The Model by Lars Saabye Christensen
The snow never melts in this novel. There’s no reason that it should, as its protagonists – painter Peter Wihl, his family and his gallerist Ben – never leave wintry Norway, except when Peter makes a clandestine journey to Estonia, which he finds scarcely any warmer or more welcoming. Yet, I had to decide either that Christensen’s fictional world is a kingdom where pathetic fallacy reigns supreme – or it really is true that ice and darkness are pernicious and one day will enter the soul.
Titanium white is Wihl’s favourite colour; it is his reference and foundation. His dazzling canvases match the purity of the snow outdoors, yet the outside world brings forth black dogs to gnash at his daughter, and doctors pretending to be friends and vice versa. He is a candid narrator who doesn’t hide his encroaching paranoia and physical disintegration, however much he seeks to conceal them from those around him. Christensen draws us into his mind with masterful ease, conjuring both a country I have never visited, but which was instantly and constantly real while I read, and an atmosphere of such enveloping doom as I hope never to encounter beyond fiction. As Wihl’s confidence ebbs, his painting falters and his wife and daughter find him increasingly frightening.
Christensen also excels in showing the deterioration of Wihl’s relations with his loved ones. While the love each bears the others is never questioned, Wihl’s deep-seated fears for his art infect his conversation with everyone. He becomes rebarbative and rude, contradictory and violent. He makes his young daughter cry; brushes off Ben, his oldest friend, and punches Ben’s lover; turns up at the theatre where his wife, Helene, works as a scenographer but is out of place, an obstruction rather than a welcome visitor. This is all brilliantly done: the truncated, unsatisfactory arguments, the repeated attempts to be normal and then to probe again – but where is it all leading?
This is where I feel Christensen’s sure touch abandons him. A master of detail, atmosphere and dialogue, his plotting leaves something to be desired. We know from the outset that Wihl is going blind – anticipation of this drives much of the downward spiral of the narrative; we are also told in the first chapter that something separate and dreadful will happen to him at the end. Well, I guessed it straight away, and I’m not much practised in literary detection. The straightforward fulfilment of my prediction when the end arrived was a disappointment, and to resort to cliché is a shame after one has invented such a successfully particular fictional world.
There is an episode about halfway through where Wihl’s wife asks him what he thinks of her choice of a red wall for a stage set. He replies: “Isn’t it a bit gross… You might just as well hang up a poster saying something awful is going to happen here.” Helene replies that that’s not the point; the audience already knows something bad will happen since they’ve all seen Ibsen’s play before. But I agree with Wihl: familiarity with tragic plots aside, the red wall is a gross signal in an otherwise delicately written tale.