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From Vision to Version

Written by: Drude von der Fehr |

Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, Karin Moe’s (born 1945) experiments in language created a space for the articulation of women’s sense of body and sexuality. Karen Moe based her idea of working with language as a project in women’s politics on the Belgian psychoanalyst and philosopher Luce Irigaray’s radical ideas on sexual difference. According to Luce Irigaray, women’s distinctiveness is excluded from the cultural modes of expression and from language. Language is co-creator of a social environment, but at the same time language is the carrier of fantasy and memory. Karin Moe seeks to develop a passionate language that can also emerge as a responsible practice, something that makes a difference for women.

In her debut work Kjønnskrift (Gender Treatise) from 1980, she makes it clear that the political women’s struggle is a struggle in language: “Would have liked to have invented a wonderful expression for the male member / Have recreated the purple-brown reality / Have given a wriggling expression of this crotch-stuff that has put earth and sky at its balls […].”

Karin Moe’s work has developed from a political and linguistic elucidation of the daily life experiences of women as an identity and writing project to an increasingly avant-garde project emphasising aesthetic and philosophical issues associated with writing as a woman. The tone has shifted more towards the humoristic, carnivalistic, and satirical.

Kjønnskrift contributes to the women’s struggle by thematising the actual writing of women’s literature. The author imagines that it must be possible “to write based on my gender-specific situation as a woman in a concrete, material way, that is to grip the pen with the vaginal muscles […]”. The book executes its writing project and plays with it, describing its female body and its daily life, putting them demonstratively forward – alternating in form between prose and lyrical poetry.

Kleivan, Nina (born 1960): Postmodernistisk billede, 1992. Oil on canvas

In Kjønnskrift’s political project we find the beginning of the experimental women’s identity project of the 1980s and 1990s. The text features a conspicuous mixture of genre and style. Karin Moe borrows her political-aesthetic strategy from central European avant-garde forms. Especially the French literary theoretician Roland Barthes has played a role in the aesthetic form of her writing and in the use of the experimental text as an avant-garde combat strategy. In all of Karin Moe’s texts, the gender aspect represents the actual foundation for the experiment and the avant-gardist provocation. The aesthetic provocation must awaken the reader and turn gender into a responsibility with significant political consequences.

Even though the debut work Kjønnskrift contains much of what have later become both the formal and thematic main features of Karin Moe’s writing, it was more clearly articulated in terms of politics than her subsequent works. 39 Fyk. Louise Labé den yngres ustyrtelige vandringar & andre speculum (39 Miss Louise Labé the Younger’s Incredible Wanderings & Other Speculum), from 1983, utilises the reversal technique of fantastical literature. The relationship between the sexes is given a more playful and humorous treatment. The characters are disguised, a man menstruates. They tell each other untrue stories. The daily details are gone in favour of an uncontrollable and highly postmodern possibility for turning everything upside down. The female gender is clearly the most offensive. Politics has become a policy of laughter. The texts bring to mind the postmodern Finnish author Rosa Liksom’s 1989 book Tyhjän tien paratiisit (Eng. tr. Dark Paradise).

In Mordatter. Opp(dikt) fra datterskapet (Mother’s Daughter. Tall(tales) from Daughterhood) from 1985, relationships between women, in particular, are subjected to a linguistic process. Because relationships between women are not actualised in the language, it is important to process these relationships linguistically, for instance in the titles of the texts: “VILLE (IKKJE) VERA (DATTER)” (WILL (NOT) BE (DAUGHTER)). Mordatter thematises women’s ambivalent desires for solidarity with the mother. Perhaps the strong ambivalence towards the mother is the reason why the grandmother plays such a positive role as the imaginative point of departure – she spoke the language of animals – for the journey away from the mother, the process of “de-learning” the mother and the linguistic journey back to a solidarity among women and a female identity. The book’s identity project ends with this quote: “You are structured now, my dear girl. You are the mistress of your own choices.”

