The third volume in Jan Kjaerstad's trilogy about Jonas Wergeland, a Norwegian television producer who created the Thinking Big television series profiling famous Norwegians. The central event in the trilogy is the death of Wergeland's wife, killed with a gun blast through the heart. The first two books are biographies of Wergeland, and this third volume is his autobiography, told in the third person, interspersed with first person insights by his daughter.
I read the second volume, The Conqueror, and was quite bored. Too much Norwegian trivia, too much of the boring Wergeland. I simply didn't care about either. But I continued on to this volume because I am reading the entire back catalog of Open Letter, the translation publisher based at the University of Rochester. I am very glad I persevered.
This is an extremely layered novel. It is fairly plot less, but in the place of a plot there is a quest: Vergeland's search for a unifying meaning, system, categorization, behind all of the seemingly random events, facts, emotions of life. From the time he was a small child, Wergeland felt destined to do something remarkable, and this quest led him from activity to activity, across several academic fields. He is fixated on the Dewey Decimal System of organizing books, frustrated by the two-dimensionally of the system. Why must every book only reside in one place, between two other books within this rigid system. Why can't the Odyssey be classified in literature and geography and navigation and...
He decides to develop his own classification system, to include everything in the world into a three-dimensional system. Such grand schemes color all aspects of his life, including love. Because he constantly strives to capture and understand more, never being satisfied, he feels that despite what others see as his seduction and conquests, he feels himself to have failed. His greatest two accomplishments were his television series and his marriage, and in his eyes he betrayed one for the other and is a failure.
There is much less hubris in this volume than in the previous, The Conqueror. Wergeland's life is seen as a series of occurrences, events and friendships that combined to form his life. But unlike most biographies (or novels) these are seen as ambiguous occurrences, capable of numerous explanations. The character that emerges from these layers is someone who is both humanly frail and continually striving. Blind to the import of events, but never ceasing to analyze and scrutinize everything, striving to understand and improve. He has the optimism, and hubris, to believe that there is a solution to almost everything, and that maybe he is the person who can make that discovery. His daughter comments that "he was an exceptional person, one in a billion, because he embodied the possibilities of his day, all the unrealized potential. He reflected the future. He showed us, me at least, what mankind could be."
The joy in reading this book is to encounter a character very humanly flawed yet who never gives up, never settles for less than the potential he envisioned as a boy. While some categorize him a genius for his TV series, others a murderer for the death of his wife, he sees himself as a secretary, the keeper of the secret seal. While almost any other character, after half a century of life, and almost 1,500 pages of print, would be rather to retire, not our Wergeland. The last paragraph of the trilogy...
"So far I have not understood a thing, he thought. I need to go back to the very beginning."