Kjell Askildsen published his first collection of stories in 1953. This month, Archipelago Books publishes Everything Like Before, a career-spanning collection from the 91-year-old Norwegian writer. Themes remain remarkably consistent throughout the work: absence, family, memory, and uncertainty. The sensory experience reminds me most of a long still in a Tarkovsky film, maybe a few photographs submerged in a murky stream. The story selected here, “Mardon’s Night,” exemplifies the movement of all relationships, the ebb and flow in the very act of relating, and how our interpretation of another’s subjectivity moves gently, easing its way to understanding. The result is a masterful representation of consciousness.
All the streets had trade names, Baker Street, Tinsmith Street, Cobbler Street. He put down his suitcase on the wet pavement and took the folded note from his breast pocket. 28 Furrier Street. He continued walking. One of his legs was shorter than the other. His feet and back were cold. I’ll ask the first person I meet, but it was a lady, and he didn’t ask the next person either. I’m sure I’ll find it. The shops were closed but the streetlights weren’t yet lit. He came to a bridge and thought he had walked too far, but he continued on. A train whistled below. And there was me thinking it was a river, if a train hadn’t come I would’ve thought I crossed a river, and no one would have known where I’d come from. You came from the other side of the river, you don’t say? Well, would you look at him, he came from the other side of the river. Was the ferryman drunk today—had he hoisted his daughter up the mast?
He came to a café, a bar, went in and sat in a corner, ordered a cup of tea, placed his hat on his suitcase, and waited. There weren’t many customers; if I put them on top of each another, stomach-to-stomach and back-to-back, they wouldn’t reach more than halfway to the ceiling. When the owner came with the tea he asked him where Furrier Street was and he replied that he should continue on over the bridge past a house that looked like it’d had a drop too much to drink and then take the first street to the left and the second to the right, you can’t miss it.
He went back the same way he had come, across the bridge, past the house that had had too much to drink, took a left, then a right, but he could not find any street sign, nor any numbers on the row of similar three-storey buildings. He went into one of them, into a dark hallway with three doors, and an old woman with white hair and a navy apron told him he lived one flight up, his name was on the door, but he wasn’t home. He walked up the worn staircase, slowly, with heavy steps, I’m carrying the years with me. He was not at home, but the door was unlocked, and he entered into a cold room with an unmade bed, a table and two chairs. He sat down, rested his head in his hands and thought about the long journey—the train compartment where the widow’s son conjugated ‘fuck’ on his dusty suitcase, sixty hours with no sleep, or next to none, the miner who harped on about Jesus’s perversions and after fifty hours cried, Oh Lord, within thy hands—and pulled the emergency brake.
He heard a noise behind him, coming from the door still slightly ajar, open to the hallway, and the other doors with names on them. Oh, I beg your pardon, she said. I didn’t know—You must be Lender, he said you were coming, but not today. I’m Vera Dadalavi, I live right across the hall, you can come in and wait, it’s warmer in my place, but for goodness sake bring that suitcase with you.
He followed her across the hallway; she had pictures on the walls, drawings of masks, feet, and hands, as well as poems cut out of newspapers, all fastened to the gray wallpaper with green and yellow thumbtacks. He removed his coat and sat facing the door. That’s Mardon’s hand, she said, pointing at one of the drawings. The index finger was missing. Are you hungry? He was not hungry, just tired. He sank a little further down in the chair and closed his eyes. When will he be home? Hard to say, tonight, tomorrow, whenever he grows weary and can’t find somewhere else to sleep. The nights are beginning to get cold. He’ll be back.
