One Another: An Essay About Sex, Reading, and Mary Ruefle

Gunnhild Øyehaug: "That year of reading was a year of transformation."

I.

Now I’m going to tell you a story. Oh, another story! A beautiful little story about how I was transformed as a writer after reading only the classics for a year, having read nothing but popular fiction before that. Oh, imaginary reader of this essay, how wonderful it is to picture your face, to see it soften from a wrinkled raisin into a grape as you read, oh yes, one has to read the classics, not popular fiction, as I so. . . sorry. I mean how your face resembles a badger that has just discovered a lovely new den. I mean how your face resembles a piece of paper that has found a pen. I mean how your face resembles a yellow dress that disappears around a street corner in a town in Italy (because that’s what yellow dresses do in Italy, and what makes them so mysterious, yet so intensely present!). Or I mean how your face transforms from a yellow dress into the yellow streak of opium in Mr. Carmichael’s beard in To the Lighthouse, before your face gradually blends with mine. I mean, what I am going to tell you today is based on personal experience and is about how I started to read popular fiction at the age of twelve so I would not to be influenced as a writer, because that was what I was going to be. If there was one thing that could save me in this world, it was becoming an author, otherwise I was lost.

I was so bad at everything one should be good at, and constantly compared myself with my 16 cousins, who all lived near my grandparents’ farm as well and who were all good at all the things one should be good at, such as helping one’s grandparents on the farm, and school subjects like maths, history, geography, woodwork, gymnastics. And as we grew up in a mountain village in Sunnmøre, they were naturally also good at crossing country and downhill skiing, and hiking in the mountains—my own father held the record for coming down the second highest mountain behind our house: it took him 3.56 minutes and three slalom bends to ski from the top of the mountain, which was 1100 meters, to the barn bridge. All my cousins tried to break this record. I didn’t. What I preferred doing was this: lying in bed, dreaming, or hiding behind a tree with a book while the rest of my family had something eat whenever we took a break. And when we worked in the potato fields, I was always the slowest, and I glowered at my fast and efficient cousins who were so good at it.

But none of this really matters, I thought as I fretted about my inadequacies, because I was going to be an author. I, the last person in the family’s potato field, would be the first published author. There was, to be fair, a great aunt who had been published in the local paper, but that didn’t count, and she was long since gone. But what, we may well ask ourselves, as we swing round a corner in our yellow dresses in a town in Italy and picture this truculent child sitting behind a tree with a book, were the books she was constantly reading about?

In short: sex. I read about sex, from the age of about twelve, I read about people with chestnut hair and hazel-brown eyes who went through all sorts of trials and overcame seemingly insurmountable obstacles (in Legend of the Ice People by Margit Sandemo, for example, there was the awful possibility that Tengel [of the Ice People, a mysterious clan with enormous shoulders, long, wild hair and yellow eyes] might be physically too large for Silje, that her vagina might literally burst) before they could have him, the one and only, the one their heart was made for. In other words, I was reading trashy books. Pulp fiction. And why? Surely I, who wanted to be a writer and not be lost, should be reading Dostoevsky as I sat there with aphids in my hair and bog water seeping into my pants?

 

II.

But now: a few thoughts on the best piece of writing about sex I have ever read, as we’re on the subject. It is a piece that is not called “Sex,” but rather “Snow” in Mary Ruefle’s brilliant prose collection, The Most of It. This is the epigraph to the collection, written by Tzvetan Todorov: “Hardly had we entered the cemetery when we lost one another. The trees that had pushed up between the graves blocked our view, and our shouts went unanswered. And then, just as suddenly, we found one another again. . .” PS. Why does no one really bother about what epigraphs say? They often tell you everything. The epigraph tells us what Ruefle wants, she wants these trees that push up between the graves, and to enter suddenly, to lose sight of one another suddenly, to find one another suddenly, so that the start, middle and end of a story builds up to a beautiful anticlimax, and all in the space of an epigraph, which is not even really a story, but perhaps more like life, although sometimes it can seem long, oh fuck, why did I start this, but anyway that has to be the title of this essay, One Another, which, when one thinks about it, is a very odd expression, made up as it is of “one,” and one more, which is expressed as “another,” but in this context it means a doubling, it means two, two ones that become a two, well, it means LOVE, really, and Todorov’s epigraph suggests that perhaps that is what happens, we find one another, we lose one another and we find one another again, and what happens in “Snow?” The same.

