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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

     

T Singer

by
Dag Solstad


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

To purchase T Singer



Title: T Singer
Author: Dag Solstad
Genre: Novel
Written: 1999 (Eng. 2018)
Length: 266 pages
Original in: Norwegian
Availability: T Singer - US
T Singer - UK
T Singer - Canada
  • Norwegian title: T. Singer
  • Translated by Tiina Nunnally

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Our Assessment:

A : remarkable character/life study

See our review for fuller assessment.




Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Dagbladet . 16/12/1999 Øystein Rottem
The Guardian . 3/6/2018 Geoff Dyer
Literary Review . 6/2018 Frank Lawton
The NY Times Book Rev. . 15/7/2018 Charles Finch
Publishers Weekly . 12/3/2018 .
Sunday Times . 10/6/2018 David Mills
TLS . 3/8/2018 Nathan Knapp


  From the Reviews:
  • "T. Singer er en av Solstads dystreste og mest grusomme romaner. Her har han gitt slipp på det meste av sin tidligere så forsonende humor. (...) Mange norske forfattere har et rikere språk, er mer fantasifulle og favner bredere. Solstad hører til mineborernes rekker, og i de sjakter han når ned til, kan ingen gjøre ham rangen stridig." - Øystein Rottem, Dagbladet

  • "Wherever they start, Solstadís characters find a way to establish themselves in a low-key, middle-aged life in which melancholy and contentment are almost indistinguishable. They live as Philip Larkin might have done if heíd got a job in Telemark instead of Hull. There is a feeling of destiny at work, reinforced by the absence of any kind of causality whereby this happens because that happened. (...) For my part, I confess that this verbal world of his -- mad, sad and funny -- often teeters on the brink of being boring. But that feeling merges into another that is quite thrilling as the behavioural possibilities of the novel are subtly and fundamentally enlarged." - Geoff Dyer, The Guardian

  • "Thereís nothing to hold in T. Singer, which is what makes it so dismaying ó neither the madness of Knut Hamsun, nor the ludicrousness of Cesar Aira, nor the misanthropy of Thomas Bernhard, nor the tenderness of Philip Roth, the novelists to whom Solstad seems closest in style." - Charles Finch, The New York Times Book Review

  • "The novel brilliantly shows the humor and pain of obsessiveness, and the anxious, analytic Singer emerges as an enduring creation." - Publishers Weekly

  • "Where Bernhardís novels are shot through with misanthropy, Solstadís are full of dryly comic, densely existential despair. Solstad is more reminiscent of Witold Gombrowicz, with his keen sense of the absurd. (...) Solstadís characters do not become clearer as their stories progress. They remain enigmas even to themselves." - Nathan Knapp, 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:

       T Singer is, in a way, a character-study of the title-figure. It is not a full biography: the starting-point is more or less when Singer moves to the Norwegian town of Notodden, to take up what is his first serious job, at age 34, with only brief mentions of his life before that. (Readers are also told, already on the very first page, that the account is being written: "now, more than fifteen years later", but whether that is meant to suggest that another (turning)point in Singer's life has been reached isn't immediately clear.)
       The novel opens connecting the then -- when he was 34 -- and now, when the account is being written, a childhood memory of a: "sort of intense guilt". Solstad goes into quite some depth in describing it, and similar experiences, and T Singer appears, at first, to be a meditation on such lasting small but significant memories. But, in fact, these reflections and descriptions serve mainly as a grounding of character and text; the novel does not continue in this vein -- though other, later experiences and feelings are similarly (if rarely as extensively) mulled over.
       T Singer plays with pacing -- reflecting also Singer's experiences. Settling in Notodden, he and the novel settle down, for the most part -- but leading up to it his life is decidedly unsettled; later, at another turning point he moves to Oslo, and the cycle repeats itself (even if his Oslo years are marked by a greater lingering sense of unease). Until he was over thirty, he'd been: "an eternal student" -- of the sort European universities allow one to be, studying but without much focus: "He hadn't managed to decide what he would be". Indeed, without much ambition he just got by, without planning for any future:

