An Interview with Hanne Ørstavik
Though Hanne Ørstavik's novels have been translated into eighteen languages, English has not been one of them, until the recent translation of The Blue Room (Like sant som jeg er virkelig). The novel tells the story of a young woman (Johanne) who wakes up one morning, on the day she is to leave her childhood home and take a trip with her new lover, only to find that she is locked in her room. The story that unfolds cycles through Johanne's daydreams, memories, and the present moment often all within a single paragraph as she decides whether to wait for her mother to return home, call out the window for help, or perhaps even jump down. With prose both simple and beautiful, nimble and fluid, the reader is seduced as we fall into the mind and body of Johanne.
Ørstavik here does not draw hard lines between truth and fact, recollections and flights of fancy, trusting, or rather urging readers to draw their own conclusions. And in her skillful prose, this does not feel like a copout but rather it feels as one feels in the hands of an exceptional craftsman. In The Blue Room, we get into the skin, see into the mind, into the trials and tribulations of our narrator and move forward and inward with faith in our author.
The Blue Room is your first novel translated into English. How do you believe this compares to the rest of your writing in terms of themes, style, tone, and mood?
In the novel, Johanne is constantly looking, observing, noticing buildings, people, nature, and while the story revolves around three of Johanne's key relationships (with her mother, with God, and with Ivar), setting feels essential to story. How much do you think setting (her room, neighborhood, church, university, etc.) creates tension and influences her in one direction or another?
My question to you: why did this novel touch you? Simply, frankly, what in it?
I would say it was your style. You have a way of moving from thought to fantasy to observation to memory all very quickly. It felt like I was in the mind of Johanne; it created a very intimate reading experience.
But more than that, I believe that the future of the novel is not simply about constructing a narrative but showing the process on the page. In Blue Room, I felt like I was investigating her current position and future possibilities right along with Johanne. Exploring the variety of alternatives, we keep returning to a moment where Johanne is forced to make a decision.
When you say: "I felt like I was investigating her current position and future possibilities right along with Johanne." I find to be crucial to my writing. I write because there is something in my own life I need to investigate, something urgent and crucial to my existence, and I need to do it in the novel, as a novel.
It is not only to "understand," but most of all to "be there." Thus the novel has to be an open space, the language has to be open, it has to be "enterable" / possible to enter, emotionally and as bodily as language can get. "Be there," because I think that is how we understand deeply, in a way that reaches us and might change us. The time it takes to write a novel, to "be there," with my nagging existential quest, in the writing, alters something in me that I couldn't do in another way. I hope the reading of my novels might be such a place of "being" for the reader as well.
And how to "open that space" in language? I have to write intuitively, I have to listen. I listen and receive. I am there, in the blue room, with Johanne. In the writing, I am Johanne. And at the same time, I'm writing. This total presence and surrender. And at the same time this clarity: to see what I write. Like a cool clear stream running intertwined in the warmth of the presence of the person.
And writing intuitively, I do not overlook what I write. I might think the novel has a certain content. And then, after some time, I can start to see new aspects. It is fifteen years since I wrote Blue Room. Then I was concerned about the mother and what she does do to Johanne. Now I'm struck by Johanne's vulnerability. It is like she has nothing inside her that holds her. Her back stiffens, like a corset. The muscles try to give her the support she lacks, on a much deeper level. Now I'm so much more concerned about her need of that blue room, like it is her skin. And of how she does not dare to feel. She never sinks into an emotion, never sinks down in her body. All takes place in her head. Every tiny thought of something good is counteracted by something painful or bad. She cannot "be."
Blue Room was my fourth novel. Now I've written twelve. I think the feel of my language is the same, maybe you could call it some kind of nakedness or something bare, raw, like the emotion in the text has no skin -- if that is what you find in The Blue Room, then I think that is how I write now, too. But there has come a lot more reflection into the text. In my last novel that will be published in Norway this fall, called På terrassen i mørket (On the Terrace in the Dark), I write about a social-anthropologist going to Málaga in Spain after the break-up with her lover. She offers services there as an escort. And she has inner dialogue with the lives of Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson.
You bring up something very important about language that, I think, is often overlooked or undervalued. While language is a translation of thoughts and feelings, where we lose some meaning, it also forces action, which is why the novel, writing, and the arts can be so important. Not only does one try to understand something (an idea, a situation), but also it places the writer directly into the center of things and forces them to confront it or not, but either way a decision must be made. It is Johanne looking out the window and then deciding not to call for help. She then considers knocking down the door and again decides against it. It creates this pressure, a tension that seeks resolution (because we know she cannot stay in this room forever).
