Aug 152013
 

stig

Herewith is “Us.” I’ve chosen this excerpt of Through the Night (Dalkey Archive Press), translated by Seán Kinsella, to illustrate the power of Sæterbakken’s prose, particularly his narrative voice and control of the moment. “Us” comes early in the novel, and is perhaps the origins of Karl and Eva’s eventual separation. But as this section makes clear, Karl poses many existential questions on love and fidelity, which are paralyzing, and for him unanswerable. This rather prismatic questioning of life is repeated throughout the novel, adding to the novel’s overall tension and psychological terror.

Jason DeYoung

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Us

“Do you think the two of us will always be together?”

We’d eaten a late dinner, and I was pouring Eva some wine from a newly opened bottle, after she had, surprisingly enough, asked me to check and see if we had one. I felt a smile cross my face as I stood in the closet with the bottle in my hands, Eva had that carefree air about her, the one she usually had, in fact, when circumstances suited her, and as I stood in the kitchen cutting off the bottle’s seal with the tip of the corkscrew, I couldn’t help but smile again, as if it were our very first night together.

“Do you think the two of us will always be together?”

The question gave me a start and I tightened my grip on the bottle, anxious about where she wanted to go with this. Why did she ask? Because she figured, no matter which way she looked at it, that the answer had to be yes? Or because she figured, no matter which way you looked at it, that the answer had to be no? And I thought about how often the questions we asked each other were in reality the questions we wanted to be asked ourselves.

“Do you think the two of us will always be together?”

I looked at her. Her neck, her shoulders. So beautiful, everything! Sometimes in the evenings I massaged her while she watched TV. I felt like a sculptor when I did it. This was what a sculptor must have felt, I imagined, when he had finally gotten a piece just as he wanted it, standing there running his hands over his finished work. And, in fact, she now placed her hand on her own shoulder, there at the table, and began to rub at it, without being aware she was doing so, which was usually an expression of exhaustion, self-pity, of wan despair, but which now seemed more like a self-caress.

“Do you think the two of us will always be together?”

In order to avoid answering, I raised my glass and clinked it against hers, and asked for her own opinion on the matter. The subject could hardly be coming up out of the blue, it occurred to me, when I actually thought about it: it was only a few days since one of Eva’s old friends, whom she hadn’t heard from for years, had called her up and described in detail—they’d been on the phone for almost three hours—the last few years of her marriage, a marriage that had lasted since the days she and Eva had been at school together, but was now over, as it had turned out that her husband, who had been her childhood sweetheart, was jumping into bed with practically every woman who had come his way, most recently with his sister-in-law, something that of course had come out, by and by, and had in turn triggered an absolute avalanche of confessions. This friend told Eva that she felt that her entire life had been ruined. All those years she’d regarded him as her one and only, believing him to be regarding herself as his . . . She’d said she would have felt better if she’d been the one who had done it, if she’d been the one who had lied and cheated, the one who now had to put up with the accusations, the one racked with shame and regret. She’d embarked on a few reckless escapades after she’d found out, she confided to Eva, as a revenge of sorts. But it was too late. There was nothing to be gained from it, neither for her nor for him. Nothing for her to win, nothing for him to lose. Everything was ruined. And she had never even had any fun of her own!

“Do you think the two of us will always be together?”

I looked at Eva. I remembered when I had gone back to her place for the first time, how amazed I’d been at how neat and tidy it was. It was like a household already, just as though the apartment was furnished for the life she wanted but had yet to acquire. It was a home, just standing there waiting for its family to arrive. And I remember thinking with horror about my own one-bedroom apartment, which she still hadn’t been to, how hopelessly juvenile and unfinished it would appear to her compared to all the things she kept around her. The chairs she had were comfortable to sit in, in the kitchen she had good quality knives on a magnetic strip above the range. She wasn’t a student! She was a complete person! There was something extremely appealing about it. I’d been filled with admiration as I looked at her standing there with a bottle of wine in each hand, asking me which I’d prefer; I wanted to move in with her right away, abandon everything I had, take nothing along, just advance to the start, her start, and begin there, over again.

So what did I think? Did the fact that I hesitated, that I didn’t have a ready-made answer, mean that the answer was no? Or was it just that I hadn’t formed any particular opinion yet? In which case it must mean that one outcome was just as likely as the other? Why hadn’t I thought it through properly? Was it because I was so certain that nothing would ever happen that could threaten us, our relationship, the vows we’d made?

I looked at her, the lovely renewed Eva. The just right level of tipsy Eva. The slightly nonchalant, amenable Eva. Whenever I dreamed of her, she was wearing the red dress she’d had on the first time we went out, to that Chinese restaurant. Yes, I think the two of us will always be together, I thought. What else could we possibly want? Her hair, which had grown and was long, fell across her face every time she turned her head, but it was as though she wanted this to happen, since she liked to rake her hand through it, gather it, pull it back behind her ear in a fresh futile attempt to fix it in place, the most beautiful of power struggles.

