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Writing Europe

Ursula Keller

On the European Ingredient in the Text (with a Sidelong Glance at an Eel in a Bathtub)

Geir Pollen
Traduction de Anne Borne

Texte intégral

Er det ikke den europeiske romanens bestemmelse å
sørge for at slike eksistensielle spørsmål om
enkeltmenneskets verdighet og livsmuligheter hele
tiden stilles, også når de oppleves som uhørte,
utillatelige; at de ikke får lov til å gå i glemmeboke.

1On the occasion of the fiftieth anniversary of Knut Hamsun’s death I delivered a lecture entitled “What Is a Norwegian Author?” in which I attempted to examine some of the ideas and expectations of the literary public and of writers themselves that constitute the concept of a “Norwegian author.” I started with a concept of author as historically seen in Norway, one which is inextricably linked to great national projects — or the national project; for what it is actually concerned with is a continuous project covering more than 150 years and which, briefly, discusses the nature of the concept of “Norwegian,” how Norway, so to speak, becomes Norwegian. For the fact is that Norway as an independent nation is one of the youngest in Europe, if we exclude those nations that have arisen or been resurrected since the fall of the Iron Curtain. For more than four-hundred years — that period in our history which Ibsen, filled with national indignation, calls the Night of Four Hundred Years — Norway was more or less continuously incorporated into other nations, especially Denmark, with Danish as the official written language. It is true that in 1814 Norway got its own constitution, though as the result of the Napoleonic wars and the Danish alliance with the defeated Napoleon the country at once entered an almost century-long union with Sweden, still with Danish as the official written language. The Swedish–Norwegian union lasted until 1905. In other words, Norway’s history as an independent nation with its own independent written language has existed for less than a hundred years. That is not long. And from the first, when ideas about an independent Norway with its own Norwegian identity begin to appear as a result of the dissolving of the union with Denmark and the new constitution of 1814, writers played an important role, both practically and politically, as enlighteners of the people, agitators, and also symbolic figures — models of the nation that would sooner or later arise from the ashes of the unions. The concept of “author” and that of the “nation” or the “national” exist in close symbiosis in Norway, a symbiosis that survives right up to our own time, I respectfully maintain, as an integral part of the Norwegian writer’s self-concept. Naturally this state of things is of decisive importance to the work produced by the Norwegian writer. Knut Hamsun is not only the first really modern Norwegian novelist, but also — and that is not by chance — the first Norwegian writer who fundamentally and irrevocably breaks with the specific idea of “the Norwegian writer.” He does this in 1940, at a time when he, himself, was at the height of his fame and the Third Reich occupied Norway. Two years later, as the foremost successor to Ibsen and Bjørnson, he hailed Adolf Hitler as “a champion of the gospel of justice for all nations.” Even today there are many Norwegians, particularly those of the older generation, who have not forgiven him for this.

2Why do I allot so much time to this old story in a piece required to take as its leading title “Writing Europe” i.e., a text that will attempt to encircle both the Europe that I, a Norwegian writer, write in as well as the Europe that writes in my texts? Well, because I think this theme of “the European element” cannot be elucidated from a Norwegian point of view unless it begins right here: by demonstrating that it has traditionally been vital for Norwegian writers to be, and become, understood as precisely “Norwegian,” and that viewed historically, “to be Norwegian” has meant to be not-Danish, not-Swedish, not-like-the-others. In short, we have stated definitively what we are and what we have as a negation of The Others and The Other. This self-understanding with a negative sign, so to speak, is still alive: on the two occasions when Norwegian governments applied for membership to the EU, in 1972 and 1994, a majority of the Norwegian people voted “NO” to union with the rest of Europe, justifying this vote with varying references to our difference from Germany, France, Great Britain, the Benelux countries, Denmark, Sweden, Finland, and so on. Norway wants to be The Variant Country of Europe: Norwegian farmers are not like Danish farmers, Norwegian fishermen are not like Spanish fishermen, Norway’s meager population is scanty in a different way than that of Luxembourg. It is symptomatic that when I told some of my acquaintances what the theme of this symposium would be, they reacted with the following spontaneous reply: “Ugh, that sounds like a typical EU affair!” Let me just interject that I am, of course, aware that the belief in one’s own otherness is not a uniquely Norwegian phenomenon, though in its youthful arrogance Norway may shout louder and more excitedly about it than Europe’s more senior, experienced nations. I name no names, to avoid offending anyone. Indeed, I am not unaware of the belief in one’s own otherness as precisely a stamp of “Europeanness” itself: France, the nation of culture, is unwilling to resemble the great financial power Germany, and vice versa; the island kingdom of Great Britain wants to be different from continental Europe; ancient, orthodox Russia refuses to be like the materialistic, godless West, and so on. An American is only too eager to cry, “We are all Americans!” even though the American “WE” is still less homogeneous than the European one, while I find it hard to imagine a European leaping up on a podium to proclaim “We are all Europeans!” with particular conviction or enthusiasm.