So now we have arrived at “Snow.” We have come to the first sentence of “Snow.” And it goes like this: “Every time it starts to snow, I would like to have sex.” I think, in principle, that should be proof enough—to quote this first sentence so that you, dear reader, will also understand that this is the best piece about sex that has ever been read on the planet, (even though that was not what this essay was going to be about) but for the sake of fairness I will explain a little more. What makes it so good, in part, is the surprising combination of an ordinary weather phenomenon and the reaction it generates. If it had been me who was going to write a sentence about what snow makes me want to do, the sentence would have been: “Every time it starts to snow, I would like to think.”

For me, snow creates one of the most optimal moods for thought. When it snows so lightly that the snow falls both up and down at the same time, I think it looks like the snow itself is thinking. But not so for the I in Mary Ruefle’s text! “No matter if it is snowing lightly and unseriously, or snowing very seriously, well into the night, I would like to stop whatever manifestation of life I am engaged in and have sex, with the same person, who also sees the snow and heeds it, who might have to leave an office or meeting, some arduous physical task, or, conceivably, leave off having sex with another person, and go in the snow to me, who is already, in the snow, beginning to have sex in my snow-mind.” In other words, snow makes her, ideally, have sex with another person who has the same response to snow. If she was a teacher, for example, which in fact she is, she would stand at the front of the class, close her book and say: “It is snowing and I must go and have sex, goodbye”, and leave the room.

It is of course obvious that she defamiliarizes both the snow and the human sex drive by combining the two, strengthening them and exaggerating them, which is the wonderful essence of caricature, but I wanted to mention it all the same—but naturally, it does not stop there. The I continues to reflect on how she would leave the school and go out to her car, and she would perhaps drive to the man who was waiting for her, and arrive there twenty or thirty minutes later, “snowy,” but then switches suddenly to the question of birds: “I often wonder where the birds go in a snowstorm, for they disappear completely.” She thinks that they disappear into the depths of the bushes, the depths of the forests, “wings, the mark of a bird, are quite useless in snow.” WINGS, THE MARK OF A BIRD! Where did the sex go? Not to worry, it is still there. “When I am inside having sex while it snows I want to be thinking about the birds too”; the man she is having sex with will also be thinking about birds, because not far away “they breathe in and out while it snows all around them,” but here the text takes an unexpected turn: as the I has already considered things we might think about when it snows (sex and where the birds go), it occurs to the I that there is nothing more fascinating than to look at graves in snow, but I am not going to reveal how the text ends, even though it is oh so tempting to reveal that the text describes the dead as “sleepers” that do not notice the soft cold that is falling on top of their graves, as lifeless as themselves, and that the text finishes by saying: “the world seems deep in a bed as I am deep in a bed, lost in the arms of my lover, yes, when it snows like this I feel the whole world has joined me in isolation and silence.” But because I don’t reveal it, it is hard to conclude that this is the most incredible text I have ever read about sex, snow, and death because the closing sentence is so necessary in order to say that this is something else, something radically different from “Her heart was pounding. And now she saw them more clearly. They were naked, and they were men. Their demonic faces had a suggestive attraction. Their hands were long claws, their bodies somewhere between human and beast—in fact, in many ways they were as generously endowed as beasts.” But that would not be the point either.

 

III.

