Øystein Myhre poured some red wine into his glass, pushed back his chair a little, and let his eyes glide over the company. His unusually active look tarried a few seconds on each in turn. His abundant black hair had grayed, but with a rebellious gray that didn't remind one of age, and all knew Øystein's love for ladies; when he was around, other men kept an eye on their women.
"When Felicia called to invite me here, I found it rather difficult to arrange on so short notice; had I known, however, what contact was to be resumed, I would not have asked to think it over: she did not tell me over the telephone that Birgit and her daughter were expected."
He raised his glass to Felicia, who sat with her mouth open, expectantly; she smelled sensation about to break, Now Øystein turned to [p. 252] Erling. His eyes, always big and bright, were no less so from the drinks he had had or from his high good humor. Øystein Myhre was known to be intoxicated by nature, he needn't drink but he liked to. He had some difficulty now in getting started, he smiled at the Etruscans, perhaps he was thinking of something else, but after a few fumbling sentences he began: "Erling, you spoke of repetition in all matters. I have recently been to Sweden; in Stockholm I stayed at a little hotel where I also spent a night during the war, and as it happened I occupied the same room. Yes, Erling, this is meant to be a short comment on your theory of repetition. Let's forget that you didn't necessarily mean repetition within the frame of a human life. I was awakened by the telephone in that room one morning in 1942. It was very early, considering the day before had been my birthday. I turned over a lamp and some books on the table before I found the receiver. The operator announced a call from Oslo. Remember, this was 1942, October 13, early in the morning. I would not have been more surprised had I been told there was a call from Tokyo for me, it seemed then just as distant. For a Norwegian refugee to receive a call from Oslo was in itself unthinkable. I tried to wake up, and sober up, while thinking back and forth. It was obvious the Germans kept track of which Norwegians had fled to Sweden, and my being in Stockholm was undoubtedly on record. I waited, and could hear hellos from different points along the line, repeated interruptions. The conversation must be listened to in more than one place, and then it dawned on me what a hell I would have at the legation when they found out Oslo had called me. I started to perspire. Keep in mind: it had been a violent birthday, and the call was from Oslo, in 1942. I was not an important refugee, not one of those who single-handed had saved Norway at one time or another, I had stayed as long as I could and issued false passports. Yet, I realized I was involved in a conspiracy and that the spying against the refugees must be so effective that they already knew in Oslo that I hadn't slept in my own bed, but in a hotel, because I had been too drunk to take the tramcar to Nockeby.
"After some more trouble on the line, a Norwegian voice suddenly came through: 'Is that you, Øystein?'
"Yes, it was I. Then came a long string of words that had me completely confused. 'Are you listening?' this person kept repeating, and I replied 'Yes!' It was the only word I could get in for a long while.
"It was something about fish—yes, fish, but I could not comprehend what it meant—all I could think of was a red herring.
"'What do you think of that?' he finished his long harangue.
"'Well,' I said, 'except for trout and perch—but who is this speaking?'[p. 253]
"I could hear a gasp, and then he asked, disconcerted: 'Why do you talk Norwegian?'
"'Why shouldn't I speak Norwegian? I might say that was the reason I came here—so I could use my own language.'
"'Isn't it you, Øystein?' he yelled, and then he added a surname beginning with Y, which wasn't mine. 'No,' I said, 'my name is Øystein Myhre, and thank you for all the information!'
"I could hear a muffled 'Hell!' and a click as he put down the receiver.
"I didn't know what sort of information I had received, nor did I ever look into it, but when I met the hotel porter a little later he gave me a wounded look. He had heard from Oslo, too.
"I managed to get out of bed, and emptied the first of three weak beers I had been allowed to bring home with me the night before. Then I shaved with a hang-over's slow motion. Then I drank beer number two, washed up, and put number three to my mouth. Just then there was a knock on the door. I opened, and a lady I knew entered. She greeted me with an explosion of insults because she hadn't been invited to my birthday party. She was—well, let's say, about the same age as the younger one of the Etruscans is today, and she had the power of speech. Her sentences flowed like a fountain until I pushed her down on the bed, and joined her, newly showered and shaved; now she only complained of the beer-smell. She was Swedish. I told her no women had been invited to my party, which I supposed was so though I couldn't recollect clearly.
