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Often I Am Happy
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“Often I am happy and yet I want to cry; / For no heart fully shares my joy.” — B.S. Ingemann
Ellinor is seventy. Her husband Georg has just passed away, and she is struck with the need to confide in someone. She addresses Anna, her long-dead best friend, who was also Georg’s first wife. Fully aware of the absurdity of speaking to someone who cannot hear her, Ellinor nevertheless finds it meaningful to divulge long-held secrets and burdens of her past: her mother’s heartbreaking pride; Ellinor’s courtship with her first husband; their seemingly charmed friendship with Anna and Georg; the disastrous ski trip that shattered the two couples’ lives. Wry and mellow yet infused with subdued emotion, this philosophical, lyrical novel moves in parallel narrative threads while questioning the assumptions we cherish concerning identity and love.
Often I am happy and yet I want to cry;
For no heart fully shares my joy.
Often I am sorrowful yet have to laugh,
That no one shall my fearful tear behold.
—B. S. INGEMANN
NOW YOUR HUSBAND is also dead, Anna. Your husband, our husband. I would have liked him to lie next to you, but you have neighbors, a lawyer and a lady who was buried a couple of years ago. The lawyer had been around for a long time when you joined them. I found a vacant plot for Georg on the next row; the back of his stone is visible from your grave. I opted for limestone, although the stonemason said it wouldn’t be weatherproof. So what? I don’t like granite. The twins would have liked granite—on this point they agreed for once. Granite is too heavy, and our Georg had been complaining about this weight on his chest. We should have taken it more seriously, but he shrugged it off. At first he moaned, and when you wanted to share his concern you were brushed aside. Georg was like that.
He collapsed in the shower. I knew right away that something was wrong, or only now I think I knew it. He groaned and it felt anomalous to maneuver his heavy, wet body. He was still conscious as I got him to bed. When the ambulance came, it was all over. He looked like himself, older but still nice enough. His belly was less protruding when he was lying on his back. You never saw him that way, but seventy-eight is nothing, really, don’t you agree? Or seventy, for that matter. It could have been you who found him on the tiles under the jet of hot water. Normally, it would have been you. Can you say that? He always stayed out there for so long. He might easily have remained standing if his coronary artery had not burst. It could have been your life continuing just like that. Where would I have been, in your life? Where would I have been in mine? I caressed him as we were waiting for the ambulance to come, but I don’t know if he felt anything. At some point as I sat with him, there was no longer anything to feel. I realized it later. He could not feel my touch, as if I were the one who was suddenly absent. His absence felt like a lump growing inside me, making me suffocate. I never felt so alone. One is used to reality responding or just resounding with whatever one thinks or feels. Death shuts up the living; the real is our enemy in the long run.
The day after the funeral, I biked to the cemetery again. I took a couple of the sprays and put them in front of your headstone. Otherwise, I have brought you flowers only when it was your birthday. The first years I came quite often, mostly alone. Georg didn’t like to come along, and in the end I’d stopped telling him that I had been at your grave. At that time, it had been ages since I’d stopped asking him why he wouldn’t come. I don’t think he ever forgave you completely, but even that he probably wouldn’t have wanted to admit, had I asked him. I might have construed his answer in the sense that I had not been fully capable of filling your place. He was so considerate, and I think he had come to be really fond of me. The years passed, mind you, and in the end we belonged together, simply because we lived side by side. We underestimate the power of habit while we’re young, and we underestimate the grace of it. Strange word, but there it is.
For me it was never a question of forgiveness once you were gone. It doesn’t make sense to stand there forgiving or not forgiving a stone, be it limestone or granite. Your life, any life, is reduced to a handful of facts when it ends. It was. This and that happened, and we can make of it what we like. You went to bed with your best friend’s husband and allowed him to drag you to your death. Of course, none of you had counted on that. To begin with, I asked myself what you had expected. Would you have suggested that we simply swap? Those things happen.
