The Silver Kiss

When I started Annette Curtis Klause’s The Silver Kiss, I was definitely skeptical. The story starts awkwardly, with neither Zoe (the teen love interest), nor Simon (the terribly named vampire stalker cum pining boyfriend) seems entirely fleshed out in the first chapters, which jump back and forth between their respective narrations. Zoe over-articulates her struggles with her mother’s terminal illness in effort to get the backstory out, and Simon describes her from afar as “Pale as the milk of death, thin and sharp like pain,” which, well, is almost cutely dramatic, but mostly just sounds like the way vampires talk in really horrible movies. (Oh, and at one point he “mark[s] his territory like a wolf, and urinate[s] on the back steps” of Zoe’s house, later leaving a trinket for her which she picks up not so long after that we’ve forgotten the whole peeing there thing.) So no points at the beginning.

However, I have to admit, once the character/plot establishing is out of the way, the book vastly improves and I really started enjoying it. Klause actually utilizes vampire mythology, which I get a huge kick out of: her vampires are sensitive to light (yeah, we thought this was standard until they started sparkling), they are burned/blinded by crucifixes, can transfigure into mist and bats (and do this often), have to wait to be invited into someone’s home, and so on. Nicely enough, while Klause’s vampires can subsist on animal blood (as Simon does), they are all too admitting of the fact that they take pleasure from drinking human blood. Simon may be a “good” vampire (he doesn’t kill his human prey, and makes the experience pleasant for them–more on that anon), but there is still a darkness to him. He overpowers and attacks a group of teen hoodlums who jump him in a park, for instance. He gives Zoe the titular “Silver Kiss” and bites her the first time she lets him in her house.

Moreover, Simon has an ultra dramatic back story, fraught with sibling rivalry and matricide and haunts playgrounds and hangs around suburban neighborhoods stalking a vampire child (a la Interview with the Vampire) who is viciously murdering neighborhood women.

So suddenly we have a complicated, rather engaging plot to invest in. And, even better, an adorable little goth romance blooms between Zoe and Simon, as they bond over the pain of death and losing one’s mother. Consider a conversation they have on a bus on the way to see Zoe’s mother in the hospital:

“I didn’t mean to trivialize your mother’s death. I know it matters. Every death matters.”

They were silent for a while, as the bus lurched through the night.

“At first,” he finally said, “you think–no, hope–it might be a dream. That you’ll wake up, and it will have been just a nightmare.”

Zoe turned sharply to look at him. Was he mocking her? But his gaze was far away, not even on her.

“You think she’ll be there,” he continued, “pulling the curtains to let in the sun, wishing you good morning.”

“Yes, how did you know?”

His eyes snapped into focus, catching the light like broken glass. “What kind of son would I be, not to know?”

She blushed stupidly and couldn’t seem to find a natural position for her hands to settle in. He’d lost his mother, too. “Yes, of course.”

“You forgot,” he said in a gentler voice.

She nodded, embarrassed. “But I felt that way, too, or like maybe it was a cruel joke, and everyone would confess to it real soon.”

“And then the anger,” he said, as if it were inevitable. “Anger at her for going away.”

“For ruining our lives,” she joined in.

“At God,” he said.

“At everyone around, for not understanding, for not having it happen to them.”

It goes on from there, but you get the gist. The book’s main energy is derived in great part from the parallel between Zoe and Simon’s circumstances, their existential musings on death, and their eventual acceptance of it as a painful, but inevitable, part of life.

The other source of momentum here is obviously–and I know I always get back to this, but still–the book’s sexual tension. Zoe is a pretty innocent girl when the book starts–Klause makes a point of emphasizing her lack of interest in boys–but after meeting Simon, things start picking up, albeit still rather chastely. During a conversation about his past, Simon bites Zoe:

“…it was no good; she was too near, too inviting. The fangs slid from their sheaths…Then he kissed her with the sharp sleek kiss, the silver kiss, so swift and true, and razor sharp, and her warmth was flowing into him. He could feel it seeping through his body–warmth, sweet warmth.

