Look Back on Happiness, by Knut Hamsun

Chapter XVI

Miss Torsen no longer talks about leaving. Not that she looks very happy about staying, either; but Miss Torsen is altogether too restless and strange to be contented with anything.

Naturally she caught cold after that evening in the woods with Solem, and stayed in bed with a headache next day; when she got up again, she was quite all right.

Was she? Why was her throat so blue under the chin, as though someone had seized her by it?

She never went near Solem any more, and behaved as though he were nonexistent. Apparently there had been a struggle in the woods that had made her blue under the chin, and they were friends no longer! It was like her to want nothing real, nothing but the sensation, nothing but the triumph. Solem had not understood that, and had flown into a passion. Had it been thus?

Yes, there was no doubt that Solem had been cheated. He was more direct and lacked subtlety; he made allusions, and said things like “Oh, yes, that Miss Torsen, she’s a fine one; I’ll bet she’s as strong as a man!”

And then he laughed, but with repressed fury. He followed her with gross eyes wherever she went, and in order to assert himself and seem indifferent, he would sing a song of the linesman’s life whenever she was about. But he might have saved himself the trouble. Miss Torsen was stone-deaf to his songs.

And now it seemed she was going to stay at the resort out of sheer defiance. We enjoyed her company no more than we had done before, but she began to make herself agreeable to the lawyer, sitting by his work table in the living room as he drew plans of houses. Such is the perverse idleness of summer resorts.

So the days pass; they hold no further novelty for me, and I begin to weary of them. Now and then comes a stranger who is going across the fjeld, but things are no longer, I am told, as they were in other years, when visitors came in droves. And things will not improve until we, too, get roads and cars.

I have not troubled to mention it before this, but the neighboring valley is called Stordalen (Great Valley), while ours is only called Reisa after the river: the whole of the Reisa district is no more than an appendage. Stordalen has all the advantages, even the name. But Paul, our host, calls the neighboring valley Little Valley, because, says Paul, the people there are so petty and avaricious.

Poor Paul! He has returned from his tour to the village as hopeless as he went, and hopelessly drunk besides. For more than a day, he stayed in his room without once emerging. When he reappeared at last, he was aloof and reserved, pretending he had been very successful during his absence; he should manage about the cars, never fear! In the evening, after he had had a few more drinks, he became self-important in a different way: oh, those fools in the village had no sense of any kind, and had refused to give their consent to a road to his place. He was the only one with any sense. Would not such a bit of a road be a blessing to the whole appendage? Because then the caravans would come, scattering money over the valley. They understood nothing, those fools!

“But sooner or later there will have to be a road here,” said the lawyer.

“Of course,” replied Paul with finality.

Then he went to his room and lay down again.

On another day, a small flock of strangers came again; they had toiled up themselves, carrying their luggage in the hot sun, and now they wanted some help. Solem was ready at once, but he could not possibly carry all the bags and knapsacks; Paul was lying down in his room. I had seen Paul again during the night go out to the woods, talking loudly and flinging his arms about as though he had company.

And here were all the strangers.

Paul’s wife and Josephine came out of the house and sent Solem across to Einar, the first cotter, to ask if he would come and help them carry. In the meantime the travelers grew impatient and kept looking at their watches, for if they could not cross the Tore fjeld before nightfall, they would have to spend the night outdoors. One of them suggested to the others that perhaps this delay was intentional. The owner of the place probably wanted them to spend the night there; they began to grumble among themselves, and at last they asked:

“Where is the master, the host?”

“He’s ill,” said Josephine.

Solem returned and said:

“Einar hasn’t time to come; he’s lifting his potatoes.”

A pause.

Then Josephine said:

“I’ve got to go across the fjeld anyhow — wait a minute!”

She was gone for a moment, then returned, loaded the bags and knapsacks on her little back, and trotted off. The others followed.

I caught up with Josephine and took her burden from her. But I would not allow her to turn back, for this little tour away from the house would do her good. We walked together and talked on the way: she had really no complaints, she said, for she had a tidy sum of money saved up.

