Kjell Askildsen writes what might reasonably be called ghost stories in which there are no ghosts. His prose, uniformly muted and bare, seems haunted by absence. His characters are inscrutable. His landscapes are stage sets in which houses and lawns exist alone in an empty world; beyond them may be a “fjord” or a “beach,” but these are nouns rather than places. When the characters venture beyond their own property, they rarely encounter other people. Often they go to “the restaurant at the railway station.” They smoke. They drink. Nowhere are they at home.
Askildsen, who is 84, is a major figure in contemporary Norwegian literature, but Selected Stories, superlatively translated by Seán Kinsella, is only the second collection of his work available in English. It includes stories from four previous collections, but it has the coherence of a single work. Though unknown to American readers for so long, Askildsen will be immediately recognizable. There are echoes here of Albert Camus, Peter Handke, James Cain and the inescapable Knut Hamsun, but most of all of Hemingway—poor, doomed, grandstanding Hemingway, who is so much the victim of his own myth, so hard to make out in his crowd of imitators, so compromised by the bad work he produced later in his career that it’s easy to forget the enormous achievement of his early stories. That achievement is partly a matter of style, as everyone knows—his “economy”—but more significantly it’s the effect achieved by that style. Something is missing, and in the early stories (though not in a later story like “Hills Like White Elephants,” in which it’s possible to guess what’s been left out), it’s the feeling of something missing, a kind of existential dread, that is the real content. This is the quality that Askildsen shares, whether he has read Hemingway or not. In Askildsen’s writing, there is something missing from the experience of life itself, and we are never going to know what it is. It doesn’t exist. It isn’t an “it” at all.
“Martin Hansen’s Outing,” which begins the collection, functions as a kind of overture and immediately situates Askildsen within this tradition. In the first moments, the title character is returning to the house after tying up raspberry canes. “I got to the steps, sat down on the second-to-last one, and thought: there’s no one at home anyway.” That suggestive “anyway,” so uneasy and so inexplicable, sets the tone for the entire collection. “A moment later I heard voices from the living room, and before I managed to get to my feet, my daughter, Mona, said: What are you doing sitting here? I stood up and said: I didn’t think there was anyone at home.” It shouldn’t matter that he’s sitting down, but it does matter, and Askildsen will never explain why. Already, after one paragraph, there is the feeling that something grievously important has passed unsaid.