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Why She Couldn't Leave Him : NOTHING GROWS BY MOONLIGHT by Torborg Nedreaas; translated by Bibbi Lee (University of Nebraska Press: $15.95; 197 pp.)

January 17, 1988|Kirsten Grimstad | Grimstad, former editor of "Chrysalis: A Magazine of Women's Culture," teaches courses in world literature at UCLA Extension

The recovery of lost works by women has provided a rich vein for women's studies scholarship during the last 15 years. Like archeologists, specialists in the field have rooted through the layers of culture in search of those shards and artifacts that have helped us piece together a truer historical record, one that includes how women lived in a world that defines them as "the other" and how they have expressed and transformed that experience in words and images. "Nothing Grows by Moonlight" is a find from recent history. First published in Norway in 1947, the novel is being reissued as part of the series, European Women Writers. It is the first translation of this author's work into English.

It is a story within a story. A man wandering aimlessly into the train station offers assistance to a lone woman, eventually taking her home with him. Through the night, fueled by his ready supply of cigarettes and schnapps, she pours out the story of events that happened 20 years ago, events that explain how she came to be standing in that train station, willing to go home with a stranger in exchange for the momentary oblivion of alcohol and the chance to unburden herself of 20 years of silence.

"I've always longed for beauty," she begins. What follows is the story of a small-town 17-year-old with the poetry of nature in her heart and aspirations to higher learning. Her eye is on the far horizon in the hope of escaping the martyred lot of her mother, a poor miner's wife. She falls in love with her teacher--a man secretly betrothed to someone else--and shares an intimacy with him that develops into a masochistic obsession from which she cannot extricate herself despite the spiraling degradation and deceit, despite his marriage to another woman and her marriage to another man, and despite the pregnancies and repeated self-induced miscarriages forced upon her by the meanness of her circumstances and by the moral code that brutally victimizes unwed mothers and their children. Her indictment against this hypocrisy and cruelty--argued in the poignant terms of her suffering--fuels the fury that beats at the heart of this narrative.

In trying to piece together meaning out of the wreckage of her life so that just one other soul will know the truth, she quotes Thomas Hardy (who was quoting Novalis), "character is destiny," adding that environment shapes character. The unrelenting bleakness of this tale strongly echoes Hardy's world. Yet reading beneath the text, we also find the story of a psychological obsession, a woman's addiction to a man who abuses her. When all is said and done, it is the helpless look in his eyes, his unhappiness, the signs of age and weakness that ignite feelings of tenderness that she is powerless to resist.

This subtextual story could stand as a case study example of what today is referred to as love addiction or co-dependency--that is, an abusive relationship that is experienced as love but serves rather as an escape from reality and from the deeper pain of solitude and emptiness inherent in the human condition. The nameless woman standing in the train station is a person without a home in the world. In abandoning the narrow lot of her mother--prescribed for women by society--for the sake of her larger appetite for life, she remains without emotional, psychological, social or any other reference points from which she can satisfy her hunger. This homelessness lies at the bedrock of her addiction to a bad relationship. Perhaps the most subtle accomplishment of this novel is its portrayal of a woman's obsession as a warped expression of her longing for beauty and freedom.

It should be said that some readers (like myself) might find this novel difficult to bear. The narrator's lyrical voice keeps the reader constantly aware of the precious soul glimmering through the wreckage of her life, making the counterpoint between the inner beauty and the wreckage all the more devastating to absorb. The story suffers from its one-note key of desolation, relieved only by the storytelling itself which gives a larger meaning to otherwise unspeakable events.

In places, the writing also tends toward heavy-handedness and oversaturated metaphors that have the effect of bludgeoning the reader. These stylistic shortcomings may diminish the novel's impact as literature, but not as a prescient voice that speaks poignantly about the female condition.

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