Bergeners by Tomas Espedal
Translated by James Anderson

I’ve been aware of the publishers Seagull Books for some time now; not least because they sent me a copy of their beautiful catalogue, which is a work of art in its own right, but also because of the love shown by a number of esteemed bloggers I follow (most notably Joe at Rough Ghosts, who even spent quite some time interacting with them on a trip to India – check out his fascinating posts on his blog!) Despite wanting to, I’d somehow never actually picked up a copy of any of their books (possibly because the choice is so great I didn’t know where to begin); but Bergeners received so much blogging acclaim that I figured it would be a good place to start and picked up a copy! πŸ™‚

Tomas Espedal is a Norwegian author new to me. and “Bergeners” was originally published in 2013; the Seagull edition, translated by James Anderson, came out last year. It’s a lovely edition, beautifully put together and with a stylish dustjacket; if this is an indication of the quality of Seagull books I can see myself acquiring more… And I see that several of Espedal’s book are available from the publisher – oh, the temptation!

“Bergeners” is one of those book which defies classification; notionally tagged as being about the people of Bergen, “a love letter to a writer’s home town” as the blurb puts it, it’s really much more. After a vivid opening memory, the book switches to New York, with the narrator experiencing the huge strangeness of that city, before being dumped by his girlfriend. And actually, to attempt any linear description of the book’s content after that would be pointless, as the narrative is a fragmentary and heady mixture of memoir, fiction, poetry and meditations on life. Espedal stirs in reminiscence of his young life, his difficulties at home, growing up, hints of a failed marriage and encounters with other Norwegian figures in the arts world (most notably one “Karl Ove” – I wonder who that could be…) He was can also be drily funny at times!

Simen Hagerup pays a visit. His hairstyle seems to indicate that he wants short hair and long hair at the same time.

The book ranges widely in location, from New York to Madrid, Albania, Nicaragua, Paris, Berlin and of course Norway. There are fragments and poems; diary entries; short stories; and sections which read like memoir and meditation. Running through the book is a thread of loss, ageing and melancholy, alongside a constant sense of absence. There is a past wife; a lost girlfriend; parents who are dead or in care; friends who drift apart; and, perhaps most painfully; a grown up daughter who moves away to live her own life.

By BjΓΈrn Erik Pedersen [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)%5D, from Wikimedia Commons

The blurring of past and present creates an evocative narrative which lingers in the mind; and Espedal seems to be reflecting on the inevitable changes that come in life, time passing, and the effects of age. I could perhaps be trite and say the man’s having a mid-life crisis; but I think we use that term pejoratively nowadays, and actually life is so frantic that we often find that age catches up with us when we pause to take a breath. That happened to me when I went back to work after 15 years of looking after Offspring – it was like coming out of the other end of a tunnel and wondering where my life had gone. But I digress.

From the window of the room at Hotel S. Anselmo, on the second floor, you can see right into a lime tree. It’s as if you’re sitting behind the curtain to expose the tree’s secret. One of its branches grows towards the window and scratches the pane when the wind blows. If the window was kept open, the branch would grow into the hotel room. The line-tree branch would spread inside the room, its leaves would unfurl, it would turn to winter, spring, and there, hidden behind the curtain, you imagine how the tree and the seasons would take over the empty room.

“Bergeners” is full of evocative images, the kind of book where you find yourself wallowing in the beauty of the writing. What is fact and what is fiction is never clear, but to be honest I don’t think that matters here. If you want plot, this is *not* the place to look. But if you want poetry, poetic prose, vivid imagery and the kind of narrative that will set you thinking and keep you thinking for a long time after you finish the book, then Espedal could well be the author for you. My first experience of a Seagull book was a stunning one – and I’m sure it won’t be my last.

*****

I’m not sure that I’ve actually done this book justice, so for further thoughts you could check out Joe’s thoughts here, and also Melissa’s here. Anthony has also written about Espedal’s other works on his excellent blog.

Advertisements