Chapter 1

Rain-soaked streets. One of the town’s lost souls flew past like a leaf in the wind.1 In the old Opel with Haugesund plates sat the Red Handler, private detective. He took a gulp from a flask etched with the words, To my dear husband.2 He envisioned his ex-wife for a brief second, before the liquor flushed the painful memory down the sewers of oblivion.3 He turned on his car stereo. From the speakers flowed the tones of Glenn Gould’s recording of the Goldberg Variations.4 The later recording, the one from the 80s.

The Red Handler closed his eyes as the eminent piano tones played with his ears.

Chapter 2

Suddenly, he heard a sound. He could see nothing. He opened his eyes. That helped.5 Someone was trying to break into a house a little ways down the street.6

The Red Handler burst out of his vehicle. A short chase ensued. Then it was over. Before the thief could protest, the Red Handler had laid him out, smack on the ground.

“Now I’ve got you,” whispered the Red Handler. The thief knew at once the jig was up.7

Chapter 3

 The weather had cleared. The city was safe once more.

The Red Handler lit a cigarette and got back into his car. After the divorce, this was his sole source of pleasure. To smoke in his own car, free from that bitch’s constant sniping.8

He turned up his car stereo full-blast. From it came some sort of rumba melody.9 That’s just how it was sometimes.


1 My very first thought, when Frode Brandeggen showed up unannounced at my office in Dresden one afternoon in 2013 with the Red Handler manuscripts, was, in all its prosaic terseness, as follows: This is not particularly good. My subsequent thought, I imagine, was a corruption of the first, and went something like this: This is really, really not good. Dutifully—for I am nothing if not dutiful—I leafed through the heap of papers while he waited impatiently by the window, as I wondered why he’d come all this way to meet me, of all people. How had he even managed to find me? He told me about the one novel he’d had published, his subsequent jobs as a trash collector and library attendant, and the literary comeback he was preparing with what he called “a new form.” I eventually asked him to step out for a while and come back toward dusk. Then I began reading. As I mentioned, this was more out of duty than anything else. I’m not an editor, I don’t decide what and what not to publish, I only explain and add context to what others have accepted, what others deem important, canonical, consequential. No one ever asks me: What do you think about this? My sense of duty, therefore, was challenged by the humility I felt before this author, who said he knew my work as an annotator from a long line of scholarly editions now considered classic in Germany. He told me he appreciated what he termed my “ability to read clearly.” So read I did, in the hours he spent wandering Dresden. I read, I read again, and little by little, I was transformed. Since then, night has fallen, and everything has taken on significance. As afternoon turned to evening, above all it was Brandeggen’s fury that stood out to me, the literary obstinance that would keep me returning to these texts time and again, the uncompromising tenor that emerges in spite of what seems, at first glance, to be the reductive language of crime fiction, the comic-strip sense of narrativity. This too is why—now that I’ve agreed to write endnotes to this first edition of Brandeggen’s crime novels, ostensibly because he asked for it, in the papers he left to me—I have to treat Brandeggen’s project with the utmost seriousness, even if that makes me his Sancho Panza. And it has been liberating, so very liberating for my work on this book, to dare, after so long, to step out of my accustomed shadows, to decide for my- self the relevance of these endnotes to the text, to strike my own course and enter nothing but what I deem necessary. I should also add that the conversation that began that evening between me and Brandeggen would last three years. I don’t believe he had many other people to talk to. But talk we did, by telephone, by letter, during my visits to him in Stavanger or, more often, in my welcoming him to Dresden, where he made do with the tiny guest room I’d fitted out in my apartment. Before him, I’d never had any guests. But if I may say so, I don’t believe anyone knew Frode Brandeggen in his last days quite like I did. I say this not to lay claim to any role in his success, should these books move readers as much as they have moved me. I say this, rather, because of the way it foreshadows this man’s terrible loneliness. The anger I find in these books is real, as is the despair that precipitated his dramatic swerve away from his avant-garde beginnings. It may be that that anger can only be grasped within the context of the gulf between his first book and the Red Handler. But the anger, nonetheless, doesn’t give us the whole picture, be- cause Brandeggen also cares all too much about his protagonist. His interest in the Red Handler, his level of concern and sympathy for his character, is genuine. As the author, his emotional stake is palpable, essential. The texts can never fully hide that they are fundamentally about Brandeggen himself, about a man who obviously is deeply troubled, and who, more than opposing crime literature an sich or the book industry’s thirst for profit, is desperately trying to create a world with some semblance of meaning and predictability, where the structures are clear and there is such a thing as sincerity.

