Which classic novel did you recently read for the first time?
I haven’t been reading much lately, but a couple of years ago, I watched a TV interview with the former secretary of the Nobel Committee, Horace Engdahl, he talked about being in a deep crisis, all darkness, and that one book helped him out if it. That was Turgenev’s “A Sportsman’s Sketches.” I bought it and read it and I totally understood what he meant. It is very simple, there’s no narrative structure, hardly any psychology involved, only glimpses into life and nature, but it is evoking a feeling of presence, at the same time urgent and calm, intense and peaceful. It is a book that gives hope. I mean, for us all. Oh, I can’t really explain it: Read the book and see for yourself!
Who are your favorite Norwegian writers?
Tarjei Vesaas has written the best Norwegian novel ever, “The Birds” — it is absolutely wonderful, the prose is so simple and so subtle, and the story is so moving that it would have been counted amongst the great classics from the last century if it had been written in one of the major languages. Knut Hamsun’s writing is magical, his sentences are glowing, he could write about anything and make it alive. Of contemporary writers, Thure Erik Lund is my definite favorite. I like Ingvild Burkey a lot too, her new book is a masterpiece, and also Steinar Opstad, Cathrine Knudsen, Kristine Naess and Jon Fosse, amongst others.
Which writers — novelists, playwrights, critics, journalists, poets — working today do you admire most?
Peter Handke, V. S. Naipaul, Svetlana Alexievich, Anne Carson, Ben Marcus, Kazuo Ishiguro, Cormac McCarthy, Lars Norén, Rebecca Solnit, John Jeremiah Sullivan, Maggie Nelson, Peter Sloterdijk, to name but a few very different ones.
What’s the last book to make you laugh?
Thomas Bernhard’s “My Prizes.” I read it recently at a cafe, and I was laughing out loud countless times — and I hardly ever laugh. It is an incredible funny book. The only other book I had laughed as much at was Céline’s “Death on the Installment Plan.” I don´t know why I find their escalating misanthropy so funny, but maybe it is because they are right, and if they are right, the only thing you really can do about it is to laugh.
The last book to make you cry?
Which genres do you avoid?
I only read crime novels when I’m depressed, so I try to avoid them.
How do you like to read? Paper or electronic? One book at a time or several simultaneously? Morning or night?
I have this Protestantic inner voice that says reading is lazy, and that I really have to work, so I only read in the evening — being so tired that I never remember what I had read the previous day — or when I’m traveling. The inner voice has never even considered reading e-books.
How do you organize your books?
I just put them up in the shelves. I have a bad memory and very many books, placed in four small houses, so I spend a lot of time walking around searching for titles. That could be annoying, but it has some advantages too; I often get surprised and happy finding interesting books I didn’t know I had.
What book might people be surprised to find on your shelves?
I’m convinced everything can be useful for my writing, so I buy a lot of books randomly, about subjects I think one day can make it into a novel. For instance a book about Chinese science from 1500 to 1900. I still haven’t read it, though. If I do, I’m afraid my dream of writing a wonderful Chinese novel will vanish.
What’s the best gift book you’ve gotten?
When I was 10, my mother came home with “A Wizard of Earthsea,” by Ursula K. Le Guin. I absolutely loved it, I read it many, many times throughout the years, and I do think it changed something in me. It touched me deeply, and I remember thinking that I wanted to touch like that too. I reread it a few years ago, and I still think it’s a great novel.
Who is your favorite fictional hero or heroine? Your favorite antihero or villain?
I’m very easily led, and my life is full of characters from novels that I have followed. The first was in a novel my father gave me, the book was from the Fifties, and the protagonist was such a good boy — he was fatherless, and his mother was ill, I guess she was dying, so he was taking care of her. He was bullied at school by a gang of terrible and rude boys, and the unfairness of his situation made a deep impact on me, so deep that I became a Christian, as he was, trying to make my friends stop swearing and stop stealing apples, I remember. Ten years later I read “White Niggers,” by Ingvar Ambjornsen. The protagonist smoked a lot of pot, so I started doing that; in my twisted teenage mind it somehow represented freedom. My first relation to and understanding of love also came from a literary character, Lieutenant Glahn, the protagonist in Knut Hamsun’s novel “Pan.” I read it when I was 16 and became kind of obsessed by it. It wasn’t a particularly healthy identification; Lieutenant Glahn was a very romantic, very narcissistic and reclusive man who shot himself in the foot to make an impression on the woman he loved. I would have saved myself a lot of trouble if I hadn’t read that book.
