OCTOBER 12, 2014
WHEN THE ENGLISH WRITER Edmund Gosse traveled to Denmark in the early 1870s, he was struck by the peculiarity of the scenery he encountered there. After an initial complaint about the “unexhilarating” weather — the blank white light and colorless sea left no definite impressions on his memory — he sailed northeast from Ærø, between Langeland and Funen, where the sun emerged and bathed the vista in a “golden indefinite gaiety of tone, under which all the features of the landscape became more and more salient.” Looking on this scenery, it occurred to Gosse that
There is nothing sublime, nothing grandiose about it; still less is it what we call “striking.” […] It consists of sinuous lines and modulated horizons, woods that now dip into the wave, now withdraw in curves to throw girdling shadows over lawn and meadow; a labyrinth of delicate waters that here wind in convoluted darkness, there spread a bosom of refulgence to the sky. The impression given by this characteristic elegance of the Danish landscape is fugitive, and difficult to seize.
Gosse’s impression might be extended to much of Danish art — from the haunting interiors of Vilhelm Hammershøi to the simple modernism of Arne Jacobsen — but it is particularly appropriate to Danish fiction, which has always eschewed the epic, the grand, the total. There are few loose, baggy monsters in the country’s literature, and virtually no equivalents to contemporary behemoths like David Foster Wallace or Karl Ove Knausgård. Instead, most of the country’s major writers since World War II have tended to be artisans of the short story or purveyors of terse, manicured novels. From the 1980s on, this literature has largely been oriented around the anxieties of middle-class family life, of which Denmark — a homogenous country of 5.5 million people with one of the world’s lowest Gini coefficients (i.e. lowest income disparity) — has plenty. This may be because Danish writers, lacking the momentous historical and political events that rocked a neighboring country such as Germany, have not inherited a great deal to write about, or it may have something to do with the Danish proclivity for a well-timed ironic crack. Whatever the case, some of the best fiction over the last 10 years or so has economically and brutally probed the quaint veneer of modern Danish life. Smooth, polished surfaces prove to conceal much darker, corrosive depths. In the stories of Dorthe Nors and Naja Marie Aidt, for instance, two roughly contemporary Danish writers making their American debut this year, fiction becomes a powerful vehicle for the exploration of male and female relationships, the experience of childhood, and the subtle terrors of modern life. There is nothing sublime, nothing grandiose, about their work — instead, there is something uncanny about it, something at once beautiful and disturbing; a fugitive impression of deeper truths being glimpsed. Their fiction is difficult to size but compulsively enjoyable to read.
This is not meant to suggest that Nors and Aidt are identical writers. There are unavoidable aesthetic, thematic, and social overlaps, but Aidt’s prose is tensely lyrical where Nors’s is often breezily colloquial; Nors came to short fiction after many years of novel-writing while Aidt, who has also written for the stage and radio, debuted as a poet and short story writer in the early 1990s. Their simultaneous English-language debut is interesting not only because it is the first time two dominant voices in contemporary Danish fiction are appearing in the coveted American book market, but also because their combined voices offer a complex and disquieting vision of the so-called happiest country on earth.
Naja Marie Aidt’s Baboon, published in 2006, is in some ways a national literary treasure, a collection all subsequent story collections have been forced to reckon with (Nors’s included). On its publication in Denmark it was met with unusual critical acclaim, and went on to win the 2006 Danish Critics Prize as well as the 2008 Nordic Council’s Literature Prize, Scandinavia’s highest literary honor whose laureates include Sjón and Per Petterson. Baboon’s belated appearance in English, beautifully and hauntingly rendered by the incomparable Denise Newman (translator of Inger Christensen’s short novels), is a major literary event.
A line in Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis” seems to inform Baboon in particular: “But what if all this peace, all this prosperity, all this satisfied contentment were to end in terror?” The unsettling, sometimes very bizarre situations in which Aidt’s characters find themselves begin with the normal, the humdrum, the innocent: a family drives up to a summerhouse; a couple on vacation go to the grocery store; a student’s doorbell rings in the middle of the day. But nothing ever goes according to plan, and Aidt has an uncanny ability to minutely document the transformation of these prosaic episodes into surreal, nightmarish scenarios: the family’s prospect of a much-needed vacation is interrupted by a sudden death; the couple in the grocery store become victims of an almost Kafkaesque procedural when the wife is accused of shop-lifting; the student opens his door to find a hysterical foreign woman who refuses to leave his apartment. So cleverly adroit is Aidt’s prose, however, that you cannot go back and find out when things went from good to bad. The scene of the crime has been cleansed and the murder weapon disposed.
