share


Interview with Tor Ulven

Tor Ulven gave this interview, his last, a year and a half before he died, leaving behind a language that had never been seen before; a literature unheard. The interview was done in collaboration with Cecilie Schram Hoel of Vagant over the course of an evening and night at the author’s home in Årvoll in Oslo. We were greeted by a positive and friendly 40-year-old, who shared with us his knowledge as well as his illusion-free outlook on life. After the fruits of our discussion were written up and edited, he received the demanding interview on a floppy disk and produced the final version himself.

 

A poet and short prose writer, Tor Ulven (1953-1995) was a bright thinker who conveyed obscure ideas. He also served as the criterion for a string of writers who first gained visibility in the mid-1980s. In addition, he was one of the most successful essayists of his generation, whether his subject was literature, philosophy, music, or the visual arts. In his essay ‘Side Notes on Leopardi’s Timelessness’ he puts it this way:

 

Art is and always will be the bait in a squirrel cage. It can never satisfy that insatiable desire. But neither can life. … The secret of art perhaps lies partly in the fact that it reminds us, without us really knowing it, of the impossibility of satisfying that endless need, and that in this very impossibility there aches a bitter joy: we are severed from all that we could have had or could have been, yet we can still imagine it. We know that we cannot step foot into that beautifully painted landscape and stay there.

 

Nor can we step inside Tor Ulven’s world and remain there. His writing – and here, his speech – is, then, rather a kind of antidote, an antibody against a false sense of comfort and simple solutions. ‘There is no rest to be found through him,’ remarked one of his closest friends, writer Ole Robert Sunde in his speech at Ulven’s fortieth birthday, ‘and I could have imagined a higher degree of sensitivity, as if he has a wider set of nerve fibres, keener sight, a formidable sense of hearing, and skin pulled so thin that his very flesh is what meets all touches.’

 

Tor Ulven paid a high price for his books, and of course he had wished for nerve fibres of a more manageable form. His work leaves little doubt as to how vulnerable life can be, and his life makes any fanatical claim that art is more important than life seem both hollow and rash. But with this in mind, literature can, within its limitations, still be called on and used, either as a means for survival, as entertainment, or as a source of acknowledgement.

 

When this conversation was originally published in Norwegian in 1993 in Vagant, it was prefaced by the following introductory statement from Ulven:

 

I have never had the desire to be interviewed before. An interview never fails to turn into commentary. Whatever a writer creates should be understood without commentary from the author. I can readily paraphrase Ibsen and say that my calling is not to speak, but to write. Anyone who talks can get hurt by speaking too much nonsense; this is clear to anyone who has attempted to speak reasonably and coherently. Anyone who speaks has to improvise, and this can be easily done if you have the talent for it. I do not. At my desk I can find myself making corrections and rewriting the text all the time. This has nothing to do with a writing fetish; it gives me, quite simply, a chance to view my work from a certain distance. The written form is far more reflected on than a situation of oral discourse. When you speak you are inside your own voice. You vomit yourself out, whether you want to or not. But as soon as you write you become a kind of outsider observing your own language, and this is how literature begins. Jon Fosse, who was a journalist himself, once said in an interview that he is well aware that the interviewer is the one who controls the interview. I think he is right. I like to control my words myself. But you could also see this as an experiment; it will probably end badly. I do not intend on giving any more interviews in the foreseeable future.

Q

The White Review

—  Do you yourself read interviews with other writers?

A

Tor Ulven

—  Of course. With great interest. Most certainly.

Q

The White Review

—  What do you look for in them?

A

Tor Ulven

—  Commentary on the work, perhaps! Writers have different attitudes toward their own work, different tactics, different ways of writing. Some make it a point to comment on their work. Some really do love to be interviewed.

Q

The White Review

—  Has your strategy been to not be interviewed?