The problem with Mary Ruefle’s fantastic text is that it has already been written. Now I will never be able to write that text, which is terrible. I love, for example, the way she lets the text move from an I to an academic “we” without any fuss, and I love the fact that the text elegantly links the thought of what happens to birds when it snows with the thought of what happens to oneself when one is with another person, with the thought of snow and gravestones. In fact, there is no need for me to write anymore and it makes me sad, and happy, that I cannot find a word to express the feeling, perhaps this is what it feels like when one falls into an abyss, and the abyss turns out to be the entrance to everything one has longed for.

 

IV.

Or perhaps what is waiting at the bottom of the abyss is like the bottom of a lake where water lilies take root, where the roots of the water lilies weave together to make such an intricate web that one can no longer differentiate shoot from root. Which is something one might think when one stands in the small, circular room in Musée de l’Orangerie, for example, and looks at Monet’s Water Lilies as they actually are, painted on the wall, surrounding you as you stand in the middle of the room. Monet’s Water Lilies, which have in many (or at least in some) ways become the emblem of bad taste, the uniqueness mass-produced so much that what was beautiful is now commercialism’s stamp of death, something that makes you recoil if you happen to come across them, a postcard or a poster, whoa, the water lilies, whoa, everyone else’s bad taste, whereas here, in the middle of the sparsely lit room in Paris, where one is somehow standing at the bottom of the pond looking up at one of the actual, original artworks, it feels like each and every one of us is floating on the surface as the unique flowers that we are, but if you were to follow the stem down below the surface, you end up in the tapestry of stems, which is as real as the one, shining star on the surface of the water!

And perhaps that is why I am so drawn to Mary Ruefle’s text, because I am the result of sex, and love snow, and perhaps I love snow because I was born in January, and all my life I have had a rather touching inner soundtrack of my father’s feet walking away in blue plastic bags, like two blue water lilies on the white snow, from the hospital where I was born, down to the school where he works; he has forgotten to take the blue plastic shoe covers off because he is so overwhelmed by becoming a father, to me, and it is minus ten outside and the snow squeaks under the soles of his shoes.

 

V.

When I gave birth to my first child, I thought I was going to die. It took such a long time, the child turned with its nose up, and seemed to be stuck, I pushed and pushed and it didn’t help. The birth went on and on, and I got more and more frightened, and disappeared further and further into a strange stupor that I have never experienced since, but that may come again, when I say goodbye to everything, but now I gave birth to this child and would perhaps disappear myself, that was how it had to be, I let go of the idea of my continued existence, but something still remained, because ten minutes before she was born, the room was suddenly crowded because they thought they would have to take her out with forceps, I found out later, but then we managed all the same, and the child was lifted from me, screaming, in all the chaos, and I lay there and was still in a stupor, deep inside it, and I could not explain it to anyone, it was as if I was not there, and would never resurface, but then suddenly an elderly woman appeared by my bed, dressed in white. It was not Mary Ruefle. She was a pediatric nurse, and she said that they had forgotten to call her, because everything had happened so fast, and she was clearly angry. She had a narrow, fox-like face and short, grey hair and she leaned towards me, as she had obviously seen something in my expression. Her eyes were large and intensely grey as they looked deep into mine. Are you alright, she said, and it felt as though she was luring me back, her eyes pulled me out, maybe she was an ordinary, assertive person, but her eyes were not ordinary. And even though I know that it happened, and I know that she stood there, it is as though it never happened. As though she pulled my soul out through a mirage of grey eyes that saw straight into me.

 

VI.

Which is more or less what it was like to study literature at the University of Bergen. I had read popular fiction and not Dostoevsky for a reason: to protect my unique genius. My originality had to be protected so it was not infected by anyone else. Because what would be the point then? If I was to plant my flag where everyone else has planted their flag, as Joni Mitchell said? If there was to be any point at all, I had to make my own flag and find a whole other planet. Which meant I had to avoid reading other writers, so I was sure that whatever I wrote came from me and me alone. That was the only way I would be able, for example, to write texts that would combine utterly incompatible elements, like the idea of birds deep in the bushes and snow falling on gravestones and sex—if that was to spring to mind once upon a time in the future.

