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At 22, Marianne Ihlen travelled to the Greek island of Hydra with writer Axel Jensen. Axel wrote and Marianne kept house, until the day Axel abandoned her and their newborn son for another woman. One day while Marianne is shopping in a little grocery store, in walks a man who asks her to join him and some friends outside at their table. He introduces himself as Leonard Cohen, then a little-known writer.
Thus starts a love story that lasts through most of the 1960s and which takes them to Oslo, Montreal and New York and back to Hydra. Meanwhile, Cohen writes “So Long, Marianne,” one of the most beautiful love songs of all time. Peppered with previously unpublished poems, letters, and photographs, So Long, Marianne is an intimate, honest account of Marianne’s journey and a portrait of the international artists’ colony on Hydra in the 1960s.
About the Author
Award-winning journalist Kari Hesthamar wrote this book based on lengthy conversations with Marianne Ihlen and supplemented by interviews with Leonard Cohen. Helle V. Goldman spent her childhood on the Greek island of Hydra and in Providence, Rhode Island. She resides with her husband and daughter on yet another island, this time in Norwayabove the Arctic Circlewhere she is the chief editor of an international scientific journal. In her free time she is working on a film documentary about Hydra with the Skofteland Film production company.
Read an Excerpt
So Long, Marianne
A Love Story
By Kari Hesthamar, Helle V. Goldman
ECW PRESSCopyright © 2014 ECW Press
All rights reserved.
NINETEEN AND IN LOVE
A newborn girl is laid on the kitchen table in the big wooden house by the fjord. The older woman looks at the child, has longed to hold the girl, lifts her high in the air and exclaims, "You're finally here, my little princess!" The year is 1935 and Marianne is at her maternal grandmother's house in Larkollen for the first time.
When the war comes to Norway five years later it's safer in the countryside than in Oslo. The old woman has been waiting for her and takes her in as if she were her own. Marianne's mother has more than enough to handle with her little son and an ailing husband. Marianne returns to Larkollen, her childhood ahead of her. Back to the place where she felt she had been seen for the first time.
The older woman feeds the birds, which cautiously alight on her hand to eat. Time ticks by and Momo talks about being inside oneself, about being patient. When Marianne waves her arms in excitement the birds scatter in all directions. The old woman explains to the little girl what it takes to bring the birds to her hand. She says that it takes a long time to become so quiet that you can hear your own inner voice.
Momo tells fantastic stories, bearing away Marianne from their mundane lives on fabulous voyages. The automobile in the garage becomes a horse. Teaching Marianne to ride sidesaddle, her grandmother transports her to the land of princes, where everything has significance.
When Momo was little, she stood on a wooden crate in the back garden in Frogner, a well-heeled neighbourhood in Oslo, and sang for the neighbours. Later, when she began singing lessons, her teacher fell in love with the beautiful young woman. He was thirty years her senior. They were married, and the song was silenced. But still Momo sang for Marianne.
She sees and puts into words the ineffable. "I see and I know," says her grandmother. "You will meet a man who speaks with a golden tongue."
Marianne is now nineteen years old and has just graduated from the Oslo Municipal Trade School. Lying in her room on Professor Dahl's Street, she writes in her diary and pines to be far away. When she was younger she read about Genghis Khan whenever she had a free moment. She had daydreamed about the ruthless Mongolian conqueror who ruled a kingdom stretching from the Pacific Ocean to the Black Sea. She imagined him embarking on expeditions, taking along his entire family and Marianne — his favoured wife, mother of many children. They thundered off with their horses and cattle, vanquishing new lands and erecting vast tented camps when evening fell. In her reverie, Marianne wore fluttering, brightly coloured garments and sat on horseback by the side of Genghis Khan, more than seven hundred years ago.
She still dreams that a handsome man will come and wrest her out of her ennui. Marianne closes her eyes and yearns. Yearns to be conquered and carried away.
