Wednesday, March 04, 2009

The Scoundrel Days of Hobo Highbrow by Paal H. Christiansen

The Scoundrel Days of Hobo Highbrow by Paal H. Christiansen Translated by Jon Buscall (Forlaget Fabula N-1321 Stabekk Norway

They say, “Music has charms to soothe the savage beast.” I suppose it does, although in my case, a good shot of Dewar’s does the trick. But in Norwegian write Paal H. Christiansen’s new book “ The Scoundrel Days of Hobo Highbrow,” the music of the pop group “a-ha” provides solace, and makes the center hold, for this struggling, not that young writer, Hobo Highbrow. Frankly I was not familiar with this group, and based on what was represented in the novel, I had trouble figuring out why the protagonist was so enamored with them. But of course I love Billy Joel, and I have been vilified for that.

It seems that Hobo is in the midst of a nervous breakdown of sorts, after losing his job, later his manuscript (that involves the construction of a birdhouse) and suffering a largely imaginary slight from his girlfriend. The book follows Hobo’s confused journey through his mental maze and haze in which he eventually emerges more or less intact. In this scene the 40-year-old Hobo sees one of the a-ha members on the street, and he swoons like a hormonal teenager:

“ I sensed a strength and joy seeping through my body, through my legs, my arms, across my chest and up to my head. I had met Paul Waaktaar! I had looked straight into the eyes of Paul Waaktaar! And I felt a shock jolt through my body as if for a second I was momentarily connected to an electric network with an unknown power. The power of the massively talented. It was power of those who created art that would last for eternity.”

He later opines about pop music and its purpose—at least for him.

“As far as I am concerned the whole purpose of pop music is to drown out all the world’s misery. Music is all about keeping your dreams alive!”

The book contains interesting literary tidbits and linguistic diversions—as the character obsesses as much about his writing as his music. This short novel attempts to explore the struggle of the artist to maintain, create and stay sane in an often-insane world.


  1. Anonymous7:07 PM

    Villified for loving Billy Joel? By who?....Critics who can't play 'Chopsticks'?

  2. Thanks for reviewing the book!
    I really enjoyed translating it. Hobo kind of reminds me of a latter-day figure from a Hamsun novel. The starving artist trying to find his place in the world, albeit with an acerbic comic twist.

    Even months later after I finished it I found myself noticing the letter "H" everywhere.

    All the best from snowy Sweden

  3. Thanks for the interesting review, Doug. The author's name, by the way, is Paal H. Christiansen. Actually, it's P - 'a' with a circle over it (also represented in English as 'aa') - l. The closest English name is Paul. :)

    Don't you think who the main character obsesses over is not the point, but that he obsesses over something other than his goal, and that he does this because he finds himself 'stuck'? He can't find the inspiration for the Nobel Prize-winning novel he hopes to write, so he shifts his attention to someone who has attained the level of success he seeks and who inspires him personally. That is the main theme. And how this can get you into a heck of a lot of hot water - both with the object of your obsession and with yourself, in that it puts your own personal goals to the side while the obsession takes center stage.

    Happily, Hobo has friends who are good enough, plus a girlfriend who has her feet planted firmly on solid earth, to pull him back from the brink of personal disaster. This is the second point - what is real in your life hopefully is and should be what actually counts and makes a difference to you, and not how someone who doesn't even know you sees or experiences you, since they don't have all the facts of who you are. It is a message (as I see it) that while an artist of whatever sort needs inspiration, they need to recognize the line between what lies in their imagination and reality. And this can be tricky, because what is 'real' to one person is not necessarily 'real' to the next. Particularly when people live in different social and/or intellectual circles. It is an artist's job to bring to light that which lies in his imagination or discovery to share this with his audience. In doing so, some vulerable souls can get a little, or even a lot, lost.