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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


Normans område

Jan Kjærstad

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Title: Normans område
Author: Jan Kjærstad
Genre: Novel
Written: 2011
Length: 384 pages
Original in: Norwegian
Availability: Das Norman-Areal - Deutschland
  • Normans område has not yet been translated into English

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Our Assessment:

B : promising premise, but doesn't quite get there

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Göteborgs-Posten . 31/10/2012 Björn Gunnarsson
NZZ . 10/11/2017 Aldo Keel
NRK . 26/8/2011 Marta Norheim
SvD . 16/10/2012 Mats Gellerfelt

  From the Reviews:
  • "Riktigt vad Kjærstad har för syfte med all denna maskulina muskelprosa är oklart. Att han vill kritisera förflackningen av romankonsten är tydligt, men varför göra det med en roman som faktiskt bara blir tråkigare och banalare ju längre man läser. Norman är en maskulinistisk träbock, kanske är boken ett nyckelromansmässigt lustmord på någon förläggare. Eller också vill Kjærstad bara skriva av sig lite frustration och demonstrera sin beläsenhet och förmåga att konstruera romanintriger." - Björn Gunnarsson, Göteborgs-Posten

  • "Sein exquisiter und witziger Roman Das Norman-Areal thematisiert die Kraft des Lesens, aber auch die Verlockungen der Liebe sowie einen höchst eigenartigen Sprung in der menschlichen Evolutionsgeschichte." - Aldo Keel, Neue Zürcher Zeitung

  • "Romanen er eit surr av skjulte og opne hint til andre bøker. Likevel er komposisjonen eller forma overraskande tradisjonell til Kjærstad å vere. Det er på ideplanet denne romanen har utfordringar til lesaren. Det veit Norman tydelegvis også, ettersom han stadig gir opp å skildre dei største ting, og etter kvart sluttar å luke ut sine eigne klisjear. Dette er rett og slett ein ideroman. Normans område løftar opp spørsmål som burde interessere ein kvar lesande nordmann." - Marta Norheim, NRK

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:

[Note: this review is based on the German translation by Bernhard Strobel, Das Norman-Areal (2016); all quotes are my translations from the German version.]

       The basics about Normans område would suggests it's not just a booklover's story, but one completely steeped in reading, with even the dedication being: 'to all readers'. The narrator is John Richard Norman, a renowned editor at a leading Norwegian publishing house, and literature has certainly played an important part in his life. In the course of telling his story he describes his path as a reader, including frequently quoting from his Livserindringer -- a volume of 'life recollections', a logbook he has long been keeping, summaries and reactions to every book he has read. However, the novel focuses on the time he spent in Stjernøy, 2008-9, when he had just turned fifty, on sabbatical from his job -- having found himself incapable of reading, the manuscripts he tried to get through making him physically ill. For a long period, Norman gets essentially no reading done here, and though his thinking remains tinged with the literary -- he reflects on past reading and describes a variety of books and reading experiences -- he essentially does without the written word here. He does, however, find himself attracted to a woman who has also made good an escape to this out of the way seaside locale -- though she is more on and off in her presence there --, the widowed Ingrid Kyrklund, and much of his account of his time in Stjernøy focuses on the relationship that develops between them.
       The story seems fairly straightforward, even if the telling is a bit roundabout, as Norman chronicles his Stjernøy-period some seven years after the fact, in 2016, and shifts occasionally to that present-day he is writing in, from his small office back at the publishing house. But much of it boils down to a love story and the story of a man who has essentially lost the ability to follow what had always been his greatest passion, reading. But there's more to it than that, hinted at and alluded to, but only very slowly introduced. For one, there's the brief opening note, a bibliographic one, as in describing an archive- or library-holding:

Akbarville QX/QCX

File 12/Norway (period: "21st century").

