Herewith an excerpt from Stig Sæterbakken’s Self-Control, translated by Seán Kinsella and published by Dalkey Archive Press. Self-Control’s narrative is that of Andreas Felt tottering on the brink of unsettling his entire life. In this excerpt—the opening chapter of the novel—his first spoken words to his daughter are ironically “You’re all settled in then?” This sentence has a very meta and unnerving quality when thinking about the book as a whole. Also in this passage, you’ll get hear the stammer in Andreas’s voice (which I don’t mention in my review). The use of ellipses is an eccentric technique that runs throughout the novel, adding silence to Andreas’s confession. These small silences add to the reveal at the end and recalls Jeanette Winterson’s idea: “When we tell a story we exercise control, but in such a way as to leave a gap, an opening. It is a version, but never the final one.” —Jason DeYoung
I hadn’t seen her… talked to her of course, but hadn’t seen her, in… how many years had it been?… even though she was my own flesh and blood… and that’s why it seemed natural to me to explain it this way, because it was as though the opportunity arose so seldom that it have us both… or me at least… a sort of fear of failure with regard to the benefits of our rather hastily arranged meeting. Even though she wasn’t the daughter who lived farthest away, no, on the contrary our homes were so close to each other that actually it was a wonder that we didn’t bump into each other unexpectedly from time to time. That this wasn’t the case made it natural to assume that it was because she didn’t want to, and for that reason had taken measures not to… or simply… and perhaps more likely… because it was extremely seldom that I… if at all in the past year… had deviated from my regular daily route through the city.
She had lit a long, thing cigarillo, I got the idea that it was chosen on account of her fingers, which were also very long and thin. She kept looking out the window all the time, as if there was something exciting going on out there, or she stared down at the table or at the cigarillo when I answered her or asked about something: surveying with great interest, it seemed, the grey glow advancing down along the slim stem. A bit put-on, this excessive nonchalance. But what else could I expect? Every time she opened her mouth I thought I’d hear something terrible, that she’d blame for something, or tell me about something horrible that had happened to her. But after a while, as the conversation ran its course, still without any particularly unpleasant subjects being brought up, I ascertained to my surprise that it was all progressing in an extremely polite and restrained way: I couldn’t help but imagine how friendly and relaxed our little meeting would appear to an outsider, one of the café’s random patrons.
I took a glance out the window, in the hope of perhaps discovering something of interest that could explain her slight absentmindedness. But there was nothing to see, not from where I was sitting anyway, nothing other than a fire hydrant that stood on the other side of the street, squeezed against the fence, with a drooping bush as a roof. It had a sort of dignity, standing there. A few long blades of grass had struggled up through the asphalt an grown closely around it, and a couple of dandelions had accompanied them, of which there were only a few greenish-brown leaves left, making it look like a headstone. It was completely calm, cars passed without a sound. Yes, it all seemed so peaceful that it appeared almost staged. I started to think about that girl who’d been reported missing earlier in the day, she was sixteen and hadn’t come home from a party the night before. We’d heard the police appeals on the news during our lunch break but it didn’t seem like anyone else had taken any particular notice of it… perhaps you just hear about that sort of thing too often nowadays?… and this had exasperated me, I realized, even though it was only now, in retrospect, that I noticed what an impression it had made. It was so tranquil in the park as well, when I strolled through it, a bit before six, and still warm in the sunlight. The pea shrub bushes crackled like a lively fire in a hearth along the promenade, the empty pods hitting the asphalt with a dry slap. She’d suggested the place to meet, I had to ask for directions twice. And when I finally opened the door, a couple of minutes late, and caught sight of her… she had sat down at a round table, in the middle of the café… there was something strange about her, just at first glance, that made me proud, like a confirmation of something, without my being sure of what it was.
Our chairs were plastic, the seat felt cold against my behind when I sat down and I had a hard time ignoring the goose bumps it gave me on my skin down there, it felt like tiny nails being pulled out of my rear. All at once I became aware that I was frightened of running out of things to say, and I thought I recognised the same fear in her. Then I thought that I could actually say anything at all, that it still wouldn’t make any difference. It was as though the lack of contact, on a regular basis, which at some times bothered me and at other times didn’t, relieved us of all responsibility: however you looked at it, we didn’t have the time we’d need to become so acquainted with one another that it would be of any significance, no matter what we said. At the same time I couldn’t quite get away from feeling a certain sort of secret admiration for her. Because I did see, to my amazement, that it was a grown-up and extremely sensible woman sitting in front of me, one who wouldn’t allow herself to be knocked off her perch just like that, wonderful to see, yes, quite beautiful actually, it struck me, as I studied her more closely. I thought I could picture her reprimanding one of her colleagues for substandard work, or rolling her eyes over a particularly stupid remark from Karl-Martin, with whom she had unfortunately and for reasons that were incomprehensible ended up; she who could probably have chosen anyone she wanted…
“You’re all settled in then?” I asked.
