It’s Fine By Me by Per Petterson
17/12/11, Financial Times
To come to Per Petterson’s third work of fiction, It’s Fine By Me, written in 1992 and only just translated into English this year, five years after the astral success of his bleak, profound masterpiece, Out Stealing Horses, published in Norway in 2003 and in the Anglophone world in 2006, is to look at the shape of an artistic trajectory the wrong way up. To think about the earlier novel as later, as its publishing history forces us to do, is wrong; to write about it in the correct chronological order, as coming eleven years before Out Stealing Horses, which we already know about, is to give the review a strangely proleptic feel.
The inversion certainly goes towards explaining the minor-work feel that suffuses It’s Fine By Me. Set in Oslo in the hinge between the sixties and the seventies and narrated in the first-person by its teenage protagonist, Audun Sletten, It’s Fine By Me is a restrained tale of rebellion, fortitude and survival, a sounding of most of the themes that Petterson is going to keep returning to, deepening the scope and extent of his meditations, in his future works. We first meet Audun when he joins a mixed-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 donning the sunglasses will surface much later in the book. 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, Hemingway, Eldridge Cleaver, Irving Stone’s biography of London, all put in an appearance – and left-wing activism (Arvid is even a paid-up member of the National Liberation Front) and, later, a tender, understated bond of mutual protectiveness.
While it is hinted that Audun, his sister Kari and their mother have escaped from the shadow of a great threat to the safety of Veitvet, within the first fifteen pages we are told of the tragedy that struck the family after they moved to the city: the death of Audun’s fifteen-year-old brother, Egil, when he drove a Volvo into the River Glomma and drowned. Nearly the entire book takes place in the year after Egil’s death but the complex and dense layering of time that has come to be the structural signature of Petterson’s work, and of which Out Stealing Horses is the finest flowering, begins to germinate here so there is a carefully staggered narration of the damage in the Slettens’ past. But here, again, is the bathos to readers who have read Out Stealing Horses first: the past is nowhere nearly as damagingly awful as it is in the later book; neither is the fractured commuting between various levels of history, memory and the present, done with such seemingly miraculous artistry in Out Stealing Horses, the thing of perfectly-wrought intricacy that it will become in Petterson’s hands a decade on.
What rings out with the clarity of a perfectly-cast bell are other things: to begin with, the dammed rage of an adolescent, the impatience to be done with the transition and become a grown-up overnight. The mandatory accompaniments of brittle swagger and the carefully composed 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.
Audun leaves school just before finishing to start work in the rotary press section of a printing plant; much against his mother’s wishes, he decides on this, he tells her, in order to help her out with money. A snapshot of working-class life in one of the world’s most successful welfare states, the book is true to its contents by giving its readers the texture and feel of the ‘work’ bit in working-class: the scenes in the publishing factory, with its gallery of larger-than-life characters, are executed with not only a magical attention to detail but also with heart-swelling affection. At a time when the tide in socialist activism seems to have left, making it appear to be peculiarly retro detritus on the shores of history, these sections of the novel about ‘factory floor work’ can be piercingly affecting and nostalgic at the same time.
Humming away behind all this is Audun’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 has wittily infolded two ambitions within a writer’s power to fulfil a character’s wish. Those long, falling arcs of luminous language are yet to come but the glimmers are all here.