Paul Fulcher's Reviews > Professor Andersen's Night

Professor Andersen's Night by Dag Solstad
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A non materialistic dandy in an Italian suit, alone at a table by the window in a restaurant. Fifty five year old Professor Anderson, a representative of the small minority within his age group who could rightly claim to be a distinctive generation. Maybe the distinctive traits associated with their ways of acting and thinking could be traced back to a lifelong infatuation with the spirit of modernity, which had hit them and struck them down like lightning in the Sixties. The avant-garde. The overriding futuristic alliance between political radicalism and the avant-garde in art. It was lodged deeply in their mind, as though still lightning-struck, like a lifelong infatuation. How much was left of the radicalism now was difficult to say.
The central conceit of this novel - man sees, while gazing through his window, a woman seemingly being murdered but doesn't report it - is a set-up reminiscent of a short story or a Hitchcock movie, and initially rather distracts from the rest of the book.

However, where as as a murder mystery (who was she? what happened? and why?) the novel could be a disappointment, it instead excels as a psychological study of a mid-life crisis, and of the meaning of modernity.

The protagonist Pål Andersen "a professor of literature at the country's oldest university" analyses in detail his own motivation for not reporting what he saw, and this leads him in turn to examine his life and literary career>
Because I had witnessed the murder and been negligent with my eyes open, I had sunk into a state of desperation which had long ago transformed my action from an apparent revolt into a form of damnation.
In his university days, in the Sixties, he was part of a radical group of friends,an "alliance who shared radical political attitudes and a pre-occupation with (or polite regard for) avant-garde art, in other words, members of the special minority who represented the New, modernity, the distinctive modernity of their. Time, and who cultivated being against them.

But thirty years later they have become, in their 50s, establishment figures - "professors, medical consultants, celebrated actors, heads of administration, senior psychologists". Except they are still, at least in their minds, marked out as distinctive from their establishment peers by their "refusal to be pillars of society".:
They didn't feel they conformed: not to the authority, or rather duties, which they enacted, nor to the social group to which they belonged. They denied being what they were...They were still against them, the others, although they could scarcely be distinguished from them any longer...They continued to be against authority, deep inside they were in opposition, even though they were now, in fact, pillars of society who carried out the State's orders, and no one besides themselves (and old photographs from the year 2020) could perceive that they were anything other than State officials, part of the fabric, and the fact that most of them voted in elections for the ruling party would hardly surprise anyone other than themselves.

Another of their distinctive traits was their relationship to the good things in life. They ate as became their position, resided likewise, had holiday homes and cars and boats and ever-increasing affluence, but it meant nothing do they claimed, and rightly so...They behaved as though those material goods were encumbrances in their lives. They didn't define themselves through these objects which they enjoyed and which were there for one and all to see. This was particularly evident when one of them owned something that was extremely expensive or conspiciously would be explained as a personal deviation...Professor Andersen had another vice: a passion for italian suits. In his wardrobe hung five light-weight woolen Italian suits, bought in Italy, it's true, while there on literary conferences, so they didn't cost more than an ordinary suit at home, he made a point of stressing - a whopping lie by the way.
Professor Andersen realises that in reality the one of his friends who has remained "most loyal to the spirit of his youth" is the "one who on the face of it had changed the most", selling out by moving from a position as a public sector psychologist to a director of a private sector commercial advertising agency. He "was the man of the future. That made him unflinchingly radical, he claimed, because he was able to consider without prejudice, and not least without old prestige, the new problems which arose....because their radicalism had perhaps only been a chance expression of the spirit of modernity."

And he also comes to question the lasting impact of great literature, his life's passion; the very modernity in which he so passionately believes negates it.
'I'm in doubt, I'm so terribly in doubt about my own function in this age, which I really cannot stand any longer. The ravages of time, this is what gnaws at me, destroying everything. The ravages at time gnaw at even the most outstanding intellectual accomplishments and destroy them, making them pale and faded.'

'But you must be able to accept the patina of time,' his colleague said suddenly. The essential thing to recognise, and enjoy, was the noble patina which rested on a work of art which had lasted beyond it's own century.'

The suspicion that human consciousness was not sufficient to create works of art fit to survive. 'The patina is necessary to cover up this horrifying state of affairs, their own period. 'That is what I am afraid of,' said Professor Andersen, 'We have such a burning desire for something we are incapable of achieving, and we can't bear to face up to this lack of ability.
And he wonders whether the study of Ibsen, his life's work (and incidentally a preoccupation of Solstad) is really just a charade to cover up this truth; referring to Ibsen's Hedda Gabler, he tries to dispel his doubts:
"Which wasn't just the suspicion that the play does not stand a chance of returning its force in our own day and age, other than as a poor reflection of the original from 1890, but also to get rid of the cynical question which continually accompanied his inspired interpretations, and which ran like this, mockingly, over and over again: 'Is this really all that good, when all said and done? That a general's daughter who marries in a state of panic, and who gets bored, causes a damned lot of trouble for others, and then finally shoots herself? Is that something to apply oneself to, with all one's mental faculties and emotional intensity, for centuries?'
Or as it is put rather more crudely by the "murderer" when the Professor finally meets him:
If every Chinese were to eat an egg for breakfast the world would come to an end. It's as simple as that. 'When it has happened, these books can't tell you anything any more', he said pointing at the bookshelves which covered the walls in Professor Andersen's study. 'And you who have all of that in your head!' he exclaimed, 'Poor you!

Professor Andersen felt obliged to say: 'It might just be that one day it may give me a quiet sense of pleasure which will only be granted to a few people'.
Although Professor Andersen later admits to himself, when examining his dilemma as to why, months afterwards, he still hasn't done anything about what he saw:
All these conflicts he had read about, all those men under duress, at crossroads, forced to make a choice, metres and metres of books on the shelves dealt with just that, but these could not help him at all now. 'Oh, but I have learnt nothing,' he sighed, 'because there is nothing to learn.'
If, at times, Andersen descends into monologues reminscent a Thomas Bernhard narrator, in practice the tone is much lighter, almost playful, there is much more sympathy and less misantrophy in his view of his fellows, and he alternates between gloom and optimism rather than remaining permanently in the former condition.

Overall, an excellent novel, commendably translated by Agnes Scott Langeland, and I look forward to reading more of Dag Solstad's work.
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Reading Progress

December 13, 2014 – Shelved
December 13, 2014 – Shelved as: to-read
Started Reading
February 19, 2015 – Finished Reading
February 20, 2015 – Shelved as: 2015

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