Thursday Fiction Corner: "I've heard it said that on a good day, Askildsen wrote two sentences and crossed out one, but that on a really good day, he wrote one and crossed out two"

Selected Stories

“There are no problems other than the perpetual human problem: How the hell are we supposed to live together?” – Kjell Askildsen

We are proud to be distributing Dalkey Archive Press, one of the leading publishers of avant-garde fiction and literature in translation! In today’s Thursday Fiction Corner, we have a guest post from Seán Kinsella, translator of Stig Sæterbakken’s Through the Night and Self-Control, and of Selected Stories, Kjell Askildsen. In his post, Kinsella describes the experience of translating and reading Askildsen’s unique stories.

Kjell Askildsen’s Short Fiction
By Seán Kinsella

All good writing, like all good art, requires us to fill in a few blanks. We have to bring something to the table, play an active role, interpret, or else it is just entertainment. But Askildsen gives us so very little that we end up bringing a lot and I, for one, find that much of what I take along I do not like.

His compatriot and fellow writer, Bjarte Breiteig, has remarked on this with specific reference to the sibling’s interaction in the story “My Sister´s Face.” “This is characteristic of Askildsen´s treatment of taboos: Instead of releasing them to the surface, he allows them to lie beneath and glimmer throughout the story, leaving the reader with the uncomfortable feeling that he or she is the one who introduced them.”

Feeling uncomfortable after reading it is one thing, having to write about it is something else. I feel like attaching an asterisk to the end of every sentence here, with a disclaimer below, letting anyone reading this piece know that I do not identify with some of his male characters. But I do. I felt sympathy for Bernhard in “The Unseen”. The first time I read it, I did identify with him. The next time I read it I was convinced he must have a diagnosis of some sort.

Maybe we project a lot of ourselves onto his characters because they don´t say much. What is left unsaid can be unsettling. Some readers might even find it irritating, when for example, the phrase ´he didn´t reply´ rears its head for the umpteenth time. But real intimacy can be like that. Ignoring people outright might not be an ideal basis for a relationship, but silence does feature prominently in real intimacy. And sometimes it is irritating. Because it can be infuriating being so close to someone that they think they know what you´re thinking , even though you´re not thinking that because you´re thinking they´re thinking they know what you´re thinking and thinking how annoying that is.

On his own writing, he has said that a lack of communication, or a lack of clarification to things said, creates a tension, and then this in turn, triggers an action. I think that´s why the characters in his stories seem so real. I am not privy to the man´s thoughts, but my impression is that he weighs up what someone in his stories will say and then spends a lot more time wondering how someone would react to that. The words and actions of each character seem entirely believable, many times probable, taken in isolation, but when we look at them as a whole it is rather disconcerting and uncomfortable. Sometimes plain puzzling: Why would some guy in a cab, on his way back from a funeral not correct his taxi driver when he thinks he is off to a party? I have no idea, but I could easily see myself doing the same thing.

One has the impression, on reading these stories, that Askildsen is not quite sure where things are headed in his fiction. As though each line he writes is a plank he is carrying across marshy ground: He throws one down, steps on it, checks if it holds, picks up the one behind and continues on. I’ve heard it said that on a good day, Askildsen wrote two sentences and crossed out one, but that on a really good day, he wrote one and crossed out two. I could easily believe it. His composition is tight and the stories are compact. The language he uses is simple although he detests his writing being termed minimalistic. He has been compared to Beckett but I don’t see it. Apart perhaps from the unexpected humour which first time readers of Beckett are always surprised by. Interestingly, he has translated Beckett into Norwegian.

Askildsen claims his first commandment is never to write about something he has experienced himself. This seems unbelievable in our day and age, but maybe that says more about us than him. Where writers, most notably fellow Norwegian, Karl Ove Knausgård, are intent on making us look at the Medusa without the mirror, fiction is moving away from residing in the free zone which Stig Sæterbakken claimed it should be. Although Askildsen´s claim may well serve to put some readers’ minds at ease.

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