The Brummstein

My newest review, of Danish author Peter Adolphsen’s The Brummstein,  is actually a little dusty at this point–it was published on Three Percent in May. But I think it’ll still be of interest, especially since the book was actually published in July of last year, so this wasn’t an of-the-minute review anyway.

I think Adolphsen is a fantastic author–his obvious fascination with the natural world and geological processes, paired with a real respect for form and brevity–gives his work a unique twist, too. The Brummstein was written before Machine, which was Adolphsen’s first work to be translated into English, and while I do prefer the latter, I think that this one has some definite merits that make it a worthy read.

To get the full effect, I’d suggest you take an afternoon–it won’t take longer than that–and read both books back to back. They won’t be your typical “summer reads,” but will certainly be entertaining and worth your while.

***

By examining the minute connections, unlikely coincidences, and painstaking natural processes that give shape to the daily world, the work of Danish author Peter Adolphsen encapsulates—both in form and content—Blake’s image of “a world in a grain of sand.” This has never been more literally true than in his most recently translated work, The Brummstein. Beginning in 1907, and ending over eighty years later, the novella follows a mysteriously humming stone found deep within a Swiss cave through its series of unlikely owners: a hapless German anarchist and his young Jewish sweetheart, a retired ticket clerk at a railway station lost & found, an orphan boy living alone in the woods, an avant-garde artist, and a museum curator. In following the ownership of the stone, The Brummstein also traces a crash course through European (German) history—in less than 80 pages, the reader experiences both World Wars, Spanish Flu, the rise of the Soviet GDR, and the fall of the Berlin Wall. But, rather than focus on a larger, more sweeping narrative, The Brummstein is told on a much more personal, human scale.

Adolphsen has not yet been fully translated into English, but a good start has been made with the 2009 translation of his excellent novella Machine, and excerpts from his collections Small Stories I and Small Stories II, which were included in 2011’s Best European Fiction Anthology. Readers familiar with these other works will recognize many of the author’s prevailing thematic interests, as well as his favorite formal constraints in The Brummstein.

The book starts with a playful explanation of “the constant orogeny of the Alps,” and how the formation of the earth might be conceptualized on a time-line. “. . . if we apply the famous metaphor which depicts the Earth’s age as a calendar year,” the narrator begins,

when dinosaurs became extinct on Boxing Day, hominids emerge on New Year’s Eve, and when, at the time of writing, ten seconds have passed since the Roman Empire’s five seconds expired, then these events took place on December 19 and 23 respectively. In the West, the process of comprehending this vast expanse of time commenced just one and a half geological seconds ago . . .

There’s a PBS-narrator quality to Adolphsen’s explanations of the natural world, which manage to be clinical and dignified while simultaneously geeking out about how awesome geology is. (Machine, with its first page explanations of the petrification of a prehistoric horse, which eons later becomes a drop of gasoline, maintains the same delightful tone.)

But the book’s concern is not really the Brummstein—the mysterious humming stone that an amateur explorer looking for the entrance to another world finds at the beginning of the story is basically a MacGuffin. This has been true for many other “lives of objects” narratives as well—Jenny Erpenbach’s Visitation and Nicole Krauss’s Great House come to mind—and is not in itself that unique a premise. What makes The Brummstein special, then, is Adolphsen’s incredible specificity and gift for compressing deeply incisive observations into just a few short passages.

It’s rare that the full emotional weight of a relationship or a life can be concisely summarized—just think of how bland many obituaries are. But this is precisely what Adolphsen excels at. Consider a passage in which we’re introduced to Georg Wiede, an elderly retiree in Germany during WWII. After his apartment was destroyed by Allied air raids, Georg moves to a railway station lost and found hut:

It wasn’t until December 1943 that Georg finally overcame the inhibitions which had so far deterred him from helping himself to the lost items. He was driven by a noble motive: hunger. One of the suitcases might contain a tin of goulash or a bag of boiled sweets. He organized clothing such as coats and hats in neat piles at one end of the hut, making sure that each item retained its original ticket. Then he turned his attention to the suitcases, briefcases, et cetera. One by one he placed them on the table, and feeling like a surgeon with a patient on the operating table, he opened them up and laid out the contents in regimented lines. Then he returned the items in reverse order less anything he needed, which included two fountain pens, a small pile of books, a little money, some clothes, and an antique pocket watch. Whenever he took something, he would replace it with a small note with a brief description of the object and the following sentence: “I, Georg Weide, took this item of lost property in a time of great need.”