In Sjanger (Genre) from 1986, Karin Moe writes not only her literary programme, but also her own history of contemporary literature. The book comprises articles and reviews, many of them her own reviews of relatively recent women writers. The work is an interesting cultural-historical document, and furthermore, in the essay “Utopiar i og omkring romanlitteraturen på 70-talet” (Utopias In and Around the Literary Novel of the 70s), Karin Moe developed her own ideas on women’s forms of consciousness. She finds just such a female consciousness form in the literary figure that expresses closeness, namely metonymy. Her thoughts on the utopian aspects of integrated and closeness-engendering imagery becomes key to the way she works with language in all her work, but perhaps especially in the two books that can be called the high point of her literary production: Blove 1. bok (Blove Book 1) from 1990, and Blove 2. bok (Blove Book 2) from 1993.

In both books, Karin Moe demonstrates how we create ourselves in the world through our bodies. Through our bodily fluids and our language, we come into contact with and become part of the rest of the world. As individuals, our identities become mixed and move about. A significant aspect of Blove 1. bok is that a pact is established between the author of the text and primarily the female readers. This pact among women is created through textual metonymies. In other words, it is about creating a women’s community based on closeness and not on identification with female role models.’

In addition to thematising and demonstrating what a women’s community can be, Blove 1. bok is a satire on patriarchy. The distinctive features of the patriarchy are the distinction between body and soul and faith in objectivism and universalisation, on the one hand, and a conspicuous incoherence in argumentation and rationality, on the other. The text’s criticism is aimed at the fact that men’s defence of logical necessity is actually based on the simple logic of satisfying as quickly as possible their physical needs: “He had never mated so efficiently, considering the local conditions and the world.” In Blove 1. bok, satire and paradox are used as counterweights. The women’s community is excited to revolutionary laughter.

In Blove 2. bok we encounter the novel’s female main character, Rosa K, fleeing in a way along the Norwegian country roads. Her stories begin, are interrupted, are infiltrated by the stories of other women – language flows out of the bodies like the bodily function it is. Why should we attribute to language a greater ability to speak than to urine? the text asks. The carnivalesque departure from all hierarchies and fixed opposites, the bird’s eye view, the emphasis on the individual physiological reactions are all recognised from central traditions in the European novel. The novel is, in itself, a kind of amoebic form that incorporates in its body all that is new at the time. Everything – from the most abstract reflections to the mechanical contractions of the bodily orifices – is present in this novel, forcing the reader to question her entire cultural foundation.

In Blove 2. bok the satire on patriarchy is less significant that the focus on the indulgent, flowing, and mobile female body. It is about linguistic sensuality and greed: “Oh, wonderful to be aaas biiig as mom and big brother!”

Sometimes the descriptions are characterised by what, in the words of Roland Barthes, would be termed orthographic orgasm: a kind of self-absorption that creates a crisis in relation to language. But as always, sensual pleasure is a challenge or a provocation of the powers that be. The Blove books are a coherent avant-gardist provocation of, among other things, an erotic nature.

There is a utopian line of thinking in Karin Moe’s work, a holistic vision in which traditional opposites are dissolved, and unexpected contracts and alliances create new possibilities in life for a newly bathed and cheerful nation: “The pleasure that explodes between the thighs and the laughter were the same, it was to stretch oneself out, to surrender to the material completely in vain! If she were ever to write about it, it would have to be with signs like long-legged mosquitoes, signs that sprang to life right out of the mouth, founded on the actual pronunciation, the sounds, and which don’t have different signs for the same sound, but one sign for everything. Everything!”

Kyka/1984. Kriminell roman for ei stemma og kor/kai (Kyka/1984. Crime Novel for One Voice and Chorus/Quay) was the first of Karin Moe’s texts to have an actual plot. The text is both a dual crime story and the story of a rather tough little girl’s reflections on – and insights into – small-town gender configurations. The book resembles a mixture of Astrid Lindgren’s Pippi Langstrømpe (Eng. tr. Pippi Longstocking) and Cora Sandel’s Kranes konditori (Eng. tr. Krane’s Café). When turned on its head, the book tells another story, Niklas Eggers aborterte skrifter (The Aborted Confessions of Niklas Egger), a mixture of sadness and comedy in a kind of underground tale about the “little” man’s lonely horniness and limited possibilities: “I catch myself working with the orgasms now that I am out of work. It is the new employment policy.”

