INTERVIEW – JOSTEIN GAARDER
By Marina Kemp
Jostein Gaarder is the multi-million selling author of Sophie’s World, The Solitaire Mystery & numerous other novels, short stories & non-fiction collections. His latest book, The Castle in the Pyrenees is written in the form of an email exchange and, like many of his previous works, explores philosophical questions. Jostein Gaarder was appearing at the Abu Dhabi Book Fair.
Your international bestseller, Sophie’s World, was my real introduction to philosophical questions as a young teenager. Was there a similar book for you, or a particular seminal moment?
Yes – I had a very specific experience when I was about 12 years old, which started my adult life and also started me on my path as an author. I remember one day, all of a sudden, I was overcome by the mystery of everything, the enigma – what an enigmatic universe we live in. I turned to my parents and to other adults around me and asked, Don’t you think it’s strange that we exist? That the world exists? I was so confused when they answered ‘No, not really’. I asked if they just thought everything was normal and they answered that yes, certainly, everything is normal. Some people said I shouldn’t go around thinking so much about these things – that, you know, it would drive me crazy thinking the universe was so strange. But that was my point of departure.
You went on to teach philosophy in schools for eleven years. In Sophie’s World, Alberto’s method of teaching encourages Sophie to come to her own conclusions and question everything she learns. Do you think the necessity of this interactive method of learning makes teaching philosophy under normal classroom conditions counter-intuitive or unproductive?
Well philosophy has very often been explored within the frame of a dialogue – it really goes back to Plato and the very oldest roots of philosophy. When I started to write Sophie’s World, I started to write a textbook, a manual… I started to write it just as a non-fiction book. But I soon realised that I couldn’t do it that way, and it was when I started to write it as a narrative with a story that I was able to do the book. That fiction element is an important background for why the book was so widely spread. I think a good teacher is a good story-teller.
But when you were teaching classroom philosophy, did you find it difficult not being able to have that direct question-answer relationship with one student at a time?
Not really. But you have to be inventive as a teacher. You have to try to convince your audience or students of why this question, this essential human question, is important. You have to try to dramatise the topic you’re dealing with, so to speak. I wouldn’t have been able to write without having the experience of being a teacher or being in the classroom.
When I decided to stop teaching because I was more and more a fulltime writer, I decided to write this philosophical book because I just couldn’t leave behind all of this experience that I’d had in the classroom.
Sophie’s World has been translated into 59 different languages and was bestseller in Norway for three years – not to mention top of the bestseller list in Denmark and Germany…
For me what is extraordinary is that it has been translated into so many very foreign languages in small countries very far away from Norway. After the Book Fair in Abu Dhabi, I will be travelling to Eritrea… Sophie’s World was even translated into the Tigrinya language in Eritrea, many many years ago. It will be wonderful to meet my readers in this African country.
And did you have any idea of the scale of success it would enjoy?
Actually I didn’t expect anything. I was in fact convinced of the exact opposite whilst writing it. I told my wife, ‘This book is not going to be a bestseller, it won’t be translated into any other languages, there will be no income from it.’ And I remember she said ‘Well do it quickly then’ because, you know, women are often more practical. So no, I really didn’t anticipate the success. Even though I’d written my huge breakthrough novel, The Solitaire Mystery, which had changed my life, my publishing house still hesitated to publish Sophie’s World because, after all, it was 600 pages long and a novel but also not a novel – a crossover in a very risky way, written for young adults but also aimed at a kind of adult audience.
So I was afraid it would fall between all stools, as my language says – but apparently it fell on all stools. I was amazed, really amazed, and I still feel amazed that such a book can reach out to so many people. I haven’t yet understood it.
Even if you can’t understand the scale of the success, do you have an idea now of what made it appeal to different kinds of people?
Well I think it has to do with the fact that many people think philosophy sounds interesting and important – but then find it so difficult, so academic, so boring and dusty. But when they see that there’s a story about it, a novel about the history of philosophy written in a really accessible way… I think it’s that which gave so many people an interest in the book.
Perhaps philosophy has just been too inaccessible, too academic, too much in the ivory towers of academia. That’s why I thought this book would have no chance of success in Germany, for example, because philosophy is so very academic there. And England too, Great Britain – even there, philosophy has been so academic. So I think that the form of an accessible novel is one reason for its appeal.
Another is that it was first published in 1991, just after the fall of Berlin Wall, so half of Europe has to ask these vital, hugely important questions like what is a good society? What is justice? What are the motives and values of life? These are all philosophical questions. And at the same time, a lot of people in Italy, Spain and France were losing their faith. For many people, the Church simply couldn’t give them the answers they needed anymore. And when the Church can’t give the answers, then you have to look again at the questions – and so philosophy.
Is there another of your books that you would especially like to have enjoyed such a broad readership as Sophie’s World?
Well I was very pleased by the fact that The Christmas Mystery did so well in England. But my real number two after Sophie’s World would be The Solitaire Mystery, also a book for young adults. As for adults, most of my readers’ favourite – including my wife – is The Ringmaster’s Daughter. So I would say I’m most proud of The Solitaire Mystery, most known for Sophie’s World, and had the most fun writing The Ringmaster’s Daughter.
And your latest book, The Castle in the Pyrenees, is aimed at adults, isn’t it?
Absolutely, and again it’s a very odd book! Just as Sophie’s World is a novel about philosophy, so this is a book about an encounter between occultism or spiritualism on the one side, and science or reason on the other. It’s a story about two former lovers who meet again after thirty years. It’s a book about religion, or religious faith.
And which stance do you take in that debate?
