February 23, 1934, a thirty-two-year-old man met his death when he fell
from atop an apartment building on Frognerplass in Oslo. The man whose
life ended in this way was a popular, good-looking, and gifted actor with
a bright future in front of him. He was known for playing horses with
the chairs in the Hotel Continental's Annen Etage, bouncing around the
restaurant to the strains of the "Ryttermarsjen." Four days later, Johan
Peter Bull, the National Theater's dramatist and secretary, noted in his
diary that he feared there might be trouble at that evening's performance
of When We Dead Awaken. There was talk of plans to disrupt the play with
boos and catcalls, in protest against one of the National Theater's most
beguiling actresses, who was currently winning great acclaim for her portrayal
of Irene. Some felt this actress was partly to blame for her young colleague's
death, inasmuch as the two had been having an affair. The police turned
out in force, but the performance went off without incident.
In the audience that evening was a young man, a farmer's son named Elias
Vold. This was Martin Vold's paternal grandfather. Elias hailed from Sweden,
where his parents ran an ostrich farm in Sundbyberg, outside Stockholm,
but when he was only fifteen the lad was forced to move from this farm
to another one, in Hoylandet. This experience--of leaving his mother and
father in Sweden to go live with his two uncles in Norway--was to leave
its mark on him for the rest of his short life. His uncles, who were cattle
and sheep farmers, took turns beating him every night, and he had to work
hard for his bread. He missed his parents, but they could no longer support
him; like their fellow ostrich farmers elsewhere in the world, they had
been hit hard by the ostrich crash of 1918. The crash followed a global
swing in fashion; ladies everywhere had lost the taste for hats trimmed
with ostrich feathers. It was the first of three great tragedies to befall
the Vold family. I would even go so far as to say that had fashions in
millinery been more stable, none of these three tragic events would have
occurred and I would not be sitting here today, in the winter of 2001,
with an unexplained death on my hands.
The once-thriving ostrich farm in Sundbyberg was sold, taken over by two
rival companies, Svensk Bio and Skandia, who joined forces on this one
occasion to build Rasunda Filmstad, home of the legendary film studios.
Here, the filmmakers Victor Sjostrom and Mauritz Stiller worked alongside
such stars as Tora Teje, Lars Hanson, Anders de Wahl, Karin Molander,
and Hilda Borgstrom. Greta Garbo turned in an impressive performance in
Gosta Berling's Saga in 1924, "giving us hope for the future," to quote
the ecstatic critic in Svenska Dagbladet. I can well imagine how Elias
must have cursed the day his parents decided to put their money in ostriches
rather than the movies.
Be that as it may. As soon as he came of age, Elias ran away from his
two uncles and from his sweetheart, Harriet, who was known as the loveliest
lass in all of Hoylandet. An ostrich feather was all he took with him
when he boarded the bus that would carry him from Hoylandet to Skogmo
station. He then caught the train to Trondheim and there another, going
And so it happened that Elias was in the audience that evening in February
1934 to see When We Dead Awaken with the beguiling actress in the part
of Irene--undisturbed, fortunately, by catcalls or any other show of disapproval.
Later that evening, Elias wrote Harriet a letter in which he told her
about the play, the catcalling that had failed to transpire, the rumors
of an unhappy love affair between the two Ibsen interpreters, and the
young actor's fall from the top of the apartment building in Frogner.
And one other thing: It would be some time before he returned to Hoylandet,
he wrote. He could well understand if Harriet did not feel like waiting
for him, but he wanted to try his luck on the stage, possibly even in
movies--yes, movies for sure. Who knew what might lie in store for a young
man like himself? He closed the letter with a few well-chosen lines from
When We Dead Awaken, since it was precisely during that very performance
at the National Theater, on February 27, 1934, that he--inspired, as it
were, by Henrik Ibsen--had the idea of breaking it off with his sweetheart
in H0ylandet and embarking on a new life as a star of stage and screen.
Elias had another passion, too--namely, for lying down on railway tracks,
in particular on the line between Toyen and Grefsen. He would try to see
how long he could lie there without being run over. Unfortunately, one
day he lay there too long and was killed: sliced in half. Rasunda Filmstad
was history. His body was sent back to Hoylandet: this time, again, by
train, from Oslo to Trondheim, where another train carried it to Skogmo;
there it was loaded aboard the bus to Hoylandet. It was a quiet funeral.
His parents were dead, and his uncles couldn't have cared less. Only his
sweetheart, Harriet, now eight months heavy, with tears streaming becomingly
down her plump cheeks--only she was there to bid him a last farewell.
After the ceremony, Harriet remained on her knees at Elias's graveside,
whispering into the pile of earth, her swollen belly clearly visible beneath
her winter coat, her long fair braid hanging down her back. It was dusk.
An icy winter wind tugged at the posy of flowers she had laid on the coffin.
She made no move to get up, just stayed on her knees, her head almost
in the grave itself, whispering, hands fluttering. No one had the heart
to disturb her, although a few passersby did stop to stare from a distance.
Naturally, everyone was wondering what she could possibly have to say
now to this man who had let her down so badly in life.
