The existentialist novel — however it may be defined — is a modern invention. Following the devastation of World War II, its intellectual vanguards developed a philosophy to more deeply express the human experience.
These novelists relay existential concepts while paying special attention to detail and voice in style andtransience and nuance in psychology. Ultimately, their philosophical inquiries articulate the tangible and invisible forces driving our alienation from the modern world.
Yet the existential novel can be seen as dated, bordered by conventions and overshadowed by succeeding literary movements that consider the ambivalence of our ontological condition from a greater variety of narrative and philosophical angles. Existentialism is anachronistic — a uniquely twentieth century literary enterprise. How else to revive the genre if not through emulation, parody, or kitsch?
Enter Dag Solstad, Norway’s most celebrated contemporary writer, whose 1994 novel Shyness and Dignity breathes new life into an otherwise exhausted literature. His work is fully absorbed in its specific literary tradition while grounding its concerns in our unique and present-day anxieties.
Its axis revolves around Elias Rukla, a “rather sottish senior master in his fifties” teaching Norwegian literature at a secondary school in Oslo. Mid-lecture, Elias discovers hidden meaning in an ostensibly insignificant line direction in Henrich Ibsen’s play The Wild Duck. The finding inspires Elias to think innovatively about the play’s dramatics and its discussion of fate.
In spite of his passionate delivery, his students remain listless and unmotivated. Frightened by their mass boredom, Elias ultimately resigns himself to defeat. He leaves the school frustrated. Struggling to open his “collapsible” umbrella outside, he enters into a fit of rage, beats it savagely in front of spectating students, and cusses at one of them ruthlessly.
All at once, Elias realizes his downfall. Certain that his teaching post will be terminated, he despairs over the bleak economical and social future awaiting him and his wife. His crisis triggers a sequence of recollections and speculations, interwoven with daydreams and regrets, that follows throughout the rest of the novel until the very end, when he must return to his current life and face his presently doomed future.
Shyness and Dignity takes on the form of a stream–of–consciousness narrative, full of winding run-on sentences and multi-page digressions, moving from one fixed idea to the next with the swiftness of pen strokes. The narration exhausts itself in bridging each detail and implication to create an intricately connected web of thoughts and ideas. However, its variations and detours never stray beyond what is truly at stake. Even the most seemingly banal details inevitably fall under the two categories suggested in the title: shyness, the natural yet inhibiting force; and dignity, the great motivator and stimulant.
Apart from its style, the novel’s preoccupation with agency, chance, and fate is a recognizable quality in existentialist literature. Echoes of Albert Camus and Knut Hamsun can be heard all throughout, and any reader of Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being will find themselves in familiar territory.
What makes Solstad’s novel especially interesting, however, is its relative lightheartedness and penchant for comedy. One can easily imagine the umbrella scene as a slapstick gag in silent comedy. Yet its pervasive and subtle humor never compromises its sincerity. Miraculously, the novel strikes a brilliant balance between the comic potential of existential dilemmas and the gravity they implicate in our lives. It views our world through a sharp lens, capturing the quiet dramas we harbor daily with equal amounts of grace, sympathy, and amusement.
Shyness and Dignity is the perfect introduction to an author whose work is only recently gaining a wider readership among English-speaking readers. It is a novel that reintroduces familiar existential ideas and unpacks their newfound significance while maintaining a sophisticated style, so as to represent subtle workings of the conscience. Its ethos can be summed thusly in one of the most important lines in The Wild Duck, a proto-existentialist remark that still resonates due to its universality and urgency: “If you take the life-lie away from an average person, you take away his happiness as well.”