The Moon Over The Gate

The Body/Non-Body Divide, Peacoats, Sven Lindqvist, Saint-Exupéry, The Sahara, Oblivion-Seekers, A Fifty-one-Year-Old Billy Elliot, Morocco, Rimbaud, Grammatically Flawed French Pronouncements, Isabelle Eberhardt, Proletarian Oslovian Bookshops, Karl Johans Street, Wu Tao-tzu, Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet, Stoic Moose

The Moon Over The Gate

Per Petterson
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Sometimes I go out walking at night. Not only in the summer when the light comes down from the sky the whole day and night too and it’s easy to see for a great distance even well after midnight, and not just in winter either, when the snow lies thick, oozing light from a vertically opposite direction, from the ground up, like the discotheque floor in London where I once danced (but that’s a long time ago now). If it is cold enough it makes you want to dance, it’s true; to hear the dry grating sound when your boots meet the snow with each bounce you make. The sound of tap shoes on the country road on a January night! It’s a good thing then to have your cap on, a good thing that no one can see you blushing. The darkest time in the valley here is in late Novem-ber, before the snow -settles, when all I can see when I open the door and go out on the doorstep are the outside lights of one other farm on the opposite hillside, and all round me the autumn-ploughed fields swallow and smother—each glimmer, each flicker, each flame, and give nothing in return. Then I will probably put my jacket on, most often the peacoat from the novels I have written, and go out into the yard when I cannot sleep or do not want to sleep. I leave the torch inside. The contrast it creates when I switch it on and the ray of light cutting through the night div-iding every-thing up into a here and a there may reawaken the fear of darkness I had when I was small, which has almost quite vanished now, but in certain situations, at certain mental and geographical points of intersection I cannot calculate or beforehand see coming, it strikes me heavily and leaves me so stiff with terror that in my bad periods I bring my knife from Crete out with me. I grip it tightly round the handle with the naked, sharp metal blade ready for use against all those that crawl around and fill the darkness completely with their slimy, raging, wild bodies, and will do for me at the first possible opportunity.

Then I feel a burning stab of cold in the back of my neck, and nevertheless set off, all the way down through the valley.

Usually it is not like that. On the contrary. Without either knife or torch I walk down the slope from the Gate (as it is called, the place where I live). Sometimes with one of my dogs for company—-pre-ferably Laika, who is youngest and least inclined to laziness—sometimes on my own, if I suspect my special moose is standing where it usually does, chewing and dozing in the bushes beside the road through Dæsjroa, or Dalsroen, as it will say on some maps. Not that the moose has any fear of Laika. It does not move an inch no matter how much the dog barks, and Laika knows the moose is not afraid, and as it does not take flight, Laika cannot chase after it. This is so frustrating to her that she gives voice to that until she almost splits in two. So do I then, I split in two; all this is far too noisy and not how I want it at night. Then I’d rather walk alone. I do not necessarily need company. The moose can stand there in the bushes, that is fine with me, and I would like to know it does, and maybe even be able to hear it, but then as a part of the night I am moving through as I too want to be a part of that night.

What I want is the pitch-black night as a condition, as something to sink and dissolve myself in; what I want is for the darkness to gush in through my eyes and my body to float out so it no longer is as distinct, as important as it often may seem to me, it must be admitted, that I can be found listening to its signals in monomaniacal and hypo-chondriacal ways; what I want is for the severance of body and non-body to dissolve a little, maybe accomplish some slight osmosis where the one ends and the other begins; to erase. That is what I want when I am sick of myself, of my face in the mirror, of the words I put on the screen, sick of the metallic taste in my mouth I get through staging myself each single day, when the proportionate relationship between me and me is almost 1:1, but not quite, and disgust and self–contempt ooze out of the cracks along the edge where the disparity prevents the tape of life from sticking.