Five weeks later, Harriet gave birth to a bouncing baby boy. For the record,
I have to confess that Harriet's bouncing baby boy does not interest me
in the slightest. I have tried to picture his face, his life, his passions,
even, but to no avail. All I can say is that he was named Jesper, that
he went on to honor his Swedish grandparents by resurrecting on a grand
scale their dream of Scandinavian ostrich farming, and that years later
he started up the first ostrich farm in Norway, at Hoylandet. There! That's
Jesper's story! Oh, yes, one other thing: Back in the fifties, Jesper
married Nora, and with her he had a son: Martin.
Winter 1990. Our story proper begins about now, on a day in late January,
let us say. Here's picture number one: We are standing outside an apartment
building in the Frogner district of Oslo, scene of the young actor's tragic
death in 1934. In the picture you can see a hydraulic lift extending upward
to a closed window on the ninth floor. Atop the lift is a platform, on
the platform sits a spanking-new avocado-green sofa, and on the sofa sits
Martin, with a big smile on his face. I don't know whether you have noticed,
but behind the closed window on the ninth floor, half hidden behind a
pale-blue curtain, a young woman is waiting.
The name of the woman behind the blue curtain on the ninth floor is Stella.
On a sunlit evening just over ten years after Martin climbs through her
window, she will fall from that selfsame building in Frogner. The descent,
from the moment she loses her footing until she hits the ground, will
take two seconds. Two seconds: no more, no less. It is these two seconds
on which I shall endeavor here to shed some light.
I am a special investigator with the Violent Crimes division of the Oslo
police department. The sign on my office door says c. danielsen. The c
is for Corinne. I have no friends; my coworkers call me Corrie the Chorus
because of my theatrical background. In my former life I was a ventriloquist
and puppet maker. At one time I even had my own puppet theater. My piece
de resistance was a number featuring fifty puppets, a very fair representation
of the entire cast of La Boheme.
My real gift, however, is that I get an ever so slight twinge in my stomach
whenever I come face-to-face with a killer. Call it intuition. I can also
tell when I'm on the brink of a confession and when I am not. This is
one of those cases in which I never did get a confession. The case was
dropped due to lack of evidence. Martin took his red-clad daughter, Bee,
by the hand and walked away, vanishing from my sight until that winter's
night in Oslo, when he turned up again on that streetcar--or so I thought.
He got off scot-free.
Hence these words.
Listen! Sometimes at night, when I'm in bed, Mamma is here with me. Okay,
not right here but close by. And sometimes she talks, not to me and not
to Bee, but to someone else: Martin, maybe, or the old geezer. She doesn't
know I can hear her. Martin doesn't want to hear, and the old geezer is
deaf, so I suppose you could say she's talking to nobody.
A few years ago, Mamma got sick and kept saying to herself, Better not
fall now, better not fall. She used to say the same thing to me: Better
not fall now. And to Bee: Better not fall now. I didn't know what she
meant. She was lying in bed flat on her back, and Bee and I were standing
with our feet flat on the floor, and there she was saying we better not
fall. You can't fall when you're already lying in bed, I told her. She
said it was just a figure of speech. She didn't mean it literally. But
then some years went by and she fell anyway. Literally. And that was that.
I don't think people should go around using figures of speech all over
the place if they don't mean them literally. I must remember to tell Mamma
that next time she's close by.
That time when she was sick we thought she was going to die, but she didn't.
She got better and went back to work and said things I didn't like: that
she was living on borrowed time. When she was in the hospital, she asked
me to read to her. Books and newspapers. She asked me to read Moby-Dick,
because she felt you couldn't die without having read Moby-Dick. We never
managed to finish it. She couldn't take it after a while. There came a
point where all she wanted me to read were the real estate ads in Aftenposten.
"Bright three-room apartment in quiet street, with balcony," that sort
of thing. That cheered her up. You'll have to go and look at that one,
she'd say, so I would, and afterward I would tell her all about the three
rooms and the balcony, and about the light.
Excerpted from Stella Descending by Linn Ullmann and translated by Barbara Haveland
Copyrightę 2003 by Linn Ullmann. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division
of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may
be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
On a warm
summer night in Oslo, Martin draws Stella into one of the risky games
that have defined their ten years together: a balancing act on the edge
of their rooftop, nine stories up. Amid the shouts of horrified onlookers,
Stella stumbles, falling for a moment into Martins arms before plummeting
to her death. (Did he try to save her?)
Linn Ullmanns transfixing tale of Stellajealous wife, forbearing
lover, angelic nurse, unloved daughter, devoted mother, and finally, a
woman possessed of a secret now forever lost to the living. As Stellas
life unfolds in the recollections of those she has left behind, we observe
the fabric of many lives unraveling. And as Stella herself bears witness
from a place beyond death, we come to understand how precarious her life
was behind its facade of loveliness and order.
With a quiet
power, Stella Descending gives us the backlit dailinessand
the dark metaphysical underworldof life in a fabled metropolis.
And in brilliantly evoking the loneliness that haunts all our intimacies,
it becomes a fable of life everywhere
is a graduate of New York University, where she studied English literature
and began work on a Ph.D. She returned to Oslo in 1990 to pursue a career
in journalism. She had established herself as a prominent literary critic
when her first novel, Before You Sleep, was published in 1998 and
became a critically acclaimed best-seller throughout Europe. She writes
a column for Norways leading morning newspaper and lives in Oslo
with her husband, son, two stepchildren, and a dog.