3But now let’s allow these preliminary skirmishes to be what they are: a badly camouflaged attempt to get around the extremely complicated question this essay ought to be discussing: Is there anything I can dare to call a European signature, impression, or projection in what I write? To be honest, my first reaction to the question was: I don’t know. For it is not the type of question a writer puts to himself as he is writing, and nothing seems so ancient, finished, and totally uninteresting as the books one has written and published oneself. I seldom read them — and never in bed! My second reaction was: Is there anything at all “European” in what I write? And if so, what might that be in the Europe of our time, when The Great Discussion in which all can join exists only as a huge, resounding silence or void; or a time when the European communities, including the Norwegian, most resemble a café during its busiest hour, when everyone talks in their loudest voice, where every table has its own conversation? What is the concept of “European” to mean when The Great Discussion is replaced by The Small Discussions? Moreover, the title and questions posed for this symposium indicate that not even the promoters themselves are sure whether there is any answer to the question outlined in their invitation. “Europeanness” probably has something in common with the medieval proof of God: only when human beings start doubting the existence of God does it become absolutely necessary to prove that He does. What is obvious needs no proof, no grounds for belief. My third reaction was: well, yes, you can find something “European” in my novels, but more as an invisible watermark than a visible signature. From the beginning my writing has been marked by Europe because I have consciously tried to distance myself from the time-honored, closed, self-reflecting, self-sufficient Norwegian; I have wanted to be just as consciously not-Norwegian as the Norwegians traditionally have wanted to be not-Danish, not-Swedish. Concretely this implies that I knew how I DID NOT want to write long before I had any clear idea of how I wanted to write. Moreover: my understanding of the very concept of literature, and of the novel in particular, has always been linked to Europe; the novel is no less than a European invention — this applies also to the American and Latin-American novels so popular in recent decades. To me this has been an extremely extant reality, not merely a fact of literary history.

4What do I mean by “time-honored Norwegian”? In poetry: mainline lyrical poetry written in a romantically colored poetic language that is bound up with a strongly monologic subject, with Norwegian nature (mountains and fjords, snow and pine forests) in its role as a perpetually fresh source of reference and metaphor, and with a tangible, though unexpressed, affinity with the preurban and pre-modern. In prose: The psychological-realistic novel with roots in the nineteenth century, usually with moral, political, or religious undertones. As a young, immature poet, I embarked whole-heartedly on writing selfless metapoems in an objective, I could almost say gray, laconic tone, inspired by such widely varying, but un-Norwegian, spirits as the French poets Mallarmé and Ponge, or the Germans Brecht and Celan. At that time my pet statements on literature were, for instance, Mallarmé’s famous: “Poems are not written with ideas but with words,” and Flaubert’s somewhat less well-known warning to young budding poets against, as he says, “using one’s own heart as a trampoline.”

5I also had a great regard for Flaubert’s often-quoted declaration: “Madame Bovary, c’est moi.” Concurrently, as I absorbed myself in those writers I did my best to read and understand French, German, and Russian theorists who wrote at the intersection between philosophy and literature. I think for instance of Roland Barthes and Walter Benjamin. There is no doubt that my basic attitude to writing was formed at that time, and the first uncertain deposits of what I now think of as a European signature on my own writing were laid down then. In his first crucial work on literary theory, The Zero-Point of Literature, Barthes makes his well-known assertion that “from Flaubert up to our own time, the whole of literature has been a complex problem of language,” which also implies that the wide scope of the novel demands the same fastidious care as the narrow scope of the poem. That is a fundamental demand for me. The novel is not first and foremost a mirror of man’s interior and exterior world, a way of reproducing a psychological course of development or an actual reality, but an arena in which research into existence is carried out by means of ambiguous, fluctuating writing.

