The Story of a Marriage

A Novel
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A dramatic portrait of the dissolution of a marriage, written with brutal and lyrical precision, and nominated for the Nordic Prize.

Jon, who is losing his wife to another man, is trying to understand what happened to his Great Love, by working, painfully, to see the story from her perspective. It begins as he asks her: "Can you tell me about us?" As he looks to his past and within himself, he begins to question the conventions of masculinity and femininity, understanding himself uncommonly as a man who challenges the male role--he's deeply embedded in family life, and identifies as sensitive, vulnerable, and nurturing. And finally, in an effort to understand how his wife could fall in love with someone else, he attempts an ultimate act of empathy: to tell the story from the other man's point of view, raising crippling questions: Is it possible to have sex without violating oneself or the other? How much of what we think is love is only projection? Is it possible to truly know another person?

With prose unsettling in its precision and emotional heft, The Story of a Marriage cracks wide open the familiar story of a failed love, as it turns cliched phrases over and over again until they crumble, revealing a bitter hollowness--or ringing new meanings.

Praise

“This deeply interior meditation will reward serious-minded readers.”—Library Journal
 
“This short, emotionally taut novel by veteran Norwegian author Gulliksen . . . sustains itself not so much on relationship drama but on Jon’s narration, which is nakedly unreliable. . . . Gulliksen served as Karl Ove Knausgaard’s editor, and they share an affinity for flat, undramatic exposition. But as Jon careers from his own head to his estranged wife’s, Gulliksen reveals plenty of emotional storms. An interior but engagingly complex study of a relationship hitting the skids.”—Kirkus Reviews

“Gulliksen, who edits Karl Ove Knausgaard’s books, distills love’s dissolution in this precisely evoked, intimate, yet expansive tale.” —Booklist
 
“[Gulliksen] deserves recognition far beyond Scandinavia as the author of this intimately compelling novel. . . grippingly and memorably realised. Bristling with the urgency of lived experience, this is a short and beautifully written (translated by Deborah Dawkin) account of love’s autoimmunity. Whether or not it’s based on reality, it’s grounded in deep emotional truth.” —The Guardian
 
“His characters are pure Jennifer Egan: New Age narcissists more interested in feeling good than doing good. . . . Like Egan, Gulliksen expresses scepticism by accelerating the couple’s reckless self-indulgence until it explodes into a fireball of rage and recrimination. Not everything is fair in love and war.” —Financial Times

"A brilliant and breathtaking novel that is for anyone who has ever loved…The Story of a Marriage is the naked truth, sexy and sad, stunning for its clarity, the author’s ability to simultaneously render denial and knowing too much. It is a novel about all the things we know and don’t want to know about ourselves, our partners and our lives and the shocking reminder that the very same things that draw us together are the ones that pull us apart." – A.M. Homes

"As stark and beautiful as a winter forest, The Story of a Marriage dares to explore betrayal with empathy and kindness. Geir Gulliksen writes like a disillusioned bard and the result is lyrical, hypnotic, and impossible to put down. " – Katherine Heiny 

Excerpt

***This excerpt is from an advance uncorrected copy proof***

Copyright © 2018 Geir Gulliksen

I need to remember how things were for her that spring. In the days before it all happened. She was a woman in the prime of life. She could walk confidently into any room or situation. For her a crowd was like a friendly forest, she mingled easily, able to talk to anyone and everyone. She’d always had long hair, but after getting together with me she cut it short and dyed it black. At night she’d sleep on her side, one hand tucked under her cheek. I lay behind her, my arms around her, both of us naked, and she’d feel the warmth of my front against her back. At night-time it was just the two of us; in the morning we’d wake on our own side of the bed. She was usually woken by the children, or by me. The rooms were light, our voices soft. There’s a long period that can only be remembered as a time of happiness, both unlooked for and undeserved. We used to sit together around an oval dining table, Danish design, made of steel and white Respatex. The table was far too expensive for us that Saturday when we bought it, but we got used to that, the debts mounted and we barely gave it a thought. We sat at that table, morning and evening, the kids did their homework there. Later the table would be too big; it went to her and the kitchen in which she put it was smaller. She sold it in the end, and now it stands in somebody else’s house; the table has a new life, like everything else we once shared.

