Thursday, August 27, 2015
On Norway - Oslo
During the week that I traveled in Norway with my daughter, Angelica, there was no night. It was midsummer and, when we arose in the morning, the sun was already high overhead, or, if it were rainy, the skies were white and grey with shadowless drizzle. In the evenings, we were tired and went to bed about 10:30. At that time, the view from the hotel window showed adjacent rooftops and alleys suffused with a pale, opalescent light that seemed to have no particular source. Once, in a hotel overlooking a fjord, I gazed out of the window around 11:00 and saw that the vast escarpments were shadowy over the dark, green water but that a mountain peak soaring overhead was capped with resplendent white snows, glaciers painted with light and hanging like shields from the side of the peak. It is strange, but when there is no night, you don’t miss it. Night, it seems, is a wholly dispensable thing.
In a gallery of the Kode Art Museum in Bergin, I saw a painting called "Midsummer Night" by an artist named Nikolai Astrup. The painting was large, made around the time of the first world war, and part of a retrospective of the Norwegian artist’s work. The painting captured the peculiar character of endless evenings stretching toward midnight but never really becoming dark: some orange bonfires foaming with creamy white smoke blaze on the terraces of a meadow overlooking a fjord; the flumes of waterfalls, phosphorescent in the twilight, adorn the cliffsides and there are small figures of peasants cavorting like figures from a Brueghel painting around the bonfires.
With the exception of Edvard Munch’s work between 1890 and 1908, Norwegian painting is wholly derivative. It is comprised of styles pioneered, or perfected, by other artists. This is not necessarily a bad thing. A skillfully made canvas that is a pastiche of the styles of other artists may be better, and more meaningful, than a labored, and unsuccessful, attempt at innovation. In Astrup’s painting, the bonfires are built up from a dense orange and yellow impasto, paint smeared on the canvas like peanut butter after the manner of Van Gogh. Yet, the cool birch forests depicted around the fjord and its meadows have been painted in a clean, abstract linear style derived from color-printed 19th century Japanese woodcuts. Above the gloomy fjord, snowfields gleam in the twilight like fragments of a great, dismembered skeleton.
Angelica and I stood in an Oslo street near our hotel. It was a bright morning, although statuesque clouds were rising over the sea to spray the town with rain by midday. I could smell the majestic North Sea. There was a tang of salt sea-water in the air, the perfume of seaweed like mermaid’s hair tangled in driftwood bleaching on the beach, the slightly foul odor of fish washed onto wet sand. "Do you smell it?" I said. "What?" Angelica asked. "The North Sea," I said. I thought of Heine’s poem about the North Sea and the thunderous tumble of the water scouring the stony beaches.
"It stinks," Angelica said.
"It’s the mighty North Sea," I said. Although it was odd to smell the ocean so strongly on this city street, a quarter-mile from harbor wharfs.
Angelica pointed. I was standing a little downwind of a dumpster where the debris of last night’s seafood buffets had been thrown. The dumpster was full of mussel shells, cracked lobsters and crabs and bright pink prawns inclining now toward greenish liquescence. The dumpster was labeled RESTAVFALL.
The most perilous part of any trip is the transfer from the airport to lodgings downtown after a long intercontinental flight. The traveler is dogged by exhaustion, dyspeptic from wretched airplane food, half-panicked by the unfamiliar signs and worries about currency exchange. The concourses seem menacing, crowded with predators, and you are always in desperate need of a toilet. If you are going to make a serious mistake, it will happen at the airport as you search for a ride to your hotel somewhere in a city that is beyond the horizon in a direction that doesn’t quite match your expectations or your map.
Beware: the credit card’s magnetic chip must be oriented in a certain way or it will not trigger acceptance. Everyone around you is familiar with the airport and anxious to be on their way and people are unforgiving of those who block their passage at the concourse bottlenecks. You will stop suddenly to puzzle-out a sign or reverse your direction and some harried businessman, plucking text-messages from his cell-phone, will stumble over your luggage and slam into you, muttering curses about the incompetency of tourists, and American tourists in particular.
At the Paris airport, I once lost an itinerary (and all supporting documents) that had cost me several hours to create. At the Oslo airport, Angelica and I were unable to pass through the mechanized gates leading to the Airport Express (Toget) train to downtown. The credit card didn’t register in the ticket vending machines or the devices barked-out incomprehensible commands that I was too tired to decipher. A young man in a blazer approached and tried to show us how to use the credit card reader but we were too obtuse and so he led us, more or less, by the hand to the gate and, taking the credit card, swiped it deftly through the machine so that we could descend to the platforms where the trains to and from Oslo were waiting. When I reached the escalator descending to the train platform, however, I recognized that I was carrying my valise packed with plays by Ibsen, a novel by Richard Powers, guidebooks and maps, and an account of recent archaeological developments at Teotihuacan. I was not dragging, however, my wheeled suitcase, luggage that I had left, apparently, upstairs on the other side of the silver sliding barriers protecting the entrance to the train station. Cursing, I left Angelica on the platform, hustled upstairs, and asked the young man if I could exit the station for a moment to look for my luggage. He looked at me with bemusement and disdain, but shrugged and said that I should return to him when I located my luggage since "(he) would remember my face." Of course, this blunder was not something for which I wanted to have my face remembered.
I found the suitcase still resting on its wheels with handle still forlornly raised back among the inscrutable automated ticket machines. Grabbing the suitcase, I returned to the gate, nodded to the Viking manning the barricade so that he would let me pass through to the station. Embarrassed, I found Angelica waiting on the platform for the Toget to Oslo.
The train glided through a landscape like the quintessence, that is fifth, and most refined, distillation, of rural Wisconsin: barns as nice as suburban duplexes on knolls over pastures golden with sun-ripened hay, picture-perfect villages with orange slate roofs clustered on hillsides crowned with cool-looking evergreen forests, small black cliffs and palisades to give the vistas variety, streams rushing down from hills in braided rapids and placid-looking green lakes watering flowery meadows. Everything seemed oddly miniature, diorama-like – rural perspectives interspersed with tiny fragments of wilderness.
Norway is a country of long and dark train tunnels and, before we reached Oslo, the train descended underground and traveled for many minutes through a black hole. As luck (or misfortune) would have it, the Toget to Oslo didn’t reach the train station where I had planned to disembark – maintenance was underway in one of the tunnels under the city. Instructions were given in Norwegian and English, but I was too tired to understand them.
We were at the Sentrum, that is, a teeming railroad station in the middle of Oslo City. Several levels of transit were stacked on top of one another, wedding-cake style, and through huge tinted windows, I saw rows of trains waiting on sidings near a cold harbor over which thunderclouds were gathering. How to get from this place to our hotel, two stops farther down the line, but inaccessible from the Airport Express? A Valkyrie holding a sign marked Toget stood between the up and down escalators. I asked her the way and she told me that it was "very easy" – "just take the T-Ban two more stops." What is the T-Ban? I asked. "The Underground," she said. "You know, the Metro." She pointed to some signs that I couldn’t read and handed me two handwritten vouchers that she mysteriously produced from a kind of apron that she was wearing.
We rode escalators up and down and dragged our luggage through spotlessly clean subterranean tunnels. The subway brought us to Nationaltheatre where we climbed wearily out of the stair-lined pit to a broad avenue. The theater building, hulking and singularly without charm, stood among a spider web of aerial wires controlling trams. No matter how many times, I looked at my map, I was too tired to decipher the directions and unable to know whether I should go right or left or back or forward, too tired also to make the effort and, then, only discover that I was walking in the wrong direction. I left Angelica, surrounded by gypsies, on a bench with her luggage open – she was searching for a guidebook with a larger map – while I circumnavigated the Theater building, passing old Ibsen on a high plinth with his muttonchop sideburns and the plump, resolute-looking Bjornsteirn Bjornson; I stumbled over the cobblestones in the search for a sign marking one of the roads. We were within four blocks of our hotel, but this last march seemed vexed with impossible obstacles – it was like a dream in which you run and run but make no progress. The whole town seemed lopsided, full of trip-hazards and ominous street-people, directions turned inside-out, the sun not where it was supposed to be. Street names appeared and I read those words but didn’t write them down and so, by the time that I returned to Angelica, I had forgotten them, so that I had to leave her again with gypsies and, once more, walk in a circle, clockwise around the grim-looking National Theater building. How was it that this last 400 yards in a trip of 7000 miles was proving to be so completely impossible?
Norway is not a part of the European Union; it is a country too independent to authorize any governance (no matter how limited) from abroad. As a consequence, Norway does not use the Euro as currency but transacts business in Kroners. Similarly, Norway has not adopted building codes otherwise applicable in the European Union. A conspicuous example of Norway’s rejection of EU building code mandates with respect to safety is the Oslo Opera House.
The structure lies opposite the Sentrum rail and light rail station. The old neo-classical train station is an appendage to several glass boxes angling toward high-rise shopping malls. This layout makes the original train shed seem a kind of masonry and column porch opening onto an inlet of the Oslofjord where the new Opera House was completed in 2008. The Oslo Opera is a massive tilted plateau of white Italian marble, blinding in the sunlight and sloping down to drown its lower, pale stone skirt in the fjord’s icy sea-water. After crossing a busy traffic circle, pedestrians departing the rail station can stroll on the Opera’s inclined white planes, hiking upward at an angle of 20% toward what passes for the structure’s facade, a kind of alabaster conning tower jutting up over the huge slanting prism of marble. The surface of the marble, in fact, the sloped roof of the structure leads to a promontory in the sky about 200 feet above the harbor. At that point, there is a low wall protecting the sheer escarpment, and a crowd of tourists shielding their eyes from the glare as they scan the vista of the city below. The ascent is literally breathtaking and, also, as it happens, highly dangerous – the panes of blinding white marble that comprise the skin of the incline seem to fit together in a seamless apron of stone. But, in fact, there are dozens of slight discontinuities where one plate of marble butts up against another – at these joints, the marble intersects like tectonic plates, one sheet diving beneath another so that there is a raised lip marking the seam, sometimes an inch high and angling upward to make a ledge as high as four to six inches. These joints are fundamentally invisible since the building design purports toward pure geometry – that is, a single white plane of marble descending from above to the sea. Of course, the bright midday sun and the crowds of colorfully dressed tourists and the gorgeous view of the green fjord and city distracts pedestrians from the slick marble underfoot and, therefore, people don’t notice the joints underfoot, trip-hazards that the very structure of the building intrinsically disguises. As a result, as we climbed, I saw a half-dozen people catch their feet on the hidden seams, stagger forward, and in a couple cases actually fall forcefully on the sloping incline. On the relatively flat roof of the building, I watched a young woman miss a four-inch curb under foot, drop onto her turned ankle, and, then, slam face-first into the marble. In bright sunlight, in crowds of people, the Oslo Opera House is the most dangerous pedestrian concourse that I have ever seen. And, of course, these are probably optimum conditions for climbing the building, an arduous hike in any event. What the structure’s concealed trip-hazards would be like in rain or sleet or an ice storm is beyond imagining. Furthermore, at the base of the big plates of marble, the stone slips like a knife into the fjord. People were sunbathing at the place where the marble made a steep beach in the water. How slippery is the marble against which the fjord waters lap? Architectural commentators note that the building with its dramatic ascending heights could not be built anywhere in Europe where EU building safety codes apply.
At the top of the structure, where the roof juts over the fjord, Angelica and I surveyed the City. I noticed a couple of marks on the top of the guard-wall, names written in blue and black magic marker – otherwise, the huge expanses of lime-white marble were unscathed by graffiti. In the subway tunnels a half-dozen miles from Oslo’s center, Angelica and I had seen polite, polychrome Norwegian graffiti – names and slogans written in billowing yellow and light blue letters against green and red backgrounds, each letter neatly shadowed, some stencils of sinister priests and begging children, well-mannered and artistic images, but graffiti nonetheless. But other than the tiny marks on the wall in front of me, there were no marks of any kind on the building, a structure that is an immense provocation, a giant blank slate inviting artists to inscribe it with their messages. The absence of graffiti on the opera house seems to me emblematic of the cool, dispassionate homogeneity of the country, its absence of clashing forces and its genteel consensus.
Withdrawing from the heights, Angelica and I hiked back down to the skirts of the building sunk in the sea. The structure is a classical example of what architects Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown (in Learning from Las Vegas) called a "Long Island Duck" – that is, a building in the shape of another object. Obviously, the opera house is intended to simulate one of Norway’s glaciers, a tilted tongue of bright white ice drooping down the side of a canyon into the cold, ice-berg dotted water. Exactly why an opera house should be designed to simulate a glacier is unclear to me, although the building clearing pays hommage to the genius loci – the spirit of the place, though, in fact, the actual valley glaciers of this kind are two-hundred miles to the north. And, indeed, the City Fathers have, even, equipped the metaphoric glacier with a floating ice-berg – this is Monica Bonvicini’s sculpture She Lies, a constructivist geometry of glass and angular steel frames drifting in the harbor sixty feet from the base of the opera on a tethered barge-like plinth. Curiously, the 12 meter wide sculpture looks similar to the famous Sydney (Australia) Opera and I thought it odd that the Oslo Opera would float a miniature replica of another celebrated opera house a few feet from its base. (In fact, the jutting spears of glass and steel are intended to imitate the geometry of ice crushing the vessel Die Hoffnung – "The Hope" – in Caspar David Friedrich’s famous painting "The Sea of Ice;" if you are aware of that allusion, the resemblance to the jagged upthrust pinnacles of ice in Friedrich’s painting is clear – but, without that information, I took the sculpture for a sort of practical joke, an image of another architecturally famous opera house miniaturized and moored like a pet on a leash from the apron of the Oslo structure.)
Inside the opera house, the floors are carpeted and huge undulating walls of wood rise over the lobby. Wood is another signature of Norway. In the airport, the first thing that visitors notice is the smoothly polished and beautiful wooden floors – no austere tile or concrete here, but rather luxuriant expanses of wood, smooth and glistening as a dance-floor. Angelica told me that the toilets in the opera lobby were also spectacular. A small chamber orchestra was rehearsing on a balcony overhead and the air was warm with the sound of chords from a Dvorak string quartet. The climb up and down the exterior of the building was surprisingly difficult, a stroll in the mountains. Angelica and I hiked back into the train station, took the T-Ban back to NationalTheatre, and, then, passing beneath Ibsen and Bjornson, returned to our hotel (the Bristol) thirsty and footsore.
