An approximate nothing
Erling had started to help Julie and Felicia with the currants, and he said: "You ought to put a bottle of wine on the table."
She stripped the berries from the stalk in her hand and looked at him, only looked; her eyes said nothing. "Why not," she said, finally, and brushed some rubbish from her fingers. She looked at the clock as she rose, and returned with a bottle and four glasses (but Julie didn't want any). She looked again at the clock. "You were correct the first time," he thought, "I know it's early in the day"—and then their eyes met.
Erling was rather irregular in his shaving habits (if Felicia mentioned again that he should move to Venhaug he would remind her that he never shaved during a work-period). More or less jokingly Felicia used to say that she took it as a signal for the evening when he turned up newly shaved (all women know why, the famous actress had said, with a charming, mysterious smile). She had hinted she took it as an exactly opposite signal when he one day had said he wanted something to drink. Another time she had quoted Viktor Rydberg's veiled remark that Bacchus had no children. Erling had wondered what she might offer this time, and he had hoped it would be white wine, or their own hard cider, but it was sherry, and he knew it meant as much as: Have it your way—empty the bottle!
He poured, raised his glass to them, and sipped. Jan also took a drop and walked on with the glass in his hand. Erling drank half of his glass, picked it up again immediately and emptied it.
Felicia picked up a handful of currants and hummed to herself:
I got myself a hobby-horse,
His name was Abilgray,
A straw sheaf was his head,
His tail was made of hay.
"Drink, Erling!" she said in the same tone of voice, and started another verse.
Jan put down his glass somewhere and each time he passed the place he discovered it, equally surprised. "It's great to have a glass of wine on a Sunday morning," he observed. "It goes with the morning concert."
Gudny and Elisabet appeared like a gust of wind, slammed the door and brought with them a cat and a dog they were jabbering something [p. 118] about; they had stopped a fight, it seemed, and it was hard to understand them when they finally spoke of their errand—to remind Jan he had promised them and their friends a ride in the car. They forgot about both dog and cat, and when the latter tried to hide behind the wood near the hearth but found the place too narrow it attempted to escape through the chimney. Felicia managed to throw out the dog, scolding all the while; and then the cat, which didn't belong at Venhaug, jumped through a windowpane and was gone. It surprised Erling every time he heard the twelve-year-old Gudny imitate Felicia's voice. The two similar voices were now scolding each other. "Stop that circus!" said Jan, annoyed; he had fetched a broom and a dustpan to clean up the shattered glass. "Get out, brats! And keep the animals outside—I'll be with you in a moment." "Such foolishness," he kept muttering to himself when they had run outside, their voices mixing with the others. "Drag in a cat and a dog to tell us they'll fight. I'll fix the window later, Felicia, I think I have the right pane. Such brats—they should have a good spanking!"
Jan's standing expression was that they should have a spanking. This he had from his father, Felicia had said; he didn't spank anyone either but said one ought to; Jan was strong for traditions.
Elisabet had been five months old when Erling had seen her for the first time in 1950. He wasn't sure where to place babies in their first stages; but since they didn't bother him, neither would he bother them. He might sit and watch babies for long intervals, but didn't think much about them; it was like looking at a bird nest, or the nest of field mice, and drinking in the life-warmth through his eyes; but what he actually looked for was that something in babies that made women jabber in chorus and go on like parrots in the jungle. Indeed, a baby was something especial. Someone had to defend a being that couldn't fight for itself. He would do it himself if need be. But it concerned mostly the mother. One must be careful that this valuable belonging of hers came to no harm, for if it did she would be quite wretched and not easy to deal with. And one should consider too that soon that little bundle would be a human being one might have contact with. Better wait and see; there was no contact with a baby. This was a notion only women fell for and they did so loudly enough. An unborn child was dead silent. After it was born it started to cry. Otherwise no perceptible difference. It was lucky a foetus didn't cry, like a chick in an egg. It might not have been so strange if, as a general rule, unborn babies cried when the mother was careless. It was wrong of people to accept everything as obvious; it robbed them of much joy. The moon and its peculiar passage across the heavens would have struck them dumb if it had appeared for the first [p. 119] time the day before yesterday. What made the difference was that it had been there so long; now it was only the moon. What was remarkable about it? Well, there was much quite remarkable about the moon, but never mind since they couldn't see it.
