Millennia's yoke on our shoulders laid
Erling looked about in the room so familiar to him, and knew what Elfride would say as soon as he had left: "I don't like the way he looks at everything." Her eyes were on guard, awake, and went from him nervously to each object he happened to glance at. Was something wrong? Wasn't it good enough? Wasn't it with them as with other people? Was there after all some dust on the lamp-shade? He more felt than saw her trembling fingers move an ash tray to hide a minute speck he wouldn't have noticed without her aid.
He felt sorry for her, but he was also disturbedly conscious of the actual distance of many generations and thousands of miles that separated them, as well as him and his brother. If he gave Elfride a friendly pat on the hand she would become greatly confused, and Gustav would so lose his self-possession that anything might happen. The expression, "There is an abyss between here and there," is often only empty words, but at this moment he saw the gulf that separated him from Elfride and his brother, a cleft it would be futile to try to bridge. It was a depth moreover that separated two worlds. Suddenly it came over him how meaningless it had been in his youth to seek friendship and understanding from people like Gustav and Elfride—that is, with his own people, parents, brothers and sisters, everybody he had known until the age of twenty. He had torn himself to pieces to be one of them, but the abyss had been there before he was born. It struck him how many years had been wasted in a fight that was lost from the very first day. His desire had been to belong where he belonged.
Then he stopped himself: the years hadn't been wasted. It was hypothetical thinking, of the worst kind—and no one could say what his life would have been minus his vanity and his humiliating fight to become accepted in the family circle that had no use for him. He had not wanted to believe this; he must have been uncommonly unrealistic in [p. 310] youth, more than usually blind and deaf to what every person, every tree, every stone told him: We will have nothing to do with you; you are too stupid, too ugly; we can't bear the sight of you.
Then he had tried to make himself believe it was in his imagination, self-deceit, but he now realized it couldn't have been. He had been one unable to adjust himself—one expresses it as a failure-disease, a congenital shortcoming that must be cured; treatments are administered, and the victim treats himself as well, for the illness must be cured, one must adjust oneself and become like the others. They believe that deviation is abnormal. There has never been the slightest doubt in their minds that I am abnormal and must be cured. No one doubted it, not a single soul, until I found my way into that other circle where my abnormality was normal, and where Gustav and Elfride would have succumbed because no one could possibly have accepted them there.
Elfride kept fingering a newspaper. One shouldn't read newspapers when entertaining callers. But she couldn't help it. Erling watched her handle the newspaper like a cautious animal stealing from one special haunt to another among the columns until she finally reached her goal: the obituaries. She folded the paper, casually, looked indifferent, and lowered the neatly folded sheet while participating in the conversation. Then her eyes were caught in the announcements, and she forgot both Gustav and Erling. "Oh, Lord!" she exclaimed, suddenly, "here is someone dead by the name of Kaparbus! What strange names people have in the obituaries."
"Well," said Erling, "he must have had the same name while alive also."
He wished he hadn't said it, but now he had, and Gustav was already there to the defense: "Erling must always contradict."
In a way he was right. He had always wanted to contradict them. He should long ago have realized the futility of contradicting them. He should have seen and heard enough already at the age of twelve to understand that he was stupid when he had a thought of his own. And indeed, it was true that the most peculiar names did turn up in obituaries. Elfride was right; he had never forgotten the obituary of the Countess de Turd, and others equally silly—as if the dead had been thrown into an attic to dry until they were put in the paper. Elfride was right; one would never have encountered Mr. Kaparbus except in his obituary.
Being in a tolerant mood, mightn't Erling as well admit he was wrong—but dared he say so aloud? Dared he take the risk that Gustav would think he was making fun of Elfride? Gustav, so suspicious in [p. 311] every nerve, how would he react to an admission from his depraved brother? Erling decided to let the subject drop. During the last quarter of an hour it had become eminently clear to him that Elfride and Gustav never would see him again. Something had disentangled itself. He wasn't up to investigating what just now, but this was his last visit to any one of his relatives, and he could now see them in a friendlier light since this was the last time. He interrupted his thoughts, for he wished to hear something about Uncle Oddvar before he left this house forever: "Tell me, Gustav, what happened to Uncle Oddvar's children—his son and two daughters, our cousins?"
