An Ibsen scholar falls desperately out of societypublication coinciding with Ibsen's 100th anniversary celebrations
In front of him, twenty-nine young men and women about the age of eighteen who looked at him and returned his greeting. He asked them to take out their school edition of The Wild Duck. He was once more struck by their hostile attitude toward him. But it couldn't be helped, he had a task to perform and was going through with it. It was from them as a group that he sensed that massive dislike sent forth by their bodies. Individually they could be very pleasant, but together, positioned like now, at their desks, they constituted a structural enmity, directed at him and all that he stood for.
Elias Rukla begins yet another day under the leaden Oslo sky. At the high school where he teaches, a novel insight into Ibsen's The Wild Duck grips him with a passion so intense that he barely notices the disinterest of his students. After the lesson, when a broken umbrella provokes an unpredictable rage, he barely notices the students' intense curiosity. He soon realizes, however, that this day will be the decisive day of his life.
With Shyness and Dignity, Dag Solstad - praised in Norway as one of the most innovative novelists of his generation - offers an intricate and richly drawn portrait of a man who feels irrevocably alienated from contemporary culture, politics, and, ultimately, humanity.
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About the Author
Dag Solstad, a novelist and playwright, has won numerous prizes for his writing throughout Europe, including the prestigious Nordic Prize for Literature. This is the first English translation of his work. Solstad lives in both Oslo, Norway, and Berlin, Germany.
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Shyness and Dignity
By Dag Solstad, Sverre Lyngstad
Graywolf PressCopyright © 1996 Dag Solstad
All rights reserved.
HE WAS A 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 fall 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 good-bye 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 consequently 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 good-bye 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 High 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 teachers' lounge, 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 platform 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 eighteen 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 toward 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 High 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 toward 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 present, 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 high 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 marriages, 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 immortalized 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 to 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 High 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 when 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.
Ten years ago, he thought, as he too got up, they would at least have let him get to the end of his sentence. But now, as soon as the school bell rang, they closed their books and left the classroom, confidently and blamelessly, because it was beyond doubt that the ringing of the bell signaled the end of the period. The decision was made by the bell, such were the rules whereby the instruction was organized, and one had to follow the rules, they would have said, calmly and convincingly, if he had said it was he who decided when the period was over. They would have looked at him and asked, Why, then, do we have a bell that rings when, after all, it is you and not the bell that decides? he thought they would have said. Then it would have been useless for him to mention that the bell was simply a means of reminding a teacher that it was time to stop, in case he became so fervently elated by his teaching that he forgot both time and place. He went toward the teachers' lounge. He was a bit irritated. Not least because he had looked forward to the recess even more than they, and he certainly needed it more, tired as he was, both beforehand and after talking for three-quarters of an hour almost without a stop. He needed a glass of water and he needed a headache pill. And as he stood there in front of the drinking fountain and poured cold water into a glass, sneaked out a pill and swallowed it, he thought that, by Jove, just the way I feel right now, Dr. Relling must have felt throughout the play, with a pressure on his forehead, all shivery, slightly weary of body and soul, yes, it was precisely in this condition he found himself as he went about uttering his semi-elegant (yes, he had to admit that was the way he viewed them) lines, of which at least one had been made immortal, and he had to smile to himself. He sat down in his usual place at the large table in the teachers' lounge and talked a little with his colleagues about the soccer results over the weekend, etc. Since the teachers were originally from widely different parts of Norway, every team in our two upper divisions was represented by at least one fervent fan, and those who had won over the weekend never failed to make everyone aware of it. 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. (His female colleagues did not take part in these discussions, though they sat at the same table, beside the men, but they were knitting, as he used to tell his wife with a sly little laugh.)
