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Authors: Dag Solstad

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Shyness And Dignity

BOOK: Shyness And Dignity
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Shyness And Dignity

Dag Solstad

Norway (2011)

Nothing in Elias' measured life, in his whole career as a teacher of
literature, in his marriage to the 'indescribably beautiful' Eva,
foreshadowed the events of that apparently ordinary day. He makes sure
he has his headache pills and leaves for work as he has done every
morning for the past twenty-five years.

He is only
too familiar with his pupils' hostile attitude both to his lectures and
to himself, but today he feels their impatience, their oafishness, more
painfully than ever before and, after their ritually dismissive and
bored response to his passionate lecture on Ibsen's
The Wild Duck
, he reaches a point of crisis.

Shyness and Dignity
is the story of a man's awakening to a world that no longer recongises
what he has always stood for or his talent. Dag Solstad is Norway's
leading author, an icon among Scandinavian writers and a leading figure
of the political left. This novel, in Sverre Lyngstad's fine
translation, is one of Solstad's major works.



About the Book

Title Page

Shyness and Dignity


About the Book

A senior-school teacher in his fifties begins his day as usual, picking up his briefcase and some headache pills and after a cordial goodbye to his wife, leaving for work as he has done every morning for the past twenty-five years. However, this autumn morning is to be the start of no ordinary day. Though familiar with his students’ hostile attitude towards both his lectures and himself, today he feels their enmity touch deeper than ever before and, after a passionate lecture on Ibsen’s
The Wild Duck
, it precipitates a crisis.

He reaches a decision that forces an assessment of his choice of life, of his marriage and ultimately of his values and worth in modern society. He is, to his own mind, ‘plagued by the fact I am a socially aware individual who no longer has anything to say’.

Shyness and Dignity
is a universal story of a man lost in a world that no longer recognises either him or his talent. Nabokov and Bernhard are echoed in this tour de force from Norway’s leading contemporary writer.

Translated from the Norwegian by Sverre Lyngstad.

Dag Solstad
Shyness and Dignity
Sverre Lyngstad

rather sottish senior master in his fifties, with a wife who had spread out a bit too much and with whom he had breakfast every morning. This autumn day, too, a Monday in October, not yet knowing as he sat at the breakfast table with a light headache that it would be the decisive day in his life. Like every day, he had been careful to put on a sparkling white shirt, which alleviated the distaste he could not help feeling at having to live in such a time and under such conditions. He finished his breakfast in silence and looked out of the window, on to Jacob Aalls gate, as he had done innumerable times throughout the years. A street in Oslo, Norway’s capital, where he lived and worked. It was a grey, oppressive morning, the sky was leaden, with scattered clouds drifting across it like black veils. I wouldn’t be surprised if it rained, he thought, picking up his collapsible umbrella. He stuck it in his briefcase, together with his headache pills and some books. He bid a markedly cordial goodbye to his wife, in a tone that seemed genuine and sharply contrasted with his irritable, and her rather drawn, expression. But this is how it was every morning when he composed himself, with great difficulty, for this cordial ‘take care of yourself’, a gesture to this wife he had for years been living so close to and with whom he
had to feel a deep solidarity, and although he could now, on the whole, feel only remnants of this solidarity, it was essential for him to let her know every morning, by means of this cheerful and simple ‘take care of yourself’, that in his innermost heart he thought that nothing had changed between them, and while they both knew that it did not reflect the actual situation, he felt obliged to force himself, for the sake of propriety, to rise to a level high enough to make this gesture possible, not least because he then received a goodbye in return in the same simple and genuine tone, which had a soothing effect on his uneasiness and was indispensable to him. He walked to school, Fagerborg Secondary School, situated only seven or eight minutes from his home. His head felt heavy and he was a bit on edge, after drinking beer and aquavit the evening before, a little too much aquavit, about the right amount of beer, he thought. A little too much aquavit, which was now pressing on his forehead, like a chain. When he reached the school he went straight to the staff room, put away his briefcase, took out his books, swallowed a headache pill, said a brief but unaffected good morning to his colleagues, who had already taught one period, and went to his class.

He entered the classroom, closed the door behind him, and sat down behind the teacher’s desk on the podium by the blackboard, which covered most of one long wall. Blackboard and chalk. Sponge. Twenty-five years in the service of the school. As he stepped into the classroom, the pupils hastily sat down at their desks. In front of him, twenty-nine young men and women about the age of
who looked at him and returned his greeting. They removed their earpieces and put them in their pockets. He asked them to take out their school edition of
The Wild Duck
. He was once more struck by their hostile attitude towards him. But it could not be helped, he had a task to perform and was going through with it. It was from them as a group that he sensed the massive dislike sent forth by their bodies. Individually they could be very pleasant, but en bloc, positioned like now, at their desks, they constituted a structural enmity, directed at him and all that he stood for. Although they did as he told them. They took out their school edition of
The Wild Duck
without grumbling and placed it on their desks before them. He himself sat with an equivalent copy in front of him.
The Wild Duck
by Henrik Ibsen. This remarkable drama that Henrik Ibsen wrote at the age of fifty-six, in 1884. The class had been taken up with it for more than a month, and even so they were only in the middle of Act IV – that was doing things in style, he thought. A sleepy Monday morning. Norwegian class, actually a double period with a group of seniors, at Fagerborg Secondary School. Directly outside the windows, that grey, oppressive day. He was sitting behind his lectern, as he called it. The pupils with their noses and eyes turned towards the book. Some were slumped over rather than seated at their desks, which annoyed him, but he did not bother to take notice of it. He was speaking, holding forth. In the middle of Act IV. Where Mrs Sørbye appears in Ekdal’s home and announces that she is going to marry Werle, the merchant, and where Ekdal’s lodger Dr Relling is
, and he read (himself, instead of asking one of his pupils to do it, which he did at times for the sake of appearances, but he preferred to do it himself): ‘Relling (with a slight tremor in his voice): This can’t possibly be true? Mrs Sørbye: Yes, my dear Relling, indeed it is.’ As he was reading he felt an unendurable excitement, because all at once he thought he was on the track of something to which he had not previously paid any attention when trying to understand
The Wild Duck