A

Tor Ulven

—  No. I’m not a strategic writer. I write what I write from some sort of thoughtlessness, call it a necessity if you will. I try not to place it in some kind of literary war zone. I do not think strategically for the most part, I suppose. On the other hand I always try to think in a literary way. That is to say in every book there should be a strategy for the text itself. But on principle I am interested in writing hostile books. Books that trouble, perhaps torment the reader. That I will admit. There are so many places to get balsam and alleviation for all our suffering. I prefer to insist on the misery of existence in my writing. There’s already enough morphine going around.

Q

The White Review

—  Don’t you think there are some who also seek refuge in your books?

A

Tor Ulven

—  I hope so, just as I myself have sought refuge in others. Anyone can seek refuge in a book. That doesn’t mean every book is as good as a sanctuary, and it might be that the nicest and most superficial books are the least suitable – for some readers, at least.

Q

The White Review

—  Then you mean that it can be good to escape to something that torments you? You did say that you wanted to torment the reader.

A

Tor Ulven

—  Yes, in the sense that you get your pain back in new form. As a work of art. That is the essential point. In so-called real … no, not so-called, in real life, suffering is formless. In good literature suffering takes shape. That is the most crucial factor. A work of art gives pleasure in itself, in form, regardless of its themes. Why is it we can look at a painting that depicts human suffering and still manage to feel some sort of pleasure? It is the form. Form plus the insight the work imparts. The work of art gives the illusion of words amid chaos, although it is the chaos that is thematised. It could be that the reader’s reward increases the more advanced the piece is. Advanced but not necessarily complex in an outward sense. But this is an intractable problem to consider.

Q

The White Review

—  In conjunction with a prize in poetry – The Obstfelder Prize, which you received in the autumn of 1993 – there was a funny little article in the paper Stavanger, which reported that you were awarded another prize…

A

Tor Ulven

— The journalist mistakendly awarded me the Humanitarian Award of 1989! I have since learned that the whole matter occurred on account of a strange coincidence: there was an item in Gyldendal’s archives that had been clipped a little too roughly. Coincidentally, right next to my piece was an article on someone else who had won the humanitarian award! So that is what they call metonymic shifts… The printed word really can be treasonous.

Q

The White Review

—  Was it a flattering mistake?

A

Tor Ulven

—  To a certain degree, yes. All serious literature is, or should be, a defence of the humane against barbarism. It may be possible that all good literature is humanistic, in the sense that the one writing or reading a book is forced to reflect, or sublimate, to use a Freudian term, and thereby distance themselves from the barbarism. Literature is therefore humane to the degree that it is literature; it is humane according to the power of its form, which in every case defers primitive spontaneity. A book – even the most grotesque – cannot literally kill someone. On the other hand, it is also the case that literature must relate to the inhumane, the un-human, not to coquet with it, but to place what is human in an in-depth perspective.

Q

The White Review

—  Do you mean that the humanising effect of literature lies in the fact that people are at least not making anything worse by reading or writing? Isn’t that a bit of a passive take on literature?

A

Tor Ulven

—  Take all this discussion about popular culture being an escape, and that it will turn out so bad. Of course popular culture is an escape from reality. But then people clearly have the right to escape. Life is rotten, of course it is. I have complete respect for popular fiction writers who admit to writing pulp. But when you escape to the most commercialised culture, you are fleeing from something and not toward much of anything. With serious literature you are also fleeing to something. With that you regain what you have escaped from, but at least in a new, if not clarified, form. And in the best cases, literature can do quite a bit with the mind, though little with the world.

Q

The White Review

—  In the afterword to your translations of Samuel Beckett and Claude Simon in Solums Smale Serie, your write about their ‘anti-idyllic outlook on mankind and their reckless form that seems to make existence something more present to the reader … And on this level literature may fulfill a need, or rather a wish, that we cannot fulfill in life. The agonising and the chaotic appear at some sort of supreme distance within an order that belongs solely to literature, and which, apart from new possibilities of understanding phenomena beyond the literary, evokes a peculiar, almost sensual and perhaps immoral joy in the form itself. And the very worst seen in new light can arouse pleasure in its new form, which is in itself an ironic and ominous paradox.’

