The 2020 Dublin Literary Award would have announced its shortlist on 2 April, but has since been postponed due to the outbreak of COVID-19. Among the many big names on the extensive long-list was Story of a Marriage by Geir Gulliksen, which caused a stir in Norway upon publication in 2015. Many viewed it as the latest example of so-called virkelighetslitteratur – reality literature – a strand of life writing that seemed to expose the private lives of real people under the guise of fiction.
Gulliksen’s ex-wife went public with her indignation, and demanded stronger ethical guidelines for novelists writing about recognisable people. Gulliksen responded by claiming that all writers draw on their own experiences, if only inadvertently, and that the woman in his novel was not in any way meant to be a portrait of his ex-wife. The book’s tumultuous reception did not prevent it from garnering rave reviews, however, and Story of a Marriage was subsequently nominated for the Nordic Council Literature Prize in 2016.
In the novel we meet Timmy and Jon, who are married with children and nearing middle age. They are very close, closer than most married couples according to themselves. Timmy is Jon’s closest confidante and vice versa, and so the thought that something – or someone – might come between them is both enticing and absolutely terrifying.
When Timmy meets a man at work who shares her interests and has ‘his gaze fixed on her’, Jon starts fantasizing about what she might end up doing with this stranger. They enjoy thinking and talking about it, they whisper about it in bed both pre- and post-sex; Jon wants to set Timmy free, he doesn’t want them to be like any other couple, and this erotic game of make-believe appeals to them both until emotions get out of hand.
The title of Gulliksen’s novel echoes that of Ingmar Bergman’s 1973 film Scenes from a Marriage, another piercing study of married life and infidelity. Gulliksen, who in Norway is known both as an author and as the editor of literary giants such as Karl Ove Knausgaard and Linn Ullmann, has forged his own way of writing about relationships that is both direct and questioning, raw yet intimate.
In pages filled with uneasy fantasies and stylised descriptions of marital sex, Gulliksen explores the many insecurities, fleeting and deep-rooted, that flicker through Jon as he struggles to keep Timmy his own while also giving her the freedom to see other men.
More than anything, Story of a Marriage is filled with wonder over how decade-long relationships can change and sometimes come apart in a matter of days. Does the estranged couple ever think about the life they used to have? Or will the twenty years they spent in each other’s intimacy feel like some sort of lucid dream? ‘If this love came to an end, this would have retrospective power (…) if our love ceased to exist one day, then it had never existed at all’, thinks Jon, as the once-so-alluring thought of Timmy with another man leaves him in agony.
The novel, which could easily be accused of being repetitive and navel-gazing in both form and execution, is salvaged by the crisp, guileless prose, expertly recreated in English by translator Deborah Dawkin. Gulliksen’s willingness to look at intimacy and adult insecurities with an unflinching eye renders Story of a Marriage a tender exploration of love, freedom, and the fear of losing both.
Story of a Marriage by Geir Gulliksen is translated by Deborah Dawkin and published by Hogarth Press, 160 pages.