The Faster I Walk, the Smaller I Am by Kjersti Skomsvold. (trans. Kerri A. Pierce ). Dalkey Archive, 112 pp., $17.95.
Glass by Sam Savage. Coffee House Press, 210 pp., $15.00.
Start from Zero and Count Backwards: A Review of The Faster I Walk, the Smaller I Am by Kjersti Skomsvold
Kjersti Skomsvold’s first novel was born while its author was bedridden, convalescing after an illness. She started putting scraps of prose on post-it notes, and over four years she wrote and rewrote until she had finished The Faster I Walk, the Smaller I Am. This brief text is completely unified, and nothing of what Barthes would call the “crossing from notation to novel” survives in its structure. But its roots in its writer’s experience of enforced isolation are evident everywhere. The book seals up a single concern, making it an airtight container for one perfectly encircled emotion: loneliness.
Mathea Martinsen lives alone, an elderly widow, her links to the world loosened by something that seems like social anxiety or dementia. The book imagines her last monologue, echoing, perhaps, Beckett’s Happy Days. Her late husband, Neils (or as she calls him, “Epsilon”) remains absently present, his afterimage imprinted on almost every phrase of her narrative. At first we’re uncertain whether he’s physically with her or not; her consciousness flows between memory and present perception so seamlessly that each resembles the other. It isn’t simply that Epsilon’s ghost lives on in the grain of her voice. Her voice itself is a single surface: although its curvature conjures up illusory entities, deep down it knows nothing of individuals. On this level, Mathea’s inner life is ambiguous, oceanic; her mind is like the sea.
Skomsvold’s book is nothing but a voice whose horizons coincide with those of a mind. And in its inmost intransitivity this voice finds its bedrock in what Deleuze called “the univocity of being.” Or as Mathea terms the world’s indivisible whole, “totality.” Her problem is that she feels estranged from this totality, yet yearns to return to it. “Perhaps I should stop seeing myself as an individual and start identifying myself with the totality,” she thinks, “but . . . I’m about as far away from it as you can get.” Skomsvold doesn’t need to explain her character’s sense of estrangement, because the limits of the book are those of Mathea’s mind. After all, no one ever really knows why they are the way they are.
On one hand, Mathea longs to lose herself in a benignly entropic universe, obeying her mind’s inward pull toward dissolution and death. But an opposite impulse calls her to cling to her life’s specificity, searching for any attributes that make her unique—bathetically put, at one point, as a matter of “what my name is, or what my favourite colour is, or which cassette tape I’d take with me to a desert island if I could choose only one.” To be sure, Skomsvold makes much of Mathea’s personal quirks, and thus we could claim that her voice is caught, or pulled taut, between the totality and her own personality.
Crucially, there was a point in her past when these axes converged. As a young girl she was struck twice by lightning on the same spot. This lightning strike stands at the apex of her life’s arc, as trauma and miracle. The event cemented her identity (until then “nothing had ever singled me out”), and at the same time it almost erased her altogether. In other words, it was at once a point of origin and a vanishing point. The incident also introduced her to Neils, whose first words to her were, “the chances of being struck by lightning twice in the same spot are less than ε, if ε equals a microscopically small quantity.” So she named him Epsilon, and they eventually married.
Her later life could be seen as an effort to recapture this moment, both as individuation and oblivion. Her search for the former takes the form of “trying to leave some traces behind,” whether by burying a time capsule in her backyard or just observing the bite marks her crooked teeth leave in her food. As a child she used to count stones in the playground, and her adult attempts at self-definition echo the pleasurable autism of children’s games. Arranging pebbles to spell her name in the sand, she remarks on the merit of “giving meaning to meaningless things.” Her actions recall Beckett’s Molloy stashing stones in his pockets; this may make playing with pebbles look like a sign of inner impoverishment, but Mathea’s small joys are genuine. In the same way, whenever she says “what’s the point?” the question’s not framed in depressive rhetoric. It’s more like the innocent “why is there something rather than nothing?” asked by children and philosophers.
