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Tales of Love and Loss
By Knut Hamsun, Robert Ferguson
Souvenir Press Copyright © 1905 Gyldendal Norsk Forlag
All rights reserved.
A LECTURE TOUR
I was going to give a lecture on modem literature in Drammen. I was short of money, and this seemed to me a good way to get hold of a little. I didn't think it would be all that difficult either. So one fine day in the late summer of 1886 I boarded a train bound for that splendid town.
I didn't know a soul in Drammen, nor did anyone there know me. Nor had I advertised my lecture in the papers, although earlier that summer, in an expansive moment, I had had 500 cards printed, and I intended to distribute these in the hotels and bars and large shops, to let people know what was in store for them. These cards were not wholly to my liking in that they contained a misprint in the spelling of my name; yet I was so comprehensively unknown in Drammen that a misprint was neither here nor there.
As I sat in the train I took stock of my situation. The prospects did not dishearten me. I had overcome many difficulties in my life with little or no money, and though I was not rich enough to live in a style befitting the dignity of my aesthetic mission in this town I was confident everything would be all right if I took care with my money. No fancy gestures now! As for food, I could always slip down to some basement-café after dark and get something to eat there, and I would lodge at a bed-and-breakfast that catered for travelling salesmen. Apart from that, what other outgoings would I have?
On the train I sat and studied my lecture. I was going to talk about the novelist Alexander Kielland. My fellow-passengers were a group of high- spirited farmers returning from a trip to Kristiania. They were passing a bottle round and offered me a drink, to which I said no thank you. Later, in the manner of all friendly drunks, they made other approaches to me; but I continued to ignore them until finally they realised, from my general demeanour and from all the notes I was making, that I was a learned man with a lot of important things on my mind. After that they left me in peace.
On arriving in Drammen I got off the train and carried my carpetbag over to a bench in order to compose myself before setting off into town. As it happens I had no use for this carpet-bag at all, I took it with me solely because I had heard that it was easier to book in and out of a bed-and-breakfast if one were carrying such a bag. It was anyway a wretched old worn-out yellow cloth bag, not really suitable for a travelling man of letters. My outfit, including a dark blue jacket, was considerably more respectable.
A hotel porter with writing on his hat came over and wanted to carry my bag.
I declined the offer, explaining that I had not yet made up my mind about a hotel, I had first to meet a couple of newspaper editors in town. It was I who was going to give this lecture on literature.
Well, I would need a hotel whatever, I had to stay somewhere, didn't I? His hotel was beyond all comparison the best in its class, with electric bells, a bath, a reading room. It's just round the corner here, up this street then left.
He picked up my bag by the strap.
I detained him.
Did I want to carry the bag to the hotel myself?
Well, I was going the same way as my bag so I might just as well hang it over the crook of my finger and that way we'd both get there.
At this the man looked at me, and realising that I was not a wealthy gentleman he headed off down towards the train again on the lookout for someone else. But there were no other travellers, so he returned and again began touting for my custom, persuading me finally that in fact he had come down to the station for the specific purpose of meeting me.
Well, that changed mattere. The man had perhaps been sent by the committee of some society — the Workers' Educational Society, for example — who had got wind of my arrival. Drammen was obviously a town with an active cultural life and a healthy awareness of the need for good lectures. As a matter of fact, in this regard it seemed to me somewhat ahead of the capital itself, Kristiania.
'Of course you may carry my things,' I said to the man. 'Oh, by the way, I presume the hotel serves wine? Wine to drink with one's meal?'
'Wine? The best there is.'
'Right. You can go now. I'll be along later. I must just pop into these newspaper offices.'
The man looked as if he might know a thing or two so I took a chance on him:
'Which editor do you recommend? I can't be bothered to visit them all.'
'Arentsen is the best man. Everyone goes to him.'
* * *
Arentsen the editor was naturally not in his office, so I visited him at home. I told him my business, that I had come in the service of literature.
'Not much interest in such things here. We had a Swedish student come last year with a talk about everlasting peace. He lost money on it.'
'I am going to talk about literature,' I repeated.
'Yes,' he said, 'I realise that, I'm just warning you, you'll probably lose money on it.'
Lose money on it? Priceless! Perhaps he thought I was a salesman travelling for a firm. I said merely:
'It the large Workers' Hall available for hire?'
'No it isn't,' he replied. 'It's booked out for tomorrow evening by an anti-spiritualist. There are apes and wild beasts on the programme too. The only other venue I can suggest is the Park Pavilion.'
'Do you recommend it?'
'It's very large. Spacious. The cost? Well, I don't know. It certainly won't cost you much. You'll have to speak to the committee.'
I decided on the Park Pavilion. It sounded just right. Those Workers' Society halls were often such small, uncomfortable places. Who were the committee?
Carlsen the lawyer, so and so the furrier, and bookseller somebody else.
I set off for Carlsen the lawyer's house. He lived out in the country, and I walked and I walked until eventually the road came to an end. I told him my business, and that I wanted to hire the Park Pavilion. It sounded the perfect place for a unique event like a lecture on literature.
