Justine is another example of the cutting-edge, fascinating, and experimental writing that Open Letter seeks out and publishes from authors around the world. Originally written and published in 2012 in Danish, it has taken a few years for Mondrup’s work to become available in English. It is just the type of creative, sensual, interesting book that was screaming out for Open Letter to translate and publish.
When the book opens, Justine’s house has just burned down and along with the house all of her artwork for an upcoming exhibition has gone up in flames. Justine inherited the house and her artist sensibilities from her grandfather. We are given some vague hints about what started the fire and whether or not Justine herself is to blame. Most of the book is taken up with Justine’s jumbled thoughts about her life past and present, about her experimentations with her art, about the sexist world of the Dutch art school, about her varied sexual relationships and about her disintegrating state of mind.
Sex is available to Justine no matter whom she encounters in art school; professors, graduates and students alike, male or female, will sleep with her. I can’t help but think that the author chose the name for her title and main character, Justine, as a literary nod to de Sade who also penned a book with this title. Justine is officially dating a woman named Vita, whom she appears to have genuine affection for: “I love her,” she writes, “I already loved her that New Year’s Eve when the light had long since departed, everyone had gone home, it was only us tough dogs left.” Notice the interesting mix of past and present tense—the polyptoton love and loved is especially fitting— even in this one short sentence spoken by Justine.
But despite her feelings for Vita, Justine keeps cheating on Vita with an interesting variety of men. It turns out that Vita has also been seeing another woman behind Justine’s back and Justine becomes extremely jealous when she finds out. Like the writing and some of the plot in the book, Justine’s sexual orientation is ambiguous. Her sexual encounters with men and women are, like her state of mind, frenzied, intense, dark and highly erotic. She describes a drunken escapade with a man named Bo she regularly meets for sex:
I can perch atop him and ride. In my hand he’s an animal I’m bringing down. I’ll ride him like he’s never been ridden, until he spurts until he dies. I unzip his pants. There’s softness in the warmth between the hairs. I ride him with my hand. I transform him to a fountain that shoots high in the air.
When her Grandfather and Ane, a good friend from art school, are described the narrative is more straightforward, more traditional. But when she tells us about her various erotic interludes the text becomes poetic, scattered, broken. Grandfather, who was himself a painter, discusses art, life and family history with Justine. Grandfather himself has not had an easy existence because his wife, Justine’s grandmother, suffered from a nervous breakdown after she gave birth to Justine’s mother. Justine’s mother is also mentally unstable and a drunk who accidentally burns herself to death. Mondrup subtly weaves patterns of images throughout Justine’s scattered narrative: fire, burning, passion and madness.
Another significant stylist detail to note about the book is that several of the pages of the text are very short, a paragraph or even a sentence in length. Since Justine jumps back and forth between past and present sometimes we are thrust into the midst of one of these short meditations and we aren’t sure if she is talking about past or present. Many of her thoughts are eerily foreboding:
Is it even possible to find a cut-off? An exact moment when it all went wrong? A point around which all events are distributed? Before and after? A crime scene? A weapon cast in a backyard? The road to murder is a slippery slope of things that are said and done. An eye that saw amiss. Something that should’ve remained hidden. Or something that didn’t happen. After the murder there’s the clean-up. The cover up. Someone must pay the penalty. Others must receive it.
Justine finally manages to pull enough of her art work together to have a successful showing at a local gallery. But the ending of the book can only be described as ambiguous. Normally I would find this frustrating, but it is a fitting end for Justine whose own ambiguities abound throughout the novel.
About the Author:
Iben Mondrup is a trained visual artist from The Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts who is also the author of four novels, including Justine, its sequel, and Godhavn.
Read an conversation with Mondrup from The Rumpus: http://therumpus.net/2016/12/the-rumpus-book-club-chat-with-iben-mondrup-and-kerri-pierce/