Look Back on Happiness, by Knut Hamsun

Chapter XIII

Solem was being discussed at dinner; I don’t know who began it, but some of the ladies thought he was good-looking, and they nodded and said, Yes, he was the right sort.

“What do you mean by the right sort?” Associate Master Höy asked, looking up from his plate.

No one answered.

Then Associate Master Höy could not help smiling broadly, and said:

“Well, well! I must have a look at this Solem some time. I’ve never paid any attention to him.”

Associate Master Höy might look at Solem all he pleased; he would grow no bigger for that, nor Solem smaller. The good Mr. Höy was annoyed, and that was the truth. It is catching for a woman to discover that a man is “the right sort”; the other women grow curious, and stick their noses into it: “So-o-o, is he?” And a few days later the whole flock of them are of one opinion: “Yes, indeed, he’s the right sort!”

Pity the poor, left-over associate masters then!

Poor Mr. Höy; there was Mrs. Molie, too, nodding her head for Solem. To tell the truth, she had no appearance of knowing much about the matter, but she could not lag behind the others.

“So, Mrs. Molie is nodding, too!” said Mr. Höy, and smiled again. He was intensely annoyed. Mrs. Molie turned pink and pretty.

At the next meal, Mr. Höy could contain himself no longer.

“Ladies,” he said, “mine eyes have now beheld Master Solem.”

“Well?”

“Common sneak-thief!”

“Oh, shame!”

“You must admit he has a brazen look on his face. No beard. Blue chin, a perfect horse-face. . . . ”

“There’s no harm in that,” said Mrs. Molie.

Mrs. Molie doesn’t seem to have gone quite out of circulation after all, I thought. In fact, she had lately been developing quite a little cushion over her chest, and no longer looked so hunched up. She had eaten well and slept well, and improved at this resort. Mrs. Molie, I suspect, still has plenty of life left in her.

This proved true a few days later. Once again: poor Associate Master Höy! For now we had a new visitor at the farm, a gay dog of a lawyer, and he talked more to Mrs. Molie than to anyone else. Had there been anything between her and Mr. Höy? True, he was not much to look at, but then neither was she.

The young lawyer was a sportsman, yet he was learned in the social sciences, too, had been in Switzerland and studied the principle of the referendum. At first he had worked a few years in an architect’s office, he told us, but then he had changed to the law instead, which in its turn had led him into social problems. No doubt he was a rich and unselfish man to be able to change his vocation and to travel in this way. “Ah, Switzerland!” he said, and his eyes watered. None of us could understand his fervor.

“Yes, it must be a wonderful country,” Mrs. Molie said.

The Associate Master looked ready to burst, and was quite incapable of restraining himself.

Speaking of Solem, he said suddenly, “I’ve changed my mind about him lately. He’s ten times better than many another.”

“There, you see!”

“Yes, he is. And he doesn’t pretend to be anything more than he is. And what he is, is of some use. I saw him slaughter the lame goat.”

“Did you stop to watch that?”

“I happened to be passing. It was the work of a moment for him. And later I saw him in the woodshed. He knows his job, that fellow. I can well understand that the ladies see something in him.”

How the Associate Master clowned! He finished by imploring the wife of the captain who was sailing the China seas to be sure and remain faithful to her Chinaman.

“Do be quiet and let the lawyer tell us about Switzerland,” said Mrs. Molie.

Witch! Did she want to drive her fellow-being the Associate Master into jumping off the highest peak of the Tore tonight?

But then Mrs. Brede took a hand. She understood Mr. Höy’s torment and wanted to help him. Had not this same Mr. Höy just expressed himself kindly about Solem, and was not Solem the lad who one fine evening had caused her to tear down her window blind? There is cause and effect in all things.

“Switzerland,” said Mrs. Brede in her gentle fashion, and then she reddened and laughed a little. “I don’t know anything about Switzerland; but once I bought some dress material that was Swiss, and I’ve never in my life been so cheated.”

The lawyer only smiled at this.

Schoolmistress Johnsen talked about what she had learned, watchmakers and the Alps and Calvin —

“Yes, those are the only three things in a thousand years,” said the Associate Master, his face quite altered and pale with suppressed rage.

“Really, really, Associate Höy!” exclaimed Schoolmistress Palm with a smile.

But the lawyer focused everyone’s admiration on himself by telling them all about Switzerland, that wonderful country, that model for all small countries of the world. What social conditions, what a referendum, what planning in the exploitation of the country’s natural wonders! There they had sanatoriums; there they knew how to deal with tourists! Tremendous!

“Yes, and what Swiss cheese,” said the Associate Master. “It smells like tourists’ feet.”

Dead silence. So Associate Master Höy was prepared to go to such lengths!

“Well, what about Norwegian old-milk cheese?” said a Danish voice mildly.

“Yes, that’s filthy stuff, too,” Mr. Höy replied. “Just the thing for Schoolmaster Staur pontificating in his armchair.”

