My feeling of happiness was so ecstatic that I didn’t know how I would be able to make it home, sit there and write, eat or sleep. But the world is constructed in such a way that it meets you halfway in moments precisely like these, your inner joy seeks an outer counterpart and finds it, it always does, even in the bleakest regions of the world, for nothing is as relative as beauty. Had the world been different, in my opinion, without mountains and oceans, plains and seas, deserts and forests, and consisted of something quite different, inconceivable to us, as we don’t know anything other than this, we would also have found it beautiful. A world with gloes and raies, evanbillits and conulames, for example, or ibitera, proluffs and lopsits, whatever they might be, we would have sung their praises because that is the way we are, we extol the world and love it although this is not necessary, the world is the world, it is all we have. So as I walked down the steps towards the town centre on this Wednesday at the end of August I had a place in my heart for everything I beheld. A slab of stone worn smooth in a flight of steps: fantastic. A sway-backed roof side by side with an austere perpendicular brick building: so beautiful. A limp hot-dog wrapper on a drain grille, which the wind lifts a couple of metres and then drops again, this time onto the pavement flecked with white trodden-in chewing gum: incredible. A lean old man hobbling along in a shabby suit carrying a bag bulging with bottles in one hand: what a sight. The world proffered its hand, and I took it.
It was wonderful, nothing could beat the feeling of walking across Torgalmenningen and Fisketorget in the middle of the day, drunk, it was as though I was right and everyone else was wrong, as though I was free and everyone else tied and bound to everyday life, and with Yngve and Asbjørn it didn’t seem wrong or excessive, just fun. All I wanted to do was to keep on drinking, live life, not give a toss, yet I hit a wall whenever I did that, a wall of petite bourgeoisie and middle-class manners, which could not be broken down without enormous anguish and fear. I wanted to, but I couldn’t. Deep down I was decent and proper, a goody-goody, and, I thought, perhaps that was also why I couldn’t write. I wasn’t wild enough, not artistic enough, in short, much too normal for my writing to take off. What had made me believe anything else? Oh, but this was the life-lie.
When I sat in the reading room, which was old and had a kind of sombre atmosphere, and read Blanchot in the afternoon, a completely new feeling arose in me, something I had never felt before, a sort of extreme excitement, as though I found myself in the proximity of something unique, mixed with an equally extreme impatience, I had to go there, and these two feelings were so incompatible that I wanted to jump up and run and shout and sit perfectly still and read on all at the same time. What was strange was that the restlessness began to course through me at the moment when I read something good which I had understood and absorbed, it was as though it was simply impossible to bear. Often I stood up and took a break then, and while I walked along the corridors and up the stairs to the first floor of the canteen, the excitement and the impatience mingled with the dropped jaw of my consciousness, which was to do with my pursuing these paths alone, and that kind of thing, my soul in an inexplicable turmoil, I bought myself a coffee and sat down at a table and tried to appear as calm as possible.
I was also weak with respect to Yngve. If there was a silence it was my fault and my responsibility. I knew Yngve didn’t think like that, didn’t care about silences, didn’t feel the need to fill them at all costs, he was sure of himself. This was for the same reason that he had friends and I didn’t. He was relaxed, didn’t give any importance to what he said or did, went out with Asbjørn one Saturday morning, for example, and just mooched around town, perhaps sitting in a café for a few hours, it was no big deal, whereas if I did the same the whole time was so enormously significant that any jarring tone, any discordance, was potentially fatal, and therefore I was forced into, or I forced myself into, a kind of unnatural silence. So was it that silence that distinguished this situation and who would want it around them? Who could stand such stiff and forced behaviour? And I didn’t mean any harm to anyone, so it was better to keep my distance or stay under Yngve’s wing, under his cloak of affability.
The others left one by one, we sat chatting, it was the kind of night when you could tell each other everything about yourself, and it is meaningful because there is also a common willingness to listen.
I felt it all the time, there was something about me people didn’t want to know, something they tried to avoid if they could. Something I had, something about the way I behaved. But what was it? I didn’t know. I didn’t say a lot, of course, I could safely assume that this was noticed and commented on unfavourably. Perhaps also that what I did say tended to be about inappropriate topics. What I said was often heartfelt, at least as soon as I was alone with someone, and people shied away from that like the plague. The alternative was to say nothing at all. These were my only modi vivendi, it was my entire register.