And I ponder: was this how it was for those who felt themselves drawn to the great desert, the Sahara, in Sven Lindqvist’s book Desert Divers (which I have just read for the third time and think about often); was it like that for Saint-Exupéry, for Isabelle Eberhardt and the others in that book, that they too wanted to be erased, and that the Sahara was their night, and what they did was to think with more ambition, with a stronger will than I have done, standing out here in the cold, restless and itching all over, with only this late autumn night at my disposal and maybe I’ll restrict myself to that. But I understand the craving, that attraction, at those times when I find myself on the roads in the dark, as now, with my arms stretched out to both sides like the wings of an airplane, a mail-route plane maybe, on its way from Casablanca to Dakar, like Saint–Exupéry’s plane; the vibrating machine, so warm and close to my body, but also a great silence enveloping my head, my thoughts, and I walk this way through the darkness to confirm the space around me. To sense how it is potentially infinite and thus can give an almost overwhelming freedom, just like the desert is potentially infinite, and was for Sven Lindqvist when he read and dreamed about the Sahara as a boy, and still was when as a middle-aged man after the breakup of a marriage he traveled there for the first time. That breakup gave him the freedom, the point-zero, the possibility he needed to be able to look back and see who he was when as a child a long time ago he gazed toward the point in time where he now found himself, prompted by circumstances he suddenly turned and looked back, and one can picture how the gazes of the two met, one clear and blue, the other perhaps a bit more pale, and the elder one saw the question in the young one’s eyes: who have you become, what have you managed to do? And he would have to reply: No, I have not been to the Sahara yet. I have traveled everywhere, I have written numerous books on what I have seen, I have posed many important questions, but I have not been to the Sahara yet. I can go now. I will go now. I know I must.

I float around in the dark like a man blindfolded though with eyes wide open, my arms out in front of me now, as in films I have seen. The Sahara may seem a bit much, a bit large; were there so many things that needed erasing for Lindqvist and his divers? Do I need the Sahara, or is this November night in Dæsjroa sufficient? It is hard to tell. It depends on whatever is the matter with me, if you can say that anything is.

In his book Bench Press Lind-qvist writes: “Sahara means ‘empti-ness.’ It also means ‘nothing.’ It is that great empty nothingness that lures me. I am leaving tomorrow.” And I understand that, I know where he is heading, and yet I think: How can such a well–travelled, such a wise and well-read man with so much at heart, long for “nothing”? Or why do we? Because we do. And if the Sahara is his night, does he and do all those he is writing about, Michel Vieuchange, for instance, want morning to come at last? Vieuchange died of the Sahara. Isabelle Eberhardt died of the Sahara. It was definitely not what they wanted, but they died all the same. I do want morning to come. Of that I am certain. If I search my mind. I do not want to float around in this night forever. Only those times when I feel the need to be erased, until my body is again like the floating bubble in a spirit-level lying in its right position, in its place, and with that what we call our soul.

In Bench Press, the middle-aged Lindqvist lay on the couch in a gym trying to lift his father’s death away, as well as his own divorce, with the sweat running down his face. But it had to stop with death, he did not get any further. Not all pain can be lifted off. I have tried it myself, though not in the same way, not by lifting. What I do is I walk away, and then not only at night, but I walk, quite simply, both fast and far; faster and faster, kilometer after kilo-meter, until what I am trying to forget lies behind me, until the dogs refuse to go on any longer, especially Lyra, my oldest, who has started to tremble now each time I put on my brown running shoes. Oh no, oh, no, I see in her eyes, not those shoes, not again! And it does work, with dark glasses against the daylight, as long as you keep moving, as long as your breath comes fast and drowns out all other sounds, and the pain in your legs increases uphill, but if you stop and feel you cannot take one step more, a sharp-edged stream hits you hard and fast, and makes it difficult to swallow, to keep that down which wants to come up. Then the contourless black night is your only source of rescue, the night through which you can dance if you like, as in slow motion, move through like water, through the Hemnes lake maybe, somewhere ahead in a landscape I cannot see now, where an otter lives on an islet; to move slim and beautiful through the dark water like that, it would be something, or through the night here where even my age is hidden, a fifty-one-year-old Billy Elliot dancing down the road through Dæsjroa. And Lindqvist leaves his gym and goes off, from Bench Press to Desert Divers, on a cheap flight first to Agadir, in Morocco, and then eastward on to the desert in a small rented Renault to keep a promise he made to himself almost forty years earlier.

