A woman whose world suddenly expands. A journey toward the island that takes a tragic turn. A knife pulled on a train. Each of the stories chosen for this feature presents us with characters in the midst of what are to them life-altering situations. Written by Norwegian authors recognized as masters of the craft, each story also captures, in different ways, but with equal precision, life’s essential experiences. That is to say, though it is important to emphasize that each situation is particular to the individual characters’ experience, not to mention their cultural context, what emerges is a sense of general human struggle, as the individual or group confronts, among other things: the loosening of familiar boundaries; how fateful our reliance upon chance can be; the way we struggle to make sense of events; the various ways in which we slip through or struggle on or simply hope to survive the day.
Recently, I asked each writer, Gunnhild Øyehaug, Laila Stien, and Merethe Lindstrøm, to reflect upon the art of the short story, upon their own particular style, and upon what inspired them to write the story at hand. The authors’ reflections are woven into a general introduction to the stories themselves and accompanied by a reflection on each story’s translation.
“Light” by Gunnhild Øyehaug
“Light” by Gunnhild Øyehaug appears in Øyehaug’s latest collection, Draumeskrivar (Dreamwriter, 2016). It is a story about the way in which familiar boundaries, both inside and outside of ourselves, expand and contract. The story is typical of Øyehaug’s style, which the author describes as a “mix of both poetry and comedy, tragedy and reflection, simplicity and analysis,” as a woman whose name we never learn reflects on a series of surprising and potentially terrifying life experiences. Although the story is truly short, it provides an intense glimpse into the narrator’s life, giving us a clear sense of who is speaking. In this way, the protagonist is also typical of Øyehaug’s narrator figures. As the author remarks, in direct contrast to the stated wisdom of Gustave Flaubert, who famously maintained that “an author must be like God in the universe, present everywhere and visible nowhere,” Øyehaug’s narrators have “forgotten to think about the ‘visible nowhere’ part.” Instead, they remain visible and accessible throughout the story so “no one has to wonder what they are doing.” The narrator is a tangible presence, someone who constructs the narrative from the stuff of their experience, focusing rather upon what happened than why it happened. This strategy allows for surprising plot twists, events well outside the bounds of everyday experience, that seem at home within the story’s body while still making room for interiority.
Even when confronted with the unexpected, there is a sense that the incredible events before us have indeed taken place, until, before we know it, our own understanding of what is possible, both within the story’s framework and outside it expands to accommodate the unfathomable. It is an idea the narrator anticipates in a humorous way in her discussion of birth, and the unsettling, we might say aromatic, experience of a physicality that is both miraculous and entirely natural.
The short story, of course, is its own particular art form and every author brings his or her own innovations to the table. As the Norwegian writer Tor Ulven, best known for his poetry and short prose, once described the genre: “Short prose gives me the possibility to write concentrated texts from three lines to three pages. It has a compression that resembles poetry, but also a flexibility and an openness that resembles history.” Much like a handwork, a sculpture maybe, that takes shape according to the tension, the compression of whatever is being presented—a movement, plot; a slice; an overview, life—in the hands of the working artist. For Øyehaug, the short story allows her to “swoop in and swoop out again.” It is the ability to depict a whole life through one or two situations. As Øyehaug reflects: “I like how I’m moulded into a thought or a reflection or a feeling just long enough for me to be transformed.” Like her narrators, Øyehaug also betrays herself, her presence, when she adds that, in creating these stories.
For Øyehaug, the inspiration to write this particular story came when she thought she saw a person slide through the side of a moving bus. It was this illusion that prompted her “to tell a story about possible and not-possible life-expanding situations.”
“Journey toward the Island” by Laila Stien
“Journey toward the Island” by Laila Stien appears in the author’s first short story collection, Nyveien (The New Road, 1979). In the story, we encounter a group of Sami herders driving their reindeer from Norway’s mountainous northern tundra region to an island located off the country’s northern coast. Within the story itself, place names, either in Norwegian or Sami, are notably absent: It is simply the journey toward the island that this particular group of Sami reindeer herders is undertaking, a journey the group makes every spring and one, too, that is instinctual to the reindeer. Everyone in the group, including the children, know their tasks: jobs they have performed over years or a lifetime. This sense of habit, of pursuing a familiar course, is conveyed in the story’s opening sentence: “Soon the journey north will be complete . . . ” As the story unfolds, however, we find that much of the group’s success depends upon chance. Although this year the herders are optimistic about their chances, they also know tragedy can strike for many reasons: a shifting current, a lack of resources, the moment cultures (the minority Sami and the dominant Norwegian) collide.
