Erlend Loe answers K24's questions about his work, the cultural atmosphere of today, and civilisation...
“Live on time, emit no evil” is a sentence that would appeal to Erlend Loe, not for the sentiment it expresses but because it is the same read backwards. “Palindrome lover” is one of the virtues he owns up to in his twitter biography. The others are "writer, screenwriter, cyclist, critic, brother, father.” Turkey knows him better through his novels. First came Naïve. Super -then Doppler and its sequel, The End of the World as We Know It. Loe’s end of the world is Norway -he was born in Oslo in 1969 but his simple, original and naïve storytelling since won him international attention in the 1990s. His characters… well you might not want to be stuck next to one on a long-haul flight to Australia unless you too are direct, questioning, obsessed -the sort who will be the first to point out that the emperor isn’t actually wearing underpants and that there is something inherently wrong with civilization. In Naïve. Super, the protagonist obsesses with time and universe and what to do when you drop out of college. Doppler leaves home to live in the forest, and when he returns discovers that he no longer fits in. Loe deals with personal crises and states of depression, the Angsts of our day and age and he makes us laugh.
So, we contacted Erlend Loe to discuss what he does when not revolting against societal norms and what he thinks of the world in which we are living - and whether he was really on the level (hint: “level" spelled backwards...).
In Turkey, we know you through Doppler, a novel about a man who clashes with urban life and moves into a forest, hanging out with a deer. Your other translated novel, Naïve. Super describes the struggles of a young man, quitting his college education and questioning his life, yearning for childhood and searching for meaning in life. Both characters have issues with the way society expects people to live and they need answers for themselves. Would you agree that there is a social critique aspect to these texts? If so, what is essentially wrong with the way we live now, in your opinion? How can we “cure” ourselves from all the stress and drama that is involved with the current age - Should we play more and work less perhaps? Should we turn towards nature? Or is this just fiction?
Good question. You’d find social commentary in most of my works. There are many wrong aspects with our ways of living; there is also a lot that we do right. The world is progressing in many ways. At first, I was not so sure of that. Yet there is some definite progress in the world. People can get rid of poverty. People can get an education and reach a point where they can increase their standards of living. However, when it comes to infinite growth, we are completely out of it. This is impossible, and everybody knows it, but we are living in an age of collective carelessness where we attack nature at an incredible level. This makes me very angry. It makes me get tired of life. In September, I published a new book called ANIMALS IN AFRICA. In it, five people travel to Africa and fuck the animals living there. The book is a wild farce about people who turn the world into a terrible place as they are trying to make it a better place, which is what we do as human beings, in general.
Naïve. Super opens with an epigraph of solidarity towards bicycle riders. What do bicycles represent in this novel? Could they be a symbol of longing for purity or simplicity? How badly do we need simplicity and purity as the technology addicted people of 21st century?
We need the simplicity that the bicycle represents. We are under the impression that cars are the best vehicles of transportation. It is true that the car deems the act of going from place to place democratic. In the past, travel was something only rich people could afford, whereas now most people can go wherever they wish. The best cities are those that are organized for bicycles though, not cars. Copenhagen, Amsterdam. Oslo has had a lot of progress regarding this in the last few years. Parking spaces in the city center are closed now; there are bicycle lanes throughout the city. I have been riding a bike in Oslo for 22 years. Summer or winter, it does not matter. I bike during snow and all, right until the temperature hits minus 15 degrees. And even in colder weather. This is a life-style choice. Biking is so much better now than ever.
The quote in Naïve. Super still rings true for me. As city dwellers, we need bikes more than ever. Biking is a declaration that humans do not have the right to destroy nature and all creatures. Purity and balance; it is the admission that humans are on the same level with all other creatures and not on the top of the existential chain.
Purity, innocence, happiness… Do you think these are necessarily intertwined with childhood? In other words, do you think nature clashes with culture in the same way adults clash with children? Is there a way of life wherein these are compatible with one another?
This is rather difficult. Because we, human beings, are after things that bring us prestige. I had an argument the other day with a friend. As far as I know, no culture has ever said, “We have everything, so let’s leave some of it behind and remain backward.” Some individuals or some groups may have said something like this, but no society has aspired towards this. Therefore, civilizations go down from time to time. Our culture is bound to crash at some point or the other as well–from being unable to carry its own weight. Just as Frank Zappa said, “Communism does not work because people like to own property.” Kudos to him for saying that. It’s true. Our financial success is deemed above everything. It will go on like this, as long as people continue to buy, obtain, invade, kill things. Everything we see points towards that.
Do you think contemporary/urban life gets us depressed or is it something else, say some existential vein in us that reflects itself in both Naïve.Super and Doppler? Do you think nature essentially clashes with culture, in the same way adults clash with children?
