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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

     

Shyness and Dignity

by
Dag Solstad


general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the author

To purchase Shyness and Dignity



Title: Shyness and Dignity
Author: Dag Solstad
Genre: Novel
Written: 1994 (Eng. 2006)
Length: 150 pages
Original in: Norwegian
Availability: Shyness and Dignity - US
Shyness and Dignity - UK
Shyness and Dignity - Canada
Shyness and Dignity - India
Honte et dignité - France
Scham und Würde - Deutschland
Timidezza e dignità - Italia
  • Norwegian title: Genanse og verdighet
  • Translated by Sverre Lyngstad

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Our Assessment:

A : powerful small day in/and a life novel

See our review for fuller assessment.




Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
FAZ B- 31/12/2007 Martin Halter
The Independent . 28/11/2006 Boyd Tonkin
Libération . 25/9/2008 Mathieu Lindon
The LA Times . 27/8/2006 Susan Salter Reynolds
Neue Zürcher Zeitung . 23/5/2007 Aldo Keel
The NY Sun . 2/8//2006 Benjamin Lytal
Sunday Telegraph . 30/7/2006 Kate Chisholm
TLS . 21/7/2006 Paul Binding


  From the Reviews:
  • "Eine Zeitlang fasziniert die obsessive Beharrlichkeit, mit der er seine Gedanken bis zum bitteren Ende verfolgt; aber dann ermüden die Formlosigkeit und Redundanz seiner Suada doch. Zumal die beiden Männer ihre Ikonen Wittgenstein, Ibsen und Marx mehr von ferne anbeten und sich, je lšnger, desto mehr, in mysteriösen Exkursen über norwegisches Eishockey, die Literaturgeschichte der zwanziger Jahre oder die Straßennamen von Oslo verlieren. Solstads Kritik der Oberflächlichkeit geht selten in die Tiefe und nie ins Innere seiner Figuren. Was anfangs Wahn und Wut eines abgehängten Bildungsbürgers schien, ist am Ende nur noch das eintönige Klappern einer kulturkritischen Klagemühle." - Martin Halter, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung

  • "Grim enough for you ? Persist. There's a lot happening, on several levels, in this compact and layered book, and Solstad has a revered role in Norway as the chronicler of his country's changing times. (...) The teacher's ruminations vividly bring to mind the savage introspection of that earlier master of ennui in Oslo, Knut Hamsun. Yet he also carries a sense of comic bathos" - Boyd Tonkin, The Independent

  • "Les quarante-cinq premières pages de Honte et Dignité sont extraordinaires. La suite du roman est très bien, mais le début est hors du commun." - Mathieu Lindon, Libération

  • "Rukla is a study in creeping unhappiness, racked with doubts about his ability to communicate, empathize, even believe in democracy." - Susan Salter Reynolds, The Los Angeles Times

  • "Shyness and Dignity begins as a farce but ends as a tragedy. Readers may want to read The Wild Duck before starting Mr. Solstad's novel; not only is this Ibsen's death centennial, but the novel contains many rich structural allusions to Ibsen's play." - Benjamin Lytal, The New York Sun

  • "It has all been said before, and said better, by Elias's heroes; Knut Hamsun, for instance. But Elias's questions are those provoked by September 11, and when he thinks to himself that "those who set the tone in society judged and reflected reality in a manner that felt like a degradation of everything he stood for" there's a frisson of recognition, of the power of connection." - Kate Chisholm, Sunday Telegraph

  • "Dag Solstad's eminence in Norway is abundantly justified by this profound and courageous study of solitude in society, and despair within enviable security. The translation by Sverre Lyngstad has an exemplary fluidity." - Paul Binding, Times Literary Supplement

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Shyness and Dignity focusses intently on Elias Rukla, an Oslo schoolteacher in his early fifties. The story begins on a Monday in October, with his domestic morning routine, the reader warned but Rukla himself:

