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Wounds that Still Bleed

Written by: Birgitta Svanberg |

Sår som ennu blør (1931; Wounds That Still Bleed), a novel in verse by Karo Espeseth (1903-1991), violated another one of the sexual taboos that inter-war modernism so proudly challenged. The book is an account of a sexual sadist and his relationship with a young woman.

I saw that I was pounding on white flesh.
And red welts started
to appear.
They grew clearer.
They turned deep red.
And wide.
And they zigzagged back and forth.
I saw two round firm breasts.
And my own fingers
like claws around them.
And the claws tore.
And the breasts came loose.
Soon they were hanging by a
mere thread.
Then I saw myself bite them.
And my mouth watered.
And thin lines wriggled
before me.
Like snakes.

The subsequent debate revolved more around sexual morality, superficial ideals, and literary decadence than the question that Espeseth tries to raise: what is the cause and dynamic of violent sex? She frankly exposes the ideology of power and violence that the man’s inclinations are based on, as well as its connection with World War I.

Fredrik Ramm, Norway’s leading critic, opined that the book was “a manifestation of the perniciousness and lack of moral compass swept in by psychoanalysis and the dissolution of social norms.” It was reviewed in Morgenbladet under the heading “A stream of filth is flowing across the country”, along with Sigurd Hoel’s En dag i oktober (1931; Eng. tr. One Day in October) and Rolf Stenersen’s Stakkars Napoleon (1934; Poor Napoleon).

The story takes place in the late 1920s. The scene is Germany, where the soldier ideal, obsession with war, and revengeful men’s associations are reasserting their influence. A young man and woman meet by chance on a street in Berlin:

And then I happened to look at you.
And you looked at me.
And you know what happened.

A serendipitous encounter, two people drawn to each other – the story could have come right out of a popular weekly magazine. But their subsequent relationship is anything but simple or banal. A modernist concept of the human being stakes its claim from the very beginning: the psyche is endlessly complex and difficult to interpret. Appearances are deceiving – you can never know what has been hidden and repressed.

I noticed you.
I became interested, as they say.
Yes, that’s what it looked like.
And so you thought it was reality.
For you always thought
that what you saw was reality.
And what you heard was truth.
But life is not that simple,
my little Golden Pheasant.

The style is rhythmic and staccato, alternating between long and short lines, communicating a sense of intensity, desperation, and uneasy respiration. The man is never given a name; he is the narrator, and the events of the novel are filtered through his consciousness. All the reader knows about the woman is that she is Norwegian and is studying languages in Berlin. She is identified only by the pet name that the man has chosen for her: Golden Pheasant, a tempting prey.

Hannah Höch (1889-1978): Book cover from Bilderbuch, 1945. Photo:

What the woman has not seen was the meaning of his gaze. He was not fascinated “as you thought, by your face or your clothing”. No, he imagined her body and “white skin”, her well-rounded breasts, and long elegant legs, and he was seized by the desire to beat, abuse, and humiliate her.

The plot is as suspenseful as a thriller. Over and over again, the man tries to draw the woman into his fantasies. Due partly to his unconscious hesitation, however, something gets in the way every time. So he goes to prostitutes and other women willing to perform the kinds of acts that he requires to experience satisfaction.

The man’s fetish stems from a serious wartime trauma. The latter part of the book is based on memories from the western front that have long been blocked by anxiety and self-contempt. He recounts them to the woman, who has already left him out of horror and disillusionment. Now he wants to confide the real truth to her.

Carried away by myths of heroes and bombastic propaganda, he had enlisted as an eighteen-year-old in order to “save the fatherland”. But the reality of war in the trenches had destroyed his faith in life and his dreams for the future. He and his fellow soldiers had raped “the enemy’s women” in shot-out villages. Finally he was captured and placed in a POW camp, surviving only on thoughts of revenge: “We shall prevail”. But “they told us instead that we had lost. / And everything fell apart for me.”

When he finally came back, he joined the ranks of the unemployed. The post-war Depression robbed him of all self-esteem. To justify his fantasies, he tries to vilify the woman in his thoughts. He sees her as unjustly privileged – shielded from the experience of war, with well-to-do parents and a top-notch education. He suspects that she is “diabolically calculating”, that she secretly “scoffs at and despises” him. Deep within, however, a faint voice repeats: “She is innocent”. But the bubble bursts the day she is to go home. They are in his room: he caresses her and she says: “Take me”. That damns her in his eyes – she is a whore and nothing else. He abuses her the way he had long fantasised about – with a leather belt. Afterwards, she refuses to look at him and leaves without a word.

The novel exposes the connection between gender and war in inter-war Europe. The man is driven by the accumulation of repressed rage, hatred, vengeance, and desire. Espeseth demonstrates his affinity with a general culture of violence that has long been linked to ideals of masculinity and sexuality. Her account is presented sympathetically, based on penetrating psychological analysis. She shows us a person in need, a disabled soldier who has no external wounds, but a spirit “that still bleeds” from inner traumas. He suffers attacks of anxiety and depression every time he tries to repress his violent impulses. His sexuality has turned into the urge to destroy, kill, and conquer women because they pose a threat to his dwindling self-esteem. Fearful and contemptuous of his own weakness, he patterns his behaviour on the lessons of the war in accordance with the concept of masculinity propagated by the ideology of violence. As an eighteen-year-old, the other soldiers ridiculed him as “effeminate” whenever he exhibited vulnerability, fear, or compassion.

Espeseth was inspired to write about the male sadist by the 1931 Kürten trial in Düsseldorf. While following the proceedings for the Norwegian press, she was astonished by the fact that “a man who had murdered nine people in cold blood could look like a prim and proper member of the middle class”.

Another source of material from her time in Germany was a neighbour who regularly beat his wife while no one tried to stop it. People simply remarked, “that’s what war will do to you!”

The deepest motivation of a sadist is lust for power. He must exercise control over a woman so as to get the better of the chaotic feelings that threaten to break loose if he reveals his need for her and her love.

In the wake of the pitiless criticism and lack of comprehension that Sår som ennu blør aroused in Norway, Espeseth stopped writing poetry. She moved to Germany and married Gerhard von Mende, who became a professor of Slavic languages at the University of Berlin. They had two children. She spent the war years in Germany, occasionally under life-threatening circumstances.

Nobody in Norway seemed to understand that the purpose of the novel was to warn of an impending global disaster. Instead, people confused the work with the author, accusing her of being sadomasochistic and sexually obsessed. “Worse than a rapist”, somebody wrote. During the German occupation of Norway, her book was ultimately banned and confiscated.

Not until 1983 did she break her self-imposed silence as an author and publish her memoirs under the title of Livet gikk videre (1983; Life Went On). The book deals frankly with the background to the antiwar novel of her youth and the personal fear of a major new conflict that had led her to pen such a fundamentally misunderstood tale.

Translated by Ken Schubert