Before my wife, Julie, and I had children, we took a road-trip to Glacier National Park. We stayed in a great wooden lodge built overlooking a narrow lake slanting up toward the peaks and the glaciers grinding their way through the stony pine forests. A bus arrived every hour to take visitors up the switchbacks and over the pass on Going-to-the-Sun Road. For some reason, I was alone and standing near the place where the bus stopped and I saw a middle-aged man with his adult daughter waiting there on a wooden bench. The man and his daughter looked very much alike – they were both fat, spherical, and dressed in neat, almost formal, if dowdy clothing. The man was bald and had a cherubic face and his daughter was round with similar features. The two of them sat side-by-side and I felt an enormous sympathy for them. I imagined them to be Canadians and that the man was a minor accountant in a firm in Edmonton or Calgary and that gardening was his hobby and that mountains and wilderness were tolerable to him, but only barely. The young woman was unattractive and bovine – it was clear that she had no boyfriends, would never attract a man, and was doomed to remain with her docile, mild-mannered father, caring for him into his old age and waiting at his bedside when he died. For some reason, I seemed to see and understand the entire future of the fat man and his fat daughter. Unloved, unremarkable, isolated from the happy groups of Japanese tourists, the man and his daughter sat side-by-side, two dumplings on a shelf waiting for the bus to come. I thought to myself that I was very glad that I was not the old man and would never be like him.
Sometimes, a week passes when I don’t remember the old fat man and his sad fat daughter. But this memory is always near the forefront of my mind and I can visualize them now at Many Glaciers Lodge blinking in the bright sunlight almost 25 years ago as the bus, farting diesel fumes, pulls up the valley’s long incline.
My partner studied law as an exchange student at the Oslo University thirty years ago. He was in Oslo in May and June. At midnight, he told me, you could read a newspaper and there was night, but it was not dark. Sometimes, the law students would walk to the harbor, six blocks away, a stroll down Rosenkrantz Gate between the National Theater and the Stortinget (the parliament). For the equivalent of a couple dollars, you could buy a coffee can full of shrimp, still wriggling and fresh from the nets of fishing boats docked around the crescent of the harbor. A fisherman would boil the shrimp and the students would eat them, sitting on the pier looking across the bay of the Oslofjord to the mild green hills, evergreen forests planted atop rocky palisades where colonies of houses with grey and orange slate roofs decorated the slopes.
Today, cruise ships like floating skyscrapers 20 stories high dock along the hillside next to the harbor. On the bluff, a medieval fortress hunkers down among gardens and the cruise ships, like terraced condominiums, are moored eye-to-eye with the 13th century ramparts and round fortified towers. Crowds of Asian tourists swarm along the stone jetty adjacent to the cruise ship, hustling into town past the City Hall, the Radhuset, an art deco structure with a pseudo-Italianate tower that shrugs, it seems, and turns its back on the harbor. As in places like Duluth (which Oslo resembles), the waterfront was once dingy and industrial, a rough neighborhood with ancient hovels crowded between decaying steep-gabled warehouses, a sawtooth facade of old Hanseatic-era structures with sheer, tilted roofs like the harbor in Murnau’s Nosferatu; in such a place, a vampire might make landfall from a ship come across the Baltic ocean and swarming with plague-bearing rats. This aspect of Oslo isn’t even a memory any longer. The harbor is now bright with tugboat-like tourist ferries chugging back and forth across the inlet and sea food joints on the dockswhere people sit at picnic tables drinking beer and eating open-faced sandwiches. covered with pink shrimp.
In the perpetual radiance of a Norway evening, locals have gathered to eat french fries and sip from glasses of beer or white wine. The air is miraculously free of flying insects and the Norwegians are tall, blonde, and fit. No one is over-served – a small glass of beer costs the equivalent of 8 dollars and it would be prohibitively expensive to get drunk in a public place in this country. A flag flies over the ancient fortress on the hill and the cruise ship looks like a massive iceberg that has come to rest against the sloping tree-lined bluff overlooking the water. Several waitresses loiter near a counter. Behind the counter, a man in a white chef’s hat is grilling and steaming fish for open-faced sandwiches served with aioli. The waitresses are more beautiful than Hollywood movie stars, more beautiful than Vogue models, more beautiful than angels – they have symmetrical faces that are perfectly formed, sleek and clean and feline with teeth and eyes that are like theorems of an ideal humanity. The girls are abstractly beautiful, blessed with porcelain skin and naturally blonde hair. They are so beautiful that they must suffer some compulsion to make themselves imperfect – the most gorgeous of them all has disfigured her inner arm with a tattoo of a three-inch long scorpion. In Norway, beauty of this kind is so profligate that the girls don’t even seem to know that they are beautiful – they have a curious sort of natural grace, an unaffected mien that seems languid and indifferent. I suppose that they look just like their mothers who looked like their grandmothers and so on, back to the epoch of the Vikings and their Circassian slaves.
A lane between the steep hillside and the ancient fortress parallels the harbor edge where the Japanese tourists are strolling. On the lane, an Indonesian boy about eight years old is playing with his younger brother, a toddler. Periodically, trucks roll through their playground, imperiling the children although no one seems to care. Norway is a libertarian country run along Socialist lines by blissed-out oil plutocrats too wealthy to care about much of anything and so it is the Mexico of the North – people do more or less as they please, licensed to enjoy themselves in any way they want so long as they don’t interfere with anyone else’s pleasure. In Minnesota, a social worker would suggest foster care for the Indonesian children playing in the middle of the busy thoroughfare – here no one so much as glances in their direction, although I keep anxiously looking that way, expecting at any moment, the squeal of brakes and the howl of a crushed toddler. Thirty-six years practice of law has caused me to ruminate on casualty – it’s a habit of mind that I can’t evade even when on vacation.
The city streets all converge on the harbor and make a broad thoroughfare in front of the Radhuset. The traffic in Oslo is close to non-existent – some times a truck rattles past the Radhuset but ordinarily the several lanes that arc around the harbor are a desert, incised with rails for trams and trolley cars. Norwegian urban areas are densely populated with statues. There are only five-million people in Norway, but I have the impression that there must be, at least, a million statues, probably more. Where the Radhuset rather superciliously turns its back to the harbor, the City Fathers have installed a group of bronze laborers, representing the various useful trades and industries. The figures stand at intervals on the steps leading up to the assembly hall. Twice life-size, the workers are not idealized – they have man-breasts, sagging paunches, and weary faces. Norwegians seem to like their statues naked, the more naked the better, and, although it’s a cold country, these workers have torn off most of their clothing to display their less than ideal physiques. Inside the City Hall, big murals cover the walls in the grand assembly room, apparently, the place where the Nobel prize dinners are held each year. The murals are competently painted, but lack the bite and exotic flair of Diego Riviera or the Mexican painters that the big frescos emulate. Utopian themes predominate: in one painting, capitalism segues into socialism across the length of a panorama – to the right, tuxedo-clad grimacing bosses who seem to have crawled like cockroaches out of a Monopoly game menace elderly people limping to the poorhouse; but, to the left, sunny meadows surround bright estates of worker housing where children are playing in flowers and elderly couples holding hands as they contemplate the beauties of nature. A big mural depicts the Nazi occupation, more a matter of wishful thinking, I’m afraid than reality – men in brown business suits smash through a door to threaten skinny waifs playing in the dust of a hovel. Again, the program of the mural proceeds from right to left – on the left side of the painting, prisoners emerge from dungeons, wincing at the sun that rises over a prosperous city: presumably, fanfares from Beethoven’s Fidelio accompany their liberation. The walls are too big and the pictures peter-out into geometric decoration. A handbook available in Norwegian and German describes the murals and their political agenda and proudly declares that "religious images are entirely absent." Strictly speaking, this is not true: part of the mural, folded into a corner, shows St. Hallvard, the patron saint of Oslo. The Saint is depicted as a burly, professional wrestler, handsome after the manner of the leading man in a 1960's Italian gladiator epic. The Saint wears a toga and broods atop a wooden throne – in one hand, he holds a bristling bouquet of thirty arrows, the instruments with which he was transfixed and his martyrdom accomplished. A Viking ship viewed from above and looking a bit like a many-legged centipede plies the wine-dark sea behind him and a naked lady, sprawled like an odalisque, poses at his feet – the naked woman, shown full-frontal, rests against the Saint’s toes as if she were a particularly expensive, and exotic, carpet, a trophy like the pelt and skull of a tiger. It’s a bizarre image and one that seems inexplicable to me.
The Radhuset is turned away from the harbor to face uphill toward the bustling city. The structure has two wings that open their arms to Oslo. Massive wood bas reliefs are inset in the walls of the wings. The wood carvings show life-size figures from Norse mythology, again giving the lie to the Radhuset guidebook’s claim there is no religious iconography associated with this civic structure. The bas relief are carved in a pseudo-primitive style and painted in dark hues of evergreen and ox-blood and they show Ragnarok, Ygdrissil (the tree of life), Odin on Sleipnir his eight-legged horse, the death of Balder, Valkyries sprouting swan-wings, Sigurd dueling with a knavish-looking dragon, various matronly looking goddesses with plump breasts and coiling pubic hair. Beyond the Radhuset, there are some prosaic-looking administration buildings with bronze and marble giants standing on ledges on their corners. Some fifties-style urban renewal highrises curve to mimic the shape of the harbor; the narrow lanes between the buildings are named after the polar explorers, Amundsen and Fridjof Nansen.
The more audacious Japanese hike uphill past the Radhuset and through the lanes named after polar adventurers to the big park at the Storinget. The Japanese are looking for souvenirs and typisch Norwegian victuals. The park, thronged with statues, abuts Karl Johan Gate, the principal and most fashionable street in Oslo, a broad thoroughfare now dedicated to pedestrian traffic only and lined with expensive cafes – this is the location of the Grand Café in the Grand Hotel, an establishment where Ibsen ate lunch daily and a block away, Oslo’s Hard Rock Café as well as various sports bars and other restaurants occupying half of the sidewalk with outdoor seating. A sea of people extend along the Karl Johan Gate sitting outdoors in the endless evening. Harlequins and street musicians entertain the multitude and there are several living statues competing with their bronze brethren – men gilded with shimmering gold paint standing on box-tops and waiting to be tipped to commence their uncanny dance. The men wear masks representing themselves as bald, with compressed features half-hidden under big aviator goggles. Mostly, they are ignored.
Down at the dock, I am eating a sandwich made with sourdough bread buried under pink shrimp. The shrimp taste strongly of dill flavored by a little garlic and vinegar. (In Norway, dill is a very popular flavor.) The paste of seafood on the sandwich also contains crab, it seems, and cartilaginous lobster and the rest of the plate is covered with brittle kettle-chips. The towering cruise ship summons home its wandering passengers – the vessel’s horn sounds, a deafening note with the timbre of a tube improbably combined with a bassoon. The cruise ship bellows again and this time sounds several notes linked by a fluid legato – it’s like the Mother Ship sounding a greeting in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. The Japanese tourists, as far away as Mr. Hong’s Chinese Buffet, hear the summons – they rise from their teak-wood bowers and hustle past the fat wooden Buddhas standing over the little pond in the lobby where equally plump koi are lurking, paying their bill by credit card and hurrying out onto the sidewalk to return to the vessel, buses like garbage trucks prowling the streets to return the laggards to their cabins on-board. The cruise ship plays its immense fluttering song again, the notes shifting as if someone were playing a baritone, fingers wobbling on the keys. In the harbor, a little restaurant boat with Chinese lanterns and revelers leaning over the railings sounds a toodle-oo, replying to the huge cruise ship. A spectacularly gorgeous waitress brings me my bill – she is like one of Ibsen’s mountain girls.
Rain clouds have blown in from the sea and a couple drops of cold water shock the back of my neck. I am jet-lagged and so tired that everything around me seems wonderfully lyrical. An ambulance crew has abandoned their vehicle to sit on the quay and eat ice-cream, blonde valkyries licking ice-cream cones. Across the harbor, a building that looks like an armory in Sioux Falls or Des Moines displays a banner showing a brave teenage girl shot in the head by the Taliban – the girl beckons across the water and the wind stirs the skirt of the banner on which she is displayed. In Ibsen, people are always throwing themselves in the water, committing suicide by drowning and there are some ducks bobbing on the tide, sea-weed swirling in the deep green of the fjord. An air ambulance in the form of a helicopter whirls over the harbor and the immense cruise ship as top-heavy as a seagoing skyscraper slowly rotates away from its mooring and begins to creep toward the open ocean. Perhaps, the air-ambulance is scanning the waters for signs of drowned persons, girls who have committed their bodies to the deep, corpses resting in the icy depths of the sea wreathed in deep green seaweed, the wild duck that, when wounded, dives to the bottom of the lake...
Oslo’s manhole covers also invoke Saint Hallvard. The iron disks are cast to show the saint seated on his throne, a seat that looks something like the director’s chair on a movie set. In one hand, the saint holds his spiky bundle of arrows, here depicted a little like a fasces. In his other hand, at the end of a melodramatically outstretched arm, Saint Hallvard displays something looks like the rim of a tire or an outsized doughnut. This is the saint’s other attribute, his millstone. At his feet, a brazenly naked woman reclines like a favorite dog or cat.
Oslo is not a pretentious place and Saint Hallvard, if truth be told, isn’t much of a saint. Involved in some kind of brawl over a female thrall – old Icelandic for slave – Hallvard was murdered, shot full of arrows. No sources tells the same story. In some accounts, the woman is pregnant and has been lured onto a ship moored in the harbor by three malefactors. Other stories leave out some of these details – the woman is not always pregnant and, certainly, doesn’t seem to be in that state in the glamor girl mural at the Radhuset or on the manhole covers. (Indeed, in those representations, she might be mistaken as a vamp, a temptress testing the mettle of the saint.) Although every Norwegian speaks excellent English, their command of that language in its written form is hit or miss; one placard that I read said that Hallvard was killed "for trying to help out a pregnant woman." After killing the doughty saint, said to be a local aristocrat, the murderers weighed him down with a millstone and sunk the corpse in the Oslofjord. After a few days, Hallvard’s body rose to the surface. Supposedly, other attempts to keep the corpse discreetly concealed underwater failed. At this point, the student expects to real narrative to begin but this is the end of the story – the dead body wouldn’t stay submerged and, ultimately, someone decided that this was sufficient to declare the man a saint. Norway is not just irreligious, but, it seems, actively opposed to religion in any form and it may be that this story is some kind of morbid joke.