Father would like her to become a doctor or a lawyer, but she's unsure about what to do with her life. She's studied business and taken a job as a secretary and general dogsbody at an attorney's office. Now, happily, it's Saturday night. The sun is still high in the sky, one of those days of late summer that seems as if it will last forever.
Laughter and lively voices issue from an open window. Marianne has been at a girls' party on Bygdøy Peninsula, an upscale suburb of Oslo, and now one of her friends wants to visit her boyfriend in the city. One of the girls has a driver's licence and has borrowed her father's car. The town rests sluggishly in the evening light. The laughing girls slowly make their way up Majorstua Street. And there stand four boys whose linked hands block the road. A suntanned boy sticks his head through the car window and looks at Marianne.
"Who are you?"
"My name is Marianne."
"You have to come to the party!"
And Marianne goes. Of course she does! They go to a party in a large apartment in St. Hanshaugen. Wearing a cardigan and green felt circle skirt she bought when she was an au pair in Newcastle, Marianne has padded her brassiere with cotton batting. The suntanned boy's name is Axel and he says that he has just come home from the Sahara. With slanted eyes and high cheekbones, he looks like a Mongol. He is rugged and sexy and blond. Marianne ends up sitting on his lap as he regales her with incredible stories from his journey in the desert. She has never met a man with so much to talk about, someone so entertaining. He talks about Theta and MEST — whatever that is — and everything is adventures and fables.
After the party breaks up, Marianne walks with light feet through the summer night. In a daze. She hasn't understood most of what was said, but she has been borne away on a journey. She knows that this moment could be the pivot on which her life turns toward an entirely new direction.
* * *
The year was 1954. The Theatre Café, the Engebret Café and the Lorry were artists' stomping grounds, where the modernists and more traditional artists engaged in heated debates. Literature began to concern itself with social criticism and the post-war consensus that established the modern welfare state of Norway. Axel was twenty-two years old and one of the emerging new voices, expressing ideas and thoughts that were strange to most people.
Spellbound by everything he said, Marianne was unable to get Axel out of her head after their first meeting. He was fascinating and knowledgeable and passionate about his ideas. Marianne had scarcely heard of the books and thinkers to which Axel referred. The home she came from could, at best, be characterized as bourgeois. Open to new ideas it was certainly not, and Marianne had wondered if this torpid, lacklustre existence constituted life. Now she hungered for the adventure that suddenly beckoned to her through a slender crack.
The day after the party in St. Hanshaugen Marianne went to Gothenburg, Sweden, for a friend's wedding. She had given Axel her telephone number on a piece of paper, and he had promised to call her when she came home. Some days passed before the telephone finally rang in the red brick house on Vestkant Square. They arranged to meet at Dovrehallen, a student pub with loyal regulars from diverse social strata.
Marianne had butterflies in her stomach, and her ordinarily unruly hair hung in soft blond waves after she had slept with curlers. She couldn't understand why people complimented her on her appearance. She thought her face was too round; all her life she had kept her eyes shyly downcast. Her first boyfriend had come over to her outside the Berle Girls' School and asked if she were looking for something. "Hi, have you lost something? I'm Beppe and I'd be happy to help you look."
Now she stood in her little room with the blue roller blinds and the writing desk so thoroughly plastered with pictures that the wooden top no longer showed under the glass. Her past shone back at her in small flashes: the first family portrait of her mother, father, brother Nils and Marianne. The class picture from the school in Majorstua, photographs of girlfriends, Momo's house, Marianne's first boyfriend whizzing down a hill on skis in a dark blue sweater with a white V-neck.
It was the room she retreated to when she was home. She often sat in bed eating crispbread with brown goat's cheese and drinking cold milk while she wrote in her diary. She kept her accounts in the little book, noting how much money she had used for the streetcar and the cinema. There were reports of parties and small, tightly written lines about her crushes and how she'd spent the day. From the window she could look across to Frogner Stadium, where she'd danced on skates. Inspired by the skating star Sonja Henie, Marianne had taught herself the figure eight, the arabesque and pirouettes. She swerved across the ice in a tiny skirt and brown figure skates passed on to her by her grandmother.
