‘Shyness and Dignity’ by Dag Solstad
Translated from the Norwegian by Sverre Lyngstad
The early pages of ‘Shyness and Dignity’ are about a high school teacher teaching his class of bored, barely listening, almost hostile seniors who need to take this class in Norwegian literature in order to graduate from their Oslo, Norway high school. He is lecturing them regarding Henrik Ibsen’s ‘The Wild Duck’. The teacher is in his early fifties and has been teaching high school most of his adult life. This would seem to be unpromising material for fiction at best, but due to the quality of the writing I found it entirely fascinating. I liked the allusions to Ibsen’s play to which the teacher has found a new insight after having read the play many times. The entire novel is written as the teacher’s interior monologue, and could best be described as intense realism.
After the class a strange unexpected event occurs. On the teacher’s walk home, it begins to rain a little, and he decides to open his umbrella. He presses the button several times, but the umbrella won’t open. Then he tries to force the umbrella open by pulling on the ribs, but that hardly helps at all. He notices by this time that a crowd of students are now watching him, and this makes him so angry he attacks a nearby water fountain with the umbrella, banging the fountain in a savage fury. He notices that the umbrella is coming apart, so he throws the umbrella on the ground and starts jumping on it, trying to crush it. Then he picks it up again and bangs it against the water fountain some more. By this time the twisted metal ribs are cutting into his hand and the blood is trickling out on to his shirt. He notices the students around him are staring open-mouthed, motionless around him. Their faces look ridiculously astonished which makes him even more furious, so he chases after them with the smashed umbrella. The students quickly get out of his way, and nobody is hurt.
The teacher realizes that life for him as he has known it for twenty years is over for him now. The students will tell everyone about their teacher’s strange behavior, and he will be the subject of gossip for months. The school faculty and principal will find out about it, and although they may try to downplay it, the students’ parents will put pressure on the school to get rid of him. Besides the teacher feels too embarrassed to return to the school. The teacher’s worries are not so much for himself as for his wife and daughter.
This all occurs before page forty of the novel, and the rest of the novel is the teacher’s intense looking back on his entire adult life, from college onward. This novel proves the idea that any life can be fascinating when looked at closely with the right perspective. The writing in ‘Shyness and Dignity’ is expressive on what is going on in this teacher’s mind, and the reader shares the high points and low points of his life. The precise use of language makes this teacher come alive and makes this novel an excellent read.
Although Dag Solstad has written over thirty novels, ‘Shyness and Dignity’ is his first novel that has been translated into English. This novel was named the best Norwegian novel of the 1990s, and Dag Solstad is the only author to have received the Norwegian Literary Critics’ Award three times.
On the strength of ‘Shyness and Dignity’, Dag Solstad is a worthy successor to those two Norwegian giants, Henrik Ibsen and Knut Hamsun.