In the museums that I toured, Norway and its people are portrayed as generally indifferent to religion. At most, one or two explanatory plaques mention the conversion of the pagan Vikings to Christianity – if you want to learn about St. Olaf, you’re best advised to talk to a Lutheran from Minnesota. In one museum, the curators placed a picture of Martin Luther, looking like an aggrieved pit bull, in a room ostensibly about the Protestant Reformation. In fact, the subject depicted in the room was a witchcraft trial, replete with hair-raising details as to torture and execution. Anne Peterdatter, the widow of a rural pastor was accused of witchcraft and savagely tortured. During her examination, a "living thing as long as a herring" was palpated in her belly – the parasitic creature was "hard with small protrusions" and "moved back and forth" under her skin. Poor Mrs. Peterdatter was crucified on a ladder and, then, held over a bonfire to make sure that the flames burnt her alive. Death by smoke inhalation in such circumstances was regarded as a botched execution – flame was supposed to purge the evil from the witch. The exhibit is designed so that Martin Luther seems to look approvingly on old woodcuts showing the woman’s execution. In this way, religion is convicted as an accomplice of judicial murder. In Norway, organized religion is, to use Shaw’s phrase from his book on Ibsen, "a man-eating idol red with human sacrifice."
A melodramatic example of Norwegian hostility to all forms of Christianity (and other organized religion) is the wave of arson attacks on medieval Stavkirke in the country. Stavkirke are elaborately decorated wooden structures built from the tempered and curved wood staves of the sort used to construct Viking ships. These small churches are famous for commingling pagan and Christian motifs – dragons protrude from finials and the ends of eaves and, within the gloomy darkness of the chapels, elaborate wood carvings depict both scenes from the New Testament and images from Norse mythology. Many of the Stavkirke are protected as World Heritage sites by UNESCO. It was these 12th and 13th century chapels, iconic structures in Norway, that arsonists attacked and burnt in the early 1990's. Between 1992 and 1996, more than forty of these churches were either burnt to ashes or set afire by Norwegian Satanists.
It would be a mistake to attribute this wave of arson to Norwegian official policy and, certainly, the bourgeoisie in places like Oslo, Bergen, and Trondheim loudly deplored the attacks. But, nonetheless, I would argue that some continuity is visible between Norway’s public culture of disdain for religion and the vandalism of these churches.
In summary, the story begins with a Black Metal guitarist named Oysten Aarseth, otherwise known as Euronymous. Euronymous played in a number of Death Metal bands and was a roommate of Per "Dead" Ohlinn, a Swede who was front man and lead guitarist for these groups. Per "Dead" Ohlinn was mentally ill and suffered from Clotard’s Syndrome – that is, he believed himself to be literally dead. (Per "Dead" Ohlinn reconciled his fantasies with reality in 1991 when he blew off his head with a shotgun – Euronymous took pictures of his corpse, allegedly made a stew of his roommates brains which he ate, and kept chunks of Dead’s skull which he strung on a chain to make a necklace.) After Dead’s death, Euronymous and his cronies moved to Oslo where they bought a record store called Helvete (that is "Hell") and this business began a focal point for various Death Metal (or, later, satanist Black Metal) bands operating in Scandinavia. (The record store was at Schweigaards Gate 56; it’s walls were painted black and featured a polystyrene tombstone in the store window.) These bands played a lugubrious form of heavy metal rock and roll featuring ominous, high decibel drones, guitar tremolos, and voices bellowing threats and curses in the sort of basso profundo timbre favored by professional wrestlers. Black Metal musicians smeared "corpse paint" over their faces, highlighting their zinc-white pallor with streaks or real or fake blood. On stage, they espoused Satanism, cut themselves, and engaged in other antics designed to shock and appall their audiences. Euronymous, who was apparently an excellent guitar player, founded Deathlike Silence Productions, a recording label, and issued records by such bands as Satyricon, Merciless, Abruption, Old Funeral, Thou Shalt Suffer and Euronymous’ band, Mayhem.
Beginning in the summer of 1992, Euroynmous with his friends Necrobutcher (Kjeti Mankern) and Vang Vikernes began to burn down Stavkirke. The most famous depredation of this kind was the total destruction of the 13th century Stavkirke at Fantoft near Bergen (and close to the mansion of another famous Norwegian musician, Edvard Grieg). At the time, Vang Vikernes was releasing solo records under the name Burzum – the word comes from Orc-speak in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings and means "darkness." The cover of Burzum’s album, Ashes, issued in March of 1993, featured a photograph of the charred ruins of the Fantoft Stavkirke. (Later, Vikernes claimed to have burned the Christian Stavkirke in retaliation for the desecration of heathen, that is, Viking graves on those sites – he burned the Fantoft Stavkirke on June 6, a date associated with St. Olav’s conversion of the pagans to Christianity.) Vang Vikeness had a falling out with Euronymous, apparently, a dispute over a stolen guitar riff, and stabbed him death in 1993. Vikernes was arrested for the crime, confessed to his involvement in the wave of arson attacks on the medieval churches, and demanded that the authorities put him in a real underground dungeon and subject him to torture. At the time of his arrest, Vikernes had 150 kilograms of high explosive in his car – he was plotting to blow up Trondheim’s Nidheim Cathedral, the most important Gothic church in Norway and the place where Norwegian royalty is crowned. Vikernes claimed to be distressed that he was sentenced to only 21 years in jail, Norway’s maximum, in a modern and clean prison – a place where he lamented that he was given "good food, a toilet, and a shower every day." In the penitentiary, Vikernes converted to Odinism and became a virulent Norwegian Nationalist and Neo-Nazi. After his release from prison in 2009, he emigrated to France and was arrested in 2013 and 2014 with his French wife on suspicion of plotting to attack Muslim mosques in Paris.
With the arrest and incarceration of Vikernes and the murder of Euronymous, the Black Metal scene in Oslo collapsed. Fantoft Stavkirke was scrupulously rebuilt and opened again to the public in 1997. Norwegian guidebooks lament the fact that the new wood used in the reconstruction of the ancient structure has not yet darkened and remains relatively bright – for this reason, the structure seems incongruously light and its majestic, sacred "gloom" no longer awes visitors
Ibsen died in a suite of rooms above Karl Johan Gate. After living many years in Berlin, Ibsen returned to Norway and Kristiana as Oslo was, then, called. Ibsen ended his self-imposed exile from Norway in 1891 and lived in the capital city until he died in 1906. He seems to enjoyed his last years in Oslo. Every day, he left his dwelling at 11:30 am and strolled down the Karl Johan Gate past the National Theater to the Grand Café where he drank beer specially imported for him from Berlin, ate pastry, and, then, finished his repast with shot of schnaps. Ibsen was regular in his habits and became a tourist attraction – people waited outside his apartment to follow him on his midday promenade. A cartoonist sketched an image famous throughout Norway – it shows an immense hairy hill troll marching down the middle of the fashionable Karl Johan Gate, pedestrians diving to the right and left of the monster that walks in docile manner in Henrik Ibsen’s footsteps. The great writer was very short, less than 5'4" and the front of his face was cleanshaven to emphasize the great muttonchop sideburns like furry parenthesis marks on both sides of his eyes and mouth.
The building housing Ibsen’s apartment has a modern facade that is indistinguishable from the other six or seven stories commercial structures lining the road. On street level, there are travel agencies offering cut-rate fares to Barcelona – plane tickets to Spain start at 450 kroner (or about 60 dollars). Street cars ply the avenue and, across the road, a wooded park rises steeply to a prominence where the royal palace is located.
Ibsen’s last plays are reputedly examples of realism. Of course, on close reading, these works are not realistic at all – rather, Ibsen’s late works involve strange apparitions and sudden, dream-like shifts in mood and tone. In these plays, past transgressions and passions unexpectedly erupt into the present with fatal effect. Objects and gestures take on symbolic significance – in The Wild Goose, an old man hunts for a wounded bird in a miniature wild life sanctuary in the attic of the slum apartment where the family lives; master builder Solsness is summoned to climb a deadly tower that he has erected to place a wreath on the pinnacle of the building; Hedda Gabbler carries a pair of dueling pistols with her everywhere and one of her first actions in the play is to take a potshot at a local judge who has come to visit her; in When we dead arise, an elderly sculptor is bemused by the inexplicable resurrection of a woman who gave her life to model for his greatest work – as this ghost-like woman oppresses him, the sculptor’s young wife succumbs to a bear hunter and finds herself trapped on a glacier high above the fjord where her husband seems to be dying. These plays involve avalanches, deadly fires, storms at sea, bankruptcies, embezzlement and shipwrecks – all manner of calamities both natural and manmade. Ibsen’s late work is more like Aeschylus than Tennessee Williams or Edward Albee. Critics say that a key to this writing is Ibsen’s uncanny ability to crystallize a complex destiny in a symbol like Hedda Gabbler’s pistols or the wild duck.
Tours of Ibsen’s apartment are offered on the hour. I arrived early and had to wait for forty minutes. Angelica and I crossed the street and, entering the gate into the royal gardens, climbed the hill to a great gravel plaza in front of the neo-classical, sunflower-yellow facade of the palace. People stood outside the long, austere-looking building watching the guards in ceremonial regalia marching to and fro. Muslim families were sitting in the shade of the trees planted on the slopes leading along the royal promenade to the National Theater and, beyond, to the curving Storinget building with its colonnade of classically designed columns. The Muslim women, who seemed to be Pakistani, wore headscarves – their infants wallowed in the grass at their feet, men standing guard next to the big trees against which the women reclined. Someone was screaming in the distance. A huge equestrian statue like a thunderstorm lunged from its house-high plinth down toward the city below the heights – a king was riding forth to war. Between the rear of his horse and the palace, a modest fountain squirted a little water skyward. Beside the palace, a statue represented a sad female mummy, face dull and eroded by age and misery – "Maud" said the legend on the pedestal.
After inspecting the park, we trudged back down the hill to the Ibsen museum where one of the girls on duty let us into a dark, musty stairwell. Apparently, the 19th century apartments and the Victorian structure of the building were hidden in its interior, concealed by the vapid commercial front that the building turns to the street with its trams and buses and cars. Ibsen’s rooms are dim – the visitor stands on a slippery terrazzo floor and looks into dark, congested, roped off spaces. The great playwright despised Strindberg and, so, paradoxically, Ibsen kept a life-size portrait of his rival in his office, glaring down at the back of his neck when he wrote his plays. Like Freud, Ibsen enjoyed toying with figurines while he was working – on his desk, he kept a small chesspiece-sized statue of a frog playing a banjo, a devil, and a cat. Sara, Ibsen’s wife suffered from rheumatism aggravated by cold weather and, so, an important feature of each room is a large ceramic oven shoved against the wall, the furnace that provided heat for his suffering wife. Ibsen’s wife, a formidable woman, spent much of her time reading in the library. On the wall, Ibsen kept a painting that he thought to be by Titian – the painting shows a renaissance pornographer that one of the Popes apparently paid annually, a stipend that the author earned by not writing. For some unknown reason, Ibsen took the painting down from the wall each year, gift-wrapped it, and presented it to his wife as a present on her birthday. Sara Ibsen declared that she would die either standing or sitting in a chair. "I will not die," she said, "lying in bed." The girl leading the tour paused for a beat and, then, pointed to throne-like wooden chair – "that’s the chair where she died," the young woman said.
The tour is short and not particularly informative. The rooms are full of antiques but most of the furniture isn’t authentic to Ibsen’s furnishings – suitable substitute objects have been found to fill the rooms. Well-to-do people in the Victorian period lived richly and their interiors are dense with objects, pictures, and artifacts – and the Ibsen museum displays a kind of sacred clutter, velvety and dark like a dimly lit painting by Rembrandt. A piano in the music room reminds the tour guide that Ibsen disliked music – when Edvard Grieg visited, he was enjoined to not entertain the company by playing anything on the Bentwood instrument. As you walk through the rooms, it seems that the windows don’t open into our century – instead, they seem to overlook a perpetually snowy street in Oslo’s lightless midwinter gloom. In the final room on the tour, visitors can peer over a waist-high glass barricade into Ibsen’s bedroom. On a low shelf, manuscripts are stacked, moldering and the color mushrooms sprouting from dead logs in a wet forest – the manuscripts don’t seem to have their pages cut and they rest side-by-side across from the bed where the great writer died. In his final days, Ibsen’s nurse assured him that he looked better and would recover. Ibsen’s famous and laconic response was "Tvertimod!" – that is, "on the contrary!" Since the Norwegians are contrarians by nature, and since Ibsen was known for that same fundamentally pessimistic quality, these words are important to the tour guide – she repeats them proudly several times to show Ibsen’s indomitable quality. In the lobby, postcards for sale showing Ibsen’s sinister-looking bed are inscribed with that legend: Tvertimod!
