Kjell Askildsen is one of Norway's greatest living writers. He is also one of that country's best kept literary secrets, for despite producing a range of award-winning fiction for almost 70 years, only a trickle of his huge output has appeared in English. With luck, "Everything Like Before" will raise his profile. Deftly translated by Séan Kinsella, this selection of odd, austere yet transfixing stories from various points of Askildsen's long career showcases his stylistic verve and his relentless scrutiny of human frailties and absurdities.
The first tale, "A Bucket of Time," introduces Askildsen's trademark tropes. A nameless man in an unspecified place emerges from a wood and follows an old man carrying a milk pail containing an alarm clock. The pursuer gives no reason for what he is doing: He is merely acting in accordance with his nature, "my voyeuristic disposition." Eventually, two brothers turn up and disturb the peace by harassing the old man and breaking his clock.
In the space of just six pages Askildsen manages to perplex, unsettle and even amuse his reader. When the old man starts talking to trees, the narrator is unruffled: "If I hadn't used nature as an auditorium for similar speeches myself, I'd probably have thought he'd lost his mind, but I knew better." The trick here and elsewhere is not to ask who's who or what's what. Instead it pays to just succumb to the strange and inexplicable circumstances, to accept each peculiar encounter or bizarre cause and effect.
Many stories focus on characters who are slow to grasp their shortcomings. In "Nothing for Nothing," arrogant, misguided Bjørn likes to believe he has power over his partner Ingrid ("she's so feminine, so helpless") but she has the last laugh. In "I'm not like this, I'm not like this," the narrator learns to his horror that he is on the same wavelength as a shabby outsider who killed his own wife.
Other characters know all too well that they are alienated or adrift and only just managing to hold on. We meet fractious individuals in fragmenting relationships, a father and son who are "doomed to torment each other," and a man who lives in a basement as "a result of having come down in the world, in every sense."
A series of loosely linked vignettes featuring the same protagonist, one Thomas F, takes us into the disjointed world of an old reclusive widower. As this lonely soul ventures out into society and tries to make sense of his surroundings, it becomes clear he has had enough. But life, he tells us, "won't let go of me."
Askildsen's stories cast a similar spell. We might not always understand his characters' actions, much less their thinking, but it is hard not to be entranced by his stripped-back prose, or the original way in which he depicts the agony of empty lives and the trials of everyday existence.
Malcolm Forbes has written for the Times Literary Supplement, the Economist and the New Republic. He lives in Edinburgh, Scotland.
Everything Like Before
By: Kjell Askildsen, translated from the Norwegian by Séan Kinsella.
Publisher: Archipelago Books, 323 pages, $21.