She cycled beneath light leafy canopies. She breathed with an open mouth. She ran up the stairs, whenever she had to go up a floor, which was often. She never took the lift, she hated to stand still. This particular morning she was giving a presentation for staff in another department. It went well, she could feel she had them with her (their faces turning towards her like fresh green shoots waking to the light). Afterwards the communications director was keen to make another booking with her. They agreed to exchange emails, and several people came up and thanked her for the talk. And then, on her way out, she spotted a man who made her stop. She didn’t know why. She just stopped and watched him as he made his way through the crowd, his gaze fixed on her. His eyes, there was something about them, something mild but insistent, confident but searching, she wasn’t sure what. Even later, when it was all over, she didn’t know what it had been, she couldn’t explain it, not even to herself, and certainly not to me.

He was tall and stood out, though not just because of his height. He had a long face with slightly slanted eyes, his skin was marked with tiny scars, acne as a teenager perhaps. Not exactly handsome, it has to be said, although I can scarcely be objective. Yet there was something seductive and intriguing about those eyes, or his smile perhaps, or the tilt of his head. She waited for him to reach her, and he smiled as he approached, pushing his way determinedly through the others who were filing out of the room. She felt rather hot, she didn’t know why. Moments later they stood looking at each other, and she hoped that her face expressed a mildly amused curiosity: what had he come to say? Her face should convey that she had been held up and had no idea what he might want, but that she was prepared to give whatever it was her considered attention. He started talking. Something about public health, her own specific area of interest. He said things she might have said herself, although she thought he phrased them better. Or did he? His way of speaking was vaguely awkward, as though he was attempting to follow her perspective, but was incapable of letting go of his own. This last comment is, of course, a vast over-interpretation on my part – I don’t need to be told, I can see it myself. No, she probably found his comments both enriching and stimulating. He walked out of the room with her, accompanied her all the way down the stairs. They walked to her bicycle, still talking as she unlocked it and got ready to go.

Afterwards she cycled slowly through the streets, she had to get back to the office, but she took her time. The world seemed to want to show off for her that morning: the maple trees or lime trees (she didn’t much care what kind they were) seemed to spread their branches for her, a glossy magpie elegantly flicked its tail, young leaves stirred in an otherwise imperceptible breeze. She was happy. Contented in herself and her life. Every living thing opened itself up for her wherever she went.

She was afraid of nothing.

Once she had been a young girl, now she was middle-aged woman. She was twenty-five when she first met me, it was a long time ago now, and I was just a few years older.

I called her Timmy. She had another name, an ordinary girl’s name, that she didn’t really like. And then one evening, a month or so into our relationship, we were lying in bed in her old apartment watching Timmy Gresshopper on TV. We weren’t actually watching anything, we’d been in bed for hours on end, we had got up to eat and then gone back to bed, we’d been obsessing over each other for so long, investigating what our bodies could do together, and we needed a break. We drank water, and I flicked through the channels, past an old Disney cartoon – she asked me to stop and go back. We watched it and we both found it touching, though it was me who cried. I had a young child whom I wouldn’t see that day, that entire week, because I chose to be here in bed with her. That was why I cried, she knew that. But she pretended to believe I was moved by the film, and told me afterwards that she’d always liked Timmy Gresshopper, better than Snipp og Snapp, better even than Dumbo or Pinocchio. She identified with Timmy, because he always tried to make the best out of everything, he’d take his umbrella and go for a walk, singing as he went, eternally earnest and optimistic, even when darkness closed around him and he had no idea where he was.

– That’s you, I said. – You are Timmy. Always wanting to put things right, and never giving up on your goals.

I was full of admiration for her already then. It was my way of loving her. She didn’t understand that until later, and for a long time she felt overwhelmed by how amazing she was in my eyes. She replied that she’d never thought of herself as a grasshopper, and I came up with some flirtatious joke about liking the way she rubbed her hind legs against mine. Meaningless, it wasn’t even funny, and she could see I instantly regretted it, that I felt embarrassed, and that I wasn’t in the habit of talking that way. She’d loosened me up, she realised, and that moved her, or inspired feelings of love, if there’s a difference between the two. After that night I started calling her Timmy. It stuck, it went beyond being a nickname, it became her name, the name everyone used, our friends and even her work colleagues.

