The recollection of Steingrim and of a fleeting summer brought his thoughts to a farm in Telemark where, Steingrim had said, it might be nice to live for a while. There Erling had seen a love story but not the end of it. He sat down in his easy chair and thought: It is true, my thought-world lives in this house.
The little story led up to the very center of the problem that had occupied him above all during these years after the war: reflections on how people isolated themselves through isolating others, and what their purpose might be in so acting. He thought that the shock the war had brought had at last opened his eyes to the possible reason why people, contrary to their own interests, caused each other loneliness. He had come to the conclusion that in the enforced isolation and uncommunicativeness of the individual lay the most dangerous seed of violence and war. Not the apparent reasons for war—in this Steingrim might well have been right—but the underlying reasons which made war possible and which choked the impulse to avoid war. The consensus was that the individual had no influence in making war, and consequently was not responsible for it either. This was obviously wrong, because a war was started by individuals who at first stirred up their own people, who again were made up of individuals; realistically, war was and remained your business and mine, if for no other reason than because we had failed to show resistance. The individual lacked influence only if he had in advance resigned his will, and thus had become the most profound and actual cause of war. The last ounce of individuality was crushed in military training, after the schools had created the prerequisites. From birth one was taught to believe that all real individual thought was the business of others: Let him to whom our Lord has given the head to think, handle such matters! They did not add—because this also calls for a thought—that a people not under foreign domination owns the government and only the people themselves can prepare the soil for the government they have. They might say: Well, that's progress, evolution. [p. 72] And they might feel that now everything had definitely been said, and that was that. If this watery nonsense was all that had survived of that genius Charles Darwin, then one could understand people who contrarily believed that apes were descended from men, and perhaps Darwin himself might have shaken his head and begun to suspect it.
It was a few years before the war that Erling one summer had lived on the farm in Telemark. He had had little to do with the people in the house, a family by the name of Larsen and some servants. As a rule he only came in for his dinner; he lived in a cottage at a lake about a mile away. It was a rather fallen-down place and it was said it had been a shed in which to dry fish. Now there was no fishing, except when some small boys occasionally got a few perch on the hook; they would sit out on a little cliff toward dusk and eat something good they had brought along, and fight the mosquitoes while they waited for a bite. From time to time they would yell, and the volume of their voices indicated to Erling how much of a catch they had made.
He did not stay at the farm as long as he had intended, even though, as Steingrim had said, it was a nice place. He felt compelled to leave by happenings that did not concern him and in which he played no part. But he had never been able to keep other people's lives outside his consciousness when gross behavior was involved. What happened was that someone else's brutality opened up scars of old pain-centers from a time when his own life was one long ugly squabble. He could not brush aside other people's troubles by saying they didn't concern him, because they did concern him in the same way as an unpleasant odor must concern him.
What drove him from the farm appeared in bolder relief for having begun with the attractive sight of two human beings falling in love; it put him in a pleasant mood without involving him, in the same way as a beautiful morning might do, or very rarely some letter, or a bottle of cool wine on a summer veranda. Then a third person broke in with her disgusting lust for destruction. He could not take it, he had to leave the following day. Mrs. Larsen stared in disbelief: "But you said yesterday you felt at home here?" "Yes," said Erling, "that was yesterday—but today I must leave." He noticed by her look that a complicated problem had been raised—he had paid for another week, did he really expect to get his money back?
And she had remained disturbed until the very moment he had left with the bus. Probably though, she had been most upset because he had not given her the opportunity to use all the arguments which had kept [p. 73] her awake through the night: that she was not to be blamed because he was leaving; because, because, because. She was standing there bursting with all this. Erling felt it was good for her that he had caused her so much worry; he would not have accepted a refund anyway, and to him it was cheapest to leave at once when his peace was gone. Yet, sitting in the bus it had annoyed him that he had been interested in the fact that he had had a right to demand a refund.
Infamous lust for destruction, he had thought, summed up what had happened, but he was always more interested in what an act was, and what had caused it, than in the name it had. To say that a man's name was Lauris Berg did not describe him; it was the content within him that must be examined. From early youth Erling had gathered striking examples of what was hidden beneath words—words that had been heaped over him like burning tar, and might explain the one who had heaped them, and also something about the victim. Erling's mind was busy with this fifty-year-old farmwife, wondering where her lust for destruction had had its source.
On the farm there was a girl named Mary, a charming creature about seventeen, whom Erling barely had noticed in the beginning. If anyone had asked him what she looked like he could only have said that she was a girl with freckles. He had often read that girls with freckles were supposed to be particularly desirable, but he thought this must be a literary convention akin to the old "damask cheek." He could see nothing exceptionally attractive in freckles, but he knew also that when a young man fell in love, everything about the girl was first class, and he could well imagine the discoverer's exclamations of joy over the freckles. He had also heard about the attraction of a cross-eyed girl, but as far as he knew the time had not yet come to sing about the girl with warts.
He paid little attention to Mary, or indeed, to anyone. But then one day the electrician came. Erling happened to be out in the yard when he drove up in a dilapidated old car; it squeaked like an angry bird and stank of gasoline. Alm was a young electrician, very energetic, and started at once to pull out wires and tools from his car while he whistled and talked to himself. He looked to be about twenty and wasn't still for a moment.
Things didn't start too well; Mrs. Larsen came out and said it wasn't convenient for him to work just then because her husband had gone to bed for his midday rest. Young Alm sat down on the stoop and said he didn't care, he was paid by the hour. Mrs. Larsen gave the young man one quick look and decided Mr. Larsen must get out of bed. But her cheeks had colored a little.[p. 74]
While Mrs. Larsen went to fetch her husband, young Alm discovered Mary in the kitchen window and started to make eyes at her. She laughed, and clattered with her dishes, and he saw that she was good-looking.
Alm was to stay at the farm until his work was finished. Already that same evening he took off into the countryside in his rattling car, Mary at his side; he was a man of action. During the day Erling had seen him string wires across the yard, hanging like a fly on the outside wall, using more arms and hands than a person has and not letting them get in the way of each other. There was something stimulating in watching a young man, in action as lively and agile as an otter. With the same resolution he had put Mary in his car and driven off, for now action was called for.
During the following day the electrician again whistled while he worked, and Mary walked about with that introspective smile which indicates a young woman has withdrawn into herself to meditate over an electrician. In the evening Erling saw them near his cottage. They were sitting close together on a stone, looking out over the lake.
Mrs. Larsen had not retired from the world. Nor did she even manage to appear polite while Erling was present; she shoved the china at him as if they were married. The day after he had seen the young couple on the stone, Mrs. Larsen picked up a dirty wash rag and hit Mary with it across the face. It came without warning; not a word had been said. The girl stumbled backward against the wall and stared in consternation at Mrs. Larsen who was spewing a salvo of abuse. Erling was alone with them in the kitchen and could think of nothing better to do than to go. He could work no more in that place and he decided to leave. He never learned what happened to Mary and her electrician.
Copyright © 1958 by H. Aschehoug & Co., Oslo, Norway. Used by permission. English translation copyright © 1966 The Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System. All rights reserved. Use of this material falling outside the purview of "fair use" requires the permission of the University of Wisconsin Press.
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