Translation: Excerpts from EVIL FLOWERS

By GUNNHILD ØYEHAUG

Translated from the Norwegian by KARI DICKSON

The following are two stories from Evil Flowers by Gunnhild Øyehaug, translated by Kari Dickson, published by FSG (2/14/23).

 

The Cliffs, When Dead

To get to the top of the White Cliffs of Dover was not that hard. It was, in principle, just a matter of walking. Moving one foot in front of the other, up a narrow, romantic path through the green grass. The hardest part was getting to England in the first place. Being a neurotic and booking flights could be problematic. Veronika knew all about that. Because she was a neurotic.

She was also dead.

And it was difficult for dead people to book flights to England, or anywhere else in the world, for that matter. Being a neurotic and dead when trying to buy a plane ticket was a combination that not many before her had tried. But someone had to be the first! said Veronika to encourage herself as she sat there and typed in her date of birth on the carrier’s website, but she could not find anywhere to give her date of death.

For really, what did she feel, come back after all these years and Mrs. Ramsay dead? Nothing, nothing—nothing that she could express at all, mumbled the dead Veronika, on the plane bound for England, quietly, so no one would hear her. Various quotes from Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, on which Veronika had written a thesis when she was still alive, tended to pop up in Veronika’s head—even now, in the afterlife. Did she feel nothing? Nothing she could express at all? No! She felt excited that she was going to see the White Cliffs, which she had always been drawn to, without ever quite understanding why. Were they alluring because they were so white, because they resembled an enormous marshmallow that had been cut with a spoon, because they revealed something extremely white that somehow was there in the depths of existence, and, if one thinks about what chalk is made from, i.e., fossilized remains, in fact they resembled a kind of geological skeleton? Was it the shape, was it the color, was it that they stood there, so weather-beaten and white, alone against the sea? It’s not always easy to explain why one is drawn to something! But in Veronika’s mind, when she, to her surprise, woke up from the great nothingness of the dead, and was a ghost with flesh, a person in a dead format, a kind of living version, there was only one thought: that she now had the chance to get to the White Cliffs of Dover.

What was it like to lie dead in the earth? Veronika thought about it as she sat on the airplane, looking through the in-flight magazine—that being dead was a bit like the light outside on a January afternoon when the sun has set and the snow on the ground that barely covers the moss (which sticks up here and there) creates a thin white light across the pale blue sky, and between the slender, leafless birch trees on the mound, but enough for everything to look eerie and transparent, if one looks close enough. The usual view through the window looks, in this light, extraordinary. And yet ordinary. That was what it was like being dead. Just BOOM: strange, but normal light.

And if she were to choose the episode from her life that would best illustrate what it was like to be alive, she thought, as she followed the narrow path through the grass up toward the cliffs, it would have to be the time she was going to meet the head of the Danish analysis department for the first time, and stood outside the hotel and the representative from the Dutch analysis department was standing there as well, waiting, a woman twenty years younger than herself. They were both wearing dresses in the same color, mustard yellow. And they had the same white stripes on their dresses. But Veronika’s also had polka dots. I’ve also got polka dots, Veronika said, joking. The young woman laughed politely. That’s what it was like to be alive. It was to have the same dress, but not quite the same, and to point it out because you felt it was necessary, because it was so obvious, and to elicit polite laughter, which said: You didn’t need to point that out, because it’s so obvious, it would have been more dignified not to. To be alive was to not know what dignified behavior was. And now, well, it was too late to acquire more knowledge about what counted as dignified behavior. Now she was dead, and finally on her way up toward the cliffs of Dover. Veronika, the dead neurotic. It was, she felt with great intensity, incredible that she was here. More incredible than the fact that she was dead. The cliffs really were so white, they were actually as white as her skin, whiter than chalk, whiter than anything alive, white like layer upon layer of death. So this was how it was to experience the cliffs when dead. Suddenly to understand the obvious parallel. As though what she had always been drawn to, without knowing it, was an aspect of herself—her future state in death. The cliffs stood there, as white as before and just as unaware that a dead person was walking toward them, a person who had dreamed of seeing them all her life, and had finally succeeded, when dead.

