Master-Mason Pedersen's wife
"Tell us something nice about love," pleaded Vera, as she made herself comfortable in the easy chair before the fire. "But really good, Erling! Something to make my spine tingle. And something very decent, like real life."
"Then I want to say a word first," said Jasper. "Something I've thought about a great deal. As late as today. I wonder if sex isn't the only thing people think of. Those who say they don't are the ones to worry most about things erotic. But as I say, don't you think it is the one subject everybody thinks about the most? For example, when I attend business meetings, I use my pencil industriously—doodling naked girls, which I put into my pocket before anyone has time to see my supposedly important scribbles. Once I drew a girl being birched. We were discussing a new metal alloy, I recall. I have a feeling sex lurks behind every bush, when it doesn't dance around the bush. Mom, macht, meat—isn't it all the same?"
"It does happen there are times, indeed long periods, when one doesn't think of anything else," said Erling. "It is much easier for the woman—she is sex personified. She isn't always aware of this—a tiger doesn't remind itself every moment it is a tiger. Woman is sex personified, and man is its errand-boy."
"Stop it!" said Vera. "I would like to hear something about love. Nothing with juicy, pornographic words which crush the sweet expectations. I appreciate the art of hinting, leaving room enough for my own imagination. That's best."
"Shall I tell you about Master-Mason Pedersen's wife?"[p. 286]
"It depends on how old you were yourself. I've read too many sweet stories about the six-year-old's ethereal love for Mrs. Pedersen."
"I was nineteen."
"And Mrs. Pedersen?"
"She was thirty-eight."
"Do you still see her?"
Jasper had the habit of getting drinks into his windpipe. It happened this time because he was so quick with figures: "Good Lord, Vera! Mrs. Pedersen must be seventy-eight now!"
"Yes," admitted Erling, and looked into the fire. "She must, because she was thirty-eight in 1918, exactly forty years ago. It was she who taught me the woman is sex in person and the man its errand-boy. Moreover, I consider it in bad taste for Jasper to laugh. In 1930 I tried to find Kamma Pedersen. I tried again shortly before the war. The last time was in January of 1953—that's to say, that time I came as a sort of pilgrim to look at the house where she had lived, but had left before 1930; the last time even the house wasn't there, only a vacant site; it had been torn down for a new one to be built. I lived with Mrs. Pedersen for four months."
"You must be terribly old," said Vera, "when your girl-friend in 1918 was three years older than I am now in 1958. You should be looked after—if I didn't have Jasper and the children—"
"Keep quiet!" said Jasper, sternly. "Erling knows all that."
Erling searched his memory and started several times before he found the right words and began: "It is this way," he said, "I have had many lookout towers in my life. I have a feeling most people are so anxious to forget their old lookouts that they actually do so. I have never forgotten my old towers, and if I must tell about Kamma Pedersen, then I must climb my old lookout in Rjukan. A gentleman never admits he has had other lookouts than his present one, or that he saw anything from them. I am not a gentleman, but instead I can tell you a gentle story from my old tower which still stands in Rjukan. It isn't told from today's tower.
"I shall never forget what once was mine. Not my parents, nor my playmates. None. I have over the years worn a path between my towers, and as long as I live I can never tell anything, important or unimportant, without a walk from tower to tower. Some are ivory towers, some towers of Babylon, some leaning towers, and some insignificant hills on the landscape. In some cases I only poke my head up through a hole in the ground.
"Anyway—I had happened to sign on on a boat and had to leave it in Copenhagen. It was shortly before Christmas, the depression had come [p. 287] on, and boats were laid up, and all those things you can read about in books. There was unemployment because the blessed war had come to an end, I heard a man say in a tramcar. I couldn't find a new job.
"It is remarkable how birds of a feather flock together. As you know, I wanted to write, and within a week I had met up with two boys who also wanted to write. How such a recognition is possible I don't know. None of us ever announced our ambition with word or sign. Yet, there must have been something, for one day one of them said to me, 'The funny thing with you is that you look like a poet and happen to be one.'
"We stuck together as boys do in youth. Straightforwardly, and without reservations, we acknowledged each other's undeniable genius and read enthusiastically aloud our 'collected works' in a rented room. We were unfamiliar with criticism and enjoyed blissful moments as we debated and visualized our richly promising future. Incidentally, neither one of the other two reached forty; both died their anonymous deaths, emaciated by talents not great enough to break through, and enough drinking and disappointments to ruin their health. I can well understand parents who get worked up when a son or daughter wants to take up art. For almost one hundred percent of those who do, go to hell; and so parents keep urging the youth to realize that painting and such can be pleasant to fool around with in the evenings. Only vaguely do parents understand what is so terrible, namely that the one who goes in for art places all on one card, and has only one. They see the son or the daughter having chosen a road that only rarely leads to anything but ruin, and they feel the youth should choose another road, without understanding that there is no other road and no choice. And so I have only one reply to every youth who asks if I think he ought to continue: 'It is not a question of what anyone thinks; if you actually can stop, then you'll only amount to something less than third class, and you must stop immediately. But even if you cannot stop, this is no guarantee of your success.'
