Autumn – A fragment


It is autumn. Its rough weather has come in all its might. It is as if the vidde [1] outside is fighting to keep its youth, for the sake of its flowers and animals. As one sits and feels another leaf falling, another spikelet is torn from the loam. After some time, there is one, watch him go, he glides over all roots, all loam, all heather, he walks nonstop, in step with the rain. In his face is revealed a rooted sorrow, and he goes from place to place. Against his will he goes, and yet he must tread night after night to lay flat the fields, straw for straw, and to strip the branches, leaf for leaf.

Last night I was sitting and imagining this, when suddenly there was a sound of footsteps from the stairs. This had to be him–the only person I have known well in this region. He usually comes when the weather is like this. He stays away for weeks, but when it rains or storms, then I can be quite sure of his coming. When he approaches, he often avoids eye contact, but gives me a hard handshake without saying anything or just mumbles a kind of “Good evening.” We sit down in silence.

It seems difficult for him to get away from his companions, the wind and rain. A long time often passes before he says anything. Occasionally, he stands up and takes a few steps, pulls aside the shade and looks over the vidde.

Such peace comes over me when he’s sitting here. And yet, most of the time there are terribly sad lines across his face. I have never before seen a face so powerful that could look so weak. Something quite tender can appear in it when he talks of nights he has spent fishing, and what has passed through his mind.

He is tall. His strong arms hang down as if he were ashamed of his power and would rather refuse it. He walks with his back slightly hunched. But he doesn’t have to. He has eyes of a bright blue color that must have been so lovely when they were still clear and happy.

In the end, he gets livelier. But he says very little about himself and nothing about his past. He likes best to talk about all sorts of things that he is pondering, and our talks usually begin with him, without any preparation, throwing out a provocative statement.

This is how it started yesterday when he said:

People only think about understanding how to live, never understanding how to die. Day after day, they should be learning how to die. Not that they should strangle their urges and desires, but they shouldn’t pay so much attention to them. They should sleepwalk in a way, so that the great dream of the world can come to them, so ideas can grow into words.

He stopped talking for a moment, listened to the rain. It was as if there was will and ferocity in those drops. Then he continued:

Death is not nothing. Nothing is given. The Nirvana-desire comes from fear of suffering. Suffering, suffering, is exactly what we should desire. What is life other than an opposition to something outside of oneself, something that tries to shape us, something that is in opposition within every person. Not because this in itself will bring new riches to life in this world. No, just to assert it, to be power hungry. He who understands death does not fight against the wise forces he does not know; he accepts that which swells strongest and sings finest in him. Nature understands better than us to enjoy life on earth, it understands death, it wants to die!

I told him what I had just been thinking about before he arrived: that nature too fights against the destructive forces and wants to live as long as it can.

On the contrary–he continued–I believe that nature is at its most beautiful when it fades. Nothing dies as beautifully as leaves. They dress in the warmest, most beautiful colors that the earth has. They embrace death, they long to feel the tearing in the change that is going through them. Willingly they bow to the rain, let it glide flatteringly over them, and because they are not swayed by its friendly powers, death becomes so slow, so wondrously delicious.

* * *

He’s been with me all day. I watch him sitting there, leaning back in his chair with his head bent forward. The gas lamp hisses and casts a golden tint over his upturned brow; a closed pride rests on his long, narrow face with its pointed beard, but at his first word this pride melts into a feminine delicateness. It is as if a woman has taken a place inside him and transformed him in her image.

I’ve seen him, how he sometimes raises his head and half listens to the rain, as it endlessly, endlessly whips against my big window that faces west, where first is the vidde, then the sea.

Gradually, as the room becomes strange and looming, an old chronicle from the bookshelf, whose title I half consciously read, turns into more than a book, from it forgotten times start to wander out: a castle of granite, a table of oak, a hall that is lit from above, heavy skins of wild beasts form tapestries.

Then I imagine him, lowering his eyelids, beginning to think out loud:

I hold dearly the night. It is as if the night does not exist. All the time people preach about the splendor of the sun and the day. Of course, they have splendor for the eye and the senses. But there are also chambers in us that the sunlight does not reach, into which only the night dares to tread.

Just in that moment when the others have left and the chatter is immediately gone, and when you turn on a light that does not pierce the darkness, have you noticed how both elements get richer and deeper, how they play on more strings–and how you can hear and see more sharply? The sun obscures the outlines, at night things have personality.

It is true, there is something melancholy about it. But doesn’t melancholy bring forth many things in us that happiness and sunshine can never know?

There is an unending, echoing reservoir within the depths of darkness; from it comes to meet us those spirits who have been there since eternity, hidden from the senses.

When he speaks, it is as if he sees his own words in the air a bit ahead of him. I have been wondering, has he always been this way or have the things he experienced made him like this? He appears, however, to be destined to carry storms on those shoulders and have clouds gather around his neck.

There is something unearthly about him. He fits in well with autumn, now that it has come. Sometimes a puff of sea-salt blows into the vidde, one that has sailed so long to get here, and with it drifts new chains of thought. So, in a similar way, bitter words have disrupted his silence. Behind it, are there breaking waves?



[1] A vidde is a specific form of Norwegian woodland that refers to a geographical area that lies around or above the tree line, especially in Norway, with limited or crippled tree growth. Well-known Vidder are Hardanger, Røros, and Finnmarksvidda. Several of these have wild or domesticated reindeer strains.


Sigbjørn Obstfelder

Sigbjørn Obstfelder was a Norwegian writer of the late 19th century, close friend of Edvard Munch, inspiration to Rainier Maria Rilke, and father of modernist Norwegian poetry. His poem “Jeg Ser” is known by all Norwegians and mimics the sense of alienation found in Munch’s famous painting The Scream.

Jordan Barger

Jordan Barger is a Philadelphia-based translator from Norwegian and French. He has worked in Norway at the Ivar Aasen Center in Ørsta. He translated Sigbjørn Obstfelder’s 1894 novel The Cross.

English translation copyright (c) Jordan Barger, 2020. The translator would like to thank his editor, Marianne Bakke.