Out Stealing Horses

Trond Sander, a sixty-seven-year-old Norwegian, is the central figure in Per Petterson’s Out Stealing Horses. We know he has recently lost his wife and sister who both died within one month. “After they were gone,” he says, “I lost interest in talking to anyone.” In response, he moves to a remote spot in the Norwegian forest where he lives in an old run-down cabin isolated from any neighbors.

We know nothing about his professional life but in the course of the novel we come to learn a great deal about his youth, also spent in a rural setting, as memories of the past sweep over him with loss and regret.

For years Trond had wanted to live in solitude. He says “All my life I have longed to be alone in a place like this.” And later, once he has settled into to his cabin, he comments: “…When everything around me suddenly turned silent, I realized how much I had missed it. Soon I thought of nothing else….”

Never does he seem lonely. For many who have lived in solitude for any length of time, there is a clear distinction between loneliness and solitude. Penolope Lively wrote “Solitude is enjoyed only by those who are not alone; the lonely feel differently about it.” And by way of explaining the difference, May Sarton suggests: "Loneliness is the poverty of self; solitude is the richness of self.”

And then, Trond has his dog and his radio (but no TV or telephone) that plays the BBC all day which he says “make living alone much easier.” And then he remarks “Those last words sound a bit self-pitying, and disloyal to my life here. I do not need to defend it or explain it to anyone.”

What would it be like to live out your life in solitude? This is an experience that is becoming increasing common, as living an independent life becomes a matter of choice and the aging population grows in number. According to recent statistics, at least one in every nine adults in the US lives alone. And for persons 75 years old and over, the proportion living alone is 52 percent for women and 21 percent for men

Trond admits: “…that in the middle of a train of thought we start talking out loud, that the difference between talking and no talking is slowly wiped out, that the unending, inner conversation we carry on with ourselves merges with the one we have with the few people we still see, and when you live alone for too long the line which divides the one from the other becomes vague, and you do not notice when you cross that line.”

For the aged, it is likely that they also begin to ruminate about death. Trond wonders: “If you were dead, you were dead, but in the fraction of a second just before; whether you realized then it was the end, and what that felt like.” And later “I could die at any minute, that’s the way it is, but this is something I have known the last three years, and not given a damn and still do not.”

But much of the novel describes the way his youth presses in upon him. At times, it annoys and disturbs him. At other times he is taken by a delight in recalling the people, especially his father, with whom he spent so much of his youth.

In the end, Trond comes to terms with the unsettling memories of his youth and concludes “When someone says the past is a foreign country, that they do things differently there, then I have probably felt that way for most of my life because I have been obliged to, but I am not anymore.”

Below are additional passages that I collected from this very satisfying novel:

I can see the shape of the wind on the water.

…I have never gone along with those who believe our lives are governed by fate.

I believe we shape our lives ourselves, at any rate I have shaped mine, for what it’s worth, and I take complete responsibility.

My plan for this place is quite simple. It is to be my final home.

People like it when you tell them things, in suitable portions, in a modest, intimate tone, and they think they know you, but they do not, they know about you, for what they are let in on are facts, not feelings.

I’m surprised at how unfilled my shopping baskets have become, how few things I need now I am alone. I suffer a sudden onset of meaningless melancholy and feel the eyes of the check-out lady on my forehead as I search for the money to pay, the widower is what she sees, they do not understand anything, and it is just as well.

…I am no longer surprised when I realize that mature men are well below my own age.

…a man of barely forty, as my father was when I saw him for the last time, when I was fifteen, and he vanished from my life forever. To me he will never be older.

I can see he misses his father, quite simply and straightforwardly, and I would wish it was as easy as that, that you could just miss your father, and that was all there was to it.

…I do not know whether I really want to know about them. They take up too much room. It has become hard to concentrate…

…I really wanted to be alone. To solve my problems alone, one at a time with clear thinking.

I have seen so many things and been part of so much in my life although I will not go into details now, for I have been lucky too.

Tell me. How are you really? She says, as if there were two versions of my life.