November 2006

Jessica A. Tierney


Shyness and Dignity by Dag Solstad

Similar in theme to Kundera's The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Dag Solstad's Shyness and Dignity confronts ideas of identity and the understanding of self. However, Solstad does this in a more isolated manner as we follow the main character, Elias Rukla, during the course of one day through his long, almost obsessive internal deliberation over his life.

In the school courtyard where he teaches, Elias Rukla's umbrella fails to open, and in a fit he smashes it over and over against a fountain. Then, to the surprise and horror of on-looking students, he verbally berates a tall blond who "was looking at him in amazement." Rukla knows that his career is finished: "This was his ultimate downfall. He knew that now he was leaving the Fagerborg school behind him for good and that he would never teach again." He wanders downtown, brooding over how he will ever tell his wife, Eva, "whom had spread out a bit too much and with whom he had breakfast every morning," that he has surely lost his job and means of supporting them. It is with this pondering that the novel embarks on a careful, meditative analysis through Rukla's introspective perception of his world.

Shyness and Dignity relates to the present human condition, using Rukla as a means of accessing the possibility that we are more isolated and alone than we may wish to perceive. An intimate third person storyteller allows us to be very close to Rukla, sharing his meditations while still seeing him from the outside. "'But I imagine that he [Thomas Mann, a German author whom Rukla admires] might have derived a certain pleasure from describing my wanderings across the floor tonight, in my apartment in Jacob Allas gate, where I'm walking back and forth, plagued by the fact that I am a socially aware individual who no longer has anything to say', Elias Rukla thought." This proximity draws the reader nearer to his personal analysis, causing us to ask some of the same existential questions of ourselves.

Part of what draws the reader in is the rhythm of the prose. "It must have been because his love had died. His love had died, and even though he cherished the child they had together more than anything in the world, it did not suffice to make him decide to take the child with him to the USA because then he would also have to take along the child's mother, and his love was dead. How long had his love been dead? Johan Corneliussen's love, which had died. How long ago?" Repetitious language creates the methodical pace for the novel, having an almost meditative effect on the reader.

The prose has an elegant simplicity, surprising, considering this is a translation. Dag Solstad is a prominent Norwegian author who has earned such honors as the Nordic Prize for Literature and is the only three-time recipient of the Norwegian Literary Critics' Award. Shyness and Dignity, translated by Sverre Lyngstad, is his first English-language work, and this translation surely does him justice.

Shyness and Dignity works on a universal level; it is not pigeonholed into Norwegian culture. Its simplicity may feel a bit patronizing at first (Okay, Dag, we get that his love was dead), but as the repeated images play out, the reader experiences a building effect, slowly gaining insight to Elias Rukla's world through the methodical pattern of his thoughts. Throughout the novel, we begin to gradually realize that in some ways his world is not much unlike our own.

Elias Rukla comes to no ground-breaking conclusions, he simply notes of his current state of affairs "it is dreadful, but there is no going back," which seems to be no different from the rest of his lonely life. Solstad has touched on a theme that resonates, and has succeeded in publishing a worthwhile read for anyone interested in themes like isolation and who appreciates subtle yet strong prose.

Shyness and Dignity by Dag Solstad
Translated by Sverre Lyngtad
Graywolf Press
ISBN: 1555974465
112 Pages