That time, in 1950, Erling had been interested in Gudny, as he had been before he left for the Canary Islands. She was between five and six when he returned, and had the same big, round owl-eyes. Already she had started to imitate the speech of others, but this she had not perfected until she was about nine or ten. Gudny had sometimes made him uncomfortable while she still was only three. Now, at twelve, her owl-eyes could penetrate right through him. When looking up he might meet her eyes, and they continued to search him unabashedly. It was not an unfriendly look, but he had reacted to it more or less the same way since she was quite little. It was as though he possessed a knowledge others didn't have and which she wished to have eventually.
Elisabet was now seven and went to school also. She resembled Jan but had all Felicia's restlessness. A young monkey, as it were, throwing herself from branch to branch while the old ones sat steady, calmly blinking at the sun and peeling their bananas in peace. Big sister Gudny had from birth been a calm child, dignified as a highly placed mandarin, but it was only a bluff. She had got her looks from both parents—and an ability to imitate both them and others that could make one speechless. She need only observe a person for a few minutes to reproduce a picture of the whole personality. Some people refused to say a word when she was present, but then she would take her revenge in a mimicking portrayal with nasty overtones. In school she was feared and even became the teacher's great concern; he had spoken to Jan about her, complaining that he couldn't turn his back on her before the whole class was in hysterical laughter, and however quickly he turned toward her, there Gudny was sitting as serious and innocent as ever. She could without the slightest effort imitate any dialect or tone of voice she chose. The delicate strokes by which she underlined people's little peculiarities were like the sting of a red-hot needle to some. In her way she was a friendly child, and quite obviously in love with her father. She had a certain weakness for Erling, too, but could torture him so with her caricatures that only with great effort could he control his anger. With Felicia she could be completely merciless, but was unhappy if she thought she had hurt anyone.
It is said that a person doesn't know much about his own voice, or has only mistaken notions about it, because the echo in the skull, along with other disturbances, interferes with the function of the hearing organs. [p. 120] Thus most people are surprised when they hear their own voice recorded. Erling had begun to wonder, however, what were the facts in the case, when Gudny could speak with any number of voices, thousands theoretically. The imitating of other voices must cause as great an echo in her skull as her own voice did.
Gudny had assumed power with this art of hers. If she wanted to get her way, irritate, or insinuate herself, it was usually enough to answer others in their own voice. But if this wasn't enough she used a third person. With Felicia she invariably used Jan's soft, slow dialect. Or she might call from another room in Erling's hoarse voice: "For God's sake, Felicia! Give her what she wants so we may have peace!" "You mustn't do that!" said Felicia, angrily. "That's forgery!" Julie she had taken under her special protection: "For she is made so that she can't get even," said Gudny. "That sort of people one mustn't tease."
"Tell me, Gudny," said Erling one time, "are you quite sure it is your voice you are using when you believe it is yours?"
It had been one of those moments when Gudny could become so strangely soft. She threw her arms around his neck and replied unexpectedly: "How do you think I can stop a thing like that? I would like to so much."
"You mean you cannot?" he asked, as much surprised that she wanted to, as that she couldn't.
"No, I cannot stop it, and I think it is silly. I would prefer to be Gudny only."
Erling hadn't known what to say, but it struck him that Gudny was not alone in doing something she didn't like, and never stopped doing just that. It had seemed to him Gudny felt lost when she crept into someone else's skin. "I would prefer to be Gudny only." Was she too, afraid of losing her identity? Lose it forever if she didn't take care? Was what one called personality perhaps not so securely anchored as one was inclined to believe? It was possible that behind such an opinion hovered a suspicion that one never had had any identity or personality, that one lived in an illusion, a swindle. He might feel as if he didn't exist at all, never had existed except as a bluff for a bluff, a sort of mirror-room of bluffs that mirrored bluffs and more bluffs, a fateful formation that functioned somewhere in nothing, zeros following zeros, a nothing that bred nothing and never ceased to breed nothing, an industrious, laboring, untiring nothing which could lead only to nothing and one day dissolve into another nothing. A delusion, an unreality held together by another unreality, something that was life's beginning and its dissolution, something that had not the ability to die, but could easily disappear, and [p. 121] people would remark: What became of him? It might seem to them he hadn't been there at all, and those who thought they had known him might, from shame, keep quiet about it, or say: It was just a story I told, and you must have been very gullible not to check in the records whether he actually had been there. Hadn't it always bothered Erling that his base was something that approximated a zero? Hadn't his life been peopled with beings he only had brushed against in the periphery of his Nothing? Didn't names daily pop up which he had heard third- or fourth-hand—a carpenter on Therese Street, or a sailor in Horten, he had only heard the names, but now the names appeared with great agony, and he could think of the unknown persons for days—
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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