For twenty-five years he had gone through this drama by Henrik Ibsen with eighteen-year-olds in their last year of
(or secondary school), and he had always had problems with Dr Relling. He had not fully grasped what he was doing in the play. He had seen that his function was to proclaim elementary, unvarnished truths about the other characters in the play, well, actually about the entire play. He had seen him as a kind of mouthpiece for Ibsen and had been unable to grasp why that was necessary. Indeed, he had been of the opinion that the figure of Dr Relling weakened the play. What did Henrik Ibsen need a ‘mouthpiece’ for? Did not the play speak for itself? he had thought. But here, here there was something. Henrik Ibsen lays his hand on his minor character Dr Relling and, within parentheses, makes him speak with a slight tremor in his voice as he asks Mrs Sørbye if it is really true that she will marry Werle, the powerful merchant. For a moment, Henrik Ibsen pushes Relling into the drama he otherwise exclusively comments upon with his sarcasms. There he is, caught in his own bitter fate as a perpetual, unsuccessful admirer of Mrs Sørbye, throughout her two
, first to Dr Sørbye, now to Werle, and for a brief moment it is his fate, and nothing else, that is frozen into immobility on the stage. The moment of the minor figure. Both before and after this he remains the same, the man who reels off those smart lines, one of which has acquired an immortal status in Norwegian literature: ‘If you take the life-lie away from an average person, you take away his happiness as well.’

It was this he now began to expatiate on to his pupils, who were partly sitting at, partly slumped over their desks. He asked them to flip their pages to Act III, where Dr Relling enters the stage for the first time, to read what he says there, and then move ahead to the end of Act IV (he assumed that the pupils were familiar with the whole play, although they had only reached the middle of Act IV in their examination of it, for their first assignment had been to read the play in its entirety, which he presumed they had done, regardless of what the pupils themselves, individually or as a whole, had accomplished in that respect, thinking, with the hint of an inward smile flickering through his rather – after yesterday’s meditative little drinking bout – shivery body, that there was no reason why he should act as a policeman in class), the very place where Dr Relling, among other things, utters his subsequently immortalised statement about the life-lie, and he said: There you can see, Dr Relling is just chattering, all the time, except for one place, and that is where we are right now. Now we’ve got him, you see, he is in the drama for the first and last time. The pupils did as they were told, leafed back, leafed forward, leafed back
where they were, namely, where they had Dr Relling in the drama for the first and last time. Did they yawn? No, they did not yawn; why should they yawn, this was not something that called for a demonstration so violent as to necessitate a yawn, this was a perfectly ordinary Norwegian class for a group of seniors one Monday morning at Fagerborg Secondary School. There they sat, listening to the teacher’s interpretation of a play that was a prescribed text for their final examination in Norwegian,
The Wild Duck
, named after a wild duck that lived in an attic, a dark attic as it happened, some looking at the page, some at him, some out of the window. The minutes were slowly ticking away. The teacher continued to talk about the made-up character Dr Relling, who seems to have spoken an immortal line in a play by Ibsen. Here he is, he said, frozen firmly to his own bitter fate. Bitter for him, on the verge of the ridiculous for the rest of us, not least if we were to have him presented to us by way of Dr Relling’s own sarcasms.

But, he added, and now he pointed his finger straight at the class, which startled a few of them, because they did not like to be pointed at in that way, what would have happened if this scene had not been included? Nothing. The play would have been exactly the same, apart from the fact that Dr Relling would not have had his quivering moment. Because it is completely superfluous. It does not affect the development of the plot in the least, nor does it change, as we have seen, Dr Relling, the minor figure. He is exactly the same character, with exactly the same function, both before and after his quivering moment. And
we know that this play is written by the masterful Henrik Ibsen, who carefully lays out his characters and scenes and leaves nothing to chance, we have to ask: Why does Ibsen include this superfluous scene, where Dr Relling, a minor character, speaks a line ‘with a slight tremor in his voice’ and is suddenly pulled into the play as someone with a destiny? There has to be a reason, and since the scene is superfluous, well, in reality, wasted, there can be no other reason than that Ibsen wants to show this made-up minor character of his, Dr Relling, a handsome gesture. But then the question arises: Why …? In that moment, however, the bell rang and the pupils instantly straightened up, closed their school editions of
The Wild Duck
, got up and walked quietly and confidently out of the classroom, past the teacher, whom they did not take notice of for a moment, not a single one of them, and who was now sitting on his chair, all by himself, annoyed at having been interrupted in the middle of a question.

BOOK: Shyness And Dignity
6.61Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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