Not all books are blessed with a brilliant opening line, but Lobster Life by Erik Fosnes Hansen certainly is. His first novel in ten years kicks off with the offhand remark: ‘They had got as far as the cakes when Herr Berge, the bank manager, suddenly slumped down at the table and started to die.’ They turn out to be the young boy Sedgwick and his grandparents, and although Fosnes Hansen’s wit is not as tinkling throughout as it is in that shiny first sentence, Sedgwick’s story turns out highly amusing nonetheless.
Fosnes Hansen had his definite breakthrough in 1990 with the novel Psalm at Journey’s End, which was nominated for the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. After a few years of working for Arts Council Norway he is once again writing novels, and although Lobster Life is not his finest work to date, it remains a highly amusing satire on self-preservation, the changing times, and those obsessed with façade.
Now, due to the outbreak of COVID-19, Norwegians have been asked to spend the summer holiday in Norway. Public reactions to this make it clear that the prospect of spending four weeks within the confining hills and fjords of our native country is an activity viewed by many Norwegians as a sort of punishment.
Sedgwick’s grandparents, however, would perhaps have welcomed this more local form of tourism, as their family-run hotel Fåvnesheim is not doing too well as the novel opens. It is 1982, and not only has the above-mentioned bank manager, who’d been supporting Fåvnesheim financially for years, just died while dining in the hotel restaurant – the entire hotel industry is threatened by Norwegian travellers’ new ‘infernal’ appreciation for holidaying in southern Europe.
Sedwick, or Sedd, is a lofty yet lonely 14-year-old with a rich inner life. Raised by his grandparents at Fåvnesheim, he was abandoned by his mother as a young child, left only with the memory of her smell. He never knew his father.
Sedd moves around in a mountainous landscape searching for the truth about his parents, which is hard found when everybody around him – his grandparents, the hotel guests, even the friendly chef Jim – are like the lobsters they keep in the restaurant aquarium; protected by their hard shell, they will squabble over each other and fight to death to avoid revealing their soft insides. As his search continues, the winding corridors and locked attic doors of Fåvnesheim grows ever more mysterious.
The novel is filled with humorous observations of the old order; on a trip to Oslo with Sedd and his grandfather, we learn that Henrik Ibsen found the energy to finish his late play by eating a shrimp sandwich and a slice of Napoleon’s cake every day. ‘Delicate open sandwiches’, we are told, ‘can awaken even the powers of peevish old men.’
Despite his tender age, Sedd’s inner monologues consist of precocious, and perhaps at times inconsequential phrases such as ‘the springtime of youth’, but perhaps this is fitting for a teenager already composing his memoirs.
Skilfully translated by Janet Garton, who ensures the English version of Fosnes Hansen’s book is just as absurdly funny as the original, Lobster Life is a witty satire that somehow seems to belong to another era of life – perhaps now more than ever.
Lobster Life by Erik Fosnes Hansen is translated by Janet Garton and published by Norvik Press, 394 pages.