They were: as unseeing over the water, as unfeeling and unthinking as the White Cliffs of Dover had always been.

 

The Mational Nuseum

Today I was woken by a nightmare. Outside, the snow was falling thick and fast, it was really coming down, and it wasn’t yet light. I put my feet down on the floor to feel that it was there, I saw that the suit I’d collected from the dry cleaner the day before was hanging on a clothes hanger on the wardrobe door so I wouldn’t take the wrong one; it had to be this suit. The shoes were standing ready below the suit, so everything was there. In brief: the floor was there, the suit was hanging, the shoes were standing, everything was as it should be. In my dream, on the other hand, I was in the brand-new mational nuseum, of which, also in my dream, I was the director. I took a final round to check that everything was in place for the grand opening, passed through all the rooms in the new, monumental nuseum, made from slate, without windows, only to discover window after window that I had never seen before. The whole point, I thought, was that the building would have no windows, but here they were, popping up, one after another, the sharp light coming in through the glass, into the art, and shining directly on The Scream by Edvard Munch, which immediately started to crack, in the way that ice on water splinters to create hairline channels when one surprises oneself by stepping on a place where the ice is too thin. Then I discovered that The Scream was hanging upside down. I looked around frantically; Munch’s paintings were all hanging upside down. I started to run through room after room: all the art was hanging upside down. The worst was perhaps Bibi Lauf’s masterwork, Gripping Arm, the five-meter-long lifelike arm that stretched from one end of the room diagonally up toward the ceiling at the other end of the room, where the hand appeared to be gripping something that wasn’t there. It was a depiction of how Lauf experienced giving birth, she said—many people who are not familiar with Lauf’s explanation understand it rather as the hand reaching up to catch something in the sky and pull it down. God, for example. The way the hand is shaped into such a firm grip means that if it’s God the hand is trying to catch, then God must look pretty much like an apple that one might try to pick from a branch. Or a light bulb that has to be twisted out of a ceiling fitting. And all of this falls naturally within the scope of interpretation for Gripping Arm. But for Lauf, the truth was that her child had been turned around in the birth canal by the midwife’s firm hand, so she came out the right way, and it was such a powerful experience for Lauf, she said, as though she were just a body around a grasping hand, that she wanted to re-create it, with a hand reaching up toward the ceiling to grasp something. In the Lauf Room, Gripping Arm was upside down and so looked as though it was trying to grasp something in the ground, to twist it out. In terms of culture, we know only too well what lies hidden down there. I stood petrified, yes, precisely that, and looked at the grasping hand, which assumed a more ominous symbolism, hanging as it was, I felt that civilization itself was at risk, our time, yes, that was it, in our time, because was that not what we were doing, here and now in 2020, twisting the beast out of the ground? I was once again gripped by Lauf’s piece, I stood there in the Lauf Room and felt everything fall into place, despite the fact that everything was upside down. But then I saw something gray slip past the doorway into the next room, and I had to go see what it was, and it was a huge wolf, and he had a head where his tail should have been, and a tail where his head should have been, and he walked away from me with yellow, staring, almost doomed eyes, perhaps because he would have liked to eat me, but had to follow his tail, which was going the other way, and the only thing I could think of was Olav H. Hauge’s poem about a black-clad minister’s wife who appears unexpectedly at the farm, “and a yellow wolf,” and that I’ve never understood it, other than that yellow meant danger. And suddenly he stopped, because he’d noticed something, possibly, and then I noticed it too, it was as though we were in an elevator: the building was sinking. I looked out through the window and saw the cranes and skyscrapers disappear over us. I started to run, past Gripping Arm, past The Scream and all Munch’s upside-down art, out from the main entrance, and I stood there and saw, indisputably, the building sink into the earth, the entire, monumental slate building, until only a meter was left above ground. It was so mesmerizing to watch it sink, in the way that it’s always, by definition, mesmerizing to watch things sink, that I felt nothing, neither panic nor despair. And then I saw a light shining in front of me, from the white neon letters I’d had made in England. They said: mational nuseum. There and then, I felt that it simply couldn’t be true. Mational Nuseum! There was something wrong, I could feel it! We had checked the spelling on the front of the building and on all the paperwork with our logo, none of the letters had been switched around, all the letters should be in the right place and say that this was the Mational Nuseum, Mation, Nus, oh, to quote my inner life directly, now the letters wouldn’t even let me think the correct word, I howled inside and dashed toward the opening I had just emerged from, of which there was now only one meter left, I had to lower myself down toward the floor and jump, then I ran to my office in the administration wing, it happened with remarkable speed, as it often does in dreams, and I looked frantically through all the papers that I could find, to check: and there it was, it said “Mational Nuseum” on everything. When I woke up and saw the snow falling thick and fast outside, I was relieved, relieved that it was just a nightmare, relieved that the floor was stable, that my suit was where it should be, that my shoes stood ready, and I was prepared to go to work and inspect all the rooms and check that everything was in place ahead of the grand opening. I got dressed and walked to the nuseum, expecting to find it just as it had been before I dreamed all this: towering many meters above the ground, slate gray and monumental and windowless. But in the distance, through the whirling white, I saw the faint light of some letters. They spelled out the name mational nuseum. The letters shone about a meter from the ground, and not fifteen meters up, as I had expected. I walked through the snow and finally stood there in front of my nuseum: it really had sunk into the ground. I went to where I thought the opening would be, and just as in my dream, only the top part of the main entrance was visible. I looked for the app to unlock the doors and luckily: the doors slid open.

