The effective ones
Erling arrived in Oslo about noon on January 3, 1958. It was a Friday. He checked his bag at the station since he had no reservation; he telephoned a few hotels in vain and gave up; he would find some place to spend the night.
While he was having his lunch at the Theater Café, the thought struck him it might not be so easy to find night-quarters after all. The one he had in mind to invite himself to, knew she could not expect anything from him after all the Christmas drinking; but he knew that this would not be too important—it wouldn't be the first time she had received him as a wreck. Suddenly the thought didn't appeal to him. It wasn't one of his devil-may-care days. Sometimes still he was aware of these remnants of old and ingrown vanity and fear, which always made him think of his childhood in Rjukan; he could see himself slinking along, in memory playing his psychopathic role of the village tailor's son. Once a tailor, always a tailor.
He sat with his coffee, and a glass, and kept his eyes open for people appearing round the nearest corner of the irregular-shaped dining room, looking for tables or acquaintances; he was careful to make it look as if he was occupied with his newspaper. There were only a few people in the restaurant now, it was neither the lunch nor the dinner hour. When he noticed faces he recognized without being able to place them he became especially occupied with his paper. Others he knew by name and these were easier to handle; he knew how to defend himself against them. Those faces he couldn't place were much more difficult; one might [p. 276] happen to bite people one had no reason to bite. He pulled out some papers and his pen from his briefcase, to make himself appear very busy, and wrote a few lines to document his activity: "In the Beginning I created heaven and earth, and the earth was empty and darkness was over the depths, and My spirit hovered over the waters. I was careful not to say 'Let there be light!' for then someone might see Me."
He thought of Vera and Jasper; he might stay with them. But one didn't ask for such; one didn't stay with one's friends. Everybody expected, as did he himself, that people should call for a taxi when it grew late. It was humanly right to get rid of one's friends. They mustn't be lying on the sofa in the morning and mumble something about borrowing a razor. He recalled one time when he didn't stay over. ("It would be such a compliment if you stayed.") But he knew the hostess was a little peculiar; she was positively brusque as she said, "It's upstairs, the door to the left." He went up, opened the door: in bed was a woman smiling at him. He closed the door, went downstairs, and said there must be some mistake, for Mrs. Jørstad was in bed there. The hostess became confused: "Well, yes—she said—she said that—and so I thought—"
In fury Erling had called for a taxi. For some reason he remembered it had cost twenty-two kroner to the city, even in those old, cheap days.
Such a situation would not arise at Vera and Jasper Arndt's. There you were plainly welcome, could talk about sensible matters and enjoy yourself. He started, and muttered to himself, "Speak of the devil!"
Jasper Arndt was standing at the bar, in overcoat, his hat in hand, looking at Erling. Now Vera joined him. They came to his table, asked if it was convenient, and Jasper carried out the overcoats. Vera sat down on the seat next to Erling. She was blossoming with health and happiness. The cold from outside was still on her cheeks, a wave of fresh air wafted from her as she struggled out of her fur coat. Then she started to examine Erling; she was one of those who worried about his welfare. "Are you taking care of yourself?" she asked. The question touched him, but it had also begun to bother him in recent years. He felt it was posed too often. When he looked at himself in the mirror there were times he realized why. It isn't only that I have passed the meridian, he thought, that must have happened some time ago. People are beginning to be friendly, as with a father, or an uncle they like. The same thing has happened as when I lost my youth and only discovered it a few years later. I must have been wearing the frost of age on my face for a long time now, without knowing it. At least for three or four years. Death is thoughtfully looking up at my house when he passes through Lier.
Jasper Arndt returned and sat down on a chair facing them; he liked to [p. 277] have a whole side of the table to himself. He was of middle height, a heavy, blond muscle-man in whom everything was broad; broad face, forehead broad and low, neck and shoulders like a gorilla. Now he fumbled on the table for an ash tray and menu with his long, powerful arms, while Vera watched him with a beaming and affectionate smile. Their friends had been forced to acknowledge that Vera and Jasper were a happy couple. That is something people don't acknowledge without opposition and protest, and for good reason in most cases. Vera and Jasper, then, were accepted as a happy couple—but with watchful eyes fastened on them from the rat-holes. Under certain circumstances it is supposed to appear more convincing to the dubious if the woman is exceptionally attractive, and the man looks as if he could break a telephone pole with his bare hands; and both are known for obvious amiability as long as no one insults them purposely.