"Well, as I said, in Copenhagen I couldn't get a job of the sort people call sensible, and I wanted to stay there as long as possible since it was the first time in my nineteen years I had found friends who at least helped me get over the thought that I was the only crazy one. I met several of that kind, some even crazier than I, and some who played crazier than they were, and that isn't good, for they are never crazy enough. Not a few among the ones of my own age down there did have it in them, as time has shown, but I didn't meet them at that time. All those I knew have gone to hell. Only two or three did I keep track of, indirectly. All died. How many of the others died I don't know, but as [p. 288] far as I knew them they belonged to the group I must call the real ones, judging them from the point of view that not one of them could stop, and consequently I believe all are dead.
"All this led me into a chaotic group of hopeful youths and old characters who prophesied over their beers. It was a sort of floating chaos where one could manage to live enough not to die, at least not until one had spent some ten years, I suppose, in the murky atmosphere. Now I only vaguely remember how I got food; mostly only bread, but I have a recollection of some beer. And some cash, I believe, although of the smallest kind.
"It is one of my peculiarities that I always look about for a place to stay. Some of my friends then, as well as some in later years, have looked askance at this, but I have always wanted a place where I could put my head at night and not feel cold. It wasn't clear to me then that the one who sleeps in the gutter is doomed, but I had noticed that it made one a complainer and pleader, and made life so horribly dull. I didn't like that. Once in that stride it was difficult to get out, and one thing and another. I mentioned these sentiments to someone, who took me to Mrs. Pedersen and introduced me as a live-in prospect. I could sleep in the kitchen, on a mattress Mrs. Pedersen warned me must be rolled up by seven every morning, tied with a string and put in a corner. There I lived three and a half months and paid four kroner a week.
"It was not love at first sight. I never started that kind of business myself. Mrs. Pedersen was so much older and was my landlady, and she was married. I had heard about affairs with married women but didn't quite believe they existed. Moreover, I was afraid of Mrs. Pedersen. I had been told she would undoubtedly show me the door if she discovered I was a dubious tenant with no steady work, and I must never tell her I was a Norwegian; I had told her I was from the island of Bornholm. Besides all this I was afraid of all persons older than myself—a gnawing sort of fear I never dared admit even to myself until recent years; I still catch myself feeling adolescent and green when encountering grown people only half as old as myself.
"I would imagine the sexual instinct doesn't change much from one generation to another, and the so-called 'purity' set up as an ideal for youth is a century-old stupidity which has created generations of warped and hate-filled people. Every boy I encountered in youth lived in a fantasy about girls. All of them might have amounted to something if there hadn't been these insane prohibitions against the only thing perhaps that is obvious in life. Of course we all talked dirt about what we couldn't get, but which every nerve in our bodies screamed for.[p. 289]
"Before I arrived in Copenhagen I had grown as warped and crooked as is possible for a human being. I agree, there is too much talk of such matters. And the situation hasn't improved. I deduce this from the very few open, healthy faces I meet on the street. How is it possible that grown men fail to realize they are healthy and normal in their desires, and should not be living in fear of derision, for by so doing they grow more and more strait-laced, load themselves with useless honors, and bury their humanity under a display of maleness they don't believe in.
"The Pedersen couple had no children, and this was good, for the offspring would have had to find its playground in the dark yard—well with its twelve privies, each one shared by several families. From the kitchen window I studied in the evening the life of the rats among garbage cans, dustbins, and privies. The tenement reminded me more of a barracks or a prison than anything else. Each floor had a narrow quadrangle corridor, and from it doors led to seemingly innumerable flats; and the most peculiar people emerged into the pale, ghostly kerosene-lamp-light of the corridors. Each apartment had two rooms and a kitchen. All kitchen doors opened to the corridor, and when the entire tenement was preparing dinner, the smell and the smoke in the corridor was so thick you wouldn't have dared enter it unless you were a smoke-diver. The kerosene lamps burned all day long. Water had been piped into the building, with one faucet for each sink, which also served as urinal, and luckily enough, Master-Mason Pedersen and his wife lived on the fourth floor, so there was light in their kitchen, and they escaped the sewage from others; something they were rightly proud of. For since there was no main sewer pipe the contents from the upper sinks emptied into those below. 'How lucky we don't live on the first floor!' said Søren Pedersen. He had an appreciation for the good things in life, drank a great deal of beer, and loved heavy food. He had friendly pig-eyes, a bushy mustache, reddish above and at the sides but yellowish on the underside.
