Book Review: Readings
Reviewed by Melanie Haupt, Fri., June 16, 2006
by Jan Kjærstad; translated by Barbara J. Haveland
Overlook Press, 606 pp., $27.95Thirteen years ago, Forføreren made Jan Kjærstad a literary lion in Norway. Winner of the Nordic Council Literary Prize, the inaugural installment of an epic trilogy depicting the life of television personality Jonas Wergeland is now available to the English-speaking world under the guise of The Seducer.
The premise is simple: Jonas Wergeland, a successful documentarian, arrives home to find his wife murdered in their living room. This sets off a sprawling, nonlinear picaresque that documents the life and times of a preternaturally gifted national hero. Wergeland is, by turns, in possession of an uncanny knack for sensing great art (which makes his grandmother a very rich woman) and a magic penis. Women are inexplicably drawn to him, lower themselves onto that miraculous organ at any given opportunity, and are rewarded with the elusive, shuddering orgasms of locker-room legend. Wergeland is philosophical about these encounters, categorizing each woman's secret place according to her skills outside the bedroom; for example, an athletic girl's vagina is a "gazelle," a brainy girl's is "mathematical." Dumb? Yes, but it is a perfect example of the dry wit and subtlety sprinkled throughout the novel.
Haveland's translation is fairly straightforward, adhering for the most part to the rule that the translation must be as transparent as possible. The only quibble is her choice of the word "yoni" in referring to a woman's vagina (and there are yoni aplenty here); it is an unfortunate affectation that grates after the first several occurrences. However, such a choice is a tricky one: To use "pussy" or some other, more vulgar assignation would almost certainly compromise the novel's deceptively lofty tone.
The Seducer has been compared widely to Tom Jones. Where Fielding engaged in a humorous critique of the moral rigidity marking the zeitgeist of his time, Kjærstad writes via Wergeland a refiguring of Norway's national character while at the same time drawing the reader in with breathtaking prose that burns through dozens of pages before losing momentum. This makes for a challenging read, to say the least. But because it is impossible to walk away from Wergeland's adventures, it is clear that the real seducer here is Kjærstad, having crafted an irresistible story.