Disappearing In Plain Sight – Meditations On Old Age, Loneliness, And Death

The Faster I Walk, The Smaller I Am
By Kjersti A. Skomsvold
Published by The Dalkey Archive Press, 2011
Translated from Norwegian by Kerri A. Pierce

This new book that I just recently finished clocks in at only 147 pages (novella length, especially when one considers the near-mass market sized dimensions), so this should be a fairly brief post, but… well, I tend to get distracted.

The Faster I Walk, The Smaller I Am comes to us from Norway, written by first time novelist Kjersti A. Skomsvold.  I’m particularly favorable to Norwegian writers, especially since I was introduced to Knut Hamsun (by way of John Fante) nearly a decade ago now.  And one thing I’ve noticed about Norwegian writers (or, more honestly, any writer in translation) is that so much depends upon a simple translation.

For instance, Knut Hamsun’s superb novel Hunger was first published in 1890 and several translations followed.  Given the time period, more bawdy scenes were either trimmed, or cut entirely from the first translation.  A second translation, by American Poet Robert Bly was next, in the late 60s.

Bly’s version is good.  Much of the strength of Hamsun’s plot comes through quite well.  I was content with this version until I stumbled upon a newer version, translated in 1996, by Sverre Lyngstad, himself a Norwegian.

Lyngstad’s version is highly superior.  The intricacies of the language shine forth.  Passages are more descriptive and sparkle with more beauty than Bly’s ever could.

What does this have to do with The Faster I Walk… outside of the normal amount of padding I have to add to my blog posts?  Well… the first bit of the novel I read was posted on The PEN American Center.  I loved it.  The main character, Mathea Martinsen, leapt off of the page and I had to finish her story.

Then comes the copy of the book I read.  The first thing I noted was the difference in translator.  I wasn’t concerned as the excerpt I read was only a chapter and… surely, I wouldn’t notice a difference?  Well… I did.  Not major differences, but (as when comparing Bly and Lyngstad) little inconsistencies in both tone and intent cropped up.

But I persevered.  And I’m glad I did!  Despite my reservations, the novel zips along and reads very well.  And the story it tells, about Mathea, a widow whose time spent living alone has made her feel invisible, is simultaneously humorous and tragic.  She attempts, mostly in earnest, to be noticed more often…

…at the grocery store, where she’s certain the checkout clerk wouldn’t be able to identify her minutes after she leaves.
…on her rare walks around the town, where she dons her dead husbands watch so she’ll be able to tell time to the people who don’t ask.
…in the future, as she buries a time capsule that she hopes will be dug up in decades (what does it contain? Read the book to find out!).

The best moments of the novel, however, come when the humor springs forth like the gods of Olympus, suddenly, fully formed and painful.

My favorite example of this is when Mathea takes her dog for a walk to the park and some school-children make fun of the dog’s weight and wonder, in jest, if he’s able to swim.  Mathea feigns throwing a treat into the water and the dog, Stein (appropriately, his name translates as “stone”), swims further and further out in search of the treat, never to return.

“The kids looked from the water back to me, and I didn’t know what else to do, so I pretended everything was fine.”

Despite the fact that there was nothing funny about the situation, I couldn’t stop laughing.  I still smirk now, about a week later, when I remember the scene.  Am I a terrible person?  The real question you should ask yourself is just how terrible I am.

Mathea makes many other faux pas throughout the novel (another favorite is when she compares her love of animals to Hitler’s love of animals…) and the opening half of the book is full of humorous little bits of information about Mathea’s life, both past and present.

But the second half is where the book really takes off.  Mathea comes to the conclusion that none of her attempted excursions into the outside world are successful and she starts internalizing more and remembering past events more.  Eventually, one starts to wonder what is artistic license on the part of the narrator and what really happens (which makes previously chapters that much more interesting).

Every time I try to write about the ending without spoilers, I say too much (especially for those who have read a lot of the same sort of pre-20th c. lit that I have), so I’m just going to shut up and say that I liked the ending, despite the fact that I saw it coming fairly early on.

The novella is brief, but powerful.  I typically would read 2-3 chapters in a sitting, despite these brief groups only totaling to about 15 pages because the humor clashes in painfully familiar ways with the more dramatic moments…

But you should do yourself a favor and track down this book!  It is another darkly humorous novel (I certainly have a type, don’t I?), but it meditates on life, death, the relationship between the individual and society, loneliness, mental illness, and old age.  And all in less than 150 pages.

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One thought on “Disappearing In Plain Sight – Meditations On Old Age, Loneliness, And Death

  1. I am filing this away for when I take a break from teaching and my masters. (You know, when I have time to read more than “Pete the Cat.”)

    Also, when I read “Read the book to find out!” I definitely heard LeVar Burton’s voice in my head.

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