Tag Archives: Danish Literature

Comites Camillae: Some thoughts on Companions by Christina Hesselholdt

In her narrative that follows the lives of five close friends living through the trials and tribulations of middle age in the 21st century, Hesselholdt includes a conflated translation of two of the most famous poems by the Roman poet, Catullus: “My girl’s sparrow is dead…It would not leave her lap, but hopped around now here now there…He chirped constantly to his mistress alone.”  The poet engages in a passionate, tumultuous love affair with a married,  Patrician woman named Clodia (disguised as Lesbia in his poetry) and in Poem #2 he writes about his lover’s sparrow with whom she enjoys playing and teasing. (The poem is commonly view as an erotic metaphor—Lesbia plays with her “bird” when she is missing her poet-boyfriend, Catullus.)  The tone of Poem #3 changes dramatically as Clodia’s sparrow has now died and Catullus’s words serve as a mock eulogy for the dearly departed little pet.  The death of the sparrow is also foreboding, it shows Catullus’s angst about his relationship with this woman whom he knows, on some level, will bring him grief and suffering.  It is his friends, his companions (as he calls them in Poem #11—comites in the Latin ) that he relies on to get him through the rough times.

Much like Catullus, the characters in Companions struggle with loneliness and isolation in their love lives but their friendships are something to which they cling for security and reassurance amidst their various crises.  Hesselholdt’s narrative explores different types of love—romantic, filial, platonic—and the existential angst that these emotions cause.  Time and again the theme of death is considered in the author’s fragmented, intertextual, and postmodern writing.  Forty-year-old Camilla is the central figure in the narrative—or her thoughts, at least, get the most attention.  She is married to Charles who suffers from chronic, debilitating back pain and his illness has put a strain on their relationship.  Camilla’s mother is also troubled by various afflictions, both mental and physical, which are a constant source of stress for Camilla.  In addition, her dear, depressed friend Edward lives alone with his dog in the house in which his parents committed suicide by hanging themselves.  Camilla is surrounded by weakness, illness, and sadness and her thoughts are often about mortality— that of her own and those around her.

Early in the novel Camilla takes a trip to Belgrade to give a lecture and loneliness and isolation weigh on her.  Her thoughts apply to her trip as well as her current state of mind at this point in her life:

Why does the journey reinforce this existential loneliness—never am I closer to death and the abyss than when I am alone on a journey.  I know the answer already.  An unknown among unknown faces.  And unknown, unmemorized stretches.  Kingdom of the dead, glittering, indistinct features, averted eyes, withdrawal, fleeting shadows, bloodlessness.

When she is back home interactions with her mother and her husband also evoke images of death.  She says about her mother:

The other day I saw a painting by Kiefer, a painting of an enormous sunflower at the foot of which, a man is keeled over, (the title of the painting is Sol Invictus) I thought, that was how it was to be a child of hers.  The sunflower head looked like a shower head.  One moment warmth, the next in danger of drowning.  I am the one who is keeled over at the foot of the flower.  I have died the sun death, I have died the flower death.

She says about Charles and their relationship:

Married life with Charles is linked to the Osama bin Laden era, we were so in love in September 2001 that it was not until late morning on the twelfth that we realized what had happened on the eleventh, and the dissolution of our relationship took place in the days around bin Laden’s death.  Two images frame it:
1. Bodies in Free fall
2. A face shot to pieces
The end of him. And us.

And other intermittent thoughts that Camilla has that threaten to consume her and pull her down into the abyss:

I need to keep my mind active, give it something to work on, just like you use prayer beads or knitting needles to prevent your hands from becoming pendulums that heavily and resignedly pull the body down or on the contrary swing into the air or rub and pick and chewing gum for the mouth, otherwise it (the mind) fiddles with catastrophes like the outcome of which always results in coffins or in any case deathbeds or farewell letters, immensely trivial, but for that reason no less troublesome.

Camilla describes Alma, her life-long, closest friend as blonde, “my GPS, my light in the darkness.”  It is Alma that shows up in Belgrade to help her navigate the city and it is Alma who is a comforting presence throughout her childhood while she is dealing with her mother’s various issues.  Edward, Kristian and Alwilda are also close companions that provide her with support and distraction and we get their points-of-view from time to the in the text as well; they themselves are dealing with the ups and downs of various relationships.  But it is Alma who is the companion that is her constant source of solace.  They are friends from childhood and there are, fittingly, many descriptions of their traveling adventures–from England to Belgrade to Greece.

