Look Back on Happiness, by Knut Hamsun

Chapter XIX

It is very pleasant here at harvest time. Scythes are being sharpened in the field, men and women are at work; they go thinly clad and bareheaded, and call to one another and laugh; sometimes they drink from a bucket of whey, then set to work again. There is the familiar fragrance of hay, which penetrates my senses like a song of home, drawing me home, home, though I am not abroad. But perhaps I am abroad after all, far away from the soil where I have my roots.

Why, indeed, do I stay here any longer, at a resort full of schoolmistresses, with a host who has once more said farewell to sobriety? Nothing is happening to me; I do not grow here. The others go out and lie on their backs; I steal off and find relish in myself, and feel poetry within me for the night. The world wants no, poetry; it wants only verses that have not been sung before.

And Norway wants no red-hot irons; only village smiths forge irons now, for the needs of the mob and the honor of the country.

No one came; the stream of tourists went up and down Stordalen and left our little Reisa valley deserted. If only the Northern Railway could have come to Reisa with Cook’s and Bennett’s tours — then Stordalen in its turn would have lain deserted. Meanwhile, the cotters who are cultivating the soil will probably go on harvesting half the crop of the outlying fields for the rest of time. There is every reason to think so — unless our descendants are more intelligent than we, and refuse to be smitten with the demoralizing effects of the tourist traffic.

Now, my friend, you mustn’t believe me; this is the point where you must shake your head. There is a professor scuttling about the country, a born mediocrity with a little school knowledge about history; you had better ask him. He’ll give you just as much mediocre information, my friend, as your vision can grasp and your brain endure.

Hardly had Manufacturer Brede left when Paul began to live a most irregular life again. More and more all roads were closed to him; he saw no way out and therefore preferred to make himself blind, which gave him an excuse for not seeing. Seven of our permanent guests now left together: the telephone operators, Tradesman Batt, Schoolmistresses Johnsen and Palm, and two men who were in some sort of business, I don’t quite know what. This whole party went across the fjeld to Stordalen to be driven about in cars.

Cases of various kinds of foodstuffs arrived for Paul; they were carried up one evening by a man from the village. He had to make several journeys with the side of his cart let down, and bring the cases over the roughest spots one by one. That was the kind of road it was. Josephine received the consignment, and noticed that one of the cases gave forth the sound of a liquid splashing inside. That had come to the wrong place, she said, and writing another address on it, she told the man to take it back. It was sirup that had come too late, she said; she had got sirup elsewhere in the meantime.

Later in the evening we heard them discussing it in the kitchen; the sirup had not come too late, Paul said angrily.

“And I’ve told you to clear these newspapers away!” he cried. We heard the sound of paper and glass being swept to the floor.

Well, things were not too easy for Paul; the days went by dull and empty, nor had he any children to give him pleasant thoughts at times. Though he wanted to build still more houses, he could not use half those he had already. There was Mrs. Brede living alone with her children in one of them, and since seven of the guests had left, Miss Torsen was also alone in the south wing. Paul wanted at all costs to build roads and share in the development of the tourist traffic; he even wanted to run a fleet of motor cars. But since he had not the power to do this alone and could get no assistance, nothing was left him but to resign himself. And now to make matters worse Manufacturer Brede had said he would withdraw his money. . . .

Paul’s careworn face looked out of the kitchen door. Before going out himself he wanted to make sure there was no one about, but he was disappointed in this, for the lawyer at once greeted him loudly: “Good evening, Paul!” and drew him outside.

They strolled down the field in the dusk.

Assuredly there is little to be gained by “having a good talk” with a man about his drinking; such matters are too vital to be settled by talking. But Paul seems to have admitted that the lawyer was right in all he said, and probably left him with good resolutions.

Paul went down to the village again. He was going to the post office; the money he had from the seven departed guests would be scattered to all quarters of the globe. And yet it was not enough to cover everything — in fact not enough for anything, for interest, repayments, taxes, and repairs. It paid only for a few cases of food from the city. And of course he stopped the case of sirup from going back.

Paul returned blind-drunk because he no longer wished to see. It was the same thing all over again. But his brain seemed in its own way to go on searching for a solution, and one day he asked the lawyer:

“What do you call those square glass jars for keeping small fish in — goldfish?”

“Do you mean an aquarium?”

“That’s it,” said Paul. “Are they dear?”

“I don’t know. Why?”

“I wonder if I could get one.”

“What do you want it for?”

“Don’t you think it might attract people to the place? Oh, well, perhaps it wouldn’t.”

And Paul withdrew.

Madder than ever. Some people see flies. Paul saw goldfish.

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