"I had read popular fiction and not Dostoevsky for a reason: to protect my unique genius." Read Gunnhild Øyehaug's humorous text.
My originality had to be protected so it was not infected by anyone else. Because what would be the point then? If I was to plant my flag where everyone else has planted their flag, as Joni Mitchell said? If there was to be any point at all, I had to make my own flag and find a whole other planet. Which meant I had to avoid reading other writers, so I was sure that whatever I wrote came from me and me alone. That was the only way I would be able, for example, to write texts that would combine utterly incompatible elements, like the idea of birds deep in the bushes and snow falling on gravestones and sex – if that was to spring to mind once upon a time in the future.
Reading books that my intellect recognised as being less original, meant not only that I could actually read books (after all, there was nothing I liked more than to read), but I could also protect what was unique, special, particular to everything I might think and write in the future. The only problem was that there is a limit to how much chestnut hair and hazel-brown eyes a person can tolerate, and the question of whether the vagina would burst or not (which, of course, it didn’t! Everything was perfect, of course!) and whether they would get each other in the end or not, ceased to be interesting after a hundred repetitions, so I solved the problem: I stopped reading altogether. Until my father suggested that I should study literature at the University of Bergen, when I finished school.
I had thought of applying to the Academy of Creative Writing in the same town, so I could become a writer, but my father said that I could not afford a whole year without earning any study points. He thought it would be just as good to study literature. The problem was, naturally, that then I would have to read, and what to do then with my fear of being influenced, and how, to make a enormously long story which we cannot be bothered to tell short, did you feel when you had been reading the classics for a year and discovered that you were not the only person in the history of literature who had struggled with the same issue, that even the fear of being influenced was not original, and what did you feel when you found out that there were even literary theories about it, in the book The Anxiety of Influence, by Harold Bloom, for example, and did you start to cry when you read these words: “Poetic Influence is the passing of Individuals through States, in Blake's language, but the passing is done ill when it is not a swerving. The strong poet indeed says: ‘I seem to have stopped falling; now I am fallen, consequently, I lie here in Hell’, but he is thinking, as he says this: ‘As I fell, I swerved, consequently I lie here in a Hell improved by my own making’."?
Yes. I did in fact cry when I read Harold Bloom’s The Anxiety of Influence, I confess, and I sat down and wrote a poetry collection with the epigraph “There I am again”, from Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, where nothing at all happens, as we all know, twice. And I laughed when I read about Emma Bovary, who lost herself in romantic literature. And I shook my head when I read about Don Quixote who lost himself in courtly literature, and transformed himself into a knight. The books were full of exclamation marks. “No, not again!” it might say in the margin of a book where I discovered that what I had thought myself had been thought by a completely different person about two thousand years before, when they looked up at the moon and felt lonely. “No!” it says in the margin of the Emily Dickinson poem: “Perhaps I asked too large / I take – no less than skies –/ For Earths, grow thick as /Berries, in my native Town –.” Because I had just decided to call my poetry collection Slave to the Blueberry.
“When someone transforms you, can you tell?” asks the Finnish-Swedish Tua Forsström in a poetry collection. Perhaps the answer is yes, you notice it in those moments when you come into contact with the fact that you have a soul. And that a soul is not something that is alone. That year of reading was a year of transformation. The snow still fell on the gravestones. The wind still shook the trees, the stars still shone in the sky. People wore yellow dresses in Italy, people forgot to take off the plastic shoe covers when they left institutions where you have to wear plastic shoe covers if you want to wear shoes indoors, other people experienced a fear of dying when they brought new people into the world. The water lilies kept being water lilies, etc. And yet nothing was the same.
Extract from the essay One another, published by LitHub. Gunnhild Øyehaug sits on the advisory board of the Bergen International Literary Festival.