Back in her office she was sitting in the light from her screen. She was going through a report. She’d been working on it for ages, but today it was going better. She was very focused, giving it her complete attention, not opening any emails or checking the news. She gazed out of the window onto the kindergarten below, at the children playing in the sandpit, but her thoughts were on the report. She was unsure about one or two of the tables, the figures didn’t add up. She kicked her shoes off under the desk, rubbed her bare feet against each other. She stroked her hand over her neck, a caress almost. Her other hand drifted under her blouse and touched her belly, she let her hand wander up to her bra and fiddled with one of the straps.

The telephone rang. She had to free her hand to take it. It was a colleague who was at home with a sick child, calling to ask her to send him a document. She searched for it on the intranet and emailed it to him. Then picked up from where she’d been interrupted. Her thoughts drifted to supper, and me. She thought about public health policy, then cycling, and whether it would be dry enough in the forest to go cycling that weekend. She might go alone, or with the kids. Preferably alone. She wanted to cycle fast, to challenge herself. It occurred to her that it was only Tuesday. She looked up at the clock. She had worked solidly for an hour. She wondered if she should go for a pee, but decided to work straight through to lunch. She considered asking Kjersti to look through a few sections of the report. But then changed her mind, she’d rather manage it alone. She was ambitious and worried about being seen as insecure or weak. A shadow flickened across her screen. Outside the window a heavy crow flapped, heading for the tree near the kindergarten. It landed on a thin branch, and perched there for a while rocking. She would wait before talking to Kjersti. Try to get a bit more done first. The crow moved to a thicker branch, spread its feathers and cocked its head; it was watching the children below, small motionless figures, barely two years old, sitting in the sandpit, each clasping a spade pointed downwards at the sand, making no attempt to dig, they’d not learned that yet.

She raised her arms in the air and took a long stretch. Her blouse rode up, revealing her bare stomach. She thought about the man she’d spoken to earlier. She was certain he’d flirted with her. She hadn’t flirted back, but she’d been very friendly and open, he must have noticed. She’d enjoyed talking to him. She liked his hands. She imagined them on her thighs; slightly rough manly hands against her smooth pale skin. She liked her thighs, these days at least, she hadn’t before, on the contrary, they’d been too skinny, but since she’d begun running her thighs were stronger, more muscular. She could feel her inner thigh muscles now, even though she was sitting still. She decided she’d tell me later that evening about the man who had approached her after her talk. I was sure to approve. And she liked what happened between us when she told me about other men she had looked at, or men who had looked at her. She knew I liked to hear about it. She didn’t understand why exactly, but that wasn’t important, she didn’t feel the need to analyse everything.

She got up and went out into the corridor. She’d forgotten she was barefoot and went back in and shoved her feet into her shoes. She decided to see Kjersti after all, she’d been helpful in the past. Kjersti’s door was open and her office was empty, but the computer was still on. She’d go for a pee and Kjersti might get back in the meantime. It was quiet in the corridor, people were at meetings out of house. She walked past reception, smiled at the woman sitting there, a temp. She wondered if she should stop and say something, but didn’t want to lose concentration. She went into the loo and locked the door, paused in front of the mirror. She felt good, although her hair was a little too long. She wanted to do something with it. Get a new cut and slightly new colour. She wondered if she should start using make-up. A touch of eyeliner couldn’t hurt, I wouldn’t like it, but I’d get used to it eventually. She sat down, listened to her piss as it chattered loudly into the water below. What pleasure. The pleasure of peeing hard, the pleasure of wiping yourself slowly and meditatively, the pleasure of getting dressed again, of packing yourself into your clothes like a child in the morning, and then washing your hands. Washing your hands and sniffing them, the delicate scent of soap and damp skin.

She was on her way out, but changed her mind and returned to the mirror. She studied her face as she slid her hand down into her trousers. They were too tight, she unzipped them and pulled them down. She touched herself, guiding two fingers to the slippery smoothness that belonged to the inner surface of her body. It was difficult to reach with your trousers round your knees, but she liked that too, that it was tight and difficult. She moved her fingertips and watched her reflection. A faint blush rose on her cheeks. She thought about the report. She thought about whether she’d be able to come as she stood here touching herself in front of the mirror at work. Probably not. It would take something rather special at least. A few vague images of naked bodies flashed up, only to fade.

