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Norwegian blues and a Balzacian tale

October 10, 2013 23 comments

L’âge heureux (Den lykkelige alder) / Simonsen (1908) by Sigrid Undset (1882-1949).

undset_age_heureuxI’m back in English, that’s probably a relief for you! –or not since I make less grammar mistakes in French. I bought L’âge heureux / Simonsen by Sigrid Undset on a whim, I don’t remember when or where. It sounded interesting; I didn’t know the writer and wanted to give it a try. Then Edith from Edith’s Miscellany wrote a review of Jenny by the same Sigrid Undset and that moved L’âge heureux / Simonsen on top of the TBR. And now you’re reading a billet about these two short-stories.

L’âge heureux. (Happy days)

There’s a famous quote from Paul Nizan which says « J’avais vingt-ans. Je ne laisserai personne dire que c’est le plus bel âge de la vie. » (“I was twenty. I will not let anybody say it’s the best period of life”) That’s L’âge heureux in a nutshell.

When the book opens, Uni, an eighteen year old young woman accompanies her aunt Mrs Iversen and her cousins to the family house. The house was once in the country, is now in the suburbs of Christiana. Uni’s parents are dead and buried in the local cemetery. She’s about to start a new life in Christiana and she dreams to be an actress.

After this brief introduction to her circumstances, we follow Uni who is now working in an office, living in a boarding house and dating Christian. The young man is an industrial designer and although he has a decent job, he cannot afford to marry Uni and support her with his current income. He’s working hard to get a promotion while Uni goes to auditions to try to have a role in a play. Uni has a friend Charlotte who still lives with her mother and siblings; she’s an aspiring poet and feels all the angst that goes along with the status.

Undset describes the difficulty of being a young woman in the Norwegian middle class of that time. Uni and Charlotte are poor. They aspire to be artists and they need to work to make a living. Uni hates her job at the office. Charlotte resents her still living with her family and it irritates her so much that she becomes mean to her family. She’s ashamed of it and at the same time, she cannot help it. Uni has difficulties knowing what she wants and what she wants to do with her life, what she expects from it. She reminded me of Esther in The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath, without the mental breakdown. Charlotte suffers from writing anxiety, struggling to find her poetic voice and feeling everything deeply, absorbing pain like a sponge:

J’aimerais travailler avec tous ces petits mots usés que les hommes emploient indifféremment, avec lesquels ils se blessent, qu’ils échangent dans une caresse, qu’ils murmurent dans un moment de détresse ou de joie… I’d like to work with all these little worn-out words that men use with indifference. Words with which they hurt each other, words that they exchange in a caress or murmur in a moment of anxiety or joy…

A tall order and she’s intelligent enough to know she might not live up to her own expectations.

Uni is torn between her strong attraction to theatre and her love for Christian. She wants to be an actress and would feel cheated if she didn’t have the opportunity to try that life. She would resent the person who would stand up against this possibility. Christian is too clever to be that person. He thus supports her choice of career.

Je voudrais que tu me comprennes bien, Uni, que tu sois sûre que je n’ai aucune arrière-pensée quand je t’encourage à suivre ta vocation. Je te jure que c’est vrai. Et si parfois je proteste, je voudrais que tu n’y fasses même pas attention. C’est sans importance, c’est simplement que j’ai des idées démodées, je me suis fait une certaine idée du mariage et j’y tiens…Maintenant que tu as vu mon père…Mais je ne veux pas t’imposer une vie qui ne te convient pas. Il n’en est pas question. Uni, I would like you to understand and be certain that I don’t have an ulterior motive when I encourage you to follow your calling. I swear it is true. And if I protest sometimes, I’d like you to not pay attention to it. It doesn’t matter; it’s just that I have old fashioned ideas, that I have a certain imagine of marriage and that I hold on to it…Now that you’ve met my father….But I don’t want to impose on you a life that you don’t want. It is out of the question.

Christian acknowledges with his brain that she has a right to have a career, to make her own choices but his guts struggle with the idea because it goes against his education. It is hard to change something you’ve learnt to be a truth from your young age. I think it’s very interesting that Sigrid Undset voices the difficulties of changing the ingrained vision of women. In a sense, Christian reminds me of Barfoot in The Odd Women by George Gissing. He’s in favour of Uni’s emancipation and he recognises her right to have her dreams and her aspirations. At the same time, he caresses the idea of a traditional wife, although he doesn’t say it openly. When Uni’s career as an actress starts, he’s faithful to his promise though and remains supportive.

