International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award winner Per Petterson – part 2

Irving Stone’s biography of Jack London,
and many more. There were travel books from all corners of the earth. It was like the
world. We all looked upon that bookcase as a piece
of furniture, and what we especially liked were the carvings. But one day as a young
boy, I picked out one of those books and opened it. And I discovered that it made sense to
me. It was possible to read. So I did. My mother was an intellectual. She worked
for a long time in a chocolate factory, then she washed schools, public buildings, hotels.
She washed at the Park Hotel where the rock groups stayed when they played in Oslo. One
time she came into a suite where the bathroom was a real mess, and there were two of the
boys still in the room, and she bawled them out. They kind of cracked and said, It will
never happen again Mam. I believe they were Robert Plant and Jimmy Page from Led Zeppelin.
Nice ordinary lads, she said afterwards, just a drink too many. Happens to everybody. My mother always read books. Books in Norwegian,
Danish, Swedish, German, English. She read Hemingway and Steinbeck. She read Alan Sillitoe
and Aldous Huxley. She read Somerset Maughan. She read Knut Hamsun. She read Dubliners by
James Joyce in fact. I never saw her sleep. When in bed, she did
not touch the pillow with her head, but rested her elbow on it, her hand supporting her head.
And I could ask: What are you reading? And then she did like this (turning the book);
Günter Grass, she said: Die Blechtrummel. My mother thought I was intellectually lazy,
because I didn’t know German. She did not own a single book. What she did
was she went to the local library. It was a good library with good people working in
it, all women of course. One of them had previously held a job in the local kiosk. She was a friend
of my mother and a passionate reader. That library is closed now, I am sorry to say. My mother showed me how the books were organised,
the fiction, the poetry, she explained to me this wonderful invention called the Dewey
classification system, that if you gave it half an hour of your attention, you can get
the basics of it, and it could point you in any direction you felt like going, if you
wanted to educate yourself. This impressed me so much, that after I quit
school one year before my final exams (because they didn’t give me time enough to read),
I went to the main public library in Oslo to knock at the Personnel Manager’s door,
and I told him he had to give me a job. And he did. Those were the days. So I trained to be a librarian, but after
three years of that, I got a job in a bookshop, a wonderful bookshop called Tronsmo, in the
centre of Oslo. It was a little like the City Lights bookstore in San Francisco but it was
better in American literature in fact. It was my university. And it was there I started
to read the Irish. Joyce, and Beckett of course. My all time favourite storyteller: Frank O’Connor,
and Sean O’Faolain. I read Liam O’Flaherty and Brendan Behan, Edna O’Brien and Sean
O’Casey, the autobiography. I read a little Yeats too, and have seen his gravestone, I
went there, with the famous lines, “Cast a cold eye, on life, on death, horseman pass
by.” Those words have always made me want to go home and write. All of this I say to flatter you of course,
but conveniently, it is also true. And I say it to avoid talking about my novel, Out Stealing
Horses, which, incidentally, is why I am here. I avoid it because I guess you expect me to
say something wise about it. But, as everyone in this room already knows: a work of fiction
that is only moderately successful in its own field is always wiser than its author.
And we should rejoice and be happy for that, for you, as well as I, have heard authors
talk about their work, and have been left none the wiser. I can say this, though: that when you start
a novel, with perhaps a very slim idea of what it is going to be about, and a little
scared move into a territory that is unknown to you, I have found that something very wonderful
happens, and that is that the world of your own reading opens up to you, and you realise
that there has been someone there before you. And I have never found that in the least oppressive.
Instead, it is a comfort. You are not alone! For example, you cannot be a Norwegian and
write a novel like this and not be aware of a book called Pan, published in the 1890s
by Knut Hamsun. But more important, as this is payback time: those of you who have read
Out Stealing Horses cannot have missed the open hommage to Charles Dickens, or perhaps
more the feel of Dickens, and how he worked with fate, or with whole lives and the struggle
to change those lives, before it was too late. And there were more; L.P Hartley, William
Maxwell, Richard Ford, books with a voice of urgency in them. And then, when I was hesitating to start the
final chapter, not wanting to get off on the wrong foot, I woke up one night with some
lines ringing in my head, and those lines were in English. I jumped out of bed, ran
into the living room, and immediately found the book that I had not read for ten years,
opened it, and there they were: The opening lines of Voyage in the Dark, by Jean Rhys.
And they go like this: It was as if a curtain had fallen, hiding
everything I had ever known. It was almost like being born again. The colours were different,
the smells different, the feeling things gave you right down inside of yourself, was different.
Not just the difference between heat, cold; light, darkness: purple, grey; but the difference
in the way I was frightened and the way I was happy. I translated those amazing lines, and I used
them, and I knew, I could not go all wrong. My point is, as you see: you are your own
master, but you are not alone. And when I say that a novel which is any good
is always wiser than its author, it is of course the reader that makes it so, adding
her intelligence, sensitivity, and generosity. So can you all imagine my intense and upset
pleasure when these readers, this jury decided to honour Out Stealing Horses? I mean, from
that shortlist? Of course you do, and that is why you understand how happy I am. And
also, that it should come from Ireland, from Dublin. How fantastic. Thank you so much. And thank you so much to Anne Born for her
great work, for her generosity, and for her patience with me, who is perhaps not the easiest
person to work with. Thank you very much to Geoff Mulligan and
the people at Harvill Secker. And thank you very much to Chistopher MacLehose, the one
and only. To have been selected by him, in the first place, to be on his list, has been
a great honour. And finally thank you to NORLA, Norwegian Literature Abroad, for their constant
support, and for the fact that they have been banging for so long at the door of the English
speaking world, and just might have gotten a foot in. It is not easy, I can tell you.
But this brilliant invention, The International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, may perhaps be
used as a crowbar on that door? I think so. In any case, and again, thank you so very
much. We are not alone. You are not alone. Thank you. [clapping]

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