2 When, eventually, Frode Brandeggen learned to accept the fate of his 2,322-page debut novel, Conglomeratic Breath (Konglom- eratisk pust), ⁂ from then on forgoing the avant-garde in favor of chiseled-down, commercial crime fiction, he still held out some hope that the world might one day accommodate a more expansive, exploratory mode of literature. In the very first stages of the Red Handler project, Brandeggen wrote a separate novel as both a warm-up to the Red Handler universe and (he hoped) a standalone work in its own right. From what I have gleaned, he never mentioned this work to anyone. The unpublished novel, All of These Loves (Alle disse kjærlighetene, 433 pages in manuscript) deals with the Red Handler’s relationship with his wife Gerd in Haugesund, where the Red Handler—who here seems to have a proper first and last name, though both are crossed out throughout the entire manuscript—works part-time as an electric meter reader. The novel is a passionate account of their intense love and often exemplary marriage that slowly but surely becomes counterproductive, to put it mildly, culminating in a magnificent scene in which the Red Handler persona is born and the protagonist leaves Haugesund for good. There are hints toward the end of the manuscript that the wife leaves the Red Handler for his future nemesis, the Glimmer Man. There is no evidence Brandeggen was ever in a serious relationship himself.

⁂ From the back cover of Conglomeratic Breath: “Imper Akselbladkvist is turning his house upside down in search of something he has lost. But is it really his house? And has he really lost anything? And if so, then what? Himself? Or everyone else? Distended and distracted by existential angst, he ambushes the constituent parts of his life (is it really his life?) through an intense, ruthless, and often heartrendingly intricate exploration of the potential Heidegger-plagiarist level of the self, represented by the distance between two threads of an almost fully disintegrated bedspread that his grandmother (if she is even his grandmother—and for that matter, how do we know she was really all that grand?) bequeathed him. Through more than two thousand pages— free from even the slightest scintilla of what Imper Akselbladkvist calls deformative abominations like punctuation and paragraph, chapters, and other readerly crutches—the author delves further and further into the bedspread, into the threads, into the yearning for his own constitutive fibers, and ultimately, his own text. That is—if we can even call it a text? And is it really a novel? And if it is, how can we know that the novel is his?”

3 Prior to my work on these endnotes, I read out of curiosity Brandeggen’s debut novel, Conglomeratic Breath. Or, I should say, I tried. The publisher, Gyldendal, released the book back in 1992, but when I started asking around, no one could tell me anything about it. There were no reviews, no record of any