Incidentally, like in The Odd Women or in L’argent by Zola, we see characters who love each other but can’t get married because the man doesn’t earn enough to support a wife and a family. Great-Britain, France, Norway, it was a common situation in Europe.

L’âge heureux gives a voice to young women before WWI whose talent and intelligence was wasted because their society didn’t have a place for them to blossom.

Ses mots, ses cris de révolte, ce n’étaient que les plaintes de toutes les jeunes filles désirant le bonheur mais dont la route est irrémédiablement barrée ; c’étaient les paroles que l’on prononce lorsque le monde vous piétine et vous force à rester dans l’obscurité, soit que l’on tourne mal, soit que, travailleuse honnête, on s’épuise toute la journée dans un bureau pour rentrer le soir, seule, dans une horrible pension ; c’était les expressions de fatigue que l’on ressent, au fond, après avoir été fiancée des années à un homme que l’on aime, et que les convenances se dressent contre vos aspirations ; ou les mots qu’on lance quand on prend sa famille en haine, qu’on bafoue sa mère, qu’on se dispute avec ses frères et sœurs : parents qui vous sont chers pourtant, mais à vivre si nombreux dans un petit logement, les heurts se multiplient. Hers words, her fits of revolt were only the cries of all young girls seeking for happiness but whose way was irremediably blocked. It was the words one says when the world tramples on you, forces you to remain in the shadows either because one turns out badly or because, although hard-working and honest, one wastes themselves in an office only to come back at night, alone, exhausted to a dreadful boarding house. It was the expression of weariness that one feels, in the end, when, after being engaged to a man one has loved for years, propriety stands against one’s aspirations. It was also the words one throws away when one takes an immense dislike to one’s family, when one ridicules their mother, fights with their siblings although one cares about their parents. But to live so numerous in such small lodgings can only multiply conflicts.

L’âge heureux is a plea for a better life for young women and its ending shows how powerful society was. I don’t know if it’s been translated into English, but it might be included in an omnibus edition of Undset’s works. It’s worth a try. Now…

Simonsen

If L’âge heureux is a tale of its time, Simonsen has Balzacian accents, and readers of Balzac will understand why. Simonsen is an ageing man who just got fired from his job. Again. He lives with Olga, who is an at-home dressmaker. She’s a lot younger than him. They are not married and have a daughter, Svanhild. Simonsen has also a son, Sigurd, from a previous marriage. Sigurd helps his father finding jobs when he loses one and he’s getting impatient and embarrassed by his father’s way of life. The man is unable to keep a job, lives in sin with a woman Sigurd considers from an inferior social class..

In this novella, we see life through Simonsen’s eyes. Although he is flawed (he knows he should marry Olga, he feels ashamed of losing his job again), the reader understands why Olga keeps him around. He’s nice, generous and he loves his daughter.

It’s a Balzacian tale because Sigurd and his greedy wife will do anything in their power to get rid of the embarrassing old man. And that’s all I’ll say about this short story. I’ve seen it’s been translated into English, you can track it down if you’re intrigued.

I enjoyed these two novellas and I find Undset’s style really attractive. Both novellas or short-stories picture middle-class in Christiana at the beginning of the century. Both show that society rules are stronger than individuals. I’m interested in reading Jenny but I’m not so inclined to try her historical novels set in the Middle-Ages. (I’m not particularly fascinated by this very religious period of history) and I’m not sure I want to discover her works after she converted to Catholicism. But these novellas I warmly recommend.

Down and out in Kristiana, Norway

June 6, 2013 44 comments

Hunger by Knut Hamsun. 1890 French title: Faim. 146 pages. Made into a play entitled Ylajali by Jon Fosse.

The instant I opened my eyes I began, from sheer force of habit, to think if I had any reason to rejoice over the coming day. I had been somewhat hard-up lately, and one after the other of my belongings had been taken to my “Uncle.” I had grown nervous and irritable. A few times I had kept my bed for the day with vertigo. Now and then, when luck had favoured me, I had managed to get five shillings for a feuilleton from some newspaper or other.

