A Novel Excerptby Knut Hamsun
The sun stood in the south; it was about twelve. The whole town began to get on its legs as it approached the fashionable hour for promenading. Bowing and laughing folk walked up and down Carl Johann Street. I stuck my elbows closely to my sides, tried to make myself look small, and slipped unperceived past some acquaintances who had taken up their stand at the corner of University Street to gaze at the passers-by. I wandered up Castle Hill and fell into a reverie.
How gaily and lightly these people I met carried their radiant heads, and swung themselves through life as through a ball-room! And I, walking in the very midst of these people, young and newly-fledged as I was, had already forgotten the very look of happiness. Why had the last months pressed so strangely hard on me? I failed to recognize my own happy temperament, and I met with the most singular annoyances from all quarters. I could not sit down on a bench by myself or set my foot any place without being assailed by insignificant accidents, miserable details, that forced their way into my imagination and scattered my powers to all the four winds. A dog that dashed by me, a yellow rose in a man’s buttonhole, had the power to set my thoughts vibrating and occupy me for a length of time. I had become, as it were, too languid to control or lead myself whither I would go. A swarm of tiny noxious animals had bored a way into my inner man and hollowed me out.
Fragments of the teachings of my childhood ran through my memory. The rhythmical sound of Biblical language sang in my ears, and I talked quite softly to myself, and held my head sneeringly askew. Wherefore should I sorrow for what I eat, for what I drink, or for what I may array this miserable food for worms called my earthy body? Hath not my Heavenly Father provided for me, even as for the sparrow on the housetop, and hath He not in His graciousness pointed towards His lowly servitor? The Lord stuck His finger in the net of my nerves gently—yea, verily, in desultory fashion—and brought slight disorder among the threads. And then the Lord withdrew His finger, and there were fibres and delicate root-like filaments adhering to the finger, and they were the nerve-threads of the filaments. And there was a gaping hole after the finger, which was God’s finger, and a wound in my brain in the track of His finger. But when God had touched me with His finger, He let me be, and touched me no more, and let no evil befall me; but let me depart in peace, and let me depart with the gaping hole.
The sound of music was borne up on the wind to me from the Students’ Allée. It was therefore past two o’clock. I took out my writing materials to try to write something, but write I could not. After a few lines nothing seemed to occur to me; my thought ran in other directions, and I could not pull myself together enough for any special exertion.
Everything influenced and distracted me; everything I saw made a fresh impression on me. Flies and tiny mosquitoes stick fast to the paper and disturb me. I blow at them to get rid of them—blow harder and harder; to no purpose, the little pests throw themselves on their backs, make themselves heavy, and fight against me until their slender legs bend. They are not to be moved from the spot; they find something to hook on to, set their heels against a comma or an unevenness in the paper, or stand immovably still until they themselves think fit to go their way.
These insects continued to busy me for a long time, and I crossed my legs to observe them at leisure. All at once a couple of high clarinet notes waved up to me from the bandstand, and gave my thoughts a new impulse.
Despondent at not being able to put my article together, I replaced the paper in my pocket, and leant back in the seat. At this instant my head is so clear that I can follow the most delicate train of thought without tiring. As I lie in this position, and let my eyes glide down my breast and along my legs, I notice the jerking movement my foot makes each time my pulse beats. I half rise and look down at my feet, and I experience at this moment a fantastic and singular feeling that I have never felt before—a delicate, wonderful shock through my nerves, as if sparks of cold light quivered through them—it was as if catching sight of my shoes I had met with a kind old acquaintance, or got back a part of myself that had been riven loose. A feeling of recognition trembles through my senses; the tears well up in my eyes, and I have a feeling as if my shoes are a soft, murmuring strain rising towards me.
As if I had never seen my shoes before, I set myself to study their looks, their characteristics, and, when I stir my foot, their shape and their worn uppers. I discover that their creases and white seams give them expression—impart a physiognomy to them. Something of my own nature had gone over into these shoes; they affected me, like a ghost of my other I—a breathing portion of my very self.
I sat and toyed with these fancies a long time, perhaps an entire hour. A little, old man came and took the other end of the seat; as he seated himself he panted after his walk, and muttered:
“Ay, ay, ay, ay, ay, ay, ay, ay, ay, ay; very true!”
As soon as I heard his voice, I felt as if a wind had swept through my head. I let shoes be shoes, and it seemed to me that the distracted phase of mind I had just experienced dated from a long-vanished period, maybe a year or two back, and was about to be quietly effaced from my memory. I began to observe the old fellow.
Did this little man concern me in any way? Not in the least, not in the very slightest degree! Only that he held a newspaper in his hand, an old number (with the advertisement sheet on the outside), in which something or other seemed to be rolled up; my curiosity was aroused, and I could not take my eyes away from this paper. The insane idea entered my head that it might be a quite peculiar newspaper—unique of its kind. My curiosity increased, and I began to move backwards and forwards on the seat. It might contain deeds, dangerous documents stolen from some archive or other; something floated before me about a secret treaty—a conspiracy.