Drude von der Fehr

My Life, Fictions

Eva Jensen (born 1955) made her debut in 1984 with Dikt og tekstar (Poems and Texts), a humoristic play on male authorities. In the text “Only you”, the former chief executive at the Gyldendal publishing house and literary celebrity Brikt Jensen is invited by the first-person narrator for liqueur and a flirt. Later, Roland Barthes is invited to dinner by the woman Ursula Glæpp: “He says hi This is a sign he says and laughs She points out the red pepper’s wet spot during the starter and says This is a sign They both laugh heartily.”

The book Teori nok for eit kort liv (1987; Enough Theory for a Short Life), with the subtitle “novelnovel”, insists that the text is not an illusion about reality, but is writing. “I write that you first have the sea and the bay.” The woman Valborg is introduced as follows: “It is I who am Valborg. / I know the art of cycling defiantly. / Now I am thirty-three, soon I will be thirty-four and thirty-five; / do you see me? // I can come creeping when I want to. / Now I creep in here.” This text sends a greeting back in time to Eldrid Lunden’s poetry collection Mammy, blue (1977), in which she wrote: “I am Anna, I am twenty-eight / years old, I am visible […].” The difference between the two is the establishment of a female subject in the meta-perspective. This establishes distance in the text and emphasises the fact that it is about extrapolating a subject and a story. Vision has become version.

In Ingen smertebutikk lenger. Ein skeiv ballade (1991; No Longer a Shop of Pain. A Distorted Ballad), the first-person narrator says about herself: “I will become one of the first poets with an artificial leg, illuminated standing with two different feet in oil up to my ankles while I continuously express myself”. And the poet is ironically named Heidrun (the name of an oil field in the North Sea). In this book, the project appears to be to break away from suffering and from pathetic literature, for there is a conspicuous contrast between the painful life led by the book’s characters and the way the narrator writes about it. At a treatment centre called Tram-Tram-Tra-Tram-Tram, we meet Heidrun with the artificial leg, her husband David, who has no larynx, and several other characters with physical defects. Heidrun, for instance, has some women’s bodily experiences that she does not lament, but rather shouts for joy over: “After four Caesareans, I have only one scar!” But the joy is placed in an ironic light, and the postmodern playing with words and language, the many quotations and fragments, also balances between superficial happiness and fear of the underlying emptiness: “I took you lovingly into my gaze, crossing the pain threshold of closeness. You made me happy! / I have grieved, I am”.

Bergman, Margaretha: Ting, 1994. Photo

Cindy Haug (born 1956) writes in the preface to her debut novel Se deg ikke tilbake mot Europa og bli til stein … O, Eurydike (1982; Don’t Look Back on Europe and Turn To Stone … O, Eurydice): “I did not want to write a Realist novel. I don’t believe in it! The true, the real, story line is only found in the fragments.” This is a programme she adheres to in the novel, which is a love story written in a fragmentary and non-chronological discourse. The two young people (Beatrice and Ruben) struggle to find their identities and roles in this reality. They are rootless, without contours, and there are no secure guiding principles (“I yell GOD! But nobody answers”). The only thing that appears certain is that fluids flow out of the body, but whether it is semen or red wine makes very little difference!

Since her debut, Cindy Haug has published a number of poetry collections in a combination of high and low style, kitsch and art, that is typical of the period. Nothing is so portentous or sacred that it cannot be placed in entirely new contexts. For instance, the title faen Heller flirer fagert (1983; Bloody Hell Rather Smirk Beautifully) is a disrespectful jumble of curses and hymns to the fatherland. On the back cover of Mitt liv, fiksjoner (1984; My Life, Fictions), the author poses in a “Madonna look” and on the front cover in a wedding dress. Here, too, roles are stepped into and out of, with a mask and a costume for every occasion. Here, too, language changes impulsively: it varies from the standard Norwegian bokmål (literally “book language”) through dialects to socio-ethnic variants and English and American jargon.

In this world, the fictions are just as intrusive and fundamental as the so-called outer reality, and the value hierarchies are broken down to a horizontal row of phenomena of equal status. Mankind’s dark sides are forced out, sexuality and rubbish appear side by side, and life is only superficial. In Cindy Haug’s world, the postmodern becomes a frenetic game. The poet has the freedom to pick and choose from culture’s supplies of good and bad; however, the words are not able to keep the emptiness and tristesse at bay.