Achieving uniqueness poses problems for Mathea, who’s so sensitive that she’s unsettled by the multiple entries for “Mathea Martinsen” in the phonebook. Meaning to ascertain which one’s real, she tries to call her own number, but the line’s busy. Analysts from Lacan to Laing have claimed that self-formation somehow splits the self, and that isolation leads to psychic involution. Mathea’s phone call metaphorizes this process: any act of positing a self for herself prevents her from accessing it. A similar crisis occurs when she composes a note to put in her time capsule: “I write, ‘I alone am Mathea.’ When I look at what I’ve written, I see ‘I Mathea am alone.’” Here her drive to define herself is what entails her solitude. What’s more, whatever sense of self she secures will always be “less than ε,” now that she has lost Epsilon. This is why her thoughts so often start from zero and count backwards, as when she thinks “before Epsilon, my heart was like a grape, and now it’s like a raisin.” The uniqueness she seeks is infinitesimal.
Any ageing life must give in to oblivion, so what’s the point in being unique? After all, reasons Mathea, “every person in China is just as unique as me,” and, in the end, as alone. Since this is so, isn’t the best way to live to become “more and more exposed to death,” inching away from oneself and towards what one isn’t? Mathea remembers how “in our wedding picture . . . I’m not easy to see because the background was the same colour as my dress.” If to be is to be perceived, and life isn’t life if it goes unnoticed, what wins out in Skomsvold’s story is a dying woman’s drift into the invisible. Yet Mathea doesn’t suffer death passively, as a tragedy. The final sentences of The Faster I Walk, the Smaller I Am aren’t sad, or aren’t only sad; they’re also euphoric. Mathea’s dying moments are “dark and clear.” When she was younger, she unintentionally left her dog to drown in the sea. “The possibility of that happening,” said her husband at the time, ‘“must be less than ε, if ε equals a microscopically small quantity.” But when she swims into nothingness, she’s no longer alone. She swims out to be with them both.
David Winters is a literary critic living in Cambridge, UK. He has written for The New Inquiry, The Millions, Open Letters Monthly and a range of other publications. He is a coeditor at 3:AM Magazine.
That Melancholy Feeling: The Faster I Walk, the Smaller I Am by Kjersti Skomsvold and Glass by Sam Savage
In The Anatomy of Melancholy Robert Burton deems old age a “natural” cause of melancholy that “no man living can avoid.” He might have called it a cause no man can avoid by living. Old age, unlike “love of gaming,” “overmuch study,” or “unfortunate marriage,” isn’t something we can grow out of. Rather, it’s a condition that we must all eventually grow into.
Burton didn’t believe melancholy afflicted all the elderly equally. He claims that “this natural infirmity is most eminent in old women,” a claim that finds new endorsement in two novels published last fall: Sam Savage’s Glass and Kjersti Skomsvold’s The Faster I Walk, The Smaller I Am (which originally appeared in Norway in 2009). Both novels feature old, isolated women as protagonists, and both are substantially about the melancholy, or bad humor, these women contend with as they live out the evanescent ends of their lives.
Structurally, Savage’s novel is the more complex. His previous effort, The Cry of the Sloth, satirized the struggles of the editor of a small-time literary review during the Nixon era. That book, written largely in epistolary form, climaxed with the dramatic hurling of a typewriter from an upstairs window. Several more typewriters are thrown in Glass. Here, however, the act of typing itself takes on greater prominence.
The book’s principal typist is Edna, a widow living impoverished and alone in an industrial section of an unnamed American city. Having been invited to write an introduction for the reissue of her late husband Clarence’s novel, Edna gradually produces something much longer, a kind of diary-cum-memoir. It is this document that we’re reading, with each of the novel’s many short passages representing one uninterrupted stretch of typing by Edna. Edna turns out to be frequently interrupted, and she usually explains what or who has taken her away from her writing table. By using this conceit, Savage finds a neat way to mix present action—visits from neighbors, trips to the diner or to Starbucks, and a few other, more serious occurrences—with Edna’s progressive recollections of childhood, youth, marriage, and the eventual dissolution of each.