"Well, that was that. When I recently—fifteen years later—came to the same hotel in Stockholm, I recognized at once the room where I had negotiated about fish that time during the war. You see, the room had some of those peculiarities which arise when the architect has some space left over and doesn't know what to do with it, and consequently leaves it as is. It is the funniest room I've ever seen, for it has no shape. But I tell you this only to explain how I could recognize it so many years later. Pleased in a way to be back, I unpacked, washed up, and went out on the town.
"When I had been in Stockholm a few days I was awakened one morning by the telephone. Here I might point out some minor differences from my earlier visit; now it wouldn't have been strange at all to receive a call from Oslo. On the contrary, I suspected at once that it was from Oslo. Nor was it the day after my birthday, although a few Swedish friends from the war years had partied me until rather late, for no reason in particular. Again I knocked ash trays and papers onto the floor before I got the wrong end of the receiver to my ear and groaned Hello! When I [p. 254] finally could hear the operator she announced Copenhagen. No one there knew I was in Stockholm—never mind why, it simply was impossible. This time there was no need for so many interruptions by listeners being put on the line, and I could clearly hear a man's voice from Copenhagen. This person also spoke with furious speed—he must have been thinking of the high rates. He might have saved himself the trouble, for when he started with the word fish, my mind simply didn't comprehend. This Danish caller was a specialist in eel, but even so. I stared angrily into space until I yelled that I wasn't awake—and was it eel he was talking about?
"'Yes, it is eel—and aren't you Mr. Myhre from Norway?'
"We got into a priceless conversation. Keep in mind my head, and my fish-call from Oslo in the same room some fifteen years earlier; there must be something more wrong with the room than I had suspected. 'Is it eel you say? Please, spell it!'
"'What do you want me to do?'
"'Spell it? You want me to spell eel?'
"How many extra three-minute periods this took I do not know. I was perspiring, but then, it's good to perspire after being drunk. It took a long time before some key words opened my brain; I had actually at one time experimented with an unusually fine eel recipe, and the Dane wanted this recipe.
"'Of course you can have it!' I yelled, 'but how in the world did you find me?'
"'I called a number of places in Norway—'
"'Places in Norway?'
"'Yes—and finally I reached a farm out in the country—'
"'You reached a farm out in the country?'
"'Yes, it was a farm—'
"'What are you going to do with the recipe?'
"'I've heard it's very good!'
"I gave him the recipe and wished him luck. Unfortunately I didn't take his name. I would like to meet this food-happy Dane sometime and exchange culinary views with him. I have a feeling he must be a fine person."
"This story about two telephone calls isn't very profound," resumed Øystein, "but as a compensation it is true, with no invention on my part about the repetition of details; moreover, it continued as follows: When I was through talking eel, I opened the first of my three beers and poured it down my throat. Here too there is some difference: the beer had [p. 255] become much better since last time. Otherwise I had a feeling that the ritual would repeat itself. I shaved, drank beer number two, washed up, and sat down on the edge of the bed with bottle number three, waiting in expectation. I stared at the door—not that I heard anything, not a sound. But at last there was a knock on the door.
"I know very well I should now deny the truth and make up some anticlimax, like the maid appearing at the door. Everyone knows that no sensible person talks about having seen the sea monster; that is why its existence never can be proven. But sea monster or no sea monster, it was the same woman as fifteen years earlier. In spite of this fact, the difference was great. She had grown fifteen years older and it wasn't becoming to her. Indeed, it spoiled her looks to a degree fifteen lost summers seldom have spoiled a human being. She had had nothing to carry with her through the fifteen years except her purely physical youth, and as a result she had dropped it somewhere in the gutter, for it requires a mind to retain one's youth. I stood in the doorway and recalled a notice I had once seen: Undesirable persons are asked to leave the premises without attracting attention.
"And exactly there, at the door, all similarities came to an end."
Øystein looked down at his hands and continued, without noticeable change of voice, "I proposed to the Etruscan last night."
"Which one of them?" burst out Felicia.
Øystein looked at her: "I only wish to add that the Etruscan is older in years, yet twenty years younger than the woman who appeared at my hotel room door in Stockholm. And my proposing to the older one of the Etruscans—who by the way accepted—might have to do with the fact that I am a law-abiding subject and do not propose to my own daughter. Moreover, I prefer a somewhat better-aged product."
His announcement had very different effects on them. The first reaction came from Erling. He had managed to part some of the cobwebs in his brain, thus opening a window to what had taken place the evening before. He complained loudly, "What a sot I must have been!"
"You behaved oddly, but decorously," said the Etruscan Birgit.