Reified sexuality, and physical contact that leaves behind a sense of emptiness, is a typical situation in the work of Cindy Haug:

“I am the woman who sits on a pedestal in a chapel far out in the countryside / Everything is white except my socks with black flowers You come in asking / me to spread my legs I unfold myself for you let my sex become / visible Eyes disappear inside me I am a sucking eye / You say thank you and disappear”

Gaupehjerte (1993; Heart of the Lynx).

Lisbet Hiide (born 1956) made her debut in 1985 with Alices særegne opplevelse av natt (Alice’s Distinctive Experience of Night), in which the value hierarchy is broken down even at sentence level. Her short prose texts are characterised by – often short and incomplete – sentences that reflect a fragmentary, flickering world. The sexualised urban life with jealousy, rivalisation, and violence in its wake is depicted here in a cool, distanced, and commentary-like manner. The breathless and ritualised language emphasises the fleetingness and monotony in the forms of existence described.

Lisbet Hiide’s themes are human urges, dreams, and fictions. In “Adam drømmer om løvinnens, etter nitide studier i Kronborg Zoo gjenfinner han henne” (Adam dreams about the lioness, after comprehensive studies in Kronborg Zoo he rediscovers her) from her debut work, she takes a close look at men’s very secret longing to be desired and loved by a lioness-like wife. The yuppie business man in “Playmate of the year” disguises himself with a number of period correct symbols to maintain the right image while he masturbates to a porn magazine behind closed office doors. Other texts thematise men’s and women’s roles as each others’ sex objects and their all encompassing efforts to live up to that role.

“A modern writer must somehow deal with our media-oriented reality […]. It is impossible to pretend that nothing is happening. In order to write texts about the modern reality, the writer must brutally absorb and transform the clichés, vulgarisation, the constant references, staging, and unreality and write her own version/vision.”

Lisbet Hiide and Nikolaj Frobenius in the Norwegian literary journal Vinduet (4/1988).

Merethe Lindstrøm (born 1963) sketches her situational short stories in a dispassionate and descriptive style. Closeness and warmth among the characters are as a rule entirely lacking. Svømme under vann (1994; Swimming Under Water) is the name of her fifth collection of short stories, following her debut in 1983 with Sexorcisten og andre fortellinger (The Sexorcist and Other Tales). Rootless individuals, unfulfilled relationships, and quiet madness are the motifs that Merethe Lindstrøm has taken up in short stories in a cool yet intense tone. Through the photograph or video motif, she often emphasises the distance that exists between people. They take photos of each other, but the photos only help emphasise each individual’s loneliness or create uncomfortable memories. As she wrote in the title story “Svømme under vann”: “The photos make me sweat, I have a feeling of splashing about, like in a dream, my clothes stick to the surface of my skin.” The first-person narrator in this story has a brother who commits suicide, and the text is formed as a kind of retrospective look at their childhood. In the light of what has happened, nothing seems real for the narrator. The distancing camera lens becomes a metaphor for his way of experiencing life until he simply begins to cry, unable to stop again.

In the short story “Svidd” (Scorched), Jacob attempts to establish a relationship with the girl next door through a telescope. As he observes her, he happens to break a flower pot, spilling soil on the carpet. He then accidentally breaks a vase, and subsequently shatters an aquarium on purpose. He films the fish on the floor until they stop moving, pitches a tent in the living room, and sets up a transportable TV in there. He invites the girl in, and she makes a quick survey of his living room and walks out again, after which he destroys the TV as well. He collects his father’s papers in a pile on the floor and sets them on fire – it smells scorched for a long time afterwards: madness and meaningless actions, yes, but perhaps also symptoms of the imbalance between people, between people and nature, between authentic and inauthentic life, that a cool society produces.

“Tragedier” (Tragedies) is about a completely normless form of sexuality. Sex for filling up the emptiness, sex for dulling the pain, sex for stopping boredom, sex for existing: the first-person narrator refers to herself as “The Princess of the Vast Emptiness”. One of her many partners is called Patrick. He sells underground newspapers and his hands are always covered in newspaper ink, and that is how he “stigmatises” all the women he sleeps with.