After skating Marianne would warm up in the changing room while she furtively read snatches of a mildly erotic pulp novel along with the other girls from Frogner. Along with Knut Hamsun's Victoria, one of the few books on her parents' shelves to capture her interest was Russian-American author Ayn Rand's The Fountainhead. It was the sexiest book Marianne knew and she'd worn out the covers reading it so many times. The protagonist, Howard Roark, went his own way and followed his own convictions — like Axel?
Dim light emanated from the ivory-coloured ceiling lamp. Mother and Father were making a din in the background. When she was little, Marianne used to sit beneath the heavy old bulbous-legged dining table while her parents quarrelled. She remained there silently, not even venturing out when she had to pee. Now she was a young woman whose heart thumped in anticipation of her date with a young man. Dressed in her finest clothes, she stood before the mirror in a red coat with a black velvet collar and matching cuffs, newly purchased from a secondhand shop. Waiting for her at Dovrehallen, at a small table with a red and white checked tablecloth, was Axel, smartly turned out in suit trousers and a shirt. A sparkle in his eye.
They chatted a while, kissed and became sweethearts there, that second evening together.
* * *
Marianne's father thought Axel was an interesting young man, but there was no getting away from the fact that he lacked education, employment and his own place to live. Her father had attended the Oslo Cathedral School and had a law practice and shipowners as friends, and it was among the sons of such people that he saw suitable marriage partners for Marianne.
Her parents' own marriage had caved in when the war came, bringing sickness and difficult financial straits. After contracting tuberculosis, Marianne's father spent a long time at the Mesnali sanatorium, just outside Lillehammer. There they burned away the upper part of his lung; later, during an operation to remove the lung, he barely survived a hemorrhage. Marianne's younger brother, Nils, then just two years old, had also suffered from tuberculosis for more than a year, wavering between life and death. Mother nursed her sick child and husband, and Marianne had been sent to her grandmother in Larkollen.
When the war had ended and they were all reunited, the family was not what it had been. Father's illness afflicted them all. Marianne imagined that her father silently demanded, "Pity me! Be kind to me! Don't contradict me!" Sickness made him unstable and he flew off the handle at the slightest provocation. Marianne was increasingly wary of her authoritarian father. The smile he'd once held at the ready had been ground away by the years of war and sickness. Before the war he had written lovely poems and been physically active; now he was gaunt and frail. He breathed so laboriously that he couldn't sprint for the streetcar when he was late. That had saved him during the war when the Germans bombed the streetcar that he should have been riding. Little remained of the man Marianne's father had once been.
As the 1950s wore on, Marianne's father lost his grip on his law practice — he lacked the lung capacity to carry him through an entire day in court. When the business suffered, Mother had to go out to work. Marianne's mother was the daughter of the prosperous opera singer Wilhelm Cappelle Kloed. She had been sent to Paris to learn French and had been among the first Norwegian young ladies to wear silk stockings. Now she was responsible for Nordland County at the licence office of the national broadcasting company. The north-country dialect jangled in her ears, but she did her best to handle the complaints from folks who rang from the far north. She came home tired in the evenings.
Marianne's parents were constantly picking on each other, but the underlying problems were never aired. Marianne's mother had taught her to put up with things, to grin and bear it. If she had to break a glass, take a mustard glass and not the crystal, said her mother.
* * *
After finishing at the Oslo Municipal Trade School, Marianne worked at various jobs and short-term positions — at the Kristiania Shoe Store, the cinema Norsk Bygdekino on Prinsens Street and, when the Russians crushed the Hungarian uprising of 1956, with the charitable organization Save the Children. To her it was all just temporary; she wanted something else but didn't know what. Life lay somewhere ahead, if only she could get hold of it and find a direction.
It was different with Axel. He wrote and wrote and knew that was what he wanted above all else. Without steady employment, Axel took whatever work he could find so he could put aside money for a journey he had in the back of his mind. In the afternoons and evenings he sat in front of the typewriter. He sent in short stories to newspapers and magazines and experimented with writing styles. Influenced by a touch of Hamsun and a little Hemingway, he sought his own voice in writing.
