18-20 February, Norwegian writer Jostein Gaarder came to Lithuania to participate at Vilnius
International Book fair, talking about his work and last but not least his best-seller Sophie’s World that has conquered the hearts of many… Relating his story and stay in Vilnius; Nanna N. K. Jørgensen:
Born into a literary family, Jostein Gaarder’s creative career as an intellectualist, philosopher and author of several novels, short stories, children's books and specialist religion and ethics literature, started with writing scientific books and being the co-author of school books. For several years, he also worked as a philosophy teacher. His first non-fiction book The diagnosis and other stories appeared in 1986, while the
500 pages philosophical novel for adolescents, Sophie's World – for which he is best known – first in
1991, and was a bestseller in Norway for 3 years before it reached world success. In fact, it was nominated as best scientific literature of the year book in 1995 (Gerbutavičius, 2010).
Gaarder himself never expected the book to achieve such great success – actually he didn’t spend much time writing it as his wife encouraged him to finish it quickly. Not knowing what to do with the incomes of the book, Gaarder and his wife Siri Dannevig created Sophie Prize in 1997 for the promotion of human rights and sustainable development. Named after the novel, it is an annual international environment and development prize of 77. 000 €, where voluntary organizations, institutions, research environments as well as people with knowledge and interest for environment and development can nominate candidates to the prize.
On Friday, Feb 19, the Norwegian Ambassador to Lithuania
H.E. Steinar Gil had the pleasure to welcome Gaarder and
Swedish writer Karin Alvtegen, famous for her crime novels, at a reception in his residence.
Invited were also teachers and students from the faculty of Nordic studies by Vilnius University, as well as translators of both authors’ books and representatives of the Nordic embassies.
Having the chance to talk to Gaarder privately, appearing as a very pleasant and down-to-earth being, I asked what his impression of Lithuania was as it was his first visit to the country. “– No one shovels snow! Some streets are totally impassable!” Opening speech by Ambassador Steinar Gil
When asked how he views wealth and poverty from a philosophical standpoint in our time of crisis,
Gaarder says that crisis-inflicted countries like Lithuania should start over-consuming to develop their economy, while welfare societies as Norway ought to make a halt to their spending in order to create some kind of balance in the world economy. What is literature’s role in all of this? “That’s difficult to say”; he would like to write a book about it though he is afraid it would become too moral. But as
Gaarder said at the book fair; literature’s or science’s role is to inform – like Leonardo Da Vinci said: “La sapienza è la figliola dell'esperienza” (Science is the daughter of experience).
Karin Alvtegen & Jostein Gaarder Ambassador Gil, Gaarder & Aalia Translator Išganaitytė & Gaarder
Gaarder met the Lithuanian translator of his Sophie’s World book for the first time at the Ambassador’s reception, when asked to pose together. “A fantastically eminent philologist”, Gaarder had to say about
Eglė Išganaitytė; “Every book has 2 authors; the writer and the translator. However it takes the translator more time translating it than it takes the writer to actually write it“, Gaarder expressed at the book fair.
Vilnius International Book Fair is an annual event where Lithuanian and world prominent writers and poets participate. Held for the 11 th time, Feb 18-21, the book fair discussed the issue of “historical, cultural and national identity” this year; who we are and where we are going. Expecting long queues of visitors, the organizers recommended booking tickets in advance (LITEXPO Press Centre). For only 10 or 25 litas, for a single entry or 4-day pass respectively, the public could enjoy the fair which exceeded all expectations this year. Despite of the crisis, as many as 59.200 people visited the fair – which is 1.500 more than last year; while the first venue in 2000 had only 30.000 visitors. “This year, despite the crisis, visitors were spending money like drunken sailors”, as
Tracevskis (2010) puts it.
Poster of Gaarder at the book fair
More than 160 publishing houses, bookstores and various culture organizations presented their news to the visitors, who had in offer 200 various cultural events of concerts, performances, art exhibitions and meetings with Lithuanian and foreign authors and publishers spread on 4 topic days: Library Day, Long
Friday, Unusual Rendez-vous, and Family Day. Alongside famous British historian Simon Sebag
Montefiore (Stalin’s Code) and novelist Melvins Burgess (Sarah’s Face), and contemporary Polish writer
Jacek Dehnel (Lialia), the book fair also hosted Jostein Gaarder (Sophie’s World) Saturday Feb 20 – presented and invited on the initiative of Lithuanian publishing house Tyto Alba (Kamane.lt, 2010).