He didn't give a shit. He didn't give a shit about anything. He squandered his life by observing it, and all the while time passed and his youth did too, and Singer didn't lift a finger to hold onto or enjoy youth's enviable state.
       Finally he abandons his loose studies and enrolls in a library-program, beginning, at thirty-one, to train to become a librarian and, after three years, in 1983, getting his first post, in Notodden.
       Passages are important to Solstad in this novel: he details travel-routes and possible alternative ones. There's rarely just one way of getting there (wherever), and each possible route -- from Oslo to Notodden; from Singer's home to to his workplace; through the streets of Oslo; travelling by rail or road or foot -- present alternatives, paths (and, implicitly also destinies) not taken, even if the apparent destination remains the same. Many of the journeys, small and large, are described in this way -- the actual, and the possible other ways of going there -- and in several cases Solstad writes about them in considerable detail: Singer's journey to and arrival in Notodden is one such case, a fateful drive his wife takes, several years later, another.
       On the train to Notodden Singer meets a young local rising executive, Adam Eyde, who is biding his time: "Waiting to become General Manager of Norsk Hydro". (The small city of Notodden is real, and the role of the company in (and then leaving) the city is fairly accurately presented here; Norsk Hydro is the second-largest Norwegian company and one of the nation's biggest employers..) Eyde brings Singer to the fantastic company villa he lives in for dinner when they arrive, and they enjoy a long, leisurely evening before Eyde has the chauffeur bring Singer back to the hotel where he spends his first night. One imagines a friendship might have started, but in fact after this first encounter Eyde is only fleetingly glimpsed -- a typical, if more extreme, example of Solstad's use of character and events. Typically, too: Singer does return, once, to the locale, much later, sneaking onto the grounds -- suggesting just what an impression that first evening made, as an introduction to his new home, without making any more of it than that.
       After going on at such length about Singer's trip and first evening in Notodden, not much more happens for a while. Singer finds his place and routine, and quickly, easily makes himself comfortable in it, living: "a simple, well-ordered life" His life is straightforward and fairly bland, his major concerns limited to things like avoiding some of the library's patrons who particularly appreciate his assistance, and figuring out how to ensure that he can catch the movies he wants at the local cinema. As Solstad nicely puts it:
He'd come to Notodden to live incognito. Using his full name, of course, but hiding from the 34 years that had clung to him, comprising the life he'd lived so far.
       He's no shrinking violet, and comfortable in social situations -- but he's certainly not the type to push his way to any fore. But two months into his new life: "it happened. Singer fell in love". A major turning point, one imagines -- especially as it's not just a falling-in-love, but the establishment of a true relationship: he and Merete move in together, and get married.
       Yet Merete does not emerge as a major character. Solstad does not focus on her, because he does not see her as the focus. Occasionally he reminds the reader that this account is an account, a written record -- written many years after most of the facts -- and so also here:
We know very little about her, nor will we find out much more. She is not the main character in this novel; it's doubtful she that could have been the main character in any novel of quality. [...] For Singer, in real life, Merete Sæthre was at that time a main character, but that's not what she is in the fictionalized description of what, it has to be understood, is the only extant description of Singer's life, and most likely also the only possible description. Because it has to be admitted that at this point in the story it may seem mysterious that Singer can be the main character in any novel at all, regardless of the quality, but here it can be divulged that it's precisely this mysteriousness that is the topic of the novel, and attempts will be made to turn this into reality.
       The author does occasionally, interject such meta-commentary in the novel, but not very often; this, coming at almost exactly the mid-way point, is the most explicit commentary. It suggests a long lead-up, and indeed the story does become more tightly focused, more conventional, in a way, after this, but it perhaps overstates it: Solstad's 'attempt' has been ongoing from the start.
       The marriage, and descriptions of domestic life, suggest the possibility of a different turn and outcome. Merete tries to shape Singer, and succeeds in some ways (and fails in others). He proves to be an attentive, supportive partner -- and Solstad suggests where this could have led:
If this had generally been a happier, not to mention a more lighthearted, book, then, at the very end of the book there should have been a section with Merete Sæthre's best recipes; unfortunately, that's not going to happen, for reasons that we'll now explain.
       That Solstad doesn't do lighthearted should have been long clear by that point; the dry humor nevertheless pleasantly surprises -- even as the turn the book then takes is tragic.