She uttered a small, surprised cry and fought him for a second, but he stroked her hair and caressed her. I won’t hurt you, he thought…And he moaned and slipped her arms around him. It was the tender ecstasy of the kissed that he could send her with his touch. It throbbed through his fingers, through his chest, like the blood through her veins. It thrummed a rhythm in him that he shared with her. She sighed, her breath came harder, and he felt himself falling.”

If that doesn’t sound like teenage hormones, I don’t know what does. It’s actually the only seen of it’s kind, though. For most of the book, Simon and Zoe shyly exchange little pecks on the lips, “real kisses.”

Complaints: The plot resolves with an overly-complicated and almost cartoonish scheme, several of the references seem a little anachronistic for the 90s, when the book was written (record player, ashtray on the coffee table) and though it’s possible that it’s meant to take place in the 70s (they listen to the Ramones on the radio), this is never really made clear. Also, the vampire child’s cover story–that he’s an orphan albino living with a foster family–has some definite holes, in that he seems to go out in the afternoon a few times. This is explained a little midway through the book, but not to very good effect.

But the book ends well–bittersweetly, and without Zoe deciding to become Simon’s vamp companion for the rest of eternity. All in all, a somewhat flawed, but still very enjoyable entry in the YA vampire genre.

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Stolen Spring and The Missing Bureaucrat

I recently reviewed two novels–Stolen Spring and The Missing Bureaucrat–by Danish author Hans Scherfig. Both of the novels were translated and published by sadly now defunct Fjord Press in 1983 and 1988, respectively, but have unfortunately gone out of print. (I do strongly recommend picking up used copies of both, on the cheap, on Amazon, though.)

My article was published under the title “Leave Them Kids Alone,” as part of the Backlist section on the website The Second Pass. You can read it on that website–which is wonderful and worth perusing–or read the full text below.

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In January 2006, the Danish Ministry of Culture unveiled the Canon of Danish Art and Culture. Representing seven different modes of artistic production—from architecture and ‘design and craft’ to literature and film—the canon aimed to showcase 12 “indispensable” works in each category: “…works of art that cannot be disregarded if we want to define what is characteristic and distinctive about Danish culture.” Readers even subconsciously familiar with Danish letters will recognize several of the literary selections, like “The Little Mermaid” by Hans Christian Andersen, Either-Or by Søren Kierkegaard, and Winter’s Tales by Karen Blixen. Even those authors less familiar to Americans are Danish luminaries, including a Nobel Prize winner, an experimental poet, and several prominent figures of the so-called “Modern Breakthrough” period. So while it’s hard to criticize the authors chosen for this ambitious undertaking, the project’s creators did admit that their choices will “obviously be constantly challenged and discussed.”

One author overlooked for inclusion was Hans Scherfig, a diversely talented and politically outspoken novelist best known for works of satirical social commentary. His barbed humor and perceived misanthropy got him labeled an “angry rationalist with a scathing wit.” His irony and unpretentious prose make his novels easily accessible in translation, darkly funny and pleasurable reads. Two of Scherfig’s most iconic works—Stolen Spring and The Missing Bureaucrat—were translated into English and published by Fjord Press in the late 1980s. Fjord Press is now defunct, and both titles have gone out of print, but affordable used copies are readily available online.

Scherfig was a polymath whose first love was painting. He also dabbled in poetry, travel writing, journalism, and political activism. He was born in the white-collar Copenhagen neighborhood of Østerbro in 1905 and was educated in the Metropolitanskole, a prestigious private high school for boys. Despite this “suspect middle-class background,” Scherfig became an ardent Communist in his adulthood—a political alliance that caused him numerous hardships, particularly during Germany’s occupation of Denmark during World War II. In 1941, Scherfig and other well-known Danish Communists were arrested and jailed. Although he was released after only a few months, he was kept under police surveillance for the rest of the occupation and was “officially prohibited from writing.” (He still continued to write and publish under multiple pseudonyms and even smuggled the manuscript for his novel The Idealists—also available in English—out of the country. It was published in Sweden in 1944.)

Scherfig’s plots were frequently drawn from real life, and Stolen Spring offers the most easily recognized parallel to his own experience. His years at the Metropolitanskole were formative, but not positive in the least, and left him believing that “the school’s task is to foster the particular characteristics that are desirable in a society which uses the unrestrained struggle of wild animals in nature as a model of human freedom.”

