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In Love, by Norwegian writer Tomas Espedal, our narrator – a man referred to as ‘I’ – is waiting to die. Or rather, he has chosen to die. He is not sick, nor is he mentally unwell; he has simply decided that he has lived his life and is ready for it to end.
I is a 56 year old writer. Childless and widowed, he has travelled extensively and is now back living in the house he grew up in. His parents are both dead and the greatest love of his life left him six years ago. He drinks a lot – often to excess – but he is, by and large, content, and he has done everything he wanted to. He has no desire for anything new, be it work, love, or a new place to live. In many ways he just wants things to cease, for him to be able to vanish. So, on a beautiful morning in May, I decides he will give himself one more year of life. He doesn’t make any plans, he simply decides to take the year as it comes: “a gift.” And when the year is up, he will die. What follows is a year of unexpected love, potential fatherhood and a false allegation of rape. In the end, I’s final year is much more eventful, beautiful and horrifying than he could ever have imagined, and at times he seriously questions his decision to die, and whether he should choose to live instead.
Shortly after he makes his great decision, I is invited to spend a week with friends near Blois, France. He books no return ticket to Norway, instead deciding to let events unfold as they may. Among the group are two women I has never met before: Rie and Aka. I is attracted to Aka but keeps his distance from her, choosing instead to admire her from afar. All too soon the week is over and the group is ready to disperse. With no set plans, I decides to walk up to Paris, a city he knows well and has spent much time in before. Almost jokingly he asks if anyone would like to join him on his walk and Aka takes up the offer. I is conflicted; on the one hand he is happy to spend more time with this woman that he has developed feelings for, but he also realises that they are going to be thrust together in a complicated and intense situation; two people who barely know each other spending almost every minute of the next week together. While this hike to Paris could be an absolute disaster, it goes much better than hoped and I and Aka become closer, sharing experiences by day and a platonic bed at night. Aka is the complete wildcard in I’s final year. He expected nor wanted anything like this but now he is completely in love with her, and their romance is truly born when they share a passionate kiss in the middle of a Parisian art gallery, surrounded by an exhibition of van der Elsken’s studies of lovers.
A few days later, Aka flies back to Norway and I takes to his bed for two days of lovesick despair, before starting on his own journey home. But something has changed in I now. It seems almost cruel that while he is preparing to leave this world behind, such an all-consuming and crazy love should come into his life.
“He was sick. Lovesick. It was a good sickness, it gave him the desire to live. Perhaps this was the right moment to die, just as he was at his happiest, just as he had the greatest will to live? Should he end it all here, in his hotel room in Paris? It would be a romantic death, perfect in its beauty. A brief letter on the writing table. The letter to Aka. A love letter.”
Things are further complicated later on when Aka suspects she might be pregnant and I has to wrestle with all the emotions of potentially becoming a father for the first time and whether or not he should be part of the baby’s life, or whether mother and child would be better off without him.
Aka is the second great love of I’s life. The first was Vali, who left him six years previously (it is perhaps worth noting in passing that van der Elsken’s muse for many of his works was also named Vali). It was this split that first planted the seeds of wanting to die in I’s life, and since she moved out, I has lived alone. On his way back from France he stops in Oslo for a while, waiting for his connecting train, and sends her a message to ask if they can meet. He knows it is the last time he will be in Oslo, the last chance he will have to see Vali, and he is devastated to learn that she is currently living in Paris. I is tormented by the idea that he could have seen her while he was there, or perhaps even walked past her while arm-in-arm with Aka, or seen Vali walking arm-in-arm with someone else. Vali has a profound effect on I, even now. His heavy drinking and slow descent into alcoholism started when she left and only ended when he attempted his “first death”; an unsuccessful attempt at hanging himself. Waking up on the floor in the attic and realising he has failed he goes cold turkey from alcohol for two days and two nights, until the worst of the alcohol withdrawal passes, then he showers, eats breakfast and goes for a walk on the beach.
“The drinker fills his life with death. Those who have been close to death, know how beautiful life is. And life is beautiful and precious because death has set its mark upon it. The sick will be cured. The dying will live. But I wanted to die. It was this resolution which made his life beautiful. Which filled his last year with meaning.”