When it doesn’t work, The Brummstein tends to undercut its emotional resonance with an unsettling sense of absurdity that borders on nihilism. More than one character is dispatched in a freak accident—for instance, a married couple survives Spanish Flu only to be crushed by a chaise lounge falling from an apartment window. The narrative also drops off abruptly and unresolved, which may be alluding to the continuation of the story outside of the novella, but instead feels slightly apathetic.

If, in the end, The Brummstein has some shortcomings, these are mostly recognizable only in comparison to Adolphsen’s more polished Machine which, it should be noted, was written a few years later. Overall, it is a remarkably creative, unique, and resonant work, which can—and should—be read in one satisfying sitting.

Copenhagen Noir

My latest review is of the short story , Copenhagen Noir, part of Brooklyn-based Akashic Books’ popular City Noir series. This isn’t the most timely review, but sometimes it’s good to take a peak back at releases you missed initially, right? My review was published on Three Percent here; full text is below.

***

Although the current social and political landscape of Denmark make it a natural setting for contemporary crime writing, the country has, until recently, remained in the shadow of its Nordic neighbors in this respect. This is not to say that Denmark is lacking authors of mysteries, crime stories, and thrillers of all stripes—merely that those authors have not generally made their way into English translation, and more particularly, into the American market. But the Swedish/Norwegian (and to a lesser extent, Icelandic and Finnish) choke-hold on the English-language crime market relented last year, with a wave of Danish publications. The Boy in the Suitcase by writing team Lene Kaaerbøl and Agnete Friis, The Keeper of Lost Causes by Jussi Adler-Olsen, Call Me Princess by Sara Blædel, and, of course, Denmark’s obligatory entry in the astoundingly successful Akashic Noir series, Copenhagen Noir, all were published in the US in 2011.

“You have arrived in Scandinavia. You have just entered a long, bitter winter. Here there are no free rides. Here you are left to your own fate.” So begins Naja Marie Aidt’s “Women in Copenhagen,” the first story in Copenhagen Noir. And while this bleak depiction of Denmark’s welfare state may seem a tad overwrought to an outside observer, it does characterize a general unease that underlies each of the collection’s stories. Copenhagen Noir serves as a sort of shadowy primer to the growing insecurities and upheavals taking place in Denmark today. As Bo Tao Michaëlis (a cultural critic and author of several books on American authors including Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler) notes in his introduction to the collection,

Gone is the provincial city appointed as capitol; instead, one is confronted with a metropolis where the food is from the Middle East, the wine from California, the women from Africa, and the mafia from Russia. Mafia! A new word at these latitudes, where crime formerly took place among bands identified with city neighborhoods and regions.

A threat from without characterizes many, if not most, of the stories in the collection. The featured immigrants or “New Danes,” embody a general, though never fully articulated, xenophobic fear. Within the collection, these Others tend to fill three basic roles: victim (underage, illegal sex workers; asylum seekers), small-time delinquents (thieves, drug dealers), and brutal crime bosses. It bears noting that one of the better stories in the collection, “The Booster Station,” was written by Seyit Öztürk, identified in his bio as a ‘New Dane’ of Turkish descent. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Öztürk’s story—a sort of Stand By Me tale of two teenage boys finding a dead body by the train tracks in the residential neighborhood of Valby—entirely lacks any ethnic or racial signifiers, as well as the associated dread that these characteristics seem to carry in many of the collection’s other stories.

This is not to say that Copenhagen Noir doesn’t have it’s high points. A skittery tension and ominous atmosphere pervade many of the stories, and are strong enough features in several (such as “The Elephant’s Tusks,” and “Savage City, Cruel City”) to make up for any plot-based shortcomings. The collection reaches its apex with the classically noir tale of a down and out detective called “Slepneir’s Assignment,” which was written by “former public servent” Georg Ursin who “had his literary debut at the age of seventy-one.”

But as Akashic Books has cleverly ascertained with its noir series, a large swath of avid crime readers are also armchair travelers, so Copenhagen Noir is also thankfully peppered with unique, regionally-specific details which subtly convey the cityscape and cultural customs of Copenhagen and Danes in general. Helle Helle has some fine (and completely innocuous) details of this sort her story “A Fine Boy,” in which the narrator stands in for the cashier at a hot dog kiosk (hot dog stands or polsevogns are almost as ubiquitous in Copenhagen as they are in New York City) while the cashier’s baby son, sleeps unattended in a pram outside on the back porch (another Danish custom: babies are often left alone in their prams on the street while their parents go into shops or are otherwise engaged). These small details add to the overall picture of Copenhagen, and balance out the otherwise grim portrait of pimps, prostitutes, and ominous outsiders that frequent the collection.

Call Me Princess

Review originally published on Reviewing the Evidence, here.

