Singer suffered from a peculiar sense of shame that didn’t bother him on a daily basis but did pop up occasionally; he would remember some sort of painful misunderstanding that made him stop short, rigid as a post, with a look of despair on his face, which he immediately hid by holding up both hands as he loudly exclaimed: “No, no!” This might happen anywhere at all, on the street, in a closed room, on the platform at the train station, and he was always alone whenever it occurred, although he could be in places where other people were gathered, passing him in both directions, for instance on the street or in a park, or in an exhibition hall, and these people would see him stop, rigid as a post, holding his hands in front of his face, and they would hear him exclaim those despairing words: “No, no.” Or he might be suddenly overcome with shame over something that had happened long ago, a specific scene from his past, most often from way back in his childhood, a memory that would pop up without warning, and again he would raise both hands in front of his face as if to hide as those despairing words burst out: “No, no.” One such specific childhood memory that filled him with this sort of intense shame happened to pop up when he was in the process of moving to Notodden, he was thirty-four years old back then; but it also popped up now, more than fifteen years later, at the time this is being written, and right now it was as raw and unexpected as when he was thirty-four or even twenty-five, for that matter.
So this childhood memory must have had great significance for him, and it offers an insight into the underlying pattern of his life, although it distinguishes itself as something that has been rejected or expelled from this underlying pattern, as something he does not want to acknowledge. It is, in all its “insignificance,” a burden he cannot bear to carry, and yet—Singer must admit this—it is undeniably an important part of himself, its very presence, despite his palpable rejection, something to which he cannot respond without being paralyzed by an agonizing feeling of personal shame.
In brief, the incident goes like this: Singer and A (who is his best friend) are in a store that sells toys. A has picked up a supposedly amusing windup toy, which he winds up to show Singer how it works. The women sales clerks are not happy, and sooner or later they step in to tell A to stop doing that; Singer doesn’t think the windup toy is especially amusing, but he pretends he does in order to please A, and he does so in a strident voice with forced laughter that no doubt gets on the nerves of the sales clerks. Suddenly Singer notices that his uncle is in the store and has probably been there for a while. His uncle is watching him. Singer sees that his uncle is looking at him as he loudly tries to please A with his forced voice and feigned laughter. Singer sees that his uncle looks astonished. Singer is embarrassed.
“It was his uncle’s presence that had evoked the feeling of shame. It wasn’t the laughter itself, but the fact that he’d been seen.”
His uncle greets him and offers a few mundane comments. Singer greets him in return, and then he and A slip out of the store. They head down the street, scurrying along, looking in store windows at random, stepping into an entryway, stepping back out, roaming here and there; an ordinary afternoon in a small town for anyone growing up who’s still a child, near the coast in the Vestfold county of Norway. But something has happened that has stuck with Singer and will make him remember this incident decades later, something that embarrassed him and will continue to embarrass him whenever he thinks about it. It’s not the fact that his uncle saw them acting in such an uncouth manner. It’s not because he was being a naughty boy that Singer felt embarrassed, even though that was exactly what he was. He and A had gone into the toy store and proceeded to do whatever they liked. They had boldly started playing with the toys on display. It’s true that when his uncle showed up, they left at once, but neither Singer nor A felt embarrassed because Singer’s uncle had seen them doing whatever they liked in the toy store. Singer wasn’t even afraid that his uncle might tell his father; if he did, it really didn’t matter, and Singer knew that. He could calmly set off after leaving the store to roam the streets, going in and out of an entryway, with his cap askew and mischief radiating from his boyish figure.
It was something else that his uncle had caught him doing, something that brought a look of astonishment to the man’s face when he caught Singer at it. The loud, forced voice, the feigned laughter. That was what his uncle had observed, and with a sense of astonishment that made Singer feel embarrassed, even ashamed, decades later. Not because of the laughter itself, but because his uncle had observed him laughing in that strident and phony manner. In terms of A, to whom the laughter was directed in an attempt to please him, it made no difference that Singer had carried on in such a duplicitous fashion, even if A might have noticed this. If he had, and if he’d asked his friend, once they were out on the street, why he’d acted in such a phony manner, Singer could have simply denied it. Or he could have confirmed it and said that A had bored him with his childish behavior, but he didn’t want to offend him and so he’d tried to laugh along with him, though he couldn’t quite pull it off. In other words, Singer wasn’t embarrassed by his own forced, childish laughter when it came to the person the laughter was intended for, even if that person had noticed and pointed it out.