A

Tor Ulven

—  It is literature’s form we can delight in. Take something as banal as detective novels. Here we have half the population, on holiday and not on holiday, reading about murder. Of course they wouldn’t be so pleased about a murder if they experienced it in reality. There is a distancing that occurs when we read. This is inevitably perilous: one thinks of the reading individual as a human individual. And yet we sit there reading about some gruesome murder or another and derive tremendous gratification from it. Parenthetically, I think detective fiction is, as a rule, tedious, because it tends toward an utterly mechanical form, like clockwork: in the end it goes ping! when the mystery is solved.

 

The majority of us lead, if truth be told, rather miserable lives. If you read War and Peace or whatever it may be, you undoubtedly simulate an expansion of the field of experience. You can pretend to be part of the Napoleonic Wars if that’s what you want. You are allowed to do that. Or you could read Beckett, one of the short stories I have translated, for example, where there is a man making his way through this underground labyrinth. Then the reader does this, too. You simulate it; it is just a bluff. To actually go down into bottomless pits beneath the earth, alone, and graze your knees and shoulders at every turn would be a very unpleasant experience. Yes, it really is impossible, for Beckett’s protagonist in ‘He is barehead…’ isn’t even born! Yet by simulating it, you really do get some sort of experience from it. And you avoid paying any price for it. For a brief moment you can live in a metaphor.

Q

The White Review

—  To what purpose can these experiences be used?

A

Tor Ulven

—  That’s an infamous question. There’s a banal saying that it is better to light a candle than to curse the darkness. But it’s probably better to teach the darkness to know not to run the risk of setting fire to the entire house. To put it that way. There is a kind of acknowledgement of this in good literature, but not necessarily a practical acknowledgement. If it were only a matter of simulating lived life, then film would probably be of better use. But if we are speaking of literature, then it offers a surplus of linguistically formed insight that no other artistic medium can provide. Most fans of literature have experienced a book that has changed their perspective of the word, at least a little. But whether literature changes our life in any wholly concrete way is much more doubtful. And why must it? Aren’t there plenty of other things that call for action rather than reflection?

Q

The White Review

—  Well, it’s true you have spent your life around books to a much greater extent than most Norwegian authors today. How has this impacted you?

A

Tor Ulven

—  It’s probably true that I have read my fair share of books, on literary theory and philosophy among others, and this is some useful ballast to have with you. But I don’t accept the implicit stamp ‘intellectual’ just like that. In my youth I had a series of odd jobs – I even have a licence to operate a crane – and the experiences from my working days occasionally serve me as a writer. For me, literature is neither atheoretical naïve-realism nor cerebral construction – it is both parts, or a third. As a reader I am not at all interested in literature that only refers to other literature. I don’t want to compare myself to some chemistry professor or other who sits alone in his laboratory making concoctions that only move through retorts and flasks and test tubes, and then return to the starting point, perhaps in another colour, and nothing more.

 

In the end literature is most interesting to the extent that it mediates experiences that pertain to actual existence. That is why you will find virtually no allusions to other books in my writing. I do not demand an intellectual reader from the start. You may need a dictionary and a lexicon, but nothing more. Then you can essentially read my books without bias. Of course I would be naïve to think it would be so in practice. But as a writer I don’t want to appear as either an anti-intellectual or an ultra-literary figure. Literature is clearly language, but not only language; in many cases it presupposes an experience outside the linguistic experience. This is why it is somewhat surprising – and perhaps impressive – when some authors write novels set in far reaches of the earth where they have barely set foot. If language were a closed off system, then it would be fine. But literature – all art in general – cannot avoid referring to reality and concrete experience. Literature is trapped by both language and the strain of something non-linguistic.

Q

The White Review

—  But reality has no given quantity, neither in literature. Can’t one read books by so-called magical realists, for example, and get another version of reality?

