Birna Bjarnadóttir: Life as an Experiment in Guðbergur Bergsson's Fiction
A man does not exist who would not want to return to the place he came from, to unite with it forever, because we are not born free and happy even though we think so. We are born into a lifelong forsakenness.
Guðbergur Bergsson Faðir og móðir og dulmagn bernskunnar (Father and Mother and the Mystery of Childhood).
The author of The Confessions, Augustine (354-430), wrote so much that according to a fifth century pettiness only God can browse through the whole thing. Guðbergur Bergsson is similar to Augustine in terms of output and if anyone wants to approach the coherence of his work, the story from the fifth century might repeat itself. Amongst a multitude of novels, biographical novels, poems, short stories, articles and translations the reader feels inadequate and thinks: "In a project like this I have to be equipped with the angle of eternity. This author cannot therefore be writing for me and my kind but for God. May eternity keep him!" Having said that, the reader is not only tangled up in Bergsson's creation, which covers the field of fiction, aesthetics, criticism and translations, but in a creative repetition of cultural history. A history whose main focus has been, for a long time, man, his circumstances and the means of his existence. The coherence in Bergsson's work is, in other words, not prevalent and he himself says the following about his stories in the book of interviews called Guðbergur Bergsson metsölubók (Gudbergur Bergsson: a Bestseller): "The stories are like the man - never only themselves but refer to a larger field and remind us that no one is begotten of himself; everything is repeated words. Therefore, they are 'pranks' in their own way." (200).
It is not my intention to map out Guðbergur Bergssson's fiction and the deep-rooted dialogue concerning the reality of Icelandic culture and society on the one hand, and Western cultural history and narrative tradition on the other. But in order to approach the coherence in Guðbergur's fiction; in order to touch for a moment the "space" of his creation and the creative repetition already mentioned, the reader can join the man in Faðir og móðir og dulmagn bernskunnar (1997). The man has entered the house of his youth; the house that stands in the village of Grindavík, on the seaside of the south-west corner of Iceland. The wind is blowing outside and the man says that he finds security in hearing the wind wrestle with the wood of the house. Here he wants to seek his origin and enter of his own free will any part of the past.
But is it possible? Who is this man? And what is the connection between his search and the stories that are never only themselves but refer to a wider space and remind us that no one is begotten of himself; everything is repeated words.
The man is "Guðbergur Bergsson" and he has decided to make his origin the subject in a work about a father, a mother and the mystique of childhood. The work is not a traditional autobiography, as can be seen in Guðbergur's definition of origin: "Man's origin is everywhere and nowhere, but it can always be found in the thought and the words." (27). The reader is also repeatedly reminded of the recreation of form and content discussed. In the introduction of the work we find the following words: "This work is historically wrong. Its sole role is to be somewhat correct emotionally, from the author's point of view. Thus, this is autobiographical fiction." These words are in harmony with other words, those that can be found in the beginning of the first part of the work and also concern the author's will and intention. He says he wants to create an analogy with the past in the memory of his parents in words. Biographies, he also says in the introduction, do not, strictly speaking, exist because "few things are as completely lost as a man's life so you can only write down his desire to preserve its atmosphere in words."
But what is the athmosphere of a man's life? the reader asks dumbfounded. What is an autobiographical fiction? Is this work perhaps closer to art than life? How is this boundary perceived?
In all of Guðbergur's work we can find tireless reflection on the boundary between life and art. Faðir og móðir og dulmagn bernskunnar is not a unique work then in terms of how the content is dealt with. Rather, it is possible to find many of the main questions of his fiction as well as the aesthetical position they originate from. The words about origin mentioned above, how it is everywhere and nowhere and how it can always be found in words and thought, are closely linked with Bergsson's first publications, the collection of poetry called Endurtekin orð (1961) (Repeated Words) and the novel Músin sem læðist (1961) (The Prowling Mouse). In the former we see a poet introduce himself on a stage of a world that is the scene of repeated words, words which simultaneously are devoted to the idea of God - the idea that God is the author of existence - and demand freedom from it, for the sake of man's creative image. In the latter we see a novelist wrestle with a boy's surroundings and inner life which seems to become the prey of existence after his mother's enormous power over him is brought to an end. Born and raised in a bleak landscape, a ruggard group of people, and the reality of culture only fiction can express, the boy perceives in turns -living dead - his own limits and will before the dizzying project: to live.