Companions is laden with references to other authors and pieces of literature; Woolf, Plath, Bernhard, Nabokov, and even a quote from Epicurus can be found within the pages of Hesselholdt’s narrative.  I had wondered if the character of Camilla is in any way autobiographical as it is evident that the author inserts her own literary preferences into the text.  Hesselholdt has especially tempted me to read Woolf’s The Waves and Durrell’s The Alexandria Quartet before I return to Companions for a second read as her multilayered and nuanced book is worthy of, and in fact demands, more than one reading.  The author, in discussing Durrell’s novels through the thoughts of Camilla, subtly shows us how we ought to approach and read Companions:  “The existence of the absolute unique frame of reference is rejected; all depending on where the events in the books are seen from, they appear different.”

I apologize for my scattered thoughts about this book.  I found it overwhelming to think about.  Please visit Times Flow Stemmed for Anthony’s more coherent and enlightening ideas about this book: https://timesflowstemmed.com/2017/10/23/christina-hesselholdts-companions/

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Filed under Dutch Literature, Literary Fiction, Literature in Translation, Literature/Fiction

Review: Justine by Iben Mondrup

My Review:
justine-front_frame_largeJustine 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:
mondrupIben 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/

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Filed under Art, Literature in Translation

Review: Rock, Paper, Scissors by Naja Marie Aidt

I received an advanced review copy of this title from Open Letter Press through Edelweiss.  This book was originally published in Danish and this English translation is done by K.E. Semmel

My Review:
Rock Paper ScissorsAt the core of the book is the complex character of Thomas who has never really dealt with or gotten over his terrible childhood.  Thomas’ mother walked out on their family when he was a young boy and left Thomas and his sister, Jenny, to be raised by a physically and emotionally abuse father.  When Thomas’ father, with whom he has not had contact in years, dies in prison, all of his unpleasant childhood feelings and memories come crashing in on his life.

Thomas owns and runs a successful stationery store with his best friend and partner, Maloney.  A lot of the book describes Thomas everyday life while he works, goes out for lunch and drinks and spends time with his live-in girlfriend, Patricia.  It seems that Thomas has a good life, a steady income, and is surrounded by stable friends and family.  Thomas is close to his sister, Jenny, and even though she is emotionally needy and dramatic he still feels the need to always protect her.  But when Thomas has to deal with his father’s funeral, he slowly begins to unravel and come apart at the seams.

The sentences and language of the book are oftentimes short, even choppy or staccato, which style fits well with the ever-changing moods of Thomas.  One minute he is enraged and punching a heap of boxes and the next he is calm and happy. There is a long stretch of time in the book, after his father’s funeral, during which Thomas wants to do nothing but sleep.   He becomes distant from Patricia and he won’t even consider having a family with her.  His rage also has sexual manifestations and this is what ultimately drives his girlfriend Patricia away.

A large section of the book is dedicated to a family trip that Thomas takes with Patricia as they go and visit Thomas’ aunt, cousins, sister and niece.  The setting in the rustic countryside and the meals shared together seem to put Thomas at ease and the reader is lured into thinking that Thomas’ rough patch is finally over.  But there is one guest at the party, a young man named Luke, who was an old acquaintance of his father’s.  Thomas doesn’t quite trust Luke or Luke’s supposed relationship with Thomas’ father.  Even when Thomas has some peace like on the weekend vacation, there is always a discomfort or an uneasiness lurking in the background.

One final aspect of the story worth mentioning is Thomas’ encounter with his father’s old business partners.  Thomas accidentally finds a large sum of money at his father’s abandoned apartment and he tries to ask his partners about his father’s criminal past.  But the partners are reluctant to speak about their business at all and it is never even revealed why his father was in prison.  Thomas’ stationery business is vandalized, his home is broken into and his girlfriend is attacked at one point.  Thomas assumes that all of these incidents are related to his father’s illegal business but, despite his theories, Thomas never really gets to the bottom of this mystery.

ROCK, PAPER, SCISSORS is a dark, complex look into the psyche of a man who has had a traumatic childhood; it is also a look into what can happen to that man’s life if these issues are never dealt with.   I will warn you that the book ends on a bit of a cliff hanger.  We can only wonder and hope that Aidt has another episode of Thomas’ story in the works for us.

About The Author:
N AidtNaja Marie Aidt is a Danish poet and writer. She was born in Greenland, and spent some of her childhood there. She published her first book of poetry in 1991, and in 2008 she was awarded the Nordic Council’s Literature Prize.

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Filed under Literary Fiction, Literature in Translation