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yours until death
18 february 2018
I'll start these remarks on Gunnar Staalesen's private-eye novel Yours until Death (1979) by praising its classy, idiomatic translation (1993) by Margaret Amassian. Varg Veum, the first-person narrator and private dick in Yours until Death, fancies himself as something of a Bogart, and keeps using American hardboileds as a touchstone. The challenge for Amassian was to stay true to Veum's American roots while rendering his Norwegian into prose for British readers. The result is a sure-footed text that is consistently fresh and entertaining.
Like so many literary private eyes, Varg Veum works alone out of a depressing office with a bottle stashed in the desk drawer, though he prefers aquavit to whiskey. He's divorced; he never sees his son. He's cynical, lyrical, and prone to getting himself beaten up on account of his big mouth. For all that, he is naturally a marshmallow at heart. He cannot resist the client who shows up in his office to start the novel: not a dame with dewy eyes this time, but a schoolkid whose bike has been stolen by bullies. Veum gets the bike back. Then his troubles begin.
Veum, in other words, channels Lew Archer most of the time, and like Lew Archer, he is prone to getting too personally involved with people he interviews, people who were blank strangers to him until a couple of days before. But Veum manages to meet all these strangers not in Archer's vast, semi-fictional Southern California, but in the cramped Scandinavian seaside city of Bergen. Veum constantly name-checks Hemingway and Bogart, and compares himself to hard-boiled American heroes. But he isn't a ex-cop or a military veteran, like the typical American shamus. Veum is a former social worker who has burnt out on the futilities of the welfare state.
As Jakob Stougaard-Nielsen and other critics note, the peculiar energy of Scandinavian crime fiction comes from its protagonists' uneasy relation to that welfare state. Everyone is secure in modern Scandinavia, at the cost of any kind of organic community – at least in the eyes of crime writers and their narrators. This community collapse is certainly evident in Yours until Death. One of the slimier characters in the book is Gunnar Våge, the youth-center social worker who acts as apologist for the nasty gang that steals the bike to start the action. Veum, no Lord Fauntleroy himself, has more sympathy for Joker, the leader of the gang, than he does for Våge, the parasitic civil servant whose livelihood seems linked to perpetuating social problems.
A host of other characters populate Yours until Death, and we sense a pattern. The more troubled, feckless, and self-destructive the suspects, the better Veum gets along with them. In particular, he is drawn to the mother of the bike-deprived boy, a fetching young woman named Wenche. Wenche, to coin a hardboiled phrase, is trouble. But that does not prevent Veum from half-falling for her – just as he half-falls for every troublesome woman he interrogates.
In the end, Yours until Death channels The Maltese Falcon as much as the Lew Archer novels. It's the real deal, and as I said, much of its impact for this Norwegianless reader comes from Amassian's tightrope act between idiom and idiom.
Staalesen, Gunnar. Yours until Death. [Din til døden, 1979.] Translated by Margaret Amassian. 1993. London: Arcadia, 2010.