ISSN 1556-4975

OffCourse Literary Journal

 Published by Ricardo and Isabel Nirenberg since 1998


"Three Tales," by S.K. Johannesen, reviewed by R. Nirenberg


S. K. Johannesen, Three Tales, The Electric Ferry Press 2017, ISBN 978-0-9881098-3-4


In the first story of this book, "Oliphant Street," we meet a boy, Thomas, who's "different."  Now, the word, as you know, can have more than a shade of negative, condescending meaning, and be employed as a polite substitute for "subnormal"; indeed, I imagine that if Thomas was given an IQ test he would perform deep into the negative, sinister tail of the Gauss curve.  His reactions and his replies, in other words, are not what is usually expected.  At school, he is a loner except for one friend, a girl named Ann: at noontime she is a guard at the girls' toilets entrance, and Thomas performs the same duty at the boys' toilets.  Much of the beauty of Johannesen's writing is in the exactly dosed, detailed descriptions of implements of a bygone age; for example:


"Otherwise, Thomas had seen Mr. Ginn [the school janitor] when it was his turn to be ink monitor and he had to bring the bottle with the measuring stopper down to this lower level to fill it from the barrel of ink and carry it back to the classroom and fill all the little glass inkwells without spilling."


The main characters in all three stories have special duties to perform, and they perform them very well, but they keep their distance from the world, and the castles they build are of the imagination, castles in the air.  Thomas is glad to serve, and in the end, in Oliphant Street, he is asked to do the most important service a child can be possibly asked to perform: to survive the general wreck we have brought upon ourselves.

The narrator of the second story, which is the only one that's written in the first person, is also, above all, glad to serve, to the point that he serves as a curtain to hide the love affair of his friends Carl and Maria from the mysterious Matron, and so to thwart the latter's strict rules relating to couples.  If the women in Johannesen's stories have something of the power of Ibsen's female characters (or of the unforgettable Jeanne Moreau in Truffaut's Jules et Jim), in that they are able to appear out of heaven, so to speak, like angels, some more schrecklich than others, or even after a long interval of time and dramatically change the life of their old lovers — the men, by contrast, remind this reader of Robert Walser's male characters: they are not full of themselves, they are rather humble and willing to serve.  This second story, "The Tabernacle," is the most romantic of the three, in the original sense of German Romanticism: music plays in it a major role, as well as a musical instrument, a cornet—wind instruments (especially the natural horn, with no valves) were heard by the Romantics as bringing back the woods, their rustle (Rauschen) and their solitude (Einsamkeit).  Our narrator plays on the cornet his own variations on the horn theme from the overture to Der Freischütz by Carl Maria von Weber, whose first name, not by chance, happens to be the synthesis of the two lovers, Carl and Maria.  But stop!  I was about to give away the romantic dénouement.


The protagonist of the third and final story, "Mile 88.6," is an old actor named Isak Vos, who

"was nevertheless the member of the company that remembered birthdays, that brought tea and comfort to ailing colleagues, who made himself go-between in tiffs, both romantic and professional."  Again, he liked to be of service.  As for his gender,

"Isak Vos does not think of himself as either gay or straight or in anything like those terms.  He thinks with equanimity that he has never been really other than an onanist."


On the last day of his life, in a ghostly, dreamlike scene, Isak Vos is guided to the ruin of his old theater, where he assists to a fragment of one of his old performances, in the character of Halvard Solness, the protagonist of The Master Builder.  The fragment is from Act 2, and it concerns the life-corroding, unassuageable guilt the wish to see a loved person dead can cause, even if only half conscious or half wished.  It is a dialogue of great psychological power.  Listening to it, Isak Vos's heart is filled with love for Ibsen, for the truth of his dramatic art, for his own part in it, his stage life.  Soon after which, the stage and the whole building disappears, and Isak Vos himself dissolves "into thin air," being himself, as a great actor, one of those castles in the air.

One could perhaps object that the strength of the final story is diminished by the importance given in it to a fragment of Ibsen's The Master Builder, wrested from its context; but these days, when we can easily get a PDF of the whole drama on our screen, it doesn't seem to me a strong objection; and whether or not your recall of Ibsen's drama is fresh, these three tales will not easily leave your mind; nor will they fail to touch your heart.

This book is beautifully produced, from the design of the cover by Cecil Collins to the elegant typesetting: bravo for Johannesen and for The Electric Ferry Press.


See more of  S.K Johannesen at His work has appeared in Offcourse since 2000. 

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