That’s a very good question. The form the story takes is of two people exchanging emails. They’re searching back into their past to find out what really happened between them, why they parted ways all that time ago. They start to see each other again. And he, the man in the story, is an advocate of science and reason, whilst she believes in spiritualism, occultism, things like that. When I started to write, I absolutely sat in the man’s camp – but the more I wrote the story, the more I found myself fleshing out her background, her childhood, and I confess I’m now much more open to her views than I was when I started to write. So the book became very much a dialogue not only between these two people but actually a dialogue within my own head. I think I’m now more accepting of different religious dimensions that I was when I started the book.
That’s extraordinary. So you’ve developed your stance through the very process of writing the book.
At least, it has opened my mind. But I’m still a sceptic person and, just like the male protagonist, I’m fascinated by science. These days I read about astrophysics, astronomy, biochemistry. Indeed I’d say that actually the great philosophical, ontological questions are debated today more among scientists than among philosophers.
Does the format of email correspondence reflect a modernised version of a Socratic dialogue, the ancient questioning and answering?
Perhaps! And you can also compare it to the old 18th-century so-called ‘letter novels’. Many people these days relate to emails and blogs, and we all have this new ability to read a message and answer directly, either a very long answer or a very short one – just ‘yes’ or ‘wow’ or something like that – and simply press send. Bam! It’s too late to change your mind, it’s too late to recall the letter… So I think email correspondence can be more like a dramatic dialogue, a dialogue in the theatre, than long letters. It can be very intense and intimate, this mode of communication.
The Norwegian landscape is a key part of the atmosphere in The Castle in the Pyrenees. What is it about the Norwegian countryside that particularly sets it apart from other places?
The Norwegian countryside is very important to me. For example, when I say I have Norwegian identity, I relate more to the natural, physical surroundings than to the people. Indeed, I feel that I am a cosmopolitan, a world citizen – but that’s only when it comes to people. My real identity, my Norwegian identity, is in the way I am affected by Norway, its dramatic fjords and mountains. When I write a story, always before I start writing I have to take a walk – I cannot move my thoughts without moving my body. And I’m very privileged – even though my house is in Oslo, the capital, I can walk for only seven minutes and be outside the city, can walk into the forests for hours. It’s not a coincidence that The Castle in the Pyrenees is set in a very Norwegian landscape.
And can you tell us why it’s named after a Magritte painting?
Yes – the painting by Magritte is of a huge, huge rock at the closing of the day and at the top there’s a little castle. But the whole thing is floating above the sea – which is, you know, technically impossible. So the painting depicts a miracle. My wife and I, 35 years ago when we were 20 years old, had the poster of this picture in our bedroom, just like the couple in the story. It was a reminder of how weird and strange our existence is: it’s a miracle, just like a big huge rock floating in space. The painting came to express our feelings about life.
Is there any other art work in particular that makes you feel like that?
Yes, many of Magritte’s other paintings, and the work of other surrealists. Sometimes you have to go beyond realism to really express reality. It’s like when we sleep and have these strange dreams – all of us, every night, have dreams even when we don’t remember them – it’s a physical need of our bodies and minds to really deal with fiction, to create an interior scenery in our souls. And these images, these dreams we have – when we can remember them – in a way they are not more far-fetched or strange than reality itself. I mean, of course I’m not the first to say that life is like a dream. It’s been said many, many times before. We are ‘such stuff as dreams are made on’. But I think this is important to remember.
You’re well known for your campaigning, having set up the Sophie Prize for international environment and development and spoken extensively on human rights issues.
In our period of time, we focus very much on human rights, which is very important – human rights are violated all the time. But I don’t think we can continue to focus just on human rights – we must focus on human obligations, human responsibility. Today, I think the most important of those is the climate. You know, it’s worth thinking: are all philosophical questions the same for all periods of time? I believe that some of them are but one new philosophical question facing us, maybe the most important question for humanity today, is how can we possibly save life conditions on earth? It’s possible that this planet is the only place in the entire universe where there are beings with a consciousness. So, then, this isn’t just a global possibility; we have a cosmic responsibility to save life conditions on earth.
Do you think literature and the arts in general have a role in such campaigns? Do you think artists have a responsibility to respond to and reflect their socio-political context?
Yes, I think art and literature and philosophy should play a more active part. But it’s difficult; I tried myself to write a novel about the environment but it’s too easy for it to become too politically correct, too moralistic. On the other hand, I’ve just read Ian McEwan’s book Solar, and that’s a novel very much about the climate problem but without giving you that feeling that you’re reading something too politically correct. That’s perhaps because he makes hero an anti-hero. But the message about global warming is very clear throughout the story… he achieved something important, and I loved reading it.
And what do you think of the criticism McEwan received when he accepted the Jerusalem Prize for Literature?
That’s a very difficult question to answer. One thing is very clear: I am not at all in favour of some sort of total boycott of Israel. I have been critical towards Israel, especially during the war in 2006 because of their very brutal bombings in Lebanon. But I was then in a state of anger, a little like when you’re angry with a son or daughter because you’re scared for them. Maybe you say some things you wouldn’t normally say in that way. But I think to accept this prize in Israel was 100% ok. The only thing that may have made it a little difficult is that it was in Jerusalem… I wouldn’t hesitate to go to Tel Aviv. But I 100% respect his decision, and I think he made a very very good speech there. There are people in my country saying that because of Israel’s disrespect for international law we should have a cultural boycott, but that is something that I am completely, completely against. I am very much for cultural dialogue.
And is there anything in particular you’re working on at the moment?
Well this spring I will be travelling a huge amount. If I try to be a writer too during this time, it will only be very frustrating! One thing I decided was not to bring a laptop with me – I force myself not to be a writer or a tourist when I’m travelling. But in the fall I will be sitting at my desk, and I will be a writer again.
Jostein Gaarder took part in the cultural programme at the 21st Abu Dhabi International Book Fair, 15th-20th March 2011 www.adbookfair.com