And now I must ask about developing characters: writing intuitively, if you don't look back as you write, do you find it important to remain consistent to every detail or are you more focused on the bigger picture, a bigger truth? Or maybe the better question is how closely do you feel held to following a familiar narrative structure? Are there certain traditions (within the novel) that you feel are important to maintain? I ask because César Aira wrote an article ("The New Writing" for the White Review) about the future of the novel, saying we should move away from the professionalization of the novel, away from closely following the form -- the formula of the novel. Instead he wanted and hoped to see the novel reflect the process and procedure of its composition. For example, he discusses John Cage's Music of Changes, a piece for solo piano that was composed by following the outcomes of rolled dice and the I Ching.
I think the Oulipo fit in this vision but I don't think it is limited to such external constraints. For example, in Blue Room, we are given a dilemma, a sort of thesis question, and then follow Johanne from chapter to chapter trying to solve this problem, returning to it again and again from different angles, with new knowledge. This story could very easily have been restricted to just the blue room, where all action is confined to this one space, raising the tension to its heights immediately, handicapping the author a fair deal. Instead, through the memories and fantasies, we move around quite a bit and while we always return to this tension (the confinement in the room), we have a much more expansive, intimate knowledge of Johanne. So we have the constraint but also are not limited in the way a traditional novel might limit its scope.
You mentioned César Aira, about the future of the novel, hoping "to see the novel reflect the process and procedure of its composition." I think that is how I write -- and for every novel it is different – because the field to be discovered is different. I rarely know what will happen or where it will end. But I know something about the tone, the ambiance, the temperament of it. Which also differs. In Like sant som jeg er virkelig, it was this voice of Johanne, I can hear her in my head, her voice almost too bright, this mixture of being fragile, and yet with something hard in it, like a plate. This quality, more like a feeling, of her. This "I" that comes so close to her young naked body.
In Presten (2004), I wrote on this deep longing for something to hold, existentially. And in language, that words should hold what they say, that there should be some kind of floor or ground in language and existence. And in relations to others. So in that novel, the tone or language is rhythmically like rocking an infant. I needed the novel that way, to be that place for me, if to explore such a place was possible.
Then, in the next novel, Kallet-romanen, I had divorced and life had fallen apart and even the novel had fallen apart for me, so that novel I wrote in a fight with novel as form. It is about a writer (newly divorced...) who wants to write a novel about her grandmother going to China as a missionary in the twenties, but the writing doesn't come to her the way it has used to. "The old way" doesn't function anymore, on any level. The novel takes place in one day, when a young androgynous journalist comes to her tiny flat to make an interview, and during their conversation, the other novel, about the grandmother, starts to roll. In that novel, I fought against a strong feeling of being restricted by the form of the novel, by the whole notion of writing, being a writer. So I threw all these quests into the novel, challenging it, "Can you take this? And this? And this?" And at the same time, it was as if the novel taught me how to write. As if it said, "If you try to force some ideas of where we're going on me, then I close. Then you get nothing." And so I had to lie down, relax, I couldn't force, and then, then it opened again, and I could go on. Only if I was listening and receiving, it would give itself to me. When I finished that novel, I felt embraced by the novel. I remember running into the woods crying out "The novel is big, the novel is big" -- the novel as form -- that it actually could take all of me. I didn't have to restrict or restrain myself; it could take it all, and more.
And about Kallet-romanen, I wrote that "I had divorced and life had fallen apart and even the novel had fallen apart for me, so that novel I wrote in a fight with novel as form." And hence, the structure of the novel also falls apart. The text is fragmented, with blank lines between each block, shorter or longer, of text. Yet can the structure totally fall apart and the text still remain a novel? To me, the composition is part of what is being told in the novel. The form has meaning. And a strong construction gives strength to the text, it is the skeleton of the text, and I intensely enjoy the construction, I like when it's lucid, sharp, clear. What hold this novel together is the notion of place, the tiny flat they're in, and the notion of time - the journalist comes in the morning, and leaves in the early evening. This bow of time is the bow that holds the book. In between there are very close up scenes, images, departing from details, how the grandmother meets the man who becomes her husband, in New York, they both being missionaries, she walks in over the green grass in Brooklyn's Botanic Garden under the blossoms of the magnolia trees. And he is there, in a choir, singing. Or in China, glimpses of her, there. And glimpses back into the broken marriage of the writer. And the dialogue with the young woman, about writing, and her inner dialogue with herself when the outer dialogue is taking place...
You mentioned that in your upcoming novel, På terrassen i mørket, the main character becomes an escort, and in Blue Room, while sex isn't the focus of the story, it does serve an important role for Johanne as she experiences her first sexual encounters, encounters that begin to shift her focus, where she is now seemingly more aware of her physical and emotional needs and often gives these needs greater importance than those of her mother and her friends. So how do you think your thoughts and use of sex and sexuality has changed or expanded or stayed the same throughout your many novels? Johanne's sexuality is experienced on a very personal level, the reader understands a shift, a gaining of independence, something that is just hers, but this can also be understood in a greater social-political-religious context of a woman finding some autonomy through her sexuality, growing into an independent individual.