A

Tor Ulven

—  Admittedly, yes. What I intend as the object of literature is not ‘reality’ as a simple, scientific dimension and then be done with it. What I mean, perhaps with the help of Heidegger, is that serious literature says something about existence, that is to say the relationship between the world and our experience of it. And an author such as Borges, for example, certainly does that. But fantasy does not otherwise necessarily have to do with the fantastic. The most simple, everyday object can be utterly amazing if you just look closer. I would actually like to call myself a realistic author. In No, Not That (1990), I have a story about how realism is apparently over. But then there’s the story ‘Three Desert Hikes’ which is somewhat realistic in that it takes something real as its starting point, that is, paintings by a well-known surrealist artist. One of the protagonists goes through the images, describing them as accurately as possible. No, personally, ‘the fantastic’ in the sense of the adventurous interests me very little. What can you do with flying carpets if you have bread crust or an ashtray?

Q

The White Review

—  What about the statement you used to close your 1985 René Char renderings? Char writes, ‘A poet ought to leave traces of his passage, not proof. Only traces incite the dream.’

A

Tor Ulven

—  Those are René Char’s words, not mine. I am not so interested in traces that incite dreams; I am more interested in the traces that incite awakening.

Q

The White Review

—  Is there a lack of names or place names in your texts?

A

Tor Ulven

—  I am after both the specific and the anonymous, especially the latter. Besides, there is often something distracting about all these proper names in novels and novellas, as if writers are desperate to create a fictitious personality. I do have to acknowledge a certain stylising of my characters. Though this isn’t a matter of realism in the classical sense, no.

Q

The White Review

—  In your acceptance speech for the Obstfelder Prize, you said that the novel has been easily characterised as representing individuals or groups of individuals. Were you trying to refuse a reading that assumes your books do in fact have something to do with contemporary reality?

A

Tor Ulven

—  As far as I know, no. There is no timeless art, as some appear to believe. On the other hand, I hope – like most writers, I assume – that my books will point beyond our own time. At any rate, I do not include contemporary criticism. I write about the universal inhuman. The elementary conditions. They are not given by us, they are given by someone else. That is to say, from no one.

Q

The White Review

—  Would you like to be set free from subjectivity?

A

Tor Ulven

—  Everyone is better off to the extent that they haven’t been born, to put it that way. But subjectivity is a fundamental condition, also in literature; but in literature you can pretend to find yourself at an Archimedean point beyond the subject, and consequently place it in an entirely new – and relativised – light.

Q

The White Review

—  ‘Remain still and wait till you are born without a trace,’ you write in The Vanishing Point (1981). And one of the premises for a book like Grave Gifts (1988) seems to be that it’s best to see the world from a vantage point that either precedes birth or follows death?

A

Tor Ulven

— In literature you can simulate the most impossible things.

Q

The White Review

— Why has your literature often simulated a world that is no longer inhabited by us? A nature that manages well enough on its own?

A

Tor Ulven

—  This was the case once, and this will be the case once again. This perspective of time is something we are constantly trying to forget. Individual death corresponds to the collective in a sense. And this is what we try to eliminate. I’ve read a little on paleontology, that is, the study of fossils. Well, I no longer remember the exact numbers, but the species Homo sapiens has existed for an infinitesimal part of the earth’s history. There’s the well-known example of a film that shows the entire history of the earth; it lasts twenty-four hours, and human-like beings begin to show up in the last three minutes, and at approximately the last thirty seconds, the modern human, in a biological sense, appears. The amount of time this human has existed as a species, and it is about 40,000 years, is a mere trifle. It is absolutely ridiculous. ‘As long as we are speaking of the human being, it is meaningless to speak of anything eternal,’ Heidegger said, quoted by heart. I think it is crucial to remember this.

