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.