Aidt has said that in writing Baboon she tried to be as emotionally withdrawn from her characters as possible, and tried to place a greater emphasis on the physical world. Though it sounds like a recipe for colorless minimalism, such remove, in fact, produces an unexpected poetry, especially of the natural world. In the opening story, for instance, we hear that the “wind moved through the leaves with a faint rustling, the birds sang, and then one shrieked, hoarse and desperate, as if for its life.” In “Honeymoon,” a Greek landscape is painted ominously: “The stone pines and wild olive trees dangled out over the steep slopes like helpless mourners.” In another story, a “golden sunshine” emerges to make the “withering leaves light up like copper.”
Aidt’s gaze is especially acute when leveled on the human body, a source of much of the finest and strangest writing in these stories. It can be both comic (“Her teeth looked as if they had been flung into her mouth”) and repellent (“His cheeks are sunken, his skin hangs in large gray folds, his eyes are yellow, he looks like someone about to die”). But it can also be gently humanizing, as when an older man is viewed from a distance in a Berlin restaurant: “I see his face in profile, the vague contour of his chin, lost with age.”
Aidt relishes toying with the Western world’s obsession with the human body, at times appearing to defend its frail, animal qualities from the stress we habitually inflict on it. In “Mosquito Bite,” one of the most viscerally unsettling stories I’ve ever read, a nameless young man — fit, successful, popular with women — is spending a few days at a summerhouse with his sister, Charlotte, and some friends. One night, while sipping a cognac, he fondly recalls making love to his ex-girlfriend against the bar in the entryway:
And suddenly he saw Maja, his ex-girlfriend, leaning against it, one evening when she had been lying seductively on the bed, but he had wanted to take her standing. And so she held onto the wall bar with both hands, and it was only because his thigh muscles were so strong that they could do it in that position. The thought had crossed his mind right before he came, and was maybe even part of the pleasure. He laughed at the thought, emptied his glass, and got up to do the dishes.
The next morning he discovers a mosquito bite on his buttock that later becomes infected and swells up. The pain intensifies and he contracts a fever. His sister comes over to check in on him and says he looks like a baboon. Eventually he is taken to the hospital and given antibiotics. Instead of getting better he has an allergic reaction to penicillin, grows fungus in his intestines, and develops a multi-resistant bacterial infection. He cannot eat, work, fuck, or sleep. He spends months in the hospital, slowly wasting away; like Tolstoy’s Ivan Ilyich, he has become a burden to his family, all of whom come to say their goodbyes. Except he gets better, very slowly, and finally reenters society. But by then he is an emaciated corpse barely able to walk. Subsisting solely on dope and pork chops, he realizes
the underlying frailty, how close he was to kicking the bucket, and then the fact that his life has broken into a thousand small discordant pieces, it can never again be as it was, he’s not the same person anymore, no pride, no joy, no recognition: THIS IS ME, but whatever he is, he doesn’t know, he has no idea how he’ll move on with his life, as Charlotte put it, when she also told him it’s sink or swim and slammed the door, he could hear her shouting something else on her way down the stairs.
As with Tolstoy, there is a social critique implicit in all this. Aidt skillfully and coolly picks away at the illusions of safety and well-being that characterize life in a wealthy, homogenous welfare society. Her modern day characters are egotistical and cruel, driven by an animal desire they neither fathom nor control. Often, it is children who are the victims of this excess. In “Starry Sky,” a couple falls madly, carnally in love with each other (“[…] they rubbed against each other like a dog humping its owners’ leg”), and are almost literally consumed by their insatiable appetite for each other before getting married and having a child. Their sex life continues happily, except that the husband has taken a male lover. One day the child, accompanied by her grandmother, sees her father kissing a man in a passageway: “[…] the child saw that it wasn’t a completely ordinary kiss, because her father and the man went on kissing, but the most disturbing part was that the man was holding the nape of her father’s neck as if he were pushing him down.” Although the child tells her mother what she saw, nothing comes of it: whatever doubts the mother had are quelled, the grandmother who presumably saw the same thing is silent, and the father simply becomes more discrete about his homosexual affairs, which over the years grow ever more voracious. Left in the lurch is the uncomprehending young child, who witnessed her father being both kissed and manhandled, and whose betrayal is cruelly summed up by the father’s dismissal of what happened: “Kids! It must be some damn Oepidal complex!”
