Philip Teir is being sold as ‘Scandinavia’s answer to Jonathan Franzen’. There is even a hashtag: #scanzen. Everyone needs a marketing campaign and I fully understand the thinking behind this one, but, it does have one major flaw: Philip Teir is an infinitely better writer than Jonathan Franzen.
To be specific, The Winter War is an infinitely better book than the fat, sprawling shuffle that was The Corrections. I blame something, I’m not sure what, whatever it is that demands big-hitters in American fiction; all those Mailers and Updikes. The Winter War and The Corrections have a similar structure. Both books are about a family, and both use that family to critique society as a whole, but, shorn of the need to produce ‘The Great American Novel’, Teir is free to present a tighter, more controlled narrative. He manages to say everything he wants without, for example, needing any Lithuanian crime bosses, or clanging metaphors, or what have you. He doesn’t need to try for all-encompassing. He can stick with universal.
So, instead of the fireworks of a patriarch with Parkinson’s we have the passing of time. Old age, which is universal, see, we all gotta die. Max Paul is sixty and pondering his waning relevance within his academic discipline and to his family. The seventies, filled with revolutionary politics and new freedoms are long past. The study of Finnish sexual habits that has defined his career is now seen as a bit quaint. His wife no longer loves him. His children no longer need him. He has become obsolete. Friction arrives in the form of Laura, an old student, who asks if she can interview him for a magazine. There is mutual attraction. There are sparks. Max Paul gets one last chance to have his cake and eat it/be a dick.
Teir’s novel can be read as an unravelling of the Scandinavian dream but, landscape aside, this could have been set in London, New York, or Paris. Which is not to say that The Winter War is unoriginal, far from it, but universal. The dream that unravels here is one that exists not in a specific geography but within a defined economic position. This is the ennui of having it all. The gasping grasping for joy of the upper middle classes. Again, this is a similar set-up to The Corrections; Teir’s great skill is making me give a shit. When I read The Corrections, I was rooting for the Lithuanian crime bosses from the moment they were mentioned. Everyone visit Chip in Lithuania, I thought. The weather’s lovely. Don’t bother packing any body armour. Teir made me care because his characters are people, not opportunities to crowbar in opinions and observations.
I should probably read Freedom. I should probably read more Franzen. I should probably learn the error of my ways. I won’t though, because I don’t want to. I will read more Teir.
And yes, if you are a fan of Franzen, my being childish about The Corrections may very well be the wrong way to convince you to read Teir but I am a childish man, I can only use the tools I was given. The Winter War is a book that should appeal to Franzen fans and haters alike. A wonderful family study with much to say about the world we live in.
Any Cop?: We are privileged to be getting a slew of new Scandinavian literary fiction titles translated into English off the back of the success of the whole Nordic Noir thing. Philip Teir can definitely take his place with Jonas Karlsson, Helle Helle, Dorthe Nors as one of the writers producing the good stuff.