That was twenty minutes ago, so not much time has passed, and no one else has arrived yet. The initial feeling of catastrophe has been replaced by a kind of productive euphoria. I think that with a couple of simple changes, I can rewrite some key points in my speech. I will call the entrance an innovative solution. I will focus on “the transformative power of art.” I will say that I am one hundred percent certain that even though the mational nuseum sticks up only one meter above the ground, so we all have to crawl in through a narrow gap and then lower ourselves down, or jump, depending on our physical abilities, then that is what we will do! I will finish by saying: because we are a mation of art lovers.

 

Klippene, Som Død

Å kome seg opp til dei kvite klippene i Dover var ikkje det vanskelegaste. Det var, i prinsippet, berre å gå. Flytte den eine foten etter den andre, oppetter ein smal, romantisk sti i det grøne graset. Det vanskelegaste var å kome seg til England i det heile. Å vere nevrotikar og å skulle bestille flybillett kunne nemleg vere problematisk. Det visste Veronika alt om. For ho var nevrotikar.

Ho var dessutan død.

For døde å få flybillett til England, eller til nokon plass i heile verda, var vanskeleg. Og å vere både nevrotisk og død når ein skulle prøve å kjøpe flybillett, det var ein kombinasjon som få andre hadde prøvd før henne. Men nokon må vere den første! sa Veronika oppmuntrande til seg sjølv då ho sat og fylde inn fødselsdatoen sin på flyselskapet si side og ikkje fann nokon plass ho kunne sette inn dødsdatoen.

For kva følte ho, eigentleg, no då ho hadde kome tilbake etter alle desse åra og fru Ramsey var død? Ingenting, ingenting – ingenting ho kunne uttrykke i det heile tatt, mumla den døde Veronika, på flyet til England, stilt, så ingen skulle høyre henne. Ulike sitat frå Virginia Woolfs roman To the Lighthouse, som Veronika hadde skrive ei avhandling om mens ho levde, hadde hatt ein tendens til å dukke opp i hovudet til Veronika, – no også i etterlivet. Følte ho ingenting? Ingenting ho kunne uttrykke i det heile tatt? Jau! Ho følte jo entusiasme over at ho skulle oppleve dei kvite klippene, som ho alltid hadde blitt dradd mot, utan at ho forstod heilt kvifor. Var det tildragande at dei var så kvite, at dei verka som ein diger marshmallow kutta i med skei, at dei synte fram noko ekstremt kvitt som liksom fanst inst i tilværet, og som jo, viss ein tenkte over kva kalksteinen var laga av, nemleg fossile leivningar, rett og slett likna eit slags geologisk skjelett? Var det forma, var det fargen, var det det at dei stod her, så forblåste og kvite, åleine mot havet? Det er ikkje alltid lett å forklare kvifor ein blir dradd mot noko! Men i hovudet til Veronika, då ho overraskande vakna frå det store inkjet til dei døde, og var eit spøkelse med kjøt, eit menneske i død form, i ein slags levande versjon, stod berre éin tanke: at ho no hadde sjansen til å kome seg til dei kvite klippene i Dover.

