Each and every leaf is unique. And yet not, the leaves grow together and clothe the tree like a unifying thought: we are the tree. The tree is us. We are spring, summer and autumn. In the winter we’re gone, laid beneath the soil. Dead and overgrown. In the winter we dissolve. The winter is when we die.
Love, the eternal flame that has sparked many a tale of passion, loss, betrayal. So often two essential human experiences, love and death, are bound in life and literature, but leave it to Norwegian writer Tomas Espedal to turn the classic love story on its head with his tale of a protagonist who is committed to keeping a self-imposed date with death—decided a year in advance without any idea of how or where he will meet it—a commitment that is challenged when he unexpectedly falls in love and his new girlfriend becomes pregnant with his child.
As ever, the Espedal hero/anti-hero is a complicated and conflicted character. His narrators are often outsiders, lonely and lovelorn. His last two books, Bergeners and The Year, feature a writer named Tomas whose wife has left and daughter moved away. His latest to be published in English, again translated by James Anderson, is Love, a slender novella centred around “I,” that is, a person referred to as I—a name rather than a pronoun, but clearly a choice that blurs the distinction—who has abandoned love. After the death of his first wife and six years after the end of a second long-term relationship, he is living alone in his childhood home. A writer who has enjoyed some success and experimented with living for better or worse, now that I has made “the exquisite decision to die,” he is filled with a fresh new purpose. He wants a good death, a beautiful death, and he has granted himself one last year to live his best possible life in anticipation of that final moment. Go out on a high, he might say.
Love is a most unusual novella. With a protagonist called “I,” the third person narrative has an initially jarring feeling. Once one gets used to the oddness, the occasional sentence that naturally reads as a first person statement reminds you of the internal otherness of the character whose thoughts and feelings you are following so closely. Not long after his springtime commitment to one final year of life, I is invited to join some friends for a week in Loire where they have rented a large house. He purchases a one-way ticket to Paris and makes his way by train to where they are staying. He knows everyone there except two women, Rie and Aka. He keeps his distance from them, in fact he prefers to enjoy all his friends from afar. Yet when the week is over, he announces that he is planning to walk to Paris and wonders if anyone would care to join him. To his surprise, Aka offers. She is young—thirty-two years-old to his fifty-six—carefree, confident and creative. I is smitten, but he’s careful to maintain his space. By the time they reach Paris he is in love. At an exhibition of the work of Dutch photographer Ed van der Elsken it happens:
I had lost faith in a new love, nor did he want one; but here in the gallery amongst the van der Elsken photographs, standing behind Aka, who suddenly turned and kissed him, he was struck by something unexpected, like a bolt of lightning, or a shaft of light, as if the light from the photographs flashed into his eyes and exposed an inner picture, a picture of Aka and himself as lovers, as a couple; he was filled with a yearning for love.
The advent of a passionate love affair gives I the desire to live, but also causes him to wonder if this is not the perfect time to die, right at the height of happiness? A romantic death. And as the seasons pass, these paradoxical desires will intrigue and trouble him.
Naturally he tells Aka nothing of the pledge he has made. When she discovers she is pregnant and wonders if she is ready to become a mother he insists he does want to have a child with her. Yet he remains torn between the longing to live and the notion that it is the knowledge that he intends to die that heightens the exhilaration he feels in his relationship with Aka. He cannot stop thinking about where and how he will come to take his last breath even as doubts about his decision and the desire to live both continue to plague him. What unfolds is an existential exploration of the tensions tearing I apart inside. As he reveals more of his past experiences with difficult, painful deaths, one can imagine what he might be hoping to avoid, but it seems I is as afraid of life as he is afraid of dying. Or of simply growing old. The past holds a series of lives of loves and losses and the future holds, what, more of the same?
The drinker empties his life of content, fills his life with meaning. The drinker fills his life with death. Those who have been close to death know how beautiful life is. And life is beautiful and precious because death has set its mark upon it. The sick will be cured. The dying will live. But I wanted to die. It was this resolution that made his life beautiful. Which filled his last year with meaning.
Spare and poetic, this slender volume raises infinitely more questions—ethical and existential—than it answers, its weight and intensity resting in the strange contrary emotions of a man who is possibly happier than he has ever been, steadily making his way through a year of doubt, delight and determinedness toward a destination at once individual and universal.
Love by Tomas Espedal is translated from the Norwegian by James Anderson and published by Seagull Books.