Inger Christensen, who passed away in January of this year, is best known in America as an experimental poet, if she is known at all. Now the second of her three novels (also the second to appear in English; Harvill Press published her 1976 book The Painted Room in 2000) is finally appearing in America over forty years after it was written.
On page one of Azorno, the narrator says, “I’ve learned that I’m the woman he first meets on page eight.” Perhaps you have more patience than I, but if not, flip to page eight and be prepared for disappointment: there is no “he,” though there are two women. Unfortunately, we met them a few pages back. Perhaps, then, an error in the translation, a slight shift in font size that cooked the numbers? Perhaps… but there is no such meeting on page seven or page nine, and none to be found on six or ten for that matter. Yet lovers of metafiction need not despair, for Inger Christensen is merely setting the stage for her endlessly puzzling and dazzling novel, a contradictory work that may or may not be self-referential, but is never content with the confines of reality.
Five women—who sometimes appear as friends, sometimes as complete strangers—are, or have been, involved with the writer Sampel. It is Sampel’s most recent book’s eighth page that is referenced on the first page of this one, and the “he” who meets the woman is Azorno, the main character for both Sampel and Christensen. The novel (which is only about 100 pages, and really should be read in one sitting) does not have a central plot, but is broken up into different sections, each with a different narrator. In the first twenty pages or so, the women write a series of letters in which they argue over who the woman in Sampel’s book is supposed to be. A later section is presented as part of a novel by one of the women, Louise, but then another, Katarina, claims to be the author and admits she used her friend’s name as a pseudonym. In a third section, however, Randi also claims that she is the one writing the book. Later it will be Bet Sampel, who is Sampel’s wife, and finally by the end Sampel gets a chance to speak, but then he claims to be Azorno. If this is not confusing enough, the same details reappear again and again in different narratives and completely different contexts: a dog named Goethe, a drawing on the wall near a cigarette stain; even whole chunks of text are copied verbatim from one page onto another. One metaphor that makes several appearances is particularly beautiful, and in some ways captures the reader’s strange sense of déjà vu:
Within a second my blood, my thoughts, nerves, and senses were swept back ten years and I think I felt like a diver who finds himself at the bottom of the ocean one minute and on solid ground the next, unable to hear whether the others are saying he’s dead or alive because he’s encapsulated in a silence as vast as if he’d brought the ocean up with him and it surrounded him now like a huge bell that no one could pass through without drowning.
It is difficult to penetrate the thoughts of each character, and even figure out where he or she is in time. Because the text has so many internal contradictions and just plain confusing passages (Wrap your mind around this: “Probably the truth will come out, Xenia’s letter should be called Randi’s letter; she’s always been quite a liar; I mean Randi, meaning Xenia”), it is not clear if the narrators are delusional, if they are referring to a novel-within-a-novel(-within-a-novel), or if Christensen is simply having her fun. I do not know, and I do not even know if I am supposed to know, but the result is most definitely a puzzle with pieces that can be put together in a plethora of unique and rewarding ways.
One of Christensen’s chief concerns was the relationship of language and reality, and her writing in Azorno is always lively and frequently experimental. The author’s background in poetry comes out both in the structure of the work as a whole, and from page to page. The repetition of certain paragraphs throughout the novel gives the work overall the feel of a villanelle, and lends it the circularity and shifts in perception of this poetic form, two themes perfectly suited for Azorno. Christensen owes a more direct debt to the American concrete-poets, who used words more as brush strokes than as signifiers; their arrangement on the page is as important as their meaning, and in some cases supplants it. In Azorno, this influence is melded with more traditional prose in passages like this one:
First I would work out a general explanation.
Then I would explain everything to Xenia.
Then I would explain everything to Randi, in general terms.
Then I would explain everything in general to Katarina, and, in particular, my escape.
Then I would explain everything in general to Bet Sampel, and, in particular, my escape to Rome, Via Napoli 3.
Would then explain to Sampel.
Would then explain Sampel.
In the late afternoon, at five o’clock, I went out again.
Beyond such stylistic feats, Christensen also demonstrates a fine knack for capturing mood and emotion. In one of my favorite parts of the book, Sampel’s wife comes home while he is in bed with another woman, and there is a tremendous sense of urgency in the author describes the scene:
Sampel got up and threw on his bathrobe. The light filtered through the women’s hair. The air was green. I could clearly hear that someone was coming. On the stone staircase. On the terrace. It’s her, he whispered. By the door. On the tiled floor. Don’t move. For all the world, don’t move. Play dead. Now he was standing at the door to the stairs. She, at the door to the drawing room. She, in room after room. He, already on the stairs. She, in the dining room. He, on the stairs. She, in the living room, the sitting room. He, on the tiled floor at the foot of the stairs. She, in the garden room. He, in room after room. She, in the salon. He, in the dining room. She, in the tea salon. He, in the living room, sitting room. She, in the smoking salon. He, in the garden room. She, in the literary salon. He, in the salon. She, in the library and back again. He, in the tea salon. She, in the literary salon. He, in the smoking salon, she, in the smoking salon, he and she, in the tea salon, in the salon, in the garden room, in the sitting room, the drawing room, talking, in the dining room, in room after room, on the tiled floor, the tiled floor at the foot of the stairs, and at any moment on the staircase and right here outside the door to the bedroom where I lay while Sampel got up and threw on his bathrobe, and now he was standing with her on the tiled floor at the foot of the stairs talking and talking like a radio station that at last fades out and disappears.
Part love story, mystery, and madhouse, Azorno is an exhilarating read that leaves you guessing whether there are even any answers at all.