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Beauty and Ugliness, All in One Go

Written by: May Schack |

“I simply don’t understand how men and women can live in the same world. Yes, I understand how they can fall in love, and yet every person is an individual person! Well, it’s just beyond me. Everyone has their own orientation – they are completely different too – so how are they meant to understand one another!”

With these words, Ruth, the young woman in Sonja Hauberg’s novel Syv Aar for Lea (1944; Seven Years for Leah), indirectly expresses her expectations of love. To her, as for the other central female characters, love is the dream of being understood and thereby escaping the sense of human isolation from which they all suffer.

Mortensen, Richard (1910-1993): Scenography from Ebbe Skammelsøn. 1945. Private collection. Photo: P. & Th. Pedersen

Sonja Hauberg (1918-1947) did not reach the age of thirty; she died of typhoid fever, contracted at a writers’ conference in Finland. In her lifetime she published two novels, Hvad vil du mig? (1942; What Do You Want of Me?) and Syv Aar for Lea (1944; Seven Years for Leah). A play, Ebbe Skammelsøn, was staged at Frederiksberg Teater, the script published in book form in 1945. The set was designed by the artist Richard Mortensen. They married that same year; the following year they had a son, Finn Hauberg Mortensen. Sonja Hauberg left the manuscript of a novel – April – which was published posthumously in 1961.

After her upper secondary school leaving examination in 1937, Sonja Hauberg went on to study Comparative Literature at the University of Copenhagen. From the beginning of the 1940s she published poetry, short stories, and sketches in Vild Hvede (Wild Wheat), a journal for young writers and artists, and wrote and number of articles for the daily newspapers. She was a member of Unge Kunstneres Klub (Young Artists’ Club), along with, among others, Tove Ditlevsen, Morten Nielsen, and Piet Hein, and she participated in the illegal work of the resistance movement during the German occupation of Denmark in the Second World War.

Her books have a common pattern: the female lead is placed between two men. One is the brotherly friend; they have shared memories and she can be herself in his company. The other is the lover; she struggles to make him understand her. All Sonja Hauberg’s women are disappointed in their expectations of love; it proves impossible to combine friendship and sexuality.

The Dream of Motherliness

Her debut novel Hvad vil du mig? tells the story of a young woman’s experiences of love, and of the mental breakdown that ensues from her mother fixation. Twenty-one-year-old Lise is a clever student, studying French. She escapes from revising for her exams and from the feeling of isolation in her lonely apartment by going out into the picturesque side streets: “No conventional play-acting here. Everything was laid bare, brutal, lurking, and in motion. Alive.”

With its ambiguous ending, her debut novel Hvad vil du mig? (1942; What Do You Want of Me?) has been read as a positive story of liberation. Discussing Sonja Hauberg’s works, in Danske digtere i det 20. århundrede (1951; Danish Writers of the Twentieth Century), her son Finn Hauberg Mortensen compares the central character Lise with J. P. Jacobsen’s Marie Grubbe. But although it is easy to agree that the central male character, Niels, is one of the most tolerant, pleasant, and patient male figures in the annals of literature by women, it is harder to see Lise, in every way debilitated and nervous, as a parallel to Marie Grubbe. A less kind interpretation would be that, although Lise does indeed attempt to liberate herself from a loveless childhood and the absence of her mother by means of her relationships with men, she actually repeats it – a phenomenon we are accustomed to seeing literature describe as the sons’ problem.

During a later holiday she meets Finn, a violinist, and she goes to bed with him after a fierce fire. The fire is portrayed – as often before in the annals of literature – in both symbolic and sexualised terms. The rearing horse, from which Lise recoils during the fire, is later used as a representation of Finn.

Finn has no parents; like Lise, he dreams of “life without all the clichés. Life stripped bare.” While Finn endeavours to render this intensity of life in his music, Lise seeks unqualified love. But it never comes off. As Finn informs her, they are both “loners” who fluctuate between “willing-to and unable-to”. They need one another, but have nothing to give one another. The novel interprets them both as forsaken children, full of the fear of being abandoned. They have never been given the tenderness and security that is the necessary foundation from which to love another person.

Lise’s relationship to Finn is seen as a frustrated repetition of her relationship to her mother. The charming, intelligent, and superficial mother is, when it comes down to it, not in the least interested in Lise. For as long as Lise can remember, she has had the feeling that her mother does not want anything of her (hence the title Hvad vil du mig? – what do you want of me?).

Lise is looking for motherliness in Finn, but she has been so let down by her mother that she dare not believe Finn wants anything of and with her. She therefore reads her earlier disappointment into him. Finn’s inner monologues tell us that Lise actually does mean something to him. But they are both so busy repairing old wounds that they continually get their lines crossed. Instead, Lise finds motherliness in the person of her old schoolfriend Niels, who now works as a forester in the part of the country where they grew up. With a mixture of unflagging maternal solicitude and down-to-earth masculinity, Niels takes care of Lise in the months after she, ill and broken, has come to visit him in an attempt to “find her way home – to herself”.

