As Mediterranean countries export olive oil, Scandinavian ones disseminate gloom.
It’s a message reaffirmed in Norwegian scholar Solstad’s first U.S. publication, in which a high-school teacher of literature, Elias Rukla, experiences a pervasive alienation from modern culture while pondering the intricacies of somber masterpieces such as Ibsen's The Wild Duck. In the opening scenes, we see that Rukla is so badly in need of cheering up that every day he “put on a sparkling white shirt, which alleviated the distaste he couldn't help feeling at having to live in such a time and in such conditions”—conditions that include a lovely wife, a hearty breakfast and a well-paying job. It is evident that this cheerless fellow is going to be total frost in the classroom, and indeed his students, whom he bores and patronizes, are depicted in the last throes of tedium, a condition that, in a sort of onomatopoeia of ennui, goes on for 30 pages. So great is Rukla's frustration at their indifference that a broken umbrella after class is the last straw. In a frenzy of cursing and flailing, he breaks the umbrella, insults a blameless female student nearby and realizes only too late the irrevocable work-related consequences of his frenzy. As he walks home, Rukla considers his past life leading to this moment, a life devoted largely to Scandinavian literature, to his friendship with a brilliant philosopher he met in graduate school and to his marriage to that friend's former girlfriend, for whom, after decades together, he feels tenderness, estrangement and a faint distaste. This is an intelligent work but one that, like professor Rukla himself, never stoops to consider what an audience might enjoy.
The combination of learned criticism, a failed appetite for life and a reluctance to do anything to promote delight or enthusiasm makes this tale of civilization and its discontents uphill work. The stiff translation is no help.