Such is the perception in Bergsson's works, as if copulation with existence takes place, an experimental perception which takes the form of creative thought in the repetition of words on the edge of Europe. In Faðir og móðir og dulmagn bernskunnar this perception is the novelist's subject in a search for the origin of life and art. Along with the serious questions evoked by the work - such as what is the connection between imagination and death? What is it about life that makes man die within? How do you hold on to your faith in life against all that is constantly dying, on the outside as well as within? - the reader not only participates in the novelist's search for his origin, beyond the historical doctrine about what is right and what is wrong, and beyond the dogma of accepted ideas about what should be true in a man's life, but also in a modern author's thoughts about art, from the point of view of life:
I know that thought can travel far in the air, perch on the gravel, and grow multi-coloured wherever it shoots roots. It is not a prayer to life, life does not need one, it goes about its own business having no sympathy with those who are alive and life has no laws, only we who make them. (232)
It may be that what is here called the angle of life gives birth to tragedy. In Bergsson's autobiographical fiction the reader also gets a chance to come face to face with the poor existencial circumstances related to his father and mother's childhood and their struggle in life. But instead of arousing a temporal and spatial sympathy with the reader and get him to think something like; "What injustice the common people in Iceland had to suffer in the beginning of the 20th century!" Bergsson evokes much greater fear by having the same reader think, in a large context, about human nature and the echo of life that can be found in its senselessness. Following this kind of thoughts people's need for man-made laws becomes not just tangible but is replaced by the problem of human existence without any solution in sight. The man in the house - the one who has not only created completely different conditions of life for himself and lived for long stretches of time far from the layer of lava and the village of his childhood, but also made the point of view of life repeatetly the subject of his fiction - he has this to say about man's hopes in life: "You can only hope to be able to handle your work, almost anything else is unmanageable." (93).
In the unfinished house Gudbergur, as a child, finds what later shapes his aesthetic approach to life and art: How that which is unfinished evokes a special kind of magic, how existence is not made up of that which is completed and emptied but of potential possibilities. When he was a child he felt that it was a lot more mysterious and enjoyable to sit by a wall and feel how dry sand in a closed fist flows tickling over the palm and between the fingers, constantly increasing as it is emptied and the flow is faster at the edge of the palm and seems at the same time to fill the fist with emptiness. I gained in this simple game knowledge of the equal existence of fullness and emptiness, that the emptiness is also fulfilment but of course only in its own special way. There is balance in this and an analogy between matter and the lack of it, the palpable and that which cannot be touched except with thought and perception. This is the fusion of form and its content. I could lie for hours, sometimes all day, doing this, to feel the delight in perceiving both the matter and the lack of it in my hands and in life and perhaps in art as well, the fusion of form and meaning in the world. (31-32)
In search of conceivable possibilities in the house of youth the man thinks about the sorrow life awakens and how man's own grief has no other purpose than to water the emotions to keep them from drying up. The same man says in a different place in a different book:
The same goes for my fiction as life: if human beings could choose some other scene for their perceptions or unity than the life they lead, they would choose it and reject life. Life is only a bad necessity for those who are born. I could say the same about my practice or my fiction.... to know how to categorise emotions and give them names is of no concern for the head or the body that brings them forth. Thus I say, that fortunately for my feelings I feel like I'm living dead at the same time. (Guðbergur Bergsson metsölubók 70)
But what is this boundary between life and art? The man in the house remembers his mother's deathbed and how he felt profound disgrace there: The mother's struggle with death brought forth the memory of a story by Borges, a story about a woman who was about to die when the blush of youth was suddenly in her face. He remembers how he felt spellbound by fiction, just as if his reality was the reality of fiction. "Did then nothing in life exist except fiction?" he asked himself. "Is that which brings forth stories always a kind of a death-struggle?" In this he remembers the mystery of childhood, how ideas about fiction and its nature were born, and how a poet dies in his work in order for it to have its own independent existence.
I will not attempt here to answer the question, "does then nothing in life exist but fiction?" Another man in another story by Guðbergur Bergsson may however shed some light on the matter, on this incessant reflection about the boundary between life and art and this boundary is both linked to the creation and to death within. In the novel Sú kvalda ást sem hugarfylgsnin geyma (1993) (Tormented Love, published in English in 2000)), the reader meets a person who decides to live the potentials of human nature, both in life and in writing. After having lived a spotless life as a husband, father and teacher in contemporary Reykjavík, he inherits his lifelong friend's flat and lover. What happens then is a passionate experimentation of the emotions every person is offered; the man voluntarily enters the carousel of emotional relationships driven by cultural history. Just as Augustine in his Confessions the man records in his diary the incessant search of his body and spirit for a possible channel for his love of life, love for himself, and others. But unlike Augustine - who, in the end, chooses the love of God rather than an existence in the bitter world of man - the man in Bergsson's novel is faithful to the tormented love. Because of this the reader cannot only sense the threat which is in life, a threat which the man in Faðir og móðir og dulmagn bernskunnar decides to meet and "come into the possession of something as lasting as the torment of having been born" (169), but also the artistic value of the expression of life in the literary culture we in the Western world are born into and die out of after fumbling attempts in what the poet calls a lifelong forsakenness:
Perhaps the expression of life, a man's love of life, the love for oneself and others, is a constant death within us, the death of something we would least like to lose but desire to be everlasting because the same goes for the thought and the matter: after it has been formed it must also become extinguished.
Therefore things have turned out differently than I thought at the beginning: that if I made the diary my confidant I would give eternal life in words to my feelings. Experience has taught me otherwise. The expression of life and love have died a certain death. I don't think I have been able to give anything in my life a permanent artistic form or an immortal content and that I, in fact, only love the subject I record in my diary in order to destroy it there. (173)
I would like to thank Ástráður Eysteinsson for reviewing this article.
Birna Bjarnadóttir, 2000.
Translated by Jóhann Thorarensen.