De udødelige/The Immortals/Die Unsterblichen
    Review by Turid Larsen
The ImmortalsCover

Ketil Bjørnstad has captured a disagreeable part of Norwegian reality in an entertaining and penetrating novel.

Ketil Bjørnstad’s new novel is about old people who do not want to die and young people who do not want to leave home. It is a novel that you don’t want to put down despite the book’s relatively unpleasant subject matter.

Ketil Bjørnstad
“De udødelige”, Aschehoug

            Bjørnstad gives us insight and wisdom, irony and humour. It is possible that one could call his protagonist, general practitioner Thomas Brenner, a typical Bjørnstad figure – in other words, a man who is a natural caregiver and has an overactive conscience. But he also has dark secrets, shame-ridden frustrations and a fear of confrontation. His wife Elisabeth is a more robust character, but she too suffers from a surfeit of morality.
            Brenner himself has a troublesome heart condition, and is a martyr to the inadequacy he feels when confronted with his old parents and apathetic daughters. This novel draws an often gripping portrait of people past their prime who are being pulled in two directions.

            The family lives on Holmenkollåsen, a prosperous district on a hill overlooking Oslo, and the role played by this particular geographical setting in the country’s capital is not insignificant. Bjørnstad is a keen observer of social mores, and serves us a generous portion of both amusing and mildly malicious features of life on the hill. Brenner is approaching 60 years old, and his wife’s 60th birthday celebration is one of the novel’s key events. Her parents, in their 90s, live in the first storey of their large house, and a little farther up the hill live his parents, who are also greatly in need of care and help. Their daughters, in their 20s, are still receiving financial support and a great deal of solicitous care from their parents.
            “De udødelige” could be described as a broad-based literary study of Norwegian family life at the beginning of the 21st century. Three generations are living in close quarters here. This is not typical of most Norwegian families, but it gives the author an opportunity to portray the challenges and demands of a society in which many people live well into their 90s while the members of the younger generation, at the other end of the spectrum, are dependent on their parents although they are approaching 30..

            Ketil Bjørnstad addresses and reflects on unpleasant subjects: the death that we try to avoid, the children who never grow up. There is also the silence, the lack of communication. Thomas Brenner does not dare to talk about his problems, nor does he dare to mention the lump he recently felt in his wife’s breast. In his darkest moments he can only observe with wonder that the older one gets, the more desperately one clutches on to life. “My God, he thought, there were patients who had been living in nursing homes for over 15 years. They never died, because their lives were always saved by anticoagulants and heart medications. Their bodies could be disintegrating, but their hearts kept on beating. Even if their memories had vanished, what did not vanish was their agitation and anxiety, their restless wandering from room to room in the hope of finding peace, finding a home, finding a person, a Jesus or a God who could both comfort them and explain everything to them.”
            And what about modern-day parents? “They had not only been ‘helicopter parents’, or doormats, or whatever one would call parents delivering a certain type of exaggerated caregiving, but they had inevitably caught their children in their own net of anxiety, acted like monsters in reverse, emotional brutes, who used their entire sensory apparatus to clip the wings of their two magnificent daughters.”

            Bjørnstad writes lightly, entertainingly and with insight. He is never sentimental or pompous, but remains sober and manages to keep the story flowing well and realistically. It is perhaps no coincidence that the American author Saul Bellow has a clear presence in the novel. He is Elisabeth’s favourite writer, and her 60th birthday is spent in freezing-cold Chicago, where the entire Brenner family walks in the Nobel laureate’s footsteps.
            Elisabeth Brenner says that Bellow “lifts reality up to eye level for the reader, and makes it easier to enter into it, with all your senses wide open”, and these words could also be applied to Ketil Bjørnstad’s novel. He is no minimalist writer who focuses on between-the-lines implications. The novel “De udødelige” nevertheless provides, indirectly, a penetrating and well-defined picture of comfortable Norwegian reality at the beginning of the 21st century.

Copyright: Turid Larsen & Dagsavisen, Saturday, 29 January 2011