Might it have been like that? No, I’m going too far, this all just points back to me, to my repertoire, to my habitual register, not to hers at all. It was probably more like this: She went quickly to the toilet, thought only of the report, glanced briefly at herself in the mirror as she washed her hands. Thought her face looked somehow different, but wasn’t sure why. Somebody passed by in the corridor outside, she stood there for a moment and waited for the footsteps to disappear. It went quiet.

It clicked for her, she suddenly knew precisely what was needed; she opened the door and walked briskly down the corridor. Kjersti’s office was still empty, which was just as well; she returned to her own office and was back at work before she had even sat down. She would print out the entire report and go through it from the very beginning one more time. The basic premise was unclearly formulated, and had been from start. She went to the printer, hoping not to meet anyone on the way. The corridor was empty, the printer hummed and the friendly warm pages landed straight in her hand. She felt the urge to sing. But she rarely sang now, not since the kids had got bigger. She felt the urge to break into a run, saw herself sprinting up a long, steep staircase, and at the top of this staircase was nothingness. She ran all the way up, but didn’t want to turn back, it was like an image in a movie, in a dream, in a movie that imitated a dream. The corridor was long and empty, she heard footsteps behind her, she turned to check if she was alone. She sat down in her office again with the pages in her lap. She kicked off her shoes, pushed her chair back and put her feet on the table. She had large feet, she liked that, and liked to go barefoot, liked to sit and spread her toes.

She was hungry, and lunch was an hour away, so she ate an apple. Gnawed her way to the core, then put it on the windowsill. There were already two wrinkled apple cores sitting there, she couldn’t have left anything like that on the windowsill at home, and she liked to do so here. She allowed herself to be messy, freeing herself from my demands for clean and tidy tables and worktops. Suddenly she heard voices outside her office, the colleagues who had been out at meetings were returning. She listened to their footsteps, the busy rustling of bags and jackets, snippets of conversation floating down the corridor, and she recognised each voice.

She put her feet back on the floor and pulled her chair closer to the screen. She reopened the document and started to insert the corrections she’d made by hand. She resisted the desire to say hello to anyone passing, she didn’t want to talk now. She sat so they would see she was working. She concentrated so hard on looking concentrated that she lost concentration altogether. She felt the urge to give up. She felt an urge to go out and get some air. She felt an urge to google the name of the man she’d talked to that morning. She got up and went down to Kjersti’s office. She still wasn’t there. She remembered that Kjersti had said she was going to the doctor’s. Timmy went back to her own office, she had decided to take a break, and the first thing she did was check her emails. Not that she ever used the word email, she just said mail; I tried to get to her to say email, but everybody at work said mail these days, so why shouldn’t she? Why be complicated when there was a simple alternative? So, she checked her mail, and didn’t find much, apart from an email from me.

I wrote that I was thinking about her, and thinking about what we’d done a few hours earlier. She’d forgotten, but now she pictured it, she’d been down on all fours, supporting herself on her elbows while I took her hard from behind, the way she liked. I’d held her hips, then moments later she’d felt my hand on the nape of her neck, as I shoved her face down into the bed. She remembered her own voice now, yelling into the pillow. She liked to hear herself scream. I took her, she let herself be taken, she screamed. She liked to think of it like that, of being taken. We had looked at ourselves in the mirror, two bodies, one on top of the other, one doing something to the other, the other allowing itself to be done to. And as she pictured it now she felt it between her legs, a dull ache.

She sent a reply, brief, affectionate and in much the same spirit as I’d written to her. That was how we always wrote to each other. She looked out over the kindergarten, one of the little figures turned in her direction, peering up towards the sky perhaps, although it felt as though its gaze was searching for her window. I had said that I wouldn’t mind more children. She didn’t want more, absolutely not, we’d gone past that phase long ago. We already had two children together, as well as my daughter from my first marriage, that would have to be enough. She wanted to work more. She wanted to do more sports, to run and cycle, to learn how to climb. She wanted to take advantage of everything on offer to a mature person who no longer had young children to look after.

Her other emails included a notification of a forthcoming meeting, and some contributions to a discussion about the Department of Health website. She considered sending a response to the last, but decided instead to delete it. The joy of eradicating little problems. She sent an email to Kjersti asking, in the humorous tone they usually adopted in their communications, whether she could be an angel and help her go through the tables in that pesky report. She had worked on it for so long now that the report had developed a personality. An awkward individual that refused to take shape as she wanted, there was always something wrong with it. She’d talked about it so much, that I often enquired about it: How’s the report doing these days?