"Much has been said about the immense ability to adjust, inherent in people and rats. They live in the tropics, in arctic regions, in the sewers under Shanghai. I think one might question this ability as exaggerated. One has forgotten to take into consideration the place of origin of the rats as well as the people. People of the refined type did not endure well the concentration camps, and I wonder how you two would have managed to live at Number 5, S Street, Copenhagen. I also keep in mind the opposite—the many years before I was able to sit in a villa at Smestad and enjoy a grog with calm nerves. We may have the ability to adjust, but, generally speaking, it is not the individual who adjusts himself, [p. 290] rather he hangs on to what he knows, whatever this may be. The right to live in the unchangeable is the right of free people in a free country. This description of Number 5, S Street—what was it actually? Well, it is true enough, yet terribly incorrect. It is Number 5, S Street, described forty years too late. Then I would have spoken of the warm kitchen, the friendly Mr. Pedersen, his wife who soon began to offer me a cup of steaming coffee in the morning. I would have told of the many steps heard in the corridor, would perhaps have mentioned some rough, friendly joke the wives threw at me as I passed the doors. If I had dared expose myself that much I would surely have described my evenings, after all grew silent and I was reading by the light of a candle, or dreamed in the dark about girls and the future. At one period of my life I found myself longing back to Number 5, S Street, and felt life had indeed become worse since leaving there. One who began in Number 5, S Street, as a child, and then grew into a better milieu might be inclined to see things in an entirely wrong perspective. True enough, he missed a lot as a child; his development might have been delayed, he might have wasted the years he spent in Number 5, S Street, but he forgets he liked to live there and hated to move away. He liked it there because he didn't know anything better. The privies, the garbage barrels, the rats—it was a world where something happened, and one wasn't lonely. To me Number 5, S Street was a step forward in freedom, and had many other advantages. I had escaped from something worse. And it is from this worse lookout tower I want to and must see Number 5, S Street. It did not smell there. Only today do I know it must have done so.
"'You come up here in daytime and sit in the warmth, if you like,' Kamma Pedersen suggested one day, and I blushed. She had realized I was without work. That evening I came home very late and stole in silently. In the morning, after Søren had left, she set the coffee cup down beside me; then, planting her hands on her ample thighs, she stood looming over me: 'You silly boy,' she said. That afternoon I did come back, took a seat cautiously in the sofa corner with a borrowed book and was given coffee and cake.
"An apprehensive man might tell the story of Joseph and Potiphar's wife. Joseph was a clever operator who knew what virtue was worth at the right moment, and I can appreciate the young Joseph's preferring prison to a fiasco. I wasn't as quick-witted when Søren's wife made her plain-spoken suggestion, nor did I take my failure like a man. Or perhaps precisely like—a man? I did make a few attempts to talk myself out of the possible failure. 'I'm so sick,' I said. 'You aren't sick at all! Only a little confused.' Then I adopted a hurt attitude, trying to look even sicker, but [p. 291] you see—well, I was just putty in her hands. Half an hour later she slapped my behind: 'Didn't I tell you! It was only confused you were.'
"I never dared tell of my experiences with Mrs. Pedersen, and for various reasons. It would have been difficult to make out I was a great seducer, even though my propensities for lying about such were well developed. But one couldn't brag much about a woman that old—"
"Old!" exclaimed Vera. "She was only three years older than I!"
"Sssh!" said Jasper.
"It wasn't anything to brag about with a woman that old," continued Erling. "I would have to lie about that too if I had told of my experience, and then it might have slipped out she was over twenty-one. Perhaps Søren Pedersen was most in my mind; if the gossip should come back to him, he must, according to the books I had read, kill me. It wasn't in that way I wanted my picture in the paper; I wanted to grow immensely old, quite bald, and have people make pilgrimages to my own villa at Ullern. Why Ullern I don't know, but Ullern I had in mind. I must have heard of some great man living there. And there was so much else; I couldn't give Kamma Pedersen flowers. And when I realized I was in love with her, I felt terribly ashamed; my rebellion against the sixth commandment must have been something wild and devilish. Truth must not enter the history of literature. O Lord, what an idiot I was! Kamma who saved me from so much dirt! And what an ass I must have been, dreaming in my fantasies how much better I was than the formidable Søren Pedersen—not that I looked down on him because I had got together with Kamma, far from it; I never thought along those lines. The crazy part of it was that the ones I wanted to cut out must be dukes or great authors, who would challenge me to duels, while the duchess threw herself over my corpse, or my antagonist's, I never could make up my mind which.
"Fortunately, I calmed down in a few weeks after the revolt Kamma Pedersen had caused in my life. I told you, Jasper, I didn't think you should laugh; I owe few people as much as I owe Kamma. You should have heard how heartily she laughed when I told her a few months later I had found a girl. I don't suppose I ever became entirely well, but had I not met Kamma I am sure I would have developed into an invalid."
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.
TEI markup and other features Copyright © 2000 Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System.
To buy the paperback book, see: http://www.wisc.edu/wisconsinpress/books/1693.htm