According to Lise’s own analysis, both she and Finn wanted to be the child in their relationship. With Niels, she finds a balance in the role distribution mother/child – she takes the role of child. The reader asks if this is tenable as a basis for their planned marriage. The novel answers with an ambiguous ending. But the novel undeniably interprets love between the two sexes in parent/child images.

However, they too make fear the guiding principle in their relationship. Niels is frightened that Lise has forgotten the whole story of their shared past, and he dare not burden her with his love; Lise believes the same of him, until they finally discover that they both have need of the other. Lise experiences this as an intoxicating refutation of her relationship to her mother. The paradise, however, is still the past: Lise’s mother and Finn.

The novel traces an attempt at mental recovery within the straitjacket of compulsive repetition. This is where the novel is interesting, and this is where we see Sonja Hauberg’s calibre in depicting the complex mechanisms of the mind in a psychological-realistic framework.

Placing her women between different types of man allows Sonja Hauberg the opportunity to investigate the complex communication between the sexes and the women’s dilemma and searching approach to love and sexuality. Her style is one of closely perceived psychological realism, in which soul-searching inner monologues alternate with scenes from the storyline. Her writing, partially in adherence to the style of the times, also has a strongly symbolic scheme; the inner world of her characters, their experiences and development, are represented by images taken from nature.

Dreaming Back to the Land of Childhood

Syv Aar for Lea is one in a series of Danish ‘puberty’ novels. It looks back to Hans Scherfig’s Det forsømte Foraar (1940; Eng. tr. Stolen Spring, 1986) and forward to Klaus Rifbjerg’s Den kroniske uskyld (1958; The Chronic Innocence). The novel started a discussion in the newspapers about the basic syllabus for upper-secondary schools and was rewarded with Politikens Kunstnerpris (‘Artist Prize’ awarded by the newspaper Politiken).

The first part of the book, “Det hvide Bjerg” (The White Mountain), tells about young Ruth growing up in the countryside, where she constructs her own fantasy world against nature’s magnificent, unifying backdrop. She collects white stones: “and once she had built a whole mountain of good stones, then she would live right there on the white mountain.”

Tove and Einar in Skibby, c. 1929. Photograph. Private collection

The white mountain thus represents the function of imagination and dream in creating security and meaning for the child. Ruth is forced to leave this world when the family falls foul of the 1930s’ agricultural crisis; they have to give up the farm and move to a suburb of Copenhagen.

In the second part of the novel, “Fata Morgana”, we read about the pressure Ruth suffers when studying science subjects at her upper secondary school. In a world where everything has to be measured, weighed, and proven, large parts of her inner life are rendered illegitimate. She feels that she is being forced to conceal her true self and that she has to develop a conventional, bright facade in order to cope. In this new school world you have to be on top of things, both in the hard-hitting competition between girls in the lower forms, and later at upper secondary school with the snappy jargon that has replaced real contact and conversation. The perceptive picture of dynamics between children has parallels in H. C. Branner’s short stories about children and young people.

Learning by rote and the school’s all-embracing organisation of the pupils’ time taxes their energy. Some fall by the wayside – a boy commits suicide, a girl dies after a bungled abortion. Ruth becomes fed up with everything, lethargic, and walks in the Dyrehaven park are no remedy. She maintains that there is a greater context and meaning than those of mathematical demonstration, but when she tries to explain this she is rebuffed: her friend Holger does not understand, her mother reacts with alarm at Ruth’s death-centric fantasies, her brother Svend has entrenched himself in a world of regularity from fear of being like his father, the “wrecked dreamer”.

“And who the hell ever promised you a meaning with it all?” are Svend’s dismissive words. Instead, Ruth puts her faith in Erik who is her boyfriend for a while: “But now she had Erik, and he would have to make up for what she didn’t get from Svend. She and Erik would also talk together about everything.”

Again we see a young woman’s expectations of love interpreted in terms of familial relations. This time the man is installed in the role of the understanding brother. But Erik’s expectations are sexual; unlike Ruth, he suffers from the ruling that they must not kiss – a ban imposed by Ruth’s father. Ruth does not see sexuality as an element in her relationship with Erik. Like Lise in Sonja Hauberg’s debut novel, what she wants most is to be understood, to find sympathy for her inner world from someone else. She wants, again like Lise, to find a thread back to the land of childhood.

It is, however, typical that her search finds fulfilment in deep solitude. In the Norwegian mountains she reclaims her white mountain in a profound – semi-religious – experience of nature. In a psychological sense, this is a feeling of being at one with oneself.

She relives the magical scenic beauty of childhood in the form of the “mountain towards which she had been collecting things for as long as she could remember, from the moor, from the spruce forest, from the dragon flies and beeches, from Grete’s glass garden, from – well, from everything she had ever experienced. From Erik, too. He had given her everything she could ever hope to receive from another person […]”.

