A Melancholy Egotism

Silence in October is the first novel Jens Christian Grondahl published in this country. It is a dreary tale of long, dense paragraphs. Nevertheless, its themes sometimes echo in my mind. I read it in two periods, separated by at least a month or two. It is the kind of book that easily lends itself to such a reading; in fact, it isn’t easy to take all that melancholy questioning without a break.

The questions Grondahl ponders are important, that is, they interest me and there are a great many of them, none of which are ever answered. The unexpected departure of the narrator’s (whose name we never learn) wife from their marriage of seventeen years is the central event around which everything else in the novel develops. And what develops is the narrator’s ruminations about the meaning of this event for his life, his marriage, his work (art historian), and the several other relationships that have come his way. That’s all but that’s a lot.

There is little story and not much action in the novel. Instead, reading Silence in October must be like what a psychotherapist of the non-directive persuasion must go through day after day listening to his patients unfold the perturbations of their emotional and mental life. The narrator does not know why his wife, Astrid, leaves or where she goes or if she will ever return. The only evidence he has are the charges she makes to their credit card which track her hotels and meals in Portugal where they had once gone together during better times.

We learn about their Marriage, although only from his perspective: “She was at once the woman I had wanted to leave and the woman I had gone to, and I was the man who had seen her alternatively as my salvation and my warden, as an unexpected, liberating lightness in my life and a burden, that chained me to the eternally grinding treadmill of days.”

We learn about the Silence that had come between them: “It became unnecessary to talk so much. After all, it was enough that we were there.” “Perhaps it didn’t matter, my being unable to think of anything to say to her. Words had never been what bound us together.” “…it occurred to me how much in life remains unspoken, in shadow.”

The narrator speaks often of the Repetition of their days together, how tedious they became, how exhausting and trivial they were. And while he spent all those years with Astrid, he realized that he never really Knew her: “I knew her as I had seen her in the thousands of days and nights we had spent together, but what of herself, as she was to herself.” “I thought about how close one can be and yet know nothing.”

And finally the narrator reflects on Solitude, the solitude when he and Astrid were together and the different kind of solitude after she leaves: “I was content in my solitude, completely absorbed in my book.” “…now I could finally be myself, far from other’s words and eyes, all their irrelevant stories and fruitless plans.”

Like the repetition in his life, these are the central themes the narrator mulls over and over throughout Silence in October. He circles around them, worries and raises questions about them from page one to page two hundred and ninety six tightly compacted, slowly paced pages. His musings are the stuff of a self-absorbed egotist who, in spite of all his introspective analysis, really doesn’t know himself, let alone anyone else.

Other than a few excursions to New York where he gathers information for his book on American painters, he never wanders far from these deliberations. He walks upon the beach with them, sits at his desk with them, confides them to no one, not even the woman he has an affair with in New York. You get the picture.

Where do the truths lie in this obsessive self-analysis? None is asserted in the novel. Perhaps, they reside only in the act of consideration itself. Yet it is only from a single perspective from which little in the way of self-knowledge can ever be expected.