Krane's Cafe / Cora Sandel; translated from the Norwegian by Elizabeth Rokkan.
London: The Women's Press, 1984, c1946.
Taking a break from Canadian translations for a bit, I've headed off to Norway.
Despite this being Sandel's best-known novel (and adapted for the stage) I hadn't heard of it until I found it on the shelves of one of my favourite used bookstores, Attic Books.
This is the joy of publishers like The Women's Press -- they make available things that you didn't even know you needed to read until you see them by chance.
And it has a wonderful first line:
There's a lot to be heard before your ears drop off.
It's the story of Katinka Stordal, a seamstress who has just had enough of her former husband and her spoiled, ungrateful children. She goes to Krane's Cafe to have a drink. And stays in the back room over two days, drinking and loudly complaining about the injustices of life, alongside a disreputable man -- not a local -- who sits down and commiserates, drinking alongside her.
She shocks the local community with her candour and fearless crossing of social expectations as she lets her frustrations out. She complains that her children are demanding and unappreciative, that her clients are demanding and snobby, that life itself has become too full of demands. "It's just that I'm so tired" she tells her companion, only known by the name of Bowler Hat.
Katinka's drunken complaints about the lot of women in general and herself in particular, the sad stifling of ambition and dreams, the crushed love affairs, the expectations and financial burdens on single mothers -- they are all shared without much emotional uproar, at least by herself. The waitresses have their opinions, and Mrs. Krane cries for most of the two days without knowing quite why. The whole town seems to come into Krane's Cafe during these two days, meeting and re-meeting, listening to Katinka and Bowler Hat in the next room, arguing amongst themselves as to the right manner in which to behave to Katinka from now on. They've never been very kind to her, and they're not about to change now.
I can see why this was made into a play; it takes place in one location, structured over two days as if in two acts, and there is much bustling and to-ing and fro-ing with a variety of characters. Each one shows a little bit of the class structure of this town, and reacts in their own particular way to the drama unfolding. The writing is full of conversations, along with wry commentary. It was a quick and dramatic read, which was full of characters and ideas which both appalled and intrigued me. This would be a fabulous book to discuss with other readers; there are many big issues developed in it.
The theme is succinctly expressed in the epigraph, by another of my favourite Scandinavian writers, Sweden's Hjalmar Soderberg:
Poverty is terrible. Of all so-called misfortunes, it's the one that affects you most deeply internally.
Never a truer word.