Friday, February 18, 2005

The ethics of the subject

One of the more aggressive literary discussions in Norway at the moment has been started by a former friend of the young female writer Hanne Ørstavik from Ørsta (right next to Volda). Solveig Østrem is a PhD student and works at Vestfold College. In an article in the journal Samtiden she attacks her former friend for using too many details from their common past, and not in a manner particularly flattering for Østrem. (articles and links in Norwegian)

At first reading, this looks like two women who at one point were extremely close, then they hurt each other deeply. But who's the one who is abusive here?

Hanne Ørstavik uses glimpses of the former friendship to give her characters flesh and bone. Names, mannerisms, habits get described in different contexts in several of her books, and Solveig Østrem feels that they are consistently used negatively. So what Solveig Østrem does is call her friend, and then quote the obviously painfully passionate response in her article - a private telephone conversation between two friends quoted publicly with the full name of the participants. What Solveig Østrem does not quote is her own words - she says she asked a reasonable question in what she considers a reasonable tone of voice. She never quotes the other responses of Ørstavik to these questions, only the angry outburst at the end. Østrem also does not tell us if she ever told Hanne Ørstavik that she would use the conversation in an article in a journal.

Literary history is full of authors who with more or less discretion use real people as their models, and of their models attacking them for this. Østrem didn't have to use the painful scene with the rather nasty quote in order to illustrate her point and write her semi-scholarly article. She would have written a better and stronger article by doing a bit of research into the topic through literature and other discussions. What that quote and this angle gets her though, is attention.

Østrem's article offers a great and juicy piece of gossip. It tastes of love betrayed, of a friendship between girls which is more than a friendship (she quotes letters from Ørstavik, picking passages which makes them sound like love-letters), and then heartbreak as a man comes between them. This is the ancient story of how women drift apart when a man comes into the life of one, one moving on, the other dwelling on the pain and hurt, carrying the bitterness with her to let it colour her life. What a scene for Solveig Østrem, what drama: desired by a creative and well-known artist, revenge through literature, family values being criticised through endless rewrites (marriage, the birth of three children - Østrem writes that her breasts are no longer big as Ørstavik describes them, not after breastfeeding three children), and more than a hint of Ørstavik's obsession with what was between them.

With a few lines Østrem positions herself as the desired piece of the drama, but at the same time innocent of it (where are the words Østrem spoke to Ørstavik at this time? How did the cards and letters she wrote sound? Did she share a warmth which she then withdrew, closing Øsstavik out of her life?) She claims to have thought theirs was a warm, but innocent friendship, she thought they understood each other, she thought what happened was just that they drifted apart as Ørstavik got new interests, and she repeats this in articles and interviews, calm, rational, composed, quite impressive for a woman who feels she has been used.

Ørstavik says nothing.

I have to admit, I don't like Hanne Ørstavik's books. They are too heavy, dwelling too much on dysfunctional relationships and dark drama, too impenetrable in the language, too emotional in their topics. Give me a good fantasy and a heroine that saves the world. There are enough dysfunctional relationships, I don't need to read about them on the time when I want to rest and recuperate. But I don't like Solveig Østrem's article either, and the reason is that Østrem does the same thing that she claims Hanne Ørstavik does, but she does it with a full name, she points the finger, she identifies the character she paints, she publishes private letters, she quotes private conversations without making the slightest attempt at hiding the identity of the other.

I don't know what really happened between Solveig Østrem and Hanne Ørstavik. My guess is, they don't know, either. For Ørstavik this relationship (probably like many other life experiences) has given voice and shape to a topic she struggles with in book after book. For Østrem it has sparked an interest - not in literature, but in the ethics of the writers. Ørstavik does however still put some kind of filter between her life and the reader. Østrem uses no such filter, she identifies herself as the source of this recurring theme in another woman's writing.

And all I can see is two women who once thought they loved each other, both in pain and angry. Such a sad story. Perhaps Hanne Ørstavik writes a book about it soon. I'd buy that one.

(For Norwegian readers, more on Hjorten's blog, or in the links to the debate through Samtiden.)

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