Svein Jarvoll - a voyage through a realm of the dead which isn’t situated in an obscure netherworld, but in an electric and eclectic present. Every sign moving around in this deteriorated space has lapsed into morbidity; the novel is a late medieval danse macabre with a modernist’s signature
Svein Jarvoll, En Australiareise (A Journey to Australia), 1988.
Not long ago, I wrote a brief post about the Norwegian writer Thure Erik Lund and his mind-boggling tetralogy Myrbråtenfortellingene. As you might already know, most of English-speaking readers first learnt about Lund from his mega-popular compatriot Karl Ove Knausgård. I have recently been told that there is one more Norwegian author mentioned by Knausgård whose writing is also challenging, experimental, difficult to translate and is little known outside his home country. The writer in question is Svein Jarvoll. His only novel En Australiareise (A Voyage to Australia) was published in 1988 and has since acquired a cult status among the few who have been capable of reading and appreciating it. The critical response, as usually is the case with challenging and unconventional novels, has mostly been that of puzzlement and incomprehension. Matthias Friedrich, the author of the German translation of the novel, which is scheduled for publication this year, has kindly agreed to write for The Untranslated a guest post about this remarkable work of literature.
In Boyhood Island, Karl Ove Knausgård reflects on the way his opinions have changed in the course of time:
Never, later in the life, have I had my finger on the pulse the way I had then with the girls living around us in those years. Later, I may have doubted whether Svein Jarvoll’s novel A Journey to Australia was a good or a bad novel, or whether Hermann Broch was a better writer than Robert Musil […].Throughout My Struggle, Jarvoll is mentioned three times: as the translator of Adam Thorpe’s polyphonic novel Ulverton, as a writer who is able to talk precisely about what he does, and as the author of a strange novel called En Australiareise. But there’s nothing more than that. “Svein Jarvoll” is a name that may appear in an annotated edition of My Struggle one day. However, he is just a footnote in a truncated literary history despite his influence on Norwegian postmodern writers such as Stig Sæterbakken or Tor Ulven who both have been translated into English.
En Australiareise was all but ignored when it was first published in 1988. One critic wrote about the novel’s “stylistic furor”, another needed to consult far too many dictionaries and lexica – but, of all things, was happy to find a reference to the Niffen, the sports club of Nordstrand (Oslo), in a passage of the novel which is a single run-on word: the so-called makrologos. And as Jarvoll said in an interview with the Norwegian magazine Vinduet, he once met a sailor in Northern Norway who told him that he had read En Australiareise, that he had expected a kind of personal account or autobiographical narration, but that he hadn’t understood anything of it.
What strikes the potential readers when they take a first look at the novel is its apparent nonconformity. It consists of two parts: Den gule boka (The Yellow Book) and Lonaquemor (which is Catalan for The Dying Wave). These two parts turn out to be very different from each other. The first one tells the story of Mark Stoller, a Norwegian traveller (although his name isn’t Norwegian at all) who sets off in València (Spain) and ends up in Australia. In between, he visits Ireland and undertakes a long train journey to Italy where sees Florence, Pisa, and Brindisi. The second part tells the story of Emmi who also travels; but she doesn’t leave Australia’s confines. Together with her friend Alice, Emmi battles her way through the jungle where her father Buster lives in a cabin, because she wants to visit him. In the cabin, she discovers a biography of a Norwegian anthropologist called Magnus C. Ztlohmul (who has a real-life prototype, namely the ethnologist Carl Lumholtz) and reads the book’s foreword before she decides to go back home.
Another thing that strikes the potential readers is its difficulty. The prose is dense, many texts are alluded to, and Jarvoll is quite ruthless when it comes to inventing new words which are impossible to track down, such as “Australopleust” in the first chapter; this means “one who is traveling through Australia”, but has a slight ironic touch. The novel takes in everything, from Dante’s Commedia and Rabelais’ Gargantua and Pantagruel to James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as A Young Man, also featuring lesser known poets such as the Catalan Ausiàs March.