Although Nordic crime fiction has gained an incredible prominence on the world stage, Denmark has never been at the forefront of this movement. Among countless others in the field, Sweden has its Henning Mankell, Stig Larsson, and Sjöwall & Wahlöö; Norway its Jo Nesbø and Helene Tursten; Finland its Matti Yrjänä Joensuu; and Iceland its Arnaldur Indridason and Yrsa Sigurdadottir, but contemporary crime authors from Denmark have yet to gain renown as part of this current wave. One could speculate, however, that Danish authors are having their moment now: 2011 has seen the publication of English translations of The Boy in the Suitcase by writing team Lene Kaaerbøl and Agnete Friis, The Keeper of Lost Causes by Jussi Adler-Olsen, and Call Me Princess by Denmark’s “crime queen” Sara Blaedel.

Call Me Princess finds its tough, sailor-swearing, workaholic police detective Louise Rick tracking down a brutal serial rapist who targets women he meets through online dating websites. Having gained his victim’s trust after weeks of email correspondence, the rapist sets up what appear to be a perfectly chivalrous date. After a long, fancy dinner, the perpetrator returns to the woman’s apartment, where he then subjects her to mental and physical abuse. When Call Me Princess opens, one of this man’s victims has reported the crime. Just a few weeks later, the perpetrator murders his second victim, making it even more pressing that Louise and her colleagues make an arrest.

The story itself clips along at a reasonable speed, interspersing scenes of the ongoing investigation and its myriad dead-ends with short interludes in Louise’s daily life—her close friendship with ambitious crime beat reporter Camilla Lind (who ever so conveniently has started dating someone she met online) and Louise’s failing relationship with her live-in boyfriend Peter. The dialog sounds a bit tinny and the characters are by-and-large rather flat, but as Barbara Fister remarks in her review of the novel on this site, in its efficient-but-shallow approach, reading Call Me Princess is much “like watching an episode of a fairly entertaining television mystery.”

Unfortunately, there are two significant problems that loom over the story. For one, the plot is pervaded with head-smacking coincidences and the kind of farcical investigative ploys that anyone who has watched a few episodes of Law and Order will recognize as completely unworkable. For instance, police detectives don’t take civilian crime victims to help stake-out their attackers mere weeks after a crime has taken place. The most obvious reason is that this sort of situation would be dangerous for both the police officers and the victim. Moreover, this kind of set-up is completely devoid of empathy towards a person who has just endured a serious trauma.

This latter point brings us to the other, more disheartening problem about Call Me Princess. This is a novel written by a female author, about a female police officer who is investigating a string of heinous crimes against women. Given this, one might expect a substantial level of empathy throughout the book. But while Blaedel does attempt to make the reader feel for the victims—for instance, by relating both of the rape episodes from the women’s perspectives—her detective Rick is one of the more emotionally tone-deaf agents of the law that I’ve read in quite a long time.

Louise gestures towards compassion when dealing with rape victims—stiffly noting in one instance that the woman has “been through a terrifying experience”—but is unaccountably upset when the victim involved can’t render a full description of her rapist or articulate a full account of events just hours after she’s been attacked. There’s an explanation for this: we’re told that Louise avoids “…empathizing too much with other people’s sorrows and emotions,” in order to keep her work separate from her personal life. This makes sense, certainly. But Louise’s struggle to be understanding towards others bleeds into her personal life as well: into her relationship with her boyfriend, and also with her best friend Camilla. Struggling to be compassionate seems to be a major part of Louise’s character development in this series, so perhaps this weakness is meant to align her with the typical police detectives that abound in the genre: married to their work, solitary, unyielding in their morals and motivations. But more often than not, it just makes Louise Rick a difficult detective to root for.

A Tangential (and Reassuring) Moment re: Danish Linguistics in Jo Nesbø’s New Novel, Headhunters

Image courtesy of The Copenhagen Post

I was sitting on the subway reading Jo Nesbø’s newly translated stand-alone novel Headhunters today when I stumbled over an interesting tidbit about the Danish language that just had to be researched further. The main character, a Norwegian man named Roger Brown (British father), is having an affair with a Danish woman. During a morning tryst, he recalls:

“This morning…she had whispered something Danish in my ear that I didn’t understand, since from an objective standpoint Danish is a difficult language–Danish children learn to speak later than any other children in Europe…”

In terms of the novel, this is a bit of a tangential aside, but it didn’t seem like a factoid that Nesbø would just make up completely. So I did some light googling and voila! I easily found an interesting and brief article on this very subject published recently in The Copenhagen Post: “The Danish Language’s Irritable Vowel Syndrome.” According the (amusingly titled) article,

“A 15-month-old Croatian child understands approximately 150 words, while a Danish child of the same age understands just 84 on average.