At the time, when I was still pondering my unanswered questions, I reached the conclusion that you probably had not expected anything at all. It can be difficult, if one is not in love oneself, to imagine the extent to which lovers are oblivious of the future or other people. They are immersed in their bliss, and it spreads around them in all directions. Its moment will not let itself be replaced by the next or yet another. They are amply occupied with the face and body of the other, and with the strange jealousy that even I remember vaguely, although it is a long time since I fell in love. You are jealous of neither rivals nor the thought of rivals—before that kind of jealousy comes another, and only the man you love is concerned. You are jealous of his body, because it is closer than you will ever get to his thoughts.
No, you hadn’t thought of anything in particular concerning me or Georg, and certainly not that I would one day stand at your grave together with your husband and your twin boys. You see, there was just one grave to stand at. Throughout the years, I have been haunted from time to time by the same misplaced whim of mine. What if Henning is still alive somewhere? One’s head cannot grasp the idea that people may just disappear; it is like eternity. Impossible to imagine. But there we were, Georg, the twins, and I. Of course I didn’t want him at all for the first long stretch of time.
They’ve been down on me lately, the twins. I am probably being too abrupt, too determined. It is possible that I am a little callous without knowing myself, but on the other hand, I do find them terribly sentimental. I am of course respectful of their mourning; I mourn their father myself. Why do I feel the need to say so? I think I sense a certain doubtfulness in them. I just cannot see why I should sit like some custodian in their childhood home now that Georg is gone. Look at the furniture, watch over the position of chairs and tables in the rooms, hunt the dust. I could of course have waited for a year, let the anniversary of his death pass, and then make my decision, but why? None of them intend to move in, and Georg remains as dead after three weeks as he will be a year from now. I didn’t weep at the funeral; maybe that’s why they question my feelings. I had finished weeping. I wept all night when I came back from the hospital, until I fell asleep on the couch without having lit a single lamp. I couldn’t go to bed, but it wasn’t because of him. It wasn’t that he had just died in the same bed, and the proof is, I didn’t change the sheets for several weeks. I slept in them until I no longer felt his smell. That is one thing I would have liked to talk to you about, Georg’s smell. How can you know someone so well without having words to describe how they smell? His smell is a fact in my remembrance, and it stays there, undescribed. It was, and is no longer but as a speechless recollection.
But they seem to think that I am tough, your sons. Why can’t they just think that I am in shock? Shouldn’t we just say that I am in shock, Anna? Trouble is, I can’t really say it myself. Who in shock will find the poise to look up the phone number of a real estate agent? Their problem is that I called the agent and put the house on the market before the attorney had gotten around to sending an appraiser. The order of factors, you know, was never my strong point. Isn’t it supposed to be arbitrary? Who loved this or that man first. Love was, that is the bottom line, to use one of Stefan’s favorite expressions. It is strange how different they have become, Stefan and Morten. One wouldn’t think that they are twins.
Love was. Is it no longer? Yes, it is; it does not die with the man, but for how long will it flutter by itself, reach out in the empty rooms for the grains of dust in a shaft of sunlight? When does it become the memory of a feeling, no longer the feeling itself? I loved you, Anna, and my love was greater than my rage. None of us could have known that. I came to love Georg in your place, and I wouldn’t have thought so, either, but to live on in the silent rooms where he is absent? For some reason it seems unthinkable, and I would like to understand why.
