This wasn’t my first – or last – fantasy about taking drastic measures to escape my life. I didn’t follow through on this brilliant plan or any of the others which didn’t stop me from devising new schemes to start over someplace else whenever I’m overwhelmed where I am.
Before my wedding, I thought about hopping a plane and disappearing in Sweden (because I took Swedish at UCLA, as if that would do me any good.) Thank God I lost my nerve – or regained my senses – and showed up at the church on time. Sticking around and seeing things through was always the right choice.
The fantasy of running away – starting a new life with a new name – is probably impossible in our high-tech surveillance-happy world. Even if I could, there’s no reason to believe my new life would improve on the one I’m living. As the saying goes, wherever you run to, you take yourself with you.
And of course, “myself” is the problem. The only way to change my circumstances is change myself. It’s an inside adjustment, not an outside one. I didn’t know that in ’69, as I sank into a bottomless clinical depression. I find solace in the fact that no matter how much I wanted to leave this life, I stayed – and you know what? It got better.
My favorite Ibsen plays aren’t the ones that deal with social issues (A Doll’s House, Enemy of the People) but the ones that deal with secrets of the heart, complicated desires most people refuse to admit – even to themselves.
The common elements to Rosmersholm, When We Dead Awaken and The Master Builder are:
An aging artist is artistically blocked and the thrill is long gone from his marriage.
A stranger from the past appears and demands payment for an unkept promise.
The young stranger tantalizes, provokes and ultimately inspires the aging artist to ascend to high, cold isolated peaks.
This perilous climb results in death. Unfortunately, in Ibsen’s world the hero must choose between living death by secure but sterile marriage or actual death by passion, romance and self-actualization.
One might assume Ibsen is the aging unhappily married artist but late in life, speaking of his wife Susannah, he said, “I could not do without her greatness. “ He never left Susannah for any of his young girls. So what was going on in Ibsen’s secret heart?
In an early work, Brand, which also ends high in the mountains with the hero’s death via avalanche, Ibsen refers to the “Ice Church”, a human soul in which love has died. All that’s left for the couple is to “try to fill that emptiness with something. Something resembling love.” (Little Eyolf)
In an interview about The Master Builder, Ibsen said “Solness and his wife are worthy people who aren’t happy in their life together. They don’t become what they could and should have become. They aren’t actually miserable. Although they share consideration and a kind of tenderness and love, they cramp each other. They brood perpetually because each goes his own way mentally and doesn’t share with the other. Contrast Hilde and Solness. They are not extraordinary persons but they feel spiritually akin, strongly attracted to each other. They feel they belong together and life together would be immeasurably richer. They would be better people and their relationship would give their lives greater meaning. Then the collision comes – when Solness still has a zest for life, a need for happiness, and feels unable to live in subdued resignation. And so they decide to build a castle in the air and live together in spirit.
This lifts him higher than before, able to do things he had not been able to do for a long time. He stakes his life on his passion and is killed.”
How many married people relate to this passage, even if they’re unwilling to admit it or act on it? Is this why these plays made people of Ibsen’s era so uncomfortable?
Ibsen also said, “It is wrong to think of unhappy love as two people who love each other but don’t wind up together. No, unhappy love is when two people who love each other get married and feel they…cannot live happily together.” I think Ibsen meant, they can’t keep their passion and romance alive – but who can? Passionate romantic love requires an element of risk, uncertainty, mystery and a leap of faith – the opposite of a long term marriage.
That’s not to say I don’t believe in marriage. I do; I’ve been married forty years (to the same man.) However, it’s not always easy. My novel, REPRISE, struggles with these themes in more depth and I’ll write more on this topic in future blogs.
Since my family and I are touring Scandinavia, it’s a perfect time to revisit my relationship with Henrik Ibsen.
Growing up in California the smart second language was Spanish, but in high school I opted for Latin. When I reached UCLA I registered for German but in less than an hour I realized what most people probably already knew – Germans don’t employ the same sentence structure as English.
Luckily, UCLA offered a plethora of languages, one of which was Swedish. As a second language its usefulness is debatable since most Swedes speak English, but it utilizes the exact same sentence structure as English. Sign me up!
Today, the only Swedish I remember is “Ja kan tala da svenska mycket bra.” Unfortunately, this translates to “I can speak Swedish very well” and since I kannot tala da svenska mycket bra, I dare not utter it to anybody who actually speaks Swedish.
Since a year of Swedish familiarized me with the Scandinavian languages building, I figured why not take Scandinavian Literature? The first book we read was “The Axe.” (That’s all I remember, but I’m willing to bet no one lived happily ever after.) Next we read Knut Hamsun’s Hunger (logline – Norwegian writer starves himself to death for art) and then Barabbas
(not the feel-good movie version. In the Lagerkvist book, Barabbas escapes death on the cross, thinks about things but reaches no conclusions, and dies on another cross.) If you’re hooked on nihilistic hopelessness and can’t get enough tragic suicides or avalanches, Scandinavian lit is for you.
This brings me to Henrik Ibsen. What better way to follow up my immersion in Scandinavian lit than a ten-week four-unit course all about Ibsen, all the time? I might not know much about Strindberg but by God, I can pontificate about Ibsen as long as you can stay conscious. How important is Ibsen? He’s behind Shakespeare but ahead of Chekhov when it comes to fathering modern theater.
