CategoryDanish

Transfer Window – Maria Gerhardt #WITMonth

Maria Gerhardt (1978-2017) was a Danish writer and DJ who died of cancer soon after completing her third novel, Transfer Window, a fact that couldn’t help but colour my reading. The protagonist is a terminally ill young woman who lives in a wealthy suburb of Copenhagen that’s been turned into a hospice. The boutiques have given way to juice bars and therapists. The narrator spends much of her time at the Virtual Reality Store, reliving old memories.

Transfer Window is a portrait of life derailed by illness and the knowledge that it will be cut short. It’s written as a series of fragments: no linear narrative here, because the ongoing thread of the protagonist’s life has snapped. Any ambitions she might have had must be abandoned. The optimism of her schooldays has given way to pain and tiredness. Her relationships with other people – her sense of how they see her – has changed:

I don’t have to do anything today, other than care for my body and soul, enjoy life, as they say. There is no one to disappoint, no one to burden. Everyone, who does anything for me, is paid one-hundred-and-fifty kroner an hour. No one has to call me up voluntarily, or come for a visit and get a bad conscience about all the things they cannot change.
(translation by Lindy Falk van Rooyen)

Transfer Window is a piercing novel which depicts a character slipping out of her old life in plain sight. The suburb-hospice becomes a potent metaphor: a parallel world within the visible world, where lives play out to a different rhythm and outsiders can just walk on by. It’s a book that continues to linger and haunt.

Book details

Transfer Window (2017) by Maria Gerhardt, tr. Lindy Falk van Rooyen (2019), Nordisk Books, 92 pages, paperback.

The Four Devils – Herman Bang

Today’s book is one of the launch titles in Very Short Classics, an occasional ebook series from the people behind Abandoned Bookshop. Herman Bang (1857-1912) is a renowned name in Danish literature, but not widely translated into English. The Four Devils was originally published in 1890; this translation, by Marie Ottilie Heyl, dates from 1927.

As children, the brothers Fritz and Adolf were taken in by the circus; along with sisters Aimée and Louise, they became the Four Devils, talented trapeze artists. Aimée is in love with Fritz, but he has eyes for a rich married woman in the audience. Fritz waits for her after the performance each night; eventually, the woman notices and speaks to him, and everything unravels from there…

What makes The Four Devils such a pleasure to read is the intensity of Bang’s prose. As befits a story about trapeze artists, everything is refracted through the lens of movement and the body; here, for example, is Fritz regarding the rich woman in the circus’s stables, where he works as groom:

It was all for his benefit – ah, he knew it well; through 1000 little gestures – the straightening of her back, the movement of her arm, the glance of her eye, she showed that they were destined for one another. They seemed actually to touch, though each took care to keep the distance that separated them. In spite of it, they felt close to each other; it was as if some indescribable impulse had caught them in a double coil that held them both bound.

I found The Four Devils a fine introduction to the work of Herman Bang, and I’ll be looking out for more.

Book details

The Four Devils (1890) by Herman Bang, tr. Marie Ottilie Heyl (1927), Very Short Classics, 53 pages, ebook (source: personal copy).

The Four Devils is available on Kindle and Kobo for 99p. Read another review by Grant at 1streading’s Blog.

White Hunger and Dorthe Nors

Aki Ollikainen, White Hunger (2012)
Transalted from the Finnish by Emily Jeremiah and Fleur Jeremiah (2015)

White Hunger

The theme for Peirene Press’s 2015 books is ‘Chance Encounters’, and chance is particularly brutal their first selection of the year. Aki Ollikainen’s White Hunger is set in 1867, when Finland was beset by famine, the last naturally caused famine in Europe. In the prologue, we glimpse farming couple Marja and Juhani gathering what meagre food they can, and engaging in mutual masturbation rather than risk bringing another child into these dire circumstances. The next time we meet them, Juhani is starving to death, and Marja and her two children leave their home behind in search of… well, whatever they can find. Their survival is dependent on the goodwill of strangers who are themselves in hardship – and goodwill can only go so far.

