Thursday, October 16, 2003

On posting Ulven

It's not easy to translate Ulven. In fact, if you've ever tried it, you'll know the meaning of the Norwegian term "gjendikte": to make parallel poem in a different language, to repoetize. So as a noun it would signify the parallel poem, the re-poem. One reason it's particularly difficult to translate Ulven is his avid use of all sort of Germanizisms: The passive voice, the indefinite pronoun, the endless run-on of clauses, the inventive use of presentation, and so on and on.

The first issue to takle, though, is the novel's title. The Norwegian "Avløsning" is the noun form of the verb "å avløse", to take over for something else. It is used in military terminology to signify a change-of-guards: The guards were released. Hence it has connotations to relief, letting-go, as when a Queen may finally let go of her duties, hand them over to her successor and rest confidently on her laurels. On the far end of the connotative scale is "utløsning", the Germanic prefixes constituting their minimal pairedness. An "utløsning" is an ejection or ejaculation, or a release of energy more generally. So while it was tempting, then, to translate the title to "Relief", I chose Release, since I wanted to maintain some kind of link with the sphere of formal succession.

As I was working on the piece, and, even though I'm a great fan of late Ulven's work, I was struck by the plasticity of his metaphorism, at one point bordering on sentimentality, for instance when one of the narrators wonders if he'd "ever hear the sound of the chimney sweep again." And then I started contemplating what the heck the chimney sweep is supposed to symbolize, anyway. And, finally, what's the machine that "you" will construct meant to symbolize? Puzzling.

Tor Ulven's fate was both sad and sudden. I remember working the night shift in the daily newspaper Dagbladet in 1995 when there was some hushed whispering in the corner of "suspicious death" that had been reported on the police radio. "Suspicious death" is police-code for criminal investigation: A body has been found dead with no apparently "natural" cause. A team from the newspaper was sent out to follow the investigation. If it turned out to be a case of murder, it would be top priority. Murder-stories always collected a large readership, and thus much money for the paper.

When our team came back, though, it was more hushed whispering in the corners. Having worked in the paper for more than a year, I thought I might get an answer if I asked what had happened. As it turns out, it was not a matter of murder. The police had closed the case as no crime had been commited. In other words, it was a case of suicide.

"It was Tor Ulven," the reporter told me. I reacted with shock. Ulven was one of my favorite authors. I'd followed his writing meticulously since I began serious studies of literature many years earlier. He was a central member of the writers around the critically important Vagant literary magazine, and he'd introduced French surrealists and critical theory to the Norwegian language-area. Ulven had just been awarded an important literary prize. He'd pointed a gun to his head and pulled the trigger.

Ulven had handed in the manuscript for Mixtum Compositum to his publishers before his death. When it was published the same year, it came with the following excerpt on the dust-jacket:

"Monumentet er et monument over sin egen glemsel. Og får mening først når det ikke finnes noen som kan gi det mening. Det er steinen du holder i hånden. Som du aldri når inn til. Bare speilet viser alltid riktig tid. Når steinen speiler seg, er det ikke av forfengelighet. Speilet røper alt, steinen ingenting. Som stein og speil er det du helst vil vite."

"The monument is a monument of its own forgetting. And is given meaning only when nobody is there to give it meaning. It is the rock you're holding in your hand. That you can never reach in to. It is only the mirror that always displays the correct time. When the rock mirrors itself, it is not out of vanity. The mirror reveals everything, the rock nothing. As rock and mirror is that which you most yearn to know."

Release, published on Gyldendal in 1993, has been noted for its narrative creativity. In an interview with Vagant's Alf van der Hagen, the only interview he ever gave, Ulven is asked to comment on a critic's statement about the novel.

van der Hagen: - The Danish critic and author Christina Hesselholdt writes that she has counted fifteen persons or conciousnesses in the novel?

Ulven: The number is correct.

Later in the interview Ulven stresses that he composes his novel in as simple a manner as possible. Read an excerpt from Release below.

