Although I know I shouldn’t, sometimes I judge a book by its title.
At first glance, The Faster I Walk, the Smaller I Am suggests some kind of self-help manual promoting weight loss by means of low-intensity cardiovascular exercise. But putting the title aside and judging instead by my copy’s front cover, (something else I know I shouldn’t do) it’s clear this can’t be the case. The artwork of the Dalkey Archive Press 2011 translation reminds me of a work of outsider or naïve art. The colors are piglet pink, imperial purple and battleship grey. In a forest of leafless trees against dusky sky, a woman is standing with her back to a trunk, invisible except for her white dress and white shoes. The woman turns out to be Mathea Martinsen, the title turns out to be a reference to Einstein’s theory of relativity, and the book’s content turns out to be a moving portrayal of losses far greater than a few inches off the waistline.
Mathea is childless, widowed and “almost a hundred, just a stone’s throw away.” All of her life, she’s been overlooked. “The spun bottle never pointed at me, the neighborhood kids never found me when we played hide-and-seek, and I never found the almond in the pudding at Christmas …” Now she lives alone in the same apartment block in Haugerud, a suburb of Oslo, where she has spent all her married life. Mathea likes to knit ear warmers, read the obituaries and start new rolls of toilet paper. She is surprisingly proud, yet appallingly lonely: so lonely she buys the same groceries as strangers she passes in the aisles of the local store in order to achieve a sense of fellowship; so lonely she listens to the sound of distant sirens and wishes they were coming for her, “because I’m wearing
clean underwear and will be dying soon. But no, there’s someone else in the ambulance instead, someone who’s no longer responsible for their own destiny.”
Mathea’s story commences in the aftermath of her husband’s death and with the realization of how little her own life has amounted to. “I didn’t do nearly enough,” she says, “and nothing mattered anyway.” She resolves to make some kind of impact, however pathetic, before it is too late. The problem is that Mathea is disproportionately afraid of the world: so afraid she’d rather let all of her teeth fall out than make a dental appointment, so afraid that her idea of living dangerously is to neglect to look left and right before crossing the road. “I’m just as afraid of living as I am of dying,” she says. It takes colossal effort for her even to accomplish the most unspectacular of tasks: to stop and read the fliers on a bulletin board, to start a conversation with a dim-witted man standing in a clump of bushes, to shop-lift two tubes of strawberry jam from the grocery store.
Having lost her husband, and lost any sense of opportunity—on the second page, Mathea says, “I’m wishing I could save what little I have left of my life until I know exactly what to do with it.”—perhaps the greatest loss of all is that of dignity. Mathea might have felt more dignified if she were she not so afraid or lonely, or even were simply content with having existed so long and left such little mark. But even when she sees an item on the TV news in which her favorite presenter, talks to “someone who thinks our goal in life should be to leave no trace,” still Mathea rejects the nobility of an existence which passes without mess and ends without mourners. “Wouldn’t it be nice if someone remembered how pretty and smart and funny I was . . .” she wonders, although she doesn’t “have much hair left,” although she can scarcely think of a name for a Dalmatian that isn’t either “Black” or “White,” although laughter is something which she doesn’t “really remember how to do anymore.” Mathea gets up the next day and, driven by an unfounded sense of self-importance, by the oddest and subtlest kind of vanity, goes about assembling a time-capsule of keepsakes to bury in her apartment compound’s front lawn.
Although I know I shouldn’t, sometimes I judge a book by the author’s miniaturized photograph somewhere between the cover blurbs.
I find Kjersti A. Skomsvold inside a French flap. She is intimidatingly beautiful, with the finely boned and nicely symmetrical features which are supposedly typical in Scandinavia. I think, somewhat begrudgingly—how can someone so young and pretty possibly write authentically from the point of view of a character so old and toothless, so wretched and lonely? Surely great literature can only arise from a horrible life, and surely a horrible life is lived with a particularly horrible face?
Nonetheless, one of the book’s most striking aspects is the unswerving distinctiveness of the old lady’s voice. It never once slips out of Mathea into Kjersti. The innate sincerity of Skomsvold’s narration doesn’t quite make sense until I stumble across her opening remarks from a panel discussion on “Loneliness and Community” at the PEN World Voices Festival of International Literature. “My plan in life was to be a computer engineer, and for some years all the writing I did was in programming language. Fortunately life doesn’t always turn out the way we plan […] maybe all we want in life is a sorrow so big that it forces us to become ourselves before we die.”
