Sophie’s World by Jostein Gaarder
Translated by Paulette Møller
My second gateway Nordic read was another huge worldwide bestseller, first published in English translation in 1995. I got my original copy with the cover above through the QPD book club, now defunct, who produced what we’d now call trade paperbacks of new hardbacks – ie: hardbacks but with soft covers before the normal paperbacks came out. When first published, the book was marketed to all audiences, despite having won a German prize for Childrens/YA books, I doubt I would have read it then, had it not been aimed at adults.
I gave away my original copy years ago, so got a new one to re-read, the twentieth anniversary edition (right), which has a rather uninspiring very YA cover (and annoyingly has the title on the spine the wrong way up!). It has a new introduction by Gaarder, which concentrates on what he’d add to the book if he wrote it now – basically environmental philosophy – rather than reevaluating the novel in any way, which was actually a nice surprise. But let me now turn to the novel itself.
Sophie Amundsen is fourteen, and one day she receives two strange messages in the mailbox, ‘Who are You?’ and ‘Where does the world come from?’ they asked. She also receives a postcard addressed to Hilde Møller Knag at her address. She is intrigued, naturally, and when a packet of papers arrive for her with the first chapter of a personal philosophy course, as an inquisitive teen she laps it up. As her, at this stage, anonymous teacher says, ‘the only thing we need to become good philosophers is the faculty of wonder.’
Eventually her new extracurricular teacher is revealed as older philosopher Alberto Knox. Sophie keeps this from her mother for most of the book, even when they start to meet in person, once Alberto’s secret location is compromised, his dog had delivered the new chapters to Sophie. But he has succeeded in awakening her curiousity (and her school grades improve too).
All the way along, Sophie keeps receiving messages for Hilde, sent by her father who is a general in the army in Lebanon. Curiouser and curiouser. Who is Hilde? Who is Albert Knag? Why are they copying in Sophie? Does Albert pose a threat to Alberto and Sophie? The reader will be besieged by these (philosophical) questions.
For those who haven’t read this book, the answer is stranger than you could imagine. The novel takes an abrupt turn later, and I’m not going to explain it or spoil it for you.
For anyone interested in acquiring the basics of Western philosophy, Alberto’s philosophy course for Sophie, contained within the book in sections of non-serif typeface, gives a well-written potted history going from the Garden of Eden, up through the ancient Greeks, the birth of Christianity etc and onwards via the astronomer philosophers towards the European titans of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. I can remember lapping this up in my thirties when I first read the novel. In the years since, I suppose I have absorbed more general knowledge about the later philosophers whom I never read about before then. This time, I enjoyed revising the early ancient Greeks, but by the time we got to Descartes and beyond, I wasn’t so interested. As a result, I rather skimmed these sections this time, although I realise that they do inform the developing story, they just slowed it up for me.
Because of the nesting of Alberto’s philosophy course into the book, Sophie’s World is rather lengthy – 464 pages in my paperback, and the font is small with not much white space around it – so a bit of a chunkster. Although I still enjoyed the central story of Sophie and Alberto, Hilde and Albert, much of the impetus of the mystery was often diffused by the philosophy lessons. I would have loved to read a much tauter, more suspenseful edit.
This time, I found the idea that Sophie just went off and received these secret lessons on her own from a chap she didn’t know, however benign he was, just creepy. Her mother, when she found out, didn’t really seem to demonstrate enough concern either. Yes, she wanted to meet Alberto, but didn’t really grill or ground Sophie while she investigated him for instance. Sophie’s best friend was also complicit in her stretching the truth when she went out to see Alberto. All this sits uneasily with today’s attitudes towards safeguarding which, working in a school as I do, are drilled into us. Even as a child and teen in the ’60s and ’70s, we roamed in groups and stranger danger was a thing.
I did like Sophie though: her reflections and interactions with Alberto on the philosophy he was teaching her were interesting, and I’m sure that her questionning could inspire young adult readers of this novel. Of course I also loved Alberto’s dog, Hermes (what a good name for a messenger dog). On my re-read, I found the combination of fiction and non-fiction made for rather slow reading – combined with that small dense print which requires more physical concentration to read.
To conclude, I enjoyed the mystery again, but I didn’t love it second time around. However, I can remember the fun educational aspects in particular when I first read this novel. I’m sure it will continue to delight, especially younger readers. Now I’ll give it 6.5/10.
Source: Own copy. W&N paperback, 464 pages. BUY at Blackwell’s via my affiliate link.