I looked at her and thought: Now it’s turned into the kind of night where anything can happen. Now we can say anything, anything that comes to mind, without either of us being hurt. At this moment we can take anything. And I remembered a film I’d seen, where you could enter another dimension through a hole in the atmosphere that was only open at certain times, and even then only to those who knew the secret formula. It was there now, the wormhole. It was right in front of us, the possibility to say anything we wanted, exactly what we had on our minds, without the need to take anything else into consideration. At this moment we ourselves didn’t need to be taken into consideration, neither of us. Right now we were the opposite of jealous. At this moment we were equally strong and could tolerate everything.

There and then I felt the need to do it, reveal something, confess something, anything at all, in order to affirm the new intimacy that had arisen (and that would soon vanish again), the candor that now existed between us (and that I knew would soon close again, like a flower that only blooms at night, which folds together as soon as the first rays of the sun fall on it). I despaired. Did I really have nothing to say? No, it seemed that I didn’t. No confessions. No admissions. Nothing to answer for. My conscience was clear. I felt ashamed at the thought. Because it was true, there really was nothing. Nothing other than some altogether insignificant episodes, some embraces that perhaps lingered beyond the merely amicable, some too-close dances, some fleeting touches, one or two kisses that were so innocent that I’d only make a fool of myself if I told Eva about them.

I thought: What in the world have I actually gotten up to in all these years?

A thousand thoughts, a thousand possibilities tumbled around in my head—I had to act quickly, our night was in danger, it could collapse at any moment, and if it did, then nothing could save it from the wan abyss, from the greedy maw of everyday life—but none distressing enough to take advantage of this opportunity, this potential for a new sort of relationship between us. No, to my horror, I had to face the fact that I had nothing to say. My God, if only I’d deceived her one single time! And I cursed myself, my honesty, my excessive caution. My sole sin: omission. Time was up, but there was nothing. She was ready, and I had nothing to offer her.

And a new anxiety pierced through me. What if she now came out with something? What if she now felt the same as I did, that the time had come to admit things, and that she, in contrast to me, actually had something on her conscience, something she now wanted to take the opportunity to unburden herself of? How then would I deal with that? I didn’t have anything to offer her in return, nothing of my own to balance the books with. And for a moment I felt helpless, terrified of what I might hear. I looked at her, waited for her mouth to open, for her to say the words, in an oddly toned voice, which would constitute the introduction, accompanied by a somewhat fearful glance, uncertain of exactly how open she could be.

“Why did you fall in love with me?” she asked before I could think of anything to say, and what I initially took as being a tender thought, a romantic invitation, was in reality, I realized, as I was about to answer, a challenge, a provocation, there had been something aggressive about the way she’d posed the question that only sank in afterward, like a delayed sting. And before I had time to answer, she continued, “Why us exactly? Why didn’t we both end up with other people? Why is it the two of us, in particular, sitting here?” And then she made a gesture with her hand: surrounded by all this. “Why you and me exactly? Why did you decide that I was the one? What was it that made you take that decision?” I searched for something to say, something to stay her with. Because I could see where this was going. But I couldn’t think of anything. And why should I? She wasn’t looking for answers anyway. Her eyes had that slightly glassy look about them, as if they weren’t being used to see anymore.

“Why?” she asked again, pausing before she continued, “Why did you marry me? Why didn’t you wait until you met somebody else? What was it that was so special about me? Was it really impossible for it to have been, just as easily, someone else? Did it only just happen to work out that way, that it was me? Was it just that I was at hand, that I was around when you thought the time was right?”

I said her name, but she didn’t hear me. She was far away. How am I going to get her back? I wondered. If I can’t get her back now, the evening will be lost. Then it was as though she came to life, her cheeks were crimson and a flame danced all the way up along her neck, it looked like her collarbone was on fire, the way her skin flushed and tightened over her throbbing veins.

“Am I the love of your life, Karl? The love that only comes along once in a lifetime? Am I?

“And does it only come along once in a lifetime? What do you think? Maybe it comes along a few times? Or is it something you can use up? What do you think?

“What about you, Karl? Could you love more than once? Is there anything left in you? Or have I taken it all?”

I should have stopped her, defended myself. But the way she’d worked herself up, I knew the only way to get her to stop would be to let her exhaust herself. She was like a riverbed in a spring flood. Any obstacles in her path would only increase the pressure.

“Why don’t you answer me? I’m only asking a few simple questions. What else can I do but ask when you don’t give me anything to work with? You never answer! What is it you don’t want to say? Are you hiding something? Are you hiding something from me, Karl? Are you keeping secrets from me? You don’t have any secrets you’re keeping from me, do you, Karl?”

She looked out of her mind, with her flaming red neck and the purple blotches all around her eyes and cheeks.