Stolen Spring begins, as several of his novels do, with a suspicious and unusual death for which there are no apparent motives. An elderly man dies suddenly after eating a malt drop. We come to learn he is C. Blomme, a teacher of Latin at “the gray school” (a thinly veiled allusion to the Metropolitanskole). An autopsy later reveals he was poisoned with strychnine. But no traces are found in any of his other malt drops, nor can the police find evidence of it in the shop where the candy was sold or in the deceased’s home. We’re told that his family and work colleagues are “sorry he was dead.” Moreover, “He had no debts. He had no secret mistresses. He cultivated no expensive vices. He had no frustrated ambitions.” Who would want to kill this harmless man?

The narrative jumps ahead 25 years to the class reunion of a group of Blomme’s former students. “Among the nineteen gentlemen there were people who could offer expert opinions on the head teacher’s death,” the deadpan narrator intones. “There were doctors who were knowledgeable about poisons. There were jurists who were knowledgeable about criminals. And there was a psychoanalyst who was knowledgeable about the peculiarities of the human psyche. And the murderer was also present.”

Having set the stage for a pulpy detective novel, Scherfig quickly changes tack and Blomme’s unsolved murder is, for the majority of the novel, a muted concern. As Niels Ingwersen, a scholar of Scandinavian literature, has noted, the resolution of a crime in a Scherfig novel is of very little overall importance: “No dapper detective is present . . . and when the criminal is revealed, if that occurs, there is no grand hope offered for a better future.” Instead of following the current-day murder investigation, Stolen Spring flashes back again to the school days of Blomme’s former pupils, immersing the reader in their world and revealing their many possible motives for offing their teacher.

Daily life at the school consists of a dispiriting cycle of brow-beatings and petty torments that the students suffer at the hands of their peers and their teachers. Blomme mocks his pupils, creating embarrassing nicknames for them and humiliating them on a daily basis. But the Latin master is only one awful part of an average day. There’s also the teacher who screams and hits students as they falteringly recite their French exercises, and the natural science instructor who fails his most talented student because the boy can identify plants and animals that he, the teacher, cannot. Then there are the older boys who have suffered so much at the hands of their elder classmates that they viciously harass the younger students under the watchful but disinterested gaze of the faculty. Those rare teachers whose intentions are noble become the brunt of the students’ torture for no other reason than that they are easy marks. Most poignantly, there are the teachers who are themselves former Gray School students. Having once harbored dreams of becoming famous writers and thinkers, they were encouraged to take up a “useful” profession instead.

One can be forgiven for wondering how the resulting story manages to be remotely funny. Scherfig, it should be noted, didn’t think that Stolen Spring was amusing at all, referring to it as a “tragic book . . . an account of the stunting of human beings.” Yet there is an undercurrent of wry humor. Consider this passage describing the students’ brief respite from the normal school schedule right before the Christmas holiday:

The gym teacher, Mr. Ejby, has his own special Christmas fun. He draws a large circle on the gym floor with chalk. Then all the boys have to go into the circle and try to throw each other out…It’s a superb free-for-all, and Mr. Ejby roars with laughter and encourages the combatants. “Hit him for goddam Chrissake! Push, dammit!” So they hit and push and tug and shove. Blood and tears flow when Hurrycane takes one on the snoot. “You damn sissy!” Mr. Ejby shouts. “Can’t you even take part in a little punching game? Hell’s bells, we’re celebrating the start of Christmas peace on earth.”

It’s a cruel scenario, but Scherfig’s tone also conveys a kind of survivor’s humor, shared by those who have made it through a common disheartening ordeal. Scherfig also details the brief moments of joy and mischief that sustain his young protagonists, such as their creation of a secret society called The Black Hand, whose entrance password is “Death to Blomme!” and whose mission is to “… combat mankind. First and foremost teachers and park attendants.”