I am the only man touring Ibsen’s apartment this afternoon. The slamming door in The Doll’s House has been decisive as an emblem for liberation and the women gathered for the tour seem to be feminists of one kind or another. (It goes without saying that all Norwegian women are feminists – in northern Europe, the terms has no real meaning since it redundantly describes a condition so obvious that it requires no comment.) A bony Englishwoman dressed in black is joined by two Germans of indeterminate age who seem to be a Lesbian couple. With Angelica, our group makes five and, before we can be admitted to Ibsen’s parlor, we must remove our shoes, put them against the baseboard on the stucco wall, and, then, cover our feet with plastic booties. The booties are like the bags that I carry for my dog’s turds when I walk her and, because I no longer bend in a normal way, I am unable to get the plastic pouch properly pulled over my feet. The first bootie is too small and it shreds as I try to tug it over my heel. "It doesn’t fit," I say. The lesbians and the skeletal British woman look at me with contempt. "We don’t want to mar the floor," the tour guide says in an icy tone, adding "there are various sizes." I feel that same agitated pressure to hurry and comply with humiliating orders that you feel in the TSA line at an airport – I don’t want to hold up our progress in touring the historic apartment, but I can’t seem to get the booties to cover my enormous, aching feet. It is as if miles of walking over the pavements of Oslo have swollen by ankles and toes, causing my feet to billow to a great size, and as I struggle to pull the plastic bag over my heel, I can feel that I am twisting the wrong way, clenching muscles in my abdomen as if to induce some sort of spastic cramp. I can imagine that I will overbalance as I stand perched on one foot, clawing at the booty, about to fall flat on my face on the cold terrazzo floor. If I were to fall, I would be unable to get up and the lesbians and the bony Englishwoman would have to try to hoist me from the tiles, but they would be unsuccessful and this would be particularly degrading and so I know I must not collapse, no matter what... I wonder if the others can smell the reek coming from my feet and can sense the blisters on my toes and my poor ingrown toenails, all the unsightly aspects of my soles and heel and my disfigured toes. Angelica offers to help me pull the booties over my feet but that would put her in a compromising position and so I decline her assistance and, then, somehow, I have the plastic partially pulled over my feet and I say: "I have it...I have it..." and the tour guide looks away from my red, flushed face, my mouth open because I am panting for air, and she says: "All right let us go in." And we enter and the whole time that I am touring Ibsen’s apartments I can sense that if I move my feet wrong, shuffle to the side wrong or lift my sole from the polished floor, the booties will drop off my feet and the tour will be compromised, even, perhaps, ended because of my defalcation...
Everyone in Minnesota has gone to Norway, or will go there, and so nothing is gained by describing the various places that I visited in Oslo – a guidebook can tell you about those places more accurately, I suppose, than I can write about them... And so what I need to convey to you are the oddities that I encountered, the nooks and crannies of otherwise well-known places, my discomfiture and worry, the anxious texture of the days and evenings, and, of course, the helpless rage that afflicts all those who travel -- every morning, I awoke early and saw the ubiquitous, unceasing light streaming through the curtains and, then, I ruminated on the activities of the upcoming day, fearing each one with an equal and unreasoning dread. Sightseeing was travail to me, a tribulation and responsibility, and I felt an overwhelming fear, a desire to not leave the room even to eat – the desire to simply hide from the world and its people and avoid the misery of going into the strange and hostile world. Of course, somehow, I overcame my dread and went outside and, as soon as I had locked my hotel room behind me, I felt a sense of relief, as if the anxiety were somehow stored within the walls of the room like the charge in a battery. With Angelica, I walked past the grand stairway descending five floors to the lobby of the Bristol Hotel, a way that we never traveled since there was an elevator, albeit airless and tiny, at the head of the stairs. We looked down the elegant looking marble steps and saw that each landing was decorated by a bronze, a nude man or woman standing for inspection on a cherrywood pedestal, but, then, the elevator had come and we were ready to depart down to the dim lobby, gloomy with polished wood paneling around the fountain and grand piano and, against a wall, a display of fine and ornate pastry in glass cases lit like expensive jewelry...
We depart the pier at the yacht club on the Bygedoy peninsula, disembarking the floating metal shed of the ferry that has conveyed us across the bay and, then, walk in the cold, drizzle – it is 9 degrees celsius – through a hilly residential neighborhood that looks like the mansion districts of east Duluth or the area around Minnehaha Creek in south Minneapolis, big unassuming houses in small, densely landscaped yards, modern garages erected at odd angles to the quiet streets, patches of sea water showing white in the drizzle between big trees in backyards. Ten blocks from the pier, we see the Viking Ship museum like a big church, an austere cross-shaped building with high white walls where there are a dozen tour buses hunkered down in the rain in the parking lot. The Viking ships are wooden but the peat bogs in which the vessels were buried have dyed the curving prows and hulls a color like coca-cola in a bottle, a deep sugary ebony-caramel black. The ships, even in ruin, are beautiful, aerodynamically sleek as sea birds or porpoises, and you can climb stairs to pulpit-shaped platforms to overlook the boats and see their ladle-shaped oars and take pictures from that vantage. Remarkably, the prow of the best-preserved vessel is ornate with intricate wood-carvings, serpents and little men like vegetables grown in a garden, knobby as potatoes, wrestling in a coiled floral undergrowth. In a glass case by the boat, an apocalyptic beast growls at passers-by. The flesh of the beast, which is gilded, is comprised of a densely entangled, writhing mass of abstractly represented animals and dwarves, all of them clenching one another by wrist and foot, jaws locked on throats, tails trapped by fists – the beast is comprised of all the creatures in the world locked in mortal combat. This wriggling interlaced knot of figures is an important motif in Norwegian art – it suggests that the world is a sentient mass of creatures wrestling with one another for survival.
The Viking Ship Museum has interesting displays labeled in Norwegian and English. The cabinetry and spokes of the wheels of an ornate cart and the other grave goods were once painted, probably the rich dark colors used in the bas relief at the Radhuset – that is, the colors of evergreen and rose quartz, schist and granite and the scarlet of berries glimmering in the forest above the deep green-blue of the fjords: I imagine the fretwork of carved wood figures, gnawing on one another hand and foot, as tinted like blue berries and raspberries and pine needles – bossing on the carvings, seemingly suggesting rivets, was once painted bright gold. Shoved to a corner of the museum are the skeletons extracted from the ship burial: a slight servant girl with a crushed skull, probably strangled to accompany her mistress into the next world, and the older woman, a sibyl of some sort, with spurred osteoporotic bones, arthritic in all joints, and with a protrusion in the base of her skull suggesting some kind of pituitary disorder, an ailment that left her hunched, with the flared and immobile neck of a tortoise, and,"probably covered with hair," obviously an impressive sight, a kind of hill troll, and so a person probably revered precisely because of her abnormalities. The bones rest in roughly anthropoid scatterings in a glass sarcophagus, shabby and chaotic brownish shards compared with the swanlike nobility of the ships on display.
Leaving the museum, I get lost. Every street sign seems to direct me to a museum devoted to the Norwegian Holocaust, the last place in the world that I want to visit. We retrace our steps, encounter more signs pointing the way to the holocaust memorial, other markers among the wet trees pointing the way to the famous "naturist" beach on the point of land – a cold place this morning, I suppose, with the icy rain falling on acres of gooseflesh, I suppose, displayed against the slippery granite boulders... At last, wet and bedraggled, we reach the Kon Tiki museum. It’s an A-frame with a vaguely disreputable appearance – the famous balsa wood raft sits in one room surrounded by stories of adventures at sea recounted in Norwegian and English on wall panels. Track lighting makes the wooden ship look warm and vaguely lemon-colored. In the dark passages between rooms, there are artifacts looted from Easter Island (although most of them seem to be fakes – crude figures carved in reddish lava scoria) displayed as if in the cannibal caves of Rapa Nui. The other room contains the papyrus raft, the Ra, also exhibited under discretely concealed lights that make the vessel bloom yellow and white like an exotic flower. A single wall display, only a half-dozen lines long, reminds people that Thor Heyerdahl’s crackpot theories have all been proven false. Heyerdahl thought that Easter Island was colonized by ancient Peruvians who built seagoing vessels from reeds gathered at Lake Titicaca – tvirtimod, DNA tests instead that Easter Island was settled by Polynesians sailing catamarans from archipelagos to the west; similarly, Heyerdahl surmised that the ancient Egyptians crossed the Atlantic, possibly pausing to trade in the harbors of Atlantis, before landing in Mexico where they taught the savages in that place the art of pyramid building – also a hypothesis disproved in about a dozen distinct ways in the last fifty years. Undaunted, Heyerdahl molded in pinkish wax sits in one of the sepulchral galleries underneath his two heroic sailing vessels, looking up momentarily from his labors on a book that he is writing – he is Aryan with blonde hair and crisp features, the perfect generous Norwegian, valiant and kind. Several of the men who accompanied him on his sea voyages were not only former soldiers, but renowned war heroes, one of them the leader of the guerilla group that attacked the Nazi heavy-water facility at Telemark. The life-size wax Heyerdahl looks friendly and his skin is so smooth and creamy that it makes you hungry just to look at him – he seems to be cast in some kind of wonderful material that should be edible. Heyerdahl wrote that he had traveled in all countries in the world but never seen a border – "all men are brothers," he mused "and there are no such things as nations." In his old age, he wrote ecological tracts about conservation and pleaded with his readers to take action to save the natural world.
Fridjoft Nansen’s expedition vessel, the deep-hulled ice-breaker the Fram, is the central display in another huge A-Frame museum next to the Kon Tiki building. The Kon-Tiki museum has New-Age overtones – it is welcoming and a little bit wacky, a haven for idealists, it seems, searchers sojourning in warm, tropical lands. The museum surrounding the Fram is the exact opposite, a cold tower erected to pain and ice and savagery – there is nothing in the slightest soothing or warm about the Fram Museum, an ambience that is appropriate since the subject to the exhibits is polar exploration.
The Fram was built with a pear-shaped iron hull, contoured so that when it was trapped in the ice, the pressure of the floes would press the vessel upward, squirting it to the surface of the ice-pack. The scarred hull of the boat rises five-stories above the A-Frame’s entry, a huge frozen teardrop suspended overhead. The museum’s exhibits unscroll along the walls surrounding the dry-docked ship – a visitor ascends walkways ramped along the interior walls of the structure, passing displays on the history of polar navigation and exploration. Everything is post-modern and interactive to a fault – the visitor peers through window-frames at explorers chopping frozen meat or trudging across ice or building igloos. Grim-looking relics are suspended in vitrines – tattered gloves and knives and ancient compasses. Razor-sharp, deep-focus film taken on the Shackleton expedition flickers on monitors and there are fragments of diaries, thousands of pictures, most of them with gloomy and calamitous: ships caught in the ice, desolate shacks sitting on naked rock, processions of men and dogs moving through glacial badlands, exhausted men peering out of garments as elaborate and cumbersome as those used for walks in outer space. The text on the wall is an unrelenting chronicle of hardship and misery: men went mad in the darkness and cold of the polar night, a doctor "misused his medical supplies" (one note euphemistically says) and, then, committed suicide, explorers wandered out into the nightmare blizzards and, simply, vanished, ships were caught in maelstroms of ice and crushed to pieces, leaving the men to wander the dark frozen sea until they died. Diaries note that the explorers confined on the Fram – Nansen intentionally drove it into the ice pack in the hope it would be carried by the water to the north pole – spent the black months training the dogs and writing enthusiastic notes about their furry companions...the same dogs that the explorers later butchered to make caches of meat for the return march from the pole. Two men who were confined in a six by ten hut on some unnamed island in the Arctic became sick – one of the men died and the other explorer wrapped the body in a blanket and stacked it like firewood in the corner for six months until the deadly winds and the darkness subsided a little. The familiar story of Robert Scott and his doomed expedition to the South Pole takes on a particular resonance in this setting, the vast hulk of the Fram hovering over your shoulder to remind you of the brute physicality of the endeavor, the fatal distances and logistical difficulties, evidence of battered iron and splintered wood among the displays of stuffed polar bears and wolves and killer whales.
The balcony ascending the inner wall next to the Fram rises to a bridge and, then, you can go onto the deck of the ship and, even, descend into its airless depths, a series of tiny rooms painted cream-yellow with lithographs of Norway’s fjords and famous men decorating the walls, cells with tiny bunks and sea chests lining the sides of the dining hall with its heavy wood tables, trunks full of books and games for the dark months, the air inside the ship stagnant and warm and strangely humid as if still poisoned with the exhaled breaths for fifty crew members. The governing effect is that polar exploration, apparently, combined extremes of open and deadly distance with claustrophobic confinement – the worst of both worlds...
The scaffolding across from the high deck of the Fram, a lofty place like a pulpit suspended over the concrete floor far below, leads to an enigmatic door in the building’s outer wall. The door has a buzzer next to a warning: Do not enter if you are pregnant or epileptic or claustrophobic! I press the buzzer and the door hisses at me and, then, slides open. I step into a dark chamber with splintery-looking wooden walls –‘You are about to experience what it is like to be trapped in a hut embedded in Arctic Ice.’ I can see my breath in the gloom; it is quite cold in the chamber – perhaps, 25 degrees fahrenheit. A couple steps across a wooden platform there is another red button, something like the panic button on industrial machinery. I punch that button and the door reluctantly parts and, then, I pass through a curtain of plastic that is shuddering in an icy wind – in this inner room it is much colder, probably below zero: I am standing on a dimly lit wooden platform that trembles underfoot. A groaning sound comes from the timbered vault overhead and the lathe walls – the wood creaks as if under enormous pressure and everything is vibrating. The air is a sepulchral blue, white where fumes roll from my mouth. An entry beckons and I slip through it to find that I am in a tiny chamber where two corpses are lying rigid on coffin-like wooden shelves – one of the corpses seems to be asleep, his greenish face in repose, but the other man has died in a rictus of screaming, his eyes open although matted with frost and his face contorted into a shriek. The walls and floor vibrate and the rattling in the boards below me translates into a series of impacts against my lower spine so that I can feel now the crushing weight of the ice outside, the enormous force of the glacier poised like a lever against the shack. I would like to turn back but the doors have soundlessly slid shut behind me and the only way is forward, through a sort of child-sized crack in the wooden wall. I turn sideways and wedge myself into the opening and find that it is a winding deep-blue tunnel cut in the ice, exceedingly cold with walls squeezing tightly around me – the crevasse is circuitous and it twists and turns, tightening with every bend until it comes to an end. I am crouched inside the simulated ice-tunnel and I claw at the wall in front of me, surely there must be some kind of door here, but it is blind, a dead end. Somehow, I am trapped inside the exhibit, confined in this intestinal tract of phony plastic ice, within a blue crystal that shudders as the simulated glacier tightens its grip around the crevasse where I squat, pounding vainly against the walls.