The man sat quietly, and pondered. Why did he not carry his newspaper as every other person carries a paper, with its name out? What species of cunning lurked under that? He did not seem either to like letting his package out of his hands, not for anything in the world; perhaps he did not even dare trust it into his own pocket. I could stake my life there was something at the bottom of that package—I considered a bit. Just the fact of finding it so impossible to penetrate this mysterious affair distracted me with curiosity. I searched my pockets for something to offer the man in order to enter into conversation with him, took hold of my shaving-book, but put it back again. Suddenly it entered my head to be utterly audacious; I slapped my empty breast-pocket, and said:
“May I offer you a cigarette?”
“Thank you!” The man did not smoke; he had to give it up to spare his eyes; he was nearly blind. Thank you very much all the same. Was it long since his eyes got bad? In that case, perhaps, he could not read either, not even a paper?
No, not even the newspaper, more’s the pity. The man looked at me; his weak eyes were each covered with a film which gave them a glassy appearance; his gaze grew bleary, and made a disgusting impression on me.
“You are a stranger here?” he said.
“Yes.” Could he not even read the name of the paper he held in his hand?
“Barely.” For that matter, he could hear directly that I was a stranger. There was something in my accent which told him. It did not need much; he could hear so well. At night, when everyone slept, he could hear people in the next room breathing. . . .
“What I was going to say was, ‘where do you live?’ ”
On the spur of the moment a lie stood, ready-made, in my head. I lied involuntarily, without any object, without any arrière pensée, and I answered—
“St. Olav’s Place, No. 2.”
“Really?” He knew every stone in St. Olav’s Place. There was a fountain, some lamp-posts, a few trees; he remembered all of it. “What number do you live in?”
Desirous to put an end to this, I got up. But my notion about the newspaper had driven me to my wit’s end; I resolved to clear the thing up, at no matter what cost.
“When you cannot read the paper, why—”
“In No. 2, I think you said,” continued the man, without noticing my disturbance. “There was a time I knew every person in No. 2; what is your landlord’s name?”
I quickly found a name to get rid of him; invented one on the spur of the moment, and blurted it out to stop my tormentor.
“Happolati!” said I.
“Happolati, ay!” nodded the man; and he never missed a syllable of this difficult name.
I looked at him with amazement; there he sat, gravely, with a considering air. Before I had well given utterance to the stupid name which jumped into my head the man had accommodated himself to it, and pretended to have heard it before.
In the meantime, he had laid his package on the seat, and I felt my curiosity quiver through my nerves. I noticed there were a few grease spots on the paper.
“Isn’t he a sea-faring man, your landlord?” queried he, and there was not a trace of suppressed irony in his voice; “I seem to remember he was.”
“Sea-faring man? Excuse me, it must be the brother you know; this man is namely J. A. Happolati, the agent.”
I thought this would finish him; but he willingly fell in with everything I said. If I had found a name like Barrabas Rosebud it would not have roused his suspicions.
“He is an able man, I have heard?” he said, feeling his way.
“Oh, a clever fellow!” answered I; “a thorough business head; agent for every possible thing going. Cranberries from China; feathers and down from Russia; hides, pulp, writing-ink—”
“He, he! the devil he is?” interrupted the old chap, highly excited.
This began to get interesting. The situation ran away with me, and one lie after another engendered in my head. I sat down again, forgot the newspaper, and the remarkable documents, grew lively, and cut short the old fellow’s talk.
The little goblin’s unsuspecting simplicity made me foolhardy; I would stuff him recklessly full of lies; rout him out o’ field grandly, and stop his mouth from sheer amazement.
Had he heard of the electric psalm-book that Happolati had invented?
“With electric letters that could give light in the dark! a perfectly extraordinary enterprise. A million crowns to be put in circulation; foundries and printing-presses at work, and shoals of regular mechanics to be employed; I had heard as many as seven hundred men.”
“Ay, isn’t it just what I say?” drawled out the man calmly.
He said no more, he believed every word I related, and for all that, he was not taken aback. This disappointed me a little; I had expected to see him utterly bewildered by my inventions.
I searched my brain for a couple of desperate lies, went the whole hog, hinted that Happolati had been Minister of State for nine years in Persia. “You perhaps have no conception of what it means to be Minister of State in Persia?” I asked. It was more than king here, or about the same as Sultan, if he knew what that meant, but Happolati had managed the whole thing, and was never at a loss. And I related about his daughter Ylajali, a fairy, a princess, who had three hundred slaves, and who reclined on a couch of yellow roses. She was the loveliest creature I had ever seen; I had, may the Lord strike me, never seen her match for looks in my life!
“So—o; was she so lovely?” remarked the old fellow, with an absent air, as he gazed at the ground.
“Lovely? She was beauteous, she was sinfully fascinating. Eyes like raw silk, arms of amber! Just one glance from her was as seductive as a kiss; and when she called me, her voice darted like a wine-ray right into my soul’s phosphor. And why shouldn’t she be so beautiful?” Did he imagine she was a messenger or something in the fire brigade? She was simply a Heaven’s wonder, I could just inform him, a fairy tale.
“Yes, to be sure!” said he, not a little bewildered. His quiet bored me; I was excited by the sound of my own voice and spoke in utter seriousness; the stolen archives, treaties with some foreign power or other, no longer occupied my thoughts; the little flat bundle of paper lay on the seat between us, and I had no longer the smallest desire to examine it or see what it contained. I was entirely absorbed in stories of my own which floated in singular visions across my mental eye. The blood flew to my head, and I roared with laughter.