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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


A Fortnight before the Frost

Sigurd Hoel

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Title: A Fortnight before the Frost
Author: Sigurd Hoel
Genre: Novel
Written: 1935 (Eng. 2010)
Length: 231 pages
Original in: Norwegian
Availability: A Fortnight before the Frost - US
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  • Norwegian title: Fjorten dager før frostnettene
  • Translated by Sverre Lyngstad

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Our Assessment:

B+ : fine psychological mid-life crisis novel

See our review for fuller assessment.

The complete review's Review:

       A Fortnight before the Frost centers on Dr.Knut Holmen and begins when he reaches his fortieth birthday on 3 August -- celebrating "life's midsummer" in the middle of summer. The married father knows exactly how he wants to spend it -- alone, indulging himself and reflecting on his life -- and that's how the novel opens, as he wanders the streets of Oslo and then settles down for a grand meal in fine restaurant.
       An acquaintance, Ramstad, had apparently challenged him earlier:

     'You've made good -- a respected physician, a good practice, nice income, a lovely wife, beg pardon -- and children, two children ? But do you dare sit down by yourself and work out -- mercilessly, I mean -- how much genuine joy, I said joy, you get from it all ? And how much is simply imitation, self-assertion, competition ?
       Holmen takes up the challenge -- and quickly finds his self-satisfied indulgences, of a good meal, an excess of alcohol, and a fine cigar indeed only go so far, while that introspective reflection ... well, soon enough Holmen is in the middle of a full-scale classic mid-life crisis. Ramstad ups the ante on his original challenge, too, by letting Holmen know he'll be out of town for a few weeks and offering Holmen his apartment for the fortnight -- "variety is the spice of life, at least as far as I'm concerned", he mischievously notes. With the wife, Agnete, and kids out of town Holmen likes this idea of escaping for a fortnight -- and he like it even more after he meets the lovely Vera Boye, who is willing to indulge him, too.
       First he tells her his noble ambitions:
I want to be by myself for a while. To meditate a little. Test my values. There are several things I have to figure out -- myself, for one.
       But who needs solitary introspection when Vera is so willing to offer her company ? "She was real", and there was a lot to be said for that. Eventually, instead of staying in Oslo, at Ramstad's, he throws caution to the wind -- he's had quite enough of it anyway: "Caution, caution, caution -- bah !" -- and pretty much on the spur of the moment rents a house at the seaside and takes off there with Vera. ('Impulsive' seems to be his new approach to life, as he worries about all that he's missed out on.)
       Of course, even in that short fortnight-span the passing of time and the pressure to choose a path weigh on him:
But time was passing. And he hadn't made any headway so far. Soon he would have to ... no, it wasn't too late yet, but time was getting short.
       Yes, it's his life in a nutshell, as the forty-year old man wonders about paths taken -- and what paths are still open -- and about what he really wants. There's also someone from his past that he hasn't gotten out of his system -- perhaps the key ? But Holmen is so muddled that when he asks himself: "What did he want ?" he twists himself into knots trying to figure it out (and setting himself obstacles):
To be with Vera -- of course, of course; but he couldn't do that in the long run without talking to Agnete, and he couldn't talk to Agnete until he knew more about what he wanted with Vera. And then there was her -- the other one -- Helga, yes, precisely, Helga, what about her ? After all, he couldn't know anything absolutely certain about Vera until he'd met Helga -- and he couldn't find Helga until he'd met Håkenrud, and he couldn't find Håkenrud until he had ... And he had to see Helga, that was the big -- nonsense, this was nothing but a phonograph record. But what about his work, and the children, and the clinic, and ... and ...
       Yes, Holmen ties himself into quite the knot. On top of that, he also sensed early on that all along:
     There were several things lately that had gone a little too smoothly. Almost as if -- yes, as if a trap had been set for him.
       Much later, when things aren't quite as clear any longer, the feeling is even stronger, as he dreams:
     Something was happening behind the back. If only he could see what it was, then it wouldn't be a bit dangerous. But something was happening behind his back which was so dangerous that he didn't dare turn around for anything in the world to see what it was.
       When writing this book, Hoel was in analysis with Wilhelm Reich, and Ramstad is a stand-in for Reich, toying with Holmen/Hoel. A Fortnight before the Frost is a psychoanalytical exercise in self-discovery, layered in fiction -- "a figurative representation of an analysis", Hoel apparently suggested (and, yes, an afterword or introduction detailing the Reichian connections (among other things) would have been very welcome ...). Holmen makes the journey largely by himself, but it is also shaped for him (as it turns out) by Ramstad. And while Holmen continues moving forward in his quest, to the end it is almost blindly. Indeed, near the end he notes:
     But one thing bothered him a bit -- he couldn't see the denouement. And he couldn't see himself.
       A Fortnight before the Frost is a fascinating mid-life crisis take -- heavily colored by the period, the place, and the author's own background. In particular, Hoel captures Holmen's state of mind beautifully in the language, with its sequences of short paragraphs and repetitions and the constant sense of uncertainty, about both past and future. It is a period-piece, feeling curiously dated and with aspects of it oddly quaint (in a bizarrely Reichian way -- there's a great deal of sex, but it is mentioned casually, almost in passing, even though it is at the root of so much here), but it's impressively creative in language and approach.
       Unusual, but certainly of interest.

- M.A.Orthofer, 9 December 2011

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A Fortnight before the Frost: Sigurd Hoel: Other books by Sigurd Hoel under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Sigurd Hoel (1890-1960) was one of the leading literary figures in Norway in the first half of the 20th century.

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© 2011 the complete review

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