Regardless of the swirl, it’s a delight to read. Solstad’s searching, analytic prose is enthralling ... Armand V is a piece of criticism alongside being a work of fiction. In a sense, Solstad’s narrator has created a sort of anti-novel that achieves all the goals of a traditional novel while simultaneously ignoring all of the things, like the important events in a character’s life, that usually make them tick. What Solstad demonstrates most forcefully in this book is the value of the unseen, unknown, and unwritten. It is important to ask such questions, but it’s much less important to answer them.
Armand V is very definitely political, as much of Solstad’s early work apparently was, and it’s his worst mode; the book concludes with a scene in which an American diplomat’s head transforms into a pig’s head, a piece of subtlety that would make Dan Brown blush ... I was initially resistant to the trick that Armand V is written entirely in footnotes to a nonexistent novel, precisely the kind of facile experimentation still treated too reverently in criticism. But as I read on I realized that Solstad’s footnotes actually are innovative, for the way they bear out his disturbing idea that adult life is merely a succession of footnotes to youth. Those footnotes aren’t a cute trick, in other words. They deepen his themes ... All of the whispers have been right: Solstad is a vital novelist. Armand V is a lesser work than T. Singer, and neither can match the astonishment of Shyness and Dignity ... all three are riveting, restlessly searching out new shapes to confront their author’s ongoing subject of absolute existential doubt.
Solstad hints at mythology, modernizing the ancient lore of conflict ... All the while, Solstad chats merrily away with himself. Readers eavesdrop as the author toys with his emerging 'us vs. them' tale, departing at times from the storyline to mosey around on other topics. His intellectual maneuvering is often hilarious ... Already renowned in Scandinavian literature, Solstad once again brilliantly defies categories, this time in English.
Solstad’s inventive approach allows him to reflect on the freedom and obligations of the novelist who is tasked with telling someone else’s life story. It also inscribes, in the novel’s very form, Solstad’s way of writing about people who are not quite the protagonists of their own lives ... We think that we know, reading a novel, what a 'digression' is—a swerve from the main action—because we think we know what the main action is. But what if an entire life were merely a collection of digressions, a slalom of such swerves? What if a life—even an apparently consequential one, like an ambassador’s—had no discernible narrative, no coherent main action? Actual lives look nothing much like conventional novels. That is the challenge Solstad accepts and rigorously joins.
Armand V is an attempt to convey a life, not in a straightforward narrative that describes the significant events along the way, but rather by taking the shattered pieces, lingering at length over some current scenes that seem also trivial but also hearkening back to events from decades earlier. And all the while the author also questions the creative impulse itself, and the possibility of shaping a text ... In a work of truly experimental fiction, Solstad explicitly asks what the novel can still do—and tries to prove, to the reader and himself, that there are still new possibilities and directions. Well worthwhile.
To Solstad, the author in Norway—and the West in general—has been reduced to a symbol, a symbol of perfect freedom, undergirding the myth of the ahistorical individual, free from historical necessity ... established Solstad fans may well find Armand V an interesting minor work.
Armand V’s stylistic tension comes from the absence of its source text. After setting the introductory scenes, our narrator admits that the text to which the footnotes refer 'is invisible for the author in the sense that he is unable to write it.' The story then lurches along at a disjointed pace; each footnote arrives after a gap in 'the text up there,' as the narrator terms the unwritten novel, drawing surprise from omission ... The 'unknown and unwritten' source text is simply a feint; the novel’s real surface—'the text up there'—is an authorial confession ... For a moment, the narration crosses the threshold of fiction into political culpability; and then, just as quickly as it dissolved, we are back in Armand’s life, the author’s reflection concealed now by the diplomat’s visit to London. Fiction, for Solstad, is a mirror that can be held up and hidden in the same motion, his image flashing by with the movement of his prose.
Here Solstad engages in a daring, quixotic conceit as he offers a narrative composed of footnotes to an unwritten novel ... In less able hands, this might seem precious or disingenuous. Somehow, the opposite happens, and the novel unfolds against every expectation into something memorable and moving. Questions of cause and effect in life, art, and the art of diplomacy become inextricably linked: 'The cause may lie in the very speed with which the journey proceeds, erasing all hope that the questions that should have been asked, are asked.' Or answered.
This unique, fascinating novel is composed of footnotes to a larger work that doesn’t exist. Solstad is present as both author and minor character, delving into short essays about his writing process as he passes age 60 ... Solstad...is, as ever, excellent at mingling the personal with the theoretical, embedded in the strange beauty of everyday routine.
Were this a linear study in Dostoyevskian pessimism, Solstad’s tale would be a tad bit simpler to take in, but he complicates it by writing the whole thing as almost-too-meta footnotes to a book we're not seeing ... If Knausgaard is too cheery for you, then this is just your cup of lutefisk.