You put it so nicely here.
I like that you say her sexuality is experienced on a very personal level. The scene where Johanne goes with Ivar down in the basement at the university to have sex, there in some dusty room, to me that is a moment when sexuality is an expression, an act of love. Those two, sex and love, is one, there. In my writing, and in my life, I have had this strive for love. To be able to feel love. Not only acting out actions of love, doing the "appropriate," but really feel it. To me, Johanne has no trust in life, in herself, in things to come. It is as if she doesn't believe anything will become if she does not make it happen. She has these plans for her life, like sketches of a way lying ahead, and she follows the path she sees there, as if otherwise she will fall out of life. In this state of existential insecurity, there is no room for love. That becomes like a luxury, something frivolous, she cannot afford. So, in my later books, I have continued to work on this in different ways. Dare to have trust, dare to open up for emotions, dare to feel. To descend from the head, the ideas, where Johanne lives, and down into the body. Where the heart actually is placed, and where sexuality happens. In Presten, my heroine finally, at the end of the book, reaches out her hand. In 48 rue Defacqz (2009), I investigate masculinity and femininity, to be hard or soft, to create and breathe. Placed in this art-nouveau house in Bruxelles, those two figures, Rakel and Paul, painter and architect, twins, stand in front of Paul's drawing-table almost during the entire book. The novel asks where does the living in us come from? That novel sinks down, let's itself sink, not forcing anything on, it's just some kind of very careful listening inward.
So there have been these long passages of changing those deep qualities of ways of being, from Johanne's way of "being her own slave," forcing herself by will, to the position of trust, that there is life even if I don't do life. That things will come, will happen. Trusting, receiving.
In Hyenene (2011), my somehow anorectic heroine starts to allow herself to eat what she fancies, and she discovers that when she, sitting at a café at the seafront in a town in south England, opens her mouth and tastes and senses the warm greasy egg-and-bacon sandwich, that opening for the desire for food, is linked to her opening for desire in all forms, also sexually.
Then, in the next novel, Det finnes en stor åpen plass i Bordeaux, my heroine is ready for both sexuality and love. The novel opens: "Will you meet me." And then it is the story of a relationship where she wants to make love with the man she loves, while he has this sudden pornographic lust, which does not include her. And she sets out on her own to explore her own lust, trying out "his things" to see if there is more to her sexuality than she had known until then.
But in all this writing, I think I do the same. I am there, I want the novel to be a place where the reader can be, and feel these things, too. And that happens in the language. "Come close," I think the language says. "Just come here, come close, let's see about this, come here."
You wrote: "there should be some kind of floor or ground in language and existence. And in relations to others. So in that novel [Presten], the tone or language is rhythmically like rocking an infant." Do you think it is possible for words to hold some kind of ground level, something basic? Or is it something that the writer must put into the language he uses? For me, I think it must be personal. People must recreate language in their own image, through their own eyes. Writers must choose their words carefully and then make sure the reader understands how and why they use their words.
For the language, the existential ground -- I think like you -- words don't hold anything alone -- one by one, words are only words. But when chosen and put next to each other, they become a space, a place, a feeling, a ground. You talk about choosing them carefully so that they work the way you want them to. I think so, too, but for me that choosing is intuitive. I feel the words, the passages, their tone and rhythm, and go for what I feel is right, almost blindly. It's only when I have to explain my choice, to a translator, for example, that I think about why I actually chose this or that. And then I can get quite impressed by my blind choices.
When I wrote Presten, I didn't know or think about the "infant-rocking-feel," I just followed the line of the story, writing it, letting everything else just come as it came. It's only maybe years after that I realized what I was doing deeper down in this book or that book. Even now, for the latest book, I think I know a lot, but I'm sure there is a lot I do not know there, too.
I was very touched to read about your experience when finishing Kallet-romanen: "When I finished that novel, I felt embraced by the novel. I remember running in the woods crying out 'The novel is big, the novel is big' -- the novel as form -- that it actually could take all of me. I didn't have to restrict or restrain, it could take it all, and more." How intimate! Do you believe there is a limit to the novel? A place where the novel ends? And this sounds like a big moment in your relationship with writing and the novel, was there a change? Did you feel freer to challenge what a novel could do? Is there something that you didn't believe a novel could do and now see it can?