       Things go well for the couple, and then they don't; after a few years they begin to drift apart and are on the cusp of separation and divorce when fate intervenes. The timing is both random and decisive; Singer had been prepared to distance himself -- even move to a new job and city --, accepting not only that he would lose touch with Merete but also the young -- now six-and-a-half year old -- child, Isabella she had brought into the marriage: "I wouldn't have had anything more to do with her".
       Instead, he takes on the responsibility -- which he could have avoided -- of raising the child by himself. He does move, to Oslo, and raises her there -- mystified by the girl growing up beside him, and pleased by the signs of normal childhood and teen behavior, when she displays them, even as he feels a disconnect that can never be bridged. Much of the second half of T Singer is a relationship-novel -- yet the relationship remains awkward and frustrated. (Predictably (and amusingly), the only fairly happy, normal times Singer enjoyed with another, his years with Merete, aren't presented in nearly such detail; interestingly, too, toddler Isabella barely figures at all in them.)
       Singer does maintain one friendship for most of his life, but he loses hold over it -- the near-final reflection of his own character and failures, even in its collapse, when Singer is nearing fifty:
     It was more than five years ago that Singer realized his friendship with Ingemann had ended, in terms of reality, and yet they had continued to spend time with each other, as if nothing had happened; in fact, Ingemann hadn't even discovered that the friendship had ended, in terms of reality.
       T Singer isn't a harsh judgement of its title character; indeed, there's little judgement at all. But Singer is revealed, starkly -- an unusual portrayal of a character in fiction (which tends towards much bigger protagonists; Singer's life isn't average or simple, but there's little that's in any way extraordinary about it). And the novel is personal, too: Solstad emerges, occasionally, and so also near the end, as he tries to clarify and explain:
My language ceases when Singer's pondering also ceases. That does not make us identical.
       Early on, before he began studying to become a librarian, Singer also explored the possibility of writing. Solstad doesn't devote much space to it -- and Singer didn't get very far with it --, but the summing up he offers suggests there could have been more to it than the limited discussion presented here:
Sometimes Singer's preoccupation with becoming an author is described as his secret calling, something along the lines of his true calling, while in other places it seems more like some sort of hazy idea, a castle in the air that occasionally made him sit down and scribble a few lines on paper, although he never took it very seriously.
       Becoming an author is a path-not-taken -- and tellingly: "Singer's writing career ended while he fantasized about the nuance-filled yet empty sky". Yet the "'he' who sees it, and who is writing these lines" -- the 'he' who chronicles Singer's life, and becomes an 'I' near the end of the account -- remains a presence in the text: Solstad repeatedly has presented different paths and routes (generally of the literal travel-sort), and T Singer is also very much a novel about choosing one path ("the goal-oriented training to become a librarian") and forsaking another ("the youthful dream of being an author"). Indeed, arguably, Singer's failure can be reduced to his not having been able to become a writer -- while the voice behind the text, the "'he' who sees it" (ultimately: Solstad), has at least found that as hold and outlet.
       The quotes in this review are somewhat misleading in their selection, in focusing so often on that narrative voice; for the most part, it stays very much in the background, allowing Singer's story to unfold, with what commentary there is much less obviously presented as the narrator's point of view. Solstad wants to remind readers that this is fiction, but he does so more subtly than this review might suggest. His use of the technique -- the narrator lingering along the sidelines, only to burst forth smack into the middle of things -- is also more effective than simple quotation can suggest. And at its most effective, it is very powerful indeed:
By the way, in every novel there is a big black hole, which is universal in its blackness, and now this novel has reached that point.
       T Singer can't be reduced to a 'story proper'; the telling isn't straightforward enough, the authorial presence -- even if not necessarily the direct voice -- too obvious, especially in its shaping and the (shifting) presentation of the narrative, and choosing what to highlight and what to skim over. Yet that fairly simple story underneath, describing that man, Singer, and his life, from age thirty-four to around fifty, is a deeply impressive and moving one too.
       Yes, T Singer tells, in its outlines, a fairly unremarkable story. There are a few unusual episodes, and a personal tragedy, but overall it's a fairly simple life-story; certainly, it has no grand, loud ambitions for epic scale or sensationalism (but does, as noted, have great depth). It can't be called understated, but it is a quiet, almost humble novel; it's also exceptional -- the sort of lasting work, both in personal impression and in a great literary-historical sense, that deserves to be called literature.

- M.A.Orthofer, 1 January 2018

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Links:

T Singer: 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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© 2018 the complete review

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