Then her head tipped forward, her face hidden by her hair. I didn’t know what to do, only that I’d be wise to wait a little longer before doing it. It looked like she was asleep, but I knew that her eyes were open, that she was sitting there struggling to collect her thoughts. Yes, best to wait, I thought. I took her hand, it was freezing. I warmed it up in my own, and after a while I felt it twitch a little. And then, at long last, she lifted her head and looked at me, fixed her eyes on mine, tried to lift herself up using only our eye contact as a prop. And now the glassy look had vanished, now her eyes sparkled, the light deepening, her look of despair finding expression, her lips regaining their color, the person in her returning, all her wrinkles and lines slipping back into place.

I stood up, still holding her hand, got down on my knees in front of her, and stroked her hair. She sat there for a long time just looking at me, smiling, rather contritely, it seemed. Then she grabbed me by the arm and stared into my eyes with an almost parodic over-seriousness: “Whatever you do, Karl,” she whispered, “whatever you do, don’t lie to me! Do you hear me? I think I’d be able to forgive you almost anything. No matter how idiotic. But not if you lied to me. Not if it turns out that you’d lied to me. Will you promise me? Promise me that you’ll never, ever lie to me?”

I promised, swore a solemn oath. Unconditionally, right there and then, I promised. I felt a pang of conscience as I said it. But then it vanished. Does it matter what you say, what you promise? I remembered how scared I used to be, at the time we were first getting to know each other, of her demands. It was as though she wanted us to live in a way the era in which we lived simply wouldn’t allow us. It was as though marriage was one of the antiques she’d collected, one she felt a particular attachment to. We had friends who’d already divorced and remarried, it was like a perpetual round dance, fueled by the same desires and the same disappointments at every point in the circle. They sought out marriage in order to realize their dreams, and they broke out of marriage in order to realize their dreams—which is to say, they married and divorced for the same reason. All the same, it didn’t occur to me to protest against the old-fashioned boundaries Eva set. Maybe she was right? Maybe it needed to be that strict if it was to mean anything at all? What would be left of fidelity once it was broken? All or nothing, wasn’t that how it had to be? If it happened once, what was to prevent it happening again? Was breaking your marriage vows five times any worse than breaking them twice? Is it better or worse to go to bed with ten different people or to do it ten times with the same person? Is the sin made greater when it’s repeated? Does fidelity even have any meaning in cases where it’s not absolute? And what value does it have if it’s going to be violated someday anyway? The smallest crimes are the largest. By perpetrating them you demonstrate that you are capable of anything.

What had bothered Eva’s friend wasn’t that her husband was unfaithful, but that she herself hadn’t been. Since she herself had refrained, when he did not, all of her years of fidelity became an object of shame. Her entire attitude, her devotion, her marital investment were all taken from her in one fell swoop. Her life-choice became a mockery, retroactively. Her outlook held up to ridicule. Her commitment a waste of time, when all was said and done.

Eva sat staring at me, with a look of either joy or despair, it was hard to say which. Then she tossed her head, sighed heavily, and shook off whatever it was that either delighted or distressed her. All at once she seemed completely sober. The transformation was almost uncanny, as if she’d only been pretending to be drunk.

“Does it make any difference,” she asked, watching me from inside that part of her brain she’d managed to keep on dry ground, away from the alcohol that had been flowing through her, “whether you do it or not, if you really want to do it?”

I asked her what she meant.

“If you meet someone you find attractive, someone you’d like to go to bed with, someone you know you could go to bed with, if you wanted, and then you don’t, out of consideration for me, have you been unfaithful to me anyway? What difference does it make, if it leaves you thinking about how nice it would’ve been to do it? Is there any difference? Does it affect our relationship any less, if you don’t go through with it? Is there less damage being done to our marriage if we do it in our heads and not in reality?”

For the umpteenth time that night I was again at a loss for words. All the same, I was aware that I was enjoyed talking to her about this. I liked the danger of it, the delicacy of it, liked the fact she was on a roll, that she was challenging me, I liked the way it all gushed out of her, how months of constantly recycled thoughts were suddenly being given vent, how everything that was usually concealed was now frolicking so openly between us. Oh, darling, why don’t we do this every night? Why don’t we sit like this, night after night, filling the cup till it overflows, talking about ourselves and our relationship, repeat things we’ve said a hundred times before, tell each other stories we both know by heart, let the familiar mill grind down the corn of our solidarity? Why does such a long time have to pass between each time we do it? Why does such a long time have to pass between each time we find our way to one another like this? What’s the point in everything we do if it doesn’t lead us here, the only place worth being? This is what we live for! This is the purpose of everything we do! The nights that make our days pale by comparison, which bathe our intimacy in a glow, the nights when it’s obvious and evident we can sit across from one another and tell each other everything. Why don’t we do this all the time? Why isn’t every night like this? If there’s a price, then let’s pay it: forty days of silence for one voluble night! As though it all runs by clockwork, gears turning us so slowly, impelling us, cogs that have to make a full revolution before their teeth again connect, slip into one another in precisely the right way, falling into the position needed to set the clock striking. And then come the beautiful, delicate sounds. And everything becomes melodious and obvious. Before the cogs move on, beginning the next long, slow revolution.

“Eva?”

“Yes?”

“I love you.”

—Stig Sæterbakken, Translated by Seán Kinsella

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