South Africa in the movies – some impressions

The ongoing festival "Films from the South" is showing two South African movies. I went to see them. While Malunde was cinematographically a very conventional movie -- down to the continuity editing, God is African was quite a different, and far more interesting experience, both in terms of the narrative style and the content. This movie, while also about integration, as more an attempt to establish Pan-Africanism on the ground of the foreigner present in South Africa. Set in the mid-90s, Femi, who carries a Nigerian passport, is trying to establish support for a protest against the Nigerian government's planned execution of the writer and activist Ken Saro-Wiwa. The main body of the movie consists of dialogues between the variously located characters -- fellow Nigerians, South African of various "races" and classes, students and journalists -- and Femi. Filmed with a hand-held videocamera and then transferred to the big screen, the cinematography is slightly reminiscent of Lars von Trier and the Dogme-school, and it manages to capture our interest even during some of the rather lengthy dialogues.

Staged: phatic sings the blues

It was a dark and dangy night when I glanced trough the stage curtain to see throngs of fans stomping their feet, shouting for "phatic". I know, I know, these stories should be written by someone else, but, as I've always said, if you want something done properly, you've gotta do it yerself.

So, anyway, while I was basking in the shouts of "What's his name?", and the response "PHATIC", I was preparing the evenings program. The stage was being covered in smoke, strobes piercing through the fog in rythmic intervals. It would have to be "I would like" that would open the show. Its techno-like beat seemed to get crowds going, and if it was one thing I wanted it was a wild crowd. "I would like" was a recitation of a poem by Samuel Beckett on a bed of techno, as simples as that. Then, I thought, I would do "Think", with a beat somewhere up the same alley, but with my own words this time. And with a dramatic end. All lights on stage goes down. Phatic changes shirt, to return with an acoustic guitar. Seated on a stool at the front of the stage I would do "universe-solitude", Beckett's translation of Paul Eluard's "L'Univers-Solitude." But a show can't end on a mellow note, as show-bizzers all know, so it would have to end with my Euro-Rap "am", climaxing in a masturbatory solo on my metallic green Fender Strat. Oh yeah.

Now it was just a matter of doing it.

Download the tracks from the Vitaminic stage.

* * *


by Tor Ulven(*)


An uneasiness, a small nervous twitch of light (or dark), one could
call it, an airing touching the curtain folds, admitting the pale
summer night shimmer, it occasionally breathes like this, a small
stream gaping and disappearing in a few seconds, then temporary
darkness, then a new breath and a new darkness; it happens every time the
draught (since he has purposefully, due to the strong heat, opened two
windows) opens a crack between the curtains, they flutter and bulge (as a
stage curtain when the actors or stage workers rush past behind it) before
they again hang relatively still in their skirt-like folds. A skirt with a
long split and the entire world hidden behind it. It is, in principle,
only a matter of opening the door and starting to walk, to find
everything, absolutely everything.


It's dark. He's lying in darkness, almost immovable, immovable on his way
to rest and sleep. He's become used to it, friends with it, a friend of
darkness, the short time of darkness after the curtains are drawn but
before he lights his reading lamp. If everything stands at its usual place
he can transport himself, as he has just done, with a certain confidence,
across the floor from the window to the bed. It is, however, not a full
night's darkness, merely half-obscure dusk; it still shines bright and the
sun reflected from the upper windows of the high-rise buildings burns,
while darkness, or semi-darkness, or the shadow, thickens below, and rises
(he knows) slowly up the floors, from one row of windows to the other, as
if on a measuring rod: almost full. Tonight he entered the smell of the
house like a guest, and again he senses the soothing, metallic vapour of
gun oil; it is within reach of the bed, loaded, as always. He is prepared.
The only matter of uncertainty is that the shells are about half his own
age, in other words over forty years old. Perhaps he should afford new
ones. But if they're never fired, he will have no joy from them, and the
money will be wasted.


