Et tu, friend Steingrim
Erling caught sight of his own name and read:
"It turned out all right, even though it was wrong of Eyvind Brekke to choose Erling as a messenger. That time, in early 1941, Erling was on the way to becoming an alcoholic, and several times he seemed to be on the verge of delirium tremens. Besides, one could say he suffered seizures in trying to tear himself away from Ellen; he both wanted to, and not. They were like a pair of Siamese twins, torn by a mutual and unquenchable hatred, yet unable to find anyone to swing the axe. When they were separated from each other in Sweden both of them submerged in a pool of blood, partly their own, partly their antagonist's. These were the sorts of things that occupied us in Stockholm; when I got to London I discovered on the first day that they busied themselves with similar matters there. Erling told me he had planned three books about the same [p. 186] people; the first volume how things worked out for them the first dozen years after the war, the second about Norwegians in Stockholm, the third about love, politics, and liquor in Oslo up to the day when the Germans came and usurped at least the politics and the liquor. I told Erling I did not intend to read those books, if they were ever written, for no writer could do it without putting his own light under the bushel, and this is not done among authors. If one put twelve writers to work on the same subject in order to obtain a full picture, and each one wrote his work alone, they would only agree on two points, namely that twelve foreign cities would all be called Stockholm, and that each one of the writers would have personally and single handedly won the war.
"Well, I told Eyvind Brekke he had made the wrong choice and it would turn out badly. A person who was an artist in so high a degree, and in so high a degree had an artist's temperament, was always in the midst of a private war, and furthermore Erling hated the Germans more than anyone else I had met; such a person would have been the last one I would have suggested for this mission. 'The man is my friend,' I said, 'but that doesn't matter; I know you cannot trust an alcoholic, and Erling Vik is one now. One can't say if he can ever get over it.'
"Eyvind Brekke said he had never seen Erling drunk, something that didn't surprise me, knowing that Brekke went to bed at nine sharp every evening.
"'It doesn't matter when I go to bed,' replied Brekke, 'for an alcoholic is never sober at six either.'
"I reminded Eyvind Brekke that Erling Vik had a wife. She must be noticed, that was her vice. Anything she heard would be carried further, 'in confidence.'
"'True enough,' said Brekke, 'but Erling knows that better than either one of us.'
"I mentioned again Erling's hatred of the Germans, which was well known long before Hitler came to power. 'Hitler will come to power,' he had said, 'otherwise the Germans are no longer Germans.'
"Brekke said Erling of today was no worse a Fritz-eater than thousands of others. 'But I can see your point,' he said. 'It's not in our favor that one of our group is known to hate the Germans. However, exceptions can be useful too; I have need of someone with a hatred that is old and tested and genuine.'
"I tried to bring up Ellen again, and said I wouldn't have taken the chance.
"What Brekke now said made me give in, but I was not convinced: 'You must realize, Hagen, I've taken all these matters into consideration. [p. 187] If Erling Vik divulged anything to his wife, it would indeed be a serious matter. People of her kind are worse than a dozen informers; they do not intend harm, it's only they never shut up, and this must be taken into account. People of her sort—and this holds true of men also—are the most dangerous ones, until the mate discovers we are at war. Erling knows this. He tells her nothing. Obviously he is going to put her on the wrong track, and so it is in our favor that she is the one she is. She can actually be useful, she too, just in that way. The informers are Norwegians every one of them. Not a single one who knows Erling will suspect him as long as his wife has nothing to spread about.'
"Eyvind Brekke was right; Erling never revealed himself. Ellen never got wind of anything, not in Sweden either. When I came across the border shortly after him, I hoped he would tell me something of his experiences; he never did. In August, 1945, I told him I had known right along. Then we divulged to each other many circumstances not known to both of us. An immense amount is still in the dark, but it's of little importance now. Indeed, this was true already in '45. Erling did not report an attempt on his life in 1941 when the man later was brought to justice, a bastard called Torvald Ørje who specialized in reporting people he himself wanted out of the way or wanted to see in Grini. This man is free now, like most of his ilk.
"I should have been proven right about Erling, and I feel in some way I am. It was abnormal that he didn't leak information. He had never in his life kept anything to himself. Yet, had I told Eyvind Brekke this, he would have replied: 'This time he will.'
"And Erling who never had kept silent before, did so this time. Brekke told me after the war that Erling actually didn't know too much, but he had many addresses, more than seventy. Most of the names Erling must have forgotten but some it could have been possible to get out of him. Perhaps he kept silent because one lone address didn't sound very exciting. Eyvind Brekke had expressed it in his own way, in a message he managed to smuggle out of Grini; he felt that he himself was doomed, and in any case they had crippled him for life. Yet he had time to think of others. His message went through the city like a joke: 'Send Erling Vik to Sweden at once! Assuredly he knows nothing, but God knows what he might say!'
"It would have had dire consequences if they had managed to get out of him the nothing he knew. Many lives would have been lost, Brekke said.
"Erling had of course known a great deal, and picked up more later. But he was and remained leak-proof. He found himself sitting beside [p. 188] two of the 'names' once in Stockholm, but he didn't let on, and they didn't say anything; it wasn't only our side that sent messages across the border.
"Later, I found it comical that Erling was used as money-courier, he with his eternal shortage of money. That was the poorest war-joke I heard.
"Now everything is so changed. Both he and I have become different since then. Many of my arguments against him have fallen by the wayside. Only one is left, and I never used it against him, for Brekke would hardly have understood it. One must never divulge absolute secrets to a writer; it would be unjust to him. His function is to solve secrets, this is his endowment and it can never be otherwise. He must divulge the secrets in words, as the painter does in color. The writer is a catalyzer, if indeed he is anything. He is no priest who must keep silent concerning what he hears in the confessional. It is easy enough to say he must keep to himself what might hurt others, but his nature is to divulge. Nature always breaks through education. Assuredly it is not the common truth he would divulge, the one they look for in court cases, but nevertheless pieces of the original and ordinary truth-clump might be exposed. What he absorbs with any one of his senses is in his case added to his experience, as it is with other people who can absorb experience, but in the writer's case it also goes into a sort of crucible where it mixes with anything related to it. One day it is worked through and comes to use, and by then he is unable to say where he absorbed it, and what is a personal experience and what isn't. If one confides something to a writer and demands he put it aside in some storeroom to lie there unused and sterile, then one likens him to the man in the Bible parable who buried his talent. One will realize one has asked the impossible.
"'Sometimes I use a model,' Erling told me once, but it isn't good to say so. People in general make no discrimination between model and portrait. I would indeed feel unhappy in practicing portrait-making, which is impossible anyway. Attempts I've seen are terribly stupid; the events might be all right but do not fit the canvas. The picture becomes false. I must tell you something peculiar, Steingrim: those who are afraid of being depicted are not even usable as models. All sterile, useless stuff. And this is true in the same degree with people who want to be written about. Both categories are like the queues of stupid girls who plague film stars. Furthermore: a person who believes he has been used for a portrait is a simpleton; he has never been intended as, cannot even be used as, a type. On the other hand, one actually used as a model might shake his head and say: Well, perhaps some resemblance, but it isn't me. This I [p. 189] will admit, though: I might in the midst of something let my tongue slip and produce a piece of undigested, vulgar truth.'
"It is that piece of 'undigested, vulgar truth' that so easily escapes the writer, and remains hanging in the air, meaningless. I would like to know how often Erling has let his tongue slip purposely. He himself says never.
"The writer must open himself and display everything. Compare as his opposite an official, who resembles his own secret file and is proud of his mask (which makes an impression on people not worthy of being impressed), a face like a locked file, the type which often grows old early, poisoned by the junk he can't bear to part with, even during vacation.
"Now I've almost proved myself wrong, but the writer does want to expose, it is his nature, he easily says things even when he doesn't mean to. He is not the right man to carry secrets when the country is at war. I believe Eyvind Brekke felt that just in this case he could trust Erling for a special reason: Erling must have had a special motive, probably a strong even though somewhat tarnished motive, to keep silent. He has not committed violence against his nature. There was something behind it."
Erling pushed the diary from him, leaned back in his chair and looked out through the window. He recalled his conversation with Eyvind Brekke. Yes, Steingrim, you were sharp; there was an ignoble side-motive in my patriotism.
Brekke had been sitting opposite him across the narrow table, watching Erling. He had said: "No, Vik, it is impossible."
And then, immediately after, coldly, perhaps with a mite of compassion in his eye, "Not with the wife you have."
Erling had looked back without flinching: "I had thought something like that. But if I now say that this very thing is something she has driven me to? Finally to be able once again to do something she knows nothing about, can't spread around and embroider, nothing she can use to make herself important."
Brekke threw him a glance. Then he started to sweep up some bread crumbs with his right hand, gathered them into his left, and then threw them on the table again: "I don't know if I like that motivation, but I believe it might hold."
Erling had thought for a moment that Brekke still was hesitant, but that was only because some people walked close by them. "Keep the address and the time in your head," he said. "Never write down anything unless you absolutely have to—"
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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