The first part itself is divided into nine chapters (or episodes); the second one is a single run-on text. There is no strict plot as the story seems to rely on coincidences and caprices. Additionally, the characters – especially Mark Stoller and his Danish girlfriend Lone, who accompanies him on his travels from Spain to Italy – just appear to be human. In fact, they are media in the etymological sense of the term – accumulators of (linguistic) signs. Their names aren’t random. For instance, Mark compares himself to Ausiàs March and takes a closer look at a poem which contains these verses: “A temps he cor d’acer, de carn e fust:/ yo só aquest que·m dich Ausiàs March.” (Sometimes, I have a heart of lead, of flesh and wood:/I am the one who is called Ausiàs March.) This poem focuses on melancholy and dying, two themes which have a significant influence on Mark Stoller: In fact, En Australiareise is a long conversation with death and the European tradition of danse macabre. Despite its morbidity, the novel is hilarious and funny; it has a Rabelaisian touch; it contains a lot of Joycean scatology. It is experimental in the sense that it intends to sketch a manner of speaking about death, the so-called thanatology, and takes into consideration every text which deals with dissolution and exitus. Right in the first chapter, Mark announces that he wants to “spall out the ground” of Dante’s Commedia, which means that he doesn’t want to construct a vertical, symmetrical world (as Dante does), but a horizontal world which could be defined, in Deleuze and Guattari’s words, as dissymmetrical: a surface which seems to be empty, but erodes bit by bit and shows that it’s composed of different layers. It’s a geological landscape with a history of its own, but it is also arbitrary in the sense that it re-orients the traveller’s point of view; he or she must concentrate on the things visible and independently connect the dots which appear to be isolated. Thus, Mark is able to undertake a voyage which leads him through the European landscape of death; he himself becomes Dante who encounters many personalities, such as the painter Buonamico Buffalmacco, who is responsible for the Trionfo della Morte in Pisa; in a long and exciting discussion with this man who seems to be the reincarnation of the defunct uomo universale, Mark develops his thanatology and listens to Buffalmacco who himself outlines the developments of his (occasionally obscene) dream life.
Lone, whose name Mark derives from the Catalan l’ona, “the wave”, is the person who represents the novel’s style. Some elements appear as sinuated repetitions: it occurs frequently that some hypotexts, such as Dante’s poem, are transformed and parodied. Nevertheless, Mark’s etymology is false; in fact, Lone’s name is an abbreviation of the Danish Abelone, which itself is another form of Appolonia. As a cognate of the name of the Greek god of the arts (including poetry), Lone’s name sets the novel’s tone. “Lone, you whose name means ‘wave’ in Valencian, here I shall draw your contour in ten waves, and the contour which sketches the beginning of my own journey, a journey which traces a crooked M on the map” – and here, Mark lists the countries he is going to visit.
En Australiareise remains a novel ignored by the public, even in Norway, in spite of the re-issue, which was published in 2008 in Gyldendal’s series Forfatterens forfatter (Writer’s Writer). It is poet Mazdak Shafieian who is responsible for this second edition, and who has written an informative foreword which can be read in German. A German translation has been announced by Urs Engeler and is probably going to be released in the course of 2018; the novel’s very first chapter has already been published in the literary magazine Mütze. - Matthias Friedrich
Imagine if Dante hadn’t got lost in the dark woods, but rather on an empty, glaring surface. Virgil wouldn’t receive any order of Beatrice to come and save him; Dante would be alone like a son without his father. The blazing sun would nearly blind him, but gradually, he would learn to recognize the dark and scintillating spots which were moving on the plain’s surface. Well-known references to his previous life as a poet and politician would emerge in front of him: Human beings, disguised as linguistic signs, and the texts themselves, crumbled by the weather conditions and the past time. He’d step up to them. He’d want to touch them. But they’d escape him forever. Filled with bitterness and melancholy, he would walk over this hellish surface; he would sense its tectonic movements; he’d realize that it consisted of lamellate layers.
This parable might serve as a kind of preliminary explanation for Svein Jarvoll’s novel A Journey to Australia, a text which is loosely based on Divina Commedia. Right at the beginning, the first-person narrator Mark Stoller states that he wants to “spall out the ground” of Dante’s poem. Its vertical structure, based on the symmetrically arranged Inferno, Purgatory, and Paradise, cannot adequately picture the topography Mark envisages. He aspires to a horizontal surface which is totally flat and free of every striking constancy – a surface, though, consisting of multiple levels, which come into sight only after long meditations. They are composed of different time strata; on the ground level itself, Mark, who is the only visitor of this bizarre desert, can see scintillating, dark signs approaching him. They don’t seem to belong to each other, but bit by bit, he is able to discover vague similitudes; thus, he can unearth the past’s traces in the midst of what seems to be a flat present. Mark moves through this space, he travels, he sees, he registers. He himself is a complex composition of linguistic signs. Everything and everyone he encounters is a sign acting in Dante’s spirit, but it soon becomes clear that this is no simple imitation of the Commedia; the Italian poem implodes in a tragedy which at the same time is so heartbreakingly funny that it might be received as a comedy. Only pieces and fragments remain, splinters which Mark has to put together until a new, fragile ground appears under his feet. The result is a vast surface of references interacting with many other dimensions – although it is even, bromidic, plain.
