In Bergeners, Tomas Espedal describes his various travels which include sojourns at places like New York and Berlin. At the center of the book is an extended description of his hometown, Bergen, Norway, which city, as a fifty-year-old man, he is drawn back to settle in. I read the book in two evenings over the weekend and part of what draws me into Espedal’s writing is the way in which he varies his style; reading his books are like unpacking a treasure chest, one never knows what beautiful short story, poem, or anecdote one will find on the next page.
I’ve underlined, copied and marked up so many passages it would be impossible to share them all here. But one feeling which stood out to me in his writing is his deep sense of loneliness, so my focus of this post will be on this idea. When the book opens, Espedal is in New York with his girlfriend, Janne, who announces to him that she is leaving him. Even though he was married before this relationship, this break-up seems to have disturbed his equanimity. His interpretation of Ovid’s Apollo and Daphne myth alludes to his state of mind and the loneliness he feels with the loss of this relationship:
Daphne runs and Apollo runs after her. They run. We run. You run and I run after you. Apollo runs after Daphne. They run through the forest, along the river, we run through the city, I run after you. Almost grab your hair, that long hair which you lose. You run without hair and increase speed, how fast you run, don’t you know who I am/ I’m Apollo, I’m running after you. You’re running so fast, I increase speed. Almost grab your arm, your hand which you lose. You’re running and weeping. I run, we run through the city, out of the city, over the bridge, over the river, I can hear your breathing becoming labored, it will run out, you’ll lose your breath. You lose your hair, lose your arm. You’re breathing so heavily, so deeply, you’re nothing but breath.
Espedal writes what appears to be a short story entitled “The Guest,” about a man who celebrates his birthday alone; but as is common in his writing, the lines between fiction and autobiography are blurred. Is this how he imagines his life now that Janne is gone and his daughter has moved away?:
Today is his birthday. His fiftieth. He’s put on his best suit and is celebrating the occasion alone.
The black velvet suit is tailor-made. A white, newly ironed shirt. Silver cufflinks. He smokes a cigarette.
He has a good dinner. Drinks and expensive wine. The living room is adorned with flowers, white lilies, a present to himself.
The lines in the lilies’ leaves are like the veins beneath the skin of the hands holding the cutlery. He cuts his meat.
He takes a mouthful of wine. He looks at his hands, long and carefully, as if they are guests at the birthday celebration.
There is a very brief mention of his wife in the section entitled “On the Necessity of a Door.” They move to Nicaraqua when she gets a job there and he is thrown off by the open floor plan of their new house that doesn’t have any doors: “An architectural idea: rooms flowing into one another, a short flight of steps up to the kitchen which was open to the living room, a hole in the wall leading to the bedroom, another hole to the guestroom and a longer staircase to a workroom on the first floor.” He sets up this workroom as an office in which to write and one day when his wife is out of the house he hires a contractor to install a door. The door is, he feels, a necessary for him but it is not well-received by his wife: “…I was sitting locked in my room working, I was writing. I heard my wife enter the house, she walked around downstairs for a while, then came up to the first floor, and I heard her halt and give a sigh. A deep sigh. Had she foreseen and expected this door? She took a step forward, put her hand on the door handle, turned it suddenly and tugged as hard as she could at the door.” They divorced soon after. Could the various doors he erects in his life be the cause, even now, of his loneliness?
The passage that affected me the most as far as his loneliness is concerned was that which concerned his daughter:
My daughter’s move was one of the hardest things I’ve had to bear. I don’t know whether all parents feel the same way, maybe some are relieved that their child, the young adult, is on the move at last, has left the house, but for me it was a shock and I haven’t got over it yet. Why a shock? Wasn’t it expected? Yes, it was expected, it’s natural that children leave home, it’s necessary, but when it happens, it feels so brutal.
This experience, combined with his girlfriend moving out at about the same time, is too much for him to bear. He doesn’t find comfort in his quotidian activities and his routines make him feel even lonelier. He asks, “How can you, at the age of almost fifty, adapt to an empty house? How can you deal with your own loneliness, what can you fill it with? How can you live?” And the only answer he comes up with is simply, “I don’t know, I don’t know.”