Tag Archives: Norwegian Literature

On the Necessity of Doors: Bergeners by Tomas Espedal (trans. James Anderson)

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.”




Filed under Literature in Translation, Scandanavian Literature, Seagull Books

Review: The Birds by Tarjei Vesaas

I received an advanced review copy of this title from Archipelago Books through Edelweiss.  This was published in the original Norwegian in 1957 and this English version has been translated by Torbjørn Støverud and Michael Barnes.

My Review:
The BirdsThis book was an unexpected surprise that pulled at my heart strings.  Mattis and his sister Hege live in the Norwegian countryside in a simple cottage by a lake.  Mattis is mentally challenged and he is constantly attempting to navigate a world that he doesn’t understand and that doesn’t understand him.  He has the mind of a child; he becomes excited at the simplest things like the woodcock which flies over their cottage.  He has a deep fear of abandonment and is afraid that his sister, who is his only caretaker, can be snatched from him at any moment.  And when he cannot make others understand him he becomes bewildered and frustrated.  I became completely absorbed in Mattis’ simple and constricted world.

The hardest parts of the story to read were those in which Mattis goes out into the surrounding countryside to look for work.  His sister supports them both by knitting sweaters so money is always tight and they live very simply.  Even though Mattis has a hard time doing the simplest tasks, like thinning turnips and stacking hay, his sister still insists on sending him into town to find a way to make some income.  His mind cannot coordinate with his hands and he becomes easily confused and frustrated.  Whenever he goes to beg for work he is humiliated because everyone in town knows who he is and they call him “Simple Simon.”  The people in town, however, are never cruel to him; they came up with what is supposed to be a harmless nickname for Mattis who is a well-known figure in town.  But every time someone calls him Simple Simon he is embarrassed and frustrated because he hates being defined by this phrase which he can never escape.  There is a deeper lesson in this book about being careful with our names or labels for others even when we are not intentionally being hurtful.

One day at the suggestion of Mattis’ sister, he decides that he will use his old, worn out boat to ferry people across the lake.  Rowing is something that he is good at and he loves spending time on the water.  On his first day of work, Mattis is lucky enough to come upon one customer, a lumberjack who has arrived in town looking for work.  Jørgen is the first and only person to take a ride on Mattis’ ferry service.  That fateful ferry ride brings Mattis’ sister Hege joy and companionship while it brings Mattis frustration and loneliness.

Although the story is mostly told from Mattis’ point of view, we do get a glimpse of what Hege’s life has been like trying to take care of Mattis.  Hege is forty years-old, has never married or had a family of her own and she doesn’t seem to have any friends either.    She has pretty much devoted her whole existence to taking care of her brother.  Hege becomes easily agitated with Mattis’ constant questions and emotional neediness. When Hege has the chance to find love and companionship with Jørgen, she begins to act differently towards Mattis because her time and attention are no longer completely devoted to him alone.  One the one hand Hege has the right to her own life and her own happiness, but on the other hand she still has an obligation to care for and protect her brother.

This is a quiet novel that deserves much more attention.  As a teacher I am confronted with students who have a vast array of mental, emotional and physical disabilities.  But seeing the world through the eyes of Mattis has made me even more sensitive and acutely award of what it is like to be labeled as “different” by the rest of the world.

About the Author:
T VessassTarjei Vesaas was a Norwegian poet and novelist. Written in Nynorsk, his work is characterized by simple, terse, and symbolic prose. His stories are often about simple rural people that undergo a severe psychological drama and who according to critics are described with immense psychological insight. Commonly dealing with themes such as death, guilt, angst, and other deep and intractable human emotions, the Norwegian natural landscape is a prevalent feature in his works. His debut was in 1923 with Children of Humans (Menneskebonn), but he had his breakthrough in 1934 with The Great Cycle (Det store spelet). His mastery of the nynorsk language, landsmål (see Norwegian language), has contributed to its acceptance as a medium of world class literature.


Filed under Classics, Literary Fiction, Literature in Translation

Review: Against Nature by Tomas Espedal

I receive a review copy of this title from Seagull Books.  This book was published in the original Norwegian in 2011 and this English version has been translated by James Anderson.