Hospitals were strange. It was first and foremost a strange idea: why collect all physical suffering in one place? Not just for a few years, as an experiment, no, here there were no time limits, the gathering of the sick and ill was a continuous process. If someone was cured and discharged, or they died and were buried, the ambulance was sent out to bring in another patient. They had called grandad right from the mouth of the fjord, and it was like that throughout the region, patients were brought in from islands and small communities, from towns and villages, as part of a system that had already lasted three generations. Hospitals existed to make us well, that was how it seemed from an individual’s standpoint, but if you flipped the coin and looked at it from the hospital’s angle, it was as though they were feeding on us. Take, for example, the idea that they had allocated the floors according to organs. Lungs on the sixth, hearts on the fifth, heads on the fourth, legs and arms on the third, ears, nose and throat on the second. There was some criticism of this, those who said that specialisation meant that the whole person was forgotten and it was only as a whole person that we could be cured. They hadn’t understood that hospitals were organised on the same principle as a body. Did the kidney know its neighbour, the spleen? Did the heart know in whose chest it was beating? Did the blood know in whose veins it flowed? Oh, no, no. For the blood we were just a system of channels. And for us blood was just something that appeared the few times there was an accident and the body was cut open. The call goes out, a helicopter takes off and thwumps above the town to pick you up, it lands like a bird of prey on the road by the scene of the accident, you are taken on board and whisked away, placed on an operating table and anaesthetised, to wake up several hours later to the thought that those gloved fingers have been inside you, those eyes have shamelessly stared at your naked organs glittering under the surgical lights without once thinking they belonged to you. For hospitals all hearts are the same.
The old idea of leaving everything returned for a brief instant. The worst of it was that it would be all right. I had always known that I could turn my back on everything and just leave, with no regrets. I could also leave Tonje. I didn’t miss her when she wasn’t there. I didn’t miss anyone and never had done. I never missed mum, I never missed Yngve. I never missed Espen, I never missed Tore. I hadn’t missed Gunvor when we had been a couple, and I didn’t miss Tonje now. I knew I would wander through the streets of Norwich, sit in lodgings somewhere writing, perhaps go out for a drink with Ole, and I wouldn’t miss her. I would think about her now and then, with warmth but not with longing. This was a flaw in me, a shortcoming I had, a coldness in my heart. If I got close to people I could sense what they wanted and subordinate myself to that. If Gunvor had felt I was too distant from her I sensed that feeling and tried to meet it halfway. Not for my sake but for hers. If I said something Espen considered stupid I was ashamed and tried to make amends, his assessment of me was paramount. Couldn’t I be distant and stand firm? Couldn’t I be stupid and stand firm? No, not there, not in front of them. But when I was alone it meant nothing. This coldness in my heart was terrible, sometimes I thought I wasn’t human, I was a Dracula who lived off other people’s emotions but had none myself. My love affairs, what else were they but a mirror? What else were they but my own feelings? What I felt for Tonje was genuine, however, and since a genuine feeling was more precious to me than anything else, I had to commit everything to that. But I didn’t miss her.
One thing I had learned when I was working at the first institution: life wasn’t modern. All the variants, all the deformities, all the freaks of nature, all the mental disabilities, all the insanity, all the injuries, all the illnesses, they still existed, they were as present now as they had been in the Middle Ages, but we had hidden them, we had put them in enormous buildings in the forest, created special camps for them, consistently kept them out of sight so as to give the impression the world was hale and hearty, that that was how the world and life were, but they weren’t, life was also grotesque and distorted, sick and crooked, undignified and humiliated. The human race was full of fools, idiots and freaks, either they were born like this or they became like this, but they were no longer on the streets, they no longer ran around frightening the wits out of people, they were in civilisation’s shadow or night.
Unlike in all the other places I had stayed, I had almost no relationship with Volda at all. I got up in the evening, wrote through the night, went to bed in the morning, longing for the evening when I could write again. Occasionally I would cycle down to the little town centre to buy CDs or books, but even the short time that took felt like a huge sacrifice, something I really shouldn’t allow myself. What I discovered during these months was the great power of routine and repetition. I did exactly the same every day so that I didn’t have to waste any energy and could put it all into my writing. Which also derived energy from the same source, three pages in one day became three hundred pages in a hundred days, and in a year more than a thousand. From the cigarettes I rolled in the course of a night, twenty or so, I always spilt some of the tobacco, which after six months built up into quite a pile beside the chair leg. The letters on the keyboard slowly became worn according to a system that remained a secret to me, some shone bright and intact after six months, others were as good as erased. But the routine had a further function: it protected me from seeing what I wrote from the outside. Routine had the effect of keeping me inside my writing day after day. If I upset the pattern – visited someone or perhaps had a few beers out with Tonje – everything was dislocated, I lost my rhythm, saw the routines and what I wrote, which was ridiculously poor, what was I thinking, that anyone would have any interest in my childish immature thoughts? Then this idea found reinforcement and the stronger it became the more difficult it was to get back into routine’s exclusion and tranquillity. As soon I was back in the groove, I decided not to make the same mistake again, not to meet anyone, not to go out drinking with Tonje. Then the decision also vanished, because that was how it was inside writing, everything on the outside vanished. During working hours I often stood by the hot radiator on the bathroom wall staring out of the window, not dissimilar to a cat, I would watch everything that moved outside, would stand there for half an hour, an hour, then went back in and carried on working. It was a way of having a break and resting without losing my rhythm. The feeling I had was fantastic. I had spent ten years writing without achieving anything, and then all of a sudden, out of nowhere, it was just flowing. And what I wrote was of such quality, compared with what I had produced earlier, that I was surprised every evening when I read through what I had written the night before. It was like having a head rush or walking in your sleep, a state in which you are out of yourself, and what was curious about this particular experience was that it continued unabated.