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The Duty to Choose a Path in Life

Written by: Margaretha Fahlgren |

What is it like to live at a time when everything has been so drastically changed after a war? Many Norwegian women writers living under the mid-twentieth-century shadow of war ask this question. Some of them address the Second World War directly in their novels, while others work through the psychological crises that have followed in the wake of war.

The Second World War also features in Solveig Christov’s writing in her critique of self-righteous men in the resistance movement and in the discussion about liquidation of suspected collaborators after the war. Women who devote themselves to men also come in for criticism. In Solveig Christov’s fictional world, everyone has to take responsibility for their own life. That the women often encounter greater hurdles than the men does not escape her notice. In the novels Syv dager og netter (1955; Seven Days and Nights) and Elskerens hjemkomst (1961; The Lover’s Return) we meet women who have been forced into marriage in the hope of financial and social safekeeping, but who live in a state of pent-up restraint and with a sense of opportunities lost.

Solveig Christov (pseudonym for Solveig Christophersen, 1918-1984) is one of the writers who set out possible alternative approaches to life. Indeed, one of her novels has the telling title Korsvei i jungelen (1959; Crossroads in the Jungle). Life is pictured as a tangled maze, but it is nonetheless the individual’s duty to choose a path. However, her first published novel, Det blomstrer langs blindveien (1949; Flowers Blooming along the Cul-de-Sac) had already looked at the doubt that always accompanies the choice. Is it possible to choose a viable route in life? Are the available alternatives valid ones? This line of questioning is a constant factor in Solveig Christov’s oeuvre; answers are never served up on a plate, and sometimes they are perhaps even impossible to find. Exploration of opportunities is not, however, abandoned. This means that the writing also experiments with forms of expression. She leaves the realm of the realistic novel and turns to allegory. She finds limitations in novels of a realistic-psychological aspect, a view shared by some of her colleagues – Aslaug Groven Michaelsen (born 1926) and Bergljot Hobæk Haff (born 1925), for example. They all work purposely with symbols and allegory.

In her novels Torso (1952) and Demningen (1957; The Dam), Solveig Christov uses allegory to depict humankind in a materialistic and competitive society. Torso is about a community living on a narrow mountain ledge while denying the existence of the abyss below. A group breaks out and tries to get to the mountain top. Led by a writer who conveys the vision of a new way of living, they believe in the possibility of reaching perfection. But the writer fails them and the goal proves impossible to reach. The novel can in part be read as a debate about the role of the artist in society, but ultimately both Torso and Demningen deal with the individual’s duty to take responsibility for his or her own life and for what happens with the wider community. Demningen tells about the consequences of entrusting the responsibility to others, to dictatorial organisations.

Solveig Christov’s novels sympathise with the people who do not follow conventional norms and who want change – and who are thus marginalised within the community. Defiant individuals – most often women – who do not give up their search feature throughout her writing, which, in addition to the novels, includes plays and short stories, although it is principally in her experimental novel form that she really pushes the questions of existence.

Seeing with the Soul

Liv Borgersen, in Aslaug Groven Michaelsen’s novel Bryllupet Arken (1955; Wedding on ‘The Ark’), is one of the fictional characters in her oeuvre who dares defy conventions, and who stands firm in her belief in life. When Liv Borgersen makes her first appearance it is spring; awakening nature becomes an image of the young woman’s zest for life and her longing. She is also capable of rebelling against a traditional woman’s role, and she follows her own path.

In Aslaug Groven Michaelsen’s work, belief in human potential has its foothold in the “Suttung” movement, with which she was affiliated. In order to be an integrated individual, a materialist mindset had to be abandoned; it is in coming together with culture and nature alike that the individual can “see with the soul”. Aslaug Groven Michaelsen combines belief in humankind with belief in God – moments when the everyday person comes into contact with the mystical and irrational side of existence become moments when it is possible to believe in life.

Aslaug Groven Michaelsen does also, however, depict people who are bound by social norms and conventions. In Draugen ler (1953; The Draugr Laughs), a sober-minded and prosaic man who studies philology is confronted with a clergyman and his daughter. They are in touch with their feelings, and they are a complete contrast to the emotionally inhibited philologist. In Som rever blant ruiner (1959; Like Foxes among Ruins), on the other hand, there is a clergyman who is dependent on other people’s opinions, and who is controlled by his careerist ambitions. He sacrifices his beloved before he manages to understand what she meant by asking him to be himself.

The attitudes to life portrayed by Aslaug Groven Michaelsen are often cloaked in symbolic imagery. In her collection of essays Korsvei (1964; Crossroads), she notes that the symbol must be “organically fused with the work”. The social criticism in her novels is revealed, as in Som rever blant ruiner, through images of the city as spiritually arid: a burning sun shines above it. The “sun rain”, which could have redeemed life, is supplied by the woman in the novel, but she is never given the opportunity to penetrate the barriers erected by the male and by urban society. Contact with nature and the original forces of life is thus lost.

