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A literary career fueled by tragedy

With the death of his parents in a ferryboat fire, Norwegian author Per Petterson is consumed with the notion of family.

January 02, 2008|Bob Thompson | Washington Post

NEW YORK -- Per Petterson wasn't content to simply thank his mother and father as he accepted one of the world's richest book prizes. He kept on talking about them until he was nearly halfway through his seven-page speech.

Petterson was little known outside his native Norway before his novel "Out Stealing Horses" won the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award in June. The 55-year-old writer had beaten out finalists Cormac McCarthy, J.M. Coetzee, Julian Barnes and Jonathan Safran Foer for the 2007 prize, which comes with a 100,000-euro purse (then around $130,000) and goes to the best single work of fiction published in English anywhere in the world. Now there he was in Ireland, at the center of a pomp-filled ceremony in Dublin's city hall.

"Lord mayor, members of the jury, dear friends," Petterson began. "This is not meant to be sentimental, not even nostalgic, but I do want to tell you something about my parents."

"Out Stealing Horses" hit a number of best-of-the-year lists in the United States, but it is still not on the radar of most readers here. It is the story of a 67-year-old man, living alone, who is haunted by the memory of a boyhood summer with his father. Described by one judge as "a wonderfully subtle book," it was not directly inspired by Petterson's own family history. Yet family is its focus, as it is in all Petterson's work, and his two previous novels hit so close to home that he couldn't have published them if his mother and father were still alive.

Their end was shocking. On April 7, 1990, Petterson got a phone call from his ex-wife, who told him to turn on the TV. He saw images of a ferryboat in flames. One hundred fifty-nine people died, among them his parents and two of his three brothers, who had been traveling to a vacation cabin in Denmark.

At one point, the plan had been for Petterson to be on the ferry with them. But he did not mention that -- or even the fire itself -- in his Dublin speech.

Instead, he talked about the beautifully carved bookcase his father once bought, its shelves stocked with the previous owner's books. His father never got around to reading those books, but Petterson did.

And he talked about his mother, who owned not a single book herself but borrowed all kinds from the library and read so constantly "that I never saw her sleep."

Passion for reading

He is a short, wiry man with an easy grin and the kind of weather-beaten face that might make you think "sailor" or "forest ranger" if you didn't know he was an Oslo-bred writer of prose. In Manhattan for a quick visit -- a couple of readings, a reception at the Norwegian consulate -- he sips a Coke in the courtyard of his small hotel and talks, in excellent English, about books and writing and how he came to be who he is.

Both his parents worked in factories, he says, "my mother in a chocolate factory and my father in a shoe factory. Best chocolate in the world. It's been bought up by Americans now, of course."

His mother was the family intellectual. "She wanted to go to college, gymnasium as we call it, and she wasn't allowed to do that by her parents," Petterson says, partly for lack of money "but also because girls shouldn't go, they thought." Nonetheless, she grew up to be someone who read absolutely everything.

His father was an athletic man with diverse interests that did not include reading. Father and son had a hard time understanding each other. Petterson's first book was a collection of autobiographical stories "about this father and this boy," but though it was published three years before the ferry fire, his father never mentioned it.

Still, there was that bookcase.

In it were "Leo Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Sigrid Undset, the Norwegian -- all kinds of books," Petterson says. On a whim, when he was 12 or 13, "I just sat down on the stairs behind the bookcase and I just took a book out. I didn't know why. And I opened it." Eventually, he read most of what was there, including "Gone With the Wind" in a Norwegian translation.

"I thought it was fabulous," he says, laughing. "Wow, passion!"

A few years later, he read Jack London's "Martin Eden." The story of "this man sort of raising himself up by his own hair almost, and trying to break through the wall of culture," he says, "made me want to be a writer." So did works by the Danish-Norwegian author Aksel Sandemose and by Ernest Hemingway. By the time he was 18, he knew that all he wanted was to write. There was a problem, though: He couldn't finish anything. "I was a coward," he says. "If I finished a story, I could see it was no good. I didn't want that."

Instead, he trained as a librarian, worked in a printing plant and finally got a job at an Oslo bookstore, where he became the foreign book buyer. "As long as I could sell it, I could do anything I liked," he says.

But he was miserable not writing.

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