They spent their free time together, usually at Axel's place or other friends' homes. They played vinyl records and smoked cigarettes. On days with good weather they borrowed the sailboat that belonged to Axel's father and sailed in Oslo Fjord.
While Marianne dreamed about life out there, somewhere, the world floated before her eyes on the film screen. Like other young couples, they went to the movies and necked in the dark. At the Colosseum they saw Boy on a Dolphin, in which Sophia Loren and Alan Ladd make love in a windmill on the Greek island of Hydra. Filled with longing, Marianne snuggled close to Axel in the large movie theatre, wondering if she would ever find herself in such a beautiful place.
YOUNG AND INSECURE
Jazz blew in with the change in rhythm following the war. Axel was hooked on the new music, plonking on the piano and listening to all the latest from the USA. He played records for Marianne. Duke Ellington, Charles Mingus, Erroll Garner, Charlie Parker. Axel wanted to imbue language with that same rhythm, wanted what he wrote to be jazz. He tried to get Charlie Parker onto paper — jazz syncopation rendered in long squiggling sentences punctuated by some short ones. He had even handwritten a booklet about the history of jazz, systematizing musicians and instruments in illustrations and extended tables. Young Axel wrote that jazz, like eroticism, was a composite of primitive, elemental moods: grief, hate, melancholy, eroticism and joy merged into an entirely new spirit.
With Oslo's affluent West Side their home ground, Marianne and Axel belonged to a certain class and their social sets overlapped. The way the city was stratified, it was almost odd that they hadn't crossed paths before. In spacious apartments and houses in this part of town it was common to have home-alone parties, like the one Axel later wrote about in Line, published in English under the title A Girl I Knew, when Jacob enters the Bop Island villa among Oslo's well-to-do:
Then we glided up a road with tall dark trees and stopped ... A driveway brought us under an arch to a circle of grass with a fountain in the center, and around it there was a huddle of cars. Silent brutes with plated snouts and cold eyes ... The muffled sound of jazz rose from the basement, silky-sounding, seeping in among all the furs hanging in the cloakroom.1
Marianne was in love, but being with Axel also made her insecure. They were so dissimilar; he was intense and loquacious, Marianne mild and unassuming. Axel was learned and intellectual, whereas she had stumbled into a universe of ideas that was completely alien to her. Feeling inadequate, she ploughed through the books that Axel prescribed for her — books he said would liberate her from the rules and norms of family and society and show her the way to her inner self.
Her parents were not unlike other parents in the 1950s, but Axel, who had come from a broken home, thought they were stiflingly conservative and strict. He took books to Marianne and jotted down titles of works he claimed would introduce her to ideas different from the middle-class notions that weighed her down. And Marianne read. Ouspensky, Nietzsche, Jung. She read page after page — she read just for the sake of reading. Word after word after word, but it wasn't her language and it didn't grab her the way it did Axel. The books didn't make the same profound impression on her as they did on him. There weren't many others in their circle of friends who read them either, but for Marianne understanding Axel became an obsession. She couldn't put her finger on what it was, but something in him resonated deeply within her. If the books and words became meaningful for her, would she gain a more equal footing with Axel?
Excerpted from So Long, Marianne by Kari Hesthamar, Helle V. Goldman. Copyright © 2014 ECW Press. Excerpted by permission of ECW PRESS.
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Table of Contents
Prologue: “Leonard Cohen is no thief!”
Chapter 1: Nineteen and in love
Chapter 2: Away from Norway
Chapter 3: Hydra
Chapter 4: New Marianne
Chapter 5: Slow waltz
Chapter 6: Autumn of love
Chapter 7: Back to Oslo
Chapter 8: Unexpected visit
Chapter 9: Montreal
Chapter 10: Family life on Hydra
Chapter 11: Longing and jealousy
Chapter 12: A station on the way
Chapter 13: New York
Index of persons