Where Stolen Spring lays bare the conditions faced by children in the educational system, The Missing Bureaucrat dramatizes the long-term consequences of such training. Having completed their elite educations, the hapless graduates find themselves without any practical skills—no common sense or self-sufficiency, no confidence in their own judgment. Such is the sad state of Teodor Amsted, the bureaucrat of the novel’s title. “It isn’t so easy to arrange your life when other people have always done it for you,” the narrator explains.

When you’ve gone to school for twelve years where there were teachers who told you what to do and what to learn and what to know and what to think. . . . And when the last exam is over, you move into an office—perhaps in a ministry where what you’re supposed to do and say and write is also decided for you. It isn’t easy to be independent when other people have made all the decisions for you for 46 years.

The Missing Bureaucrat was written and published in 1938, two years prior to Stolen Spring but its action takes place after the events of the first novel, when two of the Gray School’s graduates—Amsted and former classmate Mikael Mogensen (an unemployed bohemian dilettante) both disappear at the same time. Amsted, it seems, has inexplicably committed suicide by igniting sticks of dynamite that were stuck in his hat, his pockets, and even his mouth. Mogensen vanishes on the same day, and it takes some time for the police to find a connection between the bizarre fates of the two men.

Scherfig’s style in both novels is similarly sarcastic, but The Missing Bureaucrat divides its attention among several targets, and reads less like a manifesto than Stolen Spring. Its joyfully convoluted plot develops through a series of caustic, astute character portraits. There’s Mrs. Amsted, who makes a speedy and tearful production of converting her wardrobe into appropriate mourning garb. There’s Sylvia Drusse, an author who introduces the widow to a group of spiritualists who claim to be able to communicate with her dead husband. There is the bland and minutiae-obsessed Section Chief of Amsted’s former office, who spends entire days composing memos on the ministry’s protocol for closing windows. These secondary characters—not to mention those in the book’s later passages in the country—create a ludicrously disconnected and selfish patchwork of humanity. Scherfig is not a subtle architect: Bureaucrat’s ultimate plot twist approaches with inevitability. But it’s this inevitability that gives the novel its empathetic punch. The labyrinthine system in which its characters exist only allows them one possible (and hopeless) resolution.

In his 1933 novel En flyktning krysser sit spor (translation: A Fugitive Crosses his Tracks), Danish-Norwegian author Aksel Sandemose coined the term janteloven (“Jante Law”) which quickly became something of a supposed truism of Scandinavian culture. Janteloven is generally used to describe a society’s collective distrust of individuality and personal achievement. It consists of ten basic rules, including “Don’t think that you are special” and “Don’t think that you are good at anything.” Both Stolen Spring and The Missing Bureaucrat offer an acute diagnosis of a society that suppresses what is unique and remarkable about its citizens in the name of upholding a common mediocrity. They stand as masterful works of satire—funnier variations on Kafka’s social dread. But while Scherfig may paint a cynical picture of Danish society, it’s easy to infer that his biting criticism is grounded in the notion that an improved world may be possible. To quote Ingwersen again, “…his exposure of fools and folly was meant to bring his readers to their senses.”

Introductions…

Hello, hypothetical reader-

After much debate, I’ve decided to join the blogging masses, primarily as a way to archive my own book reviews and other literary sorts of writing. My intention is to focus on what I read the most of: crime fiction, literature in translation (particularly anything that comes out of Scandinavia–especially Denmark and Iceland), and young adult literature. However, I will also probably include links, events, and news of note on the aforementioned areas. We’ll just have to see how it goes.

Some of the reviews here have been published, but many are simply casual and unpublished pieces that I’ve written on an informal basis. I welcome your thoughts, particularly if you’ve read any of these books–it’s always nice to compare opinions with other literary-minded people!

Monster

I read Monster as part of a week in my YA class focusing on “The Grim and The Bleak.” (Other suggested titles included Laure Halse Anderson’s Speak and Robert Cormier’s Tenderness.) This is my first Walter Dean Myers novel and knowing that his books are beloved by some of my particularly YA-Savvy friends, I was really looking forward to it. Plus, it received boat-loads of high praise from all sorts of trusted sources. So yes, I had high expectations.

