On Ketil Bjørnstad’s De udødelige (The Immortals) – Norwegian Author and Composer

Ketil Bjornstad

Two months ago I went to a book shop and, on a table displaying books in German translation, I found a novel written by Ketil Bjørnstad. I’d not heard of him before, which isn’t surprising, as only two of his novels have been translated into German so far. None has made it into English. There are a few available in French though. Still, it’s a huge loss because Bjørnstad is one of those multi-talented authors that are so fascinating. Not only has he written far over 20 novels, but also poetry and essay collections, and he is a famous musician and composer.

The novel I bought is called De udødelige (The Immortals – Die Unsterblichen). It was published in Oslo in 2011. The main character, Thomas Brenner, a general practitioner is one of the most complex characters I’ve come across in recent literature. He’s sensitive, kind, a born caregiver, who is acutely aware of other’s needs. But there’s another layer, buried deep within him— guilty feelings and cowardice. As much as he wants to help, it drags him down, frustrates him, and angers him that he has to give endlessly. Brenner is an example of what I’ve seen called the “sandwich generation”, the generation who has to care simultaneously for their children and their elderly parents, drawn by both sites into opposite directions, exhausting their strength and financial means.

The key plot element is his wife’s, upcoming 6oth birthday. And a planned trip to Chicago, the home of Saul Bellow, his wife’s favourite author. The success of the birthday party is threatened and overshadowed by many things. Brenner has heart problems and he’s pretty sure his wife, Elisabeth, is hiding health problems of her own. His mother, who is over 90, has to go to a nursing home, while his father stays at home, getting more demanding every day. Elisabeth’s parents live in the same house, and so does their older daughter Annika. She’s almost 30, but still not capable to make money and unwilling to move out. All these things burden Thomas, but he doesn’t want to confront anyone. He has to be pushed into a corner before he says anything unpleasant to anyone, even if this behaviour costs him his own health and happiness in the end. His wife Elisabeth isn’t much different. She has even stopped working a few years ago to look after her parents who don’t even thank her for this.

Brenner is a very sensitive, introspective man. And aware of hist shortcomings. He knows, he’s a coward, he knows that his kindness is to some degree weakness. He hasn’t learned how “to be cruel to be kind”.

Many of his Brenner’s thoughts circle around the so-called immortals— very old people who simply don’t want to die or change the way they live and are kept alive endlessly thanks to modern medicine. (The quote is taken from the author’s page)

My God, he thought, there were patients who had been living in nursing homes for over 15 years. They never died, because their lives were always saved by anticoagulants and heart medications. Their bodies could be disintegrating, but their hearts kept on beating. Even if their memories had vanished, what did not vanish was their agitation and anxiety, their restless wandering from room to room in the hope of finding peace, finding a home, finding a person, a Jesus or a God who could both comfort them and explain everything to them.

That these older people, like Elisabeth’s mother, cling to their old way of life, infuriates him. At the same time he feels deeply ashamed for thinking so and is happy that, in some cases, others take things into their hands. If it wasn’t for the authorities, Elisabeth’s mother, who is over 90 and not able to hold a steering wheel anymore, would still be driving. The older she gets, the more stubborn she becomes.

The Immortals is a timely book, one that addresses contemporary problems without dressing them up in a post-apocalyptic or dystopian horror scenario. Thomas Brenner’s life is one that many people live, especially the quiet ones who hardly ever complain but suffer in silence. Those who abuse them never even wonder what it means for them to be at their service constantly. I felt a lot of compassion while reading this. But I was sad for his children and his parents too. The daughters and the parents were filled with anxiety, feeling helpless and dependent. Caring for the ever-growing number of very old, frail people is a problem for our whole society. Not everyone can stop working and take care. I suppose we will see this intensify because more and more people have their children very late in life, which means many might be in their forties, while their parents are already well over 80.

I’m not sure this book will be translated, although I wish it will. The writing is light and subtle. With only a few sentences Bjørnstad captures a mood, an atmosphere. Brenner feels deeply at all times, is always honest to himself; listening to his thoughts, is like listening to a good friend. The end of the novel, which takes place in Chicago, is radical. I didn’t see it coming and I’m not going to forget it soon.

Luckily, music needs no translation and so all of those who will not be able to discover this sensitive author, may at least get a taste of his wonderful music.

30 thoughts on “On Ketil Bjørnstad’s De udødelige (The Immortals) – Norwegian Author and Composer

  1. This sounds like a very interesting book in the way it deals with current issues, the emotional demands of caring for elderly relatives and the way these reverberate through a family. I hope it does get translated.