My Review:
Against NatureWhen the book opens the main character, Tomas, is at a party where he meets a girl that is twenty years his junior; despite their age difference they appear to have an instant connection.  Tomas reflects on the famous literary couple of Abelard and Heloise who have a passionate and scandalous love affair despite their age gap.  But things did not turn out very well for Abelard and Heloise, so is this Tomas’ way of foreshadowing what will happen with his own relationship?

The book then flashes back to Tomas’ teenage years during which he spends the summer working in the same textile factory where his father is employed.  He wakes up every day at the crack of dawn to do a physically difficult and monotonous job of fixing and oiling looms at the factory.  The only bright spot in his day is when he is able to ride his bicycle over to his girlfriend’s house where he has dinner with her family. After dinner, without any protest or interference from her parents,  he retires to the family guestroom with his girlfriend where he engages in what he calls his “adult education.”  Tomas’ swears that he is madly in love with his girlfriend and wants nothing more than to marry her.  He does stay with her for quite a few years into his early adulthood, but the only clue he gives us about the disintegration of this relationship is that when they tried to live together it “didn’t work out.”

The girl that Tomas ends up marrying is an actress from his home town whom he has run into from time to time when they were younger.  Agnete is home for a visit while promoting a play that she is doing in Rome and it is on this trip home that she connects with Tomas.  Tomas, at this point, has decided that he wants to be an author; when he meets Agnete he is the quintessential lonely writer who lives in a sparse bachelor pad and can barely make ends meet.  And he is attracted to Agnete because, like any lonely writer, when he gives up his loneliness it must be for a relationship that is as unpredictable and volatile as possible.  When they fight Agnete throws objects at Tomas and even gives him a black eye and some broken ribs.  It is obvious that this tumultuous relationship cannot be sustained forever, and it does last for much longer than one would think.  When it is finally over Tomas seems more relieved than anything else.

At the end of the book we are brought back to Tomas’s relationship with the younger woman whose name we are told is Janne.  When she moves into his house he feels that for the first time in his life he is happy and content.  Mundane things like reading in bed, cooking dinner and sitting on the couch make him happy.  He goes on for quite a few pages about what happiness is and how he has finally achieved a level of happiness in his own life.  But when Janne decides that the gap in their age is too much to handle she moves out and Tomas’ happiness is utterly shattered.  The last forty pages of the book are a transcription of his notebooks or journals which he keeps during the time of his break-up.  To call his notebooks sad or depressing would be a serious understatement; he wallows in his sorrow and at times his descent into loneliness, excessive drinking and inertia were very difficult to read.  Tomas’ notebooks reminded me of the Roman poet Catullus, who writes his own depressing break-up poems after he has an affair with a married woman; there is also a significant age gap in this relationship between Catullus and this woman.  I would highly recommend that Espedal read Catullus’ poems if he isn’t already familiar with them.

Finally, I have to mention the title, “Against Nature” and this theme that is constantly present in the book.  Tomas always seems to be straining against what is considered “natural” or at least society’s perception of what is natural.  It isn’t natural for a man in his mid-forties to have a relationship with a woman twenty years his junior.  It isn’t natural that Tomas should stay in a tumultuous relationship with his wife long after all love is lost between them.  Tomas and Agnete live in a farmhouse surrounded by nature and he never feels comfortable there; it is more natural for him to be in a city, away from nature.  The book is an interesting reflection on the things we accept as natural; who decides what is natural and what is not?  If we go against nature, does that make us unnatural or some type of an outcast?

Against Nature is a thought-provoking and poetic read.  This book has made me excited to explore additional titles in the Seagull books catalogue.

About the Author:
T EspedalTomas Espedal debuted as a writer in 1988. In 1991, he won awards in the P2/Bokklubbens rome competition for She and I. Founder of the Bergen International Poetry Festival, Espedal’s later works explore the relationship between the novel and other genres such as essays, letters, diaries, autobiography and travelogue. Espedal’s Go. Or the Art of Living a Wild and Poetic Life (2006) and Nearly Art (2009) have been nominated for the Nordic Council Literature Prize.



Filed under Literature in Translation, Literature/Fiction