The National Gallery, two blocks from our hotel, offers paintings by Edvard Munch, but when I wander the mostly empty museum, I can’t locate those pictures – perhaps, there is a hidden wing to the building or another floor that I can’t access. It is Friday night and, according to the guidebook, this means that the museum is open until 1800 – that is, 8:00 pm according to my reckoning and since I have come to the place at 4:30, I should have plenty of time to inspect everything in the building.
Indigenous Norwegian art in the form of paintings on canvas doesn’t exist before 1830. The country was too poor and small and remote for there to be anything but sign-painters and folk art. Even Norway’s most impressive and academic painters, people like Peder Balke and J. C. Dahl began with juvenalia that looks stiff and primitive – aerial perspectives on villages comprised of rigid-looking charmless huts by cold and barren tongues of water. Dahl spent his life in Dresden at the Academy of Fine Arts and studied the works of Caspar Friedrich. He evolved a glistening, majestic style that looks a bit like the paintings of Thomas Church or Alfred Bierstadt – landscape emblematic of the sublime, replete with atmospheric effects: distant thunderstorms, elaborately statuesque clouds, and rainbows. His most famous painting, "View of Stalheim," occupies a position of prominence in the National Gallery. The picture covers a wall with a plunging view of a gorge between rock-ribbed mountains – a brownish village, like an encrustation of barnacles clings to a terrace among the cliffs and, in the foreground, there are pale, autumnal-gold meadows where peasant milkmaids are strolling. At the center of the picture, a knuckle-shaped tumor of naked rock rises up to seal the entry to the valley – it’s a sinister, troll-like excresence, a big bald dome of naked granite on which a double rainbow is rather incongruously planted. The painting is minutely detailed and, like some of Church’s works, demands to be seen from a distance and, then, scanned by opera-glass binoculars. Similar in some ways to Thomas Cole’s more exuberant landscapes, the picture is a curious mixture of the bucolic and the sublime, cultivated fields and joyous-looking peasants occupy the foreground, but the village seems wretchedly poor and the distant prospect is an iron-grey palisade of bristling cliffs.
Peder Balke was Dahl’s contemporary. He is a greater painter in my estimation, but an eccentric, a bit on the order of Albert Pinkham Ryder. Balke’s pictures are smaller and more muted, mostly images of the Arctic, and his canvases have been daubed and smeared with black and grey pigment to produce ghostly shadows – the surface of Balke’s paintings is romantically damaged, fissured and cracked like the surface of a glacier. Many of Balke’s works feature a savage shark’s tooth of a peak, Mount Stetind, towering over a stony fjord where small ships have foundered, been utterly wrecked, and, then, driven ashore by the ice bergs in the water. The gravel beach bears broken ships like smashed beetles and, in the background, Mount Stetind rises like an improbable scimitar curving up into a sky streaked with black storm clouds. Balke seems to paint the same image, a nightmare vision of the Arctic over and over again and an icy chill exudes from his canvases. This is a motif in Norway – the summery fjords are the first steps on a stony ladder that inevitably leads to the nightmare ice and cold of Arctic.
The National Gallery seems to be a small hospitable museum, not overwhelming and most of its paintings are of high quality. There is an alarming Courbet showing a man howling, mouth open wide and eyes blazing with madness. Cranach’s painting of "The Golden Age" features bathtub-shaped ponds full of naked nymphs and big, fat stags reclining on pillowy hillocks, plump and sleek as pet rabbits. A special exhibition on Hannah Ryggen displays large tapestries with political subjects. Ryggen’s imagery resembles some of Hannah Hoch’s collages during the early years of the Hitlerzeit – it’s engaged art with mangled corpses and jackbooted thugs presented in a stiff archaic style, the kind of imagery that you see in exhibits simulating the interior of 12th century Stavkirke, cartoon-like men and women standing rigidly in geometric landscapes. The large tapestries have considerable appeal – their garish and gory content would be unendurable except for the stylization imposed by the medium in which the images are presented: the tapestry format dignifies Ryggen’s otherwise rather distraught subject matter. One of her signature pieces is a big textile sheet, house-high, called "We live upon a star." This tapestry, with occult-seeming imagery, was made for the Oslo "government house" and presented to the administration in 1958. It shows two pink nudes, giants distinguishable only by their genitalia, male and female, standing side-by-side in a cosmic landscape. The label next to the big tapestry says that it has been restored after being badly damaged in the "horrific bombing of 22 July 2011" – the Norwegian words describe the event as "terrorbombing." I make a note in my moleskin – ‘What was the terrorbombing of 22 July 2011?"
Another room is resplendent with medieval icons from Novgorod. Those icons are large, four or five feet tall, with narrative details ascending and descending as cartoon frames around the life-sized saints portrayed, bald men wearing garments that look like they are made of Byzantine mosaic, jaws and eyes suffused with greenish highlights, raising bony hands in a benediction against a background dense and brilliant with gold leaf. An old man in a beret enters the gallery while I am peering at the largest of the icons – he shrugs and identifies the saint as "Saint Nicholas" to his companion, a demure matron from the U.K. He is a know-it-all, expert with respect to every picture that he sees. I want to ask him about one of the vignettes shown in the cartoon narrative enclosing the holy man: the saint has entered a small chamber where he raises his hand either in blessing or horror – a narrow bed with a red coverlet contains three women, all of them apparently naked with pale faces and identical hairdos. The women squirm in their tight bed like worms. What in the world does this mean?
There is another mystery. A painter named Christian Krohg was, apparently, very important and active during the latter half of the 19th century. Along with Dahl, Krohg seems to have the status as Norway’s best-loved painter. One of the galleries displays a vast image by Krohg, a big canvas that simulates history painting at its most grandiose – many figures arrayed gesturing and richly clad against a neutral background of white-washed walls, a canvas as big as a battle-piece showing Waterloo or Gettysburg. But the subject of the picture is completely obscure: the big dramatically posturing figures are all women in elaborate and colorful formal costume, huge bustles and enormous ostrich-feathered hats and bodices dripping silk in pale waterfalls of fabric. Krohg has minutely painted all of the details of the women’s costumes, recording ribbons and shoe-laces with a stately Vermeer-like precision. A single man stands near a door pierced with an opaque window that is labeled Politlaeger. The man looks like a Keystone Kop – he has a florid moustache and dimwitted features and he wears a round phallic constable’s cap bright blue, the tip of a tinted penis. The largest woman in group clasps to her abdomen an umbrella from which a single red rose drizzles down into a round opening in the bumbershoot’s handle – the red petals in the o-shaped hole make a convincing emblem of female genitals, a counterpart to the penis-helmeted police office seeming to guard the door. Krohg’s picture is fifteen feet long and nine feet high and it features no fewer than 12 ornately dressed women. The image exudes a sinister kind of sexuality but I have no idea what it can possibly mean – the title of the painting is "Albertine to see the Police Surgeon". It’s not clear to me which woman is Albertine, although I surmise that she is a slender, less pretentiously dressed girl, standing shamefaced and first in line, if the Rubenesque swirls of female figures are in some kind of queue waiting for the unseen "Police Surgeon" guarded by the impassive and feckless-looking Keystone Kop. It’s a conundrum and I write a note to research this in more detail.
Another picture captures my attention: it’s a big canvas painted in psychedelic colors, something called "Sommernatt" ("Summer-night") made by Harold Solberg in 1899. The painting shows an immense landscape brooding under a milk-white sky. The landscape seems glimpsed from an airplane, an aerial perspective of a dark intricately shaped lake with many blue-black islands – a vision of Minnesota’s great north woods, perhaps, but under the diffused white radiance of the midnight sun. In the foreground, there is a wooden cabin with a bower of blossoms around its carved threshold. The cabin has a deck made of wood as well on which we see a still life of two chairs carelessly placed as if their occupants have just thrust them aside to go into the building. On a wicker table, there is a decanter of blood-red wine, a still-life of some glasses half-filled with liqueur, and another crystal vase shining like a stained glass window with caramel-colored brandy. It is a remarkably erotic image, although much more lush than most of Edward Hopper’s paintings, nonetheless, invested with the sense of sexual encounter characteristic of the American painter – a couple has been sitting on the deck only a few moments before we happened upon the scene, but now desire has driven them inside, leaving the faintly deshabille still-life of disordered chairs, half-empty glasses and gemlike decanters.
I am enthralled by the picture and perusing each of its parts with great interest and delight when a lady-guard approaches me and whispers something in Norwegian. What does this mean? Is the woman explicating the painting? Is she making an offer of some kind to me? What does her whispered invitation mean? She repeats herself. I look at my cell-phone to see the time: it’s only 5:50. "What?" I asked. A sense of longing and repressed passion fills the room. "The gallery is closing," the woman says in English. "You must leave." I’m baffled but docile. The way to the exit passes many lovely things. Outside the streets are quiet, as if the Norwegians have retired to their homes for a couple hours. Someone screams in an alleyway.
A recurring dream: I am in a beautiful place with much to see. I attain a great height and look down on a harbor where a river winding among industrial buildings meets the sea. The platform where I stand is without rails and I am exposed to the cold wind. I could fall from this height or fall or be thrown. It remains cold in the corridor where I have come to the banquet. The way to the banquet requires that I ascend a winding steel stair that writhes under me and, then, tightens until I must twist my body into contorted postures to continue climbing upward. The staircase becomes an angular ladder in a claustrophobic chimney lined with protruding electrical junction boxes and gears. It seems too constricted for me to proceed, but I continue to push upward until I am clasped between the walls of the tunnel suspended wriggling in the air, unable to breathe and trapped. I can see my breath in front of my eyes, a cold haze.
Of course, I am struggling to be born. It reminds me that I am the result of an unintended pregnancy and that my appearance didn’t do anyone any favors and that my license to persist in the world could be revoked at any time. In a heartbeat, I can be returned to the status of being unborn and a calamity to those around me, an uninvited guest at life’s banquet.
It occurs to me that I must have dreamed being entrapped in the death chambers and, then, icy tomb of the glacial fissure at the Fram Museum – that couldn’t have happened and must be a figment of my imagination. But I recall everything so vividly and, after I emerged from the ice- dungeon, I encountered Angelica who told me to descend into the bowels of the Fram and see what was there in that steel labyrinth and I did so, returning to the deck only to lose Angelica. She had vanished just as suddenly and certainly as one of those victims in movies like Taken and I didn’t know how to find her. I hunted the scaffold-like galleries of the museum and, even, went out onto the lawn of the museum where Norwegians were eating ice-cream and luxuriating in the bright sunlight by the bay. She was not outside either and so, panicked, I went inside and climbed the galleries again and came, at last, to the fierce old deck of the Fram where I found her sitting on a ventilation shaft, angry that I had been away so long...
Of course, everyone goes to Vigeland Park on Oslo’s west side. Tourists come to gawk at the bizarre statuary and the large, carefully landscaped park in an upscale neighborhood - a half dozen sushi places between the train stop and the 10 kroner toilets at the gates – attracts thousands of local people as well: young families who all look like US public TV and MPR supporters carrying toddlers in backpacks and shoving their expensive bikes along the sidewalks, various kinds of athletes in running gear or carrying tennis rackets, Asian immigrants in sarongs and saris, blonde girls exhibiting themselves in bathing suits and flipflops and huge sunglasses, roller-skaters, hill-trolls, and, even, a couple of well-behaved Romany women peddling the Roma Times, a kind of gypsy gazette outside the streamlined art-deco entrance to the place. All manner of people assemble at Vigeland Park and the crowd is well-behaved and happy, everyone blissed-out by the sun that happens to be shining this day between towering thunderheads prowling the sky, middle-aged men and women with goofy abstract smiles on their faces as if they were listening to Mozart string quartets playing in the recesses of their brains, the whole well-nourished and joyful parade of Norway’s people on a sunny day in midsummer. Everyone is there and everyone is happy, but this doesn’t mean that the park is okay. In fact, the park is decidedly eccentric, creepy, politically questionable, a monument to some kind of ideology that we can scarcely imagine in the United States, let alone accept as suitable for declaration across hundreds of acres of public space.
A great promenade funnels the sun-worshipers toward a rounded conical hill, terraced like a Mexican pyramid. A big fountain erupts on the terrace below the summit, blurring the naked figures of a quartet of colossi supporting what appears to be the world’s largest compact disk. Beyond the fountain, a stone totem pole that seems curiously marked with intricate striations rises into the air atop ascending granite steps flanked on all sides by fifty or more statuary groups, all of them nude men or women wrapped in weird mostly asexual embraces – one figure clasps another’s knee, a mob of unruly tots rides on the back of plump naked woman, pulling at her as if reigns, old men hug youths to their chests, other figures stand on their heads or draw their bodies back into curves that simulate the shape of bow tensed and about to fire an arrow. Every imaginable permutation of old age, youth, infancy, and middle age is depicted in the stone figures, all of them twice life-size and seemingly immensely heavy. The women all have Pippi Longstocking braids and pony tails. The men are bald with bullet-shaped Il Duce profiles. A hundred stone penises, all nobly identical and exactly proportioned are on display.
To reach this vast congregation of stone folk, the entrant to the park must cross a bridge studded with more granite giants spanning a lagoon full of swans and wild ducks. The giants on the bridge represent the "Stages of Life" – that is, women giving birth, suckling their children, naked girls and boys playing at sport, adolescents groping one another, arrogant-looking nude men striding forth like Rodin’s Balzac, crippled elders and stone mourners. It’s as if the terra cotta saints on the Charles Bridge in Prague have been replaced with mobs of stone heroes, all of them indifferent to the puny fleshy life passing between them. The stone warriors and matrons don’t care about the brightly colored crowds passing between them – they belong to an entirely higher and different order of being.
At the highest point of the hill, more figures congregate around steps rising to the obelisk. Groups of two and three giants hunker down in symmetrical formations, boxing with one another or squatting like gorillas in somber conclaves. The naked figures are close to the stone steps and you can stroke their bald heads or caress their inert, cold genitals. The obelisk is a tower of human figures all intertwined and spurting upward like water through an invisible hose, a jet of straining, wriggling flesh, more or less featureless with the bald heads like bubbles in the stream, buttocks, breasts and thighs shooting into the sky. This device, a surface comprised entirely of smaller figures entangled in one another, is characteristic of Viking art – the same technique is visible on the prow of the Viking mortuary ship and the apocalyptic beasts that accompanied it into the peat bog. It’s a stupefying spectacle.