Night inside is as warm as day outside. It could have been the ocean. Does
he have regrets? He doesn't know. At arrival he could have bought a pack
of jam biscuits (he must just soften them in his mouth first) and a bottle
of soda in the kiosk, before embarking upon the laborious trek to the
beach, where he could sit in the grass, with his jacket and crutches
beside him, and shirt-sleeves rolled up, could have eaten his biscuits and
drank the soda, slowly, relishing, while observing the waves rolling in,
feeling the wind in his hair, or, more precisely, on his skull, the smell
of salt, iodine and rotting seaweed. He remembers the last time he was by
the ocean, it must have been about ten years ago, when he saw something
(since it is as if his missing throat is compensated for by good
eyesight), something that first resembled a message-in-a-bottle, then a
cigar case, drifting towards the beach with the wind, but finally changing
into a wooden block, quite simply, a watery wooden block which finally
ended up pushing towards the rocks in sync with the waves, without any
message what-so-ever, smooth, not even with marks from the saw that had
cut it. He remembers the disappointment of sitting there and observing the
insignificant object bobbing towards the beach, the feeling that if one
only waits long enough, something will float, something void of meaning or
significance, perhaps, but something, something will float, drift, loiter,
a block, it's only a matter of waiting, he thinks, it is him, he is a
wooden block pecking at the beach rocks a summer day ten years ago. No,
he's not. He's alive. He's sitting there watching the wooden block in the


No. He sat and watched the wooden block in the water ten years ago.
Or seventy-three years ago. On the beach. A hand travelling up her
thighs, under her dress, and so on, no, not that, he thinks, but he
could see the bright dots of a sailboat moving through the branches
and leaves, disappear for a second and appear again, painfully slow, and
feel the sour smell of sausages burnt black at the beechtop bonfire (by
that time reduced to a red-orange pile of glows, where scattered wooden
remains shot out, spreading a powder of whirling sparks), and he is
content that that time has passed.


No, he's not. The core of an apple, for instance, or any fruit or
vegetable, rotting, getting wrinkled, twisted, and shrinking, as the human
body is getting wrinkled and twisted and shrinks and shrinks as the age
increases, as if the common denominator for fruits (or vegetables) and
humans only appears in decay, he thinks. He's sweating, particularly on
his back, a rancid, sticky sweat as syrup to the skin. Something he once
read concerning an artist who had hung a long string of bananas painted
white on some sort of rack by a wall, all of the same form and appearance
and equally artificial, except one, and, as the artist's exhibit
progressed, one of the bananas started rotting, the real, of course, thus
having revealed itself, while the others, the artificial ones, of course,
maintained their whiteness and splendor. No, not the ocean today. How long
had it been? About four months. That is, it was about four months since he
last was out of the house. Each time was an act of courage. But it was
worth it. Never in winter, that's too dangerous. But a grand experience
after having had the same view for four months or half a year. Basically
of no consequence what he sees, as long as it's something else.


Alright, not through the binoculars: a gyroscopically movable
aluminum tube, mounted on a solid rod, a platform to stand on, and a slit
for the coin (he knows nothing can be seen before he's paid; the coin,
rattling into the box, brings about a sudden epiphany of new and unthought
things, and allows them to appear clearly, magnified, indiscreetly close,
for a charge; he imagines a blind man with tin box rattling on his belly
who incessantly must put coins in the box for a few minutes of vision,
always more coins, and every time he runs out of change, he's completely
blind, until he again can produce another coin; observation isn't free, it
accumulates as debt, and he laughs quietly to himself in darkness at the
thought, fortunately none is there to hear the whooping, gasping hiss of a
throatless laughter). No, not the binoculars. Firstly, he wouldn't have
been safe enough on the small platform (close to a footboard), and,
secondly, he would probably be too slumped and stoop-shouldered to reach
the ocular, and, to top it all, he presumably would have had to let go of
both crutches, or at least one of them, to insert money.


Thus the naked eye. But he could support his elbows on a table at the
terrace, one of those outdoor café tables of white enameled metal booming
as one hits it, and he could sit on one of those folding chairs with a
high back, a collapsible iron skeleton with wooden crossbars. He could sit
there, harshly and uncomfortably, as it were, in the shade of a plastic
umbrella adorned with fringes and with a printed advertisement for some
brand of soda, while he had coffee and ate waffles with butter and
strawberry jam (even if he had to repeat each part of the order to the
young girl behind the counter three times, and the third time watch how
she thoughtlessly shaped the words with her own mouth, as if she were a
ventriloquist and he the ventriloquist's doll, and he noticed how
horrified and embarrassed she was by the amphibious, toad-like burping and
quacking he made). A barred fan at the counter, it cooled comfortably,
turning from side to side, while, in the empty room, he heard the
clattering of trolleys with cutlery and plates from the kitchen. The first
thing that happened as he re-emerged was that the paper that had covered
the sugar cubes blew away before he got to crumple it.