Here are some things you might not know about Ibsen. He left Norway before he found fame as a playwright and lived most of his adult life in Italy and Germany. He had a yen for young girls (but not Polanski thirteen-year olds; Ibsen’s crushes were old enough to legally consent, although it wasn’t necessary as nothing physical was involved.) Oddly enough, although I find the old man/ young girl thing a little repugnant, my favorite Ibsen plays are his later ones dealing – not obliquely – with old geniuses and young girls. Ibsen might be famous for A Doll’s House, Ghosts, Hedda Gable, Peer Gynt and Enemy of the People but I’ll take Rosmersholm, Master Builder and When We Dead Awaken all day long.
Part two of Ibsen and I to follow tomorrow.
But, before I leave you, today, here is a collage of some of our experiences on our cruise from Stockholm to Copenhagen.
Two weeks later, although I have visited many wondrous places and have seen some incredible things, it is time to stop climbing the endless castle stairs.
I have yet to realize the above scenario. It turns out Tolstoy rarely surfaces in California small talk. Luckily, the blog format allows me to start my own conversation but it might be too late. I haven’t given Leo much thought for decades. To test my knowledge retention, I’m writing this post without using references.
My favorite Tolstoy novel was the lesser known Resurrection, written relatively late in his life. I don’t recall the hero’s name but basically the plot was as follows. An aristocrat serving as a juror recognizes the woman on trial as the same girl he and his friends gang-raped years earlier. Overcome with guilt, he accompanies her to prison in Siberia. She is not enthusiastic and, as I recall, it doesn’t turn into a love story. It’s more about the guy’s spiritual journey. It’s shorter than War and Peace and Anna Karenina.
My second favorite was Anna Karenina but I confess skimming the parts about Levin. Tolstoy used Levin to pontificate on rural Russian agriculture, not exactly a page-turner. Given this, it’s ironic the section of the book I remember and admired most involved the deadly dull Levin.
Here is how I remember it. Levin has been set up with an eligible woman (after suffering rejection from Kitty, the woman he wants and – spoiler alert – later gets.) They’re picnicking near a river. Tolstoy describes a moment in their conversation where they both realize – or decide – this relationship is dead in the water. The energy level drops but nothing is said. No doubt some of my admiration for this passage is due to having experienced similar moments myself although I couldn’t articulate them as well. In a future post, I’ll paste the passage in question into my blog and attempt to analyze why it works – or I’ll admit my memory failed and what I recall reading doesn’t exist. (It appears this may, in fact, be the case. I’m mortified.)
My favorite Tolstoy short story is the Kreutzer Sonata in which the aging Leo rails against the evils of lust, sex and women. In reality, Tolstoy’s wife Sonya got pregnant shortly after its publication and referred to the baby as “the postscript to the Kreutzer Sonata.” It’s a passionate story, raging against passion.
Ask me what I know about Dostoevsky or Chekhov and the answer is “not much.” But just wait until someone brings up Leo Tolstoy at a cocktail party!
Here are a couple of shots of our visits to Tallinn, Estonia and St. Petersburg, Russia.
In a few days, I’m leaving on a trip through Scandinavia. I’ve never been there, even though I’m half Danish and almost half Norwegian (there’s a smidge of Swedish on the Norwegian side). I have my own stereotypes about Scandinavians based on my extended family but in the interests of objective research, I skimmed two recent books on the topic – The Almost Nearly Perfect People (Behind the Myth of the Scandinavian Utopia) by Michael Booth and How to be Danish (A Journey to the Cultural Heart of Denmark) by Patrick Kingsley. The following bullet points are culled from these books.
Danes are joiners; they belong to more clubs than most nationalities.
Clubs include choirs, in which the blending of all voices is more important than any one voice – a perfect illustration of the Dane’s flock instinct.
Danes have the highest level of trust (in other people) in the world.
In the 90s, someone did an experiment in which they left 40 wallets unattended in forty cities. All 40 wallets were returned in only two countries – Denmark and Norway. So apparently some of that trust is warranted.
All of the Scandinavian countries talk smack about their neighboring Scandinavian countries. Danes are knocked for deteriorating language skills. Norwegians, resented because of their oil wealth, are knocked for being stupid country bumpkins. However, Sweden is the most intensely despised by its neighbors.
Swedes have a heightened fear of appearing foolish “reflected by one of the key words by which the Swedes define themselves – duktig. It literally translates as clever, but this is a specific type of Swedish cleverness; a diligent, responsible kind of clever; punctual, law-abiding, industrious clever.” (Booth)
In Sweden, it’s a major faux pas to touch wine glasses after a toast.
Swedes don’t converse with each other on buses.
Swedes are considered shy and self-effacing.
Ake Daun, author of The Swedish Mentality, describes Swedes as “a race of wallflowers racked with insecurities; they would rather take the stairs than share a lift.”
Norwegians dress in extravagant national costumes on May 17 (Norwegian Constitution Day) – heavily embroidered dirndls, hobnail shoes, shawls, bright-buttoned breeches, etc.
Oslo residents are the second richest in the world, right behind Hartford, Connecticut citizens.
Oslo is extremely expensive! Taxi drivers apologize for the fares. “Sorry. It’s Norway.”