How is the visitor supposed to respond to this immensely expensive and perversely ingenious ballet of stone giants? Most people laugh at the figures, grope them once or twice to enjoy the texture of polished stone, and, then, turn away in bemusement. The program is so vast that it can’t be comprehended in any single view or group of views. Furthermore, the encyclopedia of gestures and embraces exists on several different scales – around the fountain there are forty or more bas relief with smaller figures each a foot tall entwined with one another. Other smaller, and less pretentious, groupings of figures are scattered throughout the park. The spectacle is best defined by what it is not. The naked figures are strenuously ahistorical – they belong to no known epoch; perhaps, the stone giants are antediluvian or, in the alternative, the inhabitants of some happy, abstract nudist future – clearly, they don’t belong to the here and now. Then, there is the problem of their vigorous and futile calisthenics – what exactly are they doing? At first glance, one expects the figures to be primarily involved in some kind of sexual activity. But this is a public place and the stone giants were made at a time when the display of sexual acts would have been prohibited and so the embraces and combat and preening exhibited by the colossi are all completely asexual. Accordingly, one of nudity’s fundamental meanings is avoided, even, rejected – the naked women are not seductive, nor are they any form of odalisque. The figures are unclothed because they are ideal and not supposed to represent any actual time or place. But as a result, the vast congregation of stone giants seems curiously vapid, banal, meaning intentionally emptied-out to avoid offending any one. The calisthenic writhing seems like an exhibition of isometric exercise, an abstract display of push and pull among variously activated muscle groups. But, surely, the artist, Gustav Vigeland, must have intended something more than simply an encyclopedia of anatomical possibilities, an index of range of motion and torsional capacities. Clearly, the army of statues is without theological reference – mobs of naked figures usually invoke the Last Judgement (cf. Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel). But there is no trace of any transcendent meaning in these granite tableaux. If anything, the sense is immanent, that is, downward-tending toward the geological foundations of all life, the bedrock on which our world rests.
Vigeland’s enormous sculptural installation embodies a mostly forgotten philosophical and biological theory – the concept of Vitalism. Vitalism has ancient roots, resurfacing from time to time under different names. In the 19th century, Vitalism appeared in the form of Mesmerism and, for a time, Vitalist thoughts hijacked the theory of Evolution. The Vitalist premise is that life can not be explained entirely in terms of it mechanical or chemical processes – there is something else, an animating idea or telos, something akin to the notion of soul that gives life to organisms. Henri Bergson, who fell under the sway of these ideas, called the animating principle elan vital. The Vitalist theorist, Carl von Reichenbach, called the essence that gives life the "Odic Force" invoking the Norse god, Odin. (Ibsen’s word for this idea is livsglaede – that is, the "joy of life.") Ernst Haeckel, a famous German zoologist, was also a Vitalist who misconstrued Darwin’s theories to assert that the mechanism for the development of the species was a field of energy, akin to electromagnetism – this energy could be observed microcosmically in the development of embryos recapitulating in their forms the evolution of life from lower to higher forms, hence, the famous Vitalist notion that "ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny."
Vitalism seized the imaginations of many Northern Europeans at the fin de siecle and motivates certain aspects of Arte Nouveau and the Jugendstil. The Expressionists and painters like Max Beckmann were Vitalists of one kind or another. Unfortunately, the notion of the "Odic Force" also proved irresistable to the Nazis. Fascist aesthetics were exuberantly Vitalist. Hitler’s favorite sculptor, Arno Breker, seems to have been influenced by the Kraft durch Freude aspects of Vitalism. Albert Speer, Hitler’s architect, preferred Josef Thorak to Breker. Thorak’s monumental figures are more stylized, massive, and powerful than the excessively refined sculptures that Breker produced. And Thorak’s works, particularly the strenuous figures that he made to decorate the Olympic Stadium for the Berlin 1936 Games, are almost identical with the style of sculpture that Gusvav Vigeland produced for the Oslo park.
Gustav Vigeland made the statues in Oslo between 1907 and World War Two. The monolith in the center of the park was unveiled in 1944 while Norway was under German occupation. (Vigeland’s enormous plan was so complex and ambitious that some elements were not completed until 2001 – more than 57 years after the sculptor’s death in 1943) Vigeland was a well-known artist in Scandinavia before the First World War. He had a renowned atelier and enjoyed an international reputation. When the City of Oslo exercised eminent domain over his studio, demolishing his premises to build a library, Vigeland was offered another residence adjacent to a tract of public land on the west side of the city in the Frogner neighborhood. Although everyone calls the place Vigeland Park, in fact, the real name of the public gardens is Frogner Park. Vigeland agreed to move to his new lodgings at Frogner Park on the condition that the City of Oslo would offer him a lifelong contract allowing him exclusive authority to devise and sculpt statuary for the public space. Vigeland spend the last years of his long life, sketching and, then, making bronze casts of the figures installed in the park. An army of assistants converted the small bronze castings to the monumental stone figures lining the bridges and walkway in the park, culminating, of course, in the hordes of stone men and women occupying the terraces under the great monolith, the obelisk itself comprised 123 carved figures. Vigeland was unashamedly Fascist and a supported of the Nazi regime led by Vidkun Quisling.
A fundamental paradox troubles the viewer contemplating the granite families gathered in Frogner Park. Vitalism suggests the vibrance of the flesh and its carnal energy. The demonic stone babies are infused with livsglaede. But the statuary groups are weirdly asexual and the very fact that they are carved from huge boulders of stone is inconsistent with the Vitalist principle that life animates all things. With some exceptions, the stone warriors and Walkyries are completely dead, inert, mere mineral, stone that aspires to life but fails in that aspiration. Vitalism suggests something light, evanescent, pervasive – the stone figures are just heavy.
An exception, perhaps, is a little bronze figure, less than life-size, called "Surprised." The statue shows a naked woman, covering her face and recoiling from someone who seems to have suddenly, and unexpectedly, appeared in the studio where she is posing. The statue is slight, unassuming, and has a peculiar, improvised charm. Vigeland made the bronze in the form of Ruth Maier, one of his models. Maier was a Viennese Jew whose family fled to Norway when Hitler assumed power. She was imprisoned by the authorities and deported to Auschwitz where she was murdered in 1942. A small casting made by Vigeland in 1942, before the 22-year-old Maier was arrested by the Norwegian police and driven to the harbor in a black police van, was used to make the half life-size figure now tucked into a corner of the park. The sculpture installed in the park was finished in 2002 and inscribed to Ruth Maier as a memorial to her.
A solution: Nicholas of Zaraysk, transmuted into a "jolly old soul," is familiar to us as Santa Claus. I’m sure that learned books have been written about the metamorphosis of this hydrocephalic, lunar-complected ascetic – a figure that looks like one of the "tall greys" from UFO lore – into a jovial red-garbed fat man bearing gifts. (Apparently, Nicholas was known as Thaumaturgos – the wonder-worker and he had the propensity of leaving coins in the shoes of poor folk, a legend that affords the slender basis for Santa Claus as we know him.)
Nicholas, the Thaumaturgos, lived in Myra in present-day Turkey about 250 years after Christ. According to the folklore, a terrible famine afflicted the people of Myra and an evil butcher lured three children into his house, slaughtered them, and put their flesh in barrels to be cured. Nicholas discovered the crime and resurrected the butchered children from their briny stew. In other versions of the tale, an evil innkeeper offers a bed to three traveling apprentices. The innkeeper cuts the boys’ throats as they are sleeping, hacks them into pieces, and prepares tasty meat pies. Saint Nicholas, encountering a finger or nose in his meat pie, is outraged and restores the youths to life, apparently reassembling them from the fragments in the pasties. The number three reoccurs in the a legend called, variously, "the three virgins" or "the three prostitutes" – virgin and prostitute both figures inverse to one another but defined by their genitalia. In this tale, the three virgins lack a dowry until St. Nicholas tosses bags of gold through their window, one for each damsel. In the whorish variant on this tale, he rescues three prostitutes from their lives of shame by a similar mechanism – round bags of gold pitched over the transom. Of course, these stories get scrambled in oral transmission – sometimes, the prostitutes are murdered Jack-the-Ripper-style, made into hams or meat pies and, then, resurrected. In other accounts, St. Nicholas succors the three virgins or prostitutes by tossing through the windows the heads of the three murdered apprentices (who then come to life). The three bags of gold becomes the three balls (signifying heads it seems) that are displayed in the establishments of pawnbrokers. Accordingly, the three women crammed into the narrow bed in the Novgorod icon of Nicholas of Zaraysk represent variously the three virgins, the three prostitutes, and the three travelers in the psycho-killer’s inn. The emblem of the bed, the three heads on the pillows, and the gesticulating figure – who may be either Saint Nicholas or the madman – invoke the different variants of the folk story.
The Munch Museum is two light-rail stops east of the central rail station. We walked from the Hotel Bristol to the station, about a ten minute stroll through the still city. On the weekend, people don’t go abroad until mid-day or after. Across from the Sentrum station, a circular tower, a little like a miniature Marina City in Chicago rises over the glass and metal oblongs of the train shed and its concourses. This is a shopping mall named Oslo City and Angelica went there to buy a Rammstein CD, Made in Germany. While she shopped, I sat in a chair overlooking the empty atrium, disco-music percolating in the air. My chair was shaped like the mask of a pensive woman turned so that her eyes, now darkened by my backside, also surveyed the atrium. My seat was on the inside of her cranium.
The Munch Museum looks like the corporate headquarters of prosperous high-tech company, an aluminum and glass box with cantilevered facade on the edge of a green park. Low-rise apartment buildings with unpretentious brick exteriors, apparently built during the fifties angle way from the woods and gardens and the green lawns – well-maintained cars are parked between the structures. The apartments look like Bauhaus-style worker housing, uniform living modules only a couple steps above barracks. But there are flowers everywhere and the air is scented with evergreen.
In the Munch Museum, visitors pass through security. A big show occupies the entire small museum, a compare and contrast study of the Edvard Munch’s work with paintings by Vincent Van Gogh. Hushed and respectful, the visitors proceed through the dimly lit galleries dutifully standing before each painting for a minute or two, listening to the headphones whispering in their ears. The premise of the show is specious – there isn’t much connection between Munch and Van Gogh and the two men approached art from different perspectives: Van Gogh’s buoyant pantheism is very different from Munch’s sexually neurotic Schopenhauer-influenced pessimism. Furthermore, the two men used very different technique – in his mature pictures, Van Gogh slathered paint on the canvas; Munch is more refined, less bold, more linear than the Dutch artist – many of his principle works were either conceived as engravings or lithographs or could be converted into that forum. Van Gogh’s explosions of paint can’t be imagined as graphic works of the kind that Munch made.
There are a few noteworthy pictures in the exhibition. Van Gogh’s grim, early "Potato Eaters" is a convincing, if obvious, portrait of poverty – the lumpy, grey-faced peasants look similar to the potatoes that they are eating and, perhaps, the word in the picture’s title describes those figures and not their humble repast. A small, savagely painted reaper by Van Gogh strides through a yellow-orange inferno of a field – the canvas is derived from the pious tradition of Millet, but triple-distilled and hallucinogenic. The best Munch painting in the show is a ghastly and ambitious painting of couples dancing on a pasture overlooking a fjord – an ambiguous-looking heavenly object, either the moon or the late-night sun, melts downward dissolving itself in the dark water below the dancers. The painting is part of Munch’s series, "The Frieze of Life," but the canvas is morbid and death-infected: the central couple are pale and look like ghosts and they face one another in the darkness with an intent that seems more lethal than loving. Other mismatched couples are locked in embraces as they whirl about the meadow: a woman in white is overwhelmed by a man with face of a bloated corpse fished out of a saltwater estuary. The thing is masterfully made, but disheartening, an image of courtship among zombies.
The airport-style security at the gates to the museum is explained by a misfortune that occurred in August 2004. On a Sunday afternoon, two gunmen emerged from a black Audi parked in front of the museum. Brandishing a .354 magnum, the men demanded to be escorted to the gallery where Munch’s famous painting "The Scream" is displayed. The men ripped the picture from its frame, damaging the fragile picture painted on cardboard. They also smashed the frame around Munch’s painting "Madonna," an image of naked vampirish woman with a tiny, morose-looking fetus at the bottom of the frame. The gunmen fled in the Audi, parking the getaway car in an alley ten minutes drive from the museum. They sprayed fire-extinguisher foam all over the interior of the vehicle to obscure fingerprints. A couple of days later, the thieves forced the Norwegian drag-racer, Thomas Nataas, a well-known figure in his own right (he drives a model of the "Batmobile"), to keep the rolled-up pictures in his tour bus for several weeks. In September 2004, the loot was transferred from Nataas’ bus to unknown third-parties, ostensibly Russian mafia. (Nataas was tried for his role in the theft but acquitted – the jury believed that he acted under duress.)
Of course, the pictures were too famous to be sold. Instead, they were simply held hostage for two years before being returned to the Museum officials in the context of negotiations in which ransom money was probably paid. Students of this crime believe that the motive for the robbery was to distract official attention away from another investigation. A few weeks before the assault on the Munch Museum, armed robbers attacked a bank in Stavanger and machine-gunned to death a police officer. Investigation of that crime was underway when the Munch heist took place. The thieves correctly understood that stealing the most famous painting in Norway – and one of the most famous images in the world – would force the authorities into diverting resources to recovery of the picture. No one was interested in the two pictures. Nataas never saw them and said that the object that he stored on his bus looked to him like a damp blanket wrapped around something – beer had been spilled on the blanket. The plan to steal the Munch picture was probably derived from the 1994 theft of another version of the painting at Oslo’s National Gallery – that theft had induced public concern verging on hysteria until the picture was ultimately recovered.
