Per Petterson broke onto the international fiction scene with his 2006 novel Out Stealing Horses. I didn’t discover him, however, until a holiday in Bergen sent me in search of an iconic Norwegian writer.
Out Stealing Horses is a novel about boyhood, fathers, and loss. Timelines loop like the Glomm River through the forest, heedless of country borders or wartime alliances. It’s a novel like Petterson himself: deeply Norwegian.
Early November. It’s nine o’clock. The titmice are banging against the window. Sometimes they fly dizzily off after the impact, other times they fall and lie struggling in the new snow until they can take off again. I don’t know what they want that I have. I look out the window at the forest. There is a reddish light over the trees by the lake. It is starting to blow. I can see the shape of wind on the water.Per Petterson, Out Stealing Horses (Vintage 2006)
On the river
Petterson lives outside of Oslo in a stretch of the river that sounds very much like the setting of this novel. He describes it as back bush, close to the Swedish border, on a bend of the Glomm River. He lives in a farmhouse among chickens and trees, snow and water. The way Petterson describes it in Out Stealing Horses, life on the river sounds idyllic.
We heard the rain battering the roof and it rained on the river and on Jon’s boat and on the road to the shop and on Barkald’s meadows, it rained over the forest and the horses in their paddock and all the birds’ nests in all the trees, over moose and over hare, and on every roof in the village, but inside the cottage it was warm and dry.Per Petterson
This is the summer idyll of 15 year old Trond Sander. The year is 1948. The place is his father’s cabin near the river. It’s where Trond’s father comes to think. He’s good with his hands. Other men look up to him. He is a man of many talents.
Jacob was his name for all the fish, whether in the sea-salt Oslo fjord at home with his chest right over the rail and his face in a scornful smile at the water, with a playfully boxing fist over the deep; just you wait, Jacob, now we’re coming to get you, or in the river here that came flowing in a semicircle crossing the border from Sweden and down through this village and back into Sweden a few kilometres further south.Per Petterson
It is the last summer Trond will see his father.
Out stealing horses
The title comes from an early scene in the novel. Trond and his friend Jon are up to no good. They’ve decided to go steal horses. They don’t mean to keep them, of course. It’s not much more than a kind of equine joyriding. Their fathers would be appalled but they’re not to know.
The phrase takes on a new meaning when Trond learns of his father’s wartime experiences though Petterson had no intention to write about the war.
“When I started Out Stealing Horses, I had no idea that the war would be in that book. Then some friction crept in – an unease between the two fathers. And I thought to myself: what can that be? Well, this is the 1940s. It has to be something about the war. Shit. I’ll have to write about the war. Then I have to do research, and I hate research. Of course, now it seems that the war is essential to the story.”Per Petterson interviewed by James Campbell, “A Life in Writing: Per Petterson” in The Guardian, 3 Jan 2009
Petterson doesn’t plot. Instead, he works sentence by sentence toward the meaning of his work. The effect is surprising as Petterson tells his tale along two different timelines: the 15 year old Trond and the 66 year old Trond. We learn little of what has happened to Trond in the 50 odd years in between. Just a glimpse of some tragedy that has compelled Trond to return to the place where he feels most at home: a cabin by the river.
All this makes for slow reading. The plot doesn’t heave like a sea monster. The characters do not shapeshift. We never do find out what happened to Trond’s father. Is he alive? Is he dead? It hardly matters. Petterson is writing about the sorrow of an adolescent, a boy on the brink of manhood whose grief leaches into his bones.
Petterson suffered a similar catastrophic loss when his parents, brother and cousin died in a ferry fire. It’s tempting to graft Petterson’s personal grief onto this novel but that would do his writing a gross injustice. Petterson can write luminously, especially when describing his beloved countryside. For that alone, the read is worth it.
Outside, the blue hour has arrived. Everything draws closer: the shed, the edge of the wood, the lake beyond the trees, it is as if the tinted air binds the world together and there is nothing disconnected out there.Per Petterson