When non-English writers get their work published in translation you often find that when they enjoy success in translation, their publishers begin to translate and publish books from their back-catalogue. Per Petterson is in this situation; his books Out Stealing Horses, To Siberia and I Curse The River of Time have been very well received and now his publishers have decided to publish It’s Fine By Me which was written in 1992 but was first published in English in this edition of 2012.
Its Fine By Me is semi-autobiographical and could be called a “coming of age” novel in that it follows the life of Audan between the ages of 12 and 18. Audan lives with his mother and sister in a working-class suburb of Oslo. He had a brother who was killed in a road accident and Audan now struggles with his role as “number one son”, while his shadowy and violent father comes and goes, wreaking havoc whenever he turns up on the scene. Interestingly Audan’s best friend is Arvid who is the main character in the earlier book, I Curse the River of Time.
I enjoyed this book far more than I expected to. I assumed that the publishers were now publishing 20 year-old work from an immature Petterson, but was surprised to find that I probably liked this one more than any of the author’s later works. I immediately liked Audan’s “voice” (the book is written in the first person) and found myself sympathising with his troubles. He exhibits all the traits of adolescence – from wearing sun-glasses at all times to finding ways of separating himself from his mother. But his struggles are real and he deals with them courageously if not always successfully.
When you read Petterson you see a different side to the Scandinavian experience than that depicted in home and living magazines. Rather than elegant houses set among scenic lakes, furnished with clean-lined sofas and expensive electronics, you find yourself in working class areas among docks and factories, as rough and ready as any industrial area. Alcohol seems to be a perennial problem, and when people leave a bar they fight each other before leaving for their troubled, down-at-heel homes.
Audan comes from such a home – his father makes occasional appearances but is greeted with with a low-level terror by his family who know that arguments end up with a beating from the angry drunk. He keeps a gun and on one occasion he leaves home and turns round and shoots at the house, breaking the kitchen window and narrowly missing Audan’s mother.
The novel opens with a thirteen year-old Audan starting a new class at school, refusing to take off his sunglasses because of fictional scars around his eyes. We read of his paper-round – an extremely arduous job in the Norwegian winter. Audan waits to start his round after a late delivery of papers with a whole family of two parents and their children who live off delivering papers – “they look as though they have just come in from the forest, you’d expect pine needles in their hair, but they live in Rådyrveien, in a flat, like the rest of us from Veitvet do”.
The book slips back and forth between the years, with Audan being 13 in one chapter and 17 in the next, then back again, his reminiscences always being acute, social interactions mixed in with glowing descriptions of the nearby Norwegian countryside. He goes for a drive with his friend Arvid in Arvid’s father’s car and notices that,
The fields rise steeply on both sides of the river and yellow and grey they arch in a pattern of shapes and lines against the blue sky, and I don’t know why but, it does something to me.
On another occasion, Audan goes for a trek by himself and eloquently expresses his love of landscape and his desire to write,
It’s cold, the air is crisp and clear and dead leaves lie in golden heaps along the hiking trail. It is good to breathe after many days in doors. I don’t see any animals, but long Lake Elvåga is glittering the sunshine. About halfway, I stop and slide down and sit on the slope of the bank. It is fine and open here, and the trees are naked. I take out the roll-up and the little note-book. I like to think it is similar to the one Hemingway used in the Twenties in his Paris book, A Moveable Feast. I light the cigarette and try to do what he die; write one true sentence. I try several but they don’t amount to any more than what Arvid calls purple prose.
But back at home he drops out of school and begins work in a noisy, dangerous print-works. The factory prints newspapers and magazines and Petterson describes the perils of splicing huge rolls of paper to each other without stopping the rollers of the press. One worker loses his fingers during a moment’s inattention but Audan takes to the work and finds some satisfaction in it;
Today all goes well. I toil and sweat and enjoy my work. I kick-start the trolley and stand on it as I shoot along the rolls into the next hall, cut off the wrapping and manoeuvre the paper rolls to the edge of the platform and rock them gently onto the trolley. There’s a trick to it; if I push too hard the roll topples over and that’s why I wear my steel-toed shoes. They are supposed to take a ton’s weight, but I don’t feel like testing the claim.
There is so much more in this book than I can mention here – descriptions of summer job as a farm-hand, a terrible fight which Audan gets into,a mission to rescue his sister from what seems to be terrible danger – this is an interesting book, full of anecdotes but with an emerging story of a boy’s journey from childhood to man-hood.
It was only by chance that I read this book immediately after reading John Fante’s book The Road to Los Angeles which also concerns a young man coming of age in a working class suburb in Southern California. While Fante’s character Arturo Bandini goes to work in a cannery, Petterson’s Audan ends up working in the equally dangerous print-works. Both young men live with their mother and sister and both wish to become writers. The similarities end there for while Arturo Bandini is a blustering, extravagantly aggressive character, perhaps over-confident in his writing ability, Petterson’s Ardun is a far more nuanced character who can strike out when the need arises but also helps find a lost child, rescues his sister and finds solace in the dramatic scenery of a winter Norway.
Both books are equally remarkable in their way and its been fascinating to read them back to back and see how such different writers treat similar themes. Being a bit of a Petterson fan I probably prefer It’s Fine By Me to The Road to Los Angeles but in terms of literary value I’d say they’re both fairly equal.