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from the May 2021 issue

In the Stories of Kjell Askildsen, Stasis and Revelation Intertwine

Reviewed by Ben Goldman

The narratives of "Everything Like Before," only the second book by the Norwegian writer to be published in the US, bend toward the seemingly mundane, then sting with an act that might (or might not) change everything.

Kjell Askildsen, winner of the Swedish Academy’s Nordic Prize in 2009, is a consummate chronicler of contradictory, quicksilver emotions and impulses. There is in his work a careful calibration of his characters' inner lives, of small dramas in no way empty of incident, whose ultimate crux is the desultory, dangerous weight of time: time is too slow, nothing ever changes, time doesn’t matter, then it is too abrupt, it’s unbearably long—all in prose that is as lean and clean as its implications can be dark.

Everything Like Before is only Askildsen’s second book to be published in the US, following 2014’s Selected Stories, which, published by Dalkey Archive Press and also translated by Sean Kinsella, features a handful of the stories also present in Archipelago’s offering. Published simultaneously in the UK by Penguin Modern Classics and bringing together thirty-six stories from Askildsen’s long career—which started with his 1954 debut short story collection From Now on I'll Take You All the Way HomeEverything Like Before showcases the Norwegian as a master of the shorter mode.

Many of Askildsen’s stories bend toward the seemingly mundane, then sting with an act that might or might not be quite ordinary, that might or might not change everything. In “A Lovely Spot,” a couple tensely tries to keep the unease and uncertainty between them from ruining their calm vacation, culminating in an act of undiscussed, benign violence; in the stunning “A Sudden Liberating Thought,” a man living quietly in a basement flat is unnerved when one day a stranger sits down next to him at the park, precipitating a surprising series of encounters that proves, if we are to trust our narrator, fatal; and in “Nothing for Nothing,” a jealous husband embarks on a pitiful betrayal that doesn’t quite pan out. In addition to the often-disquieting realism of these stories––the way they seem to eerily meander at a pace redolent of real, unremarkable life––what these stories have in common is Askildsen’s tendency to chillingly weave between stasis and revelation, where stasis can lead to revelation and revelation to stasis, such that stasis and revelation seem, at the very least, to rhyme.

It is through his characters’ reactive and random thoughts and dialogue that Askildsen can be at his most affecting. Here he is in “Dogs of Thessaloniki,” limning a man’s mind as, vexed by his wife, he takes a walk and falls into “a drowsy, absentminded state”:

My thoughts pursued seemingly illogical courses, which were not unpleasant, on the contrary I had an extraordinary feeling of wellbeing, which made it all the more incomprehensible that, without any noticeable transition, I became gripped by a feeling of anguish and desertion. There was something all-encompassing about both the anguish and feeling of desertion that, in a way, suspended time, although it probably didn’t take more than a few seconds before my senses steered me back to the present . . . suddenly I thought, and it was a distinct thought: if only she were dead.

In a different writer’s hands, this might lead in a subsequent scene to some frenetic climax, but though there is a kind of uncanny crescendo to this story, even two of them, Askildsen offers no easy resolution or epiphany to the man’s feelings of entrapment: the man’s wife does not die, nor does he kill her (other stories do feature murderers, though never in the act). Because nothing actually earth-shattering or nominally significant happens, what is at stake in this passage, as is true in many of Askildsen’s stories, is not so much the question of time passing or standing still, of lost memories or change, as much as it’s about it already being too late in the day: the lovers are already at the end of love’s possible course, the friendship is over, the judgment has been handed down, the punishment meted out, the body has already aged—yet it, all of it, continues.

Time itself, rather than passing by, seems to inhabit the same place as those beholden to it. It is waiting. But for what, only time will tell. “He’d been dead nine days. That’s far too long, I think,” remarks the narrator of “After the Funeral Service.” It is this sensibility, most keenly tuned in “Thomas F’s Final Notes to the Public,” a grouping of eleven stories taken from Askildsen’s celebrated collection of the same name, that makes Thomas F, who graces some of Askildsen’s shortest stories in the book, such a crowning achievement.

Everything Like Before might be full of aging male narrators, but Thomas is Askildsen’s tartest graybeard; he comes out with lines like “Life won’t let go of me. He who has nothing to live for has nothing to die for.” In a strain found, too, in many of the other stories, Thomas’s bent, despite his bitterness, is toward hope, even if he might ultimately regret having given in to it. In “Maria,” Thomas bumps into his estranged daughter, who for a moment he mistakenly believes to have cracked a joke, which throws him on this little eddy of cogitation:

To think I had a daughter with a sense of humor, a slightly cheeky sense of humor at that. Who would have thought? It was a special moment. But I was mistaken, you’re never too old to be stripped of your illusions.

In “My Goodness,” when seeing an old friend from across the street but giving up on crossing, Thomas, who has trouble walking, quips, or perhaps laments, “It would have been stupid to lose my life from joy when I had managed to survive so long without it.”

What allows these stories to transcend their slim setups (“Café-goers” has him dropping a wallet and hoping someone will pick it up) is not exactly Thomas’s humorous, ironic asides so much as the way their tone expresses what he and others of the Askildsenean cast so yearn for: refuge from pain and humiliation, quiet and human connection both. In “The Banister,” Thomas wishes for the repair of the eponymous handhold. “‘Don’t you understand,’” he beseeches his landlord, “‘that on occasion that banister is all I have to hold onto in life?’” The landlord responds with a trite religious remark, such that Thomas might better have remembered his own dictum from “Maria”: “There are far too many words in circulation, the more you say the greater your chances of being wrong,” which is also a way of saying, as so many of these stories tacitly do, that the more you talk the greater your chances of being misunderstood, ignored, betrayed.

And yet! Though the banister’s destiny might not include its repair and life’s indignities might be too all-pervading (in one story, Thomas pees himself), Thomas somehow has the strength to tell himself in the final grace note of the story, “Don’t give up, Thomas, don’t give up.”

Many of Askildsen’s characters, such as the husband of “The Dogs of Thessaloniki,” inhabit a stasis from which only death might deliver them. In Thomas’s swan songs, this danger and release is especially concrete. In the final story of “Final Notes,” which is also the final story of Everything Like Before, Thomas has a fainting fit over a chessboard, toppling both “kings and pawns,” and upon waking, realizes that like this, painlessly, is “exactly how I wanted to die.” So, he waits—or does he?

Since then I’ve had several dizzy spells. But I’ve placed the chairs I have in strategic positions. It makes rather a sorry mess of the room, almost gives the impression of it being almost uninhabited. But I’m still living here. Living and waiting.

Is the strategy here to hurry things along, to make sure he hits his head good on one of these chairs, or is it that he cannot but fashion for himself a kind of banister, a grouping of things to hold onto so as to save himself and continue the stasis that is his living?

“Oh,” narrates Thomas in the final line of the story just preceding, “The world is changing, I thought. And silence is spreading. It’s time to die.” This here might be revelation in the form of resignation, but in the end, Thomas is still setting up his chairs. Maybe one day he’ll finally give life a rest—or a place to sit.

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