Right from the first paragraph of S.K. Johannesen’s third novel we get a sharp picture of the narrator-protagonist’s personality. Later on we learn that Jørgen doesn’t know why he is where he is, or how he got to the large room in Copenhagen where he is now a prisoner; we learn that he has lost entire regions of his memory, and we are only told that he does remember a beating, presumably a beating which caused his loss of memory and plunged him into this precarious state. In the first paragraph, though, we make his acquaintance while he is painting his room:
“I found, to take one example of many, that you should drag the brush upward when using the left hand, instead of downward, and tip your head to the right and look at what you are doing sideways as you go up. Then you get the right overlap on the glass, so fine and straight you can’t tell it wasn’t ruled, or done by some mechanical means.”
A loving attention to straight lines and angles, to joints, tenons and mortises, and, simultaneously, to the body attitudes and motions attending the care for those. We think of Max, the protagonist of Johannesen’s previous novel, Luggas Wood (Blaurock Press, Ontario, CA 2007, ISBN 978-0-9784321-1-9): Max showed, you may remember, a loving attention to wood, river and rock—to nature. Max was an artist, while Jørgen is an artisan, a joiner or cabinet-maker. An artisan, too, in the sense that his insights into the past, of those parts of his past which he remembers, are often stunning, like Boulle marquetry with mother-of-pearl and tortoise-shell inlaids. Let’s take as a first example Jørgen’s reflection on his first experience of a woman, on the fields near the great Norwegian river Glomma:
“Perhaps it would have been better if my initiation had been clumsy, or humiliating, or farcical, as seems to be often the case. My life might then have unfolded in the usual way, armed with the rueful sense of letdown and even cynicism which I have observed in others when they recount such experiences.”
As it was, Jørgen “entered a solemn and permanent bond that could never be broken” with his first woman, Anna Hauge. Such was his fate.
Later, when Jørgen remembers the years he spent in the USA before the War, more precisely in the Sunset Park section of Brooklyn (until the 1980s populated mostly by Norwegians), he recalls the church meetings he attended
“out of simple necessity; either an escape from loneliness or the perfect expression of it. I think it more likely the latter, although perhaps there is no difference between these things, the escape from loneliness and the perfection of it, and if I were a more careful thinker I would see into this in a better way.”
This man who, even though he is not able to reconstruct the whole of his past life, discerns a fate directing it, wishes he could be a more careful thinker so as to understand why true loneliness involves the wish to escape from it. Why the loneliest man yearns for company. In the end, during the final days of his life, Jørgen does get the company of Nedelman, a small Jewish man, “the rag and bone man of Vesterbro.” This Nedelman, whose melancholy “is so great and delicate it is a thing upon which to rest, to lie down and sleep on”, tells many anecdotes always starting with “A man—”, all stories of love and broken hearts. He also has a daughter who is a whore. How can we not be reminded of Yeat’s “The Circus Animals’ Desertion”:
Old iron, old bones, old rags, that raving slut
Who keeps the till. Now that my ladder’s gone,
I must lie down where all the ladders start
In the foul rag and bone shop of the heart.
That is where Jørgen is—knowingly—toward the end of this beautiful, short book, which is the end of his life. A life which, as it turns out, was simply, modestly heroic. I will not tell you how and why: go to www.blaurockpress.com, buy the book, read it, and find out for yourself. Your heart and mind will appreciate it: “The Yellow Room” will be there to stay. The book is beautifully made, as are the other Blaurock Press offerings.