It’s not because Danish kids are dumb, or because Croatian kids are geniuses. It’s because Danish has too many vowel sounds, says Dorthe Bleses, a linguist at the Center for Child Language at the University of Southern Denmark.”

The article goes on to explain that there are nine vowel sounds in Danish, but to make matters even more difficult, much of Danish pronunciation is swallowed. (I can personally attest to this: one of my Danish instructors remarked that in order to correctly pronounce a word in Danish, you had to follow the “three potato rule”: pretend you have three potatoes in your mouth and then say a word. That’s when you’ve got it right. I only ever made it up to one/one and a half potatoes, I am sorry to say…)

The linguist in the article, Dorthe Bleses, compared the rate at which children growing up with seven different languages–Danish, Swedish, Dutch, French, American English, Croatian, and Galician–learn to speak their native tongue. And Danish definitely gave children the hardest time. But never fear, says Bleses. The Danes do catch up:

“‘…the difference between the Croatian child and the Danish child doesn’t persist. Once the children have reached the third or fourth grade, the linguistic code has been cracked, and then other things have significance for whether the student learns well,’ she added.

In other words, according to the linguist, it takes Danish children with Danish parents until they are nine or ten years old – in the third or fourth grade – to “crack the code” of the Danish language.”

So head’s up for those of you learning Danish as adults: it’s a long, hard road–even for native speakers–but you’ll get there!

Danish Crime Wave Set to Hit the US

Although many Nordic countries have successfully exported their most popular crime authors to the US, Denmark is not traditionally the Scandinavian nation that American readers associate with mayhem and violence. Sweden and Norway have been especially successful promoting their crime authors abroad (think Henning Mankell, Karin Fossum, Camilla Läckberg, Åke Edwardson, Håkan Nesser, Jo Nesbø, and yes–Stieg Larsson…you get the idea) but although Denmark certainly has many crime novelists of its own, those authors are not generally as well known here, if they’re known at all. (As a side note, it also seems to me that the Danes tend to export their politically-themed genre fiction more than their crime novels–Leif Davidsen‘s journo-politico thrillers, for instance. But I digress.)

According to a recent article in The Copenhagen Post, however, the Danes are “aim[ed] to kill” in the US, with four Danish crime authors set to make their American debuts in the coming season. Foremost is popular author Sara Blædel whose second novel, Call Me Princess, starring detective Louise Rick will be released in the US in August. As explained in the article, Blædel has sold five of her novels to US publisher Pegasus and will be one of Barnes & Noble’s “…prioritised writers, so she will be sitting with the biggest titles on the tables at the front of the boutiques.”

So keep your eyes peeled at B&N’s in the coming year. There’ll be Danish (crime) novels a-plenty.

We, the Drowned

In 2007, the Danish Literary Magazine published a short review of Carsten Jensen’s epic Novel of the Sea, Vi de druknede (English translation, We, the Drowned). The novel, according to reviewer Anne Mette Lundtofte, presented a unique portrait of Danish history and culture:

“As Jensen plays with the history of European Enlightenment in We, the Drowned, he also turns the Danish national consciousness upside-down. He doesn’t depict the Danes like a homey culture of earth-bound farmers, as is usually the case in history books, but as a wild bunch of restless sailors. This new perspective on a small country has in turn made the book popular on the international market, where it has sold to 11 different countries, including England and the US. The book’s English editor, James Gurbutt, attributes this success with the novel’s ability to connect the local history of Marstal with world history through universal and current themes…”

My appetite whetted for wild, Danish seaman and raucous adventuring, I spent the next couple of years eagerly awaiting what sounded like the imminent English translation and publication of the book. Thinking perhaps England published the translation first (they are often ahead of America with Scandinavian translations), I scoured UK booksellers’ websites, and even made a point of checking for English translations of the novel all over Copenhagen when I visited years ago. But alas, the translation was simply not available and I gave up looking.

But, huzzah! We, the Drowned has finally made it to the US! And, according to the review published by Three Percent earlier this week, it was worth the wait. According to K.E. Semmel, a translator from Danish (and Norwegian, apparently–he has a translation of a Karin Fossum novel, The Caller, forthcoming) We, the Drowned will establish Denmark in American readers minds as “one of the greatest seafaring nations in the history of the world,” while also giving us an expansive, multi-generational adventure, much of which is narrated in the first person plural (which: whoa). Says Semmel:

“[I]n We, the Drowned, Jensen gives us the big story. The inhabitants of the town of Marstal, on the island of Æro, have been seafarers for generations. They live and die by the code of the sea. Jensen writes in the communal first person plural, with its distinctive and authoritative “we” lending a familiar sense of intimacy, and starts his story in the year 1848. Like the docent in a fine museum, he then leads us through the next 100 years in Marstal’s history. That history is extraordinarily rich, and includes Denmark’s Three Years’ War (1848-51) with the Germans, two world wars, the rise of late capitalism and concomitant descent of the very life-blood of Marstallers’ lives, the sailing industry, and finally the ascendency of globalization (though the “g” word is not used).”

