Self-Control is a disquieting novel of Beckettian stasis that simmers in that prolonged “state of emergency that answers to the name of Humankind.” Its narrator, inexplicably possessed by sadistic thoughts, off-putting desires, and weaknesses, lives in a constant state of dissatisfaction in a world that seems to take little notice of him. He is man intoxicated by his own pain, an agony that has dulled him to the point of despair, and throughout the novel we witness his (initial?) efforts to confront his reality only to have them thwarted either by those closest to him or by his own self-control. —Jason DeYoung
In response to the question how can we enjoy something sad, Stig Sæterbakken writes in a short essay titled “Why I Always Listen to Such Sad Music”:
I believe disharmony and asymmetry correspond to a disharmony and an asymmetry within us, because we ourselves are not whole, or complete. Because we are never fully and completely ourselves. Because our lacks, our weaknesses, and our fears make up an essential dimension within us. Because our wounds are meant not only for healing, but also the opposite, to be kept open, as part of our receptivity to that which is around us and within us. And because there is also relief in this, not to be healed, not to be cured, melancholia satisfies us by preventing us from reaching satisfaction, it clams us by keeping our anxiety alive, it gives us peace by prolonging the state of emergency, the state of emergency that answers to the name of Humankind.
Self-Control is a disquieting novel of Beckettian stasis that simmers in that prolonged “state of emergency that answers to the name of Humankind.” Its narrator, inexplicably possessed by sadistic thoughts, off-putting desires, and weaknesses, lives in a constant state of dissatisfaction in a world that seems to take little notice of him. He is man intoxicated by his own pain, an agony that has dulled him to the point of despair, and throughout the novel we witness his (initial?) efforts to confront his reality only to have them thwarted either by those closest to him or by his own self-control.
Influenced by writers such as Poe, Celine, and Georges Bataille, Stig Sæterbakken doesn’t write pretty books nor does he write novels that close with an upstroke of sweetness. Instead, his novels remind us that there are fates worst than death, namely life—long, horrifically normal life, in which people do not know you and you do not know yourself. Life in which we cannot find congruence with one another, even though that is what we yearn for the most.
Before he took his own life in 2012, Stig Sæterbakken was renown as one of Norway’s best living novelists—as well as one of its most infamous. As a writer, Sæterbakken insisted “that literature [be] a free zone, a place where prevailing social morals should not apply…[that] literature exists in a space beyond good and evil where the farthest boundaries of human experience can be explored.” His novels investigate much of what is unflattering about human behavior—evil, which he called “the most human condition of all.” 
This exploration of evil bled over into his professional life as the Content Director of the Norwegian Festival of Literature in 2008, when he invited the controversial author and Holocaust denier David Irving to be the keynote speaker for the 2009 festival. The Norwegian press demanded Sæterbakken disinvite Irving and even Norway’s free speech organization Fritt Ord asked that their logo be removed from all of the festival’s publicity. Sæterbakken refused. He called his colleagues “damned cowards.” Although reviled by some as a stunt, the David Irving invitation has been seen by others as within keeping with Sæterbakken’s examination of evil.
For all this talk of evil, however, Self-Control is not an evil novel—or I do not perceive it to be—but it does delve into unattractive human behavior, specifically our indifference to the pain of others. Self-Control is the second novel in Sæterbakken’s S-trilogy, so called because the title of each book starts with an “S”. The trilogy starts with Siamese, which Dalkey Archive Press published the first English translation of in 2010, and concludes with Sauermugg (not yet available in English). The S-trilogy novels are linked by their exploration of male identity problems, and a “disgusting descent into the hell of human flesh”
Outraged by the complete indifference and self-centered behavior of the people around him, Andreas Felt, the narrator of Self-Control, begins a series of deliberate actions to defy the social norms he sees as the barriers between us. His rampage (of sorts) starts with a lie he tells his daughter that he and her mother are divorcing, a lie that is spontaneous, meant to puncture the “cool…arrogant attitude” his daughter has adopted. Only briefly does his daughter seem touched by this news.
During the second scene of the book, Andreas carries his rampage into his boss’s office. His boss is a man “five to ten years” his junior, and Andreas thinks to himself that their whole relationship is built upon formalities: “we only need to leave the premises and go to another place…in order to see how ludicrous…how implausible” it all is. He walks into the office and without provocation calls the man a “little shit” and a “miserable bastard.” He tells him that he is “one of the worst imaginable types of creeps that crawls on the surface of the earth,” reminds him that he got his job through fraud, and that he “probably couldn’t put two words together if someone came up and asked what it is we actually do here.”
Andreas expects dismissal or some sort of reproach. Instead his boss says simply: “My wife is very ill.” His boss wants to discuss his wife’s illness, not Andreas’s tantrum. As with his daughter, Andreas’s expectations are rebuffed, this time by an exchanged of one outpouring of pain for another. A quick search through this slim novel (154 pages) reveals that the word “expect” shows up fourteen times, and its close cousins “usual” and “usually” appear fourteen times and sixteen times respectively. Self-Control is a novel that shows how our lives are ruled by the “familiar” (a word that appears eleven times), by “habit” (a word that appears eight times), by route and routine (a variation that appears six times). Granted it is a translated text—but this is a novel of spurned expectations.
