of a novel is whether I flip straight from the last page right back to the first in order to reread it. Another is whether I bash my head against the edge of my desktop in utter and hopeless envy. Both are the case with Per Petterson’s Out Stealing Horses, which captures the sense of growing old, the confluence of past and present, the tenderness of everyday things, the incomprehensible nature of time, life’s fragility, adolescence, and more; captures so breathtakingly that I’m sorely tempted to learn Norwegian just to read this and every other of Petterson’s novels, several of which haven’t been translated into English and one which has but is criminally out of print. And yes, I know I’ve blogged about Out Stealing Horses already, but it’s that good.
I’ve often heard it said that a master violinist can hear both musicality and the level of skill in the first phrase or two a student, or anyone for that matter, plays. This has always seemed rather peremptory, not to say unkind, and in terms of fiction I’m not a ‘first-sentence’ – or even ‘first-page’ – judge, and certainly no master, but as soon as I took in the opening paragraph to Out Stealing Horses, I knew Petterson was someone I would read with tremendous pleasure.
Here is the paragraph in question:
Early November. It’s nine o’clock. The titmice are banging against the window. Sometimes they fly dizzily off after the impact, other times they fall and lie struggling in the new snow until they can take off again. I don’t know what they want that I have. I look out the window at the forest. There is a reddish light over the trees by the lake. It is starting to blow. I can see the shape of the wind on the water. [italics mine]
Anyone who can write sentences like those italicised above, deceptively simple, or glancingly suggest that we’re not so very different from those titmice, as well as set mood, scene, and theme with such spareness, is a seriously good writer. And technically, Petterson does wonderful things with this novel – POV, structure (note especially the echoes and refractions of past/present), detail grounded in careful observation, and the astonishing way potentially melodramatic events are presented, and sometimes just hinted at.
I’m reminded again that the best teacher of writing is good writing itself, and its close reading.