When we reached the top of the fjeld, Josephine wanted to turn back. She thought it a waste of time to walk by my side, with nothing to do but walk.

“I thought you had to cross the fjeld anyhow?” I said.

She was too shrewd to deny it outright, for in that case she, the daughter of the old man at the Tore Peak farm, would have been going with the tourists solely to carry their luggage.

“Yes, but there’s no hurry. I was to have visited someone, but that can wait till the winter.”

We stood arguing about this, and I was so stubborn that I threatened to throw all the luggage down the mountainside, and then she would see!

“Then I’ll just take them and carry them myself,” replied Josephine, “and then you’ll see!”

By this time the others had caught up with us, and before I knew what had happened, one of the strangers had come forward and lifted the burden from my back, taken off his cap with a great deal of ceremony, and told me his own and his companions’ names. I must excuse them, I really must forgive them; this was too bad, he had been so unobserving. . . .

I told him I could easily have carried him as well as the bags. It is not strength I lack; but day and night I carry about with me the ape of all the diseases, who is heavy as lead. Ah, well, many another groans under a burden of stupidity, which is little better. We all have our cross to bear. . . .

Then Josephine and I turned homeward again.

Yes, indeed, people treat me with uncontrollable politeness; this is because of my age. People are indulgent toward me when I am troublesome to others, when I am eccentric, when I have a screw loose; people forgive me because my hair is gray. You who live by your compass will say that I am respected for the writing I have been doing all these years. But if that were so, I should have had respect in my young days when I deserved it, not now when I no longer deserve it so well. No one — no one in the world — can be expected to write after fifty nearly so well as before, and only the fools or the self-interested pretend to improve after that age.

Now it is a fact that I have been practicing a most distinctive authorship, better than most; I know that very well. But this is due, not so much to my endeavors, as to the fact that I was born with this ability.

I have made a test of this, and I know it is true. I have thought to myself: “Suppose someone else had said this!” Well, no doubt others have said it sometimes, but that has not hurt me. I have gone even further than this: I have intentionally exposed myself to direct contempt from other literary men, and this has not hurt me either. So I am sure of my ground. On the other hand, my way of life has lent me an inner distinction for which I have a right to demand respect, because it is the fruit of my own endeavors. You cannot make me out a small man without lying. Yet one can endure even such a lie if one has character.

You may quote Carlyle against me — how authors are misjudged! — “Considering what book-writers do in the world, and what the world does with book-writers, I should say it is the most anomalous thing the world at present has to show.” You may quote many others as well; they will assert that a great to-do is made over me for my authorship as well as my native ability, and my struggle to hammer this ability into a useful shape. And I say only what is the truth, that most of the fuss is made because I have reached an age in which my years are revered.

And that is what seems to me so wrong; it is a custom which makes it easy to hold down the gifted young in a most hostile and arrogant fashion. Old age should not be honored for its own sake; it does nothing but halt and delay the march of man. The primitive races, indeed, have no respect for old age, and rid themselves unhesitatingly of it and of its defects. A long time ago I deserved honor much more, and valued it; now, in more than one sense, I am a richer man and can afford to do without.

Yet now I have it. If I enter a room, respectful silence falls. “How old he’s grown!” everyone present thinks. And they all remain silent so that I may speak memorable words in that room. Amazing nonsense!

The noise should raise the roof when I enter: “Welcome, old fellow and old companion; for pity’s sake don’t say anything memorable to us — you should have done that when you were better able to. Sit down, old chap, and keep us company. But don’t let your old age cast a shadow on us, and don’t restrain us; you have had your day — now it’s our turn . . . ”

This is honest speech.

In peasant homes they still have the right instinct: the mothers preserve their daughters, the fathers their sons, from the rough, unpleasant labors. A proper mother lets her daughter sew while she herself works among the cattle. And the daughter will do the same with her own daughter. It is her instinct.

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