«I have a big problem. I cannot drink beer,» Toril Moi announces. Then she laughs. Her short and curly hair lifts lightly when she talks.
The 63-year-old writer and professor is known for her engaging work about Ibsen, Knausgård and Simone de Beauvoir. When Universitas meets her, she is sitting in her temporary office at the Norwegian National Library, where she is engaged as a scientific researcher for a couple of weeks. The rest of the year she spends in the United States, working as a Literary Professor at Duke University
«Because in the 70s, student life in Bergen mostly revolved around beer, it was a bit exhausting. It didn’t hinder me from buying a halvliter [a Norwegian halvliter = 0.5l; is the standard amount when buying a beer in Norway], but I never managed to finish it. I just sat there the whole night; holding the same beer. This was long before drinking water became a trend, so I couldn’t do that,» she said.
She only has 30 minutes to narrate her story of how she spent her nine years as a student in Bergen. Soon she will meet with other journalists, before flying back to be with her husband across the Atlantic.
«Hang on,» she said. Her dialect is hard to decipher: some east-country as well as south-west dialect with that very distinct guttural-r which they are famous for in Bergen. To the mix she adds a few American expressions.
Moi describes Bergen as a city where it constantly rains, explaining how it was impossible to find a good place to live. (Did you know: according to Meterologisk Institutt, on average 2250 mm of rain falls in Bergen per year.)
«It rained constantly. One autumn it felt like I started to grow gills. That’s how much it rained. At the time our bedsits were small and primitive, and things never dried,» she said.
Last year Moi discovered that her tiny bedsit at the time – which had no shower and where the toilets where two floors below – was later occupied by another Norwegian author, Vigdis Hjort.
«I didn’t meet her at the time, but I met her in Bergen last year, and then we walked by the bedsit on our way to having coffee», she said
In the early 70s, Moi started learning French, but she only did it because she wanted to read her big idol, Simone de Beauvoir’s work, in its original language: French.
«I was unaware that such a big part of French studies was literature. People get paid to read novels? I thought it was genius that I was able to read Beauvoir and novels, and at the same time I could have people believe it was work,» she said.
«I was completely out of it,» she continues.
«Probably I was quite a nerd, since I had that beer problem,» she said.
Determined to learn the language, she found herself a French boyfriend.
«So you became someone’s girlfriend just to learn a language?»
«I had to speak French because I wanted to go to Paris and live my life like Beauvoir. I was very determined at that,» she says.
The 30 minutes are about to come to an end, but Moi wants to carry on with her story. The photographer nags for the second time that he won’t have enough time to take her portrait. When she is just about to position herself in front of the window, she thinks of something that makes her laugh:
«The last scene in Ibsen’s «Hedda Gabler» is so witty: ‘She leans half-fainting, impotent, in the armchair.’ I like the word ‘impotent’ there so much.»