I hear what you’re saying, but I’m not listening.
Mark Twain:America as Henrik Ibsen:Norway Both men are legends of literature, home and abroad. They wrote meaningful works that addressed contemporary social issues that transcended their times. Ibsen, like so many famous, and infamous, writers penned his greatest works away from home. Italy and Germany hosted Ibsen’s works from Brand to Hedda Gabbler.
Seems like a thing that if you are a serious writer you need some exotic location to practice the craft. I had always chalked that up to the eccentricities of writers and the need to have some space from others. While I still think those issues are relevant, this time in Norway has given me a new idea: Foreign languages are background noise.
In Bergen, Week 40, I tried out the historic library to catch up on my personal journal. It seemed like an artsy thing to do in an artsy town. The library was old but not archaic, functional. Sadly, it had suffered the indignity of new additions and wiring for modernity. The place was pushed into being a “media center” unwillingly.
Like pushing water uphill, it can be done, but the water doesn’t like it. Please leave my old stone buildings with books made of paper, chairs made of wood, and librarians who aren’t interested in catering to your need to tote a locally roasted coffee every waking moment. But I digress.
I found a table for two against the railing and overlooking the atrium. To my left were shelves of graphic novels, mostly in english. Ahead of me was a door with a special label overhead done in that appliqué that women put on walls, “Fantasy – Horror – Science Fiction.” At a nearby table over homework “Non-native” Norwegian women chatted.
I have been writing a lot in Norway. I have written more in these two months than, well, I don’t know when? I wrote copiously while working on my research and dissertation. But that got to be a burden quickly; I just had to endure it to the end. Here I have been writing because I want to, because feel obliged to, actually because I have to. I am seeing and thinking and experiencing so many new things I feel compelled to record them. Additionally, I am rethinking much of my life in America, rethinking America itself.
Why? Why here? Okay, Norway is stimulating, seriously. But I think the bigger reason is that I don’t know what is going on around me. People are talking and I don’t know what they are saying. I am not interested in overhearing your conversation, it’s just background noise. The TV has gone unused. I don’t have friends to play with…(ha, I knew that one would make you laugh – just checking to see if you’re actually reading). My engagement in everyday life is low.
On the bus, or train, or plane, I am left to my own internal dialogue. I hear my own thoughts more clearly, consequently they are louder. It’s not that I need to be away from people. On the contrary, people are stimulating. The sweep and flow of others, the acknowledgement that life is still happening are important supports for one’s own humanity. But as a stranger, I just don’t have to care about the minutia of the lives of everyone around me.
Ibsen and his ilk lived in vibrant communities on purpose. I suspect they needed to feel alive by being surrounded by the lives of others. But maybe they also needed the distance of language (and culture) to not notice all the trivia of life that overwhelms our daily lives. Maybe as my Norwegian improves I will get more distracted and write less? Maybe, but that is a risk I am willing to take. Shutting myself into a cloistered place will only make this Jack a dull boy.
Moving also affords me perspective. Imagine a large tapestry. Now imagine standing against that tapestry, your nose one inch from the fabric. What do you see?
Too close, huh? The whole is impossible to know. Perhaps you can suss out a detail or two but you really have no chance of explaining the work as a whole. Living in a culture is like that. Moving back from the tapestry, like moving away from your home culture, provides prospective.
Could Ibsen have written A Doll’s House or Hedda Gabbler from the shores of the Oslo Fjord? Yes, he could have but he didn’t. Twain could have written Huckleberry Finn along the banks of the Mississippi, there were so many beautiful and inspiring promontories and towns for him. Instead he wrote the book in New England. Members of the Professional Organization of English Majors are invited to comment.
I wrote what I needed to at the library and called it a night. Plus the DJ prepping the speakers in the adjacent room confirmed that shortly there would be no pretense of this not being a media center/media circus. The grey skies did not reflect off the grey streets as I walked the short distance to the hotel. Maybe I’ll write about that?
Post script: I showed you five of the six Grotesque at the doors of the Bergen library. First correct comment with #6 wins a personal postcard.