The Ode on a Grecian Urn is worth any number of old ladies.
Book reviews are disguised commands. How nice, then, would it be to rip away the sweet, beguiling facade—and instead simply tell others what to read by imperative alone. There are times when it’s entirely appropriate to thunder like Mussolini from the balcony, “Read this damn book now!” Problem is, only one or two, and probably really only one, of my readers know and love me well enough to do exactly as I say. So, mom, read Lasso Round the Moon by Norwegian novelist Agnar Mykle. He’s good, really good.
For those of you who don’t know or love me well enough to obey me, shame on the whole lot of you. Now I have to compel you by
You probably haven’t read Lasso Round the Moon. And if you haven’t heard of Mykle, don’t feel too bad. I hadn’t either, until the man currently known as E-R-I-K, a student of J.M. Coetzee and an unabashed lover of punk rock music, called it one of his all-time favorite novels. He had me at hello. So I scoured Amazon for a half-way
It arrived in splendid condition, smelling of wetted ashes and looking like a piece of moldering fruit, with its blackened cover and wrinkled binding, and with the outer edges of its pages bruised a deep avocado green. (Why did publishers do that in the long ago, dye them like that?) I turned the pages slowly, carefully, for fear they’d turn to dust. Fortunately, a deliberate approach is rewarded by Mykle’s treatment and subject matter.
He combines slow narrative pacing and long Proustian digressions with candid sexual descriptions. His technique and prose style contribute nicely to the development of his central theme, namely, yearning, exploration, and self-discovery—and the costly toll of insight
Structuring his narrative with a framing device, Mykle opens and closes the story with Ash Burlefoot’s return home after a twelve year absence. We first meet Ash in the late 1940s to early 1950s. He’s a 33-year old musical composer and conductor, on a platform in Oslo as he readies to board a night-train. He’s alone. The weather is cold and blustery; the mood, dark, gloomy, and oppressive.
When a Norwegian has recourse to … a night-train, it’s always due to some urgent duty, a summons. A heavy, black-gloved hand has been laid on his shoulder from behind. A Norwegian never travels by night-train for pleasure.
“Always” and “never” are absolute terms that cast a distinctive pall on the scene. Although we know very little about Ash, we know something about his imminent future. He will travel by train across a vast distance. At the end of the line, something terrible awaits him, a loss, a sickness, or a death.
No wonder his “heart is bursting with stark, naked dread.”
In order for readers to feel Ash’s agony and participate in the powerful and intensely moving closing scenes, we need to know something about Ash’s past. Flashback 12 years, a farewell scene, with hugs, handshakes, and back slaps. Ash, a younger man, is embarking on a journey to Inner Pool, where he’ll assume a post as the country’s yougest principal and business teacher.
Throughout the long flashback, which covers a year of lived experience and comprises the whole middle section of the novel, memories rise like flames, emotions rise like flames.
We learn about his mother, who is desperate to knit everyone into a big happy family, who dearly wants to maintain a grip on Ash, to possess him, everything he is and will become. She “gorges on young son-meat,” and is a “suctioning valve,” an “immense vortex.” We learn about his father, who is a hard, stern taskmaster. He is sad, ponderous, and grave—and profoundly unhappy, because stunted and repressed. We learn about Groo, who is a girlfriend “foisted” on Ash in childhood. She has a “strong octopus-grasp” from which he seems unable to escape.
Ash is caged by his hometown, by his parents, and by Groo. He wants to bust out. To escape. Like every young adult worthy of being a thinking and feeling person, Ash is a seething cauldron of desires. He’s a welter of hopes and dreams and aspirations, vague and inarticulate, but no less strident for that. As you and I know (having been there, done that), there’s simply no better way to thumb your nose at convention, no better way to lay waste to vanity, conceit, and superficiality than to have sex—preferably a lot of it.
Just as there are many different musical registers, so there many different sexual registers, too. There’s the breathless excitement of one’s first overture.
Only rarely did he dare let his hands cautiously explor her, only once had he thrust his hand round her bare breast. They had sat there a long time, perhaps a whole hour. She laid her hand over his and thereby gave him to understand that they were guarding something precious, something tremendous and secret together.
Then there’s the bold excursion into unknown possibilities.
He drove her hard and spurred her on; she sank groaning beneath him, scratched him with her nails and in the end was overcome by a convulsive jerking.
When the spasm of pleasure has passed, there’s still more sexual gymastics to attempt, like that newfangled French position, you know, “something called the wheelbarrow” and after that “maybe a back bend.” Under the influence of sexuality, every cramp-inducing Twister position is an incitement, every surface looks pleasant and inviting, even a bed of broken glass.
And finally there’s the rising crescendo of the morally illicit.
He was in a strange half-world where elbows and knees were all mixed up, an underwater ballet and carnival, a dark half-world that swam and rocked and creaked, he did not know where he was, and in one such moment he woke to clear sweetly painful awareness of her mouth; he hampered her, he warned her that he was close, but she did not draw away, she whimpered; he put his hand on her head and shoved her away, but she came back, begged him, she must be allowed to, she pushed closer and her fingers took delicious hold, for one fearful moment he was paralyzed, split between made sexual desire and intolerable fright, his heart stopped beating, he was powerless against her. He clasped her head … He cried out!
As he should! Felatio even sounds like an Italian musical movement. That, or a scoop of gelato (white roses?). Because most of us are on this side of the sexual revolution, we may think it quaint that Ash, a 20-year old principal and teacher of business subjects, is scandalized by the soft, warm mouth of a 35-year old woman, who has a healthy, wolfish appetite for sex. But a young man from a parochial town, whose head is stuffed with preconceived notions, and whose heart yearns for beauty, meaning, and purpose, and carries within it the kernel of a rhapsody that must be created at all costs, such a man will have many jolting encounters and a rude awakening, before his chrysalis finally bursts.
The power and glory of Lasso Round the Moon reside in the last 30 pages. To give you an idea of how magnificent they are, know this about me — there are several things I don’t do. I don’t lift cars with he-man strength, and I don’t cry. Once I was punched in the nose, and my eyes didn’t even water. But when Ash confronts himself and the remorse and bitter regret that shadows the Faulkner epigraph above, I must confess, I sort of, kind of — well, I didn’t actually cry — but something like an apricot pit or a dry piece of bread formed in my throat, and I coughed a little. That’s how moving the book is.
Is a rhapsody in B major for orchestra, harp, and French horn worth any number of mothers, any number of fathers, any number of brothers?