Photo Credits: Baard Henriksen
Geir Gulliksen (Norway, 1963) is a publisher and a writer; he has published a wide range of books, novels, poetry, children´s books and plays. His novel The Story of a Marriage was originally published in 2015 and is the first English translation to be published of his work. The Story of a Marriage was nominated for the Norwegian Critic’s Prize for Literature in 2015 and the Nordic Council Literature Prize in 2016. In this interview, Geir Gulliksen discusses a wide range of contemporary topics affecting people’s personal and domestic lives such as fear of loss, marriage, sex, and fatherhood. Providing an invaluable male perspective, Gulliksen takes the reader to the world of a middle-class marriage as we see it starting, changing, and finishing. The Story of a Marriage will be published by Penguin in May 2018.
Your book The Story of a Marriage echoes Scandinavian classics such as Strindberg’s collection of stories Getting Married (1884-86) and Bergman’s film Scenes from a Marriage (1973). Would you place your novel within the tradition of Scandinavian domestic fiction?
Yes, I would place my novel in this tradition even if I didn’t realize myself that I was waving to Bergman with the title. I feel at home within this tradition. But of course, the premises are changed – or, they should feel changed; the lives of men and women are different now from when Strindberg wrote. But not as different as we tend to think.
You present a male perspective on marriage and domestic life. Are home and domesticity male issues now?
Yes, I think so. It has to be a part of men’s life much more than before. It goes very slowly, it’s becoming part of man’s life in a very slow way. But in the end, maybe it will be the main topic for men writers? I never identified myself as a man; I always had trouble seeing myself as a man. When I was 11 or 12, in 1975, the international women year took place, a kind of feminist event to make clear that the world had to change. That year I realized that I was in the wrong side. In historical terms, I was in the wrong side, the male side, as a Man I was with the people who had too much power and money and lacked empathy. I realized that I didn’t feel at home being seen as an adult man. For this reason I feel a bit embarrassed, so when I write I don’t look at myself as a male writer. However, at the same time, I knew when I wrote this novel that it had to depict part of the life of a feminist man talking about his life, or a man who wants to be a feminist. I don’t think he succeeds as a feminist man, though.
How can you be in the wrong side? How can you feel guilty for being a man, something just given to you?
I find myself in situations where people look at me and expect me to speak in behalf of men, as if ‘man’ was more than a category, as if it said something important about who I am. But it doesn’t. I know I’m not alone in this feeling. I have serious problems with identifying myself with this kind of representation of masculinity.
I think you refer to stereotypes and expectations about being a man.
Yes, but stereotypes are all around us. Women and men have changed since the 70s. Now, they are both very content saying ‘I’m a man’, ‘I’m a woman’. Feminism has reversed, although now it is coming back again. In The Story of a Marriage, the male character is trying to tell the story from his wife’s perspective. As a writer, I identify a bit more with her than with him. But I knew all the time that the text would raise questions about gender. But it also has a lot to do with making fun of a man who is so obsessed. I wanted to write a story of a man who thinks that he is a good man as well as a feminist that gives room to his wife. But the exciting thing about him is that he doesn’t understand what he’s doing. He’s trying to control her, her fantasies and sexuality. I hope there’s an element of comedy in this: a story about someone who wants to do good but destroys everything.
The marriage in the book, especially him, has this particular concern about becoming a common and traditional marriage like Paul and Una, doing typical things that couples do. In fact, the story of this marriage seems to focus on finding an alternative definition for themselves. There’s this almost obsessive thing with being different, outside traditional representations of marriage. Does the story frustrate this attempt? Is it possible to be married and escape marriage?
I think he doesn’t understand it himself and that’s the reason he is destroying his marriage. He’s thinking he’s doing a better marriage and wants another kind of life, which could be a very good life, but he destroys everything. Of course, it’s not possible to be very different from other people and still live in a society, but what can you do? But in these terms, the novel also tries to examine love, not as a simple and easy feeling, but something that has to do with power – gaining and loosing power. His urge to destroy is also part of love. That’s what makes him dangerous, the fact that he’s not aware of his capacity to destroy. I think we all have that capacity, especially when we are in situations where we think of ourselves as good, fair and kind persons. A lot of us have been in relationships where afterwards we see how one of us was being diminished, or becoming dependent on the other. In this there’s some kind of destruction. If you’re lucky in a relationship, you alternate this powerful role all the time, but very often this is difficult, isn’t it?