“Yeah,” she answered, a little sullenly, as if the question bored her.
“And everything at work is all right?”
“Karl-Martin’s work is okay too. He’s just started in a new job. The last job he had was just awful, he hated it so much he was on the verge of… well.”
I nodded, even though I didn’t know what she was going to say.
“But he’s happy now,” she said, it seemed like fatigue was on the verge of overwhelming her.
“Do the two of you have any particular plans, or…”
I immediately regretted the unfinished sentence, because I knew she wouldn’t help me in the way I had helped her. She looked at me. As I’d thought. She just waited.
“Or are you both…?” I felt I’d already entangled myself in something that would be impossible to find my way out of again.
“Y’know? Thinking, right now, how should I put it…?”
She gave a wry grin. “About children, you mean?”
I threw my hands up. “Yes, for example.”
“That can wait,” she said, but it seemed from the way she said it as though this was out of the question. She began to tell me about Karl-Martin’s job, not her own… described in detail what his new position involved, how much responsibility he’d been given, how much they expected of him, how much freedom he had to plan his workdays.
While I sat there listening to her I noticed something peculiar about her lips, how they stuck to each other at a particular point at the far corner of one side of her mouth when she spoke. This detail, insignificant as it was, now caught my attention in such a way that I lost sight of everything else. I couldn’t manage to take my eyes off it. It bothered me to look at it, all the same I let myself become completely absorbed by it. There was something about it that didn’t fit… was that why I was so fascinated?… the rest of her, something that didn’t match, no, absolutely not, with what I otherwise took as being her, or rather her outward face. It was as though that small, and to a certain extent innocent, defect did something to her expression, gave her a certain quality of… well, mercilessness, completely lacking in compassion, as if she was ready to clear every obstacle out of her way by whatever means necessary. It frightened me when I saw it. It was like I was sitting face to face with a superior power. I looked at her, closely examined her whole face, which I had studied with pleasure only a few minutes before… but it seemed as though it had changed, and now I thought it was a wonder that I hadn’t noticed it right away, this cool, calculating, yes, cynical feature of her mouth. It wasn’t possible not to see it. And what I had initially considered a disruptive element, a blemish, was now revealed as the very thing that, in reality, have her her own particular appearance. I stared at her mouth: unmistakably hers. And eventually… unavoidably perhaps… there was something nasty about it, the slow, sort of lazy motion at the corner of her mouth… it was as though I was hearing the sound of them, her lips, every time they tore free of one another, again and again, for every word she spoke. And it was only when I realized that she had been sitting staring at me a while without saying anything that I managed to tear my eyes away from that fold of skin… only to discover that I hadn’t the slightest notion of anything appropriate to say…
Once again it was she who saved us from an embarrassing silence.
“How are things with Mom anyway?” she asked, in an offhand kind of way, as if it didn’t matter to her whether she got a proper answer or not.
“Marit,” I said, squeezing my buttocks together, because a brief bout of stomachache had suddenly become a bubble of air that wanted to get out, and it was as if the coldness of the seat was trying to pull it out of me by force.
“Your mother and I, we’re getting a divorce.”
She was startled. It was as unexpected for her as it was for me. I had to use all my strength to tame the demon that was wreaking havoc down in my rear end, a loud piercing fart cloud cracked against the seat before I managed to gag it, but she was, fortunately, too beside herself to notice. Because we both sat there, shocked by what we had heard. Yes, even she sat there now, with glistening eyes and a flushing flower on each cheek. But only for a moment, she was quick to regain her composure, find her way back to her pale, feigned attitude of insensitivity.
“I see,” she said. “I see, so the two of you are getting a divorce.”
A few moments passed, then she added: “That was a surprise.” She shrugged, in resignation… or indifference perhaps… as if to illustrate how little she cared, and drank what looked like the last dregs from her cup. I said a silent prayer that she would let the subject lie, which it seemed she wanted to do as well. She was probably uneasy about showing too much interest in the unexpected news, and at that moment I was indebted to her for exactly that. because what would I have answered, if she had begun to question me… about the cause of the breakup… about our reasons for wanting to leave each other… about how we planned to organize our new lives… when we had no intention at all of doing any of it?
My spontaneous lie made it difficult for us to continue our conversation, that was plain to see. So I drank up as well, a cold, pasty sediment that made me shiver, and we took care of what we had met up to take care of in the twinkling of an eye, quickly and efficiently, without saying any more than was necessary to each other, like a customer and an employee; I gave her the money, we exchanged a few words, I waved to the waiter and asked for the bill. Marit insisted on paying, but I was strongly opposed, there was no sense in it, I thought, if she was going to use the money she had just gotten.
