In this Quoted column, award-winning Norwegian writer Rune Christiansen provides the twin events, travelling through Jämtland, where the character of Lydia Erneman – from the new release of The Loneliness in Lydia Erneman’s Life in English (Book*hug Press) – came to be. He shares those moments, and how they’re connected to the book’s epigraph from an Edith Södergran poem, below.(With thanks to Kari Dickson for her translation.)
There is something peculiar, almost unfathomable about the phenomenon: my experience that I never really manage to get started on a novel until I have the title and epigraph in place. And this was true of The Loneliness in Lydia Erneman’s Life as well. The title came to me first – it came with a clear indication of what I wanted to explore in writing, it was an introduction to the theme of the story and yet was completely open, as I always like a title to be, plus I also wanted to use an almost classical device – to let the protagonist’s name be visible already in the title of the book.Many years ago, I came across on old veterinary text book in a second-hand bookshop in Östersund. The copy had a twisted spine, but was beautifully illustrated and soon I was engrossed in the anecdotes and descriptions of the demanding work that fills the daily life of a vet. And so it was, on a train journey through Jämtland, with the book in my lap, that I got the idea to write about a vet. Relatively soon after that I could picture the woman who would become Lydia, but she was completely static, as though in a photograph – no volition, no movement, no interior or surroundings, just a slightly fuzzy physiognomy, and a slim and strong woman’s body. Weeks and months went by without me being able to write. But then one late autumn evening, I remembered a rather trivial episode, not really something one could call an event, rather something banal and ordinary that became a mystery: on a car journey many years earlier, also through Jämtland, also in autumn. My girlfriend and I had been driving for more than half an hour through a rather remote countryside, when we saw a young woman walking along with a carrier bag in her hand. She was walking in the opposite direction, and after only a fleeting moment she was gone. I looked for her in the rear-view mirror and wondered, where on earth was she going in this deserted forest? And after we had driven for a good while longer, without seeing a house, I was struck by another question: where on earth had she come from? And then things started to happen. That was when I started to make notes about what would become the start of the novel, the triggering moment, if you like. I immediately linked it to the line from Edith Södergran’s poem: “You will live far from your home and be happy.” A sentence that carries so many possible interpretations: it’s almost an appeal, an encouragement to travel far from one’s roots in order to free oneself, to be oneself. It is also a prophesy, a warning, though not necessary threatening, but urging and passionate.
And this time, once again, it was only when the title was in place and the epigraph chosen that I could start on what slowly, but surely grew into the novel about Lydia. There is always something liberating about those moments when a quote talks to me in that way, that a line or two from a book I like give me the key to writing. I have never wanted the quotes, the epigraphs to be too clever, that they should act as well-articulated aphorisms at the start of the book – no, I always look for something indeterminate and open in these fragments, and I always use quotes that refer to my own reading, to books that I love. The epigraphs are somehow the essence of something I haven’t experienced yet, lived yet, and still, I feel they are decisive, a fragment of a thought that I need to plumb the depths of emotionally and existentially: “You will live far from your home and be happy.” What does that mean?
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Rune Christiansen is a Norwegian poet and novelist. One of Norway’s most important literary writers, he is the author of more than 20 books of fiction, poetry and nonfiction. He has won many prestigious awards, including the 2014 Brage Prize for his bestselling novel, The Loneliness in Lydia Erneman’s Life. Fanny and the Mystery in the Grieving Forest was shortlisted for the same prize and published in English by Book*hug Press in 2019. He is also a professor of creative writing. Christiansen lives just outside of Oslo, Norway.Kari Dickson is a literary translator. She translates from Norwegian, and her work includes literary fiction, children’s books, theatre, and nonfiction. In 2019, Book*hug Press published her translation of Rune Christiansen’s Fanny and the Mystery in the Grieving Forest, and, in 2021, her co-translation of Mona Høvring’s Because Venus Crossed an Alpine Violet on the Day that I Was Born. She is also an occasional tutor in Norwegian language, literature and translation at the University of Edinburgh, and has worked with the British Centre for Literary Translation (BCLT) and the National Centre for Writing. Dickson lives in Edinburgh, Scotland.