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Sigbjørn Hølmebakk: Karjolsteinen (The Carriage Stone)

Our narrator, Olav Klungland, seems to be based on the author. He is a left-wing author, a member of the Communist Party. He is married with three children (Hølmebakk had several wives and eight children).

when we first meet him he is struggling with a novel. The words did not come he states and his wife, Vigdis, says Write anything that comes into your head just so that you get going, and revise it later. It gets more difficult when he is asked to write a speech for the Communist Party and then visit a very ill comrade. He is reluctant to do either but finally agrees to do both.

Jens Heimdal, the ill comrade, is clearly in bad shape and, indeed, dies the next day. However, on leaving the hospital, Olav bumps into a man he does not know but who recognises him – Eilif Grøtteland – who tells him that his wife, who is a patient in the hospital (a cancer hospital) is a keen reader of his books and is looking forward to reading his latest book. Indeed he says he would like to buy the book for her and have Olav inscribe it to her. Olav agrees. However, Eilif does not contact him.

For some reason, particularly to the surprise of his wife, Vigdis, a psychologist, he seems to have a mild obsession about Eilif contacting him. However, he manages to track down Eilif, who is staying in a hotel (they do not live in Oslo) while his wife is in hospital. When they get together, Eilif essentially tells him his life story, which takes up the bulk of the book.

We learn that Eilif has been a Lutheran minister but had lost his faith. I wish that I believed and I wish that I knew whether or not I once did truly believe.

Eilif came from a poor family. His father was a cooper but not a very good one. His older brother, Lars, was very controlling and bullied him. Lars, however, is very protective of his father. The factory where the father works is owned by Arnt and Eilif gradually learns that there is a rumour that Arnt may in fact be the biological father of Eilif’s father. One day, Arnt disappears. It seems that he may have killed himself by drowning and his body has been washed out to sea.

The factory essentially closes down and some of the men find work elsewhere while others emigrate to the United States. The father, however, stays at home, not communicating with anyone. He will eventually become insane and be sent to an asylum, where he will live another fifteen years. His removal is prompted by his attempt to kill himself, by throwing himself off the cliff. The cliff was famously locally as a couple of drunks had driven a carriage over the cliff. A large stone – christened the Carriage Stone by the locals – had been put there to prevent a recurrence of the accident.

Life is hard for the family but they manage. Eilif is bright and he finds out that Arnt has left money for him to study, which he does, eventually becoming a minister. Before that happens, he is attracted to Elna, the daughter of the minister and his feelings seem to be reciprocated. However, while he is away at his studies, Elna and Lars have started a relationship. However, when he returns, she gradually abandons Lars and moves back to Eilif. The couple get married, with Elna working as a teacher and Eilif as a minister.

The couple are in Finnmark but, when the Nazis left, they destroyed everything. The couple return home, and finds out that Eilif’s mother had died and Lars had become a Nazi. After the war he is arrested. It is what Lars tells him while he is in prison that destroys his equilibrium. He returns to his work. The couple now have a daughter, Lilian, but neither do his work or his marriage go well, though the couple struggle on, with Elna, as we know , finally getting cancer.

Not only does the dark soul of Eilif (and, to a certain degree, of Olav) hang over this book, so does death. Olav is, by his own admission, obsessed with death, for which Vigdis reproaches him but he retorts that, as a novelist, it is his profession. He would return to questions that he knew had no answer – questions about death and about the true meaning of life.

However, more importantly, Eilif faces it professionally and personally. Death was, for me, always the death of others, never my own. Now I felt its chill breath, he says when he fears he has cancer. But he has faced it more so with various family members, whose death has not been easy and, now at the end, there is the illness of Elna. Because he has become a minister but, by his own admission, is not suited to the job, he struggles, doubtless not helped by his problems with his brother and his father’s insanity.

Above all, in the tale he recounts to Olav, he is looking very much into his own dark soul, a man very much concerned with death and also unable to find any shred of happiness in his life but, rather, all too often seeing the dark side of life.

Hølmebakk’s skill is to give us a portrait of two men whose dark souls colour the whole novel and for whom life seems to hold nothing but problems. The cloud of death hang over them, from Jens Heimdal to Elna, but also other family members and also other images such as a cat stalking a sparrow which frightens Olav , the Carriage Stone story, almost repeated with Eilif’s father, and the grim subject of the novel Olav is writing. It is a first-class if thoroughly miserable novel.

Publishing history

First published 1975 by Gyldendal
First published in English in 19996 by Dufour Editions
Translated by Frances D Vardamis