At the author’s meeting with the public, the conference room was full upon Gaarder’s arrival. People were eager to listen to the philosopher’s funny wise wits and wisdoms, and the writer himself was very open and answered the public’s questions gladly and eagerly. What encouraged him to write Sophie’s
World? Well, at age 11, he woke up one morning and became conscious about his own being and the
surrounding world – what an enigma life was! Being ecstatic about his discovery, he wanted to share it with the rest of the (adult) world, but without being met with the same enthusiasm that rather tried to bring him back to earth. But he continued to be spellbound by the universe and the mystery of life. He recollects how he would get up every morning, feeling like an alien, looking into the mirror and posing himself questions like: “Who am I? Why do we live? Where are we going? Still, he doesn’t need
Spielberg’s film relating 3 types of close encounters with aliens; to see a UFO; to enter one; and to touch an alien, when he has contact of 4 th degree, waking up with one every morning – namely himself!
Exactly the same thing he poses the protagonist in Sophie’s World: “Who are you?” and introduces her to the mysterious world of philosophy. But what does Gaarder himself answer when confronted with the same question? That he is a man, the body he owns, a Norwegian, a European and a provider. “But I also feel I’m part of humanity, thus also the whole world; therefore I am engaged in the future and the environment of our universe, too”. Therefore the question “Who are you?” is impossible without the question “How is the world?” (Gerbutavičius, 2010).
Apart from awareness, Gaarder also talked a great deal about the life world the child observes, discovers and explores at all times. What drives children in this sense more than others? Curiosity and the ability to wonder, that the adult world often looses, Gaarder says. Sophie’s mother is a parody of today’s parents in that sense; children do not mask their natural, inborn characteristics. Children get their natural abilities inhibited like their capability to swim – from ceasing to swim in the womb, to being protected from their natural element, eventually ending up having to visit swimming pools dressed up to their neck with security equipment and take the swimming certificate before being allowed on deeper waters… All in all, parents have much to learn from their children, and teachers should not suppress their children’s natural curiosity (Suchodolskytė, 2010). How to maintain or restore one’s child curiosity? The only thing
Gaarder can recommend is to have one’s eyes wide open.
Children are basically curious by nature, and that is what philosophy is all about. If one doesn’t cultivate the child’s interest, the child ends up studying philosophy at a later age – it’s important not to suppress the child’s wonder and questions. “A question can be more dangerous and challenging for power structures, than an answer”, Gaarder adds; like when the child asks why the emperor is naked in one of
H.C.Andersen’s fairytale The Emperor’s new clothes – or when the girl asked her other why the president says: “God bless America” and not the whole world…
When asked whether the idea or the story is most important in his authorship, Gaarder answers: “Some write to play with the language; others to communicate something – I belong to the last category. But in order to communicate my ideas, I had to find an untraditional way to do it, as there already are several authors that have started their books by writing ‘from the beginning of times, people have posed themselves philosophoical questions… But suddenly I got a vision, and the story began’”.
To the question what role he thinks philosophy has on modern human life, Gaarder says that philosophy is a result of human curiosity and are basically simple, though complex, human questions: What is democracy? What is God? What are the values in life? Gaarder says he became a philosopher long before he even understood the meaning of the word, ‘philosophy’. As an author, he wants to give the reader an ecstasy of life.
”The adults should remind themselves that life is a great gift that should not become a norm” (Gaarder in Gerbutavičius, 2010, p.2); “There’s no reason to listen to the bad news of the doctor, but realize how wonderful life is” (Ibid., p.1). We have all heard stories about fatally ill people who suddenly become aware of what wonder life is – but you don’t actually need a doctor to experience that. A child’s magic curiosity not only helps restoring life will, but literature and philosophy too.
Gaarder is also fascinated by the newest theories and discoveries of science, biology and astronomy, but what questions or answers does he look for there? The answer to that is that he is really trying to solve the mysterious riddle about the universe (Gerbutavičius, 2010) – that’s also why he likes playing with puzzles so much. But the more he learns, the more he understands that the puzzles of the universe will
never be disclosed. After all, the human is a curious being, and we will always have an enormous interest for the nature of things.
Of hobbies, Gaarder likes music and the piano, but also the woods and the mountains; “ I cannot just sit in front of the computer”, he says; “I have to walk. In other words; my thoughts move when I’m on the move” – which is consistent with Jørgensen’s (2008) thesis; that physical activity and walking in nature, which has a reflective quality, sets the thoughts into motion.
Journalist, Gerbutavičius (2010), observes that in the novel, Orange girl, the message is that each story has its own rules, and asks whether Gaarder’s life is like a fairytale and if so; what are the rules? “Yes, my life is truly an adventure, having been translated into so many languages. Maybe the most important law in my life is humility – both when it comes to communicating with family and strangers – trying to remember that life is short.