6I have always foreseen the novel I wanted to write as a kind of architecture or topography of writing, a work that unfolds in space rather than in time, which can be more easily described in terms of a relation, for instance, rather than as a chronology. The novel as a linear narrative or description, if I disregard children’s reading, never really managed to grab me, and as a novelist I regard myself as almost the opposite of a writer of epics or a historian, and not in the least as a psychologist. It’s true that all my novels have easily recognizable elements of narrative; but the narratives do not complete themselves, they are moved along by other narratives that comment, fill out, reflect, interrupt. I should like to say that this is the European element in my novels: the leisurely, elaborate thought, the leisurely, elaborate sentence, searching, full of guardedness, always aware that life is never seized, but must always be seized; the notion that one writes to think through what one doesn’t understand, doesn’t know enough about, that which keeps one awake or pesters one’s dreams; that one writes in an attempt to surmount an interior resistance, or to resist an exterior one, and not necessarily because one has something spectacular to say. One of my favorite aphorisms about the novel, which also summarizes what I would like to identify as the novel’s “European signature,” is this one by Milan Kundera: “The novel is not about reality, but life.” If there is any European signature to be found in my novels it can be recognized in the unfinished, the untested. Europeanness always signals more questions than answers.

7My first novel, Eel, can usefully stand as a model. It deals with both a respectable teacher of German, who bears this name, and a very greatest puzzle posed by the fish genus, anguilla in Latin, which is a prized food item here in Germany as well, as far as I know. Why does my thoroughly level-headed German teacher feel such an irresistible, erotic attraction for his sweet, young, immature female German pupil, to the point that he can hardly think of anything except her? And why does the peerless eel roam all the way from the distant Sargasso Sea, where it is born, right up to our northern waters and then ten years later swim back to the Sargasso Sea to spawn and die? Why does it do this? Why couldn’t it stay in the Sargasso Sea and be content with that? It is worth noting in parenthesis that as I was writing this I read, to my great joy, in a Norwegian newspaper the following lovely little article. It might not have any connection with the matter in hand, so please forgive me for devoting time and space to it here; but I’ll take a chance, for something inside me says that it does belong here after all, within the context of this discussion on, or around, the European element in the text. In all its prosaic beauty the newspaper piece tells us: “A German family has kept a live eel in its bath since 1969. Into the bargain they have taught the eel to move into a bucket when someone wants to take a bath. ‘He is one of the family,’ says Hannelore Richter of Bochum. Her husband caught the eel on a fishing trip in 1969 and took it home for dinner. ‘But the children fell for the eel and refused to allow it to be killed and cooked, and ever since then it has lived in the bath. It even moved with us to a new house.’” I only ask: may one not write a novel about such a fish? And may one not deeply regret that this story was unknown in 1989, when Eel was written, and therefore could not have its rightful place in the novel?

8My third novel, Hutchinson’s Successors, published by Suhrkamp Verlag in autumn 2001, deals, among other things, with a Scottish timber merchant Robert Dalton Hutchinson, who closes down the very profitable timber business he runs with his brother in order to spend all his time and all his talents on such a totally useless, and in many ways absolutely ridiculous, passion as fly fishing, i.e., the art of catching a fish with a strange creation of hair and feathers wound round a small, sharp metal hook, which the unsuspecting fish believes to be a real insect. This man came to Norway at the beginning of the nineteenth century, a year or two after the dissolution of the union with Denmark, and published the first known textbook in Norwegian about the noble art of fly fishing, the self-important title of which is On the Use of Fly Fishing in Norway. However, Hutchinson’s Successors is also about a woman, Solveig Fjellberg, who nourishes at least as great and strange a passion as the old Scot, which is to make and dress herself in exact copies of the royal gala dresses of Queen Maud, the first queen of independent Norway. And finally it is about a man, a solitary, intense antiquarian bookseller, who is passionately fascinated by the passions of Robert Dalton Hutchinson and Solveig Fjellberg — and passionately tries to understand them by telling a story about them, that is to say, devoting all his time and all his abilities to something so totally futile, and more often than not financially unprofitable, as writing, writing, writing.

