Thursday, 4 October 2012

AGNAR MYKLE Lasso Round the Moon (1954)

Panther Books UK, 1968

He went and stood behind her and took her by the shoulders.  She turned towards him and when he kissed her, she fell heavily against him.  He led her across the floor to the divan.  He thought –– 'Why am I doing this?  This is not love, I don't even know if it is love-making.  We don't want to be good to each other, just to have each other.  Now we are going to have each other, but in reality we shall have fought a fight with sword and dagger.  I hated her sparkling, twinkling, cheeky face from the moment she asked for a light; she hated my pale face from the moment I was about to walk past her table without paying any attention to her.  Now comes the avenging, now comes the fight and for place I have chosen my divan.  Now we shall have at each other: she at me.  I at her.  All right.  But why?'
  He laid her on the divan and she offered no resistance.  Now she had nothing on under her skirt, and she moaned for he was impatient and rough.

Translated by MAURICE MICHAEL (1960)

The NovelIt's no coincidence that the epigraph for Agnar Mykle's 1954 bestseller is taken from the title of Thomas Wolfe's posthumously published 1940 novel You Can't Go Home Again.  Like Wolfe, Mykle's novel concerns a young man's search for love and his attempts to come to grips with the past, the future and his as-yet unrealized artistic aspirations.  Unlike Wolfe, Mykle also deals with sexuality and male/female relationships in what was, for the 1950s, a remarkably frank and sometimes painfully honest way.

The book opens with Ash Burlefoot, its central character, boarding the train that will carry him back to the dull Norwegian town where he was born.  Now a successful composer, Ash has mixed emotions about returning to the home of his aging parents –– people he's never felt particularly close to and hasn't visited for years.  (He's returning home to attend the funeral of his younger brother, Balder.)  The journey draws him back into the past – as journeys of this kind so frequently seem to do –– reminding him of his first trip away from home, taken when he travelled to a remote northern town called Inner Pool to become the caretaker principal of its small but thriving business school.  He was twenty years old then – an ambitious if callow and pretentious young man, not long out of high school, tormented by lust but awkward with girls, desperate to find something –– art, literature or music – that would give his life the purpose and direction he feared it would permanently lack.

Inner Pool is a small community, populated by fishermen, miners and bored gossiping housewives.  It doesn't take long for Ash to cross paths with Gunnhild, a local waitress a few years older than himself.  They quickly become lovers –– a 'secret' which just as quickly becomes common knowledge among Ash's business school students and the nosy townsfolk.  Although Ash enjoys having sex with Gunnhild –– an uneducated woman who's had a hard and unrewarding life, filled with many affairs and drunken one-night stands –– and sometimes feels he might be on the verge of falling in love with her, he ultimately decides they don't belong together and ends their relationship, only to learn soon after he does that she's become pregnant by him.  This changes everything.  Ash must marry her, she says, and provide for her and their unborn child.

To buy himself some time, Ash accepts a new job running another business school in the even smaller, even grimmer town of Outer Pool.  He's lonely here, missing Gunnhild and wracked by guilt even as he does everything he can to avoid having to see her again.  Eventually he meets another woman –– a middle-aged divorcee named Siv whom he feels irresistibly drawn to both sexually and, more surprisingly, intellectually.  In time, Siv too becomes pregnant, although her attitude is very different to that adopted by the long-suffering Gunnhild.  Siv makes no demands of Ash and quietly arranges an abortion for herself, travelling alone to Oslo to have it performed while Ash stays in Outer Pool to face his other responsibilities.  Worn down by Gunnhild's nagging and his own paralyzing guilt, he allows her to go ahead and set a date for their wedding.

The wedding, however, never takes place.  At the last minute, Ash panics and returns to his parents' house in the south, insisting that he won't betray himself by marrying a woman he doesn't love but will do everything necessary to meet his financial obligations to her and their newborn daughter.  While living with his parents, hiding from the world as he works at a succession of menial jobs to earn whatever money he can in order to provide for Gunnhild and her baby, he receives word from Siv that it was 'too late' for her to go through with the abortion she planned to get.  She too, it appears, has given birth to a daughter.  Like Gunnhild, Siv also plans to keep her baby, prompting Ash to propose to her –– a proposal he intends to honour this time by actually going through with the ceremony.  But this, alas, proves to be nothing more than wishful thinking on Ash's part.  Siv soon receives a letter –– sent to her in secret by his interfering mother –– begging her to give her child up for adoption.  This is what Siv does, telling Ash it will the best thing for all three of them in the long run –– a decision he's reluctantly forced to accept as being the only practical one they can make under the circumstances. 