I have been lucky enough to be given a copy of Jensen’s novel–now I just have to find myself the mood/time/weather for such an expansive story (these things really do make a difference). Perhaps this will be my Big Summer Read.

Lucky Us: Lykke Per Now Available in English

Original artwork inspired by Lykke Per, courtesy “Tourist Near Paradise.”

Way back in October, it was brought to my attention that Danish Nobel Laureate Henrik Pontoppidan had been somewhat (facetiously) maligned in a New Yorker piece about the relative (un)importance of the Nobel Prize. As I mentioned then, Pontoppidan’s short stories “The Royal Guest” and “The Polar Bear” were largely responsible for my further investigations of Danish literature. Or rather, it was a combination of the limited availability of those short stories, as well as the almost complete unavailability of Pontoppidan’s novel, Lykke Per.

It’s seemed to me a very sad state of things that the most famous novel by a Nobel Laureate had fallen out of English translation, which is why I was delighted to find out that a new translation of Lykke Per was published in English in June 2010. The new translation was undertaken by Naomi Lebowitz,  a much lauded professor in Washington University, St. Louis’ Comparative Literature Department.

The book will set you back about $70 on Amazon, which you may not be entirely inclined to invest this soon after the holidays. Luckily, however, you can get a taste of the novel via an abridged lay translation that was done by fellow Danish language and literature enthusiast “Ventristwo” on his blog “Tourist Near Paradise.” Ventristwo generally blogs about life on the island of St. Croix, one of the U.S. Virgin Islands. (It may surprise you to know that the U.S. Virgin Islands were colonized by the Danes in the late 1600s and were previously known as the Danish West Indies.) “An even-handedness comes through the work and a spirit of irrepressible youth, luck and determination fashion an honorable peace for all despite rigid adult certainties bent on suppression,” Ventristwo says of the book.

Ventristwo includes a number of long passages from throughout the novel on his site, so definitely check it out. It seems that great minds are thinking alike to finally bring us Lykke Per in English again. Lucky us!

In Defense of Henrik Pontoppidan (and Other, Lesser-Known Laureates)

Thanks to Pete for pointing out Adam Gopnik’s New Yorker piece about this year’s Nobel Prize winner, Mario Vargas Llosa. It’s a humorous piece, and though perhaps it doesn’t tread new ground with regards to its criticism of the Nobel Prize (and how much we as a literary community still value it, despite our kvetching about the award winners each year), Gopnik does get in some nice quips. (My personal favorite being “The Nobel thus not only crowns a career but provides the basis for a fine future Javier Bardem/Antonio Banderas movie.”)

All the same, I’d like to take the opportunity to defend one of the lesser-known Nobel Laureates who are laughingly brushed off in the article: Henrik Pontoppidan. Says Gopnik,

Last week also revealed that, however much we may discount the Nobel Prize, we still prize it. No matter how many times the worthy losers console themselves with their fellows—who wouldn’t rather be in the company of Proust, Auden, and Nabokov than of Erik Axel Karlfeldt and Henrik Pontoppidan?—we’d all still take the meatball if the Swedes would only offer it. You would have thought that the second-rate nature of some prize-winners would have produced a general degradation of the prize. If you give the Oscar to the likes of “Ordinary People” and “Chariots of Fire” often enough, won’t your prize be worth a bit less? Just the opposite: the more often an established prize goes to a dubious candidate the more valued it becomes.

Pontoppidan was an influential member of the so-called “Modern Breakthrough” movement in Scandinavia in the late 19th Century and won the Nobel–in an odd combo award with fellow Dane Karl Gjellerup–in 1917, for, as the Nobel committee rather anticlimactically put it, “his authentic descriptions of present-day life in Denmark.” His novel Lykke Per (Lucky Peter) is quite famous, although it–along with Pontoppidan’s other novels–has since fallen shamefully out of English translation.