Luckily, these expectations did not fall short. Myers created a dynamic and empathetic story here, but one which really resists a straightforward interpretation or overall moral. The story is written like a screenplay (the main character was taking a film class in high school) and therefore reads at a really quick pace. (Moreover, it occurred to me while reading the book that this sort of format would surely appeal to teens who are not only well-versed in film cues and language, and may also relate better to a more media-based format than they might to a traditional narrative. I bet that one could integrate some really interesting film-based exercises into a lesson plan with this book as the focal point.)

Anyway, in the book, 16 year-old Steve Harmon is being charged with felony murder–possible sentence of life imprisonment–for his role in the fatal shooting of a convenience store owner in his neighborhood. Now, Steve didn’t actually shoot the man, but he did act as a lookout, letting the guys holding up the convenience store know that the coast was clear and no cops were around. The fact that Steve is being charged with murder and may face a life in prison, automatically reads as frighteningly harsh, but that doesn’t really mean, as Steve contends, that he’s “innocent.” There’s a great piece of dialog to this effect between Steve and his lawyer. Steve tells her that he’s innocent, and she replies: “You should have said you didn’t do it.”

This is what it really comes down to–Steve didn’t kill the man, but his actions allowed that murder to take place. He begins to recognize this over the course of his trial–and tries to make sense of it afterward, to little effect. And the cause-and-effect/moral ambiguity is no more simple for the reader. For instance, a witness is put on the stand who testifies that she was in the convenience store when the guys robbing it began to get rough. She says that she sees this, gets scared, and leaves, but doesn’t say anything about calling the police. Isn’t she as much to blame as Steve for the man’s death? She saw more of how the situation was escalating than he did. There’s the other neighborhood kid whose job it was to obstruct police officers, should anyone try and stop the robbers once they’d left the store. He’s not on trial like Steve because he made a deal with the prosecution. The murder may only be the ‘fault’ of the man who actually shot him, but the complicity of many other people–besides Steve–allowed it to occur.

Tales from a Finnish Tupa

Tales from a Finnish Tupa is a beautifully illustrated collection of Finnish fables and folktales. The folktales were adapted from a preexisting translation, which is perhaps not ideal, but the collection itself is really quite fun. The review was originally published on the fantastic Three Percent website, and the full text is below.

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It’s a frequently-cited notion that fairy tales and folk stories provide children with a sort of moral or educational compass. Don’t stray from the path. Don’t talk to strangers. Work hard and be honest. Don’t trust your stepmother. But while we may generally associate this literary form with children, it’s certainly one that continues to resonate with adult audiences. As the German poet Friedrich Schiller has been quoted as saying, “[d]eeper meaning resides in the fairy tales told to me in my childhood than in any truth that is taught in life.”

Tales from a Finnish Tupa, recently reissued in a lovely illustrated edition by The University of Minnesota Press, will certainly resonate with contemporary readers for its humorous anecdotes which value enchantment and practicality in equal measure. The collection, which includes over forty “Tales of Magic,” “Droll Stories,” and fables, reverberates with themes of kindness to those in need, self-sufficiency, and common sense—as well as frequent encouragements to take advantage of anyone who does not exhibit the aforementioned qualities.

In “The Ship that Sailed by Land and Sea,” a young chimney sweep accomplishes impossible feats and wins a princess’ hand in marriage—but only with the help of the many magical strangers who he helped while on his journey. (As in many folkloric traditions, there are, apparently, simply dozens of unwed princesses just waiting for a resourceful fellow to come along and free them from the evil spells that bind them or sweep them away from persnickety fathers.) “The End of the World,” will be familiar to those who grew up with “Henny Penny,” telling the story of a foolish brown hen who thinks the world is ending after she’s hit on the head with an acorn.

The importance of a strong work ethic and judiciousness comes across most clearly in the humorous tale of “The Wise Men of Holmola,” which introduces the residents of a village who are “quite different from the rest of the people in Finland, and rather queer in their ways.” The Holmolaiset, we’re told,

. . . were simple-minded and above all cautious. They liked to turn everything over very thoroughly in their minds before they came to any decision about it, and would make the most elaborate plans about even the simplest details of their daily life. When it came to any important question they would talk it over for weeks and months and even years, before they could make up their minds to act.