Merethe Lindstrøm’s world is full of people who cannot break free from the hook upon which they are caught – be it sex, voyeurism, video filming, internal pain, emptiness, normlessness. Merethe Lindstrøm gets in close to the extremes and plays their stories through to their uttermost consequences.

Femininity, Sexuality, and Creativity

Ingri Lønnebotn (born 1946) began her writing career with two poetry collections and a realist novel. In her poetry collections, she is situated in the minimalist lyrical tradition and works in a tight and succinct language of form. The poems deal with such themes as experience, time, nature, and people, and maintain a delicate balance between the language-related given and “something else”. With her next two books, Ingri Lønnebotn moves into a postmodern discourse by composing the novels according to a complex pattern in which different layers of time and a series of motifs are woven together in accordance with principles other than chronology, and where meta-reflection comes in as a new perspective. In Hatets tidsfrist (1991; The Deadline of Hate) Nazism is the main theme, and an important issue in the novel is the relationship between remembering and forgetting, time and forgiveness.

lene, mot himmelen (1992; Alone, Bound for the Sky) uses Leonardo da Vinci and his work on the Mona Lisa as a point of departure for a reflection on art, creativity, and destruction. Alene, mot himmelen comprises historical glimpses, dreams, childhood memories, bits of text. The principle behind the placement of the textual elements is highly metonymic, that is, the text is driven forward by associations to closely related phenomena far more than by plot. The novel contains a number of motifs: time and transitoriness, the dream of flying (one of Leonardo’s greatest projects), art and perfection, destruction, masking (for instance, was the Mona Lisa a self-portrait?), and parental relations (father/daughter, father/son).

The title Alene, mot himmelen (1992; Alone, Bound For the Sky) refers to the wonderful: the wonderful longing for perfection, the wonderful dream about flying. After finishing the book, the reader understands that the dream was crushed, the young man flew for a few seconds and then died. The title has multiple meanings: “alone, bound for the sky” can also mean “alone bound for the abyss; alone, bound for death”. The words have a shadow. Life is always accompanied by the shadow of death. However, since the title’s expression is the wonderful, we can interpret it as an insistence on longing, even though we are well-aware that it is accompanied by its opposite.

Alene, mot himmelen is not just about Leonardo’s creativity but to a significant extent also about the female first-person narrator’s literary activities. In this perspective, Leonardo can be seen as her artistic role model, whom she idealises on the one hand and associates with destruction and death on the other. Mona Lisa is the artist’s object, and as a woman is a figure of identification for the first-person narrator. However, Mona Lisa sacrifices her identity for the sake of art. Her identity is subordinate to her task as the artist’s model. The young man whom the artist sends to his death for the sake of experimentation (the attempt to fly) is a parallel to Mona Lisa, only in a more exaggerated form. The female first-person narrator appears to be suspended between identification with the male artist and his female model. In other words, it becomes a new version of the old female fear of creativity – a modern woman’s ambivalence about the price of self-realisation as an artist.

The novel Knekk meg litt kjærlighet (1989; Break Me Off a Bit of Love) is a story about two girls’ lives in Bergen in the 1950s and 60s, about the sexual exploitation of children, and about experiencing sexuality as the only way to fill the emptiness of existence. The novel is written in a realistic language, with great emphasis on recreating the street jargon of Bergen and the atmosphere of the time. In the 1980s, incest became a serious topic in Norwegian literature, and Ingri Lønnebotn’s book was one contribution to the discussion.

Sissel Lie (born 1942) also reaches back into history to stage fictitious meetings between a historical and a modern woman. In the novel Løvens hjerte (1988; Eng. tr. Lion’s Heart), she places the female narrator in a present time situation in which she is fighting to get her love life in order and write a novel, as well as in a historical situation in which she meets the French sixteenth-century author Louise Labé. The two women are both searching for their identities with regard to living an active sexual life as well as to being intellectually creative. Desire, pleasure, and jealousy are the key motifs in both stories.

