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The Literature Collection

Sandemose, Aksel, 1899-1965 / The werewolf; Varulven (1966)

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Put a chastity belt around your thoughts

One time—it had been thirty-four years ago—he was asked to call on a publisher who had one of his manuscripts. It could mean only one thing.

Erling sat paralyzed in a chair facing this One-of-the-World's-Mighty, who was leafing through the manuscript which had cost him sixty kroner for a final typing but had an abundance of the most amazing mistakes which Erling had corrected in ink, leaving the end product as much in handwriting as in typed script. The man was turning the pages, coughing. "Look!" he said, and turned his eyes on Erling. He coughed again: "Look here!"

Erling leaned over and looked.

"It must be a somewhat misguided radicalism, Mr. Vik, to write a word you would never dream of saying?"

Erling had turned red, flustered. The publisher had found a substitute for the ugly word Erling had used many times a day for as long as he could remember. He realized fully that he was uneducated, but not that he had so far to go on the road of true learning. He did not protest. The man was looking over a list from his catch of words and obliterated the rest of the vermin without further comment. Erling thought he had been careful, had indeed himself used the fly-swatter before he had sent in the work.

The publisher arranged the sheets in a neat pile and folded his hands on top of the manuscript as if he intended to pray. The story lacked feeling, he said. "The author's heart is missing."

Erling listened, but the words were at the moment completely without meaning; would he publish the book, or wouldn't he?

When it became clear that he would publish the book, Erling did not   [p. 82]   hear another word. He could not remember to this day whether or not he had said anything.

He had never thought of smiling at the publisher's remark that his heart was missing. It only filled him with shame and fury, when he calmed down again after the publication-announcement and was able to think—and this had taken time. The happy fact remained that his book would come out. No world war, no love affair, no joy or misfortune had stirred him so deeply as this announcement; for this they could keep all the world's riches, and the earth might blow up for all he cared.

Until then his existence had been miserable, a sort of balance-arm with weights that could not be controlled.

As to that remark about the heart—the author's heart! It had struck at his deep fear that he might remain eternally in stupidity and lack of knowledge; it had been an exhortation to throw himself to the dogs. He had quite well understood it wasn't his particular heart that was in question—the publisher didn't give a damn about that—no, this was a collective heart they were fishing for, a feeling heart, well, you know what kind of heart.

And then the heart was not referred to again. More emphasis was given to what was more important, to that improper word he hadn't thought of as improper, a word used daily, which might even be seen in a newspaper. Erling turned the ridiculous remark into a symbol—not from some taboo word which by the way he never found opportunity to use, rather for what he later expressed by saying, "A distinguished author must put a chastity belt around his thoughts."

"It must be a somewhat misguided radicalism, Mr. Vik, to write a word you would never dream of saying?"

Every time he had felt himself weaken, those words rose before his inner eye in tall, black letters.

What did the publisher mean?

He could not have referred to foul words, of which there were none in his manuscript.

It was a warning against the use of words in general.

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