…
“Ever since the murderer had entered his life, he had had a tendency to get hung up on impossible abstractions, ones which quite simply made him feel a bit sick.”
Secondly, Small Pleasures by Clare Chambers (2020), another new-to-me author despite her six other novels. I’ve decided to claim this as a Christmas story because a virgin birth is a major plot point 😊
Jean is approaching middle-age and lives with her mother in south-east London. Her mother not an easy character and home can be a bit suffocating. Jean is able to escape to her job as a journalist on the North Kent Echo and takes her chances for reprieve where she finds them:
“Of all the various liberties available, her favourite was to unfasten her girdle and lie at full stretch on the couch with an ashtray on her stomach and smoke two cigarettes back to back. There was no reason why she couldn’t do this in her mother’s presence – lying down in the day might prompt an enquiry about her health, no more- but it wasn’t nearly so enjoyable in company. The summer variant of this practice was to walk barefoot down the garden and smoke her cigarettes lying on the cool grass.”
A woman called Gretchen Tilbury approaches the paper to explain that her ten-year-old daughter is the result of a virgin birth. The men on the team seem somewhat reluctant to investigate further, so the story is assigned to Jean as the only woman. For reasons of her own, Jean approaches the story with an open mind. Gretchen is glamorous, an accomplished seamstress and baker, and seems to Jean to have the perfect life.
“Jean felt the tug of friendship, but it would have to resisted. If it came to delivering unwelcome news in due course then it was essential to maintain a sensible, professional distance.”
It’s no great spoiler to say that Jean doesn’t manage to maintain that distance. She’s feels herself drawn into the lives of Gretchen, her husband Howard, and their daughter Margaret. Gretchen seems to have everything Jean barely admits to herself that she wants, but she senses a sadness in Gretchen that she can’t quite identify.
Jean has kept herself if not exactly happy, then ticking over, with her work and her small pleasures. Gradually her world begins to open up towards something broader.
“She wondered how many years – if ever – it would be before the monster of awakened longing was subdued and she could return to placid acceptance of a limited life.”
What I liked about Small Pleasures is that although there is a mystery and a romance to drive the plot along (although as with so many books, I would have preferred a more ruthless edit) it is fundamentally a story of friendship, of reaching out to people and of letting people in, thereby finding community and solace in unexpected places.
“It violated every code that she had been brought up to live by, but the urge to tell him was unstoppable. Decorum, secrecy, self-control were all blown away by the force of this need to confide.”
This is especially poignant given the 1957 setting, which is beautifully evoked. It’s a time after the war but before the rapid social changes of the 1960s. Things are shifting, but reticence and decorum inhibit authentic behaviour. People are forced to hide important aspects of their lives and experiences, and also hide the pain that these unspoken sacrifices cause.
“She hated being aligned with the forces of narrow-mindedness and conservatism, even though that was where she felt most at home… As a touchstone, she imagined her mother’s opinion – and rejected it.”
“She would collapse later, she promised herself, between seven and seven-thirty, when she had got home from work and done her chores.”
Small Pleasures doesn’t shy away from pain, but it doesn’t shy away from the joys of life either. It shows that the latter can be fleeting, but finding the small pleasures – and friends – can help us survive.
Looking at Goodreads, it seems lots of people hated the ending of this novel. I didn’t mind it but I did realise what it would be about halfway through (there is some pretty hefty foreshadowing). So I wouldn’t say that Chambers plays unfairly with the reader, but I did want to mention it as many seem quite annoyed!
To end, despite my long-held love of terrible twentieth-century Christmas pop tunes, I’ve only just found out that The Kinks made a Christmas record: