On April 9, 1946, Steingrim had written: "I had had many jolts before we were married but it seemed I didn't really wake up to all the dirt until we were legally joined. After the so-called honeymoon we had dinner one evening with cabinet minister Nerbø and his wife. I had become quite interested in a conversation with Nerbø and a few others; we had talked about South American politics. This was quite logical since one of the men had just come back from Peru. Returning home my wife and I didn't speak much; as far as I remember I didn't open my mouth.
"I had observed that a man's criterion as to whether a relationship would last depended on his ability to overlook his sweetheart's first stupidity. Perhaps the opposite is true also. If one is really in love one can easily overlook a faux pas, however great. If one is not, well, then one is through with her the first time she acts silly. This, Viktoria must have done before, undoubtedly, but in everyday life I am not observant of foolishness. This evening I was. Toward the end of the dinner I got into a bad humor because I noticed Viktoria's uneasiness and annoyance; her mouth is so repulsive when she is annoyed. She had acted in a peculiar way the whole evening and before we left she was almost disgusting.
"When we got home I picked up the evening papers. Then I poured a glass of cognac and left the bottle standing on the table; I was in the usual gray mood after a dinner; I had in mind a couple of glasses and then to bed.
"Viktoria was standing at the fireplace and had lit a cigarette. 'If that is supposed to be a cabinet minister's home it isn't what I would call exactly elegant!' she blurted out.
"I looked at her over the paper. I had long been aware that in one point I must be patient with her as long as we were married (at that time I didn't think exactly of 'as long as we were married'). It wasn't only her paucity of words; the few she had she could use in a most disturbing manner. As for example now, when she said the hosts' home wasn't exactly elegant. It was not impossible that she meant they lived like Spartans or something of that sort. But by starting with 'if that's supposed to be a cabinet minister's home' she indicated to me that this time, fortunately, she had managed to express what she meant. She had expected elegance from a minister, whatever she meant by elegance (I [p. 196] visualized the worst). Twelve rooms, each one an antique shop, or even worse. Without realizing it she had been a guest in a home.
"'And me going there in this dress,' she said and threw her cigarette into the fireplace (which I was not allowed to do). 'I might as well have worn something casual.'
"We had been eight at dinner, all in evening clothes, although the men had worn only tuxedos. That must be it, then: there hadn't been a hundred guests, silver service and crystal glasses and God knows what else Viktoria might have read and imagined constituted a luxury home. How will this work out? I thought to myself. She is furious. Doesn't she realize she might have to revise her preconceived ideas; if this does not strike home with her when she comes eye to eye with reality, then there is no hope. I can't begin with her education from the very beginning, and especially not when I realize she is common, a hussy with nothing in her head except cheap movies she has seen.
"I felt, however, I should explain to her that we had been in a home with atmosphere, a place where people felt comfortable.
"Somewhat embarrassed I looked at my paper again; I couldn't make myself say it. If she didn't feel it herself, well, then she didn't. I thought I could in that very moment hear Astrid Nerbø say to her husband: 'Tell me, Johannes, what is it Steingrim has married?'
"Well, I might have brought a girl who had just left her maid's job to marry me. It wasn't that. Astrid Nerbø herself had worked in an office, lived in a rented room where she cooked her food, and had invited both Johannes and me to have tea with her in the old days. Viktoria had a much finer background than Astrid, if one now must talk about such stupid nonsense. Viktoria was a snob of the worst kind, and suddenly I cowered in fear at the thought of what I had got into; Viktoria was furious because she would be unable the following day to tell her girl-friends about Minister Nerbø's elegant dinner party—but she would do it anyway! She would furnish Astrid and Johannes Nerbø with an elegant home. There would be no shortage of embroidered linen, silver and crystal pieces, and orchids, and God knows what dishes she would ruin our stomachs with. I suddenly wondered if her name actually was Viktoria, if she hadn't originally carried a simple, pious name, like Britt, or Anna. No, then she would have had to falsify her papers; and our marriage wouldn't be legal either. Oh Lord, how my imagination played with that thought for a moment! Innocently to have lived in sin, and then be able to pack and walk off, in the name of law and morality.
"It must have been a pure accident, her name. She was proud of the [p. 197] name Viktoria. It means victory, she would say, probably to show she knew at least one foreign word.
"That day we had been married for three weeks. I rose from my chair with the tense self-control that can lead to broken windows. I cursed myself, I had to get out of the house, get some air, move about. I looked at the clock. It wasn't yet eleven. Cabinet ministers have early habits. I mumbled something and remembered I had been drinking: I can't kill her while drunk, I must wait till tomorrow.
"Viktoria sneered: 'A minister ought at least to think of his prestige!'
"I noticed her surprised look when I grabbed my coat and hat, still on a chair, and disappeared through the door. It took four months before I moved away from her.
"The following day I was sitting alone at home, working on an article. I felt indisposed and weary and thought nothing was worth the effort. I know everyone feels that way at times, that it is caused from fatigue, or poor digestion. I have not seldom felt that way. I am not what one might call a witty man. Probably I am considered boring, and I can't protest. I kept doodling, and it started to resemble Viktoria's face, I thought. I took a new sheet and tried to draw a picture of her. I'm a poor draftsman and had never before tried my hand at portraits. The result frightened me, I don't know why. Ridiculously enough, I told myself it resembled Viktoria more than she herself did. I suppose I felt I had caught something I knew existed behind the slippery surface. According to common judgment she is better-looking than Felicia, but actually the opposite is true. And then I started to write. I used my finest handwriting, automatically it seemed. I felt my face assume a sneer. Not that I could see my own sneer, but I thought it must resemble the delusion-of-grandeur grin one sees in portraits of old men who have suffered a stroke—the eyes focusing on the nose, one corner of the mouth pulled up, one down, an expression of utter disgust at other people's stupidity. It was about Viktoria I wrote under the picture, and went on for several pages. It was nothing I could have written normally; I felt possessed, not by one but by a whole swarm of evil spirits that hissed and whispered in my ears, they were inside me too, I inhaled them through nose and mouth. Now I would like to have a look at the result. I used a few sheets of paper that just happened to be lying on my desk; I remember the experience as something intimate and yet alien. When I stopped writing I felt better, purged, eased. I drank a little cognac, for liquor carries me on in the same mood I am in. If I'm depressed I become more so if drinking, if happy I get happier. Then I heard her come in. I quickly folded the sheets and pushed them into a book that was next to me.[p. 198]
"This I shouldn't have done; there are always books lying around me and they need not have any connection with my work at hand. Apart from the face I had drawn there was no need of hiding my work. She was never in the least interested in what I was doing; she only asked how much it would bring me, and if it was something I was unable to place she would sulk and say I was no businessman. At first she tried to make me believe she was interested; my mail was searched, and if she was in the house I couldn't send a letter without her having read it. She was suspicious. But she never dreamt of reading any of my boring articles. Politics to her meant stern faces and stuffed shirts, and for once she wasn't far from the truth. 'Why don't you write like others,' she said one day, 'something funny!' I never dared look at her when she made such statements; I felt embarrassed to think others might hear her—which indeed they did.
"I thought I would find what I had written and burn it at first opportunity, but when she was out I couldn't think of the book I had put the sheets in. There was hardly any danger of her opening any of my books—she only used them to stand on when she put up curtains—but it might have been in a novel or a cookbook. I couldn't for the life of me recall what book it had been. I searched for those papers for weeks but I never found them. Every time something was wrong I thought she must have found them."
Erling rose and walked about in the house for a while. He speculated on what Steingrim might have written about his wife—with the illustration—and what he might have looked like as a paralytic—Steingrim with his locked, and sensible face, Steingrim who left this world silent and closed as he had lived.
Gifted men, it seemed, often had the most disappointing experiences with women, before they discovered quality. They were looking for women above the average, but encountered in youth so much nonsense-talk that they easily might become afraid of women. One is inclined to generalization, and a young man meeting a hare-brained thing a few times might get the notion all women are chicken-brained. His upbringing has already sown suspicion that she is a lower being, on a level with stimulants one can buy from the druggist with a prescription, or perhaps directly from the liquor store. So it follows as an unworthy reaction that a man ties himself up with a chicken-brain for good; he has reached that stage by believing one must have a woman to sleep with at night, which might be true to a degree, but only to a degree. And then it is written by that light-extinguisher in Christianity, the one who came in through the back door after Jesus' death, yet managed to become one of the apostles, [p. 199] that it is better to marry than to burn. Marriage as a one-man whorehouse.
The trouble with gifted men might originally have been that they were afraid gifted women would be too difficult. Thus, fearing difficulties, they create for themselves a stinking hell, and if the woman still isn't sufficiently inferior, they tyrannize her until she breaks or leaves—sometimes through a window.
Erling stood looking at the wilderness garden he had behind the house. This lush, planless growth was a rest to the eye. Autumn was approaching. Jan is right, he thought. One must not swear at weather or wind or seasons but rather enjoy them. It was only a bad habit, according to Jan; one could get over it in a week, as he had done. All weathers were good, and if you didn't accept them you ruined your disposition.
Jan defended all weathers. "It blows wonderfully today!" he would exclaim, when all the apples dropped to the ground. "What a nice rain we're having!" "You should have seen it when the snow broke through the old barnhouse roof!" he would say, almost appreciatively. "The spring flood carried away the road behind the servants' quarters—it was a most dramatic sight!" "We had an exceptionally nice thunderstorm last night!" He almost purred when he had to get out and shovel snow.
Erling turned about and looked at his bookcases. He was still a little groggy from last night's lonely feast, and the hang-over must be checked. His eyes fell on a book that had been returned after Steingrim's death.
And it would never have entered his head, except for his hang-over, but now he walked across the floor, took down the book from its shelf and let the leaves play against his thumb. There was nothing between them. He emptied another glass but the thought would not leave him: what Steingrim had written might just as well be in any of the books he had borrowed. Erling pulled out all the books again and laid them in a pile. A few minutes later he had the sheets in his hand.
The face at the top of the first sheet was definitely not a good drawing, but anyone familiar with the artist and the model was unable to take his eyes away from it. It was a narrow, nasty face, quite unlike Viktoria's, yet one of those strange creations which a great artist can effectuate with his insinuating lines. It was amazingly like Viktoria; it was a picture of her warped and evil soul. Sharp eyes one couldn't get away from, a venomous face. Erling could not look at it while reading; he folded the sheet to escape the sight of it.
When he was through reading he put the sheets down and shook his head slowly several times. He must reject the thought that Steingrim had written this nonsense while drunk. His handwriting was the usual [p. 200] one, perhaps with a few minor deviations, but neat and cold as ever. Steingrim would undoubtedly have blushed had he found his work and read it. Erling inspected it once more. It was and remained drunken nonsense, yet written by a sober person. It was something a drunkard might orate about, thinking he was funny. Or cuttingly sarcastic. Four parentheses with ha! ha! without the text being particularly ha! ha! Some speculation about selling Viktoria at a slave market. Later, to a day-laborer who might beat her for money so that the viewers could hear how loud she was able to yell (ha! ha!). A few disconnected sentences about a new dress (ha! ha!).
Erling felt depressed; he rose and walked about in the room. Had Steingrim had an attack of insanity before he took his life, and had he realized it?
Suddenly Erling understood how it was; when Steingrim was tired but wanted to finish some work, he would take an amphetamine tablet. This pathological manifestation tallied exactly with an overdose of amphetamine. The same was true of the impression Steingrim later had retained of his work as being remarkable. Viktoria would have recognized nothing except her name. She had actually said once, it would be exciting to be sold at a slave market. Vera Arndt had spoken up and asked what made her so sure she would be sold?
Erling cut out the drawing and threw the rest in the fireplace. Then he sat down and studied the inhuman face Steingrim had created in his hatred; she who had become Steingrim's fate, she who finally found lovers when Steingrim had left her, but never friends. She picked up common, curious men who thought she must be something remarkable to have been married to Steingrim Hagen, but they soon were disappointed.
Steingrim had left her before the Germans came to Norway. "There goes the one who was married to Steingrim Hagen," people would say. They knew very well she was not divorced but it was easier to think of the marriage as being dissolved. She was one of those not unusual cases of a woman acquiring an incontestable though unclear position, through no qualification of her own, after she is put in the limelight by a Steingrim Hagen. And she had not delayed in following him to Sweden when she learned he was there. "It's terribly dangerous for me to remain, I who am married to Steingrim Hagen."
She said the same thing unabashed to the official who interrogated her at Kjesäter where the Norwegian authorities sorted the refugees. Steingrim's lawyer kept pointing out to her for years the immorality of hanging on to a man who couldn't endure the sight of her.[p. 201]
"A man can't just walk off like that," replied Viktoria.
Erling poured himself another glass to regulate his hang-over, and wondered where he might have put the letter he received long ago from Viktoria. She had sent it in 1946 (to his great annoyance), years after Steingrim had left her, and after a five-year world-upheaval. As a rule he did not save such letters, but this he had kept because it came from Steingrim's legal half. At last he found it. Well, it was eleven years old now, written nine long years after her conjugal life with Steingrim had come to an end. He scanned the pages, he had not the strength to read all of it.
"Why must I feel ashamed and uncomfortable?" Viktoria had written. "You always make me feel ashamed, but I have nothing to be ashamed of. I can do everything better than others. I do my duty and I am always well dressed. I don't owe anybody anything. So why do people look at me so funny as soon as I open my mouth? Birgit won't answer me. That witch Felicia begins to tremble at the corner of her mouth. Steingrim hates me, but a man can't just leave the way he did. He said I was a pervert, but I had read in books one could do that. It said also men had need of it. And no one can take my husband away from me. There is only one thing he can do if he is decent—he must come back to me at once. I need some money. I do earn some myself but when he has to pay to live somewhere else he might as well live with me. And I don't like him to pay money to others. They say he wouldn't have to pay if he sued but when he doesn't, well. Perhaps he doesn't want a divorce. It would be so ugly here if I didn't have all his fine books; why couldn't he sit here and read them since he is my husband? I don't know what people will think; I walk up and greet them in all friendliness and they just turn around. I act as one should act but they are all against me. I understand why the girls hate me, because I'm the most beautiful among them. All their men-friends have said so themselves. Yet they turn up their noses. And look at yourself—you ran away from Ellen once. You had to come back to her when she insisted. When you parted it was Ellen who left you. I would be willing to give up Steingrim if I could find someone else. But he mustn't say I am a discarded wife. I don't like that. Mother says that was the worst thing that happened to her and she feels like I do. The girls don't need to turn up their noses; I have had every one of their men, so they have nothing to brag about. I know something about every one of them. That Øystein Myhre who looks at me as if he were sitting on a cloud, he isn't so much of a man as people think. He drank himself out of the whole business, and in the morning he was gone without a word, and I can understand he feels it was rather embarrassing, but I have [p. 202] heard such things happen to men, so he needn't run away every time he sees me; I could comfort him by saying I know how it is. Nor is it true I had anything to do with Nasjonal Samling, but there were decent people among them too, and I could agree to All-Help before Self-Help, and so could anyone, but it was wrong to have that Quisling as their leader. Yesterday I met Jasper Arndt, and then I must say the cup ran over, but it doesn't matter what he said, and Vera needn't imagine her husband spends his evenings at meetings, some of us know better—"
Erling put down the letter and pondered the phenomenon Viktoria.
It was a burden he carried with him, an unquenchable interest in the nature of stupidity, its rhinoceros strength because the stupid cannot be stopped through shame, nor feel sorry when others feel ashamed for them. They have brains of twine and hearts of rubber, they can walk on water because they don't know any better, and they have skins as tough as hide and souls where plague rats nest.
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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