Reading books that my intellect recognized as being less original, meant not only that I could actually read books (after all, there was nothing I liked more than to read), but I could also protect what was unique, special, particular to everything I might think and write in the future. The only problem was that there is a limit to how much chestnut hair and hazel-brown eyes a person can tolerate, and the question of whether the vagina would burst or not (which, of course, it didn’t! Everything was perfect, of course!) and whether they would get each other in the end or not, ceased to be interesting after a hundred repetitions, so I solved the problem: I stopped reading altogether. Until my father suggested that I should study literature at the University of Bergen, when I finished school.

I had thought of applying to the Academy of Creative Writing in the same town, so I could become a writer, but my father said that I could not afford a whole year without earning any study points, he thought it would be just as good to study literature. The problem was, naturally, that then I would have to read, and what to do then with my fear of being influenced, and how, to make an enormously long story which we cannot be bothered to tell short, did you feel when you had been reading the classics for a year and discovered that you were not the only person in the history of literature who had struggled with the same issue, that even the fear of being influenced was not original, and what did you feel when you found out that there was even literary theory about it, for example in the book The Anxiety of Influence, by Harold Bloom, and did you start to cry when you read these words: “Poetic Influence is the passing of Individuals through States, in Blake’s language, but the passing is done ill when it is not a swerving. The strong poet indeed says: “I seem to have stopped falling; now I am fallen, consequently, I lie here in Hell,” but he is thinking, as he says this; “As I fell, I swerved, consequently I lie here in a Hell improved by my own making?”

Yes. I did in fact cry when I read Harold Bloom’s The Anxiety of Influence, I confess, and I sat down and wrote a poetry collection with the epigraph “There I am again,” from Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, where nothing at all happens, as we all know, twice. And I laughed when I read about Emma Bovary, who lost herself in romantic literature. And I shook my head when I read about Don Quixote who lost himself in courtly literature, and transformed himself into a knight. The books were full of exclamation marks. “No, not again!” it might say in the margin of a book where I discovered that what I had thought myself had been thought by a completely different person about two thousand years before, when they looked up at the moon and felt lonely. “No!” it says in the margin of the Emily Dickinson poem: “Perhaps I asked too large / I take – no less than skies – / For Earths, grow thick as / Berries, in my native Town. . . .” Because I had just decided to call my poetry collection Slave to the Blueberry.

 

VII.

“When someone transforms you, can you tell?” asks the Finnish-Swedish Tua Forsström in a poetry collection. Perhaps the answer is yes, you notice it in those moments when you come into contact with the fact that you have a soul. And that a soul is not something that is alone. That year of reading was a year of transformation. The snow still fell on the gravestones. The wind still shook the trees, the stars still shone in the sky. People wore yellow dresses in Italy, people forgot to take off the plastic shoe covers when they left institutions where you have to wear plastic shoe covers if you want to wear shoes indoors, other people experienced a fear of dying when they brought new people into the world. The water lilies kept being water lilies, etc. And yet nothing was the same.

Translated by Kari Dickson

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The preceding is from the Freeman’s channel at Literary Hub, which features excerpts from the print editions of Freeman’s, along with supplementary writing from contributors past, present and future. The latest issue of Freeman’s, a special edition gathered around the theme of power, featuring work by Margaret Atwood, Elif Shafak, Eula Biss, Aleksandar Hemon and Aminatta Forna, among others, is available now.

Gunnhild Øyehaug
Gunnhild Øyehaug
Gunnhild Øyehaug is an award-winning Norwegian poet, essayist, and fiction writer. Her novel Wait, Blink was made into the acclaimed film Women in Oversized Men’s Shirts. She has also worked as a coeditor of the literary journal Vagant and Kraftsentrum. Øyehaug lives in Bergen, where she teaches creative writing.





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