He looked at the long blond hair, the slender back, the newspaper clippings—I had posters myself, ten thousand days ago, men with banners who strode from continent to continent with sickles in hand. But what was with all the masks? Are you a painter? I dabble, she replied, but I’m no good. Would you like a glass of wine? It was sweet. You look like Mardon when you smile, tell me a little about him, what he was like as a child. Like most children I suppose, he replied, but that wasn’t true, he used to catch small birds and lock them in his room with the cat, and when he was eleven he stole books from the bookcase to cover the cost of running away to Australia, nowhere else would do. I didn’t know him, he said, he didn’t talk much and I was so busy. How is he—what does he do? Here he comes. She went to the door and opened it. The old man (I’m not that old) stood up and wiped his palms on his jacket. He took two steps forward, one short and one a little longer. They looked at each other, in silence. Mardon, Mardon, what have you done to yourself!—then they shook hands, in silence. My hand is clammy, he thought, what will I say, I can’t find my voice, he has no index finger, I’m crying, oh God I’m crying. You arrived earlier than expected, Mardon said, I didn’t think…they both turned at the same time and looked at her. Her eyes were brimming with tears. I can’t help it, she said, it was so, after all these years, both of you are so big. They looked away, stared down at the worn carpet. Well, say something, one of you, anything at all. You managed to find the way all right? Yes, but there’re no numbers on any of the buildings. They were stolen; no sooner do new ones go up than they disappear. Probably someone who wants people to lose their way. They rob the numbers so people will lose their way? I don’t know, but it wouldn’t surprise me. Have the two of you been sitting here drinking wine? Yes, your friend has been very kind to me—it was so cold in your room.
They had sat down. I need to go out, Mardon thought, I need to get out and prepare myself for his being here. Poor man, poor bugger, the wart on the side of his nose has grown bigger, he’s probably got cancer, he won’t be happy until he’s dead, I feel sorry for him, if only he hadn’t been my father, Father alone on a park bench in the rain, Father crouched behind an armchair in the gloom of the lounge, you didn’t think I saw you, Father on the wooden chest at the end of the attic—the almost imperceptible stains on the floor. I need to go out for a while, it won’t take long, half an hour or so, just something I forgot. His father stood by the window and watched him hurrying across the street. If you knew how lonely I am, Mardon, you’re all I have left. The streetlights were on. Poor Mardon, Vera Dadalavi said, right by his ear. I’m called Mardon too. Really, you named him after yourself? It wasn’t my fault, I wasn’t home. Do you think he’ll come back? Of course, she said and placed her hand on his arm. My father was also called Mardon, he said. I understand, she said softly—come and sit down. Have a glass of wine. Cheers. Cheers. If you’re feeling blue it’s only due to you having traveled so far, it’s so easy to feel down after a long journey, but it’ll pass. Are you sure I can’t offer you a bite to eat?
When he returned the glasses and the bottle were empty. Here I am, he said, then noticed his father was gone. Where is he? In the lavatory. You’ve been drinking, Mardon. Here he comes—be nice to him, Mardon, you could crush him between two fingernails. That’s a peculiar toilet, his father said, looking like he’d been laughing. Yes, isn’t it? Mardon replied. Come, let’s celebrate, he said, pulling a bottle from his coat pocket. We’ve never had a drink together, said his father. You’re forgetting the restaurant behind the town square, Mardon said, what was it called again, after the funeral, I was suffering a bout of chills, a little restaurant with deer heads on the walls. We both had two drinks, remember? No, I don’t remember. I had other matters on my mind I suppose. There’re so many things I’ve forgotten. Deer on the wall, you say? Yes, I was there after that too, when I was old enough to go in on my own, but by then the animals had been replaced with imitation brick wallpaper, and there was a girl behind the counter with the brightest eyes I’d ever seen—as though she’d come straight out of the sea. She was exceptionally beautiful, from the counter up that is, the rest was dead, she sat on a high stool with wheels on it, they said she’d been run over by a snowcat. What’s wrong? Nothing, his father replied, nothing at all. Do you mind if I draw you? Vera asked. No, go right ahead, but I’ll soon need to find a place to…is there a hotel nearby? Out of the question, you’ll take my room of course, it’s the least I can do. Fair to say it’s no showstopper, I’ve never bothered doing much with it, but I have clean sheets. I might as well go in now and make it up for you, so it’s ready, I mean. It’ll only take a moment. I don’t want you to go to any trouble…but Mardon had already left the room. He makes himself scarce the first chance he gets, as though I were a leper, I wish I hadn’t come. Have you ever noticed how nearly all people resemble a type of car? Vera asked. No. You look like a Ford. Me, I look like a Volkswagen Beetle. I’ll go in and give Mardon a hand, he said, getting up abruptly. The door was ajar so he pushed it open. Mardon was lying on the bed staring at the ceiling. I suddenly felt so dizzy, he’s just lying there killing time, he doesn’t know how to make the minutes pass. It’ll just be for tonight, he said, and Mardon said, no, why? He didn’t reply, and Mardon thought I actually feel…why do I feel sorry for him? And if I do feel sorry for him why can’t I be nice to him? There’s no point in me taking your bed—where are you going to sleep? At Vera’s. Ah, I see. Yes, of course. He opened a door in the wall and took out clean bedding. I’m his son so he thinks he’s fond of me, thinks he has to be. Poor lame bugger, bringing a son into the world does not go unpunished. I wonder what he’d say if I started calling him Mardon. Could you help me put this duvet cover on, Mardon Senior? Here, let me help you, the father said, staring at Mardon’s hand. What did you do to your finger? It got infected—not worth talking about. There, that’s it. You can do just fine minus one finger, especially an index finger. Should we go back?
