I met a man on a train journey. He sat down next to me. He was the I’m-going-to-talk-to-you-whether-you-like-it-or-not type.
When he saw I was reading, he chose to kick-start the conversation by announcing that he’d never read a book in his entire life. He said so with such triumph, as though this were a thing to be proud of, an achievement worthy of telling to strangers on trains. During the conversation which followed, the man elaborated on his idea that the reading of books somehow stands in the way of actually living, that it is somehow akin to taking a photograph of a chrysalis only to miss the exact moment when the butterfly emerges. And I argued back with the idea that the reading of books in fact greatly expands all the dull actualities of living, that it pushes me to notice things otherwise unnoticed, then ushers me on into querying them, into needling out their meaning, or meaninglessness, as the case may be.
I suppose I was aiming to imply that the process of noticing and querying and needling is a positive, soul-building exercise, but there was a quaver of doubt in my arguing voice. The book I happened to be reading on the train that day was the sole novel of Tor Ulven, a Norwegian writer born in 1953 and better known for his poetry. I was only in the earliest stages of Replacement, and while it had already heightened all the slightest nuances of my surroundings and sharpened all the shadiest corners of my consciousness, still I hadn’t the faintest notion of what was going on from page to page. I suppose my voice quavered because I was feeling increasingly despondent the more I advanced upon the afterword.
Here are the essentials of what I was able to grasp: the book’s narrator may be the same man all the way through, but is most likely several. At times we are in the present and he is speaking about himself. At other times, he is remembering the past and beseeching me, the reader, to remember too. There is the haunting presence of a woman and the devastation of her absence; ‘the combined weight of her disappearance and the high probability of her death rested on a piece of sandpaper that was in the process of whittling you down to nothing.’ There are blinks of unforeseen humour by means of arch criticism of society’s gormless masses: ‘you’d like to kick them out of their couchy quagmires, their sofas with seats like quicksand, sucking them in until all the poor saps can do is to flail about with their arms sticking pathetically out of the cushions.’ There are physical descriptions of immense beauty: ‘the fatty rind of the day between the hills and the sky finally disappears.’ There are several perfect summations of abject grief: ‘if you go blind the film will break, and all the darkness that’s stored in your eye, and all the darkness stored in your mind’s eye, will come flooding out to drown the earth.’
I regret that it’s my old-fashioned yet irresistible instinct as a reader to reach out for some rein of a storyline to be drawn along by, for some semblance of continuity. This is how I read the early stages of Replacement, and why I grew so quickly bewildered. Some time after the day of the train journey, I twigged that the trick is to concentrate sentence by sentence. Like the old adage of life being best lived one day at a time, Replacement is best absorbed in severed strands, passage by passage. It is in pieces that the book bares its fullest force of intensely felt and concisely conjured states and reference points, random though they may be. Whenever I tried to knot them together and abseil to the finish, each of Ulven’s individual insights and dark truths were lost to my unforgivable impatience.
Lean in and listen carefully, and the substance of Replacement reveals itself to be exactly ‘all the dull actualities of living’ in their most vividly hideous glory. The tiniest of details, from the act of buttoning and unbuttoning a shirt to a list of doors, swell to crushing enormousness, and Ulven confirms himself an expert in the field of monotony. Leaning in and listening carefully, such is the relentless thrust of detail that I must resist my instincts and relearn the way in which I have grown accustomed to assimilating prose. Ulven pushes me to notice and query and needle, even when I don’t really want to, even when it makes me strangely sad and uncomfortable to do so.
Tor Ulven killed himself in 1995, two years after Replacement was published, at the still-young-enough-for-it-to-be-considered-a-waste age of forty-two. This is not a thing which matters to the book, per se. But, knowing this, it is hard not to search for signs of the writer’s impending self-destruction.
There are many places in the novel where Ulven, by means of his narrator, contemplates death and dying. There is one place in particular where he speaks directly about suicide: ‘you remember what the psychiatrist said, how when someone finally convinces themselves to do it, they seem excited, cheerful, they seem happy, energetic, and everyone thinks they’re getting better, but in fact they’re not getting better, they’re just grimly, morbidly happy because they’ve finally decided to do it…’
Yet the book’s most soul-building contemplations arise from the places in which Ulven’s narrator bluntly catalogues his struggles with ‘all the dull actualities of living’, sometimes yielding to the monotony and sometimes battling against: ‘You’ve often wished you could just give up entirely, but that’s an inhuman task, you think, because you’ve got to be a god, or at least a holy man, to simply give up, to resign yourself to the meagre pleasures afforded by the daily grind, though even those pleasures are few and fading, swiftly fading until they’re almost out of sight, while you drool—and will most likely go on drooling all the rest of your days—over the last sorry scraps of time, of experience, of life, whatever the hell that means.’ It seems to me as though, in these places, Ulven is assembling a case for the continuation of life, (mine, yours, his) and then deftly picking his own case to pieces again, reaching a conclusion of resounding irresolution.
The man on the train and I didn’t spend very long on the topic of reading. We lapsed back into our respective silences without convincing one another. I certainly wouldn’t have recommended Replacement, knowing full well he’d never, without story, without continuity, without reins, have made it all the way through to the afterword. Ulven has written for a reader more open to noticing and querying and needling than the man on the train that day: a reader of gloomy fascinations, a reader inclined toward the occasional indulgence of despondency, a reader in search of the most perfect of reasons for a temporary postponement of actual life.