Jasper Arndt was an engineer in some firm which built bridges or something, at home and abroad. Erling's conceptions about such matters were usually vague. Jasper had a good income and some money, a car, a house in Smestad. On that point also Erling's ideas were vague. About money he knew nothing, except that he tried to earn some when the bills began to annoy him, or that a check might come in from something he had written twenty years ago and which had been almost totally forgotten until somebody wanted to reissue it. In that way he was, so to speak, pensioned off, he who had avoided his pension-rights because of a fear of early death; similarly with life insurance and other arrangements that were advertised along the roadsides, pointing to the cemetery, or so he thought. Strangely enough, he realized others did exactly the opposite from the same fear of death.
Vera and Jasper were thirty-five and had three children, all girls, and all five members of the family were life-insured.
Erling listened and looked from one to the other while they talked and ate. Would he ever understand them and all they stood for—Vera and Jasper whom he knew so well? Would he ever understand their energy, their positiveness which was obviously of the happy kind? Would he ever understand people who as a matter of course rose at seven every morning, even when they had gone to bed at four? He himself under those circumstances, equally as a matter of course, would sleep until twelve. Would he ever understand the effective human being? He thought of Felicia, Jan, and many others who were vastly stronger than he, even though, for inscrutable reasons, he was always considered the stronger. They kept their hard workdays, yet managed hard evenings like himself. On the other hand, three days in succession, night and day, like [p. 278] himself, none of these effective individuals could endure, neither in work nor in feast.
He had never envied any one of them. He simply admired them, in secret. How could they radiate such health—like Vera sitting there, who had three children, and took care of her big house without help, partied a great deal, was always in good humor, and had time to chat with friends over the telephone. Always in balance, always ready with sympathetic understanding, never tired—and when in all the world did she have time for all the books that interested her?
And Jasper? One couldn't brush it off by saying he was strong as a dinosaur. Yes, a body was needed, but it was far from a general rule that strong bodies were anchored in will power and were effective. As he looked at Jasper he thought here is a man who doesn't even know what the word health means, and never has approached the edge of his limitations. One was entrusted with, or accepted, a problem, and solved it; Jasper would hardly have more to say on that subject, and he would look uncomprehending if anyone raised the question. Or, might perhaps, even in him, a knot have been formed, difficult to explain, something he hid under the industrialist's accepted mask of matter-of-factness, and which might in time slow down his power of action, even though he continued to look energetic?
The question of how best to manage one's time had been a constant problem to Erling, ever since he started to reason as a grown-up, and the problem still remained with him as a sorrow one couldn't do anything about when approaching sixty. The days had always run away from him, and it was small comfort to him that all his life he had had occasional spurts of febrile activity. What might not have germinated out of the thousands of days he had spent staring at the floor, apathetic, unshaved, listless.
Erling had learned it did not pay to ask such people how they had managed to arrive at their effectiveness. Perhaps it was beyond their comprehension that a person could be otherwise, and anyway, most of them were inclined to talk of "pulling oneself together," or even bare their lack of understanding of human phenomena by talking of something they called laziness, the usual way of expressing the fact that a person is wrongly placed and hates it, something that, at times, attempts had been made to correct, through beating, as if this were conducive to greater appreciation. Ludvig Holberg, who was so effective in spite of his poor health (or perhaps because of it?), must have been asked how he managed; otherwise he would hardly have taken up the question and tried to answer it in one of his essays. The efficient one takes efficiency [p. 279] for granted, the same as an arm, or the nose, and does not unprovoked discuss the subject. Nor did Holberg understand it as a question: he only comments that unessentials ought to be pushed aside, and superfluous letters avoided. After that his reflections trail off into nothing and then shift to a subject that can compel his interest: "You wish to know if the cattle-sickness has hit my farm too. Why should I be saved more than others? My cows have quite died out, but my neighbor's dog on the other hand is still alive and well, although I have cursed him more than once for howling night and day. Well, one has to take things as they come."