“In Bench Press today there is a sandstorm brewing,” he had written. “It is the same one that used to blow in my childhood, just before I fell asleep. It envelops me where I lie on the bench, like a shrieking, biting fog.” And then he drives into a real sandstorm. Visibility shuts down, the car lurches as in snow, sand seeping through every crack, he is chewing sand, he rubs his eyes, he longs for a bottle of mineral water, Oulmez brand, and he is not unhappy. Neither am I. That’s not what I am saying. But maybe I can say there is something the matter with me. For I should have been indoors now, in my house, in a different darkness than this, in the bed my wife has so beautifully constructed, asleep and resting out before a new day’s work at the keyboard and maybe an hour or two with an ax in my hand. But I cannot settle, the bed becomes my mind’s prison, the house becomes too small, and so I go out into the hall, put my dark blue peacoat on, and think: I do not fear anything, and go straight out into the night.

“The Oblivion Seekers” is the title of one of Isabelle Eberhardt’s stories, the greatest desert diver of them all, and maybe there are many who do that: seek oblivion, for -reasons I shall not pass judgment on now, not out here alone on the dirt road, but to find that oblivion, to be forgotten, they may let the desert be the great eraser, be the sponge on the blackboard so thoroughly that in the end nothing can be heard in the emptiness except the fragile sound of nothingness bells. Others seek change, desire to change themselves completely, and to achieve that they must go through the night, go into the -desert and perhaps let the burning dry wind of change blow through their bodies and blow their souls clean; let the desert reeducate them in elementary things. In any case, they came, the desert divers, from their various positions, each with his own longing for some part of this, all pointing to the same center, to the Sahara, with their strength of mind and courage depending on how great their sincerity was. Did they try to be brave, perhaps, so they did not have to be afraid ever again? Did they want what Bob Dylan sings of in “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)”: “You lose yourself, you reappear, you suddenly find you’ve got nothing to fear.” To dare lose yourself and then pos-sibly find yourself again, and to have that necessary courage, because you can never be certain whether you will ever surface again. When you once have let go. That weightless moment! And do you really dare be the one you then become, whom you cannot know beforehand? Like Rimbaud after he made a clean break and stopped writing the poetry that revolutionized French and European literature and just disappeared at the age of twenty-five when he went off to Yemen and to the Horn of Africa, and resurfaced as a different person, with apparently new qualities and new skills, and said: “Je est un autre,” which in fact is grammatically wrong, for of course it is “Je suis un autre,” I am another, but by saying it with the verb in the third person, he objectified and alienated himself. Then he forgot himself, then he lost himself; that is the suggestion made by my friends who know French.

It does sound right, I agree, but to walk through the night here, that too is to lose yourself a little; to move along when you can barely see your own hands: to exist, to think, but to be invisible to others, to yourself; almost deleted. Then I even close my eyes, which is not really necessary, and leave the road to take one of the paths across the Gate Ridge, which is hard enough to see even with your night vision intact, but I know the directions and I know where to take the turns; step by step I have measured it all up during the years, and the whole circle of movement is lodged in my body with a shining compass at the center. There is also a detector in there somewhere, near the heart maybe, and in any case I close my eyes because it feels right.

Some way along the path I feel the pressure of the trees on each side, more and more of them; the terrain rises, I let my feet feel the stones and the roots on my upward path, and they make light of that, but I swallow and think, What is really the matter with me? I am fifty-one. The space around me is no longer infinite. That is what’s true. Eternity has crashed, and suddenly disgust may come like a malicious wind and make everything you want to do, all your aims and intentions, crumble between your fingers, in your mind, and blow away like a dry, gray powder. Then what matters is to walk quickly by day and walk dark by night, or must I turn and look back, as Sven Lindqvist did, and meet my own gaze at the other end of the time tunnel? I open my eyes and stare into the darkness, and immediately close them, for it does no good, it makes no difference. I see just as much or just as little. Open or closed.