readings, no book festival appearances. The editor-in-chief of Gyldendal, Kari Marstein, took me down to the archives, and sure enough, we found a clean copy of the book, along with information about Tord Gusthjem, Brandeggen’s editor. A quick check of the records revealed that Gusthjem was hired in the late summer of 1990 and that the only book he edited through to publication, before leaving the job over two years later, was none other than Conglomeratic Breath. I called him one day to ask him what working with Brandeggen was like, but as soon as I mentioned the title of the book, I was met with silence on the other end. Finally, he said, “I don’t want to talk about it. I broke my back on that book, okay? I’m no longer in publishing.” It was an uncommonly brief conversation. Brief, on the other hand, is the last word you’d use to describe the novel. At a ridiculous 2,322 pages, Conglomeratic Breath has the distinction of being, without question, the longest single-volume novel ever released by Gyldendal Norsk Forlag. The number of copies it sold can be counted on one hand. Apart from the twenty-five free copies given to the author, the one in the archives, and the thirty-two distributed to reviewers and booksellers, the remaining print run of 1,600 books was destroyed. This is not very hard to understand. The book is, in short, absolutely unreadable. Normally, I can appreciate books that push back against the reader, the ones that demand real effort, as long as they’re well written. And at times, Conglomeratic Breath seems to fit that bill, as it showcases the author’s exceptional linguistic perceptiveness, his virtuoso ability to navigate between multiple registers in a way that is very likely unparalleled in Norwegian literature. Nevertheless, the novel remains, for this reader, perfectly unreadable. Impenetrable, to an extent that frustration isn’t even the right word. Next to this novel, Gaddis’s The Recognitions and Joyce’s Finnegans Wake (both of which Brandeggen read several times) look reader-friendly. It begins straightforwardly enough: the protagonist, with the trendy, alienating name of Imper Akselbladkvist, arrives at what he calls his house. He stands on the front steps, fishes for his keys, and enters once he finds them. This takes one hundred fifty pages. From there, it’s full-on disintegration, until our level of disorientation becomes monumental and absolute. There are no paragraphs, no chapters, not even so much as a comma or period; at any given time, the identity of the speaker, when and where we are, what is happening and why, are all anyone’s guess. For instance, Brandeggen devotes large parts of the book to exploring what he calls “the potential Heidegger-plagiarist level of the self,” a notion every bit as perplexing as it sounds, which is made no more comprehensible by the fact that the starting point for these investigations is an old bedspread given to the protagonist by his grandmother. That is, two threads within the bedspread are the starting point, and the distance between them opens up entirely new vistas and a fresh round of investigations that themselves necessitate their own exploration for Akselbladkvist. As the text zooms further and further in, it deliberately and expressly assumes the structure of the Mandelbrot set, a fractal whose edge shows an infinite number of satellites, i.e., small copies of the original Mandelbrot set. To put it another way, soon enough, the reader is so deep into the details and the details of the details’ details that not even the slightest glimmer of textual daylight remains. But then, somewhere around page 700, the text suddenly arrives at a light in the forest, a clearing. The reader’s relief is enormous, almost indescribable, as Brandeggen gives us an unpretentious, affecting account of life on a street in Stavanger in the mid-70s. ⁂ This section becomes a small novel in itself, and a rather conventional one at that. A novel in which love and terror are forever living under the same roof, but the former always wins out in the end. Thematically and linguistically, it recalls the modern Scandinavian tradition of (rather more successful) coming-of- age novels, like Torbjörn Flygt’s Underdog, Beate Grimsrud’s Tiptoeing Past an Axe, Tore Renberg’s The Orheim Company, and Lars Saabye Christensen’s Beatles, even though only the last of these had come out in time to have influenced Brandeggen. It is not hard to imagine his editor pleading with him in vain to publish these 300 pages and scrap everything else. Nor is it hard to understand why the editor had had enough after this book. On page 1,009 the new story abruptly ends and the forest becomes thicker and more impassable than ever. The stitchwork of the text becomes tighter and tighter as Brandeggen weaves in more and more intricacies, setting a new standard for textual resistance and arousing an almost physical reluctance to read any further. As I strain myself to the utmost in order to drag my way through the unreadable, it becomes clear to me that the “novel” inside the novel, with all its rays of light and hope, resembles nothing so much as a nightmare, and that its only purpose is to underscore the impossibility of arriving and remaining in such a place in real life. Reality, Brandeggen seems to be suggesting, is the inexorable other from which we can never escape, where nothing is certain, and where every utterance opens into a chasm of doubt and new questions, which themselves open up even more doubt and even more questions that lead us smack into the Mandelbrot set once more. I gave up on page 1,700, more than six hundred pages away from the finish line, and never have I been more relieved to put down a novel.

⁂ Astra Road in Tjensvoll. A winding street with both detached houses and low-rise apartments.

