‘I Refuse’ by Per Petterson – A Severe Overdose on Norwegian Realism

‘I Refuse’ by Per Petterson    (2012)  –  282 pages      Translated by Don Bartlett    Grade: C

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I Refuse’ is the novel where I have finally realized that I have overdosed on Norwegian realism.  This is Norway where the fathers are all alcoholic trolls, and their sons are all hurt and self-centered.  This is Norway where no one has a sense of humor in spite of their problems.

‘I Refuse’ has the traits we have all come to know and put up with in Norwegian realism.  It is cheerless, depressing, ominous, fatalistic, brooding, portentous, bleak, dismal, listless, humorless, and grim.  One could easily believe that ‘I Refuse’ is a parody of a Scandinavian realistic novel, but there is no evidence that Per Petterson is in on the joke.

Here we have two sons, Jim and Tommy.  Jim’s father ran off when Jim was small.  Tommy’s mother ran off, but his father stuck around to beat up their children until Tommy retaliated with a baseball bat.  Then Tommy’s father ran off too.  Jim and Tommy are best friends as kids until Jim goes off the rails mentally.  Now it is 35 years later, and they run into each other near Oslo. So far this is your typical Norway story, and it doesn’t get any better than this.  It is no help that we switch back and forth from these guys’ grim childhoods to their unhappy adulthoods.

In all these stories of sons who have mean decrepit drunk fathers, there is one thing they forget to mention.  At some point, the sons grow up and are likely to become mean and decrepit and drunk too, but most of all self-centered.

There is little dialogue in ‘I Refuse’ which is a good thing, because the dialogue that is there reeks.

 “Do you ever hear from your mother or father?”

 “No.”

“Don’t you think that’s sad?”

“No, I don’t think it’s sad.  I don’t give a damn.”

“I can understand that.”

So if you are looking for scintillating witty conversation, avoid ‘I Refuse’ at all costs.

I have had it with these self-absorbed Norwegian novels.

During the last couple of years I have read and truly enjoyed two fine lively exuberant novels by Enrique Vila-Matas of Spain, and I have always liked the work of Spanish author Javier Marias.  Perhaps I will seek out some more excellent novels from Spain to read.

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16 responses to this post.

  1. I don’t read a lot of Norwegian novels but Petterson is one of my very favourite writers. I loved this book. I did find it dark but it is also spare and haunting. The characters are my age, grew up in a similar type of semi-rural setting and, having gone through a serious breakdown last year, the mental illness theme rang very real (Norwegians can really capture mental illness when they want to). I find a certain very dry humour in Petterson, even this one. It was one of my top reads of the year for 2014.

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    • Hi roughghosts,
      I did like ‘Out Stealing Horses’ a lot, but ‘I Refuse’ struck me the wrong way from the start. I was going to say something about that ‘semi-rural setting’, and I believe Knaussgaard (see below) spoiled that for me for good.
      I wish I could have found some dry humor in ‘I Refuse’, but it wasn’t there for me.
      I’m sure there will be authors I really admire that you don’t think that much of. The reviews of ‘I Refuse’ have been overwelmingly positive, so I’m just the exception.

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  2. Oh dear…I’ve yet to get to Per Petterson, but his novel ‘Out Stealing Horses’ is in my TBR. It’s interesting to see he shares a translator with Knausgaard, another writer whose books feature an alcoholic father and a damaged son.

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    • Hi JacquiWine,
      I did read ‘Out Stealing Horses’ and thought it was wonderful at that time. It has been since then and especially when I read Knaussgaard that it struck me how stereotypical these Norwegian novels can be.
      Since I’m down on both Petterson and Knaussgaard, perhaps it is the translator’s fault.

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  3. *chuckle*
    I’ve liked Per Patterson before, but I’m not sure now that I’ll ever be able to read him again!
    I’m totally with you on the Knausgard. I had to read Volume 1 for a shadow jury I was on, and it was excruciating to read.

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    • Hi Lisa,
      Perhaps because it seemed like Petterson was imitating Knaussgaard in ‘I Refuse’, I couldn’t help thinking of Knaussgaard the whole time I was reading it, much to the detriment of Petterson.
      There are tons of positive reviews of ‘I Refuse’ on the web, and I’m just one small voice crying in the wilderness.

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      • Oh yes, but there are endless positive reviews of Knaussgard, and I refuse to believe that they’ve all read him. (I can’t really believe that I’ve read him. What was I thinking of??)
        LOL Maybe Petterson’s publisher told him to go away and write Knaussgard Lite for all the people who don’t want to read the seemingly endless churn of chunkster Knaussgards.

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        • Hi Lisa,
          At least Per Petterson’s self-absorbed, self-centered characters are fictional, so they aren’t quite as obnoxious as Knaussgaard’s memoirs.
          And I do have to believe that Knaussgaard’s international success is affecting other Norwegian writers.

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  4. I’m actually looking forward to reading a Per Petterson book (again, after he was featured in the Bookworm podcast). I haven’t read any Norwegian novel yet so I guess it wouldn’t do me much harm?

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    • Hi Angus,
      Yes, you are probably still safe from an overdose on Norwegian novels.

      Actually there is one Norwegian novelist whom I consider one of the great. Knut Hamsun is a difficult case. He wrote some spectacular early novels including ‘Hunger’, ‘Mysteries’ and ‘Pan’ and ‘Victoria’. Nearly all of the work he is remembered for was done before 1900, although he wrote many novels after that. By World War II he was over 80 years old and a German sympathizer and tried for treason after the war. Hamsun is another case like Celine who produced some major work despite being a Nazi.

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      • I immensely enjoyed Hunger and Mysteries. but I have this tendency to separate Hamsun from contemporary Norwegian writers because I think he’s not merely a Norwegian novelist. Those two works that I’ve read of him speak universally.

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        • According to Wiki, the young Hamsun objected to realism and naturalism. That was when he wrote those works that are considered his masterpieces. Then Wiki says his later works, which are pretty much ignored, were influenced by the Norwegian new realism. I rest my case.

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  5. There’s a genre I think of as Irish miserabilism (which probably isn’t original to me, but I don’t know where I got it from). Child abuse, alcoholism, priests, censorious old women, rain, more alcoholism and nobody has a bloody laugh ever.

    There are some exceptionally well written books that fall into that category, but I just can’t swallow any more of them.

    The thing is, as I quite often comment at mine, realism isn’t as a rule terribly realistic. This doesn’t sound an exception. Anything relentlessly grim is essentially a fairy tale. Real life has comedy, even in the bleakest lives, perhaps sometimes particularly in those.

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    • Hi Max,
      My own experience is that a lot of Irish authors put quite a bit of humor in their novels. I’m thinking particularly of At Swim-Two-Birds by Flann O’Brien. The Irish are usually good for a joke, so I don’t know about Irish miserabilism.
      And I do agree that an overly grim attitude is no more realistic than an overly perky pollyanna attitude. I like characters like Don Quixote and Candide who are eternally optimistic no matter what happens to them.

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