I started to read Hunger before going to the theatre to see its theatre version but I didn’t manage to finish on time. Hunger was written in 1890 by Knut Hamsun and the Norwegian writer Jon Fosse made it into a play, Ylajali. I’ll start with the novella and will then talk about the play.

Hunger is a first person narrative where a young aspiring writer relates his struggling life in Kristiana, Norway. It is based upon Hamsun’s own experience of poverty. The novella is split in four parts, each of them referring to a time of hardship for the narrator.

We follow the young man’s wanderings, his attempts at selling articles to earn money. We see how hunger affects his brain, how people start to see him more and more as a tramp. We witness how he clings to his dignity, how he doesn’t want to acknowledge that he’s poor, famished and desperate. It prevents him from asking for help but it also prevents him from falling into pieces. Reading this novella was almost unbearable and the reader sees this young man’s life spiral into poverty. Hunger holds on him, a bearable touch at the beginning, an iron claw in the end. Hunger grips him and Hamsun describes very well how it impacts the narrator’s body and his mind. It starts with physical pain:

It was three o’clock. Hunger began to plague me in downright earnest. I felt faint, and now and again I had to retch furtively.

Or

Here I was going about starving, so that my entrails wriggle together in me like worms, and it was, as far as I knew, not decreed in the book of fate that anything in the shape of food would turn up later in the day.

But then, as the time of hardship stretches to months, he is malnourished and suffers from the consequences of his lack of food for a long period of time:

The last crisis had dealt rather roughly with me. My hair fell out in masses, and I was much troubled with headaches, particularly in the morning, and my nervous strain died a hard death.

Or later in the book

Hunger lodged once more in my breast, and I had not tasted food since yesterday evening. This, ’tis true, was not a long period; I had often been able to hold out for a couple of days at a time, but latterly I had commenced to flag seriously; I could not go hungry with quarter the ease I used to do. A single day made me feel dazed, and I suffered from constant retching the moment I tasted water. Added to this was the fact that I lay and shivered all night, lay fully dressed as I stood and walked in the daytime, lay blue with the cold, lay and froze every night with fits of icy shivering, and grew stiff during my sleep.

Hamsun describes hunger with painful realism and my heart reached out to this poor man. No one can stay indifferent to passages like this:

The only thing that troubled me a little, in spite of the nausea that the thought of food inspired in me, was hunger. I commenced to be sensible of a shameless appetite again; a ravenous lust of food, which grew steadily worse and worse. It gnawed unmercifully in my breast; carrying on a silent, mysterious work in there. It was as if a score of diminutive gnome-like insects set their heads on one side and gnawed for a little, then laid their heads on the other side and gnawed a little more, then lay quite still for a moment’s space, and then began afresh, boring noiselessly in, and without any haste, and left empty spaces everywhere after them as they went on.

From the start, the narrator tells us that hunger affects his thinking abilities. At the beginning of the book, he’s a little worried:

I had remarked so plainly that, whenever I had been hungry for any length of time, it was just as if my brains ran quite gently out of my head and left me with a vacuum—my head grew light and I no longer felt its weight on my shoulders, and I was conscious that my eyes stared far too widely open when I looked at anything.

As the hunger settles in, he feels that his mental capacities are more and more impaired. His mind gets out of control. He goes from worried to frightened as he feels madness getting to him.

My madness was a delirium of weakness and prostration, but I was not out of my senses. All at once the thought darted through my brain that I was insane. Seized with terror, I spring out of bed again, I stagger to the door, which I try to open, fling myself against it a couple of times to force it, strike my head against the wall, bewail loudly, bite my fingers, cry and curse…

His situation worsens. Sometimes he manages to sell an article and has a little money for a few days. All of his possessions have been pawned. (By the way, in English you say to go to my “Uncle’s”, in French you go to your “Aunt’s”). He doesn’t have any money to clean himself and his appearance starts advertising his poverty:

Meanwhile my clothes commenced to steam. Hunger put in a fresh appearance, gnawed at my breast, clutched me, and gave small, sharp stabs that caused me pain.

He sinks further into poverty. As his living conditions deteriorate, he stops clinging to his principles, his dignity. Right and wrong don’t have the same importance when you need food and shelter.

Conscience, did you say? No nonsense, if you please. You are too poor to support a conscience. You are hungry; you have come on important business—the first thing needful. But you shall hold your head askew, and set your words to a sing-song.