At the heart of it all, I wants to die a good death. Despite his period of alcoholism, and still being a heavy drinker and smoker, mentally and physically he is reasonably fit and healthy. But he is scared of decline, of his final years becoming marred by ill health and weakness, of the joy leaving his life as he watches helplessly from the sidelines as others live and he can only wait for death to finally catch up and release him. He watched his mother die slowly and painfully of cancer, cheated of a good death as she clung to every scrap of hope, every false promise of life seeming more like a punishment. I watched as illness changed his mother and she became unrecognizable, stripping her of everything that made her his mother and the brilliant woman he knew. He does not want that for himself. Despite being in a bad marriage, when I’s wife, Ulla, falls ill, he still nurses her through it with tenderness and care, wanting to make things easier for her. He is sad when she finally dies, but also relieved, enjoying the freedom he feels when he is released from having to care for another person as they become a shell of their former selves. And it seems to happen to the people in his life who seem the most alive. Both his mother and Ulla were vibrant, vivacious women, cowed and beaten by ill health. Likewise, his philosophy teacher with the brilliant mind didn’t die the venerable death he deserved, instead falling to the cruelty of dementia. As he returns from Paris, he calls in on an old friend in Copenhagen. I decides to tell Karel about his plan to die – the only person that he has shared this information with – but before he can do so, Karel shares some news of his own: he is ill. They breakfast together as they talk about his illness, and then Karel walks I to the door of his flat. He no longer goes out, he says, he makes all his journeys within the flat and gets whatever he needs delivered to the door. But:
“My illness has taught me to love life. The simple, quiet life. I used to be tired, and now I’m alert. I have no greater wish than to live, said Karel…”
Despite dealing with the darkest of subjects there is a lightness and hope to this novel that you probably wouldn’t expect. It is a novel full of emotion, of joy and of romance. You do not feel that I is a tragic figure, or someone that particularly needs help. While on the surface this lightness of tone may seem a little superficial, it is not, and it is actually one of the novel’s great strengths. I is a romantic at heart. He wants to live a beautiful life and die a beautiful death, a continuation of what has gone before. He sees beauty in everything: in food, drink, walking, reading, travel, women. He is an artist and lives his life as such – bohemian, unconventional and free. Nature is particularly important to him and much of I’s final year is marked by the ebb and flow of the seasons as he marks his last summer, autumn, winter and spring. He never talks of death as a bad thing, of something to be scared of, or to run from. We hardly hear the word ‘suicide’ or any of the connotations that the word carries with it. Death isn’t really seen as an ending. For a novel about death, Love is joyfully brim-full of life.
Of course, he is plagued with doubts at times. Does he really want to die? He is sure but he is also unsure: now he has Aka and may become a father, is it really what he wants? At times he decides he does want to live, but ultimately that just hardens his resolve to make good on the promise he has made to die. On his way back from Paris he takes a train through Hamburg and his carriage is suddenly filled with people and what seems to be their entire world packed into suitcases and holdalls. He discovers that they are refugees, people who have come from a war zone and have seen their loved ones die, who are now actively travelling away from death while he is travelling towards it. For a moment he wonders if he should feel ashamed – he is on the verge of giving up everything they are so desperately trying to find (a job, a home, safety) – but he doesn’t. And yet:
“squashed in amongst the refugees, he felt a strong desire to live. These travellers had left death behind them, he had death before him, and it was this closeness to death that kindled in him the desire to live, that allowed him to see and feel: he saw people around him, he felt their misery and desperation spontaneously; he wanted so much to help them…”
He thinks about giving them his home – after all, he won’t need it for much longer and they will need a place to live. But something stops him from saying the words.
In his final year, I thinks his death through over and over, and covers every scenario. Even on his final day, he is still looking for the place to die. It has to be the right place. It has to be fitting. He walks to the sea and dives in – could he dive deeper and deeper until his breath gives out? But no, that’s not right. So he gets out and walks on, following a path up the mountainside, hoping to find a place by the river or a clearing in the forest, perhaps the cave where he had a secret hideaway as a child. But no, he doesn’t want to be eaten by animals – he wants to be found. So he goes onwards beside the river, still searching. He is in no rush, he might as well make the most of this last day, so he heads towards the city instead to say goodbye to some old places he knows well… and on he goes, remembering and reliving moments in time until, maybe, he finds the perfect place.
by Tomas Espedal
Translated by James Anderson
Seagull Books, 100 pages
Jane Wright is a web editor, writer and photographer. Her short fiction has been published by Litro, Sirens Call Publications, Crooked Cat, Mother's Milk Books and Popshot Magazine. She lives and works in Manchester.