"Nothing but trouble. Nils has been dead many years now, but I guess you have had better things to do than to ask news about your relations. He got his head bashed in by some other drunk who mistook him for someone else and killed him instead of another drunk. Nils was in jail a few times, some burglary they tried to pin on him; well, I guess he is in another kind of jail where he is now. The girls started walking the streets before they were half grown. Then the authorities got after them, for moral reasons, and they landed in two different institutions; maybe they felt they had to keep them apart. When they were let out they went to work in some factory. To appear decent, at least. The authorities don't go after those street girls if they work, and there is something to that. Both were heavy drinkers. I heard they were married later, but I don't know where they live. They must be in their fifties, I reckon, if they haven't drunk themselves to death. Nils would have been sixty by now." Gustav went on without interruption, "So you looked in on Uncle Oddvar the day Ingfrid died?"
It wasn't mentioned but hung heavily in the atmosphere that Erling had failed to show up at Ingfrid's funeral. Erling didn't feel like explaining that he had been forced to leave for Sweden just then. Since it was his last visit with Gustav he thought there would be no use hearing once more how much and what good food there must have been in Sweden, but hadn't he been forced to work for it when he wasn't known in that place? He thought over his possible admission to Gustav, the one Gustav never would hear now; it would have sounded something like: I understand you, Gustav, better than you think. It wasn't for nothing we had all our experiences together when we grew up. Deep down I feel the way you do, when you talk of work, and what you mean by work. For a few years I managed to make people believe I had work, and wrote only evenings and Sundays. I used to lie, for three or four years, first and foremost because I had to deal with people of your sort, or people of other sorts but thinking exactly as you do. It wasn't right that a [p. 312] man only sat and wrote, something I soon learned. They bothered my wife, they bothered me, they put all sorts of pressure on us in matters that didn't concern them. One person was plainly ornery to me—he got me fired from a local paper so I wouldn't get big-headed and think I could earn a living from—well, from sitting and writing. As I say, people we didn't care for (and you were one among them), neighbors, casual acquaintances, every son of a bitch anywhere. Don't forget I was very young and terribly insecure and frightened. No one would have lent me a five-kroner bill because I was too proud to work. I might also tell you that some of my workdays have been longer than any of yours, even though it only is to sit on a chair and write and such.
That was one side. The other was that I too came from all the misery we had at Rjukan. The misery of me and you and the others—our unhappy parents, and the senile grandfather without any hands you and I had to take care of. We learned to work. To work the way you still think of work. To work—it meant to take hold with your hands and earn your daily bread in the sweat of your brow. And this I have got away from just as little as you. To the very last I have felt a secret shame that I don't daily appear in the factory or at the road gang and earn my pay and save my conscience.
We are labor boys, you and I, we will never be anything else, and now we won't see each other any more. We were endowed with quite different heads, and you had got it into yours that I as the younger must ape you in everything. That was rather stupid of you. But our concept as to what ought to occupy an honest person is fundamentally exactly identical—emotionally I'm with you, Gustav, but my mind has long ago said no. Yet I respect you perhaps much more than your pebble-filled skull has demanded as your right that I should do. Only, you made it hellishly difficult for me to show it. That's the way I see it now, and I want to tell you before I leave that in one respect your mind and mine have failed—when, endlessly many years ago, we started our competition to see which of us was the more stubbornly stupid. That was an idea of rare idiocy. And God help me—how furious you would be if you ever realized that I am responsible in no small degree for your reputation as a blasting-boss. Living up to this reputation has been your own effort, and it pleases me that you never have let your little brother down. But this I'll never tell you. Because I have never hated you enough to see you choked from your own bile. And I am proud to have an experienced blasting-boss for a brother. A little of the reflected glory falls on the younger and lazy one.
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