Sunday, June 23, 2013

He didn't understand it at all (Knut Hamsun, The Queen of Sheba)


Ha, he asked me what class! Clearly the man didn't recognize me and hadn't read any of my books. I gave him the answer he deserved:
'First class.'
I paid and took my seat.
Night came and my unpleasant fellow-passenger had stretched out on his seat, eyes closed, in complete silence, without even a glance in my direction. How was I supposed to pass the time? I couldn't sleep, I was on my feet constantly, checking the doors, opening and closing the windows, freezing, yawning, keeping an eye out for the queen. Inwardly I began cursing her.
Finally, finally morning came. My fellow-passenger sat up and looked out of the window. Shortly afterwards, wide awake, he began reading again, still without looking at me. His book seemed to be endless. He annoyed me. I began singing and whistling to irritate him, but he declined to be irritated. I wished with all my heart I was back with the foot and mouth disease again rather than this unresponsive and stuck-up bastard.
Finally I couldn't stand him any more. I said:
'Excuse me, might I enquire, how far are you travelling?'
'Oh,' he said. 'Quite a way.'
That was all.
'We ran over a cow yesterday,' I said.
'I beg your pardon?'
'We ran over a cow yesterday.'
And he read on.
'Will you sell me that book?' I blurted out in desperation.
'This book? No.'
There the matter rested. He didn't even permit himself a sideways glance. In the face of such obstinacy I gave up. Actually it was all that damn queen's fault that I had been forced into the company of such a person, she really had caused me no end of bother. But all would be forgotten when I met her, and oh I'd tell her all the troubles I'd had, I'd tell her about my article in the paper, about the person waiting and waiting for me in Malmo, about my journey first on the Stockholm line and then on the Kalmar line—dear lady! I would make a really big impression on her again. And not the slightest hint of a reference to those 0re surcharges and the 118 kroner.
And the train rolls on.
In my boredom I begin looking out of the window. The view is always and ever the same: trees, fields, plains, dancing houses, tele­graph poles along the line and at every station the usual empty goods wagons. Each wagon was marked Golfyta. What was Golfyta? It was not a number, not a person. Maybe Golfyta was a great river in Skane. Or a brand name. Or even a religious sect. Then I remembered: the Golfyta was a unit of weight. Unless I was very much mistaken there were 132 pounds in one Golfyta. But these were the old-fashioned pounds, so there would be nearer 133 of them to the Golfyta . . .
And the train rolled on.
How could that dumb idiot sit there in his seat hour after hour and just read? I could have read through a crummy little book like that three times in the time he took, but he was utterly shameless, puffed up with his own importance, podgy with learning. Finally his stupidity became utterly intolerable. I leaned forward, looked at him and said:
'I beg your pardon?'
He raised his eyes and gazed at me in astonishment.
'I'm sorry?' he said.
'I beg your pardon?'
He didn't understand it at all.
'What do you want?' he asked angrily.
'What do / want? What do you want?'
'Me? I don't want anything.'
'No. Neither do I.'
'I see. Then why are you speaking to me?'
'Me? Was I speaking to you?'
'I see,' he said, and turned away in anger.
After that we fell silent again.
And the hours pass, until finally the whistle blows for Kalmar.
Now for it. Now for the great battle! I stroke my chin, naturally I'm unshaven, as usual. A lack of foresight there, not having at stations along the line places where people could get themselves a shave in order to look half-decent for that important occasion. I wasn't demanding a permanent barber at every station, but surely one at every fiftieth station wasn't an unreasonable demand? With that I rested my case.


Knut Hamsun , «The Queen of Sheba», Tales of Love & Loss, A Condor Book, Souvenir Press, 2001, translated by Robert Ferguson

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