On May 30, 2020, German pianist Igor Levit sat down in an empty studio to play Erik Satie's "Vexations," a marathon work comprising 840 repetitions of the same few lines. With performances taking upwards of 20 hours, "Vexations" is usually played, when played at all, by a relay of pianists. Levit's solo performance was a "silent scream," he said, both for a world suffering through a pandemic and for artists whose future suddenly seemed precarious.
Anticipating the challenges, Levit told the New Yorker: "There will be ups, there will be downs, there will be devastation, there will joy, there will be literal pain. … At some point, you lose the perspective of time — like now. You lose the perspective of an end — like now. I think at some point I will lose the hope that this will ever end — like now. Maybe I won't make it. It's just about surviving. Like now."
I thought of Levit's comments often while reading "Present Tense Machine," Gunnhild Øyehaug's heartfelt and heartbreaking new novel in which "Vexations" plays a pivotal role, as unifying force between parallel worlds, metaphor for the myriad permutations of language and manifestation of the repetitive vicissitudes, captured by Levit, of life itself.
The book centers on Bergen residents Laura, 24, and Anna, 44. Laura is "timid, frightened, nervous … and sleeps with a knife." Though pregnant with their first child, her love for Karl Peter, a guitarist who spends too much time on his Instagram, is fading. Anna is writing a postapocalyptic novel about language and raising two teenagers with her second husband. Her first marriage lasted just two years but produced one child — namely, Laura.
But Anna has forgotten all about Laura, and Laura isn't aware of Anna, either, because in 2019 they live in parallel universes, universes that formed in May 1998 when Anna misread a word while her daughter rode her tricycle in the garden. As the narrator says, "We know that it's hard to believe. But that is in fact how it happened, and no other way."
Øyehaug reflects on their brief time together as well as their separate worlds, exploring how the women cope with an emptiness they can't put a name to. Anna and the novel's narrator also investigate the origins of communication and the "search for universal grammar, the ability to combine parts of speech in endless variations and create infinite universes of language."
Kari Dickson, who translated Øyehaug's two prior English-language books, repeatedly evokes these "infinite universes" in luxuriant sentences that often spill across entire pages. And she beautifully conveys the soft emotions characteristic of Øyehaug's writing through evocative phrases like the "shiny bronze gravity pendulum that … shows that the world never stands still, as though oscillating between the glow of happiness and the weight of sorrow."
It is a complex web of ideas — including metafictional surprises and a few head-scratchers, but unlike "Vexations," which Anna finds "both repetitive and immediately forgettable," Øyehaug's utterly unique novel will sit with you long after you finish playing your part.
Cory Oldweiler is a freelance writer and editor.
Present Tense Machine
By: Gunnhild Øyehaug, translated from the Norwegian by Kari Dickson.
Publisher: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 176 pages, $25.