The last part of this statement is utterly denied by every scene in which Ruth and Erik are together. All their encounters are unresolved and frustrated. The psychological realistic level thus refutes and cancels out the symbolic level. Seen in this perspective, the whole novel is a story about the regressive features in a young woman’s development. Ruth has not become an adult woman when she leaves the novel. What she wants more than anything else is an understanding brother, not a husband.

Syv Aar for Lea takes its title from Genesis. After seven years of toil, Jacob was rewarded with a wife – but not the one he wanted.

For years, schoolgirl Ruth toils with the rational and demarcated world of mathematics, while her inner life meets with no understanding from the school system, her circle of friends, or the adults. The novel has had great impact. Since being published in 1944, it has been issued in many editions and has been read by many a generation of pubescent girls. In 1965 the paperback edition alone was printed in a total of 50,000 copies. The last print run was in 1983.

No Illusions

After the Second World War, Sonja Hauberg joined the Danish Communist Party like quite a number of other resistance activists. Her political interest is not on the thematic agenda in her literary writing; it is rendered as an existential search for a larger meaning or is seen in the novel April as defiance of post-war fatigue.

Thematically, the form-experimenting April is a continuation of the two earlier novels. The main character, Jane, is locked in her attachment to Palle, a friend who died in the war. They grew up in the same provincial town, which gives Jane a sense of shared past and a point of reference. In a monologue to her dead friend, she says: “I don’t think Henrik and I will ever have the kind of friendship that you and I enjoyed. He is far too much of a man.”

On the other hand, sexual activity was off limits for Palle and Jane; Palle represents intimacy and nearness, while her current boyfriend, Henrik, represents the unfamiliar, the erotic, and the masculine. At the beginning of the novel, Jane leaves Henrik. She will come back to him once she “has grown up”, once she does not feel so “small”, once she has become “herself”.

The relationship between a central character and two different men corresponds to the earlier novels, but this time the conflict is far more out in the open. Jane’s expectations of love are here modified via the stories of a number of other women and their experiences with men.

The storyline sees Jane travelling to the countryside in order to help a friend who is worn out after the birth of her third child. Gudrun, who is “woman more than person”, is troubled about the loss of her youth and feels drained by motherhood. She is in love with her womanising husband, but feels outshone by other and younger women. However, Gudrun, who is given an independent existence in a series of internal monologues, eventually acknowledges that she has allowed her husband, Ralph, to obliterate her completely, so that she is wasting away both mentally and physically. “A man creates his woman”, as Ralph says with condescending authority. But, in her own words, Gudrun first feels “adult” at the moment when – with no illusions – she acknowledges Ralph’s untrustworthiness and adultery, and accepts that their relationship is based on desire.

Jane sees Gudrun and the other women, who feature more intermittently in the novel, as a frightening prospect. A shop assistant commits suicide after a failed love affair, a farmer’s wife with a large family is spied on and called “incubator and milking cow”. The lesbian doctor shocks Jane with her no-nonsense outlook on sex. She shows Jane an old peasant, living in filth and dilapidation, who spends a fortnight every summer having sex with farmwife. “But surely there is something more, it can’t possibly just be that”, thinks Jane in one of the novel’s repeated refrains, understood as: there must be something more than basic instinct.

Jane herself, after rape-like sex with Henrik, has had mixed feelings: “Henrik, everything about you that I don’t like, all that is unfamiliar or, yes, repulsive about you … that’s what I like best!” Henrik elaborates on this description of ambivalence with his “It’s probably just the unfamiliarity, the difference in the sexes, which both attracts and repels.”

Jane leaves the novel with a will to acknowledge that the world is both “[b]eauty and ugliness, all in one go”. In so saying, April differs from the pursuit of harmonious unity that characterises Syv Aar for Lea.

In terms of form, April has an experimental quality in its highly mobile use of vantage points, its smooth transitions between an imaginative and a real plane, and its extensive use of many different symbolic structures, both abstract and drawn from nature.

In a postscript at the end of the book, Sonja Hauberg addresses her personal circumstances while finishing the manuscript. At that point, she was critically ill with typhoid fever. The postscript is a kind of literary testament, in which she speaks in figurative language about her endeavour to get down to the “dangerous places” and show them stripped of illusions. The book ends with a prose poem on the subject of death.

Sonja Hauberg did not live to see her book published.

My heart that had such weakness for beauty.
It quivers no more, it does not open.
It is surprised, but quiet.
As yet I cannot believe it.
For I can see the soft ears of the grass and can still press flowers to my
mouth and smell their scents.
Their scents. –
No – they fly from me.
Fly from my heart and scatter under the endless heavens.
That was the last I had, the only thing I have received and owned.
But it is no longer mine.
There is nothing that is mine.

Do you all know that.
Do you know how quiet a heart is when it dies.

From the poem that closes the novel April, finished 1947, published 1961.

Translated by Gaye Kynoch