She had tied her long blond hair up with a brown ribbon. So, they’re sleeping with each other, he thought. She must be at least ten years older than him. I’ve slept with far too few women in my life, hardly any, didn’t dare, they scared me, I called it strong moral principle, you have to call your weaknesses something, so why not strong moral principle, now I know what morality means. How are the neighbors? Mardon asked. Martens, for example? He’s dead, didn’t you know? Thank God, Mardon said, and his father said, What kind of thing was that to say? I must admit, Mardon said, that there are a number of people I’ve wanted ten feet underground for a long time—Martens being one, and now he is, cheers. What a thing to say, what has Martens ever done to you? He told tales and spread lies about me—you must’ve known that—and once…Well, it doesn’t matter. Martens and Mrs. Bauske, they were cut from the same cloth, but I don’t suppose she’s dead, is she? She passed away six months ago—from cancer. You’ll have to excuse me, but I can’t say I’m sorry. What did you mean, his father said, that I must’ve known Martens told lies about you? I didn’t mean it like that exactly, I’m not saying you knew he was lying, but when he told on me you would punish me, without knowing if what he said was true. If that’s the case, his father said, looking down at the carpet beside his chair, and Mardon got to his feet, turned away, thinking, I shouldn’t have said that, I’m obsessed with dredging up the past…I didn’t mean to…if it had been my intention to hurt him then all well and good. He despises me, the father thought, but what? That I don’t bear a grudge? People don’t say things like that, I don’t anyway. You mustn’t think I bear a grudge, if I did I wouldn’t have told you about it. I know, the father said, that I haven’t been a good father to you. Can’t we, Mardon said, stop being father and son? Can’t we just be human beings, then we can avoid thinking we should have been infallible. If your name wasn’t Mardon I would’ve asked if I could call you by your first name. Why not Mardon? the father said. That, Mardon said, would be like talking to myself. Vera laughed. It’s no laughing matter, Vera. Imagine if all people were just human beings, not relatives I mean, with all the special privileges and responsibilities we think we have toward one another. Jesus must have had something similar in mind when he addressed his mother as woman. Cheers, man. The father raised his glass. At the least I need to prevent him from drinking the whole bottle on his own. Cheers, Mardon. How sweet you both are, Vera said. Pay no attention, Mardon said, she only needs to see a kid with a squint and her eyes well up. His father looked down. He’s not exactly tactful. So he doesn’t like having the same name as me. Mardon Lender the Second and Mardon Lender the Third. Has it ever bothered you, having exactly the same name as your grandfather and me? Mardon gave him a quick glance. Of course, since you ask, I must admit I’ve often wondered what makes parents name their children after the father. Naturally the two most obvious reasons—and you mustn’t take this personally—are that the father, whether he has cause to or not, thinks very highly of himself, or that perhaps the mother is unsure if the child is her husband’s son. Don’t talk that way about your mother, the father said, straightening up in the chair. Why not? Because…He stood up. Let’s not talk about it, not now. I’m not…I’m not used to drinking. If you don’t mind I’d like to go to bed—it’s been a long day. He took hold of his suitcase and coat. Of course. I hope you sleep well. I’m sure I will. Goodnight.
