There aren’t too many ingredients in Lazy Days, the second novel by Norway’s Erlend Loe to be translated into English thus far. (The first was Doppler, in 2012, about a man and his moose.) You’ve got a married couple on vacation at the foot of the Alps. You’ve got a few supporting characters, including the couple’s three children and the Germans from whom they’ve rented their temporary new digs. And you’ve got the limited number of things that interest them. The wife, Nina, is a Germanophile; the husband, Telemann, has a public love of theatre and a very private love of Nigella Lawson, the British cookbook author.
Most importantly, though, what you have is dialogue. The vast majority of this slim, charming novel, in fact, consists of the couple’s unabridged conversations with one another. The remainder is devoted to a chain of e-mails, some narrative connective tissue, and brief, third-person descriptions of Nina (“Glasses four centimetres thick. Well, one centimetre. But that’s quite thick, too”) and Telemann (“Alcohol problems? Nooo. Not really”).
The pair don’t argue, exactly. Nor do they engage in intense, life-changing heart-to-hearts about politics, art, or philosophy. Instead, Nina and Telemann have the kind of unavoidably mundane chats – about whatever is going on around them – that anyone who’s ever been in a long-term relationship will readily recognize. Sometimes you realize there’s a conflict brewing somewhere beneath the surface, but because Nina and Telemann’s children are in the room, an air of forced pleasantry must prevail. And yet Loe peppers the dialogue with enough verve and Scandinavian deadpan to nonetheless push the couple into some very strange life decisions.
You can tell something isn’t quite right in Nina and Telemann’s relationship at the outset, when the husband refuses to pronounce the name of the town they’re staying in correctly. Early on, an error in a translated e-mail renders “Garmisch-Partenkirchen” as “Mixing Part Churches,” which Telemann makes a point of repeating at every opportunity; he also takes relish in loudly referring to the area as “the cradle of Nazism.” Initially, at least, Nina seems game to play along with her husband’s eccentricities. One chapter opens with Telemann asking her to look at the list he’s just made, of everyone they know who’s ever had cancer, and she readily agrees.
Part of what’s upset their marital dynamic, of course, is the fact of going on vacation in the first place. Freed from their old routines, Nina and Telemann constantly butt heads while trying to decide what, exactly, they’re going to do in Mixing Part Churches. Nina is excited to go on a hike with their German landlords – she also speaks the language – while the monoglot Telemann prefers to sit alone, brooding on the theatrical masterpiece he’s going to write any day now. Loe’s narrator tends to side with Telemann, too, at least for comic effect: when the landlord speaks to him, the dialogue is rendered, “German, German, German, German, German.” Meanwhile, Nina’s attention starts to wander away from her husband.
The dialogue as translated by Don Bartlett and Don Shaw maintains a constant low boil of absurdity, but the best moments in Lazy Days come when Telemann tries to justify – both to Nina and to the reader – why theatre is so important to him. As it turns out, even the most mundane thing Telemann does belies the depth of his commitment to the cause.
While looking at a blank notebook: “Lines are not theatre. Empty, blank pages are theatre. A void. A scream into the void. A scream from the bowels of the earth: Angst!”
While napping: “In the grey area between dozing and being awake he sees something, what’s that, he thinks, is it theatre, he hopes it is.”
After unexpectedly gaining weight: “Obesity is theatre.”
And after Nina quotes her favourite line from Goethe: “It’s beautiful and it’s sonorous and rhythmic and all that, but did it stop them from becoming Nazis, eh, Nina? And is it theatre? That’s what I keep asking myself. When you get down to the nitty gritty, is it theatre?”
At one point, in a fit of inspiration (he’s sitting on the toilet while Nina and the kids are off on another hike) Telemann actually manages to get a few pages written down. It would be poor form to give away the specifics of what he comes up with, but suffice to say that it involves a suspiciously Lawson-like woman standing on stage, nude, asking her male neighbour for help: the dessert recipe she’s making calls for an unusual length and size, shall we say, and she doesn’t have a tape measure handy.
Later, when Nina discovers the notebook, Telemann asks her the critical question: “Was it theatre?”
“To start with.”
He presses on, with a wince: “And then it stopped being theatre?”
“You could say that.”
Michael Hingston is the books columnist for the Edmonton Journal. His first novel, The Dilettantes, was released this fall.