Photographs Rendered in Words

One morning I woke up and knew that I wanted to run. But after getting dressed and having a quick look round the house, the desire was suddenly gone. I sat down in a chair and stared at the floor and waited for something to happen. After a while I began to cry. Slowly everything became difficult.

I have long thought that the unending nights during the Scandinavian winter would be a catalyst for creativity.

It seems as if I am right.

Originally published in Norwegian in 2002, You Can’t Betray Your Best Friend and Learn to Sing at the Same Time is an embodiment of that creativity that seeps down from the north. The book, by Kim Hiorthøy, arrived on my doorstep perfectly packaged and waiting to be read*.

And so I read it.


Trying to piece together my thoughts on this book (read fervently in a hoarded space of time, bundled against winter’s wrath) mirrored the experience of reading it – fragmented and delightful. It was like gathering moments, picking each piece from behind the couch, or finding one among the eggs.

As a novel, it’s not what you’d expect. Not quite prose and not quite poetry – it’s the perfect balance between the two. The pages can be read as you would a typical novel, one page after another, and the reader becomes a voyeur into the life and relationships of our protagonist. We see him fighting and loving and fucking.

But each page is a photograph of sorts – singular, complete. So one could read a page independent of the rest, or dip in and out, or read it backwards. This book is a tangible thing – an ink and paper album, photographs rendered in words. You can read each page piecemeal and be satisfied with the story within a story.

She stretched out on the bed. I’ve bought a new record, she said. Do you want to hear it? Sure, I said. She got up and went over to the record player. I don’t think anyone has heard it before, she said. It’s almost completely silent.

Somehow, Kim Hiorthøy has managed to give us a whole story while leaving so much unsaid. It is the mark of a good writer to know what to reveal and what to omit – a game the writer plays with the reader, teasing them with moments but forcing them to do the work. After all, the relationship between writer and reader is mutually dependent: one cannot exist without the other.

The book left me considering my life; what pockets of my world would I include if my life was condensed into a book such as this one? And how could I trim each moment to fit onto a page? Like countless others I keep a journal. It’s a way to document my life on paper, maybe it’s because I fear being forgotten, or maybe it’s because I fear forgetting. But each day, scribbled in unintelligible handwriting, surpasses a page, and will often spill over onto a second or third page. Of all these pages, and all these days, which would I choose? Like Hiorthøy I don’t think I’d choose the big moments – moments of heartbreak or celebration or adventures. I think instead I would choose the quiet moments and the simple memories. Mornings spent sipping coffee, a train journey, a conversation. Because (despite what social media tells us) life is what happens between the milestones.

*Sent by the new independent publishing house Nordisk Books.


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