The legions of readers who adore the dark Scandinavian noir of Jo Nesbø will also love Macbeth, his adaptation of Shakespeare’s famous play.
OK, thank goodness that’s over. Now I can say without hesitation that if I had to pick one novel never to read again, it would be this one, a mammoth, self-satisfied, simple-minded wildebeest, creeping its petty pace across nearly 500 endless pages toward conclusions that are never in doubt.
As a writer, Nesbø’s greatest strength by far is atmosphere, and in fairness to him he provides it here, convincingly setting his Macbeth (Hogarth Shakespeare, 446 pp., ★★ out of four) in brooding, industrial 1970s Scotland, a world of rain, motorcycle gangs, drugs, grime and rain.
Macbeth is a cunning and efficient SWAT commander, in love with a casino owner named Lady. Rough and ready, he has little personal ambition until Duncan, an honorable new commissioner bent on eliminating corruption in the police department, makes the mistake of promoting him.
This is a promising setup, obviously. Why is the novel so bad then?
Where to begin. In the first place, a huge problem is that anyone with even a passing familiarity with Shakespeare’s play will know from the first pages exactly how everything turns out for, say, Banquo. (He dies!) Macbeth sticks almost wholly to Macbeth.
In the second, Shakespeare was possibly the most interesting person in the history of writing down words, and Nesbø the stylist is vague, dull, moralizing and trite. The contrast is agonizing. Shakespeare on Macbeth’s fate: “Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage and then is heard no more. It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” Nesbø on Macbeth’s fate: “It’s just one of those self-fulfilling things.”
Then there’s that page count. Shakespeare’s play is known, among other things, for being short, only half the length of Hamlet. This brevity suffuses it with a terrifying sort of mystery, as Macbeth and his wife acquiesce almost in bewilderment to a political ambition they don’t fully comprehend, then to a guilt they can never allay. It’s not Nesbø’s duty to re-create that feeling, of course.
On the other hand, there’s a real egotism to the way he drags Shakespeare’s lightning-lit story out over such an incredible length, and along the way keeps up a chatter of philosophical nonsense about power, guilt and loss.
Here’s Nesbø on the famous witches, for instance. “It was Macbeth’s experience that it was hard to put a precise age on Asiatic women, but whatever theirs was, they must have been through hard times. It was in their eyes. They were the cold, inscrutable kind that don’t let you see in.”
This is, besides cutting awfully close to racism, plain bad, clichéd and silly. Still, Nesbø’s success has lain in transporting the silly clichés of noir to Norway and presenting them as darkly authentic. There it works, sort of, as we wait to see what happens. In Macbeth, it signifies — well, nothing.
Charles Finch is author of the Charles Lenox mystery series, most recently, The Woman in the Water.