As the years pass, Ash realizes that he owes a great deal to these two very different women for educating him and giving him the confidence and freedom needed to pursue what, at the time he knew them, was his far-fetched dream of becoming a composer.  His return home, dreaded and delayed for so many years, becomes an unexpected opportunity to make peace with his troubled past and forgive himself for the foolish mistakes of his youth, including the neglect of his dead brother, Balder, whose unconditional, perpetually taken-for-granted love was the only 'true' love, he's now come to see, he's ever really known. 

Gyldendal Norway, 2007
Lasso Round the Moon is a far more interesting novel than the preceding plot summary might make it sound.  What raises it above the level of a mildly titillating sex melodrama –– its sex scenes are few and far between and not even eyebrow-raising by today's standards are its lyricism (reminiscent of Thomas Wolfe without being derivative of him) and its uncompromising honesty.  Ash isn't always a likeable character.  Nor, in many respects, is he always a sensible, pragmatic or sexually responsible one.  What makes him fascinating is his divided personality –– part libertine, part lover, part romantic dreamer and part clumsy, insensitive buffoon.  Mykle offers no easy answers to the problems that Ash's immaturity (and failure to wear a condom) create for Gunnhild and Siv because he sees, rightly, that there are no easy answers to such problems, that each human life is an experiment which must fail or succeed as our individual quirks and circumstances dictate.  The most incisive comment on the novel came from VS Naipaul – author of A House for Mr Biswas (1961) and no slouch as a novelist himself –– who wrote:  'Mykle is longwinded; he has certain rhetorical mannerisms, and his technique is clumsy [which may, in fairness, have been the fault of his translator].  But the sensibility is true, the passion genuine. The book is likely to attract attention because of its frank sexual detail.  But this detail is a necessary part of Mykle's theme, which is of development and discovery; it is of a piece with the intensity and honesty of the book.'  

'Intensity' is the word that best describes the theme and style of Lasso Round the Moon.  The book has dated –– what novel doesn't begin to show its age after fifty-eight years? – but it still burns with the flame of what it is to be young and passionate but socially unsure of yourself, tortured by the things you think you want but don't really understand how to get or keep.  It's about life and how tough it can often be to live it, which I for one would argue is what any true novel ought to be about.

The Writer:  Agnar Mykle was, in every respect, a martyr to the cause of free speech not only in his native Norway but also in the wider international sense.  The publication of Lasso rundt fru Luna ('Lasso Round the Moon') and its 1956 sequel Sangen om den røde rubin ('Song of the Red Ruby', which tells the story of Ash Burlefoot's university days) led to him and his publisher being prosecuted for obscenity –– a charge they were eventually acquitted of, although not before the trial it provoked ruined Mykle's career and all but destroyed his faith in humanity.  After the trial – which between 1957 and 1958 made him the most notorious writer in the world –– he went bankrupt, spent time in a mental institution and eventually became a misanthropic recluse, shunning all requests for interviews and photographs like a Scandinavian JD Salinger.

Mykle was born in the southern Norwegian city of Trondheim on 8 August 1915, the son of a housewife (who may have sexually abused him as a child according to Norwegian scholar Anne Luise Kirkengen) and a professional marching band musician.  Like his alter-ego Ash Burlefoot (or 'Ask Burleføt' in Norsk), he suffered from chronic asthma as a child and was frequently bed-ridden, forcing him to miss a lot of school.  He recovered sufficiently to attend a mercantile high school in Trondheim, from which he graduated, with outstandingly high marks, in 1935.  Between 1935 and 1937 he earned his living –– as does Burlefoot – as a teacher in several small schools located in the Finmark region of Norway, then a very remote area in the country's extreme north, bordered by Finland and Russia, mostly home to iron ore miners and their families.