Laughter.

Since matters were now smoothed over again, the lawyer could safely continue:

“If we could only make such Swiss cheese here,” he said, “we should not be so poor. Generally speaking, I found after my modest investigations in that country that they are ahead of us in every respect. We have everything to learn from them: their frugality, their diligence, their long working hours, the small home industries —”

“And so on,” interrupted Associate Master Höy. “All trifles, nothingness, negativity! A country that exists thanks only to the mercy of its neighbors ought not to be a model for any other country on earth. We must try to rise above the wretched stench of it, which only makes us ill. The big countries and big circumstances should be our model. Everything grows, even the small things, unless they’re predestined to a Lilliput existence. A child can learn from another child, of course, but the model is the adult. Some day the child will be an adult itself. A pretty state of affairs it would be if an eternal child, a born pygmy, were to be its model! But that’s what all this rubbish about Switzerland really amounts to. Why on earth should we, of all people, take the smallest and meanest country as our model? Things are small enough here anyhow. Switzerland is the serf of Europe. Have you ever heard of a young South American country of Norway’s size trying to be on a level with Switzerland? Why do you think Sweden is taking such great strides forward now? Not because it looks to Switzerland, or to Norway, but to Germany! Honor to Sweden for that! But what about us? We don’t want to be a piddling little nation stuck up in our mountains, a nation that brings forth peace conferences, ski-runners, and an Ibsen once every thousand years; we have potentialities for a thousand times more —”

The lawyer had for some time been holding up his hand to indicate that he wanted to reply; now he shouted at the top of his voice:

“Just a moment!”

The Associate Master stopped.

“Just one question — a small, trifling question,” said the lawyer, preparing his ground well. “Have you ever once set foot in the country you speak of?”

“I should think I have,” replied the Associate Master.

There! The lawyer got nothing for his trifling question. And then it all came out what a heartless jilt Mrs. Molie was. She had known all the time that Mr. Höy had been on a traveling scholarship in Switzerland, but she had never mentioned it. What a snake in the grass! She had even encouraged the lawyer, but no one else, to talk about Switzerland.

“Oh, yes, of course Associate Master Höy has been in Switzerland” she said, as though to clinch the matter.

“In that case, the Associate Master and I have looked on the country with different eyes; that’s all,” said the lawyer, suddenly anxious to end the controversy.

“They haven’t even folk tales there,” said the Associate Master, who seemed unable to stop. “There they sit, generation after generation, filing watch springs and piloting Englishmen up their mountains. But it’s a country without folk music or folk tales. I suppose you think we ought to work hard to resemble the Swiss in that, too?”

“What about William Tell?” asked Miss Johnsen.

Several of the ladies nodded, or at any rate Miss Palm did.

At this point Mrs. Molie turned her head and looked out of the window as she said:

“You really had a very different opinion about Switzerland before, Mr. Associate Master.”

This was a hit below the belt. He wanted to reply, wanted to annihilate her, but he restrained himself and remained silent.

“Don’t you remember?” she asked, goading him.

“No,” he replied. “You mistook my meaning. Really, I can’t understand it, I usually make myself quite clear; after all, I’m accustomed to explaining to children.”

Another foul. Mrs. Molie said no more, merely smiling patiently.

“I can only say that my opinion is diametrically opposed to yours,” the lawyer repeated. “But I did think,” he went on, “that this was one thing I knew something about, however. . . . ”

Mrs. Molie got up and went out with her head bent, seemingly on the point of bursting into tears. The Associate Master sat still for a moment, and then followed her, whistling and putting on as brave a manner as though he felt quite easy in his mind.

“What’s your opinion?” asked Mrs. Brede, turning to the doyen of the company, namely myself.

And as becomes a man of settled years, I replied:

“Probably there has been a little exaggeration on both sides.”

Everybody agreed with this. But I could never have acted as a mediator, for I thought the Associate Master was right. In one’s early seventies, one still has many pathetically young ideas.

The lawyer rounded off the discussion thus:

“Well, when all’s said and done we have Switzerland to thank for being able to sit here at our ease in this comfortable mountain resort. We get tourists into the country on the Swiss model, and earn money and pay off our debts. Ask this man if he would have been willing to do without all we have learned from Switzerland. . . . ”

That evening Mrs. Brede asked,

“Why did you make Mr. Höy look so unreasonable today, Mrs. Molie?”

“I?” said Mrs., Molie innocently. “Well, really —!”

As a matter of fact, it seemed as though Mrs. Molie had really been innocent, for the very next morning she and the Associate Master set off up the fjeld together in a very gay mood, and remained away till midday. If they had the matter out between them, then no doubt the lady spoke to her much-tried friend as follows:

“Surely you can see I’m not interested in that lawyer-person! What an idea! I only drew him out so you’d have the chance to give him a good dressing down — don’t you understand that? Really, you’re the silliest, sweetest — come here, let me kiss you. . . . ”

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Last updated Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 20:38