Yes, Kallet-romanen opened for a change in my writing. I became much more free and confident -- it sounds strange when I write this, strange to myself, because I always felt free. But still. Kallet-romanen is itself really in the outer sphere of what one conventionally calls a novel -- yet it really is a novel. But when I wrote the next one, 48 rue Defacqz, and in writing that novel I had this huge trust and could open the time-span downward, in a way, just be with that man and woman, Paul and Rakel, and discover what happens when nothing happens. Discover downward, inward.
But then, I always have and had a huge trust, when I write I do it in trust, on trust.
So -- something changed, but maybe more in me than in the novel? But shouldn't that show in the novel?
I see now, with my two latest novels, Det finnes en stor åpen plass i Bordeaux and og På terrassen i mørket, that life experiences, my breakup, have gotten through and that something has been broken in these novels as well. They come closer; maybe that is the right word for it. With those two books, and life leading to them, I've entered places in myself that I before avoided or did not know. About sexuality, rejection, and love. So extremely painful and lost places. And entering them, I went into my fear, of losing, of destruction, of love. And the way people have read them and responded to them, it seems like something is opened in the text in a new way. But I cannot see myself, how.
When you said the two latest novels "come closer," do you mean they are close to each other in theme? Or are they both closer to the original idea, that first idea that sparked the novel? Or something else?
There is rarely an idea that sets off the novel, more likely an image in my head. And I don't know what that image is about, or why it comes, and then I have to write, if the image persists, to find out. Both the two latest novels started with an image, which has also become the title of the novels. When I say they are closer, I mean it very concrete, almost physically. They are more open, I think. I let myself closer in them (one Swedish critic said about Det finnes en stor åpen plass i Bordeaux that he almost felt as in the flesh of the narrator) -- and that allows the reader to come close, to the text and in him- or herself, too.
Now you mentioned discovering new things when you look at old writings, have you seen moments were you avoided entering places, "about sexuality, rejection, and love," moments that you think now "there is so many more places to go here, so much deeper I could have gone"?
Yes, I have found similar instances in my own writing, where in the moment I just write but later when I look back I see connections that I did not plan. I think our brains when given that freedom create these world intuitively, I believe there must be some sort of logic, something in our brain that absorbs part of the world and tries to reflect it or understand it that is beyond our conscious mind, that is something we can only understand after going back to it. But I think to better enable these moments we must try to reveal ourselves, be as honest as possible with our art, remove the distractions, and then I believe incredible things are possible.
And this moment of honesty creates this tension and, not exactly an emotional connection but maybe emotional openness, a willingness to reveal yourself, to be something that might not be the most flattering, maybe to be vulnerable, exposed...
What you say about openness, I recognize profoundly in myself. About sexual encounters, and for all encounters, really. Also for literature, the writing -- when I write I am as open and true (in other words, for what I called the listening and receiving) as I can. Like emptying myself, become this open space -- and also making the text open, that the text has this quality of coming close -- being open -- possible to meet.
And this quality of openness, isn't that also often kind of erotic? In our emailing, sometimes I've felt touching into those areas in myself, we write about sexuality and writing, things that highly matter to me, and to you, I guess, and we're as open as we can, is my belief and impression, and inside this cluster there is also sexuality, ongoing, glimpses of fantasies, tingles of arousal. Hasn't this to do with the openness? And here, so connected, is also the writing. (Makes me think of Roland Barthes's The Pleasure of the Text -- that I read twenty years ago and I can't remember if there is something that links writing and sexuality close together there -- do you? Must reread.)
You say it so beautifully in the end of your last email: "I think to better enable these moments we must try to reveal ourselves, be as honest as possible with our art, remove the distractions, and then I believe incredible things are possible." So it is, I think so too.
You also say: "Now you mentioned discovering new things when you look at old writings, have you seen moments were you avoided entering places, "about sexuality, rejection, and love," moments that you think now "there is so many more places to go here, so much deeper I could have gone."
I don't think I think like that, I have a great solidarity and also respect, I think, for every novel. They do what they do as far as possible for them. And going into them from where I am now, would be to disturb their inner logic and life. It is more that in rereading, I discover and think about things I've written in ways I did not at that time. Like for The Blue Room, there is so much sexuality in there that I would not at all agree with at that time, when I wrote it. Then the novel was quite in the mind for me, discussing the notion of truth, the "I," and reality, and the relation between them. Hence the Norwegian title, Like sant som jeg er virkelig, which translates literally to "As true as I am real."
The way I see it now, I was not ready for "the body," as Johanne is not ready -- but you said it so wonderfully in one of your first emails, that Johanne through her first glimpses of sexuality actually also takes her first steps toward separation from the mother, and toward individualization. Sexuality and aggression are closely linked, in a good way, as power or force, and in the novel I think it is possible to see how she is going back and forth between allowing and repressing this in herself.