Well, then we know that much about the cattle-sickness and the neighbor's dog. Holberg must have been yawning when he tried to answer a stupid question in his fictitious letter. This about pushing aside unessentials was the same answer one received from people who uselessly started to ponder problems they knew nothing about. Pull yourself together! they say to people who wish nothing better. It is said of Henry Ford that it "made him heart-sick" to see anyone sit and do nothing. He would have been healthier if it hadn't interested him, and still healthier if that machine, Henry Ford, had understood what he saw.
Erling had been classified as something called manic-depressive. It was a long time since he had attempted to classify anyone, himself included. Life seemed to him for every year more of a riddle, a constantly more anxiety-filled mystery. Would he have come closer to the glowing kernel if he long ago had taken another course? Am I altogether a lost man? Someone had classified a mental disease whose main characteristic was a feeling of the unreality of all things, but wasn't this too easy an explanation? The one filled with fear for the unreality of all things, wasn't he on the contrary approaching the gates of reality? He who lives will see—but no one will live, no one will see. I have seen the first airplane, and satellites, but I have never felt one can approach reality through artificial birds and false moons.
I sit here now and register that I am together with two people; each of us has his own line of thought while we communicate with one another. In everything each motion we make is a mystery—why should I not have a feeling of unreality?
Vera was unfolding a paper she had found on the table. "Well, I declare!" she exclaimed, her mouth full of food. "Now Erling is having delusions of grandeur!" She read aloud, choking with laughter: "In the Beginning I created heaven and earth, and the earth was empty and darkness was over the depths, and My—capital M—spirit hovered over the waters. I—capital letter, which it should be anyway—was careful not [p. 280] to say 'Let there be Light!' for then someone might see Me—capital M. Is this an introduction to some new book?"
"It is a sort of delusion of grandeur," said Erling, as Jasper examined the document to grasp its contents after Vera's confused reading. "First I was reading a newspaper, in order to appear busy. Then I realized that wouldn't be enough, and I started writing. I was tired and irritated and had enough delusion of grandeur to decide who was to sit with me. When you came, the paper became superfluous."
"A farfetched compliment," said Jasper, and emptied a glass of cognac.
Vera looked at her watch: "I must get home to the brats. Where are you staying, Erling?"
"I couldn't get a hotel room, but I'll find something."
Vera looked at Jasper: "Why don't I take the car—then you and Erling can sit a while and take a taxi home, when I've got the children to bed."
"You imply two things," said Jasper. "One, that I've drunk a few glasses and should not drive; two, Erling will stay the night with us."
After Vera had left, Jasper asked if it was true that Erling a few years ago had stepped on a plank that was lying under tension and as a consequence had been thrown some ten yards through the air and had landed on top of a filled garbage-truck. Erling admitted this symbolic incident had occurred. It had been at a building-site he had unsuspectingly entered on an errand of nature, but the next time he would not hesitate to outrage that silly notion, public decency.
Jasper sipped his grog thoughtfully and said, "That sort of thing only happens to you. Is there actually anyone who might wish to make fun of himself?"
"There's some truth in that," said Erling. "It's part of my life. As a child I hadn't learnt to allow for it; therefore I always had bad experiences. The surprise, you might say. For many years now I have taken into account the worst that possibly can happen. Or the most ridiculous. Or the idiotically incomprehensible. Have I ever told you about the wash pail that disappeared one time in Stockholm? I had rented a small flat. It was completely empty when I came there for the first time, and rather dusty. I went out to a store and bought a scrubbing brush, a mop, and a pail, since I had nothing better to do. Then I started to wash the floor. When I was about half through I turned around, as I had done several times before, in order to wring out the mop. But the pail had vanished. No one had been in the room except the pail and me. And the brush and the mop of course; they were still there. I looked around. No pail. I looked in the other rooms. Nothing. The front door was locked from the [p. 281] inside—there was only that one entrance door. All windows were closed because it was a cold day, and moreover, it was on the third floor. I looked through every one of the closets and the cupboards. The pail wasn't there and was never found. Finally I suspected myself, that I hadn't bought it. So I went down to the store and asked for a receipt for my purchases. I said I had to have it in order to get my money back, which of course was nonsense, but I was so nervous I felt I had to give some explanation. Yes, he wrote out the receipt for one mop, one brush, and one pail. I went back to the flat. The pail wasn't there, I never saw it again. I was careful not to buy another."