Alongside Marja’s family, we meet other characters, this time based in the town – an unnamed senator with plans for a railway; and the doctor Teo, who discusses solutions to the famine with his brother over a game of chess, and exchanges his medical expertise for favours from prostitutes. In many ways, these characters are the inverse of Marja: they are largely shielded from the famine while she is caught up in it; their lives may be geographically contained, but they can see a larger picture; Marja and children move through an expansive landscape, but don’t really know where they are.

I was really struck by how much White Hunger encompasses in such a small space; it feels like the story of a nation in microcosm. The journey of Marja’s family could be the story of many other families across Finland at that time; the Senator and his plans may be seen as representing the inevitable march of the future. Emily and Fleur Jeremiah’s translation underlines the starkness of what is a strong start to Peirene’s year. With Ollikainen’s second novel shortly to be published in Finnish, I hope we see an English translation before too long.

Elsewhere:

***

Dorthe Nors, Karate Chop (2008)
Translated from the Danish by Martin Aitken (2014)

Dorthe Nors, Minna Needs Rehearsal Space (2013)
Translated from the Danish by Misha Hoekstra (2015)

Nors

Pushkin Press are introducing the Danish writer Dorthe Nors to UK audiences with two books bound head-to-tail in a single volume. It’s a nice idea: not only is it an attractive format, it also shows us more than one side to Nors’s work. The first side is the short story collection Karate Chop; and these are very short, sharp stories indeed – fifteen over the course of eighty pages. Each is a miniature character study, often (perhaps paradoxically) oblique and precise at the same time – oblique in that Nors’s characters tend to be hiding something from themselves or the outside world; precise in the details that nonetheless come to light.

So, for example, in ‘The Buddhist’, we meet a government official who becomes a Buddhist because everyone knows Buddhists are good people; stretches the truth to become president of an aid charity (all in the name of goodness, you understand); and generally twists his own rhetoric in the manner of Joe from Helen DeWitt’s Lightning Rods. In ‘Do You Know Jussi?’, a girl waiting for a text from her boyfriend while watching a TV show about families being reunited, anything to avoid admitting that she knows the text isn’t coming. The collection’s harrowing title story depicts a woman who refuses to acknowledge where the blame in her abusive relationship lies (“It was quite unacceptable of him, yet at the same time her not listening to what he told her was suspicious”). Martin Aitken captures in his translation a similar sense of the unspoken as he did with Pia Juul’s The Murder of Halland, to similar unsettling effect.

Sharing the bill with Karate Chop is a novella, Minna Needs Rehearsal Space. Minna is a composer whose partner, Lars, has broken up with her – and, yes, she’s also lost her rehearsal space. Her search for a replacement is not just about finding a physical space for practising music, but also a mental space for sorting through her life.

The form of this novella is very striking: a list of fairly straightforward declarative sentences, such as:

Minna calls Lars.

Minna calls Lars until he picks up the phone.

Minna and Lars have discussed this before.

Lars has a cousin.

The cousin’s name is Tim.

Tim knows of a rehearsal space in Kastrup.

Quoting like this can give you a sense of the repetition and rhythm, but not the cumulative effect: the unstoppable flow of incantatory sentences that drives Minna forward on her personal journey – whilst also suggesting that a quiet space is going to prove elusive. It’s a superb piece of translation by Misha Hoekstra, the sort that makes me wish I could read Danish, just to experience the music that the original must surely possess. Still, I have the music of the English version to enjoy.

The author bio tells me that Nors has written four novels in addition to these books. Once again, I can only look forward eagerly to being able to read them in future.

Elsewhere:

  • Read Nors’s story ‘The Heron‘ from Karate Chop
  • …or an extract from Minna Needs Rehearsal Space.
  • Interview with Nors at Bookanista.
  • John Self reviews the book for the Guardian.

Best European Fiction 2015: Djørup and Lenz

BestEuroAdda Djørup, ‘Birds’
Translated from the Danish by Martin Aitken

Teresa, a professor of English, writes to her partner Alejandro to explain why she has gone away without warning. Something like that, anyway:

I should say right away that my story is not an explanation, that I am not even sure myself how it is to be understood. I doubt even that it may be a story at all, for perhaps the beginning does not hang together with the middle, the middle with the end.