9Both Eel and Hutchinson’s Successors, and for that matter my most recent novel, When the Golden Sun Burns, which, incidentally, is to be published in German in the not-too-distant future, in their modest way pose questions about life and human motives. They offer no answer, they do not pretend to be psychological narratives able to illuminate the darkest labyrinths of the human mind, they do not set up any moral rules, they make no suggestions; but they ask, they wonder, they keep disquiet alive: why are we as we are, why do we act as we do? Why all those incomprehensible, often self-destructive, inappropriate, absurd, pathetic, not seldom incredibly cruel, but also not seldom incomprehensibly good, moving, beautiful things that humans actually do? That humans actually are? These perpetual, fundamentally unanswerable, questions — not some political or pedagogic project — form, to my way of thinking, the “European element” in my novels. A long list of great European novelists — Kafka, Mann, Musil, Broch, Beckett, Celine, Hamsun, Bernhard, etc. — have asked them before; but that doesn’t matter, for they have no final answer and will never go out of use. At present I have actually finished reading, though not marveling at, the autobiographical novel written by the winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, Imre Kertész. Fateless relates the experiences and happenings that the author lived through as a young lad in German concentration camps, including Auschwitz. These are depicted not as a unique manifestation of irrational wickedness, an alien tumor in the body of rational Europe, but as something completely possible, almost normal in its unheard-of way. “The uttermost truth about human degradation in modern life,” as we read on the cover of the Norwegian edition of the book. What other medium than the novel would have the courage and ability to hold up the image of the Nazi extermination camps — itself the symbol of annihilation of all we are accustomed to attach to Europe and “the European” — in such a manner, as a matter of fact, objectively, without moral indignation or metaphysical protest. This objectivity renders the camps even more terrifying, challenging, and inaccessible to the reader because Auschwitz becomes, so to speak, one of several other existing and real rooms in the European house that we all live in; and the community, the history, the culture that sur-rounds us? And I think: is it not the destiny of the European novel to see to it that such existential questions on the dignity and potential of the individual human being are constantly asked, even when they are felt to be shocking and outrageous? To see that they are not allowed to be forgotten, these questions with which neither the sciences, nor technology, nor the market, nor politics, nor the media occupy themselves to any tangible degree, partly because science, technology, the market, and politics, etc., force people into cubicles, into sectors — into the mine shafts of specialization — while the novel presents the individual in concrete situations, in the world of senses, emotions, experiences, memories, dreams, hopes of the future, and so on, which in every age make up the world of our life. And thereby the novel does its bit to put spokes in the wheels of the powers that want to degrade, reduce, place the individual in parenthesis?

10If it were not that it sounds so intolerably pompous, I should like to have concluded by saying that certainly, I feel more like a European than a Norwegian — and this is not concealed agitation for Norwegian EU membership; on the contrary, I think of the sum of impulses that has made me write the novels I have written. For to the extent I am able to say anything about my literary talent and its origins, I consider that it has not sprung from any Norwegian nature or Norwegian national feeling, as the romantics like to imagine, but purely and simply from the texts and ideas I have met with and have grabbed my attention, which have overwhelmingly been written and thought out by European writers. I recall a definition of Europeans: “Those who cherish a nostalgic longing for Europe.” In other words, the European is a person who longs for something that once existed, but is no longer there. The word nostalgia de-rives from Greek nostos (homecoming) and algos (pain). Thus, the European literally longs painfully to return to a Europe that is no longer to be found. And the “European signature” that can be seen like a watermark in my novels must, if this definition is correct, be a signature placed there by a dead hand, a ghostly hand quite simply — or a hand that in some mysterious way has kept itself alive from the past, somehow immortalized by time itself?

11Yes, fine by me; as far as I can see the present-day European hand is more occupied in setting its signature to other things than literary texts — to modern media and information technology, market economy, sports events, and the entertainment industry, for example. No, the heroes of our time are definitively not writers, but entertainers, sports stars, and the nouveau riche real estate agents.

12To be honest, I find it difficult to see any new, modern European signature in the novels written in this part of the world today; the European signature that I see inscribed into my own and others’ texts is a creation born somewhere else, in another time. But against all odds it has survived until today, like the eel in the bath. Even if it is far from its source and will never be able to get home, it moves as if nothing had happened, it still keeps its secrets, still won’t allow itself to be completely understood.

Table des illustrations

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Born in 1953, Geir Pollen studied Scandinavian languages and literature, Russian, and German. He taught at a grammar school, held courses in creative writing, and translated the works of Yves Bonnefoy and W. G. Sebald. From 1989 until 1995 he was a member of the literary council of the Norwegian Writers’ Association and since 2001 he has been chairman of the Association. Geir Pollen has published three poetry volumes and four novels. His works have been translated into German, Danish and Serbian. He lives and works in Oslo.

Anne Borne (Traducteur)

© Central European University Press, 2003

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