Waking this morning at six o’clock a thin thought, about the length and width of an adolescent slow worm, winded its way through my sleep-deprived mind. What in heaven’s dear name has happened to Edmund Ek? It has been more than three years since I last reported on his self-imposed exile to a lake-side cabin in Northern Norway. Immediately following his move to the middle-of-nowhere stories of his strange behaviour dominated Scandanavian literary magazines. Every sighting of him, or his cat, fueled new rumours. He was writing a Buddhist manga, said one. He had changed his name to ‘Edmund the Honest’ said another. Others claimed that he had stopped writing altogether. He was drawing, mostly. Or he was writing a series of erotic sonnets, such as the world has never seen. Then again, maybe he was re-writing his second novel in the first person (or was it his first novel in the third?). Or was he, perhaps, adapting Shakespeare for the banjo?
For the last few months, however, there has been no news of Ek whatsoever. Not a solitary, lonely little bean. I know not whether he is still in the wilderness, or whether he has wound his wilful way back to Oslo.
What I do know, though, is this. About ten years ago Ek came to give a talk at a certain university on the East Coast of America; the same one, as it happens, where I am currently residing. It was early days in his career, and he was still basking in the glow of The Incredible Expletive Shock, for which he had been branded ‘the Norwegian Salinger’. His talk (which took place in the same auditorium my wife is expected to fill in a few months) attracted huge numbers of devoted fans, many of them women. What no one realised at the time, however, was that the man who gave the talk was not Ek at all, but an actor impersonating Ek. The writer himself was seated in the audience, in the fourth row. This arrangement had not been planned, but was sprung upon the hapless organisers only minutes before the event took place. Did Ek have stage fright? No, not at all. He simply loved messing with people.
As it was, he couldn’t bear to be upstaged by his impersonator. During the talk he kept up a running commentary from his seat, frequently shouting out words such as ‘rubbish!’, ‘nonsense!’ and ‘wrong again!’ When it was time for questions he dominated the floor, hauling the poor actor across the coals, and bemusing almost everyone else. At one point he launched a vicious attack on his own book, describing it as a ‘pitiful, poorly written, cry for help, which should never have been published in any language, let alone fourteen’. The more it went on, the more embarrassing it got. Who was this impertinent man in the fourth row, thought the other attendees? And why doesn’t anyone throw him out? The truth, of course, was that the organisers knew exactly who it was, and hadn’t the confidence to throw the writer out of his own event.
Exactly what Ek was trying to prove – if he was trying to prove anything, remains a mystery. Suffice it to say that this will go down as one of those events that annoyed everyone at the time, only to be remembered fondly. As one organiser admitted to me: ‘on the night I wished I’d been someplace else. In retrospect I couldn’t be gladder that I was there’. I, for one, am grateful that I wasn’t. These young, preening writers are more than I can manage.