Jasper got his grog into his windpipe which caused some commotion, then he gasped, "I have a few thousand invested in a pail factory—you won't get a job there! Or perhaps—if you could conjure away all the pails we sell, after they are paid for. What a pity you don't remember how you did it!"
"I don't like you to laugh," said Erling. "People laugh because it was only a silly pail. If I exchanged the pail for something of great value—a small child, for example—then you wouldn't sit there and laugh. It's now fifteen years since it happened, and I haven't yet quite got over it. It's stupid of me to stick to the pure truth. If I had said it was a rosary that disappeared, no one would have thought the experience comical, and the story would have been equally true. It must have been a nasty devil that spirited away just a pail, but of course, there was nothing else to take. I don't know if you have read Graham Greene's story about the poor writer who had a three hundred pound pig fall on him when he was taking his morning walk in Naples. It killed him and the pig too. The man's son grew up a scum. People turned in the street and said, 'Did you see him? His father was killed by a pig that fell on him. He was an author. A three hundred pound pig.' Be careful, Jasper: out of consideration for your children you mustn't be killed by a falling pig, it must be at least a meteor, or a satellite, or they won't have a chance. Don't ever mix pigs or pails with a mystery."
There was something Jasper wanted to ask, and Erling was again on guard, but what he said couldn't stir him greatly: "Do you think you know Nina Blaker sufficiently?" asked Jasper, cautiously.
"Nina Blaker? Do I know her sufficiently? I should think so, since I have no desire to know her better. Is she spreading tales?"
"Well, she doesn't say anything right out; she implies, and that can be worse."
"You needn't say more. It's obvious what she means, but there never has been anything and never will."[p. 282]
"When both sides make their own statements, people believe what they want to believe—and never the most innocent."
"But they must know they can't hurt me with any kind of stories. I'm immune as a wall, and no one can hurt me. You might suffer through gossip, you might lose your job. That curse you have in common with most; that is why it's so difficult for you to understand that all gossip about my kind has the opposite effect to the one intended. Let it be as stupid, nasty, hateful as you please, it only adds further to the disgustingly 'interesting' picture of the author—a picture that for many years now has been of little interest to the one it now is supposed to hit. One of the women who hates me the most, has for years been my best impresario. It is rather unpleasant to say, but to me it proves mostly her inability to free herself, and some remnant of veneration makes me feel sorry for her. In spite of all, one learns to brutally recognize what is mostly to one's advantage, and all you are afraid of is to my advantage. Observe America, where they seek any kind of publicity, even pay to get it, they beg for it, sell themselves for it—for all this, that has been forced on me. I must have fought for years to defend myself, privately and publicly, before I realized I was only pouring oil on the fire. Now my comfort is that all this stinking smoke will evaporate almost the day I die."
The restaurant had filled with dinner guests. At times Erling would look about in the room but quickly withdraw his eyes. "You must realize I envy you," he said. "But I prefer to call it something else."
Jasper Arndt looked at him in surprise and burst out laughing. "What in hell are you saying? Which of us should envy the other, if there's going to be any envying? What I had in mind was some details of your life that I suspect might hurt others. A few details, nothing more. But if I were to envy anyone it would be you. I could stand on one leg and ramble off a hundred advantages you have over all the rest of us. First, the immense gift you have for staying off the ladder where every climber only tries to push the others down. Do you actually believe in the mask I must assume if I wish to keep my position? Don't you live in a world without competition? Don't you live in a place of your own choice? Couldn't you any day it suited you move to another place that might suit you better? Haven't you attained more than you yourself dreamt? Aren't you completely indifferent as to who is nominated for what by the king? Don't you live in happy ignorance of who is elected or rejected by the voters for city government, and have no need of calculating the consequences? Aren't you conscious of the fact that no one else can take your place, and that you desire no one else's? Can't you afford to let others [p. 283] enjoy all the good life might bring them, because nothing is denied you? Aren't you a favorite of the gods to have an occupation that does not force you to stretch the law or, morally speaking anyway, trespass on other people in financial matters? Have you ever been forced to bring a man to bankruptcy and throw him into the street, even though you know he has been pursued with calamities? Are you not a fortunate person not to have to call on your enemies with a friendly face? Or receive them in your own house with a so-called friendly smile, hoping to God they will leave as soon as possible? Can't you decide for yourself with whom you wish to share a drink or conduct business? Isn't your freedom of action limited by no other laws than the ones you would have no interest in breaking? Not even your work forces you to bargain! When in hell have you listened to an alarm clock? No one bawls you out when you go to work, no one cries when you leave. Your most remarkable attainment after the war I won't even mention—but even that you couldn't have managed if our Lord hadn't endowed you with His particular blessing. I will not say anything more, for of course it is myself I talk of when I criticize someone else, and who wants to bare himself more than is necessary—"
A man had come to their table and used this moment to ask Erling, "May I join you?"