She said good-bye to me as soon as we were outside the café. I was a little bewildered since the most natural thing would have been for me to accompany her, I could almost have followed her home without going out of my way… on the other hand I was also aware of how easily an awkward atmosphere could develop in the course of an unplanned extension of our time together… possibly it was precisely this that she was considerate enough to want to avoid by our taking leave of each other… or she could have to run an errand downtown for that matter… what did I know? I wondered if I should ask her to say hello to Karl-Martin, but thought it best not to mention his name any more than was absolutely necessary. We shook hands. And suddenly I felt the impulse to hug her, to hold her, just for a moment… be left with a perfumed imprint on my body as a memento… but I refrained, I thought that it would only make the situation more difficult for her. And for me. Maybe she would have to twist herself free from the embrace… as from an assault… and then she would have gone home with the feeling that she’d been molested, a feeling which would then be imprinted on her memory of this meeting, overshadowing all its positive aspects, no matter if they were in the majority… which they were… as opposed to now, I thought as I stood there watching her walk away, there where we parted, if not in an especially affectionate way, then at least in a polite and level-headed one, so she could walk home, if not with any great happiness, that’s for sure, then without bearing a grudge, without having experienced her father as a particularly clumsy or unpleasant person.
Her head stuck up out of the coat like a flower from a vase, I saw her neck, white beneath her close-cropped hair, and I thought I could almost picture the way it had been when she was small… there was something about her neck… their necks… that made such an impression on me every time I saw them, although I couldn’t remember the reason. But there was something nervous about the way she walked, out here… she sort of danced along… which didn’t quite fit with the impression I had gotten from her in there, cool and self-assured, that arrogant attitude she had adopted… which she had probably had from the start, it had just taken a little time before I recognised it… and which my insane fabrication about the divorce had been the only thing that… for a fraction of a second… had managed to puncture. I tried to remember if I’d had any firm opinion of myself when I was her age. In any case, I was convinced it was a lot less developed and self-assured than hers. I had once wished all the best for her, I thought no matter what. As little pain as possible, and as much joy as possible. That she would succeed in everything she did, however far her interests might be from the pursuits I myself considered meaningful. No matter what she chose to invest her time and energy in, that the investment would prove to be worthwhile, that the profit would be plentiful, that her efforts would only make her stronger. I wanted her to be a fast learner, wanted her to do all right as far as her circles of friends; wanted her to have, preferably, a prominent position; wanted her not to be bothered by anyone, have the wool pulled over her eyes by anyone; not to be exploited by any two-faced creeps, stripped of her independence and self-respect by some twisted psychopath or other. I wondered if she and Nina still kept in touch, or if the years had come between them, as they can so easily, and so quickly, between siblings… and I remembered that that was what I’d been thinking about beforehand and had wanted to ask her, if it had been a long time since she’d heard anything from Nina, if they ever met up, or rang each other now and again, if she knew where Nina was at the moment, where she lived, who she lived with if she wasn’t living alone… I tried to think, were they more alike than unlike, those two, would a stranger seeing them for the first time notice the similarities or the differences if told that they were sisters. But it was as though I couldn’t quite manage to picture both of them side by side… it was as though I didn’t have room in my thoughts for the both of them… only Marit, or someone who resembled Marit…
She disappeared behind a growling bus, and I couldn’t help feeling certain relief at the thought that it would probably be a good while before we would meet again. I let my eyes wander, slowly. I tried to remember if there was any particular name for them, the clouds I saw, which looked like they were stuck to the blue of the sky, clouds that would soon diminish and which awoke a strange and highly conflicted feeling in me… It was as though I was close to exploding with joy over something that in reality was dreadfully sad. I stood looking at the traffic light, just there where Marit had disappeared, a round, red blot, like an overripe apple that would soon fall. Finally I decided to go… why hand around there, in the middle of a busy sidewalk, with my bag in my hand?… besides, I was freezing… and I turned my head slowly as I walked so as not to let the traffic light out of my sight: I thought that if it changes to green while I can still see it then a disaster is going to take place somewhere in the world tonight, a catastrophe so big that it would be all over the front pages tomorrow morning and that there’d be newsflashes on the television all afternoon… several hundred people dead, an entire area razed to the ground… but nothing happened, it was still red as I crossed the street and went into the parking lot outside the big shopping centre on the other side: its name stood humming in the twilight in a seething shimmer of orange and yellow. My hands turned yellow, and the people I met looked sinister, as if their faces were about to come loose from their bodies. Even the parked cars shone in the light of the store’s letters, like animals asleep in a field.