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The Literature Collection

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

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The sneer

Like any sensible person, Erling of course pretended to be ignorant of all the gossip that had blossomed around him. His position was strengthened by the fact that actually he didn't care. To him it was indisputably evident that all this curiosity was nothing but a form of legalized perversion—in other words exactly as much of the "peeker's" form of sex as men had dared let loose on the legal market as virtue, because it was so prevalent. It did not change the fact that it was and remained vicarious eroticism. Sex is too old and too familiar to be sensationalized beyond the degree to which it is your own sensation. Disgust is a protective coloring with a tendency to turn red. Indifference is the token of those who pursue quite different practices. No one is interested in people with inclinations one doesn't understand, and the criminal code is the law-makers' confessional.

Neither Erling nor the Venhaug people could say they had anything to complain about; they had come off easily if one considers the way "peekers" are wont to classify their targets. On the one hand the situation had not been kept sufficiently covered up by the sinners, and this took away a good deal of the glamor. On the other hand, Erling was independent; perhaps less from a financial point of view than due to the fact that he had learned, in younger days, to fight his private wars of survival, many of which he had won. At Venhaug there was money, and a human superiority that was confounding. Sinning was not imagined thus. When people were well dressed, could handle a large estate, and had money in the bank, sin seemed surprisingly attractive. One could almost believe it was justified. People in the neighborhood had at length chosen a middle road: probably there was no truth in the stories.

  [p. 88]  

And there was so much else. Jan was dangerous, although no one was exactly clear about how or why, but it was a fact. Felicia had won because she felt that good neighbors are essential in the country. She would always show up when something was wrong, sickness or the like, and then she would actually do something. The farmers' sure instinct for such things had recognized that, whatever else, Jan Venhaug's rich wife was not pretentious or phony. That writing man who visited with them had been lucky, too. One of the first times he was at Venhaug, he and Aunt Gustava had had a drinking bout in her little cottage; they had sung and carried on till late into the night, and in the morning there had been a man's hat hanging on the top of her little flagpole. That wasn't too good, no, it wasn't, but people would laugh to themselves when they happened to remember the sight of old Aunt Gustava hugging Erling at sunrise while they were taking a morning walk on wobbly legs down the village road.

Erling was, in fact, more exposed than they were at Venhaug, but he had never let anyone see through his coat of mail. Many attempts had been made to get him to reveal himself, all in vain, and by now people knew they had better be careful. As is usual in such cases, only his real friends refrained from making any reference to the situation. Oddly enough, the most stupid incident he remembered best of all. A few years ago, about Christmas time, he had been in Oslo and planned to go to Venhaug for the holidays as was his custom. He had the ticket in his pocket and would leave in the morning. In the middle of the morning he went to the Theater Café; walking through the restaurant he noticed Elias Tolne at a table but hoped he hadn't been recognized. (He wasn't that lucky!) Tolne was one of those vague characters who float about in the periphery of everything that has to do with literature, theater, films, and such, but have no definite connection with any of it. When Tolne spoke of well-known personalities he always used first names—Sigurd, Herman, Arnulf, Helge, Tarjei; or, it was my friend Ragnhild, Ase, Thordis, Agnes; this one had said that, and that one had said so and so, but usually it was Elias Tolne who had said it. If he managed to squeeze in at some table where his "dear friends" were sitting, it became rather embarrassing when they asked what his name might be. When Erling had ordered his lunch, and a drink to while away time until the food was served, he saw Elias Tolne approach his table. Erling was civil at least to the extent of answering questions with a grudging yes or no, and though Tolne wasn't sure of himself he nevertheless pulled up a chair. Erling looked away. Tolne kept talking nervously about his writing. As   [p. 89]   far as Erling knew the man might at one time have had a book published and he could understand the little tragedy with Tolne: he had assumed, as do so many writers, that a book meant fame. That the author as well as the book could be forgotten within a few weeks, in spite of fine reviews, was something Erling too had learned with bitter surprise—like Elias Tolne. The difference was only that Tolne, like hundreds of forgotten ones, had been unable to digest the fact that anything could turn out so directly opposite to his expectations. An author was an author, wasn't he? He had become what is called a misunderstood genius, and what really kills such a person is his deep feeling that he is the victim of some incomprehensible injustice. He cannot see that the dream was a dream only. Beside this, Elias Tolne displayed only too clearly the very common "father-relationship" to his publisher—Father had not made the dream come true, Father hadn't been understanding, hadn't been good. The publisher can be a much better feather in the hat than the book when the author is able to say my publisher. It is like honey on the tongue, and if the author has a book thrown back at him he keeps silent about it and has the same feeling concerning it, as if he had been caught exhibiting himself, or stealing a lamp shade. Actually nothing has happened, there is no law that says publishers are always right; nevertheless violence has been committed against the beautiful picture of the author and my publisher, those two who ought to be seen dining together at a corner window, exchanging great and wise words with meaningful countenances. No one any longer had faith in Elias Tolne, and he had taken on the bragging obsequiousness of the failure who can no longer conceal from himself that everyone is avoiding him—because no one enjoys inhaling the stale smoke of defeat and the crushed one's insidious envy. One ought to forgive, overlook, it sounds convincing, it is right; but right also it is that one gets completely fagged listening to the failure's complaints and would rather be some other place.

