Meet Elias Rukla, teacher of Norwegian to a bunch of bored teenagers at Fagerborg Secondary School in Oslo. Elias is about to destroy 25 years of hard work and his reputation, publicly and humiliatingly, in front of the whole school. Why is Elias boiling over? Find out in this darkly funny, captivating deep dive into the psyche of a man who comes face to face with his entire existence.
Rewind 25 years. Elias is a somewhat uninspired student of Norwegian at the University of Oslo where he meets the charismatic, larger-than-life character Johan Corneliussen. They become inseparable friends, Johan taking the lead and Elias following loyally behind. Pretty unremarkable himself, Elias is flattered that Johan takes an interest in him. Elias is even invited to be present as Johan courts the stunningly beautiful Eva. But how deep does their friendship really run? Not very, it turns out.
Dag Solstad, described by fellow Norwegian authors Per Petterson and Karl-Ove Knausgaard as Norway’s greatest living author, is known for his many prize-winning novels as well as his extreme left wing political views. I remember reading his impossibly titled Gymnaslærer Pedersens Bereting om den Store Politiske Vekkelsen som har Hjemsøkt Vårt Land (loosely translated as High-school Teacher Pedersen’s Account of the Great Political Awakening that has Haunted our Country) years ago, a very funny satire on the Marxist-Leninist movement in Norway during the 1970s, which Solstad himself was deeply involved in.
Shyness and Dignity is less about politics and more about the life of one shy and lonely man utterly incapable of communicating with those around him despite a deep desire to do so. It’s about betrayal, loss of purpose, feeling irrelevant and unvalued and living an invisible life in the shadow of others.
Now this might not exactly sound like a bundle of fun, but Solstad’s novel is darkly comic and, at times, very funny. Who won’t recognise the feeling of acute embarrassment after exploding with rage in front of a large crowd? Or empathise with Elias’ when his enthusiasm for an Ibsen’s play is met with deafening silence by a group of apathetic teenagers?
I kept thinking of John Williams’ fabulous novel Stoner when I read this book. The two novels have more than quiet English professor protagonists in common. You can add to that suppressed anger, failure of communication, isolation and beautifully drawn-out characters. Shyness and Dignity deserves Stoner’s success.
Shyness and Dignity is translated by Sverre Lyngstad and published by Harvill Secker, 154 pages.