The Conqueror, by Jan Kjaerstad
Bibliography, Jan Kjaerstad
- Kloden dreier stille rundt, Short stories, 1980
- Speil, 1982
- Homo Falsus eller det perfekte mord, 1984
- Det store eventyret. 1987
- Menneskets matrise, Essays, 1989
- Jakten på de skjulte vaffelhjertene, Picture book, 1989
- Rand, 1990
- Forføreren (The Seducer) 1993
- Erobreren (The Conqueror), 1996
- Menneskets felt Essays, 1997
- Oppdageren (The Discoverer) , 1999
- Tegn til kjærlighet, 2002
- Kongen av Europa, 2005
- Jeg er brodrene Walker , 2008
- Normans område, 2011
Prizes and awards (selected)
- 1984 - Mads Wiel Nygaards Endowment
- 1984 - Norwegian Critics Prize for Literature for Homo Falsus
- 2000 - Doblougprisen (Awarded by the Swedish Academy)
- 2001 - Nordic Council's Literature Prize for Oppdageren
This is the second installment in Jan Kjaerstad’s Wergeland trilogy, excellently translated by Barbara Haveland, and the story starts right after The Seducer. The novel is very interestingly composed, with a number of relatively loosely connected vignettes about the life of the troubled Norwegian television director Jonas Wergeland. Wergeland is now in prison for the murder of his wife. While he previously was a hero of the Norwegian people, a huge celebrity, he is now, in The Conqueror, one the media loves to bash.
For a long time he was the most beloved and celebrated television personality in Norway; and Wergeland's programs on the history of Norway held the country in his thrall. But now the situation is different, and new stories need to be told.
So the stories about him this time concerns several events that were discussed in the first book, but this time they tend to reveal more of the stories behind the surface, and often large and quite unpleasant truths. The stories span his entire life – nothing is spared, nothing is sacred. From far and near, people emerge that are willing to tell stories. And the stories will seemingly be written as well – a professor, a man who has written several biographies but never really had much success, has been commissioned to write a Wergeland biography - and this time he expects to sell extremely well. Wergeland is, after all, a famous man, a conqueror!
His job is to understand and then tell the tale of an extraordinary life. Which is appropriate, he believes, as "... so it is, even though life is lived forward, it is always understood backward." The professor gets valuable assistance from a mysterious lady who seemingly knows Wergeland extremely well. She can tell all sorts of stories about him, some of them quite intimate. And she knows the dark side of Wergeland as well. Through her stories, the professor tries to make sense of why Wergeland became a murderer? Is there anything in his personality or history that can explain it?
The Wergeland trilogy tells the tale of Jonas Wergeland. A very special, very talented, very lucky man. But it also contains a very amusing and greatly entertaining meta-story about Norwegians and Norwegian culture. Just as Henrik Ibsen used some of his plays to show and then ridicule aspects of Norwegian culture, so does Jan Kjaerstad. And in this book he does it in a very talented way as well, using irony and dark humor as his tools.
Jan Kjaerstad has created a marvelous, very thoughtful novel, consisting of shorter stories amazingly pieced together into a very coherent whole. The Conqueror is a rich, very intelligent novel that manages to tell several intriguing stories layered inside one another. It is a book for the philosophically inclined and for readers who like complex and demanding books. In my opinion, this is a very rewarding and quite exceptional novel.
The Discoverer, by Jan Kjaerstad
The Discoverer is the third book in Jan Kjaerstad’s marvelous trilogy about the fictional Jonas Wergeland – a man who is a modern Peer Gynt (the ”hero” of Henrik Ibsen’s play with the same title), a man who thinks big and whose acts are big too. Jonas Wergeland is a man who embodies a rarified and hidden part of the Norwegian soul, and who therefore plays an essential part in Jan Kjaerstad’s oeuvre.
Kjaerstad still does not want you to know whether Jonas Wergeland killed his beloved wife, Margrete Boeck, or not. And this he most certainly achieved: After three volumes and approximately 1,500 pages this is still a question open for debate!
In the first volume of the trilogy, The Seducer, we witnessed the meteoric rise of Jonas Wergeland - Norwegian television celebrity, a multi-talented charlatan and seducer not only of women but of the minds of the public as well. A man who in a very short time became the most well-known Norwegian (in Norway) next to the King. In a way, Jonas Wergeland was a man who became a stellar celebrity because he made Norwegians bigger and prouder.
