Reflecting on language, literature and lifestyle

During a recent week in Berlin I was surprised – and chuffed – to find many of the much-loved titles from my 1980s Literature of the Weimar Republic undergraduate module more than readily available, if perhaps not the Expressionist dramas I tackled for my dissertation. (And Babylon Berlin’s nasse Fisch was everywhere.) Meanwhile the UK is knee deep in redemptive nature writing, and the first BrexLit titles have hit the shelves. Literature is, of course, a reflection of the society it emerges from.

So what of Danish literature? As someone with a serious book buying habit I was eager to dive in, but became gradually disillusioned, as chronicled over three years ago in My struggle with Danish writing. I finally came to the realisation that, like eating rugbrød and wearing black all the time, it’s not compulsory to read modern Danish literary fiction, you can opt out of that as much as any other aspect of the Danish lifestyle which doesn’t fit. Bang goes that career in literary translation!

Here’s a quote from Morten Hasseldahl (Gyldendal): “we haven’t been very good at developing stories that reflect the cultural diversity that increasingly has characterized our society. We need to relate to an international world. Our literature still primarily focuses on white middle-class men and women…Books are increasingly considered exquisite, destined for a small elite.”

Last year’s books round-ups and prizes do however bring up some new themes which go beyond “the humdrum lives of writers who are not yet famous” (source) – maybe global trends just take a while to filter through to Fortress Denmark.

As you might expect in a small country there are more than a few ‘two country kids’. Mathilde Walter Clark is the daughter of American physicist John Walter Clark and a Danish mother, whom he met during a study visit at the Niels Bohr Institute. Encountered before via Report from the flatlands of statistics (2014; best quotes: “Early on I learned to measure my experiences using two rulers…I find myself in a state of perpetual provocation: in America by inequality, and in Denmark by conformity”), MWC’s latest is Lone Star (2018). A novel in two parts, made up of memories from her childhood summer holidays in the US and a ‘road trip’ as adult around Texas in search of her American roots, an afternoon’s dipping in and out was quite rewarding, although it’s perhaps a tad self indulgent at nearly 450 pages? (MWC is a fan of literary maximalism; see her 2012 ‘essay’ Virkeligheden i tynde, tynde skiver.) A USeng translation has recently been commissioned. Update: next up, essay collection Huset uden ende (2020; Litteratursiden).

More from the transnational turn in Anita Furu’s Mit halve liv (DR | Politiken | Bogselskabet), which won the ‘debutante’ prize at Bogforum 2018 (AF was born in 1962 – hvad så? – and didn’t attend Forfatterskolen, raising some eyebrows). This tells a tale inspired by the life of Anita’s farmor, born in Kiev but sent to CPH after a pogrom in Russia in 1906. Adopted by a prosperous lady, she marries a Norwegian businessman and spends time with him in San Sebastian, returning to Denmark in the 1950s, where she comes to terms with the loss of a family and a past.

It all looked and sounded very promising, with a quote from Sebald’s Austerlitz at the start, but any depth of feeling fails to cut through the usual sparse Danish prose, made up of one clause, factual sentences in the present tense. Maybe it’s all between the lines, if not on p217, with this one-liner on a first impression of Copenhagen: “Aldrig havde jeg set så tyst en by…stiv-net. lunken, tavs” (lit: “I had never seen so quiet a city..stiffly-neat, lukewarm, silent”).

(Dec update: Furu brings the story up to date in her svære toer, Jeg er en, der kan sige sådan!)

CY Frostholm’s Træmuseet (The museum of trees) has just won Kritikerprisen (The Critics’ Prize), and as an “essayistiske collage” had my name on it from the start. Unlike CYF’s usual Oulipo-inspired outputs this one offers 500+ pages of arboreal musings in eight sections, starting with walking in Fernando Pessoa’s footsteps in Lisbon and followed by excursions to England, Scotland, Denmark and France, bolstered by quotations from Brecht and other familiar tree-fanciers. Can we call this for nature writing Danish style, as well as one for the slim place writing canon? Sadly it’s not exactly accessible for your average bookish reader.

As ever I have issues with the materiality of Danish books, and even bookshops. While Berlin’s monster Dussmann felt like coming home, somewhere to settle in for the evening, Danish bookshops feel sparse and clinical. Then there’s the language thing. We can save linguistic determinism for another day, and but to this non-native speaker Danish is not an attractive language, and feels almost archaic, sitting somewhere between Middle High German and Anglo-Saxon prior to the Second Sound Shift.kos

Over to Dorte Nors: “Compared to English, for example, on paper, we only have about half as many words to play with” (source). While I am normally a fan of minimalism written Danish for me tends to monotony and repetition – do Danes find more nuance? Am I just unable to tune in? FWIW this also makes literary Danish difficult to translate – it easily comes over as banal, calling for extensive editing, almost a transcreation process if it is not to slip through your fingers entirely.

So, have we moved on much further from my previous post? As ever I’m grateful to the Danish library system, which so often supplies barely-opened books for my curated reading pleasure. And all the above may well graduate to reading-in-the garden books this summer – after I’ve finished my German purchases, of course.

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