The lawyer thought for a moment, and then said he doubted that it was.
No? Was it really so big? Surely he could see for himself how unfortunate it would be if people had to be turned away at the door simply because there wasn't enough room for them inside.
But in fact the lawyer went on to advise me against the whole enterprise. There really wasn't much interest in such things here. Only last year we had a Swedish student ...
'Yes yes, but his talk was about everlasting peace,' I interrupted. 'I'm going to talk about literature. Serious literature.'
'In any case,' he went on, 'you've come at a bad time. An anti- spiritualist is doing a show at the Workers' Hall. He has apes and wild beasts with him.'
I gave him a pitying smile. He seemed to believe what he said so I gave him up as hopeless.
'How much for the hire of the Park Pavilion?' I said curtly.
'Eight kroner,' he replied. 'I'll have to put it to the committee, but I can promise you an answer in two days' time. Informally I think I can safely say that the place is yours if you want it.'
I did some quick mental arithmetic: two days' waiting would cost me three kroner, the hire of the pavilion eight, that was 11. A ticket-seller 12. An audience of 25 at 50 øre each would cover my entire outlay. The other couple of hundred who turned up would represent clear profit.
I agreed. The pavilion was hired.
* * *
At the hotel a maid asked:
'Do you want a room on the first or second floor?' I replied quietly and modestly: 'I want a cheap room. The cheapest you have.' The maid looked me up and down, trying to work out if perhaps I was a gentleman who found his amusement in asking for cheap rooms. Wasn't I the one who had been asking the hotel porter about wine with the meals? Or was I being so modest in order to avoid embarrassing the hotel? Whatever, she opened a door, I caught my breath.
'Yes, it's empty all right,' she said. 'This is your room. Your bag's got put here already look.'
There was no way out of it, so in I went. It was the finest room in the whole hotel.
'Where's the bed?'
'There. It's a sofa-bed. An ordinary bed in a room like this would spoil it. You just pull it out at night.'
The maid left.
I was in a bad mood. My bag looked so scruffy in such surroundings, and after that long walk along the country roads my shoes were a mess. I swore out loud.
At once the maid popped her head round the door:
'Can I help you?'
Well how about that? All I have to do is open my mouth and a crowd of servants comes swarming in!
'No,' I answered curtly. 'I want some sandwiches.'
She looks at me.
Then she understood. The stomach. It was spring. My bad time of the year.
When she came with the sandwiches she brought a wine-list too. The over-solicitous creature gave me no peace for the rest of the evening: 'Would you like your blankets warmed?' 'The bath's in there, if you want a bath ...'
In the morning I hopped nervously out of bed and began dressing. I was freezing. Naturally, that damn sofa-bed had been much too short for me and I had slept badly. I rang. No one came. It must still be very early in the morning, I couldn't hear a sound from the streets, and when I was fully awake I realised that it was still not quite daylight.
I studied the room. It was the most elegant I had ever seen. With a sense of deepest foreboding I again rang, and then waited, up to my ankles in soft carpet. I was about to be stripped of every penny I had. Maybe I wouldn't even have enough to pay. In haste I began once again to count up how much I had. Then I hear footsteps outside and I stop.
But no one came. The footsteps were my imagination.
I started counting again, in a fearful state of uncertainty. Where was she now, that maid of yesterday, with her oppressive eagerness to be of service to me? Was the lazy creature still lying asleep somewhere, though it was now almost daylight?
At last she came, half-dressed, wearing just her shawl.
'Did you ring?'
'I would like the bill,' I said with as much composure as possible.
'The bill?' Well that wasn't so easy. Madame was still asleep, it was only three o'clock. The maid stared at me, utterly confused. What sort of look was that to give a person? Was it any business of hers if I chose to leave the hotel at such an early hour?
'I can't help that,' I said. 'I want my bill now.'
The maid left.
She was away an eternity. Compounding my unease was the thought that the room might be charged for by the hour, and that here I was wasting yet more of my money with all this useless waiting. I knew nothing about the way posh hotels are run and such a method of charging seemed highly likely to me. On top of that there was a notice above the hand-basin which said that any room not vacated by six o'clock in the evening would be charged for another day. Everything filled me with anxiety and spread confusion in my serious, literary head.
Finally the maid returned and knocked on the door:
Never, never will I forget fate's little joke that morning! Two kroner 70 øre — that was all! Nothing! A tip I might have given the maid to buy her hairpins with! I tossed a few kroner onto the table — and then one more. 'Keep the change, my friend!'
One had to show a certain amount of savoir-faire. Not to mention the fact that the maid deserved it, this rare and warm-hearted maid whom fate had deposited in a Drammen hotel to be the butt of any traveller's whim. They don't make women like that any more, the race has died out. And how solicitous she was of me once she realised that she was dealing with a wealthy man:
'I'll get the porter to carry your bag.'
