Short summary - Ved foten av Babels tårn - Sigurd Hoel

Scandinavian literature summaries - 2023

Short summary - Ved foten av Babels tårn
Sigurd Hoel

Norway, 50s Ten years have passed since the end of the Second World War, which dramatically changed the fate of many Norwegians. The heroes of the novel - economist Jergen Bremer, artist Andreas Dühring, journalist Jens Tofte and translator Klaus Tangen - participated in the Resistance movement, "fought for something great and noble", risked their lives, matured and hardened in the fight against fascism, The war ended, and four comrades , young and full of faith in their own strength, set about implementing their cherished plans.

It seemed that they, the winners, who had gone through the harsh school of the underground, from now on could do everything. Why now, ten years later, is their soul so restless, where did the feeling of dissatisfaction come from, where did the former optimism disappear, are they really the new “lost generation”? Klaus Tangen is sure that their fate is even more hopeless than that of the previous generation - those who returned after the First World War were able to leave their mark on culture and history, they suffered, but they acted and knew how to make themselves listen.

"And we? Klaus exclaims in desperation. “Which of us believes that we could play even the slightest role, even if we were geniuses and achieve universal recognition for our talents? We know in advance that no one will attach the slightest importance to what we say, no one will even bother to turn his head to look at what we claim to see. In advance and completely out of the game - that's what we are, that's what today's intellectual is.

Life cruelly intervened in the plans of four friends, forcing them to retreat, change their destiny, and compromise.

Andreas Dühring is a talented artist, but his first exhibition, which brought together the most cherished paintings, did not bring recognition to the artist. But the public quickly appreciated his sharp look as a portrait painter: he was easily given an external resemblance, and the young artist’s ability to embellish the model a little in order to flatter the vanity of a wealthy customer ensured Dühring continued success with influential moneybags, especially with their wives. A successful career as a fashionable portrait painter, however, does not bring happiness to Andreas Dühring, he understands that he is selling his talent, betraying his vocation.

Even more severe was the fate of Klaus Tangen. Starting as an apprentice with a bricklayer, he successfully graduated from the institute after the war, but left his career as an engineer and decided to become a writer, as he believed that art would give him greater freedom for creativity and self-expression. Klaus dreamed of writing a realistic novel about the life of Norwegian workers - a topic close and understandable to him, but instead, carried away by modern trends, he created a modernist book about fear, which remained misunderstood by critics and readers. Of the entire circulation, only one copy was sold. An unsuccessful debut makes Klaus Tangen forget about his writing career and take up translations of other people's novels. Klaus, like Andreas, also sells his talent, but he does it less successfully: translations barely allow him to make ends meet. Klaus feels stymied, he recognizes his guilt towards his wife, because he and Anna cannot even afford to have children.

The fate of Jens Tofte is outwardly more prosperous: having met and fallen in love with the pretty student of the theater studio Ella, he, it would seem, finds happiness and peace. And let him have to leave the academy and abandon the career of an artist - he does this for the sake of love! Jens managed to convince himself that he did not have enough talent, and earnings in the newspaper allow him to support his wife, and, in principle, he likes work. Jens Tofte did not change his convictions, remained faithful to his friends and wife. But betrayal lay in wait for him: Ella, who never counted marital fidelity among her virtues, finally decides on a final break. Loyalty to Jens Tofte actually turned out to be a betrayal of himself, he, like his friends, also finds himself in a dead end in life.

The fate of the eldest of the four friends, Jergen Bremer, is most successful. During the occupation, he led their underground group, was arrested, went through torture by the Gestapo, but did not betray anyone. After the war, Jergen Bremer became a prominent economist and defended his thesis. He has a beautiful apartment, a beautiful wife, experienced in all the subtleties of social life, a four-year-old daughter.

Yergen, as a well-known supporter of a planned economy, is constantly approached for advice and consultations by "ministers, directors and other bigwigs." They readily support Bremer's plan for the reorganization of the Norwegian shoe industry, which promises huge economic benefits and, therefore, increases their prestige. And now the Bremer plan is officially called the "Sulberg plan" after the minister supporting him, who, however, does not understand anything about it. The implementation of the plan promises Jergen Bremer a new take-off in his career. Why, then, is his soul so restless? Why does he suddenly decide to leave his wife, giving her complete freedom? Friends note with alarm that Yergen, despite his success, has not changed for the better: if during the difficult years of the war he never lost his presence of mind, now, having “gained recognition”, he “could not even boast of a good mood.” What weighs on his soul so that he even decides to turn to a psychoanalyst for help?

The progressive economic reform conceived by Jergen Bremer has a flaw - it does not take into account the interests of the people. Fascinated by economic benefits, Jergen Bremer considers himself entitled to intervene in the lives of workers in order to organize their life "on the basis of order and profitability." The inhumanity of the reform causes indignation among Yergen's friends. “... What your executioners did to you during the War and what you and your committee are now going to do to these workers are basically the same thing,” says Andreas Dühring. But Yergen does not seem to hear, for him people have become only a part of the animal world, something like a flock of herrings, which only the chosen ones, the leaders, should take care of.

But although Jergen Bremer is trying to lull his conscience, assuring himself and those around him that "nothing matters", he still understands: the circle is closed, he betrayed himself, not yielding under torture, he now surrendered voluntarily, having learned, in fact, fascist ideology, against which he fought in his youth. Jergen Bremer had the courage to assess the danger of his own undertaking. He makes his own death sentence.

The death of a comrade made friends think about their own fate. Andreas Dühring persuades Jens Tofte to take a course in psychoanalysis. And although at first Andreas is driven by the desire to take revenge on Johan Ottesen, the doctor whom he blames for the death of Jergen Bremer, the sessions in the clinic allow friends to understand themselves. Even the fact that Andreas, hoping to play a cruel joke on the doctor, forces Jens to pass off other people's dreams as his own, leads to unexpected results: Ottesen advises Jens Tofte to take up painting again, because, having abandoned the career of an artist, Jens took the first step on the wrong path.

The doctor gradually brings Andreas Dühring to the idea that a return to the folk roots that nourish true art will help the artist regain his lost individuality. Andreas is not only a talented painter, he really has golden hands, he loves tinkering, carpentry, turning craft into art.

There are changes in the life of Klaus Tangen. Klaus' wife, Anna, gradually tells her husband the way to achieve his cherished goal: the creation of a novel in the Gorky tradition. Klaus decides to give up translations and return to the profession of a mason, which provides good earnings - this will allow him to save money so that he can then start his favorite job.

In a moment of despair, an unfamiliar woman comes to the aid of Andreas Dühring. This meeting changes everything in his life. A disillusioned cynic, he suddenly discovers in himself the ability and need to love, sacrifice, live. Helga's husband, Eric Faye, is also a member of the Resistance, but the war took away his hope for happiness: torture in the Gestapo dungeons turned him into a cripple. Eric is doomed and he knows it, he is hard going through his forced loneliness, but endures suffering. Fate took away his hope for the future, but he managed to remain true to the ideals of his youth, to preserve what his more successful comrades almost lost. As a testament to the living, his dying words sound: “Truly great in human life is always simple. To see and accomplish it, you need only strength, courage and willingness to sacrifice oneself.

It is these qualities that the heroes of the book need in order to continue building the "Tower of Babel" - a symbol of the creative work of people.