The mystique of Espen Erichsen

Espen Erichsen - Painter. Live & work in Oslo, Norway. Educated at Vestlandets Kunstakademi, Bergen.


The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge. I think this story is a good addition to the pictures of Espen Erichsen. Rilke also conjures up images of the industrial revolution and the age of scientific progress that are suffused with anxiety and alienation. This semi-autobiographical novel is written in an expressionistic style, while Rilke lived in Paris. The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge addresses existential themes - the quest for individuality, the significance of death, and reflection on the experience of time as death approaches. Heavily influenced by the writings of Nietzsche.

. . . here, then, is where people come to live; I'd have thought it more a place to die in. I've been out. I've seen: hospitals. I saw a man reel and fall. People gathered round him, which spared me the rest. I saw a pregnant woman. She pushed herself heavily along beside a high warm wall, sometimes touching it as if to make sure it was still there. Yes, it was still there. And behind the wall? I looked on my map: „Maison d'Accouchement“.  Fine. They'll deliver her child; they're able to do that. Further on, in rue Saint-Jacques, a large-sized building with a cupola. The map gave: 'Val de Grâce, hôpital militaire'. I didn't actually need to know that, but it does no harm. The lane began to smell on all sides. It smelled, so far as I could make out, partly of iodoform, partly of the grease from the pommes frites, and partly of fear. All cities smell in summer. Then I saw a house strangely blinded by cataracts. It was nowhere on my map, but over the door and still quite legible were the words: 'Asyle de nuit'. Next to the entrance were the prices. I read them. It wasn't expensive there.

. . .it was the dogs that appeared to be the most affected; a room where everything gave off a smell afforded them an immensely exciting interlude. The tall, lean Afghan hounds occupied themselves running back and forth behind the armchairs, making long dance-steps in their swaying motion as they crossed the chamber, raising themselves on their hind legs like heraldic dogs, resting their slender front paws on the white gold window sill and with sharp, eager, furrowed faces looked to the left and to the right down into the courtyard. Little glove-yellow dachshunds had seated themselves on the wide, silk-covered easy-chair by the window looking as if everything were exactly as it should be, and a sullen-faced, wire-haired pointer rubbed its back against the edge of a gilt-legged table causing the Sèvres cups on the painted top to tremble.

Yes, for the absent-minded overslept items in the room, it was a dreadful time. At one point rose leaves, spilling from books that had been hastily and clumsily opened, whirled to the floor and were crushed underfoot; small, fragile articles were seized, instantly broken and then quickly put back; quite a number of things that had been bent were either stuck under curtains or even thrown behind the gold mesh of the firescreen; and from time to time something fell, fell with a muffled sound on to the carpet, fell with a bright sound onto the hard parquet floor, but breaking to pieces here and there with a sharp burst or an almost soundless one, for these things, cosseted as they were, could not possibly withstand any kind of fall [...]

. . . and when I think of the others I have seen or heard of: it's always the same. They've all had a death of their own. Those men who carried it in their armour, shut inside it like a prisoner; those women who grew very old and small and then on an immense bed like the ones on a theatre stage, in front of the whole family, the servants and the dogs discreetly and with dignity passed away. The children, even the really small ones, didn't have just any child's death; they braced themselves and died as who they were already and who they would have become.

And what a wistful beauty that gave to the women when they were pregnant and stood there with their slender hands restingly naturally on the large shape where two fruits were: a child and a death. And that tight, almost nourishing smile that took over their faces, didn't it sometimes come from sensing that both were growing?

I've done something to keep fear away. I've sat up all night writing and now I'm as tired as if I'd been on a long walk across the fields at Ulsgaard. It's really hard for me to think that all of that is no more; that strangers are living in the old long manor house. It's possible that the maids are now asleep in the white room up in the gable, sleeping their heavy, damp sleep from evening till morning.

And one has nobody and nothing and one travels the world with a trunk and a crate of books and, in point of fact, without any curiosity. What sort of life is that really: without house, without anything passed down to me, without dogs? At the very least one should have memories. But who has? Would that one's childhood were here now, it's as if it's been buried. Perhaps one needs to be old to be able to have contact with all that. I imagine it's good being old [...]

Since then I have thought a good deal about the fear of death, not without taking into account certain experiences of my own. I think I can probably say that I have felt it. It has come over me in crowded cities, surrounded by other people, has come over me often for no reason at all. Though it's true that often there have been plenty of reasons: take for instance when someone was sitting on a bench and the bench gave way and they all stood around and looked at him, and he was already far beyond feeling any fear: then I had his fear. Or that time in Naples when the young person sitting opposite me in the tram died. At first it looked like a faint, we even travelled on for a while. But then there was no doubt that we needed to stop. And the carriages behind us came to a halt all bunched up as if there was never going to be any traffic in that direction again. The pale, fat girl could well have died peacefully as she was, leant against the woman next to her. But her mother wouldn't allow that. She caused her all sorts manner of difficulties. She messed up her clothing and poured something into her mouth that couldn't keep anything in it any more. She rubbed her forehead with a liquid someone had given her and the moment the eyes rolled back a little she started shaking her to make them look forwards again. She screamed into those eyes that did not hear, she tugged the whole of the girl's body this way and that as if she were a doll, finally she brought up a hand and slapped the fat face with all her might so that it shouldn't die. That's when I took fright.

But I'd been afraid even earlier. For example when my dog died. The same dog that made me feel blameworthy once and for all. He was very ill. I had been kneeling all day beside him when suddenly he gave a short jerky bark as he used to do whenever a stranger came into the room. It was the type of bark that was reserved for such occasions, so to speak, and I automatically glanced towards the door. But the bark was already inside him. Worriedly I searched his eyes and he searched mine; but not to say our goodbyes. He looked hard at me; he was displeased. He was accusing me of having let it in. He was convinced I could have prevented it. It was evident that he had always overestimated me. And there was no time left for me to explain. Disconsolate and lonely he kept his eyes fixed on me right to the end.

Similarly I was afraid in autumn when the first flies came into the rooms and revived themselves one last time in the warmth. They were remarkably dried looking and were terrified by their own buzzing; you could see that they no longer knew quite what they were doing. For hours they never made a move until it occurred to them that they were still alive; then they flung themselves willy-nilly in any direction and had no idea what they should do when they arrived; you could hear them dropping down again here, there and everywhere. And they ended up crawling all over the place, slowly mortifying the whole room. But I could be afraid even when I was on my own. Why should I act as if those nights had never been, the nights when the fear of death caused me to sit up in bed clinging to the thought that sitting was at least something that only a living person could do; the dead couldn't sit up. This always took place in one of those chance rooms which deserted me immediately when things were going badly for me, as if they were afraid of being questioned and of being implicated my nasty affairs. There I sat and I probably looked so dreadful that there was nothing that had the courage to acknowledge me; never once did the candle, which I had obligingly lit, show it wanted anything to do with me. It shone as if it were in an empty room. My last hope every time was the window. I imagined that outside there still might be something that belonged to me, even now, even in my sudden desperate need in the face of death. But hardly had I looked towards the window when I wished that it had been barricaded, every inch, like the wall. For now I knew that out there things were going along with the same complete indifference, and that also out there was nothing except my loneliness. The loneliness that I had brought upon myself and to whose size my heart no longer bore any comparison. I thought of people I'd walked away from and I didn't understand how one could abandon people [..]

Rainer Maria Rilke - The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge

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