Then back to the classroom. But why should Ibsen offer this gesture to his mouthpiece? he asked, even before the last pupils had come in, found their seats, and closed the door. That I cannot understand, it seems so unnecessary, even self-contradictory, well, almost like poor dramatic thinking, and therefore we have to call into question whether Dr. Relling is Ibsen's mouthpiece at all in this play. One reason for Dr. Relling to serve as Ibsen's mouthpiece must, after all, be to prevent Gregers Werle from getting off too easily. But does Gregers Werle get off so easily? It is he, we know, who asks Hedvig to sacrifice herself, shoot and kill the wild duck, and who thus triggers the tragedy. He triggers the tragedy, and is at the same time preoccupied with the idea that Hjalmar Ekdal grows in moral stature as a result. Grows owing to the tragedy that he, Gregers Werle, is responsible for having triggered. Is that not sufficient? One would certainly think so. No, Dr. Relling is needed for Gregers Werle to get his comeuppance. But what, then, is Dr. Relling's function in the play, as a minor figure to whom Ibsen even offers the unnecessary gesture that turns him, in a quivering moment, into a frozen destiny, supposed to be? Well, if one reads the play with one's eyes open, without thinking of anything but just this, and then asks the question, When is Dr. Relling necessary? the answer is obvious. Dr. Relling is necessary in one place, and that is near the end of the last act. He asked the pupils to leaf forward, and they did, some quickly, others slowly, all sitting in that same dim light that is characteristic of classrooms in a Norwegian school. He also leafed forward and read the scene, in which a shot is heard from inside the attic. A little later it becomes clear that Hedvig has fired the pistol and that the shot has hit herself. What has happened? Has she, at Gregers Werle's request, gone there to shoot the winged wild duck, fumbled around with the pistol, and shot herself? A terrible accident, but profound tragedy? No, this is no accidental shot, the twelve-year-old child has aimed the pistol at herself and pulled the trigger. To show this, to elevate the play from a banal accident to a shocking tragedy, that is, Ibsen needs a character with the authority to confirm that this is the case. In other words, Ibsen needs a physician. Dr. Relling, he exclaimed, pounding the table in a flurry of elation. The pupils gave a start, some looking at him in puzzlement, a couple even knitting their brows, as he thought he noticed. Ibsen needs Dr. Relling as a natural authority, a witness to the truth, so that he can write this: "Dr. Relling (goes over to Gregers and says): No one shall ever fool me into thinking that this was an accident. Gregers (who has stood horror-stricken, twitching convulsively): Nobody can know for certain how this terrible thing happened. Relling: The wadding has burned her bodice. She must have pressed the pistol straight at her breast and fired. Gregers: Hedvig has not died in vain. Didn't you see how grief released the greatness in him?"
Here, and only here, is Dr. Relling necessary. It is on account of this scene that he is in the play. But when Ibsen needs a physician, a doctor, at the end of his drama, he cannot simply have him pop up from nowhere, he must have been introduced to us before. And so we have been thinking that he walks in and out of Ibsen's play as "Ibsen's mouthpiece." But what does he do, in reality? Well, he offers a continuous commentary on the play. He comes out with characterizations of the dramatis personae, and he also comments on the action. As a commentator, Ibsen has worked him into his drama. And what kind of comments does Dr. Relling bring to bear? They all point unequivocally in one and the same direction. That so and so is a fool, that so and so has been a dunce all his life, that so and so is a naïve nitwit, that so and so is a pompous and unbearable rich man's son who suffers from a morbid sense of justice. All of them simple, cynical, even banal truths. And these banal truths are showered upon the characters in Ibsen's drama, mind you, as this drama is being performed. Dr. Relling drags the whole play into the mud. Far from being Ibsen's mouthpiece, Dr. Relling is the play's enemy, since all he says has only one purpose: to destroy it, to destroy this drama that Henrik Ibsen is writing. Hjalmar Ekdal is a deceived fool, leave him and his family alone. Gregers Werle, however, does not leave him alone, and Dr. Relling says that Gregers Werle is a fool as well, morbidly egocentric on other people's behalf — that is what I think anyway, the person sitting on the platform added with a little embarrassed smile, and all that he, Gregers Werle, can manage to create is a dismal misery we should all have been spared. The daughter in the family, a twelve-year-old