I ran across one of Pontoppidan’s short stories, “The Royal Guest” in an anthology called The Royal Guest, and Other Classic Danish Narrative. It’s a wonderful story and after finishing it I instantly set about finding more of Pontoppidan’s work in English. There’s little to be found, unfortunately, although the University of Wisconsin did translate two more of his stories as part of their “Wisconsin Introduction to Scandinavia” (WITS) series. My personal favorite is “The Polar Bear,” which is just a lovely, lovely modernist story about a bohemian Danish pastor who is sent to minister in Greenland.

It was really on the strength of just these two short stories that I decided to try to learn Danish. I wanted to be able to read all of Pontoppidan’s (and other Great Danes’) work, and, if possible, make it available to others to read in English as well.  And so I’m going to take this opportunity to re-post the (very) informal review I wrote in 2008 on “The Polar Bear.” It (the story) is well worth your while, and is very cheaply available ($5 a piece) with all the other titles in the WITS series on the University of Wisconsin Scandinavian Studies website. Skål!

***

“The Polar Bear”
By Henrik Pontoppidan, Translated by James Massengale

I obtained a copy of The Polar Bear through inter-library loan. So, thank you, University of California’s Southern Library Facility, you really made my day. Or maybe even my year.

This was such a lovely short story, filled with the type of elegant, visual prose that writing instructors the world over are pointing to when they admonish their students to “Show!” and “Not Tell!” But even so, the dialog and the fluidity of the story are never bogged down in lengthy, over-flowered passages. Observe our first introduction to the novel’s protagonist:

Imagine for yourself, dear Reader, a large, flaming red face, with a snow-white, tousled beard hanging down from it; and hiding, here and there is the rough chinhairs, more old remnants of green cabbage slop, breadcrumbs or tan-colored snuff tobacco than one might find completely appetizing…It should also be pointed out that Pastor Muller was exactly six feet one and a half inches tall, that he had lost a finger on his left hand, and that he presented himself to the world, summer and winter, in the same marvelous costume, consisting of a moth-eaten dogskin cap with a visor, a pair of gray checkered trousers stuck into a pair of massive boots that stank sourly of whale oil, and a short, shiny old hunting jacket, a so-called “rump-cooler,” that was buttoned tightly over his huge, giant-like body…

The Polar Bear is a novella about Thorkild Muller, a reclusive, undereducated, and outcast Danish pastor who is reassigned to a parish in Greenland. Muller quickly finds a sense of belonging and fulfillment living with the Inuit, and becomes integrated into their nomadic society. In his old age, however, Muller returns to Denmark and finds himself unexpectedly embroiled in a confrontation with the Danish church.

It’s wonderful, which is actually extremely tragic, in that most of you won’t have access to a copy to read and those of you who do out there in Southern California don’t seem to take advantage of it. (The borrower slip in the back of the book shows that this was only rented from the library once in April 2005. So, shout out to my library buddy in California–you have excellent taste.)

As translator James Massengale notes in his Afterword,

There has been a real need, in our modern Scandinavian literature classes, for an exuberant story with no battle of the sexes, no lengthy account of awful diseases, no “depressing realism.” The Polar Bear was chosen partially as an answer to the common student reaction of the type: “do the Scandinavians always get depressed or divorce, or commit suicide in their stories?” The answer, as far as this novella goes, is certainly no; but that does not mean our story is simplistic, or that it lacks depth or “debate.” The choice also has the advantage of bring to students’ attention the name of an outstanding but less-known Danish author, Henrik Pontoppidan, who, despite winning a shared Nobel Prize for literature in 1917, has not remained within our American-Scandinavian teaching “cannon.” He needs to be reinstated, along with a number of other Scandinavian writers of both sexes who have been brushed aside by the great Ibsen/Strindberg steamroller and the restrictive policies of some of the larger publishing houses.

A Long Overdue PEN Recap (Part 1)

So it’s going on a month since I last posted and since this year’s PEN festival. You’ve all been desolate without me, I’m sure. But what can I say? Things have been busy. However, I do really want to share some wonderful stories from a few of the PEN panels I was able to attend in April. I went to four events: “That’s Not What I Meant!” with Peter Stamm, “A Gathering of Voices,” with four noted young adult/children’s authors, a conversation between Quim Monzo and Robert Coover, and a conversation between Sofi Oksanen and David Almond. All were very interesting, but some were certainly more remarkable than others. Some general impressions and disorganized anecdotes from the first two panels are below. (I’ll recap the last two in a second post.)

That’s Not What I Meant! (Swiss Author Peter Stamm with his translator, the poet Michael Hoffman)

  • Sadly, I arrived at this panel about fifteen minutes late, so I missed a fair part of the beginning conversation. I was, however, so taken with descriptions of Stamm’s book Unformed Landscape that I picked up a copy. I’ve yet to read it, but it sounds–in terms of story and prose–like a wonderful book.
  • Peter Stamm on the translation process: “It’s not my words any more; it’s not my book. Or well, it’s our book.” Murmurs of resounding approval from translators sprinkled throughout the audience, as well as panel moderator, German translator Susan Bernofsky.