It’s possible to imagine Singer being able to laugh like that in other contexts, for instance at home, which would have annoyed his father, prompting him to tell his son to stop that fake laughing. Then Singer would have been a little embarrassed, but mostly offended. And if his father had mentioned it to others, such as his uncle, saying that he was displeased by his son’s strident, false laughter, and if he said this in front of his son so that he heard him, then Singer would have felt insulted, even betrayed, and he would have never forgiven his father. But he wouldn’t have been embarrassed.
It was his uncle’s presence that had evoked the feeling of shame. It wasn’t the laughter itself, but the fact that he’d been seen. And by someone who knew him and who was astonished. Astonished by Singer’s affected voice, by the way he was laughing. Astonished that Singer, whom he knew so well, would suddenly, when thinking he was unseen, utter such a horribly phony laugh. So loudly. So fake. Caught in the act, and possessed of such a false laughter. A child. Caught and exposed. Singer hoped that his uncle wouldn’t mention it at home. Even if he would have only felt insulted and not embarrassed if his father had caught him laughing in that way, he still fervently hoped that his uncle wouldn’t mention it at home. Because he knew what his uncle would say if he did. He’d known all his life what his uncle would say. That Singer had such a “strange” laugh. He was convinced—even today as this is being written—that his uncle wouldn’t have said that Singer had such a phony laugh, or a forced voice, but that he’d had such a “strange” laugh.
“To other people, he might appear as a distinct and clear personality, but in his own mind he is vague, even anonymous, which is what he prefers.”
That’s actually the extent of it. A minor, inconsequential incident in Singer’s life, remembered from his childhood. The fact that he once felt embarrassed at being observed by his uncle is not all that difficult to understand. What is less understandable is why this incident should settle so permanently in his subconscious, occasionally popping up as an image in his conscious mind, so that he not only recalled feeling embarrassed at the time but continued to feel embarrassed whenever the incident popped up, even experiencing a profound sense of shame at the memory.
When this book begins, Singer is thirty-four years old and in the process of moving to Notodden to start a new phase in his life. Looking back, he sees that his life has been marked primarily by restlessness, brooding, spinelessness, and abruptly abandoned plans. To other people, he might appear as a distinct and clear personality, but in his own mind he is vague, even anonymous, which is what he prefers. Should he feel shame for that reason? No, and normally he was not tormented by such feelings. So why couldn’t he deal with the embarrassment of his childhood—when he was observed by his uncle as he uttered such unnatural and forced laughter—without being overwhelmed by an unbearable feeling of shame on his own behalf? This was both quite annoying and a mystery to him.
There were also other incidents of an “erased persona” that popped up in his mind and overwhelmed him in a similar fashion, incidents that weren’t linked to his childhood but might be things that happened to him as a grown man, in some cases even quite recently. Incidents that had to do with awkward mistakes, or misunderstandings, if you will.
Singer enters a dark room, a room where a movie is going to be shown, or the setting of a jazz concert. Singer is running a little late, and he sits down at a table, joining others whom he knows. This might be right before the film starts or the jazz concert begins, and the light is dim, so that he catches only glimpses of faces in the dark, if at a jazz concert, faintly illuminated by the candles on the tables. He says something to the man next to him, who is B. But B looks astonished and replies in a somewhat disoriented manner, as if he doesn’t quite understand why Singer said what he just said, even though what Singer said isn’t the least bit remarkable. Then Singer understands that it’s not B sitting next to him, but K. The instant he realizes that he is guilty of a misunderstanding, he feels totally disconcerted and doesn’t know what he should do. He feels like disappearing, sinking through the floor in the classic sense, but unfortunately that’s not possible, no matter how dark it is, nor can he make use of the dark to simply run away, because the damage has been done, and K knows full well that Singer is the one who has sat down in the vacant chair next to him and then addressed him in that odd fashion. Odd for K, because Singer doesn’t usually talk to K in that way; B is the one he usually addresses in that manner, which would seem natural in that case, while with K it seems unnatural, and that is why K was taken aback. And Singer is sitting next to him, feeling mortified.
From T Singer. Used with permission of New Directions. Copyright © 2018 by Dag Solstad.