One of the ways they have to be different is by accepting the possibility of an open sexual life. When they’re in bed he fantasizes a lot with the idea of she being with another man. But in fact, this works until she finds another man. Then, the marriage ends. Does this again suggest that a marriage needs limits?
I think so, but this guy wouldn’t understand that. But I also wonder why someone has this kind of fantasies. Our fantasies tend to be about things that we are afraid of. He’s very afraid of loosing her and at a certain point it becomes true, he makes her go. Open relationships are being arranged in order to solve a problem, but it seems unavoidable that at least one of the persons involved ends up as a victim.
Your novel represents two trendy things: one is women running, and the other one is stay-at-home dads. In the first case, running is a fashionable sport for many women and there is this new narrative about married women who fail in love with their personal trainers. And then there are this new stay-at-home dads who work from home or just take care of the children when the mother works outside. In the novel, she starts the affair not with a trainer but with her running partner, and he spends most of his days at home.
It’s very funny, and a bit surprising, if stay-at-home-dads have become trendy! It should be trendy, it’s necessary, not only for the child and the mother, but also for a man’s and a father’s development, being together with the child. But it’s true, I wanted to write about these two things. And it’s really interesting what running does, it’s a way to cope with life. You can use running in the same way as you use sex because they both make you feel better. But yes, clearly, women running and falling in love with the trainer seems quite logical as people are always afraid of what women do. That was part of the scenery. At the same time it was interesting and funny to write about domestic men because it feels new. For most of my 4 children I’ve stayed at home. But writing about it is very interesting, because if you write about a woman staying at home with a child you have all these shadows, old stories, ideas about how these lives are or could be. But when you write about a man staying at home with a child it feels like being an explorer in a forest where no one has been before. It hasn’t been written much about it, not in fiction.
Those activities permeate the novel; can they tell us something about men and women?
If you write about a man running and falling in love, the wife at home becomes a victim. But in the other way around, he becomes a bit ridiculous, he is not as manly as he should be. And at the same time I wanted the novel to be about strong emotions, good sex, happiness, middle class well-being. because it’s always burning beneath the floorboards, as you know. I guess we all know. All these things combined made it interesting because they are contradictory.
This follows stereotyped gender roles.
Yes, it’s difficult not to do that. I could have made him a victim but victims aren’t fun. He’s not a victim, he makes himself one, that makes him comical and maybe touching. He’s telling her all the time to continue running with this other man, he only tells her to stop when it’s too late, when she has fallen in love. Falling in love is a very interesting process because you can stop it, early, you can turn away from it, but at some point it’s too late, suddenly you can’t stop it anymore, even if you want to.
What does your novel tell us about contemporary marriage?
Contemporary marriage is a place where things are negotiated and re-negotiated between individuals and gender (that goes for same-sex marriages as well). I think contemporary marriage is really interesting because there’s so much changing, it’s very interesting to write about it. The German playwright Heiner Müller said that the pleasure of writing is schadenfreude, because he saw the East German state falling apart and he was able to describe it. I thought that maybe I could see things falling apart in contemporary love and be able to write about it.
But in this novel this falling apart is all very sexual.
If you want to describe love, you will have to write about people executing love in action, so to speak. You need to describe people doing something, and the problem is that most of us sit with computers all the time. Even a big part of our love-life unfolds on computers. But you can describe people having sex, and it’s interesting to see how power is unfolding in sex. Sex is a performance, there’s never a clean embrace, even an embrace is power.
But embracing it’s also a protective and caring act.
It’s a caring act but one is protecting and the other is being protected. One of us is embracing, and the other is being embraced. One can find protection by protecting or been protected. We are never equal, that’s fascinating and possibly a bit frightening.