Book review: Realization changes a life in “Shyness & Dignity”

shyness & dignity

Christine Foster Meloni
Washington, D.C.

Dag Solstad is considered one of Norway’s most important writers. He was born in 1941 and has been making major contributions to literature since the 1960s. He has received numerous literary prizes including the prestigious Norwegian Literary Critics Award in 1969, 1992, and 1999.

Unfortunately, only three of his novels from the 1990s have been translated into English, three. The first one is Shyness & Dignity, published in Norway in 1994 and in the U.S. in 2006 by Graywolf Press.

This novel begins on a dreary October morning in Oslo. It is “a grey, oppressive morning, the sky was leaden, with scattered clouds drifting across it like black veils.” Senior Master Elias Rukla is in his classroom at Fagerborg High School prepared to continue an in-depth analysis of The Wild Duck with his apathetic, actually hostile students, who find Ibsen entirely irrelevant to their lives.

Rukla is keenly aware that he is “hopelessly old-fashioned,” but what can he do? He must teach Ibsen! He plunges ahead without enthusiasm, teaching the play in the same way he has done for the past 25 years.

But suddenly something extraordinary happens. As he is reading a section aloud, Rukla sees Dr. Relling, a minor character, in a different light. Dr. Relling is not Ibsen’s mouthpiece as he had always believed. He is Ibsen’s antagonist! Rukla comes to life! He excitedly asks his students why Ibsen has created Dr. Relling.

As was to be expected, his students do not rise to the occasion, they remain bored to death. At the bell Rukla leaves the classroom and heads for home. But he has a meltdown in the schoolyard when his umbrella fails to open. In a white fury, he bangs it over and over again against a fountain, creating a most undignified scene, much to the horrified astonishment of his students.

Rukla then begins a journey of self-discovery. He looks back over his university years, his marriage, and his teaching career. He realizes that he has been a minor character in his society. He had wanted to make a noteworthy contribution by educating his country’s youth. What had happened?

He had been so intellectually alive as a university student. He had been rather shy, but Johan Corneliussen, one of the brightest and most promising students, had chosen him, Elias Rukla, as his best friend. They were inseparable. Rukla became Corneliussen’s shadow, accompanying him to the many stimulating intellectual conversations taking place on campus. He listened enthralled as Corneliussen, the Marxist Kantian (or Kantian Marxist), dazzlingly dominated these discussions.

Even when Corneliussen married Eva Linde, one of the most beautiful women on campus, and became a father, their friendship did not falter. But then Corneliussen suddenly lost his idealistic fervor and went to America for a lucrative career in advertising, leaving his wife and daughter to Rukla. Eva married her ex-husband’s friend but he did not become the love of her life. Their relationship lacked romance but they settled into a more or less satisfactory routine.

Rukla realized his goal of becoming a teacher, but his career is not as fulfilling as he’d anticipated. He understands that he is not preparing his students to become socially conscious members of Norwegian society. He is not instilling in them strong cultural values.

But what does Rukla do after his undignified outburst and introspective reappraisal of his life? The reader is left up in the air and does not know if Rukla is right when he says that he has ruined his life for good. His teaching career is over. There is no turning back. How will he support himself and Eva now without a job?

In this novel, Solstad pulls the reader into the tortured mind of Rukla. One can feel the exhausted teacher’s frustration and despair. The reader too may feel frustrated at times. The book is not divided into chapters, some sentences and paragraphs are remarkably long (one thinks of Faulkner), and there tends to be quite a bit of repetition (perfectly normal, of course, for an individual’s thoughts). But the narrative flows smoothly, carrying along the reader who is astounded at the brilliance of this author.

Professor Andersen’s Night and Novel 11, Book 18 are his other novels available in English. One hopes that more of Dag Solstad’s works will soon become available to the English-speaking audience.

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 Jan. 16, 2015, issue of the Norwegian American Weekly.

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Christine Foster Meloni

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, D.C. She values her Norwegian heritage.