Tolstoy and the Chambermaid


Tolstoy and the Chambermaid

Forty years ago, I was the chambermaid reading War and Peace in the beautiful Haukeli Mountains in Telemark, Norway.  It’s quite a big book really, and the reason I became absorbed was two-fold.   First of all, I couldn’t speak Norwegian very well, and the book became my companion on my work breaks, something to engage in when I couldn’t hold a conversation.    Secondly, I had purchased a number of literary classics on my classic Kiwi “OE “ while living and working in London, Newcastle, Manchester, and Edinburgh –  as part of my literary self-education.  Now here I was in Norge reading Tolstoy surrounded by snow, metres deep on the sides of the road … the perfect setting.   Even you might say, as close to Russia as a Kiwi girl could imagine being at that time in my life.    A couple of years later, I was on a train in Finland that stopped right on the Russian Finnish border and we (my now husband and I) were arrested for taking photographs as we walked towards the Russian border.   And that is still as close as I have been, but I do dream one day of actually getting there.

I fell in love with Vagslid, a most enchanting area which includes the Vagslid Vatn (lake) and beautiful mountains.   I learned to ski here, at first unable to even stand on skis on the flat, and then eventually able to set off alone, to traverse the frozen and snow-covered lake, to climb and ski to places with magical names like Fossen, Langasae, Åmlinuten.        I was a chambermaid and a waitress and Norway was newly rich.   I knew very little about waiting tables but I knew how to make hospital corners when making beds.  I’d learned this the previous winter in Edinburgh working at the North British Hotel during the Edinburgh festival.   But I didn’t need to know so much about hospital corners in Norway, as they had duvet (dyne) bedding which back then was quite a novelty for me.   My Norwegian language skills developed in an ad-hoc way with quite a lot of Danish imellem (in-between).   The wife of the manager of the hotel was Danish and many of the young women who worked alongside of me were also Danish – I assumed we were all talking Norwegian! My very first Norwegian phrase that I learned to say off by heart,  was Vil du være så snill å våkne meg i morgen which translates as “Would you be so kind as to wake me in the morning” (travelling as I was sans alarm clock and possibly back then, sans watch).

I plan some day to re-read War and Peace because it is such a long time since the first reading in my very early 20’s.  I’m sure that a re-reading will reward.  My hope is that I am en-route to Russia when I do this so that I can inhabit not only the pages but the real landscape.     I’ve just been reading a book to review which is based in my favourite city, Wellington.   Someone I was talking to recently, said that they love Wellington because you are constantly in touch with and aware of the elements.  The book that I was reading milked all of these elements for atmosphere and to convey somehow the mental collapse of one of the characters.  I liked the weather, perhaps even more than I liked the characters in the book.  But it struck me that as readers we inhabit so many physical landscapes in our imagination and when we encounter a landscape we know, it is doubly exciting, if done well.

Here is a recent photo of the snow at Vagslid where I spent three winters and one summer, the first winter by myself and the next two winters and one summer with John.   We have some terrific photos of our own, but mostly they are old-fashioned slides which we need to convert.

Together our greatest skiing triumph was the return trip through mostly virgin snow from Vagslid to Saesnuten and back (if I recall correctly approximately a 40 kilometre round trip). Here is a poem I wrote inspired by Vagslid.

Cross Country

From Hogmanay to Hauklisetter
the Telemark Waters once liquid
I learned to ski, instead
of love
Carol King’s earth moved
Under my feet, the frozen
assumed a shape, snow on
ice, ice on water
Boats upturned lay lost
til summer
Fossen was a destination
and destiny
a frozen fragment
I followed reindeer
tracks, when I
might have followed you

And here is, a photograph of my battered copy of ‘War and Peace’ a Christmas present to myself as you will see from the inscription I have written, in Edinburgh, Christmas, 1972.

This was my very first Christmas without family, and as I seem to recall, without flat-mates either, as I think they’d all escaped back to the Scottish Highlands or Europe for the festive season.

Tolstoy was my consolation and he travelled with me to Norway.   Thinking of War and Peace I was reminded of the amazing spirit of the Norwegian  people recently when they gathered in Youngstorget Square, 40,000 of them, to sing ‘Children of the Rainbow’ to celebrate multiculturalism in defiance of Anders Behring Breivik.

2 thoughts on “Tolstoy and the Chambermaid

  1. Hi Maggie
    There is something very special about those battered copies of books that travelled with us around the world, or to certain special spots in it. We have various ones on our shelves, still showing the after effects of having been squeezed into a pack for weeks (or months) on end.
    My copy of War and peace is a 2 volume set, with photos on the cover from the TV adaptation – I couldn’t remember the date, but Google tells me it was 1972, oddly enough! I wonder if you ever saw it, but maybe it didn’t play in Norge. Anthony Hopkins was Pierre, and Alan Dobie was Andrei. I can remember some scenes very clearly, but I can also remember the astonishing realisation – once I launched into the book itself – that even though everyone talked about it as a sort of Mt Everest of world literature, it was completely readable and not too intimidating at all. .

    Pippa Werry


  2. Hello Pippa – thanks for dropping by to say hello on my blog – I’ve replied to your comments back on your blog 🙂 As for me and War & Peace, I think a re-read will be required to remember what I really thought. Yes, my copy has the promo on the little hard-back case that it slots into, saying “Now a Great BBV TV Serial” but I did not get to see the TV series back then.


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