not yet knowing as he sat at the breakfast table with a light headache that it would be the decisive day in his life.
       How it will be decisive is not immediately made clear, leaving the reader -- at least for a while -- in some suspense. But for quite a while it seems like almost any day in the school-teacher's life, as Solstad carefully recounts the lesson of the day, a scene from Ibsen's The Wild Duck that Rukla is going over with his class of twenty-nine high-school seniors.
       Rukla teaches literature, and he's taught The Wild Duck for all the twenty-five years he's been a teacher. He's a big Ibsen fan, but the scene in question continues to trouble him, despite having gone over it so many times over those years: it's in the middle of the fourth act, and concerns a scene with Dr.Relling, a scene that seems essentially superfluous (surprising, given how everything else in Ibsen seems obviously there for a reason). Ibsen gets some good lines in through Dr. Relling -- including: "If you take the life-lie away from an average person, you take away his happiness as well " -- but Rukla can't appreciate the figure:
As a commentator, Ibsen has worked him into the drama. And what kind of comments does Dr.Relling bring to bear ? They all point unequivocally in one and the same direction. That so and so is a fool, that so and so has been a dunce all his life, that so and so is a naïve nitwit, that so and so is a pompous and unbearable rich man's son who suffers from a morbid sense of justice. All of them simple, cynical, even banal truths. (...) Dr. Relling drags the whole play into the mud. Far from being Ibsen's mouthpiece, Dr. Relling is the play's enemy, since all he says has only one purpose: to destroy it, to destroy this drama that Henrik Ibsen is writing.
       The students aren't particularly interested in this (or any) interpretation of Ibsen. They're not Rukla's enemies, but they know they're just playing a game -- one in which only a limited amount of participation is required, and little thought. They're pupils, not students, there to pick up the basic facts, but not learn to think or anything of that sort.
       After a quarter of a century of much of the same Rukla clearly hardly expects anything different. He plows on as always, doing his best despite sensing the futility of it all.
       It is after the frustrating lesson that the break comes, the small event that makes this: "the decisive day in his life". It's a ridiculous and minor outburst, an unfortunate series of coincidences (and a cheap umbrella) leading to an inappropriate public explosion. He realises almost as soon as it's happened: "This was his ultimate downfall". In fact, it could probably be smoothed over, but he doesn't even want that. The raw 'life-lie' has been exposed, and Rukla could never face going back.
       Rukla's immediate concern is then with his wife, Eva Linde, a figure who before just appeared as his slightly worn, no longer much better half at breakfast, and this allows Solstad to turn the novel sharply back, and describe how, in fact, Rukla had reached this breaking point.
       After some forty pages of closely following Rukla's movements on the one fateful day, the novel jumps back to his student days and drifts very slowly back to the present, a neat and effective turn in the narrative.
       The young Rukla was as unexceptional as a university student as he is now, but he formed an unlikely friendship with a true star at the university, the very promising philosophy student Johan Corneliussen. While Rukla takes his small steps towards becoming a teacher, much is expected from Corneliussen.
       Corneliussen was a true conversation-partner for Rukla. He'd drag Rukla to parties and elsewhere as well, but above all they'd talk, and it's clear that in the present Rukla is very much missing any sort of dialogue. The limited communication with his wife, the lectures to his students: there's little communication (especially about ideas) left in his life. He eventually realises it himself, too:
Damn it all, you can't even talk any longer. When was the last time you had a conversation with someone ? It must have been years ago, he decided after a moment's reflection.
       Corneliussen remained a friend for many years, but faltered, unable to live up to the ideals and expectations of others. He moved from Kant to Marx and finally to capitalism, embracing that so wholeheartedly that he reinvented himself as 'John Cornelius' as he cut himself off from his entire past.
       Corneliussen disappeared from Rukla's life, taking that intellectual lifeline with him -- but he didn't leave a void. In leaving, Corneliussen also gave Rukla Eva Linde, in all her "unearthly beauty". (Alas, beauty fades, and the women put on the pounds .....)
       Shy, dignified, restrained, Rukla had led a passive life, a dutiful cog in the social machine, doing his small part, expecting little. His job is to mould minds, but he knows that there's little he can do -- yet he's disappointed by the mediocrity he finds around him, by the fact that there's essentially no one he can carry on a conversation with. All he can do is go through the simple motions: the conversations about student and housing loans in the teachers' lounge, the piles of uninspired essays by his students he has to deal with.
       Shyness and Dignity is, in part, also a social-political novel, as Solstad is deeply concerned with the state of affairs of contemporary Norwegian society, as he clearly sees Norway as a shallow, self-satisfied country. Corneliussen's transformation -- from idealistic Kantian to utopian-realistic Marxist to full-fledged capitalist -- is symptomatic, though Rukla's passive role (as a state employee -- and, as such, as an unwavering part of the system) is hardly shown in a much better light.
       Solstad frequently also uses literature as a reference point: the socially critical Ibsen, for one, but then also noting that, for example, Rukla's favourite reading is of "novels of the 1920s" (broadly interpreted by him). It makes for a somewhat 'literary' text (familiarity with The Wild Duck -- and the whole Norwegian tradition -- isn't necessary, but certainly is helpful), but the story itself -- and especially the writing -- make for an excellent read regardless of what the reader brings to the text.
       Shyness and Dignity is a very approachable novel, the story very well presented. Quite a remarkable achievement, and certainly recommended.

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Links:

Shyness and Dignity: Reviews: Other books by Dag Solstad under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Norwegian author Dag Solstad was born in 1941.

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© 2006-2014 the complete review

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