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A Language of Flesh and Blood

Written by: Rakel Christina Granaas |

Hagen, Else (born 1914): Tinsoldater. 1945. Oil on canvas. Oslo kommunes kunstsamlinger, Oslo

Torborg Nedreaas (1906-1987) made her publishing debut at a relatively late age – thirty-nine years old – with two collections of short stories: Før det ringer for tredje gang (1945; Before the Third Bell) and Bak skapet står øksen (1945; The Axe Is behind the Cupboard). She was immediately recognised as a writer of note. From the end of World War Two in 1945 and up until 1971 she published three more collections of short stories, four novels, a collection of her radio plays, one television drama, and a selection of causeries.

According to Torborg Nedreaas herself, it was neither gender nor motherhood that prevented her from making an earlier publishing debut. In a 1981 interview she says that her late debut was due to dread of not writing well enough. An older writer had given her the advice never to send in anything bad!

We must not, however, overlook the part played by financial worries or Torborg Nedreaas’ s many comments about a total lack of literary ambition during her early writing years – a period in which, by all accounts, she took an almost playful approach to writing, something she had developed when she was a youngster and spent part of the year in Copenhagen whence she wrote imaginative and bubbly letters to her girlfriends back home in Bergen. The ‘Herdis’ figure, featuring in several of Torborg Nedreaas’ s books, profited from these experiences.

Torborg Nedreaas’ s major work – the story of Herdis, a girl from Bergen – is a wide-canvas picture of a milieu, painted in a number of short stories and in the two novels Musikk fra en blå brønn (1960; Eng. tr. Music from a Blue Well, 1988) and Ved neste nymåne (1971; By the Next New Moon).

The short story genre is as if made for her sure stylistic sense of sculpting a central event into a defined textual parameter. She is consistent in following her selected characters, always sticks to the chronology, and rarely plots parallel storylines. The reader should not be puzzled, reading should not be like solving a rebus, reasoned the author.

She is thus no modernist experimenter, albeit the borderline between dream and reality in her texts can be diffuse. The story “Men Gerundium ler” (But the Gerund Laughs), in Bak skapet står øksen (1945; The Axe Is Behind the Cupboard), explores the relationship between language and reality in such a way that the narrative first-person – a writer – sees this relationship merge into a kind of dream-landscape. She slumps over the typewriter after a long stretch working in the potato field: “What now, dear Tob. Stories? […] there’s something singular about this language that has caught my interest […] It’s a language of flesh and blood […] The grammar is fiendish and agitating like high-powered politics, like music in five-beat bars.” Torborg is here addressing Tob, under which name Nedreaas’s first works were published, in powerlessness over the absurdity of language in the tension between ‘life outside’ and the writing situation itself.

It was not the literary form that provoked her contemporaries, but the themes she addressed and the political views she advanced.

Casualties of the Meaninglessness of War

Torborg Nedreaas writes about outsiders and ordinary people under the yoke of war and capitalism, and she writes from various vantage points. She is concerned with the humbler members of the community, and these are often women and children – the weakest groups. She moves between the working class and the middle class, and major events such as the two World Wars and the inter-war period of the twentieth century form the foundation for her characters’ development and inter-personal relationships. The role of love in the individual’s prospects to act, to do something about personal circumstances and those of others, is always a central consideration.

Three men who have overpowered a ‘Jerry tart’, Ribe. 1945. Photograph. Frihedsmuseet, Copenhagen

The theme of women as casualties of the meaninglessness of war is particularly clear in the short stories that look at the situation of those who were known as tyskertøs , ‘Jerry tart’, a woman who consorted with the German occupiers and had sexual relations with them. One of her debut collections, Bak skapet står øksen , illustrates how hardship, hunger, and abuse of power can explain even the most degrading actions – and it does so without condemnation or accusation. Why punish those who are most wretched?

Before her actual literary debut in 1945, Torborg Nedreaas had published a number of stories in the weekly press. Just before the outbreak of the Second World War, she stood at one of the watershed moments in her life and was short of money. In 1939 she divorced her middle-class Bergener husband, left a secure, perfectly conservative, and unreflective life, and was now alone with two young sons.

It was wartime. She and the boys lived an isolated existence with her half-Jewish mother on the island of Stord. They had to find food. Potatoes! The need for potatoes grew into an all-absorbing craving that could not be satisfied by rutabaga or grain, nor by the fish she caught in the sea – she had exchanged a sewing machine for a rowing boat, and was thus able to scratch a living.

But it is the gnawing ache for potatoes, vividly portrayed in a number of her earliest stories, and the tyskertøs motif that remain as central images from these hard years – to the great annoyance of some reviewers on the daily press: it was wartime, and they expected valiant accounts of the nation’s heroes and their feats.

Torborg Nedreaas wrote well from the moment she picked up a professional pen – albeit her later texts were more consistent in style. Før det ringer for tredje gang (1945) is a collection of stories that had previously been published in weekly magazines during the war years, under the name Tob Kieding, the pseudonym she took from her first marriage.

Her second collection published in 1945, Bak skapet står øksen , contained more ‘peculiar’ texts that were considered unsuitable for the weeklies. Both books, however, dealt with lack of contact, with not reaching one’s fellow human beings – and partly with destructive longing for death. A longing for death that later develops into a more life-affirming attitude.

The novel Av måneskinn gror det ingenting (1947; Eng. tr. Nothing Grows by Moonlight , 1988) provoked strong reactions when it was first published. Some critics found the text too harsh, they thought the tones in which Torborg Nedreaas painted reality were too gloomy. But overall, the book touched a chord and elicited a positive response. The novel has two first-person narrators: the man who spends a night listening to the tragic story of a woman he does not know, and the woman who tells her story. The theme is the love that destroys, that leads both to prostitution and several illegal abortions.