A reviewer wrote of the short stories in Sissel Lie’s debut work Tigersmil (1986; Tiger Smile):

“A common trait is that the meeting between woman and man is described as meaningful and ambivalent. The historical women have their romantic code while the modern woman has a revealing patriarchal system within which to take action and love. Love turned conflict is a dilemma increasingly dealt with by the stories: how does one manage love and eroticism in a relationship based on power and powerlessness and dictator techniques?”

Britt Andersen in the Norwegian literary journal Kritikkjournalen (1986/87).

Sissel Lie writes boldly about desire and pleasure. Inspired by the French feminist and philosopher Hélène Cixous, she considers the subconscious a “jewel box” – an inexhaustible source of writing and pleasure. The creative and the sexual potential are closely related, and it is a matter of liberating both. Her texts therefore constantly thematise sexuality and writing. In the novel Granateple (1990; Pomegranate), the relationship between three women – or three faces, but just one woman? – forms the point of departure for a thematisation of erotic relationships, intimacy, and identity, visual art and the writing process. Again, it is a complex textual game in which the first-person narrator jumps in and out of the plot, is sometimes a modern woman and sometimes a mythical scaled monster, and in which the course of events is to a great extent replaced by conversations and reflections. The painting Allegory of Simulation by Lorenzo Lippi is a main motif that points inwards towards the mask/identity/gender theme. The woman in the painting (which is reproduced on the cover of the book) has removed her mask and is holding out a pomegranate – interpreted in the text as a sexual symbol. The reflections are about the layers of simulation, the masks of upbringing, and the distortions of mythology that hide desire and that must be put down in writing again to make them visible. “Now the words are mine, you shall laugh when I want you to, and I shall not repeat after anyone!” writes the narrator triumphantly, and later continues: “Mine is the pleasure, recaptured, multitudes revived with gold wings, lustrous snakeskin like the cheetah through the grass with crying birds from the wood behind. My strength is red and yellow.” A main issue in the novel is the modern woman’s dilemma: can you have a female identity without loving, and can you love without giving yourself? When the patriarchy is dismantled, you still have to maintain a relationship with the man, but how? Granateple ends with the woman opening herself up to the man who is seen as “a red horse, silk horse, cuddly and unknown”, a theme that is developed further in the novel Reise gjennom brent sukker (1992; Journey Through Burnt Sugar).

In 1988, Sissel Lie published the thesis Sjelen har intet kjønn. Kvinner og kjærligheten i franske romaner på 1600-tallet og 1700-tallet (The Soul Has No Gender. Women and Love in French Novels in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries), in which she wrote:

“Since the seventeenth century, love has been defined as a paradox. This begs the question whether the definition of love today is not only paradoxical but also comprises opposing elements that prevent women from establishing satisfying relationships with their partners, in addition to giving women’s lives a direction.”

Loneliness and Commonality

Liv Nysted (1949-2010) chose other heroines than the intellectual and the consciously aware. In her books, the main character is often the slightly frustrated average woman. She made her debut in book form in 1985 with a collection of short prose texts, Alltid disse bildene på nippet til å bli synlige (Always These Images on the Verge of Becoming Visible), which was socially anchored in the well-educated and liberated environment, but with an ironic distance:

“[…] their married life was demonstrated in married life stands exhibited at married life fairs analysed at married life seminars sold as souvenirs at married life festivals copied in married life therapy published in book form discussed in the female press […]”

In Samle på i morgon vente til i går (1988; Collect Tomorrow Wait for Yesterday), the main character is a relatively well-resourced woman who is approaching menopause. The tristesse lies in wait just under the surface in the novel Som om noe noengang tar slutt (1990; As If Anything Ever Comes to an End), about the typical meeting between an average woman and an average man in a restaurant somewhere in Norway: two lonely souls longing for a little warmth and contact. Everything goes by the book, they win the lottery – Hans Hansen and Sussanne Nilsen. Against most odds, they become a couple. They find each other, not in overwhelming happiness, but in the joy of being close to one another every day. It seems as though the narrator does not really believe the story herself, and that is the actual source of the tension – between the narrator and the narrative – in the form of a subtle irony that turns on the narrator, while at the same time pointing towards the type of metafiction that is more concerned with text than reality.

