Twins and doubles abound in Out Stealing Horses. There are two families and two fathers, both of whom absent their families—one through choice; the other, death. There are two mothers and two sets of twins, one twin in each pair dying by gunshot, and there are two meanings to the expression, “Out stealing horses.” There are two men, both recluses, one of whom is our narrator, a 67-year old widower named Trond, who retires to a remote corner of Norway in 1999 to pursue a dream of solitary existence, of carpentry and wood chopping, only to be haunted by the ghost of a childhood trauma, involving sexual jealousy and the bitter pain of abandonment. And at the center of Trond’s emotional life, two great currents of time roil in their confluence: the past and the present.
Two can play at that game
In a story thronging with so many twins and doubles, it seems entirely appropriate that I should both love and hate this novel, a lot.
The diction of Out Stealing Horses is as sparse and elegant as the chronology is complicated. “It’s early November,” says Trond, the first sentence of the book. With this highly minimalist opening, the story unfolds by means of simple declarative sentences, remarkably terse and deliberate. Like the two-finger, hunt-and-peck staccato of an unharried typist.
It’s early November. It’s nine o’clock. The titmice are banging against the window. Sometimes they fly dizzily off after impact, other times they fall and lie struggling in the new snow until they can take off again…. It’s starting to blow. I can see the shape of the wind on the river.
But Trond’s calm meticulous voice is soon ruffled. His narrative pacing gains speed and urgency, when, incredibly, he discovers that his nearest neighbor is Lars Haug, a man who, fifty years earlier, accidentally shot his twin brother while playing with a negligently loaded gun belonging to his older brother Jon, who was also Trond’s best friend. An extended flashback ensues, filled with a mixture of pleasant and painful memories from the summer of 1948, of stealing horses for joy rides and witnessing the sly destruction of unhatched goldcrests in their nests—and most painfully, of the anguish of being abandoned by his father. The flashback crumples time and forces Trond to confront things he’d rather forget.
Like most pesky unreliable narrators, Trond is slightly to moderately self-deceived. He believes things about himself that simply aren’t true. Trond fancies, for instance, that he’s the artificer of his fate. “I believe we shape our lives ourselves,” he says. Yet contingency shapes so much of his life, from the gun that goes boom in the twin’s chest, to the contest of wills between Trond’s father and Jon’s dad, which ultimately results in the latter’s death, and to the freakishly random encounter fifty years later between Trond and Lars, two men who hold keys to vital aspects of the other’s childhood experience. For a man who believes that he’s the architect of his fate, it’s surely amazing how often he tells us just how fortunate he’s been. “I’ve been lucky,” he says, repeatedly, thereby arousing our suspicion.
What’s more, Trond believes that rugged individualism is enough to front the essential demands of life. Yet he depends on Dickens, Tolstoy, and Rimbaud, seeking with their aid improved self-understanding. He depends on Lars to help him remove a fallen birch in the driveway. And he depends on his daughter Ellen to feel connected to something beyond himself.
Most poignantly, Trond believes that he’s in charge of unpleasant sensations: “I make up my own mind when it should hurt.” Yet painful memories rise like waves. After reminiscing about the last time he ever saw his father, Trond awakens from an unpleasant dream. Dizzy, he stumbles out of the cottage and vomits on the withered grass. Inner turmoil will have its say, no matter how well guarded Trond thinks he is with such pat phrases and attractive illusions.
Pure, unadulterated ambivalence
Chronology is linear but lived experience is not. The present may grow out of the past. But the significance of the past—it’s meaning—is determined in the present, if at all. As Kierkegaard famously says, we live our life forward but understand it backwards. Which brings me to my problem with Out Stealing Horses. A sense of incompleteness or inconclusiveness lingers at the end of the novel. For it’s not clear whether Trond will understand his life backwards and come to terms with his childhood trauma or not. As a result, we don’t know how (or even if) the central conflict of the story is resolved. Entirely reasonable questions intrude:
Does Trond summon the courage to ask the vital question? That is, “Did you [Lars] take the place that was rightfully mine? Did you have years out of my life that I should have lived?”
Does Trond buy a telephone to establish a connection with his daughter?
Does he become the protagonist of his own story?
Although there are a few faint suggestions that an honest reckoning with his past is in the offing, we can only speculate. We simply don’t know. Despite the lack of wholeness, both in the novel and in Trond’s self-understanding, we fully agree with Trond when he says, reflecting on the summer of 1948, “You cannot steal horses alone.” No you cannot. And so we hope that Trond drops his defense mechanisms and, like a titmouse struggling in the snow, shakes off his dizziness and takes off again.