What kind of reader were you as a child? Which childhood books and authors stick with you most?
I read absolutely everything I came over when I was a child. My brother and myself went with my mother to the library once a week, and I usually returned with two bags of books, which I read during the week. What I loved the most was the French novels, like “The Three Musketeers”; ; “The Count of Monte Cristo”; “Around the World in 80 Days”; “The Secret of the Island,” “Michel Strogoff.” But I also loved biographies about famous people — always crying when they ended, since they died — about Helen Keller, Florence Nightingale, Jean d’Arc, for instance, or Thomas Alva Edison, Walt Disney, Henry Ford, Winston Churchill, Louis Armstrong. Books about Robin Hood intrigued me, and King Arthur, but also books about the Roman Empire and Marco Polo’s journeys in China. Books about sail ships fascinated me a lot — I once started writing one myself at the age of 9, 10 — and of course “Treasure Island” and all the other Robert Louis Stevenson books. Since I didn’t know anything, I read “Madame Bovary” as it should have been written by Jules Verne, and “The Red and the Black” as by Alexandre Dumas. I also dived into Henri Troyat’s two-volume biography about Lev Tolstoy because it was in the shelves at home, in much the same way I read the Hardy boys or the Bobsey children or the Nancy Drew books. I couldn’t have understood much of Tolstoy’s life, though, but that didn’t really matter, the whole point was to disappear into other worlds, other places, other times. I don’t have that wild drive anymore, except when I read “War and Peace”: Then I’m 12 years old again. (And with my bad memory, I’m able to read it as new every fifth year or so.)
If you could require the American president to read one book, what would it be? The prime minister of Norway?
I would recommend everybody to spend a summer reading Proust’s “Remembrance of Things Past,” also the president and the prime minister. It opens the world up in a way no other book I have read does. But please don’t stop after two and a half volumes, you have to go all the way; it is all about the accumulation. It won’t make you a better person, nor more empathetic or intelligent, but it will make you see and smell and think slightly differently, also about yourself, and so enrichen your life and your understanding of it.
You’re organizing a literary dinner party. Which three writers, dead or alive, do you invite?
James Joyce has to be the most intriguing writer from the last century, but I have a feeling that he was a dominating person, and with only two other guests available that would perhaps make for a one-sided evening. Therefore, to make him a bit more humble, I would invite Homer. Just by showing up, he would also have settled the Homeric question once and for all. I’m sure Homer would have loved hearing about “Ulysses” and the, to him, strange and futuristic but maybe also familiar world it describes. The last guest would be one of the most interesting contemporary writers, Anne Carson, who also has immersed herself in the ancient Greek literature. I would enjoy listening to their conversation, and after a while, when I was starting to get a bit drunk, maybe talk with Joyce about raising children, with Homer about the color of the sea and with Carson about love — which all, we maybe would agree on, is associated with blindness.
Disappointing, overrated, just not good: What book did you feel you were supposed to like, and didn’t?
I don’t read my own books, but sometimes I have to do so at events, and the thoughts swirling around in my head then are these: disappointing, overrated, just not good.
Whom would you want to write your life story?
What a wonderful question! Laszlo Krasznahorkai, without doubt: He is one of the most original and powerful novelists around, one of the few with an ability to transform the known world into something else, without losing the truth about it on the way. It would be thrilling to see what he would have made out of a life such as my own — I’m sure it’ll be bleak, rainy, poor, boring, but that the book would be everything but that. An alternative would be Lydia Davis; she might be able to nail my life in one of her two-sentence stories!
What do you plan to read next?