Aug 142013



Equal parts fantasy, horror, and domestic drama, Through the Night is a confident and spacious novel, touching on familiar themes in Stig Sæterbakken’s work—grief, loss, isolation. It tells the story of one man puzzling out his incessant and insidious sorrow over his son’s death against a surreal backdrop of terror. It is a novel with a stirring combo of artistic ambition and moral ambiguity, steeped in the spirit of Céline, Beckett, and Kafka. —Jason DeYoung




Through the Night
Stig Sæterbakken
Translated by Seán Kinsella
Dalkey Archive Press, 2013
259 pages, $15.00

GOD PLEASE FUCK MY MIND FOR GOOD snarls the disquieting music in the rather sinister nightclub Neusohl near the end of Through the Night. EVERYTHING’S BACKWARD! EVERYTHING’S BACKSWARD! the song urges. Our narrator, Karl Christian Andreas Meyer, a fractured, grief-pierced family man, is here to get the key to the house where “hope turns to dust.” In reversal of the typical quest story, Karl is questing for pain, a long-desired punishment for his familial betrayals which he believes led to his son’s suicide. This house is where you’ll be confronted with your greatest fears, where cocky, self-assured men are carried out, turned into babbling ruins and devastated by what they’ve seen. Karl hopes to see his son once again. As we’re told, punishment is a sort of medicine.

Equal parts fantasy, horror, and domestic drama, Through the Night is Stig Sæterbakken’s final novel. Compared to the other two translations of his work Dalkey Archive Press has published, Through the Night is downright baggy narratively and straightforward. The other two, Siamese and Self-Control, are taught, claustrophobic novels, pushing against the smallness of the lives of their characters, with very little in the way of backstory. In fact, Self-Control reveals so little of its protagonist’s history that when it does in its final sentence readers are confronted with near-total reassessment of whose story they have been following. Although Through the Night touches on familiar themes in Sæterbakken’s work—grief, loss, isolation—it spreads out. It’s a confident and spacious novel, with a narrator seeking a kind of genealogy of guilt while limning his own stratums grief.

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. In Through the Night there is no filter on the narrator’s thoughts, and because of this the novel is unyieldingly intense and heartbreaking—we see how startlingly pathetic, confused and human Karl is.  It is a novel with a stirring combo of artistic ambition and moral ambiguity, steeped in the spirit of Céline, Beckett, and Kafka.

Through the Night opens after the suicide of the narrator’s son, Ole-Jakob. Karl’s betrayal is hinted at but not revealed in these opening few pages, instead we are lulled by Karl’s narrative voice, thoughts on sorrow and escape, and we witness how distraught his family has become after Ole-Jakob’s death. Eva, Karl’s wife, cleaves the family’s television set with an axe in response to Karl’s binge viewing. Stine, his daughter, goes mute after the funeral until finally she breaks her silence with GOD DAMNED FUCKING SHIT and a stream of more complex profanities. “I felt a pang of happiness,” Karl says, “the first sign of life from someone we’d thought was lost to us.” This first section also sets up the lore of the mysterious house. Karl’s friend Boris[*] Snopko, a sort of failed novelist, tells the story:

Boris told me about the mysterious house, someplace in Slovkia, he didn’t know excacly, where if you contacted the right person and paid a sufficient amount of money, a staggering sum apparently, you were given a key and a scrap of paper with an address on it, where you, if you were to let yourself into the house at exactly that time, would be confronted with your greatest fears….where hope turns to dust.

The first section concludes with the retelling of Prince Unknowing, a fairy tale Karl told Ole-Jakob as a bedtime story. Although Karl’s profession is dentistry, he published Prince Unknowing, a story about a young man who is unaware of his royal heritage. The title of the novel comes from Karl’s tale. When the prince is reunited with his father, he asks “Will you look after me, no matter what happens?”  His father, the king, replies: “You have nothing to fear, may son….No matter what happens, I will be there to look after you. No matter where the road my take you, I will be by your side to protect you. Through the night and into the day.”

Alas, Karl is no fatherly king. But the retelling of Prince Unknowing sets up a motif in the novel.  Secondary stories abound in Through the Night.  Plots of films are retold, Karl attends a showing of The Ape Planet, a kind of art student attempt at avant-garde theatre, and there are two novelists—Boris and Karl’s sister—whose novels are recounted. As Karl says early in the novel about his television viewing: “I’d become part of that second reality, where pain doesn’t exist.” The stories are a form of escapism, but strangely enough they also add a sense of mimesis to Through the Night, acknowledging that Sæterbakken’s characters  live in a world where they too tell stories to one another to explain their lives.

The second section of the novel takes up the history of Karl and Eva’s marriage, the birth of their children, and the eventual extramarital affair Karl has. Because of the novel’s first person point of view, culpability for the collapse of Karl and Eva’s marriage is put into question. Yes, Karl has an affair, but Eva initially questions their marriage and fidelity. Either way, after Karl’s return from his “fairy tale affair,” as Eva calls it, disharmony reigns in the Meyer house, and Eva, Stine and Ole-Jakob are emotionally wounded and distrustful of Karl. In an act of inexplicable and extreme teenage defiance Ole-Jakob steals his parent’s liquor and then their car and drives it head on into a tractor-trailer. After Ole-Jakob’s death, Karl thinks:

I had gone from knowing everything to knowing nothing. I hadn’t seen that my boy was in danger. Whatever was needed in order to keep things going had deserted him. He’d gotten to the end, and I wasn’t there to hold him back. Was that why he did it? Because I didn’t have any idea? Because I didn’t have a clue about what was going on? Was that his way of saying it, of drawing the attention of the whole world to it, that I hadn’t understood goddmaned fucking shit? Was it was his final protest against the unsuspecting bastard of a father he’d been saddled with?…And I though of the beautiful girl who had been on her way to meet him an who would have kissed him and said that she loved him and made it impossible for him to wish for his own death.