The bedside rug didn't slide tonight either. He could sit down in
safety and unbutton his shirt, slowly - each button being a project
of its own - under his stiff and shivering fingers. The tiny, smooth disc
that keeps slipping away, but he finally managed, today as well, even with
the sweat, and without seeing much, in the darkness, or semi-darkness;
it's a liberation each time he feels the release of a button's obstinate
friction against a button hole, and the button lets go, with a slight
push, a victory each time, increasingly splitting the shirt's chest. Now
he's lying here, in bed, in darkness, next to the firewall. First a few
strong, mellow thumps to the inside of the chimney, then a quick and
jerking whistling, it's all repeated, then the clamping as he re-enters
the attic stairs; the chimney sweep usually arrives early in the morning,
and the sounds are due to the tools he's bringing: an iron ball hanging on
a chain, and a tuft of elastic metal ribs fastened to the chain, it must
be so that the ball makes the broom sink to the bottom of the chimney,
while the tuft sweeps away the soot while the entirety: ball, chain, tuft,
is hauled up again, while the more or less pulverized layer of soot
sprinkles down to the basement, where it, subsequently, must be shoveled
out through a hatch made for that purpose. But not now. It is in spring he
arrives, spring and fall, twice a year. We become more unassuming when it
comes to entertainment as we grow older. He wonders whether he will hear
the sounds of the sweeping tool again.


It's always better to sweat than to be cold, he thinks, but it's not
good to sweat either. He could almost see it in its entirety from
where he sat, under the umbrella at the terrace of the café,
cartographically, in bird's perspective, and it didn't appear to have
grown from the seaside and up, as it clearly had done through the
centuries, but as if it had flown down the valley and dried on the plain
before the ocean in the form of a slow, pale mass of glass, where he could
discern through the haze of heat a number of small, white and apparently
immovable sails between the green-black landmasses of the bay; only if he
stared insistently at one of them could he register how the distance
between the boat and, say, one of the islands diminished, until the sail
disappeared behind it.


Now it's dark, and yet not entirely so, for some light still slips
past the curtain, both through the small crack in the middle (only an inch
or so, and, on each side of the glowing column, the folds are drawn as
thick, dark lines that taper here and there where the fabric is twisted
inwards or outwards) and through the textile itself, where the real
pattern (stylized clowns, sea lions, circus horses and elephants in a
regular repetition) has become almost invisible, as if it was completely
washed out. In stead you now see something that usually doesn't come out
that well, particularly not when it's light in the room and dark outside
(while it is now dark in the room and light outside): a suggestion of the
weave itself, all the crossing threads that in sum make up the curtain,
approximately as when someone pulls a shirt over your head and in your
resistance you see the light through the fabric of the clothing, but not
what is outside, and your breath makes an imprint. When your head is
finally pulled (forcefully) through the neck, you feel it as a wet spot on
your chest. It is soon forgotten, and by the time you remember it, it's


It's not a total darkness, but it turned into a sort of darkness
after her thumb, with a long, red nail, flicked the switch (which
resembles a short, round nose -- it somehow extends when the lamp is
switched off), after she closed the book and leaned over you so that her
while pearl necklace fell into the arch of your neck. It was cold and
tickled, and she had to hold it up with her other hand while putting her
cheek next to yours, and you sensed the smell of perfume and a faint scent
of today's dinner (mutton in cabbage, with the nauseating, sludgy,
grey-white substance, the tough, soda-like meat splinters and the hard
pepper corns that seem to explode in your mouth like firecrackers to your
taste buds when you bite them; you can't help it, even though you're
always told to spit them out and put them on the side of your plate);
stench of mutton in cabbage, that is, from her hair and clothes. If she
had accepted leaving the door ajar, some light would have entered from the
living room, but she won't accept it, she says you must get used to being
alone in darkness, or you'll never get used to it, you who have gone to
school for two years, and there's nothing dangerous in darkness; thus
there is no light from the living room, only some from the window.


You will construct the machine.

(*) Translation of the first paragraphs of Tor Ulven's Avløsning (Oslo: Gyldendal, 1993) by Torgeir Fjeld.