Then, in the second volume, The Conqueror, we witnessed his almost instant fall from grace when he was arrested and found guilty of having murdered his wife. The man who had been so loved, and who had achieved so much (while never actually doing much) fell out of favor while the public debate over his terrible deed – which many, if not most, Norwegians thought him incapable of committing.
Now, in The Discoverer, the third volume of the Jonas Wergeland trilogy, Jonas has been released from prison after having completed his sentence for the killing of his wife. And we find him in a very moderate, new position as a secretary aboard the Voyager, a ship which is exploring the far reaches of the mighty Sognefjord—the longest fjord in the world.
Jonas, however, is mostly concerned with exploring and understanding the past. Processing his life, his relationships, his fame, and his fall: and now, this time, he tells his own story. And the key story, among the many stories told and untold about the man who is Jonas Wergeland, seems to him to be the story of the life and death of his wife Margrete. As it turns that, the story of her and of their relationship, is no less complex and multi-dimensional than the story of – you guessed it – Jonas Wergeland himself.
The Discoverer is a masterful, intense, roaming and far-reaching world-class novel. It throws the stories at you, from every direction, and sometimes in multiple, diverging versions – examining, re-examining and twisting in a way that makes the multiples live alongside one another. It is powerfully told – a novel that makes a strong impression, and a novel far too complex to be read fast, perhaps even a novel that requires several readings (I have so far read it twice, and feel I have read two different very engaging and rich novels). The Discoverer – and, indeed, the whole trilogy – is very, very interesting and intriguing. If you like excellent literature, you should go and get it and allow yourself to be sucked deep into the alternate and quite unique universe of Jonas Wergeland!
The Seducer (Forføreren) is the first book in a trilogy about Jonas Wergeland that was originally written in the mid-1990s. It made waves in Norway when it was published, and Jan Kjaerstad (Kjærstad) later won the Nordic Council Literary Prize with this book.
Jonas Wergeland, the main character in The Seducer, is a television documentary producer. He comes from middle-class background, and has grown up in an Oslo suburb. He is “Norway’s greatest television talent of all time,” and has created of an innovative and exceptionally popular TV series about great Norwegians called “Thinking Big,” dealing with the lives of, among others, Ole Bull, Fridtjof Nansen, Gustav Vigeland, Per Spook, and Knut Hamsun, all of course, from “a different angle”.
Jonas is a craftily built character, rich and mysterious. As it turns out, his professional success is not nearly the most remarkable thing about Jonas, only one of many. For one, he has strong sexual instincts and is drawn towards adventure. And he is endowed with a penis which not only makes him irresistible to certain women but also turns his encounters with them into moments where the grandest of orgasms and life-altering events are produced. So Jonas Wergeland seduces his Norwegian audiences as well as women. He also has a nose for detecting undervalued works of art.
As Henrik Ibsen with his Peer Gynt, Kjaerstad makes vastly exaggerated and sometimes even somewhat comically exalted claims on behalf of Jonas Wergeland. Also, he lets him be blessed by good fortune and luck.
Thus his fall, and his problems, becomes all the larger when he meets with misfortune and tough challenges. The event that starts the book is such an event. Jonas comes home from abroad and finds his wife dead on the living room floor in their apartment in Oslo. The chapter where this happens is appropriately entitled “The Big Bang”. And it is a big bang for Jonas. It blows his world to pieces, shatters the world he has created for himself, and forces the creation of a new universe.
The book from this point on consists of past reflections, memories of childhood and coming of age, family interactions, reflections about his career, and sexual encounters.
It is a powerful book, traveling back and forth freely in time and space, driven by, seemingly, Kjaerstad's enourmous joy of writing. Also, it is a very ambitious project by Kjaerstad, and, indeed, one that has been mostly viewed as successful. However, personally I feel at times that the book is a little too long, that Jan Kjaerstad at times wants to tell us - or maybe even sometimes teach us or show us – a little too much. There is comedy here, there is social commentary and historical reinterpretations, there is ethics, eroticism, philosophy, and much more - perhaps even too much more. Also, the somewhat one-sided focus on Jonas Wergeland is at times so strong that I get the feeling of moving up and down and around while all the time standing still.
But the book is interesting, somewhat intriguing, at times breathtaking, sometimes very lyrical, and always engaged and full of reflections. Jan Kjaerstad is an author with great skills and a talented storyteller. And The Seducer is a wonderful, quite demanding and, as well, rewarding novel that very likely will seduce you!
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