At the beginning, he would lie to hide his situation, to be seen as a gentleman. He was ashamed to show he had no money, no prospects. The more he has to live through this, the less he cares about his appearance. He can’t afford to be proud anymore and he accepts treatments of him that would have revolted him a few months before. Hunger shows the slow dehumanisation of a young man.

Nevertheless, Hunger is never miserabilist. I was very moved by the resilience of this young man. He keeps writing, assailed by inspiration from time to time. He writes frantically in parks or in his lodgings. Writing transports him somewhere else.

Suddenly a few good sentences fitted for a sketch or story strike me, delicate linguistic hits of which I have never before found the equal.

But, as a freelance writer, his bread depends on his capacity to deliver sensible and interesting articles or stories. But how can he write well when his thinking process is impaired by hunger? It can only spiral out of control as his capacities to earn money are hampered by his living conditions which keep degrading if he doesn’t sell articles…

Despite his miserable conditions of living, he’s still able to see beauty around him. This quote comes from the beginning of the book:

If only one had just a little to eat on such a lightsome day! The sense of the glad morning overwhelmed me; my satisfaction became ill-regulated, and for no definite reason I began to hum joyfully.

He’s still optimistic; he hasn’t been filthy poor for too long. He’s sure it won’t last, the reader isn’t too surprised by his attitude. But when days turn into months of hardship and he says…

The sun burst over the heights, the sky was pale and tender, and in my delight over the lovely morning, after the many dark, gloomy weeks, I forgot all cares, and it seemed to me as if I had fared worse on other occasions. I clapped myself on the chest and sang a little snatch to myself.

…I find him incredible. Despite his terrible situation, he isn’t blind to the beauty of his surroundings. Hope is his dope. It gives him strength and the reader witnesses how he clutches every tiny hope to make money. Once, he wants to sell the buttons of his coat, he’s so sure they’re worth something and it’s enough to keep his mind positive for a while.

The novella pictures his ups and downs, his attempts at getting out of his predicament. It portrays a young starving artist who refuels on his own, driven by hope and inner strength. Any feeble spark of hope makes his day better. He always hopes for the best and overcomes his despair. He does wish to die sometimes but he holds to his positive attitude. That’s probably why it’s so moving.

Of course I thought about Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London. Hunger affected me more. Perhaps it’s because Orwell’s days felt more like a journalistic experiment. I knew he could have turned to his family and put an end to this time of his life. This young man was in it for good and I felt a lot of compassion for him. I also thought about Arturo Bandini in Ask the Dust. This young man and Arturo have something in common: their faith in a better future, their need to write, their ability to stay positive. There’s something about the narrator’s ramblings that made him a kindred spirit of Arturo’s and of Rilke’s Malte Laurids Brigge.

So how do you make a play out of this intimate confession?

Fosse_Ylajali

Jon Fosse chose to set aside the starving-artist part of the novel. The play is set in a public garden in autumn and a man, any man, you, me is there, trying to survive. The young man has no defined occupation, he’s unemployed. When Jon Fosse leaves behind the reference to writing, he makes his play universal. Anyone could be sacked, fail to find a new job and fall down like this young man.

The play was directed by Gabriel Dufay, who also played the role of the young man. The setting was a park in autumn, with a lamppost. A pianist was on stage, playing music from time to time, lifting the atmosphere which could have been heavy, given the topic. It gave back the tone of the book which avoids the pitfall of miserabilism. The actor impersonated the young man and two other actors played the role of the different men he speaks to in the book and Ylajali, the young woman he fantasises about. Gabriel Dufay was more than excellent. He was gripping, full of energy and showing exactly what the narrator was in the book. Hopeful, nice, extravagant. He showed the claws of hunger grasping the young man’s brain. He showed the slow degradation of the social status of this man. The first night in the park with policemen hovering, the shoes with holes, the cold that seeps into the bones. The hunger which weakens the man’s body, makes him dizzy and nauseous.

The book overwhelmed me, the play punched me in the stomach. We were out of words when we went out of the theatre. I thought “I’ll never look at homeless people the same way” but I know it’s not true. Feelings like this are fleeting. I’d need to act upon it if I really wanted to keep that silent promise I made to myself. Otherwise the emotion subsides; life goes on and the feeling is just stocked somewhere in my memory.

Needless to say I warmly encourage you to read Hunger if you haven’t read it yet.

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