International University Guangzhou
Department for Cognitive Paleontology
       It suggests a more futuristic setting -- at least of the document -- even as Norman's first-person narrative begins very straightforwardly. Then, however, it turns out the two later sections -- the novel is divided into three main parts -- are prefaced by brief notes, dated 2016, by a Dr. Ewa Wirsén, writing to the administration of the Neurological Institute she apparently works at, noting that she had received the enclosed -- Norman's writings -- but didn't really know what to do with or about them.
       The mystery of the framing of what became of the manuscript is only revealed with the novel's conclusion, but already from the start there are suggestions of at least some of what is at play here. Norman's account begins with his recollection of a catastrophic accident he was in, in the early 1990s. He notes that it was one of the most significant events in his life, not only because he suffered life-threatening injuries, but because this was how he got to know Dr.Lumholtz -- known as: "the Roald Amundsen of the brain".
       This name, and suggestions of significant work he did, based on Norman as a case study, crops up repeatedly throughout the narrative, even as Norman barely goes into details. The gist, however, is that Norman presents as an unusual case -- specifically in how part of his brain has developed or functions, a part of it Lumholtz names after his patient: the Norman-area (think a specific bit of the Brodmann area), which then also gives the novel its title. Lumholtz suggests this Norman-area is a gateway to what he calls 'Nea Ge' -- a new earth, a sort of virtual reality that will mark the human of the future, with Norman a first living example thereof, a first stage towards a Homo futurus. Lumholtz posits that one reason Norman survived his horrific accident -- and then a later second terrible injury -- is because he is able to inhabit not just the real world but also, deep in his mind, a virtual one. And Norman is convinced that whatever the medical truth of that, it is reading that has opened up this secondary world to him: reading hasn't been escapism for him, but rather has enhanced the real world. As he nicely puts it, books aren't just part of the world, they allow for: 'More world' -- expanding reality.
       Norman hints at special abilities, a kind of understanding of how the world functions that he says comes from his experience with books. He has long been the kind of reader that loses himself in books, lost to what happens around him; an early childhood experience had him consume part of one (though the story soon was that he ate a whole book), and while he does not continue to do that literally, he arguably internalizes what he reads more completely than most readers. His abilities allowed him to make the fortune he earned before he went into publishing -- a feel for the stock market allowing him (somewhat unconvincingly explained) to trade his way to a tidy sum before then following his true calling.
       The narrative is steeped in Norman's literary experience, and Kjærstad reaches far and wide (though leaning towards the Anglo-American, Norman's favored area: the excuse he comes up for his daughter when she briefly pops up early on to check out what's up with him is that he has a plan: 'finally to do something with my old vision [...] combining Walt and Herman with the help of David Herbert' (as in: Whitman, Melville, and Lawrence)). Right from the start, arriving in Stjernøy, Norman envisions: 'This will be my Puamahara', and he clings to that idea; only late on does he explain the reference that many readers likely will have missed, that the place comes from Janet Frame's The Carpathians. (Kjærstad's level of literary allusion does not always extend quite so far, but, yes, it's pretty deep and entertainingly far-reaching.)
       Coming to this -- or making his -- get-away in Stjernøy, Norman is unable to read any fiction; doing so literally makes him violently nauseous. The story of his stay there, covering several months, is relatively straightforward (even if the presentation is not): Norman has given up reading, falls head over heels in love with the mysterious Swede Ingrid -- mysterious to him, as everyone else seems to be aware of just who she is, as she apparently is both very wealthy and well-known --, and eventually begins a passionate affair with her. Norman's boss from the publishing house drops by with a pile of manuscripts, the seven finalists for a literary prize which the jury is hopelessly deadlocked over, and asks Norman to look them over; Norman eventually does -- and finds he can read again; one visionary entry, in particular, impresses him greatly. But Norman's return to bookishness gets between Ingrid and him; he breaks it off -- and Ingrid does not take it well. Seven years later, Norman writes his account of that time, and of some of what happened in the meantime, including his own publishing efforts since then.
       Kjærstad imagines much of this quite nicely, especially when he focuses on Norman's book-passion. So, for example, Norman coins the term 'Surtsey-books' for those that truly open up new worlds to him -- after the island of Surtsey, a volcanic island that appeared out of nowhere, a true piece of new land, just as the best books are for Norman. The literary references, including long excerpts from Norman's reading logbook, are well done -- as are the descriptions of the seven (fictional) submissions for the literary prize that Norman reads.
       Norman's complaint at the start, when he has gotten literally sick of reading, is that he finds himself confronted just with the same old thing in everything he picks up. What he misses is the truly novel, the exciting new approaches to writing that always spurred him on, in his reading and his publishing. He's tired of the predictable novels, whose workings reveal themselves early on. Arguably, Normans område is also an attempt at a new way of telling, a shake-up of the traditional novel -- but Kjærstad doesn't go nearly far enough with that. He plays with his revelations, filling in what is hinted at earlier on hundreds of pages later, and the story shifts back and forth between different time periods (including also reminiscences of the time before his first, dramatic accident in the 1990s) -- but the technique doesn't add much to the book (and occasionally makes it more of a muddle).
       After reading the final section that Norman had sent to her, Dr. Ewa Wirsén pens a brief note, explaining that she still doesn't know what to do with this (the reader might feel similarly ...) -- and that it strikes her more like fiction than fact. Amusingly, her brief postscript also reveals that while she briefly worked with Dr.Lumholtz -- the reason Norman sends her his writings --, she was unconvinced by his work and soon switched to a very different specialty. Kjærstad doesn't quite leave it at that: there is an additional note at the end of the text, dateline (?) "Akbarville QX/QCX" again, just as there had been at the opening of the book, suggesting a far more distant future in which this record is seen in a completely different light. It's a clever little twist that allows Normans område to be read as almost-science-fiction -- but, again, Kjærstad doesn't go nearly far enough with this to make it fully convincing, or effective.
       Kjærstad presents his material -- the different scenes and action -- quite well, and comes across as a convincing passionate literature-lover, his Norman extremely well-read, across a great variety of literature. But the novel twists and knots somewhat uncomfortably around the story, revelations that could have come earlier long withheld, the love-affair an oddly stumbling affair that never feels like the be-all, end-all great romance, with Ingrid remaining too much of a cipher not just to Norman but to the reader. And Normans område falls short in its grand ambition, of presenting Norman as a forerunner of a future human, his special cognitive (cap)abilities not standing out convincingly enough -- and the character at his most interesting when he is nothing more than a passionate reader. Even the work he dedicates himself to at the end -- straying from traditional publishing, and building up an online platform to engage readers, 'R/S Plus Terrae' isn't a sufficient leap for a character who is meant to be so visionary.
       A well-meaning novel, and a loving pæan to literature and the power of reading, Normans område doesn't ever fully gel, Kjærstad packing in a great deal of creative ideas and action, but stumbling too much in the back and forth, and the connections, making for an often engaging and intriguing but ultimately somewhat frustrating work.

- M.A.Orthofer, 23 December 2018

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Normans område: Reviews: Jan Kjærstad: Other books by Jan Kjaerstad under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Norwegian author Jan Kjærstad was born in 1953.

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© 2018-2019 the complete review

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