A Gathering of Voices (w/ Janne Teller, David Almond, Francisco X. Stork, and Ed Young)

This was, by far, my favorite panel. Not only was it moderated by children’s librarian extraordinaire, Elizabeth Bird, but nearly all of the panelists were engaging and funny, with all sorts of delightful and perceptive anecdotes. I’ll recap interesting moments, by author:

Janne Teller
Ms. Teller is Danish by nationality, but she was born to an Austrian mother and her father is half-German. She’s lived in Brussels, Milan, Paris, and several African countries. She spoke a great deal about straddling these various cultures, and the freedom that drawing from so many traditions lends her. She was a fantastic panelist, and I could hardly scribble down all of the interesting things she was saying fast enough.

On Danish culture/language and its influence on her writing:

  • “There’s no subject you can’t write about in Denmark,” she said, but it’s also hard to get people to take things seriously. Or, more to the point, “You can’t write ‘I love you,’ in Danish and not expect people to laugh.”
  • “In Denmark, everything has to be ironic…Think about our greatest philosophers–Kierkegaard and Holberg. I don’t think any other culture has based its entire philosophy in irony.”
  • Teller noted that when she wants to write something more romantic, more poetic, she goes back to her Austrian roots and writes in German (this says an awful lot about the Danish language, I think–it makes German look romantic). She said that if one wants to write dramatic things in Danish, “you have to violate the language.” Drawing a wider parallel, she explained that, “Denmark is a flat, small country, that hasn’t really been touched by war or natural catastrophe–that’s reflected in the language.”

David Almond
David Almond was also a delightful speaker. He’s very interested in class issues, particularly in England (as you might expect, his being English). He talked about the fact that when he was a kid and told people that he wanted to be a “rright-ah” (imagine a Northern England accent, which he pointedly stressed while saying this), that they would often ask him what exactly he thought he would have to write about, him being a normal, working class kid and all. An interesting point that he made about this was that he often feels like he’s writing in a foreign language for his English speaking audience: “My English feels like something other than standard English.”

  • Almond sees children’s literature as a truly experimental field, where “you can strip away excesses,” as one might when writing poetry. He says that in a children’s book, one has an opportunity to be more profound than might be possible in the jaded world of adult literature. He referred to Where the Wild Things Are as “one of the greatest achievements of world literature,” at which point almost the whole room burst into spontaneous, delighted applause.
  • Almond is also very interested in locality in his writing, saying that “the local is universal.” He said that he learned to write about Northern England by reading Texan Westerns, by reading Flannery O’Connor, who he says “exemplifies what it means to be a regional writer.” (Mystery and Manners is one of his favorite books.) He says that there are so many wonderful writers who we don’t think of as being regional, but who really are, such as Gabriel Garcia Marquez. After reading Marquez, he said, “I tried to be exotic like him. And then I realized that his Auntie Doris would have recognized what he was writing about immediately.

Francisco X. Stork
Mr. Stork had fewer anecdotes than many of the other panelists, but talk a fair amount about his childhood and cultural influences.

  • He was raised by a single mother in Tampico, Mexico. There was no TV, and people would sit around telling stories to pass the time. He remembers a night when he told his grandfather “a yarn that amused him” as perhaps a root of his love of telling stories now.
  • Mr. Stork moved to America–El Paso–when he was 9 years old, after his mother married an American man who adopted him. He hadn’t ever spoken English before and started learning it in school. His adopted father died a year after they moved to the US, but they decided to stay. So the influence of Mexican culture on his writing he says, is “deep in the gut,” and mostly subconscious at this point.

Ed Young
I saved Mr. Young for last because he was the most pleasant surprise of the evening. Going into the panel, I hadn’t associated his name with any particular books, and hadn’t thought to look him up. As it turns out, he’s the author and illustrator of one of my all time favorite children’s books, a retelling of “Little Red Riding Hood” called Lon Po Po. Sitting on a colorful seat cushion that he brought himself, he was unassuming and self-effacing and completely charming.

