The combination of learned criticism, a failed appetite for life and a reluctance to do anything to promote delight or...


As Mediterranean countries export olive oil, Scandinavian ones disseminate gloom.

It’s a message reaffirmed in Norwegian scholar Solstad’s first U.S. publication, in which a high-school teacher of literature, Elias Rukla, experiences a pervasive alienation from modern culture while pondering the intricacies of somber masterpieces such as Ibsen's The Wild Duck. In the opening scenes, we see that Rukla is so badly in need of cheering up that every day he “put on a sparkling white shirt, which alleviated the distaste he couldn't help feeling at having to live in such a time and in such conditions”—conditions that include a lovely wife, a hearty breakfast and a well-paying job. It is evident that this cheerless fellow is going to be total frost in the classroom, and indeed his students, whom he bores and patronizes, are depicted in the last throes of tedium, a condition that, in a sort of onomatopoeia of ennui, goes on for 30 pages. So great is Rukla's frustration at their indifference that a broken umbrella after class is the last straw. In a frenzy of cursing and flailing, he breaks the umbrella, insults a blameless female student nearby and realizes only too late the irrevocable work-related consequences of his frenzy. As he walks home, Rukla considers his past life leading to this moment, a life devoted largely to Scandinavian literature, to his friendship with a brilliant philosopher he met in graduate school and to his marriage to that friend's former girlfriend, for whom, after decades together, he feels tenderness, estrangement and a faint distaste. This is an intelligent work but one that, like professor Rukla himself, never stoops to consider what an audience might enjoy.

The combination of learned criticism, a failed appetite for life and a reluctance to do anything to promote delight or enthusiasm makes this tale of civilization and its discontents uphill work. The stiff translation is no help.

Pub Date: Aug. 1, 2006

ISBN: 1-55597-446-5

Page Count: 144

Publisher: Graywolf

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 1, 2006

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Tinny perhaps, but still a minutely rendered and impressively steady feminist vision of apocalypse.


The time is the not-so-distant future, when the US's spiraling social freedoms have finally called down a reaction, an Iranian-style repressive "monotheocracy" calling itself the Republic of Gilead—a Bible-thumping, racist, capital-punishing, and misogynistic rule that would do away with pleasure altogether were it not for one thing: that the Gileadan women, pure and true (as opposed to all the nonbelieving women, those who've ever been adulterous or married more than once), are found rarely fertile.

Thus are drafted a whole class of "handmaids," whose function is to bear the children of the elite, to be fecund or else (else being certain death, sent out to be toxic-waste removers on outlying islands). The narrative frame for Atwood's dystopian vision is the hopeless private testimony of one of these surrogate mothers, Offred ("of" plus the name of her male protector). Lying cradled by the body of the barren wife, being meanwhile serviced by the husband, Offred's "ceremony" must be successful—if she does not want to join the ranks of the other disappeared (which include her mother, her husband—dead—and small daughter, all taken away during the years of revolt). One Of her only human conduits is a gradually developing affair with her master's chauffeur—something that's balanced more than offset, though, by the master's hypocritically un-Puritan use of her as a kind of B-girl at private parties held by the ruling men in a spirit of nostalgia and lust. This latter relationship, edging into real need (the master's), is very effectively done; it highlights the handmaid's (read Everywoman's) eternal exploitation, profane or sacred ("We are two-legged wombs, that's all: sacred vessels, ambulatory chalices"). Atwood, to her credit, creates a chillingly specific, imaginable night-mare. The book is short on characterization—this is Atwood, never a warm writer, at her steeliest—and long on cynicism—it's got none of the human credibility of a work such as Walker Percy's Love In The Ruins. But the scariness is visceral, a world that's like a dangerous and even fatal grid, an electrified fence.

Tinny perhaps, but still a minutely rendered and impressively steady feminist vision of apocalypse.

Pub Date: Feb. 17, 1985

ISBN: 038549081X

Page Count: -

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin

Review Posted Online: Sept. 16, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 1985

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A modern day fable, with modern implications in a deceiving simplicity, by the author of Dickens. Dali and Others (Reynal & Hitchcock, p. 138), whose critical brilliance is well adapted to this type of satire. This tells of the revolt on a farm, against humans, when the pigs take over the intellectual superiority, training the horses, cows, sheep, etc., into acknowledging their greatness. The first hints come with the reading out of a pig who instigated the building of a windmill, so that the electric power would be theirs, the idea taken over by Napoleon who becomes topman with no maybes about it. Napoleon trains the young puppies to be his guards, dickers with humans, gradually instigates a reign of terror, and breaks the final commandment against any animal walking on two legs. The old faithful followers find themselves no better off for food and work than they were when man ruled them, learn their final disgrace when they see Napoleon and Squealer carousing with their enemies... A basic statement of the evils of dictatorship in that it not only corrupts the leaders, but deadens the intelligence and awareness of those led so that tyranny is inevitable. Mr. Orwell's animals exist in their own right, with a narrative as individual as it is apt in political parody.

Pub Date: Aug. 26, 1946

ISBN: 0452277507

Page Count: 114

Publisher: Harcourt, Brace

Review Posted Online: Nov. 2, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 1946

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