To the question what he knows about Lithuania and what he expects to experience here, Gaarder says he was still in school when he heard about the Baltic States for the first time. Being interested in languages, he remembers he was fascinated by the fact that Lithuanian is the oldest living Indo-European language. 19 years ago when the Soviet troops stormed the Vilnius TV tower, he and his wife hosted
Lithuanian writer Romualdas Lankauskas in their house in Norway. Together with him, they watched the
Lithuanian drama unfold on the TV screen. Anyhow, Lithuania is an undiscovered country to Gaarder.
Therefore he has promised himself to find out as much as possible about Vilnius and the people living here (Gerbutavičius, 2010).
When asked what books he is personally most happy about, Gaarder answers that his best works are
Sophie’s World, The Solitaire Mystery, The Orange girl, and Brief Life – in that order – but most of all he’s satisfied with The Solitaire Mystery. So far, the second and fourth has not been translated into
Lithuanian, but maybe after this statement they will. According to himself, his funniest book is The
Ringmaster's Daughter; while the book that reflects his personality is certainly Through a Glass, Darkly.
Gaarder underlines that all his characters are fictive, but in The Orange girl, the protagonist is colored by how he met his own wife when 19, and she had indeed worn an orange coat! This book is also about jealousy, and Gaarder says all people can recognize the feelings of love and jealousy: “If someone says they have never been jealous, then they either lie or have never loved (...). After all, envy makes us inventive”.
A Milanese journalist that had travelled to the book fair, asked Gaarder a very original question: “What if
You died and went to heaven and had the possibility to speak to Your favorite philosophers – who would
You talk to and why?” Gaarder answers without a doubt: “Sokrates – he’s mysterious; what did he really think? We only know him through Plato. Jesus from Nazareth – he was also mysterious, and didn’t write anything as well; we only know him from the 4 evangelisms – the most important moral philosopher; we do not need any other ethic than the sermon he gave on the mount. Buddha – also mysterious and didn’t write anything too – we only know him through his disciples. And Spinoza” who stands closest to him, concerning the relation human-nature-love/eroticism.
Gaarder is also inspired by Borges, and shares an embarrassing story with the public he still has difficulties to come to terms with: In a bookshop in Buenos Aires he was offered a poetry collection signed by Borghes – but as it was in Spanish, which he didn’t understand; he didn’t buy it! Both his wife and the bookseller said he was stupid. Later, he felt so as ashamed, that he wrote a whole book about it
– Vita Brevis – in honor of the antique shop St.Elmo, which still exists, and sent it there. Un/like Gaarder, the book tells about a woman that finds an old scroll and its story; written in Latin to St. Augustin from the woman he loved and lived with for 12 years. Many are perplexed how he could write Vita Brevis so well from a female point of view – to which Gaarder answers that he wakes up with a woman every day.
Likewise, he doesn’t know what it is to be a man; he only knows how it is to be himself.
Never full on life, Gaarder continues to pose himself philosophical questions and is engrossed with 2 big puzzles: What was big bang? and What is consciousness? We cannot rule out there is a connection
between these two mysteries. He is therefore also very interested in ‘memory’, ‘oblivion’ and ‘black holes’ – that, to him, is one big mystery: “I have a consciousness about history – is consciousness only a cosmic accident, or is life and reality only a dream?”, Gaarder asks, referring to Calderón’s La vida es
sueño; a philosophical allegory about the human situation and the mystery of life.
Although Gaarder’s most famous book, Sophie’s World, is translated into 55 languages and widely loved by all ages, not everyone is as fascinated by it – Lithuanian philosopher Arvydas Sliogeris, also presented at the Book Fair, describes it as a “profanation of philosophy” (Tracevskis , 2010). However, we have to keep in mind that Gaarder intended this novel for the youngest audience – thus the subtitle: A Novel
about the History of Philosophy, and should be understood as such too, as the author says himself. The best book award, however, was given the Vilnius-born but London-based author Kristina Sabaliauskaite, for the novel Silva Rerum – meaning ‘the forest of things’ in Latin; a term for diary-style books that
Lithuanian nobility used to pass on in their families (Ibid.).
On the opposite side, someone in the public asked Gaarder if he could ask the Minister of Education to put Sophie’s World on the curriculum – to which everyone smiled, including Gaarder, replying: “If I’d meet the Finance minister, I would ask him to remove the taxes and VAT on books!” Then he was given a question to which the whole public seemed to wait for an answer in tension: “Will there be a sequel of
Sophie’s World – is it at all possible?” – “The thought has stroke my mind” Gaarder says, who never thought the book would reach such success – he even thanked the publishing house for publishing such a non-commercial book for cultural reasons; while it became the most commercial world-translated book of all times in Norway, only addressing Western philosophy! Therefore he is considering writing a continuation about Eastern philosophy as he is fascinated by Indian and Hinduist philosophy. He has written about Buddhist, Hinduist and Vedic philosophy before, but mainly scientific books for the secondary schools and life stance books about world religions, Christianity, ethics, moral and history of ideas – as such, Sophie’s World is one. Gaarder informs the public it’s mandatory to take world philosophy at Norwegian universities, as it is in Poland and France.