Teresa is not quite sure what has happened; but something changed in her when she started spitting out live birds. The line in Adda Djørup’s story that really struck me was this:

All those highly abstract and perhaps quite meaningless words about being oneself… But the birds are real, Alejandro[…]

I love the way that this inverts the standard order of fantasy and reality: the mundane things – thoughts and emotions – are elusive; the impossible birds are the only thing that Teresa feels she can hold on to. Martin Aitken’s translation is dense and discursive with introspection; but, for all Teresa’s words (which, of course, are her tools and her living), they aren’t enough for what she’s experiencing now.

Pedro Lenz, ‘Love Stories’
Translated from the dialect of Berne by Donal McLaughlin

Any work in translation is a duet between author and translator – something that’s notoriously easy to forget as a reader. But it’s perhaps more noticeable in the case of ‘Love Stories’, because Donal McLaughlin has chosen to translate Pedro Lenz‘s series of character sketches from the dialect of Berne into the dialect of Glasgow:

The wee nurse
checked the infusions,
footered aboot wi the switches again
then—a bit embarrassed like—
smiled
an’ left us
oan ur ain again.

The layout, by the way, is in recognition of the fact that Lenz often performs these as spoken-word pieces. So one’s very much aware that these are voices, and the dialect invites the reader the reader to imagine what sort of individuals these might be. I imagined Lenz’s speakers as ‘ordinary’ folk for whom expressing their emotions might not come naturally. But these acute emotional portraits – a son and his dying father; a woman making a public performance of a phone call to her lover; a man who longs to visit Thailand again – remind us that, if you look, there’s really no such thing as an ordinary person after all.

Read my other posts on Best European Fiction 2015 here.

 

 

 

Pia Juul, The Murder of Halland (2009/12)

It’s a crime story, but the crime is in the background; the real story is the effect of bereavement on Bess, Pia Juul’s protagonist. When first we meet Bess, she goes to bed shortly after her partner Halland. When she wakes, it’s to discover that Halland has been shot dead. For the rest of the novella, Bess has to live with the aftermath of Halland’s murder, and hope that she can come to some sort of new equilibrium in life.

The Murder of Halland is a fine character study (and Martin Aitken’s translation from the Danish is equally so) which, like a kaleidoscope, keeps turning to reveal something new. One of our first discoveries is that Bess’s personal life is not as happy and untroubled as we may have supposed. She left her husband and daughter behind for Halland, and is still not on best terms with her family (she says she has her mother’s number on speed dial ‘to warn me if she rang’ [p. 16]). But nor was she fully at ease with Halland – Bess loved him, but he could be possessive (‘if I hadn’t been besotted by him, staying would have pointless’ [p. 17]).

As the novella progresses, it becomes clear just how much of a hole Halland’s death has left in Bess’s life. She wants to keep his memory to herself, and treats interlopers with hostility. ‘He’s not your family!’ she tells Pernille, the foster-daughter of Halland’s sister – though, as the two never married, Bess wasn’t technically Halland’s family either; and she hasn’t exactly been concerned with her own family, either. That cry against Pernille is more about Bess than Halland. Likewise, she feels threatened by things which disrupt her image of Halland; like the office he rented in Pernille’s house, whose contents Bess puzzles over (including a poster for La Retour de Martin Guerre, perhaps a symbol of Bess’s not knowing her partner as well as she thought).

But it’s also the case that we as readers don’t know Bess as well as we might think. She is at pains to stress that she’s not telling us everything, but just what is she not saying? Bess’s motivations are not always clear, and sometimes we can see a gap between her words and reality (for example, the impression we gain of Bess’s daughter Abby from her descriptions is not what we see when Abby arrives in person). We’re left with a sense of incompleteness (though not, I don’t think, an unsatisfactory one), just as Bess feels the gaps in her life.

The murder itself is never fully cleared up (though, as I said at the outset, the murder is not the point); but there’s a sense towards the end that Bess has found her way forward. Whether we know everything she went through to get there is another matter – but Juul gives us a fascinating journey all the same.

Elsewhere
Video interview with Pia Juul
The publisher, Peirene Press
Some other reviews of The Murder of Halland: Andrew Blackman; Little Words; Reading Matters; The Little Reader Library.

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