Mykle married for the first time in 1936 and left teaching in 1937 to attend the Norwegian School of Economics in Bergen, obtaining a business degree he would ultimately never put to use.  During his student years he became closely associated with the Norwegian labour movement, writing speeches and scripts for short films and plays intended to dramatize its reforming socialist principles.  (It was his later lampooning of the organization in The Song of the Red Ruby that some scholars believe led to his prosecution for obscenity as a delayed form of revenge.)  He began writing and publishing short fiction around 1945 and published his first book of stories, Taustigen, three years later.  

In 1947, his first marriage over, he married his second wife Axeliane 'Jane' Holm.  Jane was a puppeteer and that same year the couple went to Paris to study the art of puppetry together.  This experience later led them to co-author a book about puppetry, Dukketeater, which appeared in 1956 and was for many years considered to be the most influential book on the subject (a universally popular form of entertainment during the late 1940s and early 1950s) ever published in their native Scandinavia.  They also founded and, for a time, served as co-directors of the Norwegian Puppet Theatre, a version of which still exists today. 

In 1951, Mykle went to London to study theatre and then to America to do the same as the recipient of a Fulbright scholarship.  Following his return to Norway he took a job with the Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation and divided his time between teaching, producing television documentaries and writing.  His first novel, Tyven, tyven, skal de hete, appeared in 1951, establishing what was to become an increasingly controversial reputation for sexual explicitness.  The novel was subsequently translated into English as The Hotel Room, but it was the translation of his second novel –– Lasso Round the Moon –– that would earn him the undivided attention of the English-speaking world.  The translated editions of Lasso Round the Moon and The Song of the Red Ruby would go on to sell in excess of one million copies, making him famous and, until his trial ended, one of the wealthiest people in Norway.  

AGNAR MYKLE (centre) during his obscenity trial, 1958
While being tried for and acquitted of obscenity didn't end Mykle's career, it certainly made it difficult for him to find publishers for his next two novels, neither of which came close to equalling the success (or the notoriety) of his previously published work.  He also ran afoul of the Norwegian version of the Inland Revenue Service, who sued him for failing to pay enough income tax on what the impressive international sales of his 'banned' books had earned him.  His marriage to Jane also broke up during his trial, leading him, in 1960, to marry a twenty-two year old girl named Toril Hofseth.  His marriage to Ms Hofseth also ended in divorce, although he did reconcile with Jane and eventually remarried her, living with her until 1978 when he moved out to spend the final sixteen years of his life in self-imposed seclusion (which apparently didn't prevent him from referring to himself, somewhat immodestly, as 'the greatest author in the world').  He was declared officially bankrupt in 1966 and published his last book, a story collection titled Largo, in 1967.

Agnar Mykle died in the Oslo suburb of Asker on 15 January 1994.  Dozens of articles and at least eight books about him and his work have appeared since his death and he is now considered to be the Norwegian DH Lawrence – an important, widely studied writer who bravely paved the way for the sexual permissiveness long taken for granted in the West.  His complete essays and letters were published in three volumes between 1997 and 1998.  A Danish film version of The Song of the Red Ruby a film he loathed to the point of personally declaring war on Denmark for having allowed it to be made –– was released in 1970.  A new cinematic adaptation of Lasso Round the Moon, to be directed by Sølve Skagen, was rumoured to be in production in Norway a few years ago but nothing has been sighted of it yet.  

Unfortunately, none AGNAR MYKLE's work is currently available in English translation.  Visit your favourite second-hand bookstore (or its online equivalent) if you're interested in reading Lasso Round the Moon (1954) and its sequels The Song of the Red Ruby (1956) and Rubicon (1966).  You can click HERE to read a short article by American author, critic and book buyer LEWIS MANALO about MYKLE's 1957 obscenity trial.  Please click HERE if you'd like to read a short explanation of what would now be diagnosed as MYKLE's Narcissistic Personality Disorder (DSM-IV) a condition which obviously affected every aspect of his life and made him difficult if not impossible to live with.

Grateful acknowledgement is made to LEWIS MANALO and PETRI LIUKKONNEN for publishing the online articles from which much of the biographical information included in this post was obtained.  Any factual errors it contains are entirely my own. 

You might also enjoy: 
THOMAS WOLFE Of Time and the River (1935)
BRIAN MOORE The Feast of Lupercal (1958)

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