 

On the other hand, these days there is a plethora of thoughtless and sentimental nature romanticism that seems to prioritise so-called nature over mankind. This leads to a helpless sort of anti-humanism. In his book The Making of Mankind, renowned archeologist Richard Leakey dryly points out that ‘Only one per cent of all species that have ever existed are alive today. This clearly demonstrates that extinction is the ultimate fate of most species.’ This does not mean it is reasonable to exterminate animals. But it does suggest, at least, that we should be cautious about idealising nature.

Q

The White Review

—  Mortality is clearly a central subject. Did you choose it, or has it chosen you?

A

Tor Ulven

—  You might have to ask a psychologist about that… Incidentally, it is always the subjects that choose us; this also pertains to everyday life. But I am not so sure that mortality is my most important subject. I would also suggest time, or the experience of time.

Q

The White Review

—  In The Patient (1987) you write: ‘Your own voice // on tape, / it is / the reflection // that reveals / that you too / belong to // the Stone Age.’

A

Tor Ulven

—  In the Stone Age humans lived in an actuality that is as real as ours is right now. In a hundred years we will be dead, we who are here now. It is quite fascinating to think about. We want absolutely no proof of what there will be in a hundred years from now.

Q

The White Review

—  Might it be necessary to remind us of this repeatedly?

A

Tor Ulven

—  Yes. Yes, absolutely. To get a perspective that stretches beyond the next payday. Or no – well, both. On the one hand, you are permitted to let yourself be entertained, to let yourself be diverted, as they say, by musical expression. Or in French, Pascal’s divertissement. Diversion is a basic right. According to Leopardi, people are happier the more illusions they have. Yet he himself was an illusion destroyer of great proportions. He wrote on antiquity, when people believed that nymphs and dryads dwelled in the forest, and that Neptune, the Nereids and Naiads and the like lived in the sea. Leopardi was a sworn enemy of romantic literature, because it purported that the world was still humanised. He particularly ironised those who wrote as if the wind literally blows on trees – as if it had a personality! It had been revealed already long ago that there are no gods in the forests and the seas. This is the standpoint of disillusion. Yet he essentially meant, as I have mentioned, that the more illusions we have, the more content we are. Perhaps that is true. Yet we are stripped of most of these illusions. However, we are desperately trying to create new ones all the time. Just look at all the cheap metaphysical books turning up everywhere, where the most absurd ideas are claimed with the utmost earnestness. We need to combat this type of stupidity, this sort of displacement of the basic conditions of existentialism. This is why it is essential to insist on mortality. We always have illusions to lose.

Q

The White Review

—  To the extent that one wants to be aware. Many have good reasons for not being able to do that.

A

Tor Ulven

—  So let them be free to choose that, by all means! That mindset is completely understandable. But the alternative doesn’t have to be naïve optimism, does it? Everyone wonders why pessimists are pessimistic. But no one ever wonders why optimists are optimistic – how they can have attained such a bright outlook on life despite all their experience with it. We are blinded by optimism much faster than the contrary. This is the point I wanted to make: We cannot get past the fact that we are subservient to a fundamental principle – all of us are living with the biological intelligence of reptiles. Or for that matter, single-celled animals, the ones who only want to survive. They didn’t need to justify survival – they simply divided themselves. Whereas we are compelled to justify our existence, to try to give it meaning. Even so, the distinction is not so great, considered qualitatively. From the right perspective, we are nothing. It might be necessary to point this out in a community that is so present-time oriented. We drown ourselves in the here and now, so to speak. In our minds, we may have a perspective that goes back millions of years, and also ahead for that matter. But this doesn’t help us. By a certain age we are just as ready for the crematorium, no matter what.

Q

The White Review

—  It isn’t your dream to live in the here and now?

A

Tor Ulven

—  It would be ideal if we could manage it. But this is what we don’t manage. Awareness of death is with us, no matter what. Animals are just now achieving this, which is why they have it relatively better. They probably know they are going to die half an hour before they are killed. Whereas we know most of our whole lives that we are going to be obliterated. And still there is a kind of… joy in acknowledging the inevitable. Or the impossible. Georges Bataille says that animals belong to the world in the same way water belongs to water, whereas the human is a discontinuous being. That is essentially the point. The animal is a constant, lacking its own individuality, whereas the human individual is an irregularity in relation to the same flow of time and life.

