‘I stopped my bicycle under a street lamp near Riddervolds Square and spread out the map to see where I was going.’
Over the last years, loyal to the time in my life when I eschewed travel for reading, when the word edged out the world, I’ve taken to choosing a novel or book of poems associated with an intended holiday destination, as a companion and guide. On a recent trip to Oslo, I read The Blue Room by Hanne Ørstavik.
Intimate, intense and strange, the book is narrated by a young woman, Johanne, who on the morning she is set to travel to American with her boyfriend Ivar, finds that she has been locked into her bedroom by her mother. The action of the novel will follow Johanne’s thoughts and fantasies as she paces the confines of her room waiting for her mother’s return. Has she locked Johanne in her room as a desperate act of domination, or is it simply an accident? The relationship between the two of them is loaded with a sense of unease: her mother’s presence is vague and even contradictory. A Christian, as well as a student of psychology, Johanne has begun to waver in her faith, in part because of her relationship with Ivar; her mother disapproves of the relationship. Sexual fantasy flares in Johanne’s narrative with the bright fleeting heat of a firework, but more often than not these fantasies give way to visions of punishment and abuse, and an ensuing sense of guilt. ‘This fog in my head, this exhaustion, this powerlessness, these endless images… Where do I begin and where do I end.’ Johanne has become negated by the influences of Ivar and her mother, a battleground of their respective needs. (The Norwegian title translates into something like ‘As true as I am real’; the English title evokes Simenon’s claustrophobic novel about sexual tension and betrayal in a small French town).
This spirit of isolation, delusion and self-punishment inevitably brings to mind another key Oslo novel, Hunger by Knut Hamsun. Both books concern inner life and privations, the tension between the spiritual and the material. Hamsun unnamed narrator is a writer and bedroom genius, who may well be perpetuating his own set of delusions, and the intensity of his frustrations brings to mind the observation by Steve Erikson about Henry Miller, that his ‘interest, of course, is eating. There is a misconception, largely among those who have never read Tropic of Cancer, that the book is about sex.’ It’s easy to read Johann as the opposite side of this formula of needs: a female (though perhaps not feminist) answer to Hamsun. While the narrator of Hunger lurches from address to address looking for food, Johanne stays in her room pre-occupied with sex. (Fittingly, perhaps, Ivar, her boyfriend works in the canteen at the university. ‘He said something to a girl arranging cheese rolls on a tray; she was pretty yet he looked only at me … You are here in my belly, I thought, living inside me already…’)
As she awaits her mother’s return, Johanne pictures herself out on the streets of Oslo, at university or at a gig with Ivar, wandering the city with her mother, with friends. ‘I linked my arm with hers as we walked past the palace across the sandy gravel square and we started the long slope down to Karl Johan.’ Oslo is a small, defensive, city, occupying an arc of land behind a network of fjords, the edges blurring quickly into the natural landscape. An easy city to walk. When I visited, Barcelona fans were out on the town, celebrating their team’s victory in the Champions League, chanting and parading down Grensen Street. Earlier that day, I had read in Hunger, ‘All the way up Grensen Street I behaved like a madman.’ It was easy to imagine the street I stood on as acting as a direction for mania like this for as long as it had existed. Easy, too, to imagine Johanne and Hamsun’s narrator, pausing to let the football fans pass, their gazes meeting across stories and time periods, before they continued on their own pathways through the city, their private enactments of escape.
‘Every word in the book had become a new code for his name.’
Words © Daniel Bennett