Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Out Stealing Horses

I remember reading somewhere, maybe in one of Sven Birkerts' luminous essays on reading, that while we eventually wind up forgetting the details about what we have read, what does tend to stick in memory is the feeling of what it was like to be inside of a particular book. I think that's true. I finished reading Per Petterson's Out Stealing Horses about two weeks ago, and I'm already starting to have trouble remembering the names of the characters and some of the details of the plot, but I don't think I'll soon forget the gestalt of the book, the mental state that it generated in my mind as I was reading it, which I would describe as a kind of serenely focussed attentiveness. The story is narrated by a 67-year-old man who has retreated, at the end of his life, to live by himself in at the edge of the forest wilderness. The plot, which I won't get into, has largely to do with the formative events of his life which emerge in a series of flashbacks, and ultimately serve to account for how he has come to be this particular person, with this particular voice, and this particular set of preoccupations.

What I most enjoyed about the book was precisely that: this voice, this character, being inside the mind of a character who thinks and speaks like this:

The dead spruce has been trimmed and cut up with the chainsaw into manageable lengths about half the size of a chopping block, and I have transported these chunks three at a time in a wheelbarrow and tipped them onto a heap on the ground outside the woodshed, and now they are stacked in a two-dimensional pyramid almost two metres high against the wall under the eaves. Tomorrow the work of splitting them will begin. So far, all is going fine, I am pleased with myself, but this back of mine has had enough for today. Besides, it has gone five o'clock, the sun is down in what must be the west, southwest, the dusk comes seeping from the edge of the forest where I was just working, and it is a good time to call a halt. I wipe off the sawdust and the petrol and oil mess sticking to the saw until it is more or less clean and leave it to dry out on a bench in the woodshed, close the door and cross the yard with the empty Thermos under my arm. Then I sit myself down on the steps and pull off my damp boots and rap the wood chips out of them and brush the bottoms of my trousers. I brush my socks, give them a good beating with my working gloves and pick the last bits off with my fingers. They make a nice little heap. Lyra sits watching me with a pine cone in her mouth, it sticks out like an unlit cigar of the really bulky type, and she wants me to throw it so she can chase after it and bring it back, but if once we start on that game she will want to go on and on, and I haven't the energy left. (89)
There are many passages like this in the book, descriptive passages which are laid out in patient, accumulative manner. There's an essential centeredness, conveyed by the pacing, the deliberate sequencing of images and events, the just slightly idiosyncratic forms of expression ("Besides, it has gone five o'clock"). It recalls Hemingway ("I wipe off the mess... sticking to the saw until it is more or less clean an leave it to dry out on a bench...") but softer-edged and less obsessive ("... pick the last bits off with my fingers. They make a nice little heap."). This is reportorial writing, but the clarity of the expression implies a certain kind of appreciative attentiveness on the part of both narrator and writer, turned outward to the world.

There are other passages which display the same attentiveness, but turned inward. The narrator is a patient and knowing student of his own mind, its inclinations and their origins. Here he reflects on his attitude about physical work, and the sources of that attitude:

What I do, which I have never let anyone know, is I close my eyes every time I have to do something practical apart from the daily chores everyone has, and then I picture how my father would have done it or how he actually did do it while I was watching him, and then I copy that until I fall into the proper rhythym, and the task reveals itself and grows visible, and that's what I have done for as long as I can remember, as if the secret lies in how the body behaves towards the task at hand, in a certain balance when you start, like hitting the board in a long jump and the early calculation of how much you need, or how little, and the mechanism that is always there in every kind of job; first one thing and then the other, in a context that is buried in each piece of work, in fact as if what you are going to do already exists in its finished form, and what the body has to do when it starts to move is to draw aside a veil so it all can be read by the person observing. And the person observing is me, and the man I am watching, his movements and skills, is a man of barely forty, as my father was when I saw him for the last time when I was fifteen, and he vanished from my life forever. (69-70)

This is a passage that gets just an enormous amount of work done in a short space: it's about work, it's about attentiveness, it's about his father, it's about his own personality, it's about being a student, it's about the craft of writing and about the art of living well. And even after I've forgotten everything else, I'll remember lying on my sofa in the living room, my eyes moving over this passage, and feeling the writing, feeling at one with the character, and feeling, although maybe not saying it to myself in so many words, "This is really great."

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