4 The only musical reference in the Red Handler books (with one exception) is to Glenn Gould’s two recordings of the Goldberg Variations. This may have been a conscious choice on Brandeggen’s part to emphasize the problem of duration and length vs. quality, which is further complicated by the fact that Gould’s 1955 recording has a length of thirty-eight minutes, while the 1981 recording clocks in at over fifty-one minutes. In other words, a movement opposite to the one Brandeggen took in the Red Handler project.

5 The three sentences dealing with the eyes are easy to dismiss as bland, even silly. But looking past their slapstick absurdity enables us to notice Brandeggen’s critique of crime literature, in which novels often get needlessly prolonged (often by several hundred pages) and the reader’s time wasted by the detective’s failure to look closely and follow up on clues and hunches fast enough. To Brandeggen, the overwhelming majority of crime-fighting heroes were shockingly ineffective, in the sense that they coldly allowed the suspense to idle as the reader is led on— like the dog who follows a biscuit held by its owner as the latter moves further and further away—and were therefore unworthy of the fame they were customarily afforded. To his mind, the profusion of dead ends and suspects quickly became tedious. In these three sentences, on the other hand, the Red Handler a) identifies his problem and chief constraint (his eyes are closed),

  1. takes action and solves the difficulty (he opens his eyes), and
  2. is once again able to do his job in a prompt and exemplary

6 Note the complete absence of a murder mystery in this and several other of the Red Handler novels. Brandeggen consciously chose to break with the established rules of the detective story, laid down by Van Dine and Knox, e.g., at the end of the 1920s. The private detective who only worked on murder cases, he reasoned, restricted the genre and alienated the reader, who presumably would be better able to identify with other types of crime, such as burglary, which deserved to be taken just as seriously given the major impact of these crimes on the lives of their victims. He had often read about families who were forced to relocate in the aftermath of a burglary, regardless of whether their abode had sustained any damage or whether the victims had been at home or not at the time of the break-in, simply because they now regarded their home as forever tainted with insecurity. Brandeggen also scoffed at Van Dine and Knox’s unbending rule that the detective must never solve the crime as a result of blind chance, coincidence, or being at the right place at the right time. On the contrary, this became the Red Handler’s modus operandi, given Brandeggen’s deep interest in coincidence, the collective unconscious, and synchronicity. “Our reality is full of coincidences, or seeming coincidences. Linkages and undercurrents. Why shouldn’t the Red Handler live in the same reality?” Brandeggen wrote in his notes. Again, he believed that reorienting the genre around a greater appreciation of people’s lived reality would be key to the Red Handler’s success.

7 As early as the first Red Handler novel, the style has been perfected. The solution comes before the reader has a chance to get bored. Or, as Brandeggen himself wrote in one of his notebooks, in English (probably because he imagined presenting his concept to international publishers): Crime fiction for the gentleman who loves crime novels, but hates reading.

8 The final reference to the Red Handler’s wife, and one of only a handful to smoking. Brandeggen himself smoked constantly and advocated for the greater social acceptance of double-smoking (inhaling from two cigarettes simultaneously) as something more than a party trick.

9 The one exception to musical references noted above in the footnote about Glenn Gould. A possible nod toward the Saraghina sequence in Fellini’s 8 ½, a film dear to Brandeggen ever since he began frequenting the Stavanger Film Club, where he never missed a screening, yet always missed the chance to socialize with the other members.

Portrait of Halyna Petrosanyak

Johan Harstad (1979, Stavanger) is a Norwegian novelist, short story writer, playwright, and designer. He published his first work, Herfra blir du bare eldre in 2001. Since then, he has published over nine novels and 6 plays. His works push the boundaries of form, genre, and storytelling, making his work as much about the art of creation as it is about the story.

Portrait of Jeff Kochan

David Smith is a translator of Norwegian who holds an MFA in translation from the University of Iowa. He is currently working on a translation of a short story collection by Tarjei Vesaas as well as a novel by Leif Høghaug. 

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