Shyness and Dignity, the first of Dag Solstad's some thirty literary works to be translated into English, is a worthy introduction of this thrice-time winner of the Norwegian Literary Critics' Award to an English-speaking readership.
The novel, first published in 1994, tells the tale of a "sottish Senior Master", named Elias Rukla, who teaches high school literature in Norway's capital of Oslo.
The novel presents the climactic self-implosion of the Senior Master, when he verbally lashes out at an unsuspecting female student, in the novel's opening pages.
In the remaining one hundred and forty pages of the novel, Solstad slowly unveils the intricate patchwork, the many, complicated layers of onion that is Rukla's past, and which all together lead up to his self-destructive tantrum.
Shyness and Dignity contains little dialogue, and is concerned mostly with the inner dialogue of its protagonist, Rukla. In his exposition-heavy prose, Solstad makes effective use of repetition- repeating words and phrases like a guitarist improvising version after version of a baseline riff.
This repetition lends a musical quality to Solstad's narrative; it guides the reader along, and gives the narrative the momentum it needs in the absence of more dialogue. To give the narrative much of its depth, Solstad inserts competing, probing questions into the narrative, and which exist in the mind of Rukla. These questions also serve to make Rukla more human, as we recognize that slowing Rukla down are many of the same questions that confront us all.
Slowly, as the narrative progresses, the reader becomes arrested within the mind of the novel's perplexed protagonist. We are never afforded the luxury of looking back at Rukla. The reader feels Rukla's "estrangement" along with him.
As Rukla begins the recollect his past, we first follow Elias back in time to his days as a student, when he befriended a magnanimous and eccentric philosopher and fellow student named Johann Corneliussen. As young students in the 1970s, the two would engage in all night drinking binges that would linger late into the night and be imbued with lively, challenging philosophical debate.
It is through Corneliussen that Rukla eventually meets Eva Linde, his future wife. But Eva was first married to Corneliussen. But when Corneliussen abandons Eva and their daughter to unexpectedly pursue a career in marketing in Manhattan (forgoing his ambition to be a contributor to the timeless dialogue between scholars of Immanuel Kant), Eva moves in with Rukla. The two eventually marry.
Their relationship is far from healthy, and only serves to accentuate Rukla's isolation. Eva and Elias lived what Elias felt was a tempered domestic life, in which they both sacrificed personal ambitions. The two "moved past each other in separate orbits", and were unable to bridge the lexical gaps that existed between them in order to express their love for one another.
From Elias' perspective, it was that Eva who had "never opened her innermost self to him and who had not let him in either, with his innermost self, his burning questions".
The tragedy of Elias is that he, while exceptionally introspective, is utterly unaware of his self-absorption. The "burning questions" that he wishes to pose to his wife are not concerning her. He only surmises how she feels and thinks, like a writer does with his or her characters. He never simply asks her how she feels, or why she will not express her love or lack thereof for him.
Elias only wishes to expunge himself of his burning questions about life, and to engage in a dialogue about his thoughts on his terms. He is a philosopher, or writer, with no outlet, no audience. And that is precisely what Elias wants: an audience that he feels will make his ideas relevant.
When Elias teaches, for example, he wishes only to espouse his unique insights on Ibsen. He never once stopped his soliloquies to ask his students what they thought about the text. Elias mistakenly assumes his "estrangement" is a product of something his wife, his students, or those around him lack, rather than being a product of his own self-absorption.
There is something, though, about Elias' isolation that elicits empathy from the reader. There is a quality of his isolation that is universal, and which plagues us all. His ennui is a tragedy inherent in the life of modern man. Elias' consternation represents the "unbearable lightness of being", or the idea that within a world of unprecedented security and prosperity, modern man is still yet inflicted with an unprecedented lack of moral and spiritual direction.
Elias, too, represents the most tragic cross section of individuals, in that not only is he spiritually estranged from his fellow man, but he is also painfully aware of his estrangement. Better would it be if Elias were able to just petal through life oblivious to any larger, perplexing questions.
Elias, though, has gotten to a point where ignorance is not an option. And it is this dichotomy of Elias's rich, probing inner dialogue or "innermost self", and his inability to find a satisfying outlet for that dialogue, which is his great tragedy. So acute and tortuous is this dichotomy, that Elias is willing to uproot any sense of security in his life, if only to disrupt the sense of banality that he feels is chasing him like a ghost.