In contrast to Edna’s graphomania, Mathea Martinsen, the central character of Kjersti Skomsvold’s novel, shows little interest in writing down her life. She is more concerned to determine how to live what is left of it. Reminiscence, or the reactivation of the past by the present, plays as large a part in Mathea’s life as in Edna’s, but the bits of memory we get from Mathea are not so thoroughly connected up as Edna’s memories. Instead, a small number of significant events in Mathea’s life are gradually, and unsystematically, revealed. Most significant is Mathea’s having been struck, not once, but twice by lightning one day at recess while in elementary school. The all-but-impossible fluke provides the nickname by which Mathea refers to her husband throughout the book: Epsilon. Epsilon, whose real name we learn quite late, works for the Central Statistics Office and is generally fascinated by statistically improbable events. The novel begins with Mathea mimicking her husband’s idiosyncratic manner, remarking, “the probability that we’re going to die is smaller than ε, if ε equals a microscopically small quantity.” Of course the probability of death is really much greater than this, and reflections upon mortality make up a large portion of this small novel.
Skomsvold and Savage play interestingly with the degree of separation their characters’ perceive between present circumstances and the past. Edna so completely regards her early life as behind her that she doubts whether she can recover it intact. Throughout Glass, seemingly insignificant memories, such as that of a gardener depositing a dead mole in the pocket of his overalls, come in for reconsideration and revision. Edna’s investigations don’t invest these events with new meaning; rather they illustrate how fragile the enterprise of remembering is. Concerning her memories of Clarence, Edna remarks at one point, “I cannot think about a lot of Clarence, about, probably, most of the aspects of Clarence. No matter how often I say the name ‘Clarence’ or use phrases like ‘Clarence was buttoning his denim shirt’ or ‘Clarence had his foot on a lion,’ he does not approach; the words don’t bring him closer; they just shovel him further under, bury him beneath a pile of empty chairs.”
Despite Edna’s misgivings, the picture of Clarence that she traces strikes us as clear, even quite familiar. We learn that he was a writer in the Hemingway mold: preoccupied with great wars and great hunts, “good-looking in a rough way, a masculine way,” a writer who worked standing up and whose “sentences stamp[ed] across the page like little soldiers, each armed with a dangerously active little verb.” Unfortunately, as Edna makes clear, this mold was already cracked by the time Clarence poured himself into it. “In nineteen sixty-four Hemingway had been dead for years and nobody but Clarence was still shooting lions, and that, I think, was the tragedy of his life, that he was, in a sense, left to shoot lions alone.” Clarence’s obsolescence as a writer is emblematic of a larger cultural shift. “[T]hings that seem obvious and are even part of the atmosphere of a certain epoch become incredible later.” This sense that her memories contain things that are incredible—things that will not be believed, that even she herself hardly believes—pervades Edna’s typing. It also helps explain why she will not dignify her activity at the typewriter with the more appropriate title of writing.
Edna remembers her husband as a distant, still-receding figure in her life. Mathea, by contrast, treats Epsilon as a still-present companion and partner. Indeed, the very fact that Epsilon is deceased remains ambiguous, though not quite secret, for most of Skomsvold’s novel. Mathea regularly refers to her husband in the present tense, as in, “Epsilon says,” “Epsilon thinks,” “Epsilon does” this or that. The tense shifts when she refers to his interactions with third parties. There are other hints, too; for example, Mathea notes that “when it comes to jars, Epsilon is no help at all.” Still, the overall tendency in Skomsvold’s book is to figure absence in the form of the partner who has just left the bed, or just slipped out the door. Here the past is too near, not too far, and that’s where the sadness in it lies.
