Professor Andersen’s Night

If you were alone in your apartment and see a man strangling a woman to death in the apartment right across yours, what would you do?  Would you immediately run to the telephone and report it to the police?  Would you run across to the apartment and try to stop the murderer?  Or, if you were Professor Andersen, perhaps you would think about it, analyzing the situation, contemplate on your options, then finally decide not to report it.

On Christmas Eve, as Professor Andersen looked out to the apartments across the street and to the different families celebrating the occasion in the comforts of their own homes, he unexpectedly witnesses a murder – in the window of one of the apartments across from his, a young woman with long fair hair was being strangled, to death, it seemed like, by a man. Prof. Andersen hurries to the telephone to call the police, but something prevents him from actually making the call.  When he returns to the window, the murderer has drawn the curtains closed, preventing Prof. Andersen from knowing what happens next.

For the next few days following the murder, Prof. Andersen becomes obsessed by the window of the apartment across the street, and its occupants.  More than once in the span of 2 days he attempts to telephone or visit the police station to report the crime, but both times failing to actually do so for some reason or other.

The crime and his inaction eats at him everyday during the Christmas vacation, and he thinks of various ways to avoid his guilt and justify his choices, while at the same time obsessing over the murderer across the street.  Over time, Prof. Andersen sees the young man coming out of the apartment and going on with his life as if nothing happened – as if he didn’t kill anybody.  Prof. Andersen, in the meantime occasionally suffers from guilt, but always manages to justify his actions, or lack of it.  Prof. Andersen periodically checks newspapers for missing person’s reports, believing that in time, the murder would be sought out by the police without his help.  When, after 2 months of waiting for the police to visit the apartment across the street, nothing happens, Prof. Andersen again ponders about his inability to report the crime, until one day, he actually meets the murderer face to face.

Professor Andersen’s Night, by Dag Solstad is a strange little novel that tackles issues of morality, justice, self-preservation, atheism, intellectualism, memory, and the ephemeral quality of life.  Though the novel is only a little over 100 pages long, its somewhat stream of consciousness narrative style and awkward sentences, not to mention philosophical discussions on abstract issues make it quite difficult to read. Being a Literature professor at Oslo University, Prof. Andersen is preoccupied by many kinds of thoughts and ideas; more than once in the novel, the narrative makes huge leaps between topics, suddenly going from the justification of not reporting a crime to the decline and eventual fate of Literature.  Prof. Andersen’s thoughts on his inability to report the crime is mixed in with his thoughts about other things in life, and the arguments he has with himself on various abstract topics makes the novel very tedious to read.

I struggled to finish this novel, even though it should have taken me about a day to finish.  I feel that I may have read this novel too quickly, without really taking the time to think about it, and therefore do not appreciate it fully.  Throughout my reading, because of the nature of the narrative, my mind would often wander and I would lose concentration. Re-reading passages would help a little, but oftentimes, the subject being discussed was really beyond me.  Dag Solstad has a very peculiar style of writing, often repeating sentences, observations, or concepts, and because the novel was translated from Norwegian, I’d like to think that my inability to fully understand and thus appreciate the novella was because a lot was lost in translation (though I doubt it).

In a recent interview, Haruki Murakami named Dag Solstad as one of his favorite writers.  Murakami, who is currently translating Solstad’s novel into Japanese, calls him “a kind of surrealistic writer, very strange novels…..”  Now, when someone like Murakami calls a novel “strange,” you can guarantee that’s going to be one bizarre piece of literature!


Professor Andersen’s Night (1996) – Dag Solstad

Vintage; 145 pages

Personal rating:  2.5/5


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