  • Young started his career in an advertising agency in the US, but left after realizing that he’d really rather do something else. He had always loved to draw and paint, and so one day, took it upon himself to go to the Harper Collins offices and try to speak to someone in person. He showed up carrying a paper bag, in which he was carrying all of his drawings on napkins and scraps of paper. The doorman thought he was delivering lunch, and told him to go up by the freight elevator. Young went up and ran into a famous publisher (who everyone in the room recognized, but whose name I can’t remember) and showed her his drawings. He was hired as an illustrator on the spot.
  • Young always loved to tell stories, but didn’t (and still doesn’t) consider himself a writer. His publisher encouraged him to give writing a try, and when he demurred, suggested that he just sit down with a tape recorder and tell some stories, which they would later try and transcribe as a book. He did, and the first book to come out of this was Lon Po Po.

Mark Your Calendars: A Preliminary PEN Festival Schedule


As I’m sure all of you know and are currently marking your calendars for, the PEN World Voice Festival starts this week, on Monday, April 26th. Luckily for me (since I still have evening classes on Monday and Tuesday until next week), things don’t really get started until Wednesday. There are well over 50 events, so I will hardly try to draw your attention to all of the ones that look interesting and worthwhile. But here are some highlighted readings and panels that I am going to do my best to get to–let me know if you’ll be there! (Also–just an observation, but it seems like there are more ticketed events this year than there were in years previous. Has anyone else noticed this?)

Thursday, April 29

5:30 – 6:30 PM: That’s Not What I Meant!

Swiss author Peter Stamm and the poet who translates his work, Michael Hoffman, talk about the challenges of translation.

7:00 – 8:30 PM: A Gathering of Voices

Conveniently located in the same place as the translation panel, this event features children’s authors David Almond (whose book Skellig I’m going to try very hard to read before Thursday), Janne Teller (whose book Nothing I will also try very hard to read before Thursday), Francisco X. Stork (whose book Marcelo and the Real World I have luckily already read and therefore won’t be in a pinch to read in three days–thanks, Leigh!), and Ed Young. All four authors will discuss their books and their own cultural influences.

Friday, April 30

1:00 – 2:00 PM: The Poetry of Edward Hopper

So I’ll be going to a lunch time event on Friday, although there are several that look interesting, so I’m not sure which one will win out. This event features Catalan poet Ernest Farres, who recently wrote a book of poems based on the paintings of one of my all time favorite painters.


1:00 – 2:30 PM: Incognito: Writers and their Aliases

I actually don’t know the work of any of the panelists, but it’s a very interesting topic for discussion–the importance and/or benefits of remaining anonymous as an author.

3:30 – 4:30 PM: Quim Monzo in Conversation with Robert Coover

Catalan author Quim Monzo’s book Gasoline has recently been released by Open Letter Press, and not only does the novel sound really interesting, Monzo is also an accomplished translator himself. (His credits include J.D. Salinger, Dorothy Parker, and Ray Bradbury.) Sure to be a very good discussion.

5:00 – 6:00 PM: David Almond and Sofi Oksanen in Conversation with Rakesh Satyal

This one I have to attend. Sofi Oksanen–whose haunting book Purge just won the Nordic Prize for Literature (and which I’ll be reviewing shortly)–talks with David Almond about the benefits of writing young characters, particularly when writing about traumatic events. 

8:00 – 9:30 PM: The Translation Slam (Ticketed Event)

An on-the-spot translator’s ‘duel.’ Participants this year will spontaneously translate from German and Hebrew.

Saturday, May 1 (Derby Day!)

1:00 – 3:00 PM: New European Fiction (Ticketed Event)

Readings and discussions based on the recent release of the first installment of the Best European Fiction series.

1:00 – 2:00 PM (Note Major Time Change): Patti Smith and Jonathan Lethem in Conversation (Ticketed Event)

I’m not sure if I will actually be able to handle listening to these two (equally respectable, but equally ego-endowed) artists try and talk around one another. But hey, it’s Patti. And my neighbor. So, you know, maybe. I’m sure that this will be one straight hour of awesome and ridiculous things being said with straight faces.

Sunday, May 2

2:30 – 4:00: Two Worlds (Ticketed Event)

Authors who now live in the US, but who were born in other countries, talk about the influence of American fiction in their own writing, as well as the differences between trends in contemporary American Fiction and that of their native countries.

5:00 – 6:30 PM: Black Sheep & Exploding Turbans

In the wake of the publication of a series of satirical cartoons about the prophet Mohammed in Denmark, several European authors come together to discuss Europe’s struggle to reconcile with its growing Muslim minority community.

6:30 – 8:00 PM: Sherman Alexie: The 6th Annual Arthur Miller Freedom to Write Lecture

Alexie will be giving a speech entitled “I, writer: The artistic, political and economic responsibilities of writers in the digital age,” which will certainly be worth attending. Alexie is interesting both as an author for teens and adults, and his take on what it means to be a writer as the landscape of the publishing and literary world changes should be engaging on many levels.