'Certainly not! Certainly not!' I said, anxious to save her the bother. 'It's just a carpet-bag, an old carpet-bag. I always have to have it with me when I'm away lecturing on literature. It's a little peculiarity of mine.'
But my protests were in vain, the porter was ready and waiting for me outside. As I came walking towards him he stared at my bag as though transfixed. Remarkable, the look such a man can give a bag, as if he's just burning up with the desire to be carrying it.
'I'll carry that,' he said.
Surely I needed every penny I had left now? Was there any possibility of my coming into more money before giving my lecture? Thank you, I would carry the bag myself.
But the porter already had hold of it. That remarkably kind person didn't seem to find it any trouble at all. Payment seemed to be the last thing on his mind, and he carried it in such an innocent way, as though he was prepared to die for the owner of such a bag.
'Wait!' I called out and stopped. 'Where do you think you're going with that bag?'
'That's for you to decide,' he answered.
'Correct,' said I. 'That's for me to decide, not you,'
We had already passed one bed-and-breakfast place in a basement-café and it was my idea to enquire for a room there. I had to get rid of the porter as quickly as possible, so that I could sneak back to the basement without him knowing.
I gave him a 50-øre piece.
Still he held his hand out.
'I carried the bag for you yesterday too,' he said.
'That is for yesterday,' I said.
'And I've just carried it now too,' he said.
It was highway robbery.
'And this is for today,' I said, tossing another 50-øre piece into his palm. 'Now please get out of my sight.'
The porter went. But he looked back several times and kept his eye on me.
I made my way to a bench and sat down. It was rather chilly, but once the sun had risen it warmed up. I dozed off and must have slept for quite a while, for when I awoke the street was full of people and smoke was curling up from the chimneys. I walked back to the basement-café and made an arrangement with the woman there. Bed-and-breakfast 50 øre per night.
* * *
After the two-day wait was over I again walked out to Carlsen the lawyer's house in the country. Again he advised me to cancel the lecture, but I would on no account be talked out of it. In the meantime I had paid for an insertion in Arentsen's newspaper giving the date, place and topic of my lecture.
When I then tried to pay for the pavilion, which would have left me temporarily without funds, Carlsen, a remarkable man, said: 'There's no need to pay until after the lecture.'
I misunderstood him and took offence.
'Are you perhaps under the impression that I haven't got the eight kroner?'
'Goodness me no! But it's by no means certain you'll actually get the use of the pavilion, and if that happens then obviously there will be nothing to pay.'
'I have already advertised the lecture,' I told him.
'I saw that,' he answered. Shortly afterwards he said:
'Will you still speak if less than fifty people turn up?'
I found this question actually rather offensive, but after thinking it over I said that fifty would be a poor showing, but that yes I would still do it.
'But not for just ten?'
At this I burst out laughing.
'You will forgive me. There are limits.'
We spoke no more about it and I did not pay for the pavilion. Carlsen and I then began talking about literature. He rose in my estimation, and was clearly an interesting man, even though his views and opinions suffered by comparison with my own.
When we parted company he wished me a really good turn-out for the lecture that evening.
I returned to my basement in excellent spirits. The battleground was prepared — earlier in the day I had given a man 50 øre to walk round handing out my 500 cards, so now the whole town knew about the event.
My mood became strangely elevated, and as I contemplated the important task I was about to perform I became dissatisfied with my little basement home and its wretched occupants. Everyone wanted to know who I was and why I was living there. The landlady, the woman behind the counter, explained that I was a learned man who spent his whole day writing and studying and that people were not to bother me with questions. She was invaluable to me. The people who used the café were hungry working men and street porters in shirtsleeves who popped in to get themselves a cup of hot coffee or a lump of black pudding spread with butter and cheese. Sometimes they were unpleasant and abused the landlady because the waffles were stale or the eggs too small. When they found out I was going to lecture in the Park Pavilion itself they wanted to know how much tickets were. Some of them said they were interested in hearing me, but 50 øre was too much, and they began debating the ticket- price with me. I promised myself not to allow such people to upset me; they had absolutely no breeding at all.
There was a man in the room next to mine who spoke a horrible mixture of Swedish and Norwegian. The landlady referred to him as 'the director'. He always caused a stir when he breezed into the dining-room, not least because of his habit of dusting the seat of his chair with his handkerchief before sitting down. He was a real dandy, with an expensive way about him. I noticed that when he ordered a sandwich he was always most particular that it be served 'on fresh bread and with best butter'.
'Is it you who's giving the lecture?' he asked me.
'Yes he's the one,' answered the landlady.
'You're taking a big chance,' he said, continuing to address himself to me. 'You don't even advertise. Haven't you seen the way I advertise?' It dawned on me who he was: the anti-spiritualist, the man with the apes and the wild beasts.
Excerpted from Tales of Love and Loss by Knut Hamsun, Robert Ferguson. Copyright © 1905 Gyldendal Norsk Forlag. Excerpted by permission of Souvenir Press.
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