Elias Tolne was talking about himself, about all the injustice; he spoke as the fallen one often does from his fringe position—banalities one couldn't answer without feeling silly: Have you seen Sigurd recently? Is it true about Arthur? The other day I ran into Fostervoll. (Well! one with a last name!) I hear Johan is writing a new play.

Erling looked up and said, "I live in the country—to tell you the truth, I don't know any of those people. Well, of course I know Fostervoll."

Tolne scowled at Erling: "You mean to say you don't know Johan Borgen?" he said.

  [p. 90]  

"Well, yes, I do know Borgen."

"Have you seen him lately?"

What was there in one's personality that prevented one from saying: Please, why don't you disappear! I want to be left in peace, you silly ass!

Elias Tolne returned to his own writing. It hadn't dawned on the radio people that he made his living writing; couldn't someone give them a hint?

Erling drew back.

Tolne continued: Some writers simply were excluded from the radio; the Authors' League ought to take it up; demand a certain, just allotment among writers when it came to reading and such. And again he jabbered on about personal persecution.

The food arrived. "Get me a glass of beer," said Tolne to the waiter.

"Well, it isn't quite convenient," Erling finally managed to say. "I'm waiting for somebody."

The waiter disappeared. Erling was boning his fish and noticed with irritation that his hand trembled. He avoided looking at Tolne.

"Whom are you waiting for?"

Erling did not answer.

After a while: "May I treat you to a schnapps with your codfish?"

"No, thank you."

"Have you become a teetotaler?"

The bald insinuation made Erling boil. This type of wit was Tolne's specialty; the intention was to make Erling smile and say something. But he refused to comment on his present alcoholic habits. There was a long silence. At last Tolne said, "The other fellows just asked me to find out something from you."

He named them; they would spend Christmas in a cottage at Rauland and had laid in quantities of liquor. "Are you joining us?"

"I'm busy."

"Busy with what?"

Erling stared at Tolne and stopped eating for a moment. Why get angry? There was nothing strange or unusual in the situation; when he hadn't at once taken the bull by the horns and told the man to leave, it had to go this way. He thought over what had been said; just small talk, except he hadn't been able to stop it in time.

Elias Tolne was wondering what the change in attitude might mean and chose the explanation that suited him best—that Erling was thawing out a little. "Where are you going?" he asked.

  [p. 91]  

Erling replied calmly: "To a few friends near Kongsberg."

The sneer came at once. Tolne leaned forward over the table; he seemed to slobber as he said to his dear friend Erling: "Ah—you're going to Venhaug?"

Tolne did not realize he had been permitted an experiment and that the victim was pleased with the result. Erling only looked at him and did not move a muscle. Tolne's eyes started to flutter about, he must have said something that was a mistake, perhaps it wasn't the thing to do to talk about women with Erling? But then his courage returned: "Why don't you call long-distance and tell them you can't come!"

Erling stared at him still for a moment before he resumed eating. He felt the impotent hatred that radiated from Tolne—how stupid it would be to snub somebody who would spread it everywhere. Erling shook his head slowly, giving up without knowing it himself. When he finally had got rid of the man he called the waiter and ordered two schnapps, while Tolne still could hear him. There was a jerk in Tolne's neck muscles.

A sneer had something special about it. Most people lived to regret they had sneered. Not so many years ago they had sneered because he had a child with a street-walker. That time too they soon wished they hadn't sneered. They didn't say so; they said it was fine of him to take care of his daughter and place her at Venhaug. A handsome admission, but with flaws—even while they had sneered he had taken care of his daughter the best he could, that was why they had sneered. Furthermore, they had sneered because he had given the daughter his name, she was known as Julie Vik. Now that too was a feat. As a general rule, it was utterly amazing how it reflected credit on everything one did if, gradually, enough people came to remark over their beers: "I saw Erling yesterday, by the way. A hell of a fine fellow!"

Julie's mother was called Margrete, a street-girl who happened to land as helper in a farm home. There she met Erling, who had rented a cottage in the neighborhood. Julie had never lived with her mother but had been kept for pay in various homes. Erling had managed to find a new home for her several times when he suspected she was unhappy. One day, in December 1948, Felicia had unexpectedly met him and Julie when they were out walking; he was saying good-by to her before leaving for the Canary Islands. Felicia had not known about Julie. It turned out to be an afternoon with much suspense in the air; Felicia was quick to put together and figure out many things she would rather have left untouched: Julie was about thirteen and a half years old, and when Felicia heard this she asked immediately about her birthday. Julie   [p. 92]   mentioned it automatically, in a toneless voice, the way she spoke in those days, and Felicia looked abstractedly at Erling, while she figured out he had fathered Julie at exactly the same time he had turned his back on her, as completely as if she never had existed. He could read the deduction in her look, and she knew he noticed it, but it was never mentioned. The following day she took Julie with her to Venhaug and there she had stayed. The strangely empty and joyless side of Julie had long ago disappeared. In much she had become a copy of her admired friend Felicia, but had been strong enough to maintain her own personality, which broke through now that she was approaching her twenty-third year. Yet, always a shadow over all, the shadow over Julie—

One might have predicted she would be the problem child at Venhaug. There were so many things one might have predicted.

Felicia was heaping coals of fire upon his head, as if this were her favorite sport.

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