Until I do, the bottom line is that I attended a meeting yesterday at the executor’s office, and I felt your sons’ pent-up—what should I call it? Indignation? Disappointment? In any case, it was an embarrassing cocktail of emotions seeping through and around the attorney’s long, polished table. A woman in tight slacks and a fitted jacket, about their age, with corporate spectacles before her painted eyes. I think Morten found her sexy. I suspect that he has a weakness, since he never became really bourgeois himself, for exactly that sort of chilled, self-relying femininity. Stefan, for his part, did not let himself be affected; as usual he was transparency and straightness impersonated, every bit the banker. One of your sons became an investment manager, Anna, another thing I don’t believe you would have imagined. The other one is an art historian, which you would probably have found less remote. The vigilant eyes of the executor may have made him think of Girl with a Pearl Earring. I myself was falling into a reverie when I was called to order. I had put the house up for sale? It was the attorney asking, and you know what it’s like when something is ascertained by way of a question. No, of course you don’t know that anymore; you know nothing, and you have no ears to hear any of this. Your pretty ears with rosy earlobes are no longer.
It is absurd of me to address you, but if I don’t, it will be as if I, too, were just another fact, like a stone, nothing more. As if what I see before my mind’s eye could not resound just a little with what I think and feel. And I have seen you for forty years, Anna. You stopped there, not one day older. You have really fallen behind. But my mouth ran dry, and I already felt guilty before I had been accused of anything. I said I wanted to give them their dues, but I stopped when Stefan sent me a look. He leaned forward, and I saw five small misty spots dwindle and then disappear where his fingertips had rested on the glossy tabletop. He raised one hand, as if to allay the anger that we were not at any price supposed to recognize by his tone. We might have talked about it; of course I could stay in my home for as long as I wished, and if it was a question of money…We could always talk about it, he repeated, and he turned to Morten, who just nodded.
The attorney said something about undivided possession, and I thought about our bed at home, how unaccustomed I still was, at night, to the undivided stillness. The linen, the pillowcases, the finely woven cotton. It was time to change. For a few endless, lonely seconds it felt again as if I were swelling inside to the point of bursting, compact and breathless, and I had to clutch the armrest. It comes when I least expect it. It would be glossing over to say that I am in mourning when it is mourning that fills me up, that shapeless lump, growing unrestrainedly. It drives me out of myself, making me gasp, and nobody will ever understand before they themselves lose someone dear to them and feel the pressure. The shapeless, rising mass of grief. Yes, it is true that one is no longer oneself.
I looked stiffly at the attorney and forced myself not to blink as I said that it was no longer relevant. I told them that I had already found myself another place to live, and that I was moving out at the end of the month. I could hear the South Americans on their panpipes down at the city hall square, playing “El Condor Pasa.” I don’t know how long we just sat, as motionless and silent as in the chapel three weeks ago when we were waiting for the end to commence.
* * *
IN THE SUMMER, Georg and I used to take our bikes, if it wasn’t raining, when we were going over to Stefan and Mie’s place. It wasn’t as if he never got any exercise. Their house is on the other side of the bog and the riding school, and you have to get off and wheel part of the way. A shady dip of wild greenery in the midst of the otherwise regular neighborhood. When I was on my own, I liked to stop and look at the horses in the pen. The lines of a horse’s body, and the skin’s way of reflecting the sunlight, have always made me happier than such a sight is likely to add up to.
Of course, Stefan and Mie’s house is bigger than ours, and theirs is a better street. I am stating it as a matter of course since everyone has always assumed, for as long as I have lived, that things can only move forward and up. An investment manager earns more than an insurance man, and even Georg seemed to find it appropriate. That is one field where the order of factors is not arbitrary. Rich, richer; that makes sense. The reverse hardly does, but Stefan and Mie wouldn’t even consider this, taking their success for granted. Meaning that they take it in their stride. We are different, those of us who were born right after the war. A reminder was sewn with tiny stitches into our frontal lobes: Never again poor
- "A compassionate and often edifying commentary on the elasticity of love, the strength it takes to move forward after a death, and the power of forgiveness."—Publishers Weekly (Starred Review)
- "[OFTEN I AM HAPPY] possesses quiet grace."—Kirkus
- "The pleasures of this short novel are those of watching a foreign film that transports you to an unfamiliar emotional terrain."—Metro Toronto
- On Sale
- Apr 11, 2017
- Page Count
- 176 pages