After the funeral, Karl leaves his family again, this time traveling to Redenburg, Germany, which he calls Christmastown—“as I couldn’t help but call that place, overwhelmed by all the details, all the finesse, that served to reinforce the idyllic impression of a closed world free of anxiety and suspicion.”  In Redenburg he meets Caroline, whom at first he thinks is trying to kill herself by jumping off a bridge (in fact Karl sees potential tragedy everywhere he looks).  She is a photographer, working on an exhibition of photographs paring images of water with facial wrinkles. Caroline is also the name of one of characters in Prince Unknowing and Redenburg shares numerous similarities to the illustrations in the published manuscript, all of which lead Karl to feel an affinity for the small town, and it releases him somewhat from his guilt. He listens to a harpist in the town square, and realizes it’s the “first piece of music…[he’d] been able to perceive as beautiful” since his son’s death. He agrees to Caroline’s request to take his picture and sees her on multiple occasions, as she becomes an emblem of survival for Karl after she recounts her brother’s suicide. These opening few chapters of part three are off-plot but reveal the state of Karl’s soul, so to speak. Enticing as it is, however, Karl cannot stay in Redenburg: “it all seemed hopeless from beginning to end, everything I’d gotten myself into, in the enchanted hope of finding another life, another place, in believing in a fresh start, in believing in anything at all….Dear Ole-Jakob, can you forgive me?”

With the idyllic Redenburg behind him, he starts his quest for the house. He travels to Slovkia, finds the nightclub Neusohl and its owner Zagreb, who has the key to the house at Skubínska Cesta 64. Neusohl is a shit-smelling club and Zagreb turns out to impossible to read. Is he evil or good? By this point it doesn’t matter really, as Zagreb’s little speech on ‘reality’ reveals:

God may be a bastard. But someone is watching over us, I don’t think anyone can be in any doubt about that. The Black Death. The Holocaust. AIDS. Hurricanes and typhoons. People have turned religious over far less. Auschwitz and Hiroshima and the Gulag, they’re God’s winepresses! He uses them to crush us and squeeze out the juice needed to survive, Imean for the ones who’re left!…If you look at it like that, the house is no more mysterious than what’s going on around us all the time, it’s just that the house is on a smaller scale, actually.  It can’t compete with the world, after all…Look at whatever’s waiting for you there, whatever it might be, as your own private miniature Holocoust!

Sæterbakken’s descriptions of the interior of the house are exquisite; if it were a film, it would be a long-take, five minutes or more of silence, image after image of a home devoid of life. He takes us through each of the rooms and the attic. We see how common, drab, almost dull this house of horrors is. Atmospherically, however, it’s stunning with the plumbing emitting a “plaintive howl” and “the light from the lamp in the staircase growing dimmer.” At first Karl finds nothing in the house and assumes “the only thing [the others had] found, and which made them lose their minds, the ones who’d been in the house before me, was themselves, their own spooky emptiness, I thought, overwhelmed, suddenly, by a despair so intense that I couldn’t manage to restrain a scream, drawn-out and as unfamiliar to me as a the voice of another man.”  Against the advice of everyone he has spoken to about the house, Karl falls asleep, and it is upon waking that his true horror is revealed to him.

Bleak, complex, and precise, Through the Night is a masterful novel of ones man puzzling out his incessant and insidious sorrow.  The surreal textures of the novel provide a backdrop of terror for Karl’s existential questioning: how much is he to be blamed for the end of his marriage, how much is he to blamed for Old-Jakob’s death, how does one heal after the death of a child. Mid-way in the novel, the narrator thinks: “It was over. Yet it continued.” What this “it” is isn’t clear. His marriage, his sorrow, his existence? A fate worse than death is life seems to be the conclusion. In the end Karl’s all-consuming guilt takes him. The novel’s last pages speak ambiguously about a fire that Karl swears he did not set. But there is no clear fire in the novel only a neglected frayed cable in his son’s room, but there is longing for obliteration; Karl frequently wishes that his home would burn down, he desires to drown, he wishes to “arrive without a trace.”  Obliteration, as he sees it, is the only escape from his labyrinth of moral shame.

—Jason DeYoung


Jason DeYoung lives in Atlanta, Georgia.  His fiction has appeared or forthcoming in REAL: Regarding Art and Letters, New Orleans Review, The Los Angeles ReviewNuméro Cinq, and The Best American Mystery Stories 2012

Jason DeYoung

Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)

  1. There seems to be a definite nod to Andrei Tarkovsky in Through the Night.  Boris is one of the names of the Strugatsky brothers who wrote the novel Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker was based upon. The movie tells the story of three men traveling to another mysterious room, this time in a place called the Zone, where their greatest desire would be granted. Other similarities with Tarkovsky—notably all the fire and water imagery in Through the Night—make enticing fodder for consideration.

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