But Norway’s criminal world is small and insular, a group of thugs mostly involved in importing and selling drugs. There’s no honor among thieves and, ultimately, informants squealed to the cops. Six men were tried to the crime, including Nataas, and there were three convictions. Although "The Madonna" was torn in a few places and could be readily repaired, "The Scream" was much more badly damaged – it took several years to repair the water damage to the picture. The fluids absorbed by the canvas dissolved pigments and the version of the picture that you now see in the Munch Museum is essentially a reconstruction – like the burned Stavkirke at Fantoft, the picture had to be rebuilt and critics observe that it is subtly, but distinctly, different from its prototype.
Angelica and I went to the Grand Café to sit where Ibsen had sat. I wanted to have a beer in the place where the great writer went daily. The maitre d’hotel looked at us skeptically but, then, said he would give us the best table in the house if we promised to vacate the place in "ninety minutes." I told him that this was a deal and so he led us to a corner overlooking the plaza, a small table next to a big window, and asked: "Was I telling the truth?" "You were telling the truth, my friend," I replied.
I drank a Danish beer and ate a plate of neon-pink gravlax or cured salmon. On my china plate, there was a little picture of Ibsen blessing the food, a tiny fellow in long frock coat with a face like a troll. Outside, the beautiful Norwegians sauntered through their park, ignoring the dozens of statues glaring down at them. Some kind of political rally was underway on the sidewalk and plaza in front of the Storinget parliament building. Organizers urged the protesters into orderly queues – each man and woman held a sign lettered in English: I AM NOT FOR SALE. Beyond the trees and fountains, closer to the curved facade of the parliament building, speeches were underway. English is so much a part of life in this country that, it seemed to me, that half of the orations were spoken in that language – I heard words in disconnected phrases, something about "slavery" and "bondage" and, then, "the right to be fully free." Of course, we had no idea what the protest was about.
At the other end of the park some street musicians were playing. A man stood inside of a huge metal hoop, spread his arms and legs to grip the encircling steel striking a pose something like the exemplary man in Leonardo Da Vinci’s famous image of the naked figure inscribed within a perfectly round circle. As music played, the man leaned forward so that the metal hoop to which he was clinging performed a curious wobbling dance, spinning like an unsteady top on pavement carved with famous Ibsen quotations.
Another solution: the "terror attacks of 22 July 2011" refers to a bombing and mass shooting committed by Anders Behring Breivik on that date. Breivik, the son of a Norwegian embassy official, is a right-wing Zionist, as well as paranoid schizophrenic. Breivik, born in 1979, had a peculiar smile that his schoolteachers noted as curiously unmotivated, a sardonic mask-like grimace. He had plastic surgery to enhance his appearance a few years before he committed his crimes and these procedures exacerbated the strangely vacant, abstract symmetry expression of his face. Breivik was athletic and said to protect small children from bullying. He hated Muslims and called for the destruction of European institutions that he derided as tainted by the ideology of Eurabia, the new caliphate spreading across formerly Christian lands.
On July 22, 2011, Breivik published a 1500 page manifesto on the internet under the name Andrew Berwick – the text is in English and largely cobbled together from the writings of other people. (Some prose by Pat Buchanan has pride of place in the screed.) Breivik attended services at the Frogner Church, a dignified old structure across from Vigeland park. Then, he drove a Volkswagen loaded with high explosive made from sodium nitrate to location in the Regjeringskvarlet ("Regierung quarter" or government administrative district). Dressed as a police officer, Breivik parked the VW across from the residence of the prime minister. Mid-afternoon the bomb was detonated resulting in eight people blown to pieces and more than 212 serious injuries. A receptionist in an adjacent building was on the phone reporting a suspicious vehicle when the explosion shredded her. (In this blast, about 300 meters from the Storinget, the tapestry by Hannah Ryggen "We live upon a Star" was damaged.) Breivik drove 24 miles north of Oslo to a landlocked fjord, a large lake containing Utoya island. Breivik took the ferry to Utoya island, the site of the Norwegian Labor Party’s AUF (Workers Youth League) summer camp. Breivik was obviously heavily armed – however, he claimed to be a policeman from Oslo, "Martin Nilssen" dispatched on official business to the youth camp. At that place, he gunned down 77 teenagers and their counselors.
Breivik was captured, stood trial, and, after his conviction, was imprisoned at a maximum security facility in Skrien. Skrien is the place of Ibsen’s birth. Breivik was provided only a rubber safety pen with which to continue his writing of manifestos. He denounced that pen as being an instrument of "barbaric torture" and, ultimately, the authorities agreed to provide him with conventional ballpoint pens. When Breivik was denied access to the new Playstation 3 (his cell was equipped with a Playstation 2), he went on a hunger-strike. After a few weeks, the authorites relented again and allowed him access to the newest model of Playstation.
By 1891, much of Norway’s current tourist infrastructure, at least, with respect to cruising the spectacular fjords, was well-established. Ibsen returned to Norway in July of that year with a pressing desire to see the Midnight Sun. To that end, he booked a fjord cruise and sailed north along the rugged coast past Lofoten and the onyx lance of Mount Stetind to Finnmark and the North Cape. Peder Balke’s encounter with the North Cape many years earlier had been decisive in that artist’s life – over and over again, Balke painted the black and towering escarpment of the Cape as a kind of Ultima Thule for the imagination, the uttermost place on earth and, therefore, an emblem for vision’s extremity, the most remote place that we can reach in our thoughts. The North Cape is riven and its mighty cleft contains a glacier that spouts meltwater down from the heights so that fresh and salt water are commingled. Ibsen’s hoped to round this Cape and sail into the Arctic Ocean so that he could see the sun shining over the stormy, dark waters at midnight, a sign for him, it seems, of the unflagging powers of the imagination. But chroniclers note that the weather was bad at the Nordkapp that year and dense fog and mist obscured the lineaments of the massive rock forms and, although the sun sailed along the horizon never setting, this was above the clouds and could not be seen from within the tempest roaring over the waters.
At Lofoten, it is said that there was once a primitive kind of horse, a creature midway between the Fjord-horse of the south and the Nordland horse of the Arctic. The animal was small and stocky, as white as the blizzards that the animal had to weather, with a blunt muzzle and shaggy coarse fur. In Oslo’s Natural History museum, you can see one of these animals mounted amidst a vista of plunging waterfalls and high glaciers. In silhouette, the animal seems similar to equine figures daubed on cave walls in the Pleistocene. The beast seems to be the size of a great Dane, a miniature pony. Some writers claimed that these sturdy little horses could live without grass, supporting themselves by eating dead fish washed up on the stony shores. Whether this is true is a matter of conjecture. The horse is said to have gone extinct around the turn of the century. "Extinction" may be the wrong word in this context – more likely, the animal interbred with larger, more aggressive horses, particularly the Nordland, and, with time, its traits vanished.
The solution to another riddle: Christian Krohg (1852 - 1925) was an important painter in Oslo. In common with all other major Norwegian painters of his day, Krohg studied in Germany and spent some of his life teaching there. Unlike other Norwegain painters of his time, he was uninterested in landscape or nature. Rather, his subject was every day life in Kristiana as Oslo was, then, called. He was a "painter of the ordinary" to use Baudelaire’s phrase.
Because it was a harbor town, prostitution flourished in old Oslo. Many of Krohg’s model were prostitutes and he became interested in their lives. Ultimately, Krohg wrote a novel called
Albertine about a working class girl who is seduced by a police officer and forced into prostitution. The novel caused a scandal, was banned by the Supreme Court, and was confiscated. Krohg retaliated by painting in heroic size several episodes from his banned book. The huge painting of "Albertine at the Police Surgeon’s Office" is a depiction of a scene from the book – in the painting, Albertine is submitting herself to a physical examination to verify her suitability for licensure as a prostitute. The women gathered in the annex to the "police surgeon’s" office are all prostitutes, lined-up and bickering as they await their monthly physical. The plainly dressed and shame-faced girl next to the cop in the penile hat is Albertine.
In the end, censorship only enhanced the fame of Krohg’s book and it became a kind of underground classic. A bas relief at the City Hall, the Radhuset, shows a buxom Albertine standing next to the Keystone Kop constable. The presence of this image at the Radhuset exemplifies the ambiguous status of prostitution in Norway. Prostitution is, apparently, regarded as characteristic to human society and a sort of necessary evil – each year, the City hosts a Christmas eve feast for its prostitutes who are invited to the Radhuset for the meal. But the role of sex workers in Norway, a place where feminism is simply assumed, remains ambiguous.
When the train from Oslo to Bergen was delayed, Angelica and I talked to a Norwegian girl, Astrid, waiting with us at the station. Astrid was traveling by rail to Gul to spend a couple weeks at her family’s summer cabin on a mountain lake. We asked Astrid about the protest that we had seen the previous day in front of the Storinget. Astrid said that the slogan "I am not for sale" referred to prostitution. She told us that in Norway it is "legal to be a prostitute and to accept money for sex," but it is not legal to "pay for the services of a prostitute." This is viewed as an unacceptable paradox by some people. Although we talked about this at length with Astrid, I couldn’t exactly understand her viewpoint – it wasn’t clear to me whether she thought prostitution should be banned or, rather, completely legalized.
Christian Krohg became immensely fat. Pictures taken of him during the 20th century show a formidable, glaring and indignant walrus of a man spread across an overstuffed divan. Krohg’s other most famous painting, also in Olso’s National Gallery, shows some ragged seafarers tossed on a violent green and white-capped sea – one of the sailors gestures toward a place where the clouds have briefly parted to reveal a golden coast on the horizon. The name of the painting is "Leif Erickson’s discovery of the New World."
Perhaps, the most spectacular monument to sibling rivalry in the world is the Emmanuel Vigeland Mausoleum in Slemdal, a suburb of Oslo. The structure is a thousand yards from where the light rail stops in the shade on the wooded slope. The neighborhood is residential, without sidewalks and we walk along streets without any traffic – flower beds edge the curving lanes and there are big tidy houses among the trees, tall brick structures some of them with imposing towers. The mausoleum looks like a church with its windows bricked shut, a block of brown masonry rising to a pitched roof. The lot is cramped and, if there is a vista from which the place would look impressive from the exterior, I couldn’t locate it – the featureless brick walls rise steeply among hedges and, in some ways, the structure looks like a granary.
In fact, the building is the tomb of the prominent Norwegian artist, Emmanuel Vigeland, the younger brother of Gustave Vigeland, the man who designed the enormous army of statues in Frogner Park, four or five trains stops closer to downtown. Emmanuel Vigeland died in 1948 and, for the last quarter century of his life, worked in the Slemdal structure in which his ashes are now interred. By 1927, Vigeland was describing his studio as the Tomba Emmanuel and there is a commendable, if perverse, economy in providing that the place where he worked do double-duty as his grave.
I locate the tomb by the presence of several cars parked next to the flowering hedges surrounding the building. Some young Norwegians, appearing a bit hungover, are sunning themselves on folding chairs on the bright side of the building. The men and women are handsome and wear sunglasses over their closed eyes and they stretch their limbs in the sunlight pouring down between the evergreen trees standing sentinel over the tomb’s entrance. The mausoleum is open only four hours a week, on Sundays from noon to four o’clock, and admission is limited to a half-dozen people at a time. The entrance to the tomb is a square opening in the wall with a low concrete lintel – you must stoop to enter the anteroom to the burial chamber, a tiny echoing room with whitewashed walls and windows such as you might find on a seagoing vessel. A couple volunteers are seated behind a card table on which there are a few postcards and some CDs recorded to take advantage of the astounding acoustics in the vault. The volunteers arecheerful and uninformative – they take my money and, then, tell me to wait outside. The Norwegians ahead of me in the queue seem to be sleeping like reptiles in the sun and there is no place to sit and so Angelica and I leaned again the cool wall of the tomb and feel the darkness and moisture inside oozing through the brick wall. A side door displays a handle shaped like a serpent strangling a lizard. At the summit of the vault, on a flat, pedestal-like steeple, a golden angel, somewhat like one of Ernst Barlach’s sculpted figures, raises a gilt lance into the sky.
Emmanuel Vigeland was a public artist who specialized in frescos in churches, statuary for parks and official plazas, and stained glass. His most important works, scattered throughout Scandinavia, are allegorical stained glass windows, elaborately designed and brilliantly colored. Vigeland’s tomb seems designed to reverse the meanings of the public art that made him celebrated – death, after all, might be regarded in certain ways as the opposite of life and Vigeland insists upon this principle of contrariety in his mausoleum. Instead of painting with light in stained glass, the openings in the studio wall that once admitted the sun are bricked shut – light is not transmitted into the building, rather, it is used as a medium that seems absorbed by the dense, dark colors of the huge fresco, Vita, decorating the interior. A statue stands in a public space; Vigeland’s mausoleum vault is resolutely interior, an inside that feels oneiric, masturbatory, a place so secluded as to seem a kind of womb for fantasy and intensely private reflection. If public and ecclesiastical art celebrates things that we hold in common, Vigeland’s tomb, also, embodies primordial themes of life and death, but in a way so startlingly idiosyncratic, so eccentric as to cast those concepts into a zone of privacy similar to the toilet or the marriage bed. Of course, everyone has sex and people are born and die, but the precise way that sex affects me, the precise meaning of birth and death in my life, are mysteries woven into the tapestry of my skin and nerves in such a way as to be fundamentally incommunicable to others. It’s this sense of indefinable eccentricity and privacy that the mausoleum exploits.
Before entering the Vigeland mausoleum, our turn having arrived, the girl at the card table glares down at my tennis shoes, untied as always, and tells us that we must leave our shoes in the anteroom. "Put on a plastic –" she says. Although her English is perfect, she doesn’t know the word "bootie." Two cardboard boxes full of plastic booties are set next to the low lintel over the black hole leading into the mausoleum – the entry is an opening shaped like the port of an oven, perhaps, four feet high, not exactly a crawl-space but sufficiently small to make me uneasy. Above the entry, these words are inscribed: QUICQUID DEUS CREATVIT PURUM EST ("Whatever God has created is Pure.")
