Paul Fulcher's Reviews > Shyness and Dignity

Shyness and Dignity by Dag Solstad
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"I wouldn't be surprised if it rained he thought, picking up his collapsible umbrella."

Shyness and Dignity, translated by the excellent if somewhat opinionated ( Sverre Lyngstad, is the second Dag Solstad novel I've read and he's rapidly joining by list of favourite authors alongside his countrymen Saabye Christensen, Petterson, Kjaerstad, Hamsun and of course Knausgaard.

However, I didn't find this novel as strong as Professor Andersen's night ( - the story felt simpler and the characters, and themes, less nuanced, and it is notable that Professor Andersen's night was written 2 years later.

Elias Rukla is a high-school teacher, relatively unexceptional:

"He himself was in Division III, at the top of the division, to be sure, with an annual hope of moving up to Division II, but when they asked him questions it was still mostly out of politeness and sympathy, which he could not find any fault with."

(a comment about his football team in staff room conversations but with a clear read-over to himself)

But he performs, in his view, a highly valuable role in society as he introduces senior high-school students to Norwegian literature. Of course his students are bored, and the teaching largely over their heads but:

"this boredom was experienced both by him and the pupils (until now) as a lack. And this lack would mark them later in life.....Oh, Ibsen, well I'm afraid he's over my head, or, Hm, you know, I never became interested in literature, and in this there was a regret, and it was not their own, for they, after all, were so little interested in literature and in Ibsen's plays that they saw no reason to regret anything...No it was as social beings that they found it necessary to express regret, namely, a regret that was a necessary expression of the cultural background which every civilised society seeks to impart to its citizens."

His mundane existence, teaching the same novels and plays year after year, is highlighted by occasional additional new personal insights into the work he is reading. But one such insight causes the moment of crisis that triggers the events of the novel, as he realises that something has changed over the years:

"the young people who were now [...] bored by his exegesis of Henrik Ibsen's drama The Wild Duck, were bored in an entirely different way than previously. The young people who sat here now in all their immaturity, being bored by his elated interest in Dr Relling's function in The Wild Duck, did not look at their boredom as a natural consequence of being a pupil, on the contrary, they were indignant."

The most famous concept in Ibsen's The Wild Duck is the "life-lie" ("If you take the life-lie away from the average person, you take away his happiness as well") and this seemingly minor incident exposes the falsity of Elias Rukla's life-lie, that what he does is valued by society. And this has consequences firstly for his umbrella (an urban myth claims that post this novel's publication no Norwegian teacher has ever dared carry an umbrella), but then the whole edifice of his life, particularly his relationship with his wife:

"He must say goodbye to his entire social existence; it was impossible to conceive of any other conclusion to the avalanche that had overwhelmed him, and even if he could, it would not have changed anything, since he would simply have shrugged his shoulders at every other proposed solution and uttered a stubborn no."

The novel then circles back in time, explaining, in detail, his odd domestic situation:

"That eight years went by from when he met her until she became his wife was due to the fact that, in the meantime, she had been married to his best friend"

His best friend, and provider of much of his intellectual stimulation, abandoned both his Marxist principles, to become a consultant in capitalist America, but also his wife and daughter, leaving them in Rukla's care.

Lyngstad uses Rukla's relationship with Rukla's best friend's ex-wife, now re-married to Rukla, to explore his key themes, but the novel suffers from the rather artificial nature of the wife's character: she comes across more as a doll than a human being.

Rukla finds himself so lacking true companionship and cultural stimulation that a casual passing reference to Mann's Magic Mountain ("I'm something of a Hans Castorp today") by a colleague sends him into weeks of ecstasy.

Rukla's real crisis comes from the realisation, prompted by his student's new form of boredom, that he simply doesn't fit in modern society, as personified by the media:

"Damn it all, he thought, I am, after all, and average, socially concious individual, with a good education and a tolerably sound judgement. I am widely read, too. So why have I become so uninteresting to those who set the tone that they cannot even bring themselves to greet me any longer? Yes, that's how it felt to Elias Rukla. To put it quite simply, the newspapers wounded his vanity."

Rukla seems a less thoughtful interlocutor than Professor Andersen, who has also seen one of his best-friends seemingly sell out to the commercial sector but, unlike Rukla, seems to appreciate that in doing so he may have actually have remained truest to his principles. Rukla instead sees only despair:

"This means it's all over, he thought. It's dreadful, but there is no going back."
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Reading Progress

April 6, 2015 – Shelved
April 6, 2015 – Shelved as: to-read
May 20, 2015 – Started Reading
May 22, 2015 – Finished Reading
May 23, 2015 – Shelved as: 2015

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