“All Was Lost”: Robert Crooke Reviews Men in My Situation, a novel by Per Petterson

A real-life tragedy haunts this beautiful, touchingly honest novel by celebrated Norwegian author Per Petterson. The event in question is a fire that in 1990 destroyed the Scandinavian Star ferryboat during an overnight voyage between Norway and Denmark. This profound catastrophe, which claimed the lives of 159 passengers—including Petterson’s parents, a brother, and a nephew—has been transposed in barely fictional form into Men in My Situation. And there, it looms as a spiritual black hole whose gravitational forces pull endlessly against the shattered soul of Petterson’s frequent alter ego and narrator, Arvid Jansen.

As we meet Arvid, an accomplished but emotionally remote author living alone in the Oslo suburbs, two years have passed since the ferry fire. And in that time a further disaster has occurred. His wife has left him and taken their three young daughters. Though he understands his emotional deficits as a husband and father, Arvid fatalistically embraces an inability to change. It is as if the ferry fire has subsumed his living spirit and the divorce has spun him ever further into its vortex of confusion, recrimination and despair.

Arvid often ponders the way his 15-year marriage failed in a process of “ebbing out.” But his memories of the union’s bleak final year are especially vivid. In one of these, he rises late at night in sleepless silence and leaves his discontented wife, Turid, alone in their bed. He creeps down stairs, grabs a warm coat, and steps quietly outside to take refuge from marital distress in the darker, colder emptiness of his parked car:

Not once did it strike me that she could have come down the stairs, out into the dark in her nightdress and boots and opened the door to the front seat and asked me to come back in, come back up, up to the warm bed … That would have changed everything. But not until I realized that it had never crossed my mind that she could have come down, nor could remember having wished for it a single time, did it dawn on me that all was lost.

Barely six months after the divorce he receives a discomfiting phone call from his 12-year-old daughter, Vigdis, informing him that she and her younger sisters, Tine and Tone, have decided they can no longer visit him on dreary alternate weekends and occasional Wednesdays as prescribed in the already narrow divorce and visitation agreement. Yet now, in what might seem a final blow to Arvid’s tenuous sense of self, a strange and unexpected transformation begins.

Oh, I said, that was a rather tough message for me to receive, but if you have all agreed, I guess I have to yield. I didn’t know what else to say, she was so serious, and I didn’t want to make it any harder for her. Now … it was as if I was falling and falling, with a rushing noise the way Saul had fallen on the road to Damascus, an unbearable blinding light in his eyes, and had turned into someone else, into Paul, and in the middle of that same dusty blazing hot road I too lost myself and became a different person from the one I had been, a different father, and I could not speak, and Vigdis said, Daddy, are you there, and I said, yes, now I’m here. But I wasn’t. Someone else was.

And from this ambiguous moment early in the book, until its final, stunning pages, Men in My Situation plays out with profound sensitivity and insight as a struggle for the soul of Arvid Jansen; a four-year battle waged by his vulnerable yet valiant daughter, Vigdis—on behalf of her sisters and mother—with the old father she has willingly lost, and the new father who now walks beside her:

And then it struck me, right out of the blue. I was being tested. That’s what this day was all about … And I said, Vigdis, what the hell, we’ll take a taxi to Skjetten. I’m a writer after all, I’ve got plenty of money. But Daddy, she said, you don’t. Maybe not, I admitted, but I can afford a taxi. That’s fine Daddy, she said. Let’s do it. We crossed the road, hand in hand, that’s what we did that day, up on the pavement towards the taxi … and I thought, I passed, just now, I could feel it, as we climbed into the taxi.

Perhaps best known for his acclaimed 2003 novel, Out Stealing Horses, and its compelling 2019 film version, Per Petterson has received the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, the Nordic Council Literature Prize, and the Norwegian Critics Prize.

Men in My Situation, translated from the Norwegian by Ingvild Burkey, is Petterson’s eighth novel. First published in 2018 with the title Menn i min situasjon in Norway by Forlaget Oktober AS, the first English language edition was published in 2021 by Harvill Secker/Penguin Random House UK. Graywolf Press published the first American hardcover edition, which was a New York Public Library Best Book for 2022, and will release a trade paperback version in July 2023.

Men in My Situation, by Per Petterson. Minneapolis, Minnesota: Graywolf Press, February 2022. 304 pages. $26.00, hardcover.

Robert Crooke’s latest novel, Letting the House Go, was published in August 2022 by Unsolicited Press.

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