Art-school angst in the 1850s inspires modern writer.
Lars Hertervig, a young Quaker from a small Norwegian island, has been sent by a patron to study landscape painting in Düsseldorf. Lars lies on his bed in a rented room, on the day his prominent teacher, Hans Gude, plans to critique his work. Lars avoids the studio, fearing that Gude will tell him he can’t paint and must return home. Mentally, Lars relives the time his landlady’s 15-year-old daughter, Helene, let her hair down for him. He fancies they’re in love. But Helene has just told him her uncle wants to evict him. Helene seems indifferent and Lars alternately berates her and tries to get her to run away with him. In an artist’s tavern, Malkasten, Lars accuses a classmate, Alfred, one of many colleagues who in Lars’s opinion can’t paint, of stealing his pipe. He’s menaced by delusions of black and white clothes that surround him and almost smother him. By now, the reader wishes they would. Wandering the streets with his suitcases, Lars encounters Gude, who compliments his talent. But Lars’s paranoia admits no praise. Alfred lures Lars back to Malkasten, claiming Helene is awaiting him there. He’s greeted instead by a jeering section of bad painters. The next segment details a day at Gaustad asylum, where Lars has been forbidden to paint. In his doctor’s view, art, masturbation and maligning the virtue of the world’s women are the three pillars of Lars’s insanity. Lars contemplates escape. He’s no more popular in the madhouse than in art school, and we last see him being pelted with snowballs by fellow inmates as he skulks off. The third section concerns a reclusive writer, Vidme, who in 1991 is inspired to write a novel about Hertervig. Or maybe not. The stream-of-consciousness narration, a minute-by-minute reportage of obsessive, repetitive thoughts, is a numbing rendition of the banality of anxiety.
This author’s own madness lies in tedium.