Book review: Professor Andersen’s Night by Dag Solstad
Christine Foster Meloni
It was Christmas Eve. Professor Andersen was alone in his apartment. He was standing at his window, looking for activity in the lighted apartments across the street. He suddenly saw a beautiful woman appear at one of the windows. Then, to his horror, he saw a man come up behind her, put his hands around her neck, and squeeze. She flailed and jerked and went limp.
Andersen has witnessed a murder. An Agatha Christie novel, 4.50 from Paddington, comes to mind. Will Solstad also write a linear story, beginning with the furtive murder and ending with an unexpected but satisfying solution? Of course not. Instead we enter Professor Andersen’s mind and listen as he grapples with a moral dilemma. His first impulse is to call the police and report what he has seen. He goes to the phone, lifts the receiver, hesitates, and then returns it to its cradle. Throughout the novel he vacillates and cannot decide the right thing to do.
Another theme runs parallel to the murder dilemma throughout the book. Professor Andersen is a professor of literature. He felt literature had great value when he chose it as his career. However, he has begun to doubt its value. He had done research on Ibsen, and he believes that his responsibility as a literature professor is to make use “of all his imaginative and intellectual skills to depict Henrik Ibsen’s dramas from the 1880s and 1890s, so that their greatness [will] stand forth in a shining light.” But he now begins to doubt whether this greatness ever really existed.
Andersen focuses his attention on Hedda Gabler, a play considered one of Ibsen’s best. He asks himself, “Is this really all that good, when all is said and done? That a general’s daughter who marries in a state of panic, and who gets bored, caused 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?”
Professor Andersen struggles to resolve these two dilemmas, one in which his very raison d’être is under intense scrutiny and the other in which he is an outsider but perhaps—or perhaps not—morally obligated to intervene. In this thought-provoking novel, Solstad raises important questions about the current significance of literature from the past and about the moral judgments we make concerning other people.
A review of Solstad’s Shyness and Dignity can be found in the January 16, 2015, issue of the Norwegian American Weekly.
Christine Foster Meloni is professor emerita at The George Washington University. She has degrees in Italian literature, linguistics, and international education. She was born in Minneapolis and currently lives in Washington, DC. She values her Norwegian heritage.
This article originally appeared in the Aug. 21, 2015, issue of the Norwegian American Weekly. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.