Frode Grytten - Hotel by a Railroad
The protagonist of Norwegian writer Frode Grytten's Hotel by a Railroad knows his marriage has dissolved, that the lust of early years has unfortunately not been replaced by the love and companionship of maturity. On holidays last year – and they are on holidays now, attempting to bottle lightning by returning to the hotel of their honeymoon – they made love and the man's wife sighed and said it was lovely. “he'd seriously considered”, the husband goes on to think, “making it clear to her that this would be the last time that they would have sex.”
But he doesn't tell her this, and thus of course she doesn't know it. A year without sex might indicate a failed relationship – but it might not, too. The husband is unwilling to take the step from estranged to separated, and his wife, we sense, is aware that the marriage is dissolving and has begun to distance herself from the intangible third of any marriage – the identity that is the couple itself.
Some relationships end with a bang and some with a whimper. Most often, however, the end comes after a series of bangs, during that long drawn out period where it's simply a matter of emotionally disentangling yourself from the other, and then, well, leaving. The final separation can happen at any time, and it seems that, when the protagonist forgets to take his coat on the way downstairs to purchase some more cigarettes, that right now is that time.
He surprises himself, but soon aligns himself with the new and unexpected expanses of his freedom. Downstairs, he watches two girls swim in a pool, and then he follows them as they get changed, walk through the city, buy clothes, and then finally separate, each to their own home.
The separation of the girls becomes a stand-in for the separation of the protagonist with his wife, which has occurred yet but surely will, and soon. Thus far, the husband has shown himself a colourless, confused man, devoid of personality and stricken with memories of the relationship he is about to sever. As he follows the girls his thoughts float back and forth from the present to the past, highlighting uncomfortably on the immediate and present nature of the girls, and equally uncomfortably on his memories. He needs to make the shift, but can't, and has become paralysed with vacillation:
He crossed the street and saw the girls disappearing into the Liseberg Amusement Park. He bought a ticket and followed them in. He and his wife had been there earlier in the week. The funfair had actually been even more of a disappointment than the hotel. They had gone in the middle of the day, and the sunlight exposed the place in a merciless way.
Inside, the girls stopped at one of the restaurants and sat down. He positioned himself at the table beside them. He looked at them while they ate ice cream and wondered which he liked best. He had had so little time in the pool that he hadn't been able to decide...
Grytten's writing is plain and workmanlike, and is effective at transmitting the sensation of a personality trapped in stasis. The husband is enamoured with these girls, but his thoughts never stray to breast, buttock, or thigh, they never wander to bedsheets or first dates, they never wonder about occupation, interest, hobbies, friends. He doesn't care for the girls as anything more than bright fairies leading him away from a dark cave, a cave to which his thoughts nevertheless.
The girls split, and he follows one because it is easier than following the other. This is the extent of his decision making capabilities, the limit of his willingness to engage and interact meaningfully with the world. He follows the blonde girl, across streets and into a subway. Grytten avoids making his protagonist seems creepy, though what he is doing is certainly morally questionable and unpleasant. The husband dreams that one day, one of these girls he follows will turn and say, Come home with me. I know you are following me, keep doing so, and let's go to bed together. Just do it, and all your problems will melt. But the girls never say that, and of course it isn't true that anything would be accomplished if they did. But fantasies are nicer than reality, no?
Toward the end of the story, a surprising shift – the husband and the wife talk, and it is the wife who breaks it off. She's tired, she's at the end of her tether, she has no more to give and no desire to continue trying. Suddenly, with the collapse of his relationship become real, the husband wishes it all back – he becomes the questioner, the concerned party, the foolish soldier attempting to put Humpty Dumpty back together again.
You know what? she said. I can't take this anymore.
What do you mean?
I don't want to know any more.
What do you mean by more?
I don't want to know any more, do you understand? I've tried to help you.
You can't help me.
I don't know what else I can do.
There's nothing to do.
It went quiet. He waited. He thought he heard the sound of a train going past, but he wasn't sure if the sound was coming from the telephone receiver or from the station around him. He pictured her again: her face, her mouth, her shoulders, her breasts, her thighs. All the things that were beyond his reach now.
What happened to us? he asked.
I don't know.
Yes, you do.
Nothing in particular happened.
And there it is, the last vestiges dissolved away like so much sugar under water. They finish talking, he hangs up, and the stumbling paralysis of his numbed mind continues. But there's a shift, and though it's subtle, Grytten indicates that his protagonist has finally begun to achieve some modicum of self-awareness. It's not much, but it's enough to persuade him away from following the blonde girl, after she gets off at her station and he looks down at his hands, which suddenly seem much younger than he knew them to be.
Hotel by a Railroad by Frode Grytten is a short story from the Dalkey Archive Press' anthology, Best European Fiction 2011
Other stories from the Dalkey Archive Press' anthology, Best European Fiction 2011, include:
---United Kingdom: Welsh: Roberts, Wiliam Owen - The Professionals
---United Kingdom: British: Mantel, Hilary - The Heart Fails Without Warning
---Turkish: Üldes, Ersan - Professional Behaviour
---Swiss: Stefan, Verena - Doe a Deer
---Spanish: Catalan: Ibarz, Mercé - Nela and the Virgins
---Spanish: Castilian: Vila-Matas, Enrique - Far From Here
---Slovenian: Jančar, Drago - The Prophecy
---Serbian: Arsenijević, Vladimir - One Minute: Dumbo's Death
---Russian: Gelasimov, Andre - The Evil Eye
---Romanian: Teodorovici, Lucian Dan - Goose Chase
---Portuguese: Tavares, Gonçalo M. - Six Tales
---Polish: Tokarczuk, Olga - The Ugliest Woman in the World
---Netherlands: Uphoff, Manon - Desire
---Montenegrin: Spahić, Ognjen - Raymond is No Longer with Us – Carver is Dead
---Moldovan: Ciocan, Iulian - Auntie Frosea
Index of titles by The Dalkey Archive Press under review
Index of short stories under review
David J. Single