What Andreas wants is for our usual, familiar, habitual behavior to go away—a full extirpation of all our hideous decorum. Of a houseguest, Andreas says: “His discretion has always irritated me.” He imagines leaping upon this man and biting his nose; this thought he says, “cheered me up.” As Georges Bataille writes: “Society is governed by its will to survive…and based on the calculations of interest… it requires [savages] to comply with…reasonable adult conventions which are advantageous to the community.”  In Self-Control, characters are govern by social norms, and will not tolerate Andreas. Where he breaks with custom, others rebuke with conventionality.
Reappearing like a compass heading throughout the novel is the disappearance of a sixteen year-old girl. The girl goes missing on the same day as the novel begins and lends a sense of imminent tragedy to the narrative. But the presiding sense of doom in the novel also manifests in Andreas’s almost worshipful attitude toward disaster and catastrophe. When observing his colleague Jens-Olav, who has lost his wife and house and most of his possessions in a recent fire, Andreas thinks: “I didn’t know if it was compassion or envy I felt most. Grief like that…I couldn’t imagine to think of it as anything other than liberation, liberations from all the trivial things that otherwise have such power over you.” At other times, he lies in bed fantasizing about living through war. He also desires misfortune on others: “I thought that if I could only mange to find out who [carved an obscene word into the lavatory wall at work] then that person would undergo a transformation, right before my eyes, and it would be a lasting change.” But his obsession with tragedy is part and parcel with his desire for change. Late in the novel while watching a movie in a theatre for the first time in years, he thinks:
I didn’t want it to end. I wanted a new beginning. Everything over again…fresh and unfamiliar…without any clues as to how it was going to go…what was going to happen…no end. Only beginnings. One after the other. That was the way I wanted it. To know that everything was in front of me. That nothing was decided.
Andreas covets his own sovereignty, but he is fearful of taking real action toward obtaining it. Instead he longingly looks upon tragedy as a source of freedom—“It was as though I was close to exploding with joy over something that in reality was dreadfully sad.” This promise of tragedy invades his decision making as he put faith into chance occurrences: “if [the traffic light] changes to green while I can still see it then a disaster is going to take place” (page 12); “if a taxi drives by the department store next…then I’ll call [home]” (page 86); “if the next person who goes by the window has a hat on I’ll make the call” (page 90); “if a female newsreader comes on the radio at the top of hour I’ll leave [my wife]” (page 153). When he finally sees someone who has what he wants it is a bum seated a few table over from him, farting:
[T]he power in the eyes of a man who has given up on everything…at least that was what I thought I’d seen in them…one who has nothing left to lose…who has no interest in the workings of the world…and so take people for what they are, not for what he wants them to be… a look so pure and hard and clear that I felt it in the pit of my stomach. Inferior, I felt completely inferior… I felt like a fool, like someone whose development has been at a standstill since his youth and has never been corrected, who’s never been made aware of the grotesque disparity between reality and his perception of reality.
For all his desire to “freshen” life, to be “transformed,” to change the “usual” course of things, Andreas is a man boxed in by self-control, too. If the reader stops listening to Andreas’s flat, rather monotone torrent of thought for a moment, and thinks about his actions, what we discover is that he is really very similar to those around him. After he rants to his boss, his boss confesses that his wife is ill. Andreas can’t show any compassion toward the man, who so clearly desires it, but he does asks “politely” what’s wrong with her, and many of the other “usual” questions one perfunctorily asks when told such news. During a diner party, Andreas’s guest so plainly wants to enliven the mood. Andreas refuses to play along. After a meal in a restaurant, where Andreas over tips the waitress, the waitress begins to go on and on about how hard her work is, and she wants to show Andreas the kitchen, which is a terribly confined space, where a sick person, wrapped up like a larva, lingers in a corner. Again, the social norms are tested—what he seems to want—but our flummoxed narrator retreats.
I’m resisting the urge to spoil Self-Control, because there is a profound silence in it—an important character who doesn’t speak. What I will say is that the final sentence of this novel reveals that one of the worst tragedies that can befall a person has already happened to Andreas, and the end of Self-Control blossoms with complexity only suggested on the previous pages. It is a line that attacks and shakes you from compliancy in Andreas’s nightmare. It is testament of Sæterbakken’s great skill as a writer, too, that he manages to withhold its information for so long and uses it to obliterate our perception of his narrator, to show how insidious Andreas’s stasis is and perhaps how impossible to overcome.
Jason DeYoung lives in Atlanta, Georgia. His fiction has appeared most recently in Corium, The Los Angeles Review, Numéro Cinq, and The Best American Mystery Stories 2012
- “Why I Always Listen to Such Sad Music” by Stig Sæterbakken. Literature & Music. Vol. 1, Fall 2012.↵
- “Stig Sæterbakken—Between Good and Evil” by Gabriella Håkansson, Transcript.↵
- I am not trying to defend Sæterbakken’s decision or ethics here, but to give a sense of his character. He does seem to be a person who lived by a code near to Terence’s “I am a human and consider nothing human alien to me.”↵
- “Stig Sæterbakken—Between Good and Evil” by Gabriella Håkansson, Transcript.↵
- Literature and Evil, Georges Bataille. Trans by Alastair Hamilton. Marion Boyars, 1988.↵