"No!" said Erling, and turned to Jasper.
They kept silent a few moments, watching the man's feet, before he withdrew.
"Who was that?" asked Jasper.
"Don't remember. But you said—"
"I said a great deal," interrupted Jasper. "Who, may I ask, can do what you did just now? I would have to be drunk to do it. I wouldn't be able to sleep wondering who the man was. I would have been forced to rise, angry as hell, yet with an appearance of utmost friendliness, and say something like 'I'm terribly sorry, but it's so long since—'"
"I'm sorry to disappoint you," said Erling, "but this was a special case. That man couldn't have the slightest doubt he was interrupting a conversation of interest only to us. I reacted quite naturally to a piece of insolence which I wouldn't have perpetrated on others."
Jasper sighed. "It doesn't change one iota what I said. I have to endure many inconveniences I wouldn't dream of causing others. The point is, you know it doesn't hurt you. You know that man can't get even with you, regardless of who he is or what he might do. Now he is sitting where he was before, and is slandering and blackening you—thinking he can kill a legend."[p. 284]
"One more impresario," said Erling.
Jasper pulled out a large cigar that fitted well in his great stone face. "Were you at Venhaug for Christmas?"
Now it comes, thought Erling. He looked away, as if just catching sight of something, stared steadily in that direction, as he replied, "Well, I spend all the holidays there. In fact, we talked about my taking over an old house they have and moving there for good."
Jasper did not reply, and Erling felt his friend was looking at him askance. When Jasper finally made a move it was to call the waiter for the bill: "It's time to leave," he said.
They were standing in the cold outside, waiting for the taxi they had ordered. The big cigar in Jasper's mouth pointed at the National Theater; the smoke mixed with his breath and turned into mist in the frosty air.
"I would so like to say one thing, Jasper. We are friends and I don't like to ask any favors—but you brought up this about Venhaug."
"I understand," replied Jasper, quickly. "But I had reasons of my own. You must realize it's Vera who is interested. It seems women more than men size up other women and what they stand for; and attempt something that might be called identification. A sort of daydream. And then they apply it to their husbands; they daydream until they are all upset. The mistress of Venhaug has become a fixed idea, I might say, and in this case particularly so, since we know the people involved. I don't know exactly how men look at it. With pigs' eyes, I guess. For women it's as if they heard a strange signal. There is something in that signal which they fear—and long for."
He stopped a moment, staring at the National Theater as he continued, "You must realize, beside you I'm a child when it comes to experience—but I forget it when I talk with you, for then you too become thirty-five. Now I will tell you what you might not know, that we of thirty-five look at you as one of our age, and so do even some in their twenties. This, plain and simple, is your amazing attainment. If anyone has managed anything like it before, I don't know about it. And since you now are almost sixty it means you are dangerous. How do you do it, take on the ages of others? When did it start, Erling? Do you feel anything special when it takes place? Well, I guess not; I don't believe you yourself really recognize this peculiar mechanism—the man of all ages and none. I myself, I am less interested in your talk than in what you are. Perhaps I'm begging for advice, of God knows what; advice about something I don't know."
He had neither turned his head, nor removed the cigar from his [p. 285] mouth. Erling stood there in the severe cold and felt hot and embarrassed.
"I believe that's our taxi now," said Jasper. "I'll remember, I'll never bring up Venhaug again, but I trust you believe me when I say—perhaps putting it poorly and not well thought through—I wanted to illuminate something in myself. You must know that even if I were curious I could control myself. I wanted information and went about it in about the same way I would in business. I am happy, it looks as if I were very happy. But there are so many strange things—"
On their way to the station to pick up Erling's bag, and then to Smestad, only occasional words were exchanged—about the cold, and the difficult driving conditions.
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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