We often talked about work, especially hers. She’d grown used to sharing everything with me. Almost everything: conflicts, negotiations, minor irritations, and also, of course, anything she found interesting or amusing or inspiring. Always a positive soul, she was consciously so, she wanted to be that positive person, and it came easily.

She checked the news, informing herself lightly, without any real commitment. Then another email arrived. She opened it. She didn’t recognise the sender immediately, not before she’d begun reading. He thanked her, and was warm and complimentary about her talk, she could almost hear his voice, the friendly tone, the interest, the charm, or whatever it was. Yet there must have been something conditional behind this charm, behind all the praise and positive words, she sensed something else: he wasn’t giving himself away. She picked up on a certain reserve, a slightly aggressive tension. And it triggered something in her. Or, perhaps he was just self-obsessed, he wrote mostly about what he thought, and obviously felt sure it would be of interest to her. He went on to suggest they might collaborate, that there was a project in the offing in his division which he’d like her to be involved in. She was, against her will, flattered by that too, even though she had neither the time nor desire to participate in any more projects. Finally he said, by the by, that they lived very near each other. He’d recognised her when she was up on the podium, but hadn’t known where he knew her from. But this must be why, they were practically neighbours. Perhaps she was a jogger too, like himself? He was almost certain she must be, he wrote. He was quite certain he’d seen her out jogging.

So, he had googled her to find out where she lived, perhaps at the very moment she’d considered googling him. He had found her address, but that wasn’t all. He must have seen her before, seen her out running. Could he see from her body that she often went running?

He’d used the word jogger – who used that nowadays? It was so nineties, so eighties, almost awkward. It reminded her of his glasses, their brown-tinted lenses. She did a search on his name, and was surprised to find he was older than she’d thought. He didn’t live far from us, she knew exactly which house it was, she’d often run past it. She tried to remember if she’d ever seen him before. She looked at the pictures of him and recognised something in them that had made an impression on her earlier. A look of vulnerability. A self-confidence, which nonetheless seemed somehow brittle. She found more pictures, one on the department’s home page, another from an interview with a professional journal. And then more on the website of a sports club.

He was a ski instructor.

She sat, staring into space and thinking she wouldn’t mind doing that herself.

She got a fright when Kjersti suddenly came up behind her, she’d not heard her come in.

– What a face!

She wanted to close the page, but it would look too conspicuous, as though she had something to hide. Instead she swung her chair round and fixed Kjersti’s gaze, forcing her attention away from the screen and onto herself.

– You terrify me when you come up so quietly.

– Martin always says I stomp about like a horse.

– That’s nice of him.

– Well, we’ve got so many stairs at home, you see. And he says I breathe like a whale.

– I’m sure he loves you anyway.

– I don’t really think he does. He’s just holding out and waiting for something to happen. Every time I go to the doctor, he hopes it’ll be something serious. He’s so vain he’d rather be a widower than get a divorce. But you’ve got a husband who loves you, that’s obvious. And yet, you’re looking at that man?

– He wants me to work on a project that’s being led by Health and Social Care.

– Aha, a project! Is that what they call it these days?

– It’s totally innocent, Kjersti. Strictly professional.

– And you believe that?

– Kjersti, I need your help.

– Is that report of yours still bugging you?

– I think there are a few errors in those tables.

– Can’t you just send them back to whoever created them?

– I’m responsible for the report. I’m wondering if the basic premise is faulty.

– Show me these errors then.

Kjersti pulled the visitor’s chair up to the screen. They often sat side by side, working together. Timmy often talked about Kjersti to me, about her sailboat, about her marriage, about the awful jokes, the nitpicking, the way she got hung up on details. And she talked to Kjersti about me too. She must have, I’m not sure what about exactly, but I always assumed she talked about her wonderful marriage. And very likely she did. We were proud of our marriage, both of us, like parents pushing their newborns out in their prams, parading them for all the world to see, as though nobody else had ever experienced such joy.

She closed the websites she’d visited, she closed her email account and brought the report up again. For the rest of the day she sat and worked with Kjersti. She left the office a bit later than planned. She knew I’d be at home, but she texted me to say she was on her way.

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