    • It’s such a topical book. It would be great if it was translated but considering that only a small amount is getting translated – I’m not so sure. It wouldn’t be the first time though that a blog post mkaes an editor aware. 🙂

  2. It’s always so interesting to see what sorts of books other countries publish/translate. This does sound good. It seems as though the books that get the most attention when it comes to being translated are books that either win lots of awards or are blockbusters in their own country. Maybe this is one that will catch some publisher’s eye….. It does sound very good!

  3. This sounds like a really interesting book and should be translated! They seem like such universal themes that touch on so many peoples lives, more so than books that focus on living with one particular manifestation of old age such as Alzheimers, a subject that si beginning to appear more and more in fiction. This book would provoke animated discussion in a book club as well, it makes me want to compare examples of 90 year olds I know that couldn’t be more different, those that seem to have lost everything versus the one who still does press ups every morning and paints most of the day, mentally totally there. Such an interesting subject, how the children of the elderly react, even within one family, I find it endlessly fascinating.

    Thanks for telling us about it!

    • You’re welcome, Claire. I couldn’t agree more, it’s a fascinating topic. I also liked how he stressed that our modern medicine doesn’t take into account the type of problems it creates. Yes, people live longer but how? Too frail to live, too strong to die? I know elderly people who do push ups as well and those who are already in a nursing home at 70. THis so-called sandwich generation is not to be envied.
      It would be a great book for discussions.

  4. I wish I could read this. The ageing population is a going to be a huge social and financial problem in many countries soon and we’re just not prepared for it. It’s so stressful to have sick elderly parents ‘warehoused’ in a nursing home, but you’re not supposed to say anything about the burden you feel. And children staying at home until they’re in their 30s? I can understand the financial reasons why they stay, but it’s not exactly good for anyone. I feel really sorry for people who are copping it from both sides.

    • I feel sorry for them too and I found it courageous that he chose to show a character who’s struggling incredibly but feels too guilty to say so.
      I have seen a few cases of kids staying at home for what I’d call too long. But you could also have a toddler and already care for an elderly parent if you were a late child and had your child late as well.
      It’s so complicated.

  5. Wonderful review, Caroline! I hope Peirene press picks up this book for translation or this book wins the IMPAC Dublin award or the Independent Foreign Fiction prize. Then the rest of us can read it 🙂 The theme that the book addresses is quite contemporary and important today, I think. I didn’t know about the phrase ‘sandwich’ generation. It was interesting to read about how some of the old characters in the story are stubborn and don’t change their ways. It was also interesting to read in the comments on different kinds of old people – those who don’t change and those who do push-ups. It made me think of my dad – I tried teaching him to use a computer a few years back and my dad gave me a lecture for an hour on how computers are useless and how the things we do with them can be accomplished manually with paper and pencil 🙂 That conversation made me think of a friend of mine who was approaching a century at that time, who was active on the internet and sent emails to me. (he died last year months before his hundredth birthday). Yes, there are all kinds of people in the world, irrespective of age.

    • Thanks, Vishy. I think it’s an extremely important topic. And there certainly are all kinds of people. I find it sad that your friend didn’t get to be 100. Although he had a long life and hopefully a very good one too.
      Some elderly people don’t want to use a computer because they think they’ll loose contact with people. Others love the possibilities it offers.
      I found reading this book quite frightening. I know nursing homes in Switzerland are not as bad as in other countries but I really wouldn’t want to live in one of them. It means you’re either frail or demented.
      I don’t think this would be a book for Pereine. It’s about 300 pages long and threy tend to choose novella length books. Apart from that it could fit.

  6. Wow, Thomas Brenner c’est moi, or at least the way I used to live my life until chronic fatigue made it impossible for me to keep looking after everyone else and not myself. I certainly still find it almost impossible to be cruel to be kind. I would certainly read this book, so it’s a great shame it’s not translated yet. Thanks for the intriguing review.

    • I’m not surprised, I was thinking of some of the things you wrote on your blog. I had this tendency too but had to give it up as it wasn’t healthy. That’s exactly what happens To Thomas Brenner and his wife. They both lose their health over this. I think it’s also a common problem for people who are caregivers and teachers. It was another layer in this wonderful book.

    • It’s well written and a timely subject. I don’t know how anyone can do it. Work full time, care for children and older parents. It’s so stressful. And nobody is grateful.

  7. This one is not available in French but I see there’s a sort of series about a pianist. (Three books have made it into French) I’m curious about La Société des jeunes pianistes.

    Thanks for reviewing this, it’s always nice to hear about a new writer.

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