Open or closed; it’s the same shit, I think, and feel myself working up a fury, which is often the case when something comes over me that I cannot do anything about. But of course I do see him, though his eyes are hard to catch. “Hey you, look over here!” I shout between the pine trunks I know stand all around me, and my voice sounds sharp and very strange in the dark night. But he will not reply, he just stares bashfully down at the pavement on his way up from the station on Railway Square to the Narvesen shop on the corner of Parliament Street opposite the parliament building. That shop was more proletarian, was my opinion then at the end of the ’60s, than Cammermeyer bookshop on Karl Johans Street, for we did have a Narvesen shop in Veitvet too, which was where I lived on the outskirts of Oslo, and you could be anonymous in the narrow and shady Stortingsgate Street, while Karl Johans Street was wide and always bathed in light. But they had masses of books in the Narvesen shop too; I could buy -Keats there, and Shelley and Poe in cheap American editions (instead of Cam-mermeyer’s English), and that I did, for I was a romantic that year, and what I read should above all be beautiful to read, and I bought a book of Chinese poems in English called The White Pony. There I met Li Po and Tu Fu for the first time, and there was such a sky above their poems I had never seen the likes of anywhere else, and no doubt some of that was due to their strangeness and my incorrect reading; a kind of Orientalism on my part, but what the hell did I care? And I bought Obstfelder’s poems in a pocket edition, and I bought Gunnar -Larsen’s novel In Summer, and sat in the tube train reading all the way up through the Grorud Valley past Hasle and Økern and Vollebekk and all the other stations. I was the only person I knew who read these books. I did not make a secret of them, but neither did I talk about them to anyone else, and there was no one who knew that on certain Sundays I went into town on my own and walked from the central station to Møller Street to sneak into the -little Presbyterian church there, and sat down in the last pew so I could listen to the archaic English they used in the liturgy. I did that because I felt it resembled the English in a lot of the poems I was reading and resembled the way they spoke in Zeffirelli’s film of Romeo and Juliet I had seen that year at the cinema. It was the strangeness again, the beautiful, that which was different from anything I saw around me in my every-day life, that was what I wanted, to find out if it might lift me away to a different place. And at the same time I did not want to go anywhere, I wanted to stay where I was, and I wanted where I was to hold all that I needed. But it did not! And if it did, it was invisible to me, and at least once each day it felt as if I might split in two, as Laika does when she realizes she cannot be an obedient and happy dog and at the same time chase the moose.

I see him sitting in the back pew, in the Presbyterian church on Møller, with the navy blue peacoat on his lap, his eyes slanted toward the pew in front, and his cheeks slightly flushed, and it does look odd, I readily admit, because he is not even a Christian. He has tried really hard to be one, out of pure need, with his utmost willpower, but he has not succeeded, it merely brings embarrassment and distaste. So what the hell is he -doing there? What am I doing there? Why do I sit there for so long?