I believe that deep down inside, we are aware that most of what we do is wrong. This creates a certain kind of unrest that manifests itself in different ways. Some people jog all the time. Some people drink. Some become addicted to food or sex, etc. We need to see ourselves in the big picture and accept the fact that we are trivial even though everything that we do has direct consequences upon the systems that carry us.
Doppler and Naïve. Super to a certain degree may be viewed as escapist literature. What does escape mean to you? Would you say that these are escapist novels? If so, what are the characters escaping from and why?
I would not say that this is escapist literature. These are explorations for identity in an ever-changing world. Doppler runs from the life that becomes estranged to him. He needs his solitude. I do not know how normal it is in Turkey to escape to nature for solitude, deep thinking, emotions or a sense of greatness. It is not abnormal in Norway. If a person experiences this a few times, modesty is bound to come about. It is a little bit like realizing how small you are in an enormous world when you have children. This point of view is necessary. If you spend all your life in an urban area, you may never realize this. There is a sense of loneliness one feels and does not know where it stems from. It may very well be the longing for being part of something meaningful. Meaning is present in nature and in all living things, we are part of it as well. I think that we are.
Your bio states that you have worked at a psychiatry clinic. How has this experience shaped you as a writer, if it shaped you at all of course? Have you gained an insight, that reflects in your work?
I do not know. In my years as a student, I was assigned to the floor where severely ill people were hospitalized a few times. They gave me the job because I was tall and strong, with the ability to calm and hold people down if they were to run amok. It was an interesting, but bad job. I do not know how much it has shaped me as a writer. I have encountered people in absolute chaos. It is scary to witness that. It made me think that we could be incredibly irrational as humans. This impression might reflect itself in my writing.
Naïve.Super was written in another age. In an interview, you are saying that the simple style of the text is a direct answer to postmodernist literature and the period afterwards when everything was overly articulated, that you wanted to do the exact opposite in your writing. Can you tell us a little bit about your motives when you were writing this novel? Comparing the cultural atmosphere of today with the atmosphere of the nineties, how do you think the times have changed? If you were to write this novel in 2018, would you formulate it in a similar manner?
This book is still valid today. Being young and searching for a place in the world is an endless subject. The world is different nowadays. Scandinavia was cynical and irresponsible in the nineties. Ideologies collapsed as the Soviets and the religions collapsed. Nowadays everything is so serious. And I am surprised that the youth of today is not angrier. Why do they not rebel and tell their leaders, tell the primitive and destructive capitalism that their days are over? I would be so much angrier if I was 22 years old today.
Your work is mentioned along with the term New Sincerity. Would you classify your writing this way, or is this something that other people tag your work with, in your opinion? What exactly is the New Sincerity?
I do not know what that is. And, whatever it is, I do not consider myself as a part of it. My writing is ironic and sometimes warm, with many absurd elements that involve people and the world.
Naïve. Super is a novel that possesses a self-help component almost, in the way it resolves the protagonist’s existential crisis through love, play and simplicity. Now that it has been many, many years since you wrote this novel, do you think that these solutions still hold today for life’s burdens?
Yes. Taking a break, reorganizing life, determining what is good and what is bad and what to do in the future – these are very important. Problems arise afterwards, if we fail in doing so. But everybody must do it. All the time. I do not think that doing these things only once solves the problem.
Living in Istanbul at the height of its urban development, it is hard to imagine for me a life of coexisting with deer and it sure is an ordeal for me to dare to bike to work… Coming from Norway, do you think your cultural values reflect on your writing at all? Or, despite the cultural differences, are our issues with existence or time the same?
My cultural values, which is what you call them, do not affect me at all. Where I come from there is a tremendous nature, a great silence, solitude, encountering animals, deep snow, cold, watching the fire after a day of skiing… I can do all this even though I live in Oslo. Oslo is a big city, though smaller than Istanbul for sure. All these things coexist. The same is true for people living in Istanbul. The food we eat comes from somewhere. Our drinking water comes from somewhere. The stones we use to build our homes come from somewhere. You are completely dependent on your surrounding nature to continue to function and this unity has got to be on your agenda.
What is a typical day like for you? Do you have a writing routine? Where do you draw your inspirations from?
I have been sharing a collective office space for 20 years with other authors and script writers. I am there five days a week and I write during regular business hours. I also take on many different projects. A novel, various scripts. I am happy with the way things are. I enjoy working on sparks, with different ideas. Things people do or say or things they don’t do or don’t say, all of it inspires me.
As we have come to the end of the interview, I am curious to know which authors have influenced you the most: Where do you see your works within the greater realm of contemporary literature?
Authors I admire are Knut Hamsun, Herman Melville, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Richard Brautigan, Paul Auster, Thomas Bernhard, Jean-Phillippe Toussaint, W.G. Sebald, Edouard Louis, Elfriede Jelinek, Herta Müller, Selma Lagerlöf and Thomas Mann. I do not know who has influenced me the most. I do not know where I stand within the greater realm of contemporary literature. I am happy to be part of contemporary literature though.