150+ essays on literary topics
Two short novels by different authors, neither of them English, both young, both female, both writing in the first person. There are other similarities too that make the comparison interesting and illuminating, such as the fact that the narrator in both cases is a woman who feels trapped by the circumstances of her life but is unable to do anything about it. The only significant difference, apart from the specifics of the narrative, is in the use the author makes of the single viewpoint of her first person narrator.
One of the novels is Like sant som jeg er virkelig by Hanne Ørstavik, first published in Norway in 1999, published this year in England as The Blue Room by Peirene Press. The author is described on the cover as ‘one of the most admired authors in contemporary Norwegian literature’ and therein lies the difficulty for most English readers. For most of us, our knowledge of Norwegian literature starts and finishes with Ibsen. As for Norwegian culture more generally, that starts and finishes with Grieg. If a novel exists in the mind of the reader as well as the writer, I need to admit at the outset to my shortcomings as a partner in the process. All I have in my mind as a point of cultural reference for a Norwegian novel about a young woman whose mother has locked her in so that she can’t run away with the young man she has fallen in love with is The Wild Duck. Trying to get my bearings in the world she inhabits, I cling to that sense of being stifled by the conventions of a bourgeois society that is so familiar in Ibsen’s plays. Is it still like that in Norway? I have no idea. The narrator lurches between conventional piety (most of the time) and erotic fantasy (at irregular intervals) in a way that seems not far removed (except in its mode of expression) from the repressed desires of Ibsen’s heroines and the respectability of their unsatisfactory husbands. But what do I know? Hanne Ørstavik and her Norwegian readers might think this an outlandish comparison to make, their own frame of reference being so much wider and better informed than mine.
The narrative begins and ends in the room. ‘I cannot get out,’ it begins. ‘Something must have happened to the lock. I’ll have to wait until Mum comes home from work to help me.’ The last chapter returns to that beginning. ‘I hear a key in the lock. Mum’s back home.’ The narrator’s thoughts occupy the time between these two events, so that we gradually learn more about her and the people in her life, in particular the young man with whom she has fallen in love. It is clearly the author’s intention that we should identify with the narrator. The only voice we hear is the narrator’s, not the author’s. The author wants us to see everything, not through her eyes, but through the eyes of the narrator, Johane. Other characters – Karin, Svenn, Ivar – take shape for us gradually as they come in and out of Johane’s thoughts. We have to piece things together. The point is that Johane’s world is confined more profoundly by her own perceptions than by the turning of the key in the lock. Really, her mother need not have bothered to lock her in. She was already locked in.
The other novel is La cote 400 by Sophie Divry, first published in France in 2010, published in England last year as The Library of Unrequited Love by MacLehose Press. The author dedicates her book ‘to all those men and women who will always find a place for themselves more easily in a library than in society’. The narrator, a disenchanted, middle-aged female librarian in a provincial library, is just such a person. French and English history and culture having been in regular dialogue for hundreds of years, we find ourselves here on familiar ground. The middle-aged female librarian is as much a stereotype in England as, presumably, it is in France. The author’s clever manipulation of that stereotype for the purposes of what she terms her ‘divertissement’ works just as well in English as it does in French, which must be one reason why, unusually, it has been published so soon in translation.
The author’s intention here is not that we should identify with the narrator, but that we should listen to her. The reader is given a part to play. ‘Wake up!’ the novel begins. ‘What are you doing lying there? The library doesn’t open for another two hours.’ We gather that we have somehow been locked in overnight and, woken by the librarian, are given the non-speaking part in a two hour dialogue. We learn quite a lot about the Dewey system (to which the French title refers) and even more about the librarian. It is the theatricality of the narrative voice, the way in which, little by little, it loses its inhibitions, revealing at the end an angry, resentful despair, that distinguishes Divry’s narrative technique from Ørstavik’s. The reader is never invited to identify with the librarian but to stay in role and listen to her with amused, if sympathetic, detachment.
Each writer succeeds in what she sets out to do. Whether the difference between them, the inwardness of one, the outwardness of the other, is simply the difference between two individual writers or the difference between two national cultures, would be hard to say. All I can say is that the Norwegian story left me thinking there was no way out and the French thinking there was no way out but who cares? Ibsen v. Maupassant.
My next post, on 11 June, will be The ballet of the play of the book.
The next entry in my Reader’s Diary will be published on 18 June.