I sit waiting to become whole. But I do not become whole. It just gets worse, and it’s the same when I am at home, when I walk past the house I live in, where the neighbors sit out on the doorsteps the whole way along, drinking coffee and talking, and I pass them with my peacoat on and my long scarf thrown over my shoulder as an -artist would. No one else wears a scarf that way, and they call out to me: “How goes it, Persha, you take care of your eyes now!” For they know I read a lot, my father has told them, they have seen it themselves, and they think it might possibly be bad for me. And I do like them so, these people in this long house and in the houses surrounding it; I know them so well, they -really want the best for me. They care about me, and I wish I could talk to them about Tu Fu, about Obstfelder, and about this new book I have read called The Myth of Wu Tao-tzu by Sven Lindqvist from Sweden. It is about a man who longs so much to immerse himself in art, as something perfect and flawless; a fulfilment of the need for harmony and beauty and at the same time an emergency exit from the world, as the wise man and -artist Wu Tao-tzu could do when in his prison cell he climbed into his own wall painting and vanished. But it does not work, there is no way he can do it, for the walls of the world are tumbling down around this man, around Sven Lindqvist in the 1960s, and anyway I cannot talk about these things, I have no words for them yet, not even for my own use. So I call back: “Just take it easy, my eyes will do for a while still,” and I blush and wave to them and walk along the house and out onto the road and up past the shopping center to take the train into town where all the bookshops are, and all the -record shops, and the Presbyterian church. But right up the hill, out of sight of my house, I split in two and stand there breathing -heavily with my hands on my knees before I can walk on. I don’t know why I am like this, don’t know if it is common, whether others feel the same, or if it is something that happens to me only, but quite honestly, I cannot take it. That the world is not one, that the world is not whole, that perhaps I must decide to get away from all this, that if I want to make something of myself, then at the same time I must leave all that is mine behind me, all I can do and all that I know; leave these -people sitting on the doorsteps outside the house where I live, drinking coffee and talking about all that they know; say good-bye to them forever. And if that is what I must do to dev-elop myself, as they say, then what is the point of it all?

Jack London’s Martin Eden did that, he left behind him all that was his to acquire, the culture he saw that the educated classes, the bourgeoisie had—the poetry and philosophy, the whole thing—because it seemed so attractive, so wise and so beautiful and necessary; he wanted to raise himself, he wanted to have what they had. He wanted to cross the line. So when the opportunity arose he went ashore at San Francisco and into the mansions of the prosperous districts to talk to the people living there, to converse (as they put it), to listen, to borrow books, to be instructed, and he was afraid his shoulders would send all the porcelain crashing just by moving through their living rooms in his seaman’s way, and he could not even hold a knife and fork as they did, but he was determined to learn what they knew, and even more. And he managed that, through such an effort that it still moves me when I think back and remember myself with my head buried in a book that most certainly is unreadable today but which shattered me then, because when he made it to his goal, when Martin Eden had his hand on the innermost door, he realized that the people he looked up to and respected so highly really didn’t care as he did, that this culture wasn’t important to them at all, other than as a facade, as varnish, as a veil over what was really important—to own, to have power—and otherwise their world was an empty, barren, and hard place. In disgust he turned away and fled back to the parts of the city that once were his own, to the sailors and the factory workers. But it was too late, the string was cut, they could no longer understand each other, there was a glass wall there that he could not penetrate, and in despair he went aboard his boat and sailed out on San Francisco Bay and jumped into the water, and he swam down, down, until the pressure above him was stronger than the one that pushed him up, stronger than the will to live.

It is easy to see now that this book has greatly influenced my life, although I’ve never really been aware of it, and there is of course something terribly wrong in Martin Eden’s reasoning. It is obvious to everyone, and to me as well, but precisely what it is I have never quite discovered, for in a way he is right too. But not for anything in the world would I share this fate, not in despair end up among seaweed and kelp in the Bunnefjord, or in the Alun lake among perch and pike, and it is possible I lack the necessary courage, but neither would I do as Rimbaud did and become an other in that way, become an arms dealer and possibly a slave trader in Africa, and so I have tried to gather it all into my own body, both sides at once, both me and me, the one I was and the one I could have been if I had once let go, tried to cast it into one person that I am, but I seldom succeed, for there is really not room enough; I might split in two. But as long as this is how I am, I shall walk out here in the night, almost forgotten by myself, with the darkness pouring in through my eyes, with my hands stretched out to the sides like the wings of an airplane, dancing down the path when no one can see.

And then the clouds above me crack open, they rush away from each other at great speed, as if something important were about to happen, and I see the moon over the Gate ahead of me; a luminous round moon over the barn, and the house that I live in showing white and clear in the bluish gleam, and when I turn and look back at the forest, I throw a clear, demarcated shadow. I feel it at once; the severance of body and non-body is as sharp as a knife. It hurts. 

Translated from the Norwegian by Anne Born

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