Korleis var det å ligge død under jorda? Veronika sat på flyet og bladde i flybladet og tenkte på dette, at det å vere død likna på det lyset som er ute ein januar- ettermiddag når sola har gått ned og snøen på bakken som så vidt dekker mosen (som stikk opp her og der), gir eit tynt, kvitt lys over ein lyseblå himmel, og mellom dei tynne, bladlause bjørkene på haugen, men nok til at alt ser veldig underleg og gjennomsiktig ut, om ein ser godt etter. Den vanlege utsikta ut vindauget ser, i dette lyset: heilt merkeleg ut. Og likevel vanleg. Slik var det å vere død. Berre PANG: underleg, men vanleg lys.

Og skulle ho velje den episoden frå sitt eige liv som best kunne skildre det å vere levande, tenkte ho, når ho gjekk oppetter den smale stien på graset på veg opp mot klippene, måtte det bli den gongen då ho møtte opp utanfor hotellet og skulle møte sjefen for den danske analyseavdelinga for første gong, og utsendingen frå den nederlandske analyseavdelinga også stod der og venta, ei kvinne, tjue år yngre enn henne. Dei hadde begge same farge på kjolen, sennepsbrun. Dei hadde også begge kvite striper på kjolen. Men Veronika hadde i tillegg prikkar. Eg har altså i tillegg prikkar, sa Veronika, på spøk. Den unge kvinna lo høfleg. Slik var det å vere levande. Det var å ha ein lik kjole, men ikkje heilt lik, påpeike det, fordi ein følte at det var nødvendig, for det var så openbert, og å få høfleg latter, som sa: Dette kunne du like gjerne ikkje ha påpeika, for det er så openbert, det ville ha vore meir verdig. Å vere levande var å ikkje vite kva som var verdig oppførsel. Og no var det altså for seint å oppnå meir kunnskap om kva som var verdig oppførsel. No var ho død, og faktisk på veg oppover mot klippene i Dover. Veronika, den døde, nevrotiske. Det var, følte ho intenst, utruleg at ho var her. Meir utruleg enn at ho var død. Klippene var verkeleg så kvite, dei var faktisk så kvite som huda hennar, kvitare enn kalk, kvitare enn alt levande, kvite som lag på lag med døde. Så slik skulle det altså vere, å oppleve klippene, som død. Plutseleg å innsjå denne openberre parallellen. Som om det ho alltid hadde blitt dradd mot, utan å vite det, var eit aspekt ved henne sjølv – hennar framtidige tilstand som død. Klippene låg der, like kvite som før og like lite klar over at dei hadde ein død person gåande opp mot seg, ein person som hadde drøymt om å sjå dei heile livet, og som endeleg oppnådde dette, som død.

Slik var dei: like lite skodande ut over havet, like lite følande og tenkande som dei kvite klippene ved Dover alltid hadde vore.

 

Masjonalnuseet

I dag vakna eg av eit mareritt. Ute fall snøen tett, det lava ned, faktisk, og lyst var det ikkje. Eg sette beina på golvet for å kjenne at det var der, eg såg dressen min som eg henta frå reinseriet dagen før og som eg skulle ha på meg på opninga, henge på hengaren sin på utsida av skapdørene slik at eg ikkje skulle kunne ta feil; det var denne dressen. Skoa stod også plassert under dressen så alt skulle vere klart.