Enchanted by the author’s words, the public steamed around Gaarder when he sat down to sign books outside the conference hall after the meeting. Some were contented with that, while yet others followed the writer to the book bath held at La Bohème later, the same evening.
Gaarder signing books at the fair
People waiting in line to have their books signed; in the center:
Mrs and Mr. Ambassador
Gaarder finished his literary program in Lithuania with a book bath discussion held by Dr. in the
Humanities, Dalius Jonkus, in the intimate surroundings of La Bohème restaurant in Vilnius. More discussed here, than Sophie’s World, was The Orange Girl and love as such.
Philosophy and literature have also been engaged with the questions of love, eroticism and romanticism. “Because I am a fully equipped human, eroticism means a lot to me – like gravity for our life”. Gaarder considers most Norwegians as three-way romantics – by nature, people and eroticism.
Concerning "The Orange girl", the writer states it is about the third kind of romanticism which is love, and is perhaps his only work with autobiographical elements and dedicated love’s folly; jealousy. Is jealousy poisonous to a relationship?
No, he thinks it is necessary. Discussing the world of divorces of today, Gaarder believes 2 components are important for a relationship to persist: friendship and erotic obsession – those two ust be maintained. Eros in platonic
Gaarder with translator and interviewer sense means the search of meaning and explanation. However, accidents and Romeo & Juliet apart, it is a tragic dimension in all relationships: the one wants to leave the other, and vice versa. Philosophy’s questions has thus often an erotic frame.
When asked about the sight’s role between man and woman, and the sight’s role and power in eroticism, Gaarder answers that it is the man that sees and the woman that listens; we can glimpse small stars of happiness between each other and in the eyes of strangers. Eye contact ios something of the most erotic between two people. Despite his 36 year old monogam life, Gaarder has written novels with erotic passages as in Vita Brevis, Maja, The Ringmaster's Daughter, and The Castle in the Pyrenees. But he has at times been embarrassed for having been with the same woman for such a long time, and was even bullied by his friends when he married in 1974 – as it was considered so bourgeois. While now, he is proud of it in light of all the divorces; Norway reaching 50%, likewise in Lithuania. He doesn’t condemn divorcees; he believes they are doing the right thing, but taking the decision too fast.
When asked if he always wanted to become a writer when he was little, he says no. There was a lot of talking about choice of professions in school before and one discussed why. He wanted to become a ballet dancer, but was only made to laughter. While now; if a child answers they want to become famous, no one asks why, and one gets famous for nothing and not one’s deeds – one gets famous for gunning down co-students! Our Western society is becoming terrifyingly more and more superficial, he adds. First later in life, when he was still sweethearts his wife, they joked about how he would become a famous writer and buy her a theater one day. After making love, one often has these ideas and dreams, and one is lucky if they become a reality. His wife is now a retired theater teacher, having a more active role in his authorship, and runs a theater in Oslo.
Devotion in a relationship is inspiring for both life and work; one has to make oneself worthy the other’s attention. When asked by me to define love philosophically, and whether it is good to have expectations from each other or if it is just poisonous to the relationship, Gaarder answers the following: “Love is friendship, respect and desire – something we fall in love with in the Weat, while it is arranged for us in the East. Expectations and patience are twin words, as is optimist and pessimist. To be a pessimist is to be lazy, and which is also the easiest way to act, be in and out of a relationship. I’m an optimist, and in between love’s dimensions of expectations and patience, lies hope, which is the practical extension of the word fight – both what concerns our micro existence as our relationships and the universal sphere”.
There are mainly social reasons for why friendships exist and continue, but Gaarder believes friendship can lead to love, and that a relationship can turn into friendship again.
With these words, I’d like to finish – not with Gaarder’s – but with Shelley’s (1993) Love’s Philosophy:
The fountains mingle with the river
And the rivers with the Ocean,
The winds of Heaven mix for ever
With a sweet emotion;
Nothing in the world is single;
All things by a law divine in one spirit meet and mingle.
Why not I with thine?
See the mountains kiss high Heaven
And the waves clasp one another;
No sister-flower would be forgiven
If it disdained its brother;
And the sunlight clasps the earth
And the moonbeams kiss the sea:
What is all this sweet work worth
If thou kiss not me?
Nanna N.K. Jørgensen
Mrs and Mr. Ambassador, Intern Jørgensen with Gaarder at the book bath
(All photos taken by Jørgensen/The Norwegian Embassy)
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