Egged on by a bemused stranger named Matti, the villagers allow their crops to go to waste and accidentally demolish their homes through their own foolish dithering. Their absurd demise serves as a humorous caution to those who would over-complicate even the most basic tasks.

Beyond considering the stories themselves, however, the collaborative authorship of this collection does need to be taken into account. There’s a fair amount of distance here from the original text: Tales from a Finnish Tupa is a reprint of an adaptation of a translation. The stories were translated by Aili Kolehmainen, for whom no biographical information is provided. (If Google can be trusted, though, Kolehmainen was also responsible for a prose translation of the Finnish epic poem Kalevala in 1950.) The translation was then co-adapted by James Cloyd Bowman, a children’s book author who was awarded the Newberry Honor Medal in 1938 for Pecos Bill: The Greatest Cowboy of All Time, and Margery Bianco, the author best known for The Velveteen Rabbit.

This adaptive approach is not problematic in itself—folk tales are part of a long oral tradition in which each new storyteller augments, edits, and personalizes familiar stories to suit his or her own preferences. However, without any contextual supplements—such as a scholarly introduction about Finnish literary traditions or information about how the stories in the collection came to be included—Tales from a Finnish Tupa feels somewhat isolated from its original material and fails to resonate as fully as it might otherwise.

Bowman’s brief Afterword on Finnish folk lore serves this purpose rather poorly, opting for generalizations about “a pastoral people” who, “[o]n the surface . . . were cold and inexpressive, and seemed as frozen over as their lakes in winter.” Given the lack of ready information (in English) about Finnish literature, and moreover, the scarcity of new Finnish translations, the omission of a more nuanced examination of the text is felt all the more acutely.

Tales from a Finnish Tupa nevertheless remains a welcome addition to the cannon of international folklore, a fanciful collection which might best be shared out loud on a cold winter’s night.

The True Deceiver

The New York Review of Books recently published a translation of Tove Jannsson’s The True Deceiver, which I reviewed for The L Magazine. (Review here.) Although I’ve had a copy of Jansson’s The Summer Book (also published by NYRB) on my to-have-read list for some time, my only real familiarity with her work is, of course, her Moomin books. Ursula K. Le Guin wrote a great review of The True Deceiver for The Guardian. She really gets at the connection between Jansson’s adult fiction and work for children. I highly recommend her review, which can be read here.

The full text for my own review is below.

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Although Finnish author Tove Jansson is best known as the creator of the “Moomin” characters—a family of comic-strip trolls resembling marshmallow hippos—she also wrote well-respected adult novels. Appropriate for the dark days of winter, Jansson’s The True Deceiver is a foreboding tale of conflicting egos and misapprehension which ultimately suggests that all human relationships must necessarily be built on some measure of (self-) deception.

The novel opens on a young woman named Katri Kling in an isolated, snowbound village. “Nothing can be as peaceful and endless as a long winter darkness,” Katri muses. “[Y]ou’re screened from everything… You wait and hide like a tree.” Both entrenched in village affairs and separated from them, so Katri has hidden for years. Unflinchingly honest, she reviles “flattery [and] empty adjectives, the whole sloppy disgusting machinery that people engage in with impunity all the time everywhere to help them get what they want…” But despite her candor, Katri protects her own furtive motive: to situate herself and her beloved younger brother in the home of Anna Aemelin, an elderly (and wealthy) children’s illustrator.

Gaining Anna’s trust through dubious means, Katri becomes a domineering housemate: she orders Anna’s groceries, cleans out her attic and takes over her finances. But despite obliging Anna’s “uncommon ability to forget unpleasant things,” it becomes clear that she is no victim. A power struggle follows, both women fighting to disrupt the other’s sincerest convictions.

The novel’s mounting tension relies on Jansson’s taut prose. Hopping among perspectives and alternating between passages of frenetic rambling and monosyllabic dialogue, Jansson encapsulates both women’s troubled self-realizations and the weight of the season. But as the winter wanes, so does the animosity. With spring approaching, the women come to a sort of strained acceptance. “Are you trying to be nice to me?” Anna asks after an unexpected confession. “Now you’re suspicious,” Katri replies. “But there’s one thing you can believe. I never try to be nice.”