I grope among the plastic booties, retrieve a couple of them, and, then, crouch to tug them over my untied tennis shoes. The first bootie shreds in my hands, ripping apart as I try to pull it over the heel of my shoes. This is embarrassing and I feel the kind of urgency that afflicts people in an airport, passing through security – it is as if there is a long line of anxious travelers waiting behind me, all pressing forward to squeeze through the bottleneck, except, of course, here, in the placid Oslo suburb of Slemdal, there is no such thing...so far as I know no one is waiting behind me at all. I try to yank the other bootie over my other foot, hoping that, perhaps, this plastic baggy is larger or more resilient, or, in the alternative, that my other foot is somehow smaller. I get the bootie over the tip of my shoe but the pouch is much too small to be pulled over my heel. Again, the bootie tears apart in my hand. The mid-section of my body doesn’t bend any more; it is rigid as a post and I can only squat to touch my toes by twisting to the side, a torsion that compresses all of my entrails into the side of my ribs and pelvis so that I feel like a tube of toothpaste that some giant hand is mercilessly squeezing. I can feel a cramp about to express itself from the knot in my side where muscles and fascia are struggling to keep my guts in place. It’s as if I am about to explode all over the inside the tiny whitewashed closet (it is not just like a broom-closet, but, indeed, a real broom closet – I see brooms and cleaning buckets in the side of the room).
"I can slip off my shoes," I say, "and go inside in my socks."
"Oh no," the girl says. "It’s too slippery. You will fall."
Angelica has already discarded her shoes, effortlessly pulled on the boots, and slipped into the dark cavity in the wall.
I grope for another pair booties. I’m ashamed of my footprint, my hopelessly large and American feet, these boots made for walking that have stomped all over the insulted and injured throughout the whole world. There’s no place to sit to pull on the booties and so I perch precariously on one foot, straining to yank the bootie into place, my face red and drizzling sweat onto the floor. Somehow, I get one bootie on one foot and, then, twisting the opposite direction, and contorting myself in a way that causes my torso to feel like it is about to violently deform and explode, I pull on the other plastic bag.
Stooping I press into the dark, a blackness so intense and impenetrable that it feels like I am about to ram my forehead into an inky wall. I grope ahead of me but there is no wall and, then, I have passed through the entry, forced myself forward skating on the slippery fabric booties that seem designed to polish the immense and abysmal black underfoot, a surface that is hard as a gem and slippery as ice. I can tell that I have entered the mausoleum and can raise my head to stand upright because the space around me drones with faint echoes – I can’t see anything but can feel that I am a great hollow space, dark as a cavern, defined by the way that the sounds warp and distort and, then, reverberate around me.
It takes a while for my eyes to adjust. The floor underfoot is simply invisible, a black void, but, after a couple minutes, I can see some faint golden patterns emanating upward, fans of dim light expanding upward from the place where the inky surface over which I skate meets with the walls. Above, I can see phosphorescence gleaming on the vault, although, perhaps, this is just some kind of trick that my eyes are playing, some sort of eidetic image. Although I can hear whispered voices, it is too dark to see anyone in the mausoleum. The voices echo and reverberate, a curious abstract din that seems somehow louder than the original source of the sound, a hollow amplification as if whispers repeat over one another, phase after phase of the same voice echoed and re-echoed until it becomes a kind of sinister murmur.
I skate along the perimeter, next to the walls and see that the polished stone is painted with a thicket of buttocks and breasts, fragments of bodies improbably combined, some sort of orgy of intertwined flesh, mostly faceless, painted in a dark, excremental browns with urine-colored highlights, the rounded forms of thighs and bellies, asses and tits all heaped up like jaundiced corpses stacked around the dark central void of the tomb.
In the corners of the big hall, I encounter sculptures of some kind, polished cold surfaces, but they are invisible because of the darkness and must be explored by touch. I can’t ascertain their meaning or, even, fundamental form. From the center of the room, the frescos on the walls ascent upward, blurred by the gloom so that only parts of the vast mural are visible. I can see a nude giantess surrounded by wreath of youths embracing in defiance of gravity, several sinister angels near the top of the walls, and, above the entry, two huge skeletons copulating. The skeletons are painted with anatomical accuracy, brownish gold bones interlocked, and above their conjoined pelvises a column of naked infants rises up into the darkness – the infants seem to be spinning in a whirlwind and the form of the column is like a tornado scourging the earth. Beneath the copulating skeletons, a niche holds a pale loaf-shaped stone – this is a hollow rock taken from a beach in some northern fjord and it contains Emmanuel Vigeland’s ashes.
Most of the fresco can not be seen or, in the alternative, is so complex, such a writhing mass of entangled limbs and torsos, that the eye despairs of making any sense of this chaos. Snaky tresses of red hair lubricate the frantic mass orgy and where faces are visible (most of the bodies are headless, it seems, faces buried between legs or hidden under cumulo-nimbus formations of breasts and buttocks), their features are blandly idealized – the women with lips open and moaning, the men with Grecian profiles and matts of curly hair on their skulls. It’s impossible to see the fresco except in light of the chaste, abstract riot of figures in Vigeland Park. The younger brother’s mausoleum programmatically inverts the meanings and form of the army of contortionist stone figures arrayed across the meadows of the public garden. Vigeland Park is conceived, of course, as a vast outdoor arena, a huge garden in classical format enlivened by the countless stone men and women. The mausoleum is involuted, a black intestinal space – a bizarre cavern that is the opposite of the sunlit vistas in the park. The display of naked granite men and women outdoors is entirely chaste – no one has an erection and, although some of female figures, seem slightly aroused, there is nothing unseemly in the nakedness of the colossal, classically formed figures. In the mausoleum, even corpses are copulating in every sexual position possible – heads swallow genitals and genitals seem to swallow heads. The sickly yellow and turd-brown forms almost three-dimensional in the modeling of their bulging erections and sinuous, ropy musculature, in fact, seem participants in some sort of orgy of the damned – it’s not clear whether Vigeland has vouchsafed to us a vision of paradise or some kind of hell. The sex-zombies squirm and writhe and everything about them is overtly sexual – although, I suppose, half or three-fourths of the figures portrayed are simply haphazardly heaped upon one another and not engaged in sexual congress, the viewer feels that those figures not entangled in coitus are either resting between bouts of strenuous activity or wriggling like worms through the masses of flesh to find some suitable partner or simply dead as a result of their exertions. As in the park, Vigeland contrives a squirming monolith of fleshy figures, a column of bodies ascending into the heavens, or, perhaps, dropped from the sky (up and down is tricky in both instances) – the obelisk of bodies in the park correlates here with the equally monolithic pillar of naked infants rising above the copulating skeletons. The younger brother’s mausoleum, accordingly, seems a sinister parody of the older brother’s life work at Frogner Park – the statues in the park celebrate life, the mausoleum is a massive Liebestod in praise of death.
At one end of the mausoleum, I stand close to the glistening wall. It seems damp with fluids leaked from the piles of bodies. The dim lights shining against the base of the fresco inscribe caternary arches of illumination against the wall, simulating it seems a sort of fence of 10 watt light separating the ink-black floor from the painting. From certain angles, I can see that the fresco was made by cutting into the wall outlines of the figures and, then, painting over them with the monochrome hues of yellow, brown-yellow, and reddish brown – it is, as befitting the sexual subject, painted "wet on wet," that is, true fresco. At eye-level, I can see the erection of one of the men, a big root-shaped phallus – the artist has drawn a plume of semen spurting from the tip of the penis; the incision in the wall guiding the painter’s brush catches an edge of light and glistens like agate against dim riot of browns and yellows. Some more people have been admitted to the vault and I can hear their voices echoing endlessly. Above me, where the wall meets the roof forty feet in the air, there is a rift in the building and I can see some light sifting down from the bright day outside and illumining a spill of encrustation like salt crystallized on the fresco. Although its damage to the mural, and clearly a destructive process, the deposits obscuring that corner of the painting seem to signify life to me, something outside of the painter’s megalomania, a chance, however remote, of escape.
To leave the mausoleum, you must bow your head directly under Vigeland’s ashes. Squinting in the sunlight, I tug the booties off my feet and toss them, although they are large, in the box labeled "small."
Our last night in Oslo is Sunday, Angelica’s 21st birthday and the occasion for our trip to Norway. The preceding night, things were rowdy, apparently the effect of a soccer tournament. Loud packs of young men roamed the street and the disreputable-looking tavern across the street was thronged with fans. The saloon opened all of its doors and windows to the white night and, inside, we could see young men stripped to their jockey shorts draining huge pitchers of beer. The young men looked cold because the temperature was about 50 degrees, thunderclouds overhead bulging with icy rain. But on Sunday, the businesses are closed and, even, some of the street cafes shuttered and the streets, never busy in Oslo, are deserted.
I suggested that we celebrate Angelica’s birthday in an ice bar down the street. The staff gives you mittens and a parka and you can sit on ice tables in a saloon made of ice and drink chilled vodka from ice mugs. Probably wisely, Angelica said she wasn’t interested in spending the evening of her 21st birthday in a giant refrigerator and, so, I told her that we would stroll down to Karl Johan Gate so that she could pick a place among the restaurants there. Of course, her mood was muted – birthdays make people melancholy: time passes so quickly – a child who was in diapers yesterday is now an adult. And the young are always in a hurry, rushing toward life, which, of course, always disappoints. When I was 21, I was grief-stricken for successes that I had not yet achieved and experiences for which I yearned but had been denied, or, perhaps, not been courageous enough to seek. At 21, I had no girlfriend, had never had a girlfriend, and was engaged in studies prerequisite to becoming a lawyer, a profession that I feared as contrary to my natural gifts and destructive to my creativity. I wanted to be a writer, but lacked the courage to submit my stories to any publication other than the University literary journal. Listed in my mind was a checklist of accomplishments that I had hoped to complete by my 21st birthday – but most of the things on that list I had failed to achieve. I supposed that Angelica was experiencing similar feelings of grief and regret, a similar sense of being incomplete and lonely, and these emotions were likely exacerbated by the strange sadness in the empty streets, the peculiar desolation of the northern light falling across the bronze statues and the locked storefronts lettered with unfamiliar words.
To my dismay, Angelica selected a sports bar with an American theme, a huge place called O’Leary’s. Although the entry to the bar is small and nondescript, requiring patrons to descend several steps below street level, the inside of the tavern seemed to occupy the interior of about an entire block, acres of booth and tables fitfully illumined by large flat-screen TVs showing several different soccer games and, of course, a succession of disorienting Norwegian ads. In a peculiar way, a place like this is more profoundly foreign than a restaurant serving Norwegian specialties – everything is subtly but distinctly wrong or different in the faux-American sports bar. The effect is like an alien invader, an entity like the Coneheads, attempting to simulate an experience that the invader doesn’t exactly understand. On the menu, ye olde proprietor Jonas Reinholdsson boasts about wonderful adventures in American sports bars ("where everyone is welcome") and vows to replicate that experience in his chain of restaurants – it is, he proclaims, "A Bostonian Bar Experience." But the pickle spear served with the pulled-pork sandwich is immensely superior to any pickle commercially available in the United States, a fragrant hard cucumber slice densely imbued with dill and exotic vinegar, much more crunchy and resistant than you would find in any U. S. restaurant. And the pulled pork is also better – in Norway, pork smells of the barnyard. By contrast, the cole slaw is immensely worse than equivalent salad that you might be served in this country – the taste is wrong and the texture abrasive and close to inedible. We sit in a nook decorated with I-94 Freeway signs, a place to which we were ushered by the dude wearing a referee jersey. Why the I-94 signs? Because a stretch of that road is called the JFK freeway and JFK was from Boston and O’Leary’s offers a "Bostonian Bar Experience." Framed pictures of John Kennedy with Jackie and the kids adorn the walls and there are knick-knacks celebrating the New England Patriots and the Red Sox, souvenirs of Cape Cod densely packed between the TV sets on which the men are running back and forth on acid green playing fields so brightly colored that it hurts your eyes. When the meal is concluded, the dude in the referee togs brings a small plate with some parsley and a long, limp roasted red pepper – an old Bostonian custom?
Angelica looks like she is ready to cry. We walk back to the hotel in the perpetual sunlight.
Traveling, of course, is a series of small humiliations with some major embarrassment interspersed. On the light-rail to Slemdal, Angelica and I stood at the door waiting to exit at the Slemdal platform. But when the train slid to a stop at the platform, inexplicably, the car’s sliding doors didn’t open. The Norwegians on the train, carrying their cross-training gear and Nordic ski poles, gazed at us with looks of mild and languid bemusement. The train whirred forward, passing the stop where we had hoped to disembark. At the next train stop, a quarter mile down the track, we discovered by watching others that the door mechanism is triggered by a push-button. One of the other passengers pushed the button and we exited the train, crossing the tracks to wait on the platform on the other side of rail line to go back to Slemdal.
The T-Bane was a red-line train, only a couple cars long on this Sunday, ascending the mountain to the ski-jump and athletic facility at Holmenkollen and, then, to Frognerseteren. (The towering ski-jump at Holmenkollen is familiar to people my age as the site of the calamitous ski accident featured under the rubric "the agony of defeat" on the opening credits of the Sunday afternoon TV show, ABC’s Wide World of Sports.) The open platform where we awaited a downhill train was on a steep slope and a hundred yards uphill the track curved sharply, fronting a black basalt cliff crowned with evergreens. Below the station, in a hollow in the side of the mountain, there were a half-dozen glistening soccer pitches were some boys and girls were playing. A field house with hunter-green shingles stood at the edge of the soccer fields and I could see some tennis courts in the shade of the trees below. Small footpaths zigzagged down from the train line to the playing fields. Brick and stucco mansions stood on the hillside, walls covered in ivy, and between the hedges I could glimpse bright beds of flowers. Everything was bright, neat and orderly, slightly wet with dew that gleamed like diamonds on the edges of the soccer fields.
Tennis balls on the red packed-clay courts made a liquid sound, a pock-pock-pock noise like water dripping in a cave. The sun hovered overhead and the clouds of rain riding up from the sea were not yet in evidence. On the side of remote hill, I saw a green terrace, the impounded water of some kind of lake or reservoir.
For a moment, it seemed possible to be Norwegian, to experience the deep, ahistorical serenity of the day. The prosperity of the land was like the scent of fresh bacon and strong coffee. Inscribing an elegant calligraphic arc on the hillside, the red train came down the mountain toward us.