Mardon heard the uneven footsteps in the hallway and looked down at the stump of his index finger. The father turned on the light and closed the door behind him. He laid his coat on the bed, set down his suitcase and stood looking around the cold, bare room. Don’t you feel sorry for him? Vera asked. Yes, I do, Mardon replied, without taking his eyes from the stump. His father went to the window and pulled down a blind full of holes with a picture of a girl sitting on some grass under a tree. Aren’t you going to go in to him? Vera asked. He didn’t reply. HIs father looked at the girl in the grass and thought: If he only knew what it was like to have almost your entire life behind you. I don’t have the time to wait around for nothing. Mardon filled his glass and drank. I knew it would end up like this, I knew it. What’ll I do, Vera? Go to him and say something or other, something that will make him happy, I don’t know what, anything, whatever you would’ve said if you knew he was going to die tonight, the biggest lie you can think of, so that at least you’ll know he won’t travel home more miserable than he came. Mardon turned and looked at her. His father picked up the suitcase, placed it on the table and opened it. He ran his finger over the topmost of the two albums. I’m only telling him what I actually think, and still it gives me a guilty conscience. Why, Vera? Can you tell me that? Mardon, you yourself have said that conscience is the door to the subconscious, the forgotten. His father took the albums out of the suitcase and opened one of them. Mardon aged five. Mardon in his grandmother’s garden. Mardon at the beach. Mardon’s first day at school. I should have left out the name. Summer 1948. Jesus, that’s the Martens standing right behind him, his hand on my shoulder—we weren’t such good friends. Mardon stood up. I’ll go in and ask if there’s anything he needs. His father worked the photograph free and put it in his pocket. There was a knock at the door. Come in. I was just wondering if you needed anything. He closed the door behind him. What’s that you’ve got? Oh, just something I took along, I thought you might…I made them for myself originally, you can see by the captions, but if you’d like, it is your childhood after all. He closed the album and took a step back. When you consider, Vera thought, that God doesn’t exist…Of course, Mardon said, absolutely, thank you so much. Vera unfastened her necklace of dried painted peas and placed it in the glass bowl next to the big green alarm clock. I can’t recall ever seeing these photos before, Mardon said. If there are any of them you’re not interested in feel free to just take them out. Vera raised her eyes and looked in the mirror. Goodness. Thank you so much, Father. He said father. I said father—he can’t ask for more than that. He said father. My boy, my son. She untied the brown ribbon and shook her hair loose, placed her feet slightly apart, picked up the hairbrush, looked herself straight in the eyes, ran the tip of her tongue back and forth along the back of her upper teeth, raised the brush, shifted her gaze from her eyes to a blackhead below the left-hand corner of her mouth, put down the brush, pushed her chin out, pressed an index finger on either side of the dark spot, watched the blackhead snake its way out through the pore, picked it up with her nail, heard footsteps in the hall, wiped the white pulp against her skirt, took her powder puff, then the door opened and Mardon entered with two albums under his arm. The father began to undress under the bare light bulb. He was happy to be given them, that was obvious, he just has difficulty expressing his emotions, gets that from me. So we had a drink together after the funeral, I’d forgotten that, must have meant a lot to him. Mardon tossed the albums on the couch. My past, a loving reminder, without an ulterior motive of course. Take a look. She did. The father put his pajamas on over his underwear, turned off the light and went to bed. He gazed at the cross behind the blind. In three days there’ll be a full moon. They’re looking at the albums now. I’m not going to be able to sleep. Every time he opened his eyes he stared at the cross. At least you were spared the fleeting years, Maria, the fleeting years and the long nights. You never made it to the stage where you were scared of dying, well, not scared, I don’t mean scared. Mardon…His heart beat faster, even though he knew it was only his imagination: no one had whispered his name. All I have to do is open my eyes—if I want to I can turn on the light. No need, just thinking about something else. I have my common sense. They’re leafing through the albums. Or maybe they’re making love. I would have preferred her a little chubbier, not quite so slim, each to their own, not that I’d say no, but had I been one of those German officers who had the women lined up in front of them and could just point—with a riding whip—then I would have picked one who was petite, a little bit chubby and scared looking. I would’ve…no, that’s not true, you picture things you wouldn’t do, things you’re not capable of doing. If I’m a pig then everyone’s a pig. I haven’t done anything I regret, I regret only the things I