Eg oppsummerte: Golvet var der, dressen hang, skoa stod, alt var normalt. I draumen, derimot, var eg inne i det splitter nye masjonalnuseet, som eg også i draume var direktør for. Eg gjekk ein sjekkerunde før den store opninga skulle finne stad, gjennom alle romma inni dette nye, monumentale nuseet i skifer utan vindauge, og oppdaga vindauge på vindauge som eg ikkje hadde sett før. Heile poenget, tenkte eg, var at det ikkje skulle vere vindauge i dette bygget, men her poppa dei opp, det eine vindauget etter det andre, og skarpt lys fall inn gjennom glaset og inn på kunsten og rett inn på «Skrik» av Edvard Munch, som straks tok til å krakelere, slik islagde vatn sprekk opp i tynne råker når ein overraskande for ein sjølv har trakka på ein stad der isen er for tynn. Deretter oppdaga eg at «Skrik» hang opp ned. Eg kika meg febrilsk ikring; alle bileta til Munch hang opp ned. Eg byrja å springe, gjennom rom etter rom: Og all kunsten hang opp ned. Det verste var kan hende Bibi Laufs hovudverk, «Gripande arm», den fem meter lange og naturtru armen som går frå eine enden av rommet diagonalt opp mot taket mot den andre enden av rommet, der fingrane ser ut til å gripe rundt noko som ikkje er der. Det er ei framstilling av slik Lauf opplevde det å føde, har ho fortalt – mange som ser dette verket, tolkar det heller, dersom dei ikkje kjenner til Laufs forklaring, slik at armen prøver å få tak i noko oppe i himmelen og drage det ned. For eksempel Gud. Måten handa er forma så knallhardt gripande på, gjer at dersom ein tenker seg at det er Gud handa prøver å fange, ser Gud om lag ut som eit eple ein prøver å vri laus frå ei grein. Eller ei lyspære ein skal vri ut av ein taklampe. Og alt dette ligg naturlegvis inne i «Gripande arm» si tolkingsrekkevidde. Mens for Lauf var det slik at barnet hennar blei snudd rundt inni fødselskanalen av jordmora si gripande hand, slik at ho skulle kome ut rett veg, og Lauf opplevde dette så sterkt, har ho fortalt, som om alt ho var, var ein kropp kring ei gripande arm, og ho ville skape dette på nytt, med ei hand gripande opp mot taket. I Lauf-rommet hang «Gripande arm» opp ned og såg såleis ut til å gripe etter noko nede i bakken, for å vri det ut.

Kulturelt sett veit vi jo godt kva som skjuler seg der nede. Eg blei ståande som, ja nettopp, forsteina og sjå på denne gripande handa, det fekk ein illevarslande symbolikk slik ho hang no, eg følte heile samfunnet stod på spel, vår tid, ja, slik var det, i vår tid, for heldt vi ikkje på med dette, her i 2020, å vri styggen sjølv ut av jorda? Eg blei altså gripen på nytt av Laufs verk, eg stod der i Lauf-rommet og følte at alt, trass i at alt var opp ned, fall på plass. Men så såg eg noko grått stryke forbi der borte i døropninga inn til neste rom, og eg måtte gå og sjå kva det var, og det var ein diger ulv, han hadde hovudet der halen skulle vere og halen der hovudet skulle vere, og han gjekk vekk frå meg med dei gule auga stirande nesten fortapt, kan hende fordi han hadde kunna tenke seg å ete meg, men måtte følgje halen, som var på veg vekk, og det einaste eg klarte å tenke på, var diktet til Olav H. Hauge som handlar om at ei svartkledd prestekone uventa er komen til gards, «og ein gul ulv», og at eg aldri har forstått det, anna enn at det gule varslar fare. Og brått stansa han, fordi han merka noko, truleg, og no merka eg det også, det var som om vi var inne i ein heis: Bygget søkk. Eg såg det gjennom vindauga, eg såg heisekranene og skyskraparane utanfor vindauget forsvinne over oss. Eg byrja å springe, forbi «Gripande arm», forbi «Skrik» og all kunsten til Munch opp ned, ut hovudinngangen og blei ståande og sjå, heilt uomtvisteleg, bygget søkke i jorda, det monumentale skiferverket, heilt til det berre stakk éin meter opp frå bakken. Det var så fjetrande å sjå det søkke slik det alltid per definisjon er fjetrande å sjå ting søkke, at eg ikkje kjende nokon ting, verken panikk eller fortviling. Og då såg eg det lyse mot meg, i dei kvite neonbokstavane eg hadde fått laga i England. Det stod: MASJONALNUSEET. Der og då følte eg at det ikkje kunne vere mogleg.