Balladen om Ewi Halvorsen (1991; The Ballad of Ewi Halvorsen) is a melancholy story about Ewi, a middle-aged, divorced shop assistant. She has a crush on her boss, who gives her false hopes while at the same time planning to make her redundant. She comforts her ex-husband when he rows with his new wife. On her fortieth birthday, her colleagues give her a “become a new woman” experience in a ladies’ magazine: a dubious gesture in that they, of course, wish her the best with the gift but it also gives them an opportunity to have fun at her expense. However, on this trip to Oslo – in a fresh intoxication of self-confidence – she has a sexual experience that gives her renewed courage to face life, regardless of whether it leads to a lasting relationship or not. And yet, the book leaves Ewi just as she determines, in her loneliness, that she needs two of the new pills she has recently bought, and surrounded again by the rituals of her newly acquired security: “Witch hazel, camomile, lemon balm, valerian, scented violet, and sweet balm […].”

In Liv Nysted’s book Ensomheten har syv huder (1992; Loneliness has Seven Skins), desperation lies just under the surface, and the sense of loneliness is expressed more explicitly than ever before.

On the Edge

Vigdis Hjorth (born 1959) has developed a writing style that combines naive humour with the desperately serious. She depicts modern women searching for identity and authenticity, women who live at the crossroads between conscious security and free fall without a security net. In Drama med Hilde (1987; Drama with Hilde), the reader meets Hilde Bøe, a drama teacher. She is married to Lars and has a daughter. They live a seemingly normal and “orderly” life, but under the well-polished surface are rough seas. “Shut your eyes and show emotions”, she says to her pupils. For her part, she studied drama to “achieve a more personal relationship to reality”. The theatre and mask metaphor is symbolic of Hilde’s life and her attempts to find herself behind the mask. Hilde’s story ends with her running out of petrol, finding a phone booth and sitting there with no money to call home. And it is there, outside time and place, when the barrier between herself and the world collapses altogether, that she finds herself and her body again:

”She sat in the phone booth and cried, she sobbed, she let the sounds come, they came, the sobbing came, but warmth came too, the warm tears came, and she felt she had blood in her body, and it was a warm blood, and when there was no more sound, when there was no more crying, she sat in the phone booth and felt the warmth. And then, warm, she stood up and walked out, walked back along the road, in the falling darkness, past the watchmaker which was closed, dark, along the road back to the car to find out what the problem was.”

With the novel Fransk åpning (1992; French Opening) Vigdis Hjorth challenged her audience and pushed boundaries. The book was marketed with a focus on the erotic. However, the novel invites the reader to understand sexuality as a borderline state, a point at which the conflict is actually about freedom and constraint, about moving towards the limit of the impossible: “When everything is law, what does he do then?” The novel’s code is not realistic either; it does not encourage reliability or identification. Consequently, its characters seem cold and unfeeling; they are more like prototypes, clichés that are composed of the elements produced by the media industry of the day. This is not a love story, but a critical work about perverted love, the eroticism devoid of feeling that bombards our senses through the mass media.

Vigdis Hjorth’s novel Fransk åpning (1992; French Opening) was marketed as erotic literature. There were very high expectations of the book, which was touted as soft porn for the intelligensia. For instance, Professor Hans Skei wrote a very negative review:

“[…] Fransk åpning [is] an entirely non-erotic text. It does not awaken desire, it does not seduce, it does not please […]. 158 pages of completely closed French opening.”

Kritikkjournalen (1992).

The title “French Opening” – which is a specific reference to a pair of crotchless knickers given to the main character, Laura, by her lover, Henning – should be taken as a kind of black humour. Where new modes of communication cannot compensate for emptiness and meaninglessness, and where new “openings” are dead ends, all that is left is absurd laughter.

Vigdis Hjorth has attracted a large Norwegian and international audience with her children’s books about life during the period of youth when the body begins to develop and when the first love and erotic excitement are experienced. She has a unique ability to describe feelings and experiences that children of a certain age have difficulty putting into words, and that are experienced as exciting and alluring but also as problematic. Vigdis Hjorth has received a number of literary awards for her children’s books – starting with her debut work Pelle-Ragnar i den gule gården (Pelle-Ragnar in the Yellow House) in 1983.

Unni Langås

Translated by Jenifer Lloyd