The last, and perhaps most important, difference between these books is in how Savage and Skomsvold express what melancholy feels like from the inside. In Glass, Edna exhibits a syndrome that might be called semantic anxiety. She displays an undue concern for the relationship between words and things. Fish in an aquarium cannot be said to dart, for they are too slow and graceless. A piece of cheese cannot be called a chunk, for “chunk possesses a jolly ring that does not fit the atmosphere that reigned while I was eating it.” The phrase “by which I mean” appears repeatedly in Edna’s descriptions of events present and past. It becomes her signature trope.
Readers familiar with David Markson’s Wittgenstein’s Mistress will recognize how the kind of linguistic affectation that I have called semantic anxiety can be used to convey the interior state of individuals that are lonely and isolated. Concern for precise usage increases as opportunities for dialogue decrease. More than once Edna attempts to initiate a conversation with a stranger, but she fails, and is, in fact, herself guilty of being a poor listener, a fact that is symbolized by her quirk of constantly wearing earmuffs, even in warm weather, even indoors. Ultimately Edna’s melancholy finds its most poignant expression in a general, even philosophical, point about language: “I used to think the mute incoherent daily suffering of ordinary life was too big for words. Now I think the words are too big for it. There are no words trivial enough to say how terrible it is.”
Although Mathea’s melancholy is no less serious than Edna’s, Skomsvold does not place language at the heart of her character’s suffering. Mathea’s disorder is not semantic but ontological: just as we doubt Epsilon’s existence, so does Mathea doubt her own reality. She continually loses things she identifies more and less closely with: a tooth, a mole, a dog, a coat. There’s also the fact that the clerks at the grocery store she frequents pay no attention to her. Mathea seeks reassurance in Descartes’ dictum, I think, therefore I am, but this doesn’t prevent her from observing “there’s getting to be less and less of me. Where will it all end?” The answer, of course, is in death, and Mathea makes no effort to deny this, though she suspects her neighbors aren’t so forthright: “they walk around their apartments and act like they’re not going to die, but they’re going to die, the cashiers at the grocery store are going to die, and the old man with the walker is quite likely already dead now.”
At one point Mathea suggests that, while she used to tell jokes about death, she’s outgrown that habit now. It’s true that the novel’s tone isn’t straightforwardly comic, but it isn’t particularly pathetic, either. The book’s many observations about death and its inevitability are made in a detached, perhaps a scientific, manner. And whatever Mathea may say, there are some excellent one-liners here. My favorite, which occurs during a raffle at a senior center, has Mathea ask “how someone can celebrate winning an embroidered napkin when they’re about to die.”
On the whole, the tone of The Faster I Walk comes in somewhere between blithe and wry. This is not to say it gives no evidence of suffering. It is rather a very particular (or peculiar) perspective on suffering that Skomsvold presents through Mathea, a perspective far removed from that presented by Savage in Glass, but one which feels equally accurate.
This perhaps has something to do with the authors themselves. Savage published his first and best known novel, Firmin, in 2006, at age 67. The jacket photo on Glass shows a man not just marginally but magnificently older. The short bio notes that Savage holds a Ph.D. in philosophy from Yale, and the face in the photograph approaches the ideal form of the philosophical visage: piercing eyes, furrowed brow, enormous beard. Skomsvold’s picture, by contrast, shows a startlingly young woman. In an interview recorded at last year’s PEN World Voices Festival, Skomsvold explains that, despite the gap in years, she actually identifies closely with the near-centenarian Mathea. She adds that such incongruous identification has also been reported by many readers of the novel. “It’s not the old women who write to me, it’s the young men, who tell me they feel exactly like her.” What these two novels indicate above all is that, although old women may be typical, even archetypical, figures of melancholy, that malady is not confined to any of life’s stations, or excluded from any stage.
Paul Morrow is a writer and graduate student studying philosophy in Nashville, TN. He has written on the NEA’s translation grants program and on the goals of the American Translators Association.
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