Masjonalnuseet! Det var eitt eller anna feil med det, følte eg! Vi hadde jo lese korrektur på framsida av bygget og på alt papirmateriale med logoen vår på, ingen bokstavar skulle vere bytta om, alle bokstavar skulle stå på rett plass og fortelje at dette var Masjonalnuseet, Masjon, Nus, åh, for å sitere mitt indre heilt på ein prikk, no ville ikkje bokstavane late meg tenke det korrekte ordet eingong, eg vrælte innvendig og styrta mot opninga eg hadde kome ut av, som det no berre var ein meter att av, eg måtte fire meg ned mot golvet og hoppe, og så sprang eg til kontoret mitt i administrasjonsfløya, det gjekk merkeleg fort, men slik er det ofte i draume, og eg bladde febrilsk opp alt papirmateriale eg kunne finne, for å sjekke: og det stemde, det stod Masjonalnuseet overalt. Då eg vakna og såg at det lava ned snø ute, var eg letta, letta over at det berre var eit mareritt, letta over at golvet var stabilt, dressen på plass, skoa klare, eg var klar for å gå på jobb og inspisere alle romma og sjekke at alt var ferdig til den store opninga. Eg kledde på meg og gjekk til nuseet og forventa å finne det slik det hadde vore før eg drøymde alt dette: hevande seg fleirfaldige meter over bakken, skifergrått og monumentalt og vindaugslaust. Men langt der borte i snødrevet såg eg nokre bokstavar lyse dust gjennom den tette snøen. Det var namnet MASJONALNUSEET. Bokstavane lyste om lag ein meter over bakken, og ikkje femten meter oppe, slik eg hadde venta. Eg gjekk gjennom snøen og stod endeleg framfor nuseet mitt: Det hadde verkeleg sokke i jorda. Eg gjekk dit eg meinte inngangen måtte vere, og akkurat som i draumen var det berre den øvre delen av inngangsdøra som var synleg. Eg leita opp appen som eg opnar dørene med, og heldigvis: Dørene sklei opp.

Dette var for tjue minutt sidan, så det har ikkje gått så mykje tid, og ingen andre har kome enno. Den første katastrofekjensla er erstatta av ein slags produktiv eufori. Eg tenker på at eg med eit par enkle grep kan skrive om nokre sentrale punkt i talen min. Dette inngangspartiet skal eg kalle ei innovativ løysing. Eg skal fokusere på «kunstens transformerande kraft». Eg skal seie at eg er heilt hundre prosent trygg på at om så masjonalnuseet berre stikk ein meter opp av bakken slik at vi alle må krype inn gjennom ei trong opning og deretter fire oss ned, eller hoppe, alt etter kva vi er fysisk i stand til, er det dette vi vil gjere! Eg skal slutte med: «For vi er ein masjon av kunstelskarar.»

 

Excerpted from EVIL FLOWERS: Stories. Published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Copyright © 2020 by Kolon forlag, an imprint of Gyldendal Norsk Forlag AS. Translation copyright © 2023 by Kari Dickson. All rights reserved.

 

Gunnhild Øyehaug is an award-winning Norwegian poet, essayist, and fiction writer. Her story collection Knots was published by FSG in 2017, followed in 2018 by Wait, Blink, which was adapted into the acclaimed film Women in Oversized Men’s Shirts, and in 2022 by Present Tense Machine. Øyehaug lives in Bergen, where she teaches creative writing.

Kari Dickson is a literary translator from Norwegian. Her work includes crime fiction, literary fiction, children’s books, theatre, and nonfiction. She is also an occasional tutor in Norwegian language, literature and translation at the University of Edinburgh, and has worked with BCLT and the Writers’ Centre Norwich.

 

Translation: Excerpts from EVIL FLOWERS

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