The short story, in addition to being its own particular art form, can also prove an artistic calling. For Stien, writing short stories turned out to be just that. At the time she was composing the stories that would appear in Nyveien, Stien believed that she wrote short stories “because I had limited time at my disposal for each writing session, I had two small children.” However, as the children grew up, Stien discovered she was a short story writer by nature: “I discovered that, for my part, it was short stories no matter how long a stretch of time I might have to sit in peace and write.” In fact, she compares her experience to that of Anton Chekhov, who early on discovered “that his temperament or disposition wasn’t suited to long lines, that is, to the novel.” It was, according to Stien, a recognition in herself of a need to “‘retune the instrument,’ that is, to give it a new sound, another voice, to try to shape it. The idea of remaining in the same world, both with respect to characters and their voices, seems to me intolerable.” The challenge, according to Stien, then becomes to express what is essential in a compressed arena where so much is left unsaid and the story’s atmosphere often bears much of the content. And when it comes to creating particular atmospheres, Stien is a recognized master. As the Norwegian writer Bjarte Breiteig notes, Stien’s style is “based on everyday Norwegian speech patterns. Incomplete sentences, hesitations, clumsiness, and clichés bring warmth and life into Stien’s stories [. . .]—everything in an environment full of snow, darkness, and great distances.” Stien’s stories achieve both familiarity and distance, an idea we also find in “Journey toward the Island,” as the herders continue their familiar journey, where a dark fate—itself tragically not unfamiliar—awaits them.
The events of the story, it turns out, stem directly from the author’s own experience. Stien, who was preparing to study Sami at the University of Oslo, made this same journey from Finnmarksvidda to Magerøya with a group of Sami reindeer herders in 1970. As she remarks: “Something happened at the end of the migration and it was something that shouldn’t occur. That’s what I convey in my short story, but I take it a little farther than what took place when I was present. I describe what almost happened, what could have happened, what was on the verge of happening . . . ”
“Under” by Merethe Lindstrøm
“Under” by Merethe Lindstrøm is taken from the author’s short story collection Gjestene (Guests, 2007). The story, like the others in this feature, dwells upon the unexpected, this time from the vantage point of a terrifying robbery: a knife pulled on a woman and her young daughter when riding the subway at night. In the context of this crisis situation, the story provides a picture of a woman trying to make sense of her day’s events, also in light of her previous experience. As Lindstrøm explains: “I thought of how different parts of one day might reflect each other, some of it peaceful, some dramatic, but how we integrate everything when we look back, how thoughts form, weaving everything together, as we are trying to find some meaning and context.”
“Under” is written in Lindstrøm’s typically understated prose, which avoids even quotation marks, giving an interiority to the exchange of words and, in this case, a trapped sense to the atmosphere. It is a controlled narration, rather like controlled breathing, once again that sense of compression, of being frozen in place before a terrifying reality, even as the woman’s thoughts, in the midst of her crisis situation, wander—in search of sense, among other things. As such, she moves among similarities and dichotomies: light and dark; open and closed; windows that permit sight and those that do not; another terrifying situation and its aftermath.
“Under” is the short story in the hands of a practiced artist, where we again see displayed the balancing act between compression and openness, the arena where every word counts. As Lindstrøm remarks of this balancing act: “The form is challenging because it wants less, which seems like a paradox as you write. You become so aware, you change just one word, a phrase, and you have changed it all, and the story might say something very different from what you intended.” Interestingly enough, we see these same deliberations in the protagonist’s mind as she ponders how a single movement might alter everything, how shifting in her seat beneath her sleeping daughter, for example, will affect the knife-wielding man across from them. The result, in this moment and in Lindstrøm’s stories in general, is an atmosphere the author describes as “immediate and acute.”
The inspiration to write “Under,” we find, also emerged from a real-life crisis situation. As Lindstrøm explained: “At fifteen my son was threatened with a knife, together with his friend he was stopped outside the Nationaltheateret station and they were held there for quite some time, people walking by, not seeing or wanting to see.”
And so we have it: an expansion, a journey, a knife. The writers here offer the hallmark feature of every well-written short story: a punch to the existential gut.
© 2017 Kerri Pierce. All rights reserved.