girl, takes her own life, Hjalmar Ekdal is still a big puffed-up fool, and Gregers Werle is exposed, not unexpectedly, as a cold fish who keeps drooling about "the depths of the sea," he added, almost astounded at himself and his words, so that, when Hedvig is dead, he can only think about whether Hjalmar Ekdal bears his grief with real dignity. Honestly, can this be anything to write a drama about! he cried out, again evoking disapproving glances from some of his pupils, while others were half slumped over, half sitting at their desks in transparent composure and drowsiness. Not if Dr. Relling is right, he said, lowering his voice, and Dr. Relling is perfectly right, after all, as everybody can see, even Ibsen himself, who can by no means be ignorant of the fact that Dr. Relling expresses his own "opinions" of the characters he is writing about. All the same, Ibsen goes on writing because there is something that Dr. Relling cannot have seen, and that is what makes the famous fifty-six-year-old dramatist go on writing. Dr. Relling is Henrik Ibsen's antagonist. It is Dr. Relling versus Dr. Ibsen. Henrik Ibsen writes doggedly on, and he gives Dr. Relling everything, he even lets him have the last word, he explained, gesticulating wildly. And why? he quickly added, as he collected himself. Yes, why? We have to remember that it is Dr. Relling versus Dr. Ibsen, to be sure, but it is Dr. Ibsen who invents or creates Dr. Relling. He exists nowhere else than in the moment Dr. Ibsen writes "Dr. Relling" on a piece of paper and lets him utter some of those semi-elegant home truths that threaten to tear this whole drama to pieces. Why does Ibsen do this? he asked. Why, why? he asked, looking out at the class, which offered no traceable response; on the contrary, it formed, in a faceted way, by dint of an array of different body languages and facial expressions, a compact and impenetrable hostile entity that once more made him realize that to sit here and let himself be carried away by his interpretation of The Wild Duck and of Dr. Relling, a minor character, was a torture.
Excerpted from Shyness and Dignity by Dag Solstad, Sverre Lyngstad. Copyright © 1996 Dag Solstad. Excerpted by permission of Graywolf Press.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Elias Rukla, a high school literature teacher in Oslo, is a man who has spent his entire life unconnected, to one degree or another, to society around him. Now, in the single day covered by this novel, Rukla comes to understand how far this has come.An epiphany about Ibsen's The Wild Duck¿only to realize that he cannot make his students comprehend nor appreciate it...worse, that if he could connect with them enough to make them understand, it would destroy his very view of society¿sends him from the school. A damaged umbrella sends him into an emotional breakdown and, when he comes to his senses minutes later, he realizes that he had been unable to recognize that he was surrounded by students when it happened, that he had verbally abused them without understanding what he was doing.This sets him walking blindly through the streets of the city, his memory replaying the last couple decades of his life, reflecting on the inseparable friend who disappeared out of his life, wondering if his wife feels a truest kind of indifference about him. In these reflections, Solstad has managed to capture a world of middle-age regret, sadness and loneliness.Solstad's writing style is dense, difficult at times, yet, in some way that I don't understand, it evoked a response that felt completely in keeping with the book. He does not use quotes, except when someone speaking in the book quotes someone else, and dialog is not separated into paragraphs. Phrases are reiterated hypnotically: a couple of words will be repeated five, ten, even fifteen times over a few sentences. A sentence will be interrupted with an opening parenthesis¿you might read and read for two pages before its closing mate is finally encountered. The sentences, themselves, are often quite convoluted constructs.The end result of this was to give the book a sense of separateness and obsession. I felt I was standing somewhere distant from Elias Rukla, peering into his mind as it made its self-absorbed way through events. Just as the world did not touch him, so I was an outsider.Though this book won't be to everyone's taste, it was moving and powerful.
This book has an unusual structure. Starts with about a fifty-page section of a decisive day in the life of this schoolteacher, then goes into an extended (for the rest of the novel) flashback of his university days.I thought the flashback (which comprises the bulk of the book) was very enjoyable, but the first section was a bit dull. Stick through the first third and you will be rewarded.The writing is quite good. The style reminds me of Saramago. This is a worthwhile read.