“I have always had a feeling that Av måneskinn gror det ingenting will outlive me,” said Torborg Nedreaas when the novel was reissued by Den Norske Bokklubben (Norwegian Book Club) in 1981. These words were proven to have been prophetic when Av måneskinn gror det ingenting was adapted and filmed for television – Torborg Nedreaas did not live to see the finished product or its two Amanda Awards at the Norwegian International Film Festival in Haugesund in 1988.

Socialisation of Girls: the ‘Herdis’ Books

Torborg Nedreaas claims that she never really focussed on herself as female writer. Nevertheless, her body of works discloses a fundamental focus on women’s lives. Especially the ‘Herdis’ books Musikk fra en blå brønn and Ved neste nymåne – which follow a girl’s development from pre-school childhood until she is nearly sixteen years old – show how women’s bodies, sensuality, and sensory perception have a strong bearing on every aspect of life.

Like her author, Herdis is a child of divorced parents. She manages to get through this demanding phase, which coincides with puberty – one advantage being that her stepfather proves to be a kind man who, despite an occasional drinking problem, cares for the child in a way her biological father never could.

Herdis’s constant conflicts with her mother are central to the narrative. It is in the light of these clashes that the reader spots her somewhat cavalier attitude to the truth: in short, Herdis fabricates or tells lies – or she walls herself up in silence. When the tension between falsehood and reality becomes too great, however, language does not suffice. Reactions and emotions are sensed in purely physical terms or are channelled through musical experiences. The female body and language are bound meticulously together.

Torborg Nedreaas writes about menstruation and budding breasts, and about abhorrence and desire in the young girl’s encounter with male sexuality. A scene in which Herdis’s father beats her until the blood flows and stains her underpants, would seem to be a forerunner of her guilty experience of getting “those ladies’ things”, while she experiences an intensely pleasurable sensation when she secretly witnesses a man’s brutality against his wife.

Herdis makes her first appearance in Torborg Nedreaas’ s third collection of short stories, Trylleglasset (1950; The Magic Glass). The collection garnered many words of praise when it was published, and received the critics’ award that same year. The books paint a picture of Bergen, under the name Sølverstad, in the years before, during, and immediately after the First World War.

After Herdis has put in an appearance in three of the stories included in Stoppested (1953; Bus Stop), her portrait is elaborated in what is perhaps Torborg Nedreaas’ s best book, the novel Musikk fra en blå brønn , which is continued in Ved neste nymåne .

A third novel about Herdis had been projected, but it never materialised. Torborg Nedreaas’ s family was struck by misfortune, and thereafter she had great difficulty writing. In 1963 her son Kåre was paralysed in a car accident; he died four years later. Her other son, Jørgen, was disabled in a motorcycle accident in 1965. Her fifth and final collection of stories, Den siste polka (1965; The Last Polka), was marked by these tragic events. It also included a couple of short stories written during the war years, one being “Mainatt” (May Night) about two little boys who sneak out by night to steal newly-planted potatoes. The old and new texts in this collection were far more pessimistic and sombre than in the middle part of her writing career.

The books about musical and letter-writing Herdis are usually taken to be an account of the emergence of an artist. Torborg Nedreaas, however, has emphasised their ingredient of social politics. She wanted to show the results of stock market speculation and its ensuing financial and psychological bankruptcy. Money plays an important role in the storyline; some is even “evil” – and burnt in the stove. It is made emphatically clear that love and happiness cannot be bought, even though money is, all the same, a necessary part of life.

Loved and Expelled

Torborg Nedreaas was, without doubt, an extraordinarily warm and artistic person, who throughout her entire life asserted her views with clarity and consistency. She and her husband held open house every week for many years, and their home in Blylaget, not far from Oslo, was the lively setting for countless guests and visitors.

A Festschrift was prepared for the author’s seventieth birthday – a rare honour for a Norwegian woman writer – in which many dedicated people declared their debt of gratitude to the grand old lady of Norwegian literature. A number of Torborg Nedreaas’ s books were republished in new editions during the 1970s and 1980s – by Den Norske Bokklubben (Norwegian Book Club), among others. Her work has also been translated into other languages.

The couple could never reconcile themselves to their expulsion from Norges Kommunistiske Parti (NKP, Norwegian Communist Party) in 1949, along with the rest of what was known as the Furubotnfløj (the faction supporting NKP secretary general Peder Furubotn), at precisely a period in which they saw Scandinavian social democracy, clad in the phantom cloak of McCarthyism, breathing icy chill down many of its critics’ necks.

This is the theme of De varme hendene (1952; The Warm Hands), a novel with a political purpose, which is scathingly critical of the introduction of Beredskabslovene (Laws of Preparedness) and Norway’s entry into NATO. Communism is seen as the only possible, decent alternative to a policy that used the name of democracy and peace to open the way for uniformed Americans and Germans on Norwegian soil.

The novel led to a heated and emotionally charged debate. Reviewers divided into for and against camps as regards the communist sympathies, and a few claimed that the political disposition of the novel works against its artistic qualities. Only Stig Carlson, writing in the Swedish newspaper MorgonTidningen , attached importance to the literary strength of the writing: “Artistically, it is a triumph for its author”, he wrote. Torborg Nedreaas considered De varme hendene to be her most important novel. The truth is always tendentious, she claimed.

Both as author and popular radio essayist, Torborg Nedreaas was made aware that overtly political discourse in the Norwegian public forum did not go unpunished. As late as 1975, the monopoly institution Norges Radio (the Norwegian state broadcasting corporation) cancelled one of her commissioned Saturday causeries; her talk was a comment on parliament’s obvious displeasure at presumed “political proselytising” on the radio.

Translated by Gaye Kynoch