Q

The White Review

—  In the newspaper Information, Danish author and critic Christina Hesselholdt writes that she has counted fifteen people, or egos, in your novel Replacement (1993).

A

Tor Ulven

—  The number is correct. By the way, if I had to mention a critic – or writer – who has an especially firm grasp of my books, it would have to be her. She manages to write with unbelievable detail and emphasis.

Q

The White Review

—  But the different identities have identical speech, so to speak, they think with the same tone, they have the same outlook on life, so much that the reader easily gets the impression it’s about the same person at different phases in their life.

A

Tor Ulven

—  I haven’t attempted to give every individual their own language. I was after a double effect: it is a different person, and it is the same person; almost individual variations across an impersonal subject. Nils Ferlin has a great poem about this – he is, by the way, and interesting example of a poet who is traditional in form yet succeeds at doing something new at the same time, unlike some Norwegian poets who have retained the old forms and then produced something old.

 

I COULD BE…

 

I am a bum – what else,

I could be a priest,

I could be an ironmaster

a farmer or a horse …

 

I could be a swallow,

a crow or a snake,

a snoop – or maybe a flower,

a splash of summer in a book …

 

Well – the east starts in the west

and the south ends in the north,

I am muddled by questions

and my throat is so damn dry …

 

… I am a bum, who trips

along the rubbled paths.

My heart is as hot as a blast furnace

and as cold as a poorhouse.

 

It is this possibility, that we can just as easily be someone else. We could essentially be born with an entirely different subjectivity. When the egos in Replacement overlap each other, it is as if they are reborn. But as the same. Born anew, but in the same misery, the same monotony. Possibilities that suddenly contract.

Q

The White Review

—  You do this rather concretely, knowing that many of the characters have physical defects.
A

Tor Ulven

—  Not just physical. All of them are unwell.
 

*

This piece was selected for inclusion in the January 2016 Translation Issue by Daniel Medin, a contributing editor of The White Review. He is Associate Director of the Center for Writers and Translators at the American University of Paris, and an editor for The Cahiers Series and Music & Literature.


share


ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTOR

is a critic and journalist based near Oslo. From 1988 through 1996, she was co-editor of Vagant.

has been Chief Editor for Norway's oldest newspaper, Morgenbladet, and an editor at NRK, De norske Bokklubbene, and the literary journal Vagant. He was awarded the Norwegian Critics Prize for Non-Fiction for a book about Dag Solstad in 2013, and his biography of Kjell Askildsen was nominated for the Brage Prize the following year. He is the author of seven volumes of book-length interviews.

Benjamin Mier-Cruz is a visiting assistant professor of Scandinavian and German Studies at Augustana College. His translations include the poetry and letters of Elmer Diktonius, for which he was awarded the Susan Sontag Prize for Translation, and Stig Dagerman’s A Burnt Child.

READ NEXT

poetry

Issue No. 2

Portraits of Pierre Reverdy and Three Poems

Sam Gordon

poetry

Issue No. 2

ANDRÉ BRETON The most memorable thing about our meetings [around 1919-1920] was the almost complete bareness of the room in...

Art

Issue No. 17

Water

Batia Suter

Art

Issue No. 17

Sources: Achate, Bilder im Stein / Josef Arnoth, Naturhistorisches Museum Basel Buchverlag, Bild der Wissenschaft 12, Dezember 1971, DVA StuttgartBasler Zeitung, Birkhäuser...

feature

August 2017

What Makes A Gallery Programme?

Pac Pobric

feature

August 2017

Of his art dealer, Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler, Pablo Picasso once wondered, ‘What would have become of us if Kahnweiler hadn’t...