This might sound as if the novel was only for those in the know, for a minority able to discover and identify each allusion to the most obscure and arcane facts. Of course it is: As one critic formulated it, Svein Jarvoll disposes of an “abnormal vocabulary” which is difficult to grasp. The whole book is a furious joyride, an eclectic combination of the vernacular and the silver-tongued, a catalogue of different stylistic levels, a juxtaposition of cock-and-bull-stories, pomowanker sophistries, mock attacks, mockumentaries, folk-etymological acadamese, unsavoury acrostics, immoral love-letters, pantagruelian wassails and banquets, of Irish knaveries, a poem in Ancient Greek, lists of irretrievable books, quotes in Latin, Italian, Catalan, German, French, English, and in other languages, some of them obscure, some of them amplified in a way which only can be characterized as a Joycean-Rabelaisian chitchat: the result is a Norwegian which hasn’t been heard before, a Norwegian cultivated and fostered in the midst of a blazing, Australian desert, a Norwegian consisting of gnarly roots and neatly trimmed twigs, sprawling willows and dry chunks of dust, of labyrinthine pleasure gardens and an exquisite cornucopia of dialectal insipidities, in short: a Norwegian which devotes itself to quite a few stages of its own development, from Riksmål to Bokmål and from Nynorsk to the most dubious patois.
But A Journey to Australia is no Oxen of the Sun. It doesn’t embrace the whole system of languages, only some parts of it. It adds new stratifications to a tongue which in its literary use often is devaluated as meaningless, trite, and vacuous. Paradoxically, the nebeneinander of Bokmål (the officialese) and Nynorsk (a standardized, dialectal form which is nearly exclusively utilised in written texts), as well as several hundred dialects, contributes to the conclusion that Norwegian is an immensely rich language. A fact Svein Jarvoll seems to be conscious about – he pulls out all the stops and styles an own, very dark manner of speaking: the so-called thanatology which offers a possibility to interact with the defunct.
If it has any purpose, A Journey to Australia is a voyage through a realm of the dead which isn’t situated in an obscure netherworld, but in an electric and eclectic present. Every sign moving around in this deteriorated space has lapsed into morbidity; the novel is a late medieval danse macabre with a modernist’s signature. Heinrich Knoblochtzer’s lithographical series Der doten dantz, published at the end of the 15th century, might have served as an inspiration for a protagonist who, while travelling, encounters various persons, all of them in some way associated with death. Mark sets off in València, moves on to Ireland, to Pisa, Florence, Brindisi, and Australia. These are the geographical fix points of his trip; nevertheless, there is more to know. First of all, he isn’t alone; his girlfriend Lone Øgaardmose, a Dane, accompanies him from Spain to Italy before leaving him. Mark comes across a Belgian alchemist; a Spanish Ausiàs March aficionado; a trucker who at the same time is a Greek scholar; an Italian who presents himself as the long-forgotten painter Buonamico Buffalmacco; an Australian poeta vates; a German art student called Pia Sorg; two maggots whose names are Jack and Jock; and a phuri dai who is a soothsayer.
Jarvoll’s novel doesn’t have to offer as many historical personalities as Dante’s poem. But it is clearly structured around the Divina Commedia, more precisely: the Inferno. It lacks Dante’s moral and theological background; however, it takes up some of its characteristics. Firstly, it is a nekyja, a journey through the Orcus. The alchemist intends to find a “new language” which is capable of describing the most obscure arcania; the Spanish annalist tells Mark about Ausiàs March who wrote the so-called Cants de la Mort (Songs about Death); the Greek scholar is an expert in Sappho’s fragmentarily conserved poetry, an occupation Mark also becomes involved in: he realizes that every hole (in the late medieval text, in the world) is affected by “a certain kind of fecundity”; together with Buffalmacco, Mark develops a thanatology, a discipline which is supposed to describe his experiences in this Dantean hell of death; the Australian poet gives Mark an understanding of that “notions like past and presence don’t mean anything” in a country which “has no arteries and no heart”; Pia Sorg introduces him to the art of reversing Neoplatonism into a phenomenologically inexact science; the maggots are his sole company after Lone has left him; in a psychotic dissociation, he begins to comprehend that his whole life has been a danse macabre; and the phuri dai tells him that there are more than one thousand ways to read her tarot cards, and that every single one of them is right. This modest try might demonstrate that the novel’s content is impossible to resume. Whoever makes a stab at pressing its overabundance into a Procrustean bed, must bear in mind that potential readers, unless they are unnaturally benevolent or generous, will criticize the Journey to Australia as unreadable, as utter, utter, rubbish, as the stutter and babble of a shipwrecked mind. But the lucky few who are able to appreciate its vast scope of references and its overarching language will find a book which is suitable for them – a book which seeks to unify the tactile and the abstract, North and South, the visible and the invisible, in short: a book which intends to overcome any dichotomization. - Matthias Friedrich