Felicia exploded a second time: "You seemed to have drunk enough to—"
"Yes," replied Erling, and looked the other way, "unfortunately I must have drunk enough to stray—"
Felicia was not one to be stopped; after a quick look at Erling, as if to say, Don't make yourself out worse than you are, she called across the table to Jan: "That's one wedding we must celebrate at Venhaug!"[p. 256]
"Thank you, Felicia," said Øystein, "but we already have decided where to celebrate, and only one guest will be invited."
Felicia went over and whispered something to the Etruscans and together they left the room. Julie sat a moment in indecision, then she rose and followed.
The others remained silent. Jan reached for his glass and emptied it; the others did the same. Then they didn't know what to do, except to fill the glasses once more. With great circumstance Øystein lit a cigarette. "Listen, Erling—my double-story was not meant to end in a proposal-announcement. According to your theory, would you say that my first story had taken place even earlier and, furthermore, that it calls for still another repetition? I do realize your theory concerns history in general, but in that case, to my mind, there must also be a repetition of details. Mustn't the theory hold true in the most unimportant happenings as well as in the great events—this about humanity's repeated creation and eternally repeated destruction? Or, isn't it rather so that in an apocalyptic time, all wish to write apocalypses?"
He made a quick gesture: "No, Erling, one moment never has the same meaning as another has had, and history will never repeat itself, either in moments or eternity. Nothing happens other than—well, than otherwise. No one and nothing will arise again. History never repeats itself and never has. Such a belief is a canvas we hide under from pure fear: nothing must happen except what we can imagine; yet, happenings will take place never imagined. Look first at the old nomads, and from them to the moon satellites. People had accumulated knowledge for a million years, until the results deluged us yesterday—in other words, during the last few centuries. You are oldest among us and have in a way seen all with your own eyes. You can remember a world without automobiles, you have seen the first airplanes, kites of sailcloth and bamboo with a rickety motor. And now you live under a manmade moon and you are strong enough to see many more. And now, for some reason, you want to quit and let our world come to an end. You forget—always a new element is added, never before envisioned, an entirely new and unanticipated element that changes the path of history. It has always been so, will always be so, in all fields—technical, psychic, all. It will always so continue. We might just as well espouse an entirely different dream—the opposite dream, the dream of returning to an older system, and put up a wall against evolution, anyway try not to get any farther than we already are. It's only an immature line of thought; we have small examples in the attempts to renew old moral conceptions—with the unavoidable result that new ones take wings. A law must confirm [p. 257] existing order, or create a new order, but the latter can only take place in economic and technical fields. In the field of the soul no new way can be planned through a new law, or by reviving one already dead. What has happened in the human mind cannot be undone. This has been known to all great lawmakers, but of course never to a practicing jurist. Those who try to turn us back to something they consider better still remain submerged to their necks in the old mess. That nothing is new under the sun, is, as I said, only an expression of apprehension. Today we have a new moon under the sun, and more will appear, and I might agree it is a tempting dream that they could have been there before—but it remains a dream."
Erling rose with his glass in his hand. He raised it to Øystein and said, tiredly, "I am a very curious man, as you know. I've never felt I've seen enough. But there might be something to what you say. And I'll tell you one thing: I was sitting in a plane several thousand feet in the air, reading about the new moon. I was overcome with a strange feeling—perhaps now I had actually seen enough. I thought of that first plane of sailcloth and bamboo from my childhood, the first automobiles—imitations from some old manor-vehicles with high wooden wheels, and men in top hats, I recalled people advertising for horses not afraid of automobiles; horses then, that would not bolt across the field and break their necks at the appearance of a gasoline-smelling car. I remember the farmer who called out all his help and admonished them to kneel when the Lord appeared in the heavens. But you have got me sidetracked: I am not anticipating the world's destruction at this moment just because I'm toying with the idea. You needn't answer me, but I have never had much faith in—well, I hardly know how to say it—so I'll say it right out: 'I am dubious about ex-wives and old girl-friends—'"
"So am I," said Øystein, "and it isn't the broken pieces she and I have picked up to patch together. There never was anything to break to pieces—matrimonially speaking. We have never worn each other out. We start our honeymoon now. Both of us free, at our age—what do you think of that? Strangely enough, each of us, in our own way, has been waiting for the other. This with Adda—that was a nasty trick I played on her. I'll try to make up for some of it, but that is not the reason we're getting married."
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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