haven’t done. I could have had both Mrs. Karm and Charlotte, Mrs. Karm at any rate, there was nothing she wanted more, and Charlotte too. Six or seven prostitutes, and Maria, that’s it, and the prostitutes only after drinking to work up the courage. I can’t even remember what they looked like. So no one other than Maria. Mardon…He opened his eyes and looked from the cross behind the blind to the small luminous eye in the door. The room must be bigger than it appears, probably around four meters by three, but now in the darkness it seems considerably…We could have played a game of chess, although he probably doesn’t play…I could turn on the light, just to see what the room actually looks like. I don’t remember a stove there, but what else could it be, he couldn’t possibly get by without a stove, it’ll soon be winter. He should have some pictures on the walls. What an idea to pin up drawings of hands and masks, there must have been a hundred of them at least. So, I resemble a Ford, do I? He tried to remember what a Ford looked like. Vera laid a quilt over the air mattress. No matter what you say, I can’t help feeling sorry for him. Neither can I, though I still wish he were dead. He makes me feel a sort of ridiculous—how should I put it—obligation. As though I were in his debt. Besides, there’s something disgusting about him, physically I mean, and I can’t think about that night I was conceived—and you can bet it was in the middle of darkest night—it makes my stomach turn. Vera looked at him in astonishment. The father heard a door open and close, and a little while later he noticed that the luminous eye was gone. He listened but could only hear the sound of his own heart. It’s beating faster than it should. So weird, Vera said. You mean, Mardon said, you can think about your parents’ sex life without feeling, I don’t know, discomfort? Sure. The father sat up in bed and listened. It’s because of the silence. It was the Japanese, wasn’t it, who made soundproof rooms—cells—in very particular dimensions, in order to drive people mad? Not very likely—if they did, the ceilings must have been extremely high. My heart’s not beating fast because I’m frightened, it’s the other way around—I’ve traveled too far; the stress has been more than I can bear, and fear is merely a natural result of my heart…He lay back down, his face to the wall. He reached out and touched the wallpaper. Yes, the ceiling would have to be very high for it to work, for instance if the floor were two by two meters and it was ten meters up to the ceiling—and not a sound. I could just write a note and leave, explain that I couldn’t sleep, tell him I only meant to drop by and say hello, that I’m homesick, without offending him, that I suffer from insomnia, am older than I thought, I’m sure he’d understand, would be only too happy, he doesn’t need me. I could die without anyone shedding a tear. I could write that I’m grateful to him for being so friendly and welcoming and that I hadn’t actually planned on staying over, but didn’t want to reject his offer, but I can’t sleep and the train leaves early in the morning. I only wanted to see you and now I have. I have to get back to where I belong, where my things are, that’s how it is to grow old, that’s what it’s like to know that you’ll soon be finished. When I was young I thought death became less and less frightening the older you got, simply because it had to be that way if you were to endure it at all, but that’s not true, it’s a lie. Maybe not for everyone, not for those who have helped themselves, who have never passed up and opportunity, so if I were to give you a piece of advice, Mardon, it would be to never miss an opportunity, take what you can get, even if you risk being accused of ruthlessness—if you’re what people term considerate, you end up as a middle-aged man, then an old man, in an attic. You saw me, oh God, I’d forgotten, how could I forget. Maybe you were too small to understand, but you saw me that afternoon in the attic. He withdrew his hand, sat up in bed again, saw the cross behind the curtain, felt his heart beating and a blush burning his cheeks and forehead, stood up, groped for the light switch, couldn’t find it, but this is where it was, or maybe on the other side of the door, no, but take it easy, it’s here someplace, but he couldn’t find it. He went to the window and pulled at the blind. At first it was reluctant, then it slipped out of his hands and rolled up with a clatter, sending a hot burst of fear through him. He stood for a moment as though frozen, then put his hands on the windowsill and leaned his head against the middle glazing bar. I hardly remember her, Mardon said, even though she lived until I was fifteen. She hasn’t left behind any traces—if she has, they’re hidden. She has no hold on me, if you know what I mean. He hesitated, before saying: I think people who remember have greater control over their lives. These photographs say practically nothing to me. I could tell you about a hedge with white berries that popped when I squeezed them, or about the dusty sods of grass on the left-hand side of the road to primary school—they’re my memories. And about Father, but that must have been later on. I once saw him