Like many people, I first discovered the author Jostein Gaarder through his most famous book Sophie’s World. I’ve since read a few of his books, most recently Maya and The Castle In The Pyrenees. Reading these two stories so close together made the similarities and shared foundations across his books incredibly visible, and gave me a new perspective of what an author might intend from their stories.
First, an introduction. Jostein Gaarder is a Norwegian author who writes novels which focus on philosophical exploration and dialogue. Most novels centre on a singular character (or a reconnecting pair) forced to reconcile their past and present, and to question their past decisions.
Gaarder’s characters draw from a limited pool of traits. The men are professors or writers, who are incredibly intelligent and articulate. They are steadfastly rational, and skeptical of anything which cannot be proven, yet intensely existential. Somehow, they always manage to find (and then lose) their soulmate: she is equally intelligent, articulate, and existential, but she trades skepticism for mysticism thanks to borderline-supernatural experiences such as precognitive dreams.
Many plots revolve around written or emailed discussions between the protagonist and a confidante, often their soulmate. As the characters open up and talk about their singular or shared pasts, ambiguously-supernatural events spill into the present, and compel the characters to question their interpretations and worldviews.
While I like reading these discussions, and I enjoy seeing how the characters’ wordviews interact and begin to adapt over time, I understand why others see Gaarder’s storytelling as the weakest part of his fiction. The characters rarely act during any book. Instead, they spend each book reflecting and reporting on previous memorable experiences, post-processing their lives so far. Most books end ambiguously, without showing any concrete results from a character’s intellectual or existential epiphanies. Gaarder’s books are about ideas, more than actions or characters; as such, they can feel out of place alongside both fiction and non-fiction.
Gaarder’s books also feature motifs – playing cards, precognition, synchronicity, mysterious deaths and impossible coincidences – which appear like archetypal symbols and provide a shared reference pool for each story. I’ve read other authors who thread a personal form of repetition throughout their work. On a small scale, Chuck Palahniuk novels have “choruses”, specific phrases which repeat at key moments. On a larger scale, Douglas Coupland’s later novels act as descendents to his earlier novels by applying their core theme to a new generation of characters. But Gaarder’s motifs are another order of magnitude above. For some reason, my go-to analogy is musical. Palahniuk’s work is like a fast, abrasive punk album which can be listened to as a whole, but which often works better as individual songs. In comparison, Gaarder’s work is like a post-rock concept album, where layers of texture build and crash around a central core. Although you could listen to and enjoy an isolated section, the pathway from the start to the end is what matters most.
This analogy led me to the way I interpret Gaarder’s work now. To me, each book is not a new adventure or a unique narrative, but an addition to his core dialogue that adds nuance and depth through its new setting and cast. In the same way that some philosophers spend their careers working on and refining a central theory over time, Gaarder reworks one central question.
His question is what, if anything, gives us meaning. Are we accidents of nature who spin coincidences into stories and beliefs so we feel like we have a purpose? Or are we pulled along specific paths by forces that we cannot understand, test, or prove?