Social criticism is plain to see in the novel De som var 14 (1968; The Fourteen-Year-Olds) and in the collection of short stories En anden kvinde (1974; Another Woman), where the female perspective is prominent. The vision of a different and better life, as conveyed in Aslaug Groven Michaelsen’s works, can only be realised in a society based on equality, one in which men and women have the same opportunities for personal development.

Reconciling the Irreconcilable

The female characters in Bergljot Hobæk Haff’s novels step out of the women’s gallery painted by patriarchal history. In her debut novel, Raset (1956; The Landslide), we have our first meeting with the figures of mother, prostitute, and witch, and here also an ‘artist’s issue’, that recur in later novels. The female central character is a talented pianist whose father and husband try to prevent her from pursuing her art: “I know it is music that will condemn me or set me free.”

Bergljot Hobæk Haff uses motherhood as the tangible picture of resistance in Raset: pregnant, the woman realises that the encumbrance of a female body means she cannot be fulfilled as an artist. In tragic-Romantic style, she dies during her debut performance. At the high point of her life she is no Aladdin enjoying the appreciation of the audience. Her executioner sits through the concert in the person of her husband, the male central character, delighted to have made her pregnant. He sees the threatening and fascinating picture of the woman artist: “This was a wild and completely inhuman beauty. She looked like a witch who had mounted the pyre to be burnt.”

Okkels, Sven (born 1927): Hendes majestæter: Hovmodet, Dårskaben og Gerrigheden. 1968

This debut novel is written in a psychological-realistic style, which Bergljot Hobæk Haff also uses in Liv (1958), but which she abandons in favour of what has become the distinctive feature of her writing: a style influenced by oral narrative with biblical language as an important frame of reference. Skjøgens bok (1965; Book of the Harlot) is written in this style; the novel is narrated by a prostitute who is not only trying to make sense of her situation but is also, and above all, trying to understand the men she meets. High and low are brought together, both in the style and in the theme. The contrasts are also rendered plain by the way in which the woman sees herself and the actual consequences of letting men use her body. She speaks of exploitation, boorishness, and violence, but also of the opposite: “But before it grows light, voracity has turned to intimacy, and I feel the urge to drop to my knees and thank providence for this singular power that is embodied in me.”

The novel Heksen (1974; The Witch) is set in the seventeenth century with its persecution of ‘witches’ and its struggle between faith and superstition. A literate woman gives voice to the silent women of history. The voice heard in diary form in Heksen not only belongs to a seventeenth-century spokeswoman, the young scribe also projects a modern consciousness.

Through the lives of three women, Heksen sheds light on powerlessness and power. A clergyman’s wife identifies with the pain of the wife and the mother, submits to the suffering, and dies. She has no language, and she is powerless in the face of her husband and the surrounding world. Hanna Man is a ‘witch’ – as such she acts as healer and midwife. She fluctuates between defying the outside world and being hounded by fear of this world. Subjected to torture, she stifles her screams and lets them come out as song: “[…] this inverted scream, held in her mouth for so long that it eventually sounded out in a song.” The pain produces “blood-flowers”. The clergyman’s wife surrenders to her body, whereas the woman with the manly name controls her body to such an extent that she ends up insane and dies. Both women are dead, but the third woman – the witch’s successor – survives. She is a young woman who grew up in the clergyman’s home. He taught her to write, and it is she who records the stories of the three women. She was imprisoned with Hanna Man for being a witch; having survived the ordeal, she goes to war disguised as a man. Her true gender is revealed, and she is ‘degraded’ to whore. In a voice that is hardly distinguishable from that of the first-person narrator in Skjøgens bok, the female scribe in Heksen informs us that the physical encounter between man and woman facilitates an encounter in which power and inequality are invalidated. The man, the practitioner of power, is also made of flesh and blood: “Therefore even the roughest of embraces can prove to be one of these rare instances in which power suddenly loosens its grip and merges into the embrace.”

The path taken by the female scribe in Heksen deals with integrating the different levels of life: the woman condemned by society as witch or whore is the one who, from her seemingly powerless position, makes a closer inspection of the reality; in striving to bridge the contradictions between body and word, and thus between woman and man, she goes behind the common notions of convention.

Degradation also comprises elevation – the constantly present duality in Bergljot Hobæk Haff’s novels is made patently clear in Heksen (1974; The Witch) by means of the female scribe. She is the child of a gypsy and a farmer’s daughter, as manifested in her one blue and one brown eye. These differently coloured eyes also indicate the scribe’s twofold gaze on the world: she identifies both with the outcasts and with those who are received into the societal community.

Translated by Gaye Kynoch