while he was sitting in the attic masturbating, it must have been before Mother died. I’d like to know how I reacted—back then. Later it made him more human in a sense—gave him an extra dimension, if you understand what I mean. He didn’t see me, if he had it would have made things a lot more difficult. And one time—I remember this very clearly—I saw him sitting on a bench in the rain, on his own. I pretended not to have noticed him. Why would a man sit on a bench in the rain, less than three hundred meters from his own home? She didn’t answer. The father straightened up and turned to face the room. He went over to the door, located the light switch and turned it. Then he walked back and pulled down the blind without looking at the girl in the grass. He took off his pajamas and dressed, quickly—as though he had no time to lose. He then placed the pajamas in the suitcase and closed it. Once he was done, he stood staring into space, as if he had plenty of time all the same. Mardon lit a cigarette and said: We can’t actually do anything about who we are, can we? We’re completely at the mercy of our pasts. We’re arrows flying from the womb and landing in a graveyard. And what does it matter how high we flew at the moment we land? Or how far we flew, or how many we hurt on our way? That, Vera said, can’t be the whole truth. Then show me the rest of it. His father opened his wallet and took out the light blue receipt from the travel agency, then sat down and began to write on the blank reverse. Dear Mardon. I’m going home again on the train that leaves in a few hours. I very much wanted to see you again and I’m so happy I came. But I’m older than I thought and the long journey has tired me out. If I could only get to sleep, but I’d forgotten the effect unfamiliar rooms have on me, and my heart is not what it was. I’m sure you’ll understand. I hope things turn out well for you, my boy. Your loving father. He placed the letter on the table then went to the door, turned off the light, and opened the door carefully. The hallway lay in darkness. He closed the door again and turned on the light in the room. Perhaps they haven’t fallen asleep. He opened the door wide so that the light from the room fell all the way to the staircase. He could hear a distant, indistinct mumbling. Yes, yes, yes, I feel sorry for him, I do. Why not feign a little love, if only for a day, not just for his sake but for your own. He began to creep toward the stairs. Feign love? It sounds so easy. He held onto the banister with his right hand. The ground-floor hallway lay in darkness. When he gave me the albums I called him father. I could see how happy it made him, and when I saw that I hated him. What has he done to me seeing as I can’t even bear making him happy? He walked slowly—it grew darker and darker. It was as though he unburdened himself at each step. He drew close to the door, feeling his way step by step, groped for the doorknob and opened. I’m on my way home. Or, what have you done to him? Vera asked—she had turned off the light. She was lying on the air mattress, her hands resting underneath her cheek. What do you mean? Just that it’s usually the debtor who harbors hatred for the creditor, not the other way around. He smiled as he walked along in the middle of the quiet street, on either side the houses without numbers, to think someone would steal them, I’ll be home in two days, I’m on my way. I remember, she said, a person doing me a big favor once. I should’ve thanked her, I owed her that much, I thought, but I didn’t, and instead put it off until it was too late, and then one day I heard she was dead. Do you know what I felt? Relief. Hold on, I didn’t come this way, let me see, I came from the east, best to get away from these side streets, you never know what might happen, a black cat, that means luck. I’m not superstitious. God knows where I’m going to end up. This street looks pretty seedy—better off staying in the middle of the road. I definitely haven’t been here before. Why do I think I came from the east—and if I did, which way is east, in the middle of the night? Well, I’ve loads of time, I can always go west—I’m bound to come across something other than black cats sooner or later. Tell me, Mardon said, what I should do. She didn’t reply. She was crying. Why are you crying, Vera? He heard footsteps behind him. He speeded up his pace, wanted to turn around but didn’t, walked diagonally toward the pavement on the left—what does he think I’m doing here so late at night, with a suitcase, in the middle of the street? Mardon kneeled down beside the air mattress. Tell me why you’re crying, Vera. The footsteps are drawing closer, he thought. He looked back, but there was no one there, and when he stopped, the footsteps died away. He turned, walked back the way he had come, and immediately heard the footsteps again. I’m accompanying myself. Mardon stroked her wet cheek. Tell me, Vera. She raised her head and looked at him. I’m just being silly, she said. He could barely discern her features. Let’s make it enjoyable for him, Mardon. Yes. He laid his cheek against hers and closed his eyes. The father came out onto the wide shopping street and turned left, toward the train station.