She goes on to explain something of the circumstances which breathed life into her inner Mathea. “I got ill, and I had to move home to my parents and live in their basement. […] I didn’t have studies, friends, a boyfriend, or any of the activities I used to have to define myself.” And so the book was gradually pieced together from two years’ worth of post-its stuck above Skomsvold’s sick bed, and from thoughts about infirmity and solitude and death. “I’m glad I didn’t know how hard it is to write something of quality,” she says, “because then I probably never would have tried.” Skomsvold admits that she hadn’t read a lot of books nor harbored any driving ambition to become a writer, and it shows. It’s my impression that most authors who work for years on paring back their style, actually become constrained rather than liberated by their scholarly smartness. The unfussy and unaffected prose of Skomsvold’s debut, however, never feels forced; it just sounds like Mathea.
Although I know I shouldn’t, once I’m done judging a book by its title, its cover and the author’s face, I’m inclined to judge it against the yardstick of whatever else I’m reading at the time.
This means The Faster I Walk, the Smaller I Am is up against Gooseberries, the Chekov story in which Ivan Ivanych, an aging veterinary surgeon, shares a fable with some friends in a lamp-lit drawing room one rainy night. There comes a point at which he says,
it’s obvious that the contented person only feels good because those who are unhappy bear their burden in silence; without that silence happiness would be inconceivable. It’s a collective hypnosis. There ought to be someone with a little hammer outside the door of every contented, happy person, constantly tapping away to remind him that there are unhappy people in the world, and that however happy he may be, sooner or later life will show its claws; misfortune will strike—illness, poverty, loss—and no one will be there to see or hear it, just as they now cannot see or hear others. But there is no person with a little hammer; happy people are wrapped up in their own lives, and the minor problems of life affect them only slightly, like aspen leaves in a breeze, and everything is just fine.
As I’m sure many studies of Chekov have already pointed out, the author himself is the person with the little hammer. Through his stories, without preaching or creating caricatures, he brought to light the worries, difficulties and sorrows of society’s voiceless malcontent.
“The question I get [asked] the most abroad is whether people in the Nordic countries are as extremely lonely as the main character in my book,” says Skomsvold in an interview with the Galway Independent in advance of her appearance at the 2012 Cúirt International Festival of Literature. “The answer is yes.” Despite the drastic shift in era and situation, it strikes me that Skomsvold is continuing Chekov’s great modern literary tradition of “tapping away.” Nearly all the minor characters she depicts are subtly uneasy in their own skin. Intentionally or unintentionally, The Faster I Walk, the Smaller I Am is a group portrait of people who don’t fit neatly into society’s archetype: there is the short-sighted little girl who has invented a game of “priest and corpse”; there is the woman at the Christmas party whose hair can never be long enough; there is the old man who goes to the emergency room to report some suspected drug addicts outside his house. And at the helm there is Mathea Martinsen—the unhappy embodiment of all those who look perfectly ordinary yet suffer their unfathomable strangeness in burdensome silence.
Near the end of Gooseberries, Ivan Ivanych declares that “happiness does not exist and it should not exist, and if there is a meaning and purpose to life, then that meaning and purpose is certainly not for us to be happy, but something far greater and wiser.” As soon as I read that, I thought of a Mathea equivalent. I thought of the last conversation she forces herself to have with the dim-witted man, Åge B., in his clump of bushes. “Who said life’s supposed to be good?” He says. “Isn’t life supposed to be good?” She says. “No,” Åge B. says. “It’s supposed to be hard.”
The book ends about eight pages later (and although I know I shouldn’t judge a book by its ending), it’s a good end, a dignified end.
Having finished The Faster I Walk, the Smaller I Am, my daily life continues to bring my way all those inane tasks so hideously necessary for prolonged survival: washing up, brushing teeth, tying shoelaces, buying cheese. And as it does, I find myself thinking of Mathea, of all the Matheas. I see a house at night with only one window lit, I hear a grumble of thunder in the distance, I flick past the obituaries page in the newspaper or go to start a new roll of toilet paper and Skomsvold comes at me with her little hammer. I am beginning to understand that little hammers are probably the best way to judge books after all: by the subtleties of how they come back to haunt me, by the niggling awareness of the unseen and unappreciated, by the small changes they make to the way in which I move so thoughtlessly through the world.
“Do you feel better?” Åge B. says.
“Yes,” Mathea says.
“Good,” Åge B. says.
“Good,” says Mathea.
All quotes from Kjersti A. Skomsvold’s opening remarks at the panel discussion entitled “Loneliness and Community” given at the 2011 PEN World Voices Festival of International Literature in New York were taken from a transcription which she shared with The Mantle and which may be found in full at http://tinyurl.com/3p6xq5p
Kjersti A. Skomsvold’s brief interview with Declan Rooney of the Galway Independent was published on April 18th 2012, in advance of her appearance at the Cúirt International Festival of Literature.
Both quotes from Gooseberries by Anton Chekov were taken from About Love and Other Stories: A new translation by Rosamund Bartlett which was first published by Oxford University Press in 2004 and reissued in 2008.