I've finished reading two novels during this, my second week of pain. The first was Per Petterson's award-winning Out Stealing Horses, translated from the Norwegian and published by Minnesota's own Graywolf Press. It's a novel about fathers and sons, coming of age, memory, and pain, narrated in mesmerizing prose and set in a beautifully evoked Norwegian landscape. The prose is so quiet and controlled that you can hear the snow falling through it. The story circles back from the present to the narrator's adolescence in post-War Norway as the he gathers up the threads of his father's story and his own, and weaves them together to find a pattern. There's a kind of quiet machismo in the telling of the story, and women come into the story only in a few crucial places, almost as silent markers along the course of the narrator's masculine coming of age.
The second novel was Nina Bawden's 1981 novel Walking Naked, published by Virago Modern Classics. The narrator is Laura, a successful novelist, who in the midst of the events of a single day reaches back to tell the story of her life up to that point—her wartime childhood, her Oxford years, her first and second marriages, motherhood, and friendship. The focus is not simply on the father-son relationship, but on the entire complicated web of relationships that make up a woman's life. Bawden's narrator speaks in an intelligent, witty, conversational voice, and easily gains the reader's confidence and allegiance. But, of course, in telling her own story she's actually telling her own side of a story that's also shared by the other characters. The novel is really about how human relationships are necessarily fractured into different and often irreconcilable points of view.
Near the end of Bawden's novel, Laura and her husband get into an argument on the drive home from her parents' house. Andrew says, "Lucky Laura, loved by all, fussed over. Even the heroine of her own novels. Why the heroine, always, I ask myself. Explaining and justifying, inventing, distorting..." As I read this, I thought back to Petterson's novel, and a scene in which the narrator, Trond, has been visited by his grown daughter. They're discussing his fondness of Dickens, and his daughter quotes the opening line of David Copperfield: "Whether I shall turn out to he the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show." The daughter says:
I always thought those opening lines were a bit scary because they indicated we would not necessarily be the leading characters of our own lives. I couldn't imagine how that could come about, something so awful; a sort of ghost-life where I could do nothing but watch that person who had taken my place and maybe hate her deeply and envy her everything, but not be able to do anything about it because at some point in time I had fallen out of my life, as if from an aeroplane...
Bawden's Laura seems to come to a point where she realizes she has fallen out of her life. Maybe she isn't the faultless heroine of her own self-justifying narrative. She's not only the person reflected in her own narrative, she's also the person that other people see through very different eyes. Sometimes, the distance between those two perceptions is a long way to fall.