Similarly, in “Torben and Maria,” a mother physically abuses her little boy while her brother, Bjørn, and Torben’s father, Rock, look on complacently. Even Maria’s mother does not intervene, but advises her daughter instead to hit Torben on the butt so she doesn’t run into any trouble with the daycare workers. Fortunately for Maria, they don’t care either:
They’re beginning to wonder. Torben is so shy. But he’s also violent. He hits the other children when they come near him. He bites. And he often has bumps and bruises on his body and head. They’ve talked it over with each other. But on the other hand, Maria seems okay. You can’t be too quick to judge people. Children at that age are accident-prone, they’re always stumbling and falling and hurting themselves.
In Danish, the word “baboon” is often used as an endearing reproach to children who misbehave. In Aidt’s stories, however, it is the adults who are the real baboons (indeed, her characters are frequently described as resembling animals), reduced to a state of almost infantile single-mindedness and moral poverty — in spite of the comparatively great wealth they are so fortunate to enjoy. Then again, Aidt seems to say, perhaps it is precisely because of this affluence, this historical and political good fortune, that her characters behave as they do: “Those of us who live in extreme wealth,” one of her characters says, “fear death and personal decline to an extent that’s in sharp contrast to our proven long lifespan and the multitude of medical advancements and miracles.” It is one of the most damning remarks in this violent, beautiful, breathlessly paced collection.
Like Baboon, Dorthe Nors’s Karate Chop is made up of 15 stories, though it appeared two years later, in 2008. Nors, too, is interested in what lies beneath the surface of an advanced and affluent society, though she is not as dynamic as Aidt in this regard. There is less movement in Nors’s stories, less action. Voices are inhabited for their own sake, and then only briefly. But from these fleeting impressions a no less sardonic picture emerges. The characters encountered in Karate Chop (capably translated here by Martin Aitken) are children of divorced parents; estranged husbands obsessed with gruesome murders; women whose abusive lovers have been reduced to “a mess of blood and comforter.” There is even a Buddhist aid worker who locks himself in his office with a can of gasoline and a female colleague. Yet if this should give rise to expectations of a vast and multifarious fictional universe, such notions are entirely misplaced. Though unrelated, these stories somehow seem like alternate versions of themselves. Narrated either in the first person or close third, they typically do not extend beyond four or five pages and generally keep a sparsely furnished house. In fact, they sometimes give the impression of having more in common with speech than writing; they are uncomfortably intimate because they are constructed like the half-remembered stories or confessions of close friends. The reader doesn’t read; she listens:
It’s a year now since Allan moved out, and we had no children, though both of us were able. He once told me I was like the castles he used to build out of straw bales when he was a boy. Inside the castle was a den in which to eat cookies and drink fruit juice while listening to the rumble of the combine in the next field. That’s what being with me was like, Allan said. Another time he said I reminded him of a doghouse his father had. As a boy, he used to sit inside the doghouse with the German wirehaired pointer. It was cozy, and sometimes he would think of what it would be like if a girl suddenly crawled in to be with him. That was me, and he meant it nicely.
This is how “Flight” begins, as a kind of confession that doesn’t betray any real sense of structure, no indication of a beginning or end. The story is really a soliloquy, delivered by a nameless narrator who isn’t telling a story so much as ruminating about her relationship to her ex-boyfriend, Allan:
Allan worked for Vestas and traveled to wind farms abroad as a consultant and service technician. When he came home he found it hard to explain to me what he had seen and done. He spoke of great landscapes, bigger than anything a person could imagine, and I would nod, which annoyed him.
The narrator, whose siblings are both married, is an object of pity and disappointment to both her parents and Allan, with whom she remains on speaking terms. Both parties commend her for “taking it so well,” though when the fact of the break-up does eventually sink in, the narrator’s mother simply says that, “there are other men.” The story ends with the narrator’s half-sincere intention of going to the wilderness of Dolly Sods in West Virginia, one of the exotic places Allan had traveled to for work. “I told myself I would do just that,” she says. “I sat there and looked in the side mirror, and promised myself I’d think about it.”
