It’s Fine By Me, by Per Petterson, translated by Don Bartlett, Harvill Secker, RRP£12.99, 208 pages
To come to Per Petterson’s third work of fiction, It’s Fine By Me, written in 1992 and only translated into English this year, is to look at the shape of an artistic trajectory the wrong way up. That it comes five years after the success of his bleak, profound masterpiece Out Stealing Horses, published in Norwegian in 2003, might go towards explaining why It’s Fine By Me has the feel of a minor work, but its fascination lies in providing us with a more rounded picture of Petterson’s oeuvre so far.
Set in Oslo in the hinge between the 1960s and the 1970s and narrated in the first-person by a teenage protagonist, Audun Sletten, this is a restrained tale of rebellion, fortitude and survival. We first meet Audun when he joins a school in Veitvet in Oslo; he refuses to take off his sunglasses indoors, lying to his teacher that he has terrible scars around his eyes – the reason for which we discover later. At school he strikes up a friendship with Arvid Jansen; this is the same Arvid who will become the protagonist of Petterson’s 2008 novel, I Curse the River of Time. The boys are united by a passion for reading – books by Jack London, Ernest Hemingway and Eldridge Cleaver, and Irving Stone’s biography of London, all put in an appearance; they also share an interest in left-wing activism and, later, a tender bond of protectiveness.
Within the first 15 pages we are told of the tragedy that struck Audun and his family when they moved to the city: the death of Audun’s 15-year-old brother, Egil, who drove his Volvo into the river Glomma and drowned. Most of the book takes place in the year after Egil’s death but the complex and dense layering of time that has come to be a signature of Petterson’s work begins to germinate here in a carefully staggered narration of the damage in the Slettens’ past. But here, again, is the bathos for those who have read Out Stealing Horses first: the past here is nowhere near as damagingly awful as it is in the later book. Equally, the fractured commuting between various levels of history, memory and the present is not as intricately wrought as it will become in Petterson’s hands a decade later.
What rings out with the clarity of a perfectly cast bell is the dammed rage of an adolescent – the impatience to be done with that transitional stage and become a grown-up overnight. The mandatory brittle swagger and mask of nonchalance are perfectly captured. In the concluding section of the book, Arvid finally calls the bluff on Audun’s mantra, “It’s fine by me”, which has been a talisman to protect him from losing face. On the last page the healing thaw begins as the veneer of perfect control breaks; Audun at last becomes an adult.
Just before finishing school, Audun leaves to start work in the rotary press section of a printing plant, against his mother’s wishes; he decides on this, he tells her, in order to help her out financially. A snapshot of working-class life in one of the world’s most successful welfare states, the book gives its readers the texture and feel of the work: the scenes in the printing factory, with its larger-than-life characters, are executed with not only a magical attention to detail but also with heart-swelling affection.
Humming away behind all this is Sletten’s real ambition, one that he keeps well hidden from the world – to be a writer. In a secluded forest with a view of a long, glittering lake in front of him, Audun tries to put Hemingway’s precept into practice: to write one true sentence. In giving him page after page of clear, glitchless and truthful writing, Petterson wittily and generously exercised a writer’s power to fulfil a character’s wish. Although in It’s Fine By Me Petterson’s long, falling arcs of luminous language are yet to come, the glimmers are all here.
Neel Mukherjee is author of ‘A Life Apart’ (Corsair)