Sunday, October 2, 2011

Shades of Gray: Petterson’s In the Wake

Per Petterson’s portrait of Arvid Jansen, the first-person narrator of In the Wake reminds me of my visit to Vardø, a small town on the very top of Norway. I came to Vardø on a Hurtigruten coastal steamer ship, and the landscape looked brown and gray from the water. But when I walked through October fields and went to see the island’s one linden tree, I found bits of brightness among the gray rocks and brown earth.

In the Wake, translated from the Norwegian original I kjølvannet by Anne Born, feels equally dreary at first glance, telling the story of Arvid’s difficulty coming to terms with the death of his parents and brothers in a ship fire. Arvid’s mortality is an issue, too. Arvid drinks too much and keeps a distance from most other people, including his brother David, who attempts suicide early in the book. Still, Arvid perks up at human contact with, among others, that same brother, his Kurdish neighbor, a nurse who offers cocoa, and a potter at a small store. The last scene in the book, which endeared the book to me, uses dark humor that seems to show a transition from “Why bother?” to “Might as well” when confronted with the hard conditions of life and death.

In the Wake is loaded with interiority and minutiae, hardly accidental since Arvid reminds us that Bashō, whom he enjoys reading, says “Everything was something.” The reader learns details about a cottage, knows what Arvid eats, and almost feels the rhythm of windshield wipers and Arvid’s heartbeat. And then there are memories of childhood, of cards showing boxing, of skiing expeditions, and so many other things that Arvid says his life “was filled to the bursting point, and it had been like that the year before and the year before that, and as long as I had been thinking with the better part of my brain…”

It’s difficult to describe the effect that Petterson’s book had on me: Arvid is a quintessentially not-so-pleasant anti(hero) for an existentialist novel and the beginning of the book is confusing. But the lonely northern snow, rain, and fog, and Arvid’s dislike of the telephone eventually drew me in. So did his neighbor’s habit of saying “problem.” Perhaps what drew me most, though, was Arvid’s habit of shutting himself off. Don’t we all—or at least most of us—want to interact with others on our own terms? And then there’s this perfect bit, as Arvid lies on his back outside in the cold:

I look up between the tree trunks to the sky, which is completely clear and full of stars, and it slowly turns around, the whole world turns slowly around and is a huge, empty space. Silence is everywhere, and there is nothing between me and the stars, and when I try to think of something, I think of nothing. I close my eyes and smile to myself.

This, too, reminds me of my day in Vardø, though my memories are of sitting and looking out at the ocean in the afternoon, not the stars at night. When I left town the next day, the taxi driver who brought me to the airport told me he’d like to take the Hurtigruten someday, too, but he would only do it the same way I did: alone and in the off-season.

For More: Adam Gallari’s article “In the Wake: Per Petterson and the Notion of Contemporary Existentialism,” on The Quarterly Conversation.

Up Next: Su Tong’s The Boat to Redemption. Then Willa Cather’s Lucy Gayheart.

Image Credit: Photo of wake behind a ferry in the Baltic Sea from user "Wanted," via Wikipedia.


  1. So glad you liked this! It's one of my top five books of all time. So many metaphors on "wake" in really pulled me in to discovering his layers (aka Shrek) of meaning.
    I believe this character reappears in I Curse the River of Time but I'm not home to check. Pretty sure, though, which means you should read it soon because the mother/son connection is explored in a pre-crash phase.

    Also, did you know this was partially biographical? Heartbreaking story...

  2. You are right (of course!), Amy, that both books are about Arvid: I Curse the River of Time is a prequel to In the Wake. I didn't realize that Arvid is a partially autobiographical character... though he feels so strong that I'm not surprised.

    I had a hard time getting into In the Wake, but it really grew on me: I guess a Scandinavian setting, all that everyday existentialist drear, and a character who doesn't like to answer the phone is a winning combination for someone like me!