What works well in a story like “Flight” is the narrator’s reliable unreliability — the way she unwittingly jettisons telling detail, leaving a trail of breadcrumbs for the reader. Thus we stumble on her little slips of the mind and tongue — the way, for instance, in which “I would do just that” has already become the less resolved “I’d think about it” by the next sentence — and fill in the blanks.
Another good example of this reliable unreliability is found in “Duckling,” probably the best story in the collection. Once more the narrator is nameless, and once more there is not a story so much as a succession of seemingly random memories, in this case those of a son (presumably, though we don’t know for sure) recalling his father. Some of these memories focus on the father’s adultery (“That was the first time I saw one of the women Dad had on the side”) and misogyny:
Then one evening not long afterward he looked at my sister during dinner and said that a man with a wife had no business sleeping with women outside his marriage. Not if there were feelings involved. If there were no feelings involved, there was no problem. Man was like any other animal who had to have his basic needs fulfilled. He had no respect for girls who went to bed with men on the first night, and he had no respect for men who beat their wives.
Other memories, however, betray the narrator’s desire to defend his father, a residual childhood innocence. “There wasn’t much in it that was new,” the narrator explains shortly after the passage quoted above. “Dad had his boxes and he put things away in them, even things that contradicted each other.” The next paragraph begins in apologia — “But he was fond of Mom” — and goes on to recount the heartfelt toast he gave to the narrator’s mother at their 25th anniversary. Then, in a rather overcompensating manner, the narrator goes on to say he has lots of great memories of “Dad”:
We never wanted for anything, and my sister and I were allowed to do all sorts of things. I remember him tow-starting cars, and I remember when we were snowed in and he got us out. I remember the feeling of being held up high and thrown into the air without knowing if I’d be caught again. For me happiness will always be the feeling of landing in his arms.
The story closes with a final, macabre memory of the narrator’s father hatching ducklings, and how he used to kill the weak or unsteady ones by bashing them against the floor. Once again, the recollection of something disturbing and incriminating metamorphoses into a fond memory of shared experience: when the narrator accidentally kills a duckling by attempting to incubate it in the oven, father and child bury it together. “We buried it together behind the machine shed in a plastic bag, and he let me fill up the hole myself.”
I find this story moving for a number of reasons. First, the narrator’s refusal or inability to see the father simply as an unfaithful, violent patriarch is tenderly, compassionately depicted. It humanizes both the father and the narrator. Oh, the self-deception involved in explaining away the actions of our loved ones! Every uncomfortable memory is immediately buried beneath a deluge of positive ones (the phrase “I remember” appears seven times in the story). Secondly, there is the question of what occasioned the narrator’s memories in the first place. Who are they addressed to and why? And what reasons belie the narrator’s inability to come to terms with the father’s adultery and violence? He is, after all, dead (“At his funeral years later, I was too scared to look up from the hole for fear that there’d be all these women I didn’t know standing around it too”), so why not say it like it is?
The best stories in Karate Chop retain this air of mystery, this uncertainty of context, leading us to wonder what is really being told and why. The restricted but clearly intimated world beyond the bounds of a given story makes for haunting reading. Perhaps for Nors’s characters writing is really a matter, as the Italian critic Claudio Magris suggests, of “filling in the blank spaces in existence, that nullity which suddenly yawns wide open in the hours and the days, and appears between the objects in the room, engulfing them in unending desolation and insignificance.”
This in-betweenness, I think, is the reason why, despite being in other ways recognizably Danish, Nors’s stories are timeless and universal. Material details are thinly meted out, and little background information is provided; instead, we are immediately made to inhabit the psychological and emotional world of a particular human being at a particular moment in time, whether it is a child tenderly observing a recently divorced father or a family’s recognition of a perverse and callous grandmother.
Because these stories are usually recollected, or simply narrated from a future perspective, an air of inevitability pervades Karate Chop — a notable contrast to Aidt’s stories, where events are narrated as they are unfolding. It is always too late in Nors’s stories; life has always already gone about its indifferent task of obscuring what happened, making sure no resolution or redemption takes place. Her stories end as though they had no business beginning in the first place. When one of her characters believes himself to be “the kind of person who is able to grasp the meaning behind things,” you can almost hear the author’s knowing chuckle in the story’s hinterland: there is no meaning, just life’s immemorial ebbing.