"One of Us Is Sleeping" by Josefine Klougart [An Open Letter Book to Read]
This is the third entry in a series that will eventually feature all of the titles Open Letter has published to date. Catch up on past entries by clicking here. Last week’s entry was a pretty solid Chad rant involving the incredible Maidenhair by Mikhail Shishkin. Definitely check that one out. By contrast, this week’s post is rainbows and bunnies.
One of Us Is Sleeping by Josefine Klougart, translated from the Danish by Martin Aitken
Original Language: Danish, which has 5.5 million native speakers (according to Wikipedia)
Year of Original Publication: 2012, with our English edition coming out this past June.
Awards Received: One of Us Is Sleeping was an official best-seller in Denmark (making our edition an “International Bestseller,” I believe), weas shortlisted for the Readers’ Book Award (Læsernes Bogpris), and was a finalist for the Nordic Council Literature Prize. This was the second time she was nominated for the Nordic Council Literature Prize (she was also a finalist for Rise and Fall in 2011), which made her the youngest author ever to accomplish this feat.
Let’s put that in context for a second: By the age of 30, Josefine had published four collections, two of which were finalists for a prize awarding the best book from five countries (Iceland, Finland, Sweden, Norway, and Denmark). Too bad she wasn’t eligible for the National Book Foundation’s 5 Under 35, because daaaammmnnn.
Notable Praise: The quote that we use on the cover of our book—like most anyone would—is “Scandinavia now has its own Virginia Woolf.” But just scroll down this page to see all the great blurbs that this book has received.
Americans—including most chain “booksellers” and probably even our distributor—would look at this and dismiss them because they’re “not from U.S. or UK publications.” Which is so utterly stupid when you think about it. I’ve heard that refrain my whole career, and every time I can’t help but think that reviews from foreign publications are oftentimes more intelligent and trustworthy since these reviewers read both their own country’s books and the big American novels. A Danish critic knows about J-Franz and Colson Whitehead and Josefine Klougart. Not to mention, they also have access to so many more international works than we do, simply by living in Europe where more titles are translated and where the people speak more languages. But because we can’t pronounce the name of the publication, we assume it’s some hand-printed broadsheet or a blog or something. We are so weirdly close minded.
Other Comparisons: The ones that have come up the most are: Anne Carson, Maggie Nelson, and Joan Didion. I like Josefine’s response to all these, in which she basically just shrugged it off. Everyone needs comparisons—our minds are great at understanding connections and things in relation to one another, but quite crap at evaluating things on their own, in isolation—and it’s the job of marketers to supply them. It’s why I usually include those cheeky “X Meets Y” bits in these write-ups. It’s so silly, and yet . . . In the way that it uses touchstone images and a circular, poetic structure, One of Us Is Sleeping most reminds me of Virginia Woolf’s The Waves. I assume people still read The Waves. It really is the best Woolf.
A Word about the Translator: All of our translators are great translators, but holy mother has Martin translated a lot of key Danish authors. He doesn’t seem to have his own website, or a Wikipedia page, or anywhere really detailing what he’s done, except maybe this GoodReads profile. Jussi Adler-Olsen, Peter Høeg, Kim Leine, Helle Helle, Dorthe Nors, Pia Juul, and part of the final volume of My Struggle are just some of the highlights from his career. There are other great Danish translators—Kyle Semmel, Kerri Pierce, and Susanne Nied all come to mind—but given his output, the quality of his work, and the authors he’s doing, Martin is right there as one of the greatest translators of our time.
How Tall Is Josefine? I’m very short. Like not quite vertically challenged short, but you’d be hard pressed to find a grown male shorter than I am. So I like to exaggerate other people’s height, especially when they are legitimately tall. The first time I met Josefine, I felt like she had to kneel down to be able to hear what I was saying. Which led to my telling people she was like 6’6” or so. After Will Evans of Deep Vellum met her, he sent me a message about how she was the most wonderful eight-foot-tall author in the world.
I believe she is 6’1”. Which is pretty tall. Here’s a picture of her next to Susan Harris of Words Without Borders (who is a bit shorter than I am and interviewed Josefine in Chicago).
According to Susan, “Yes, I am wearing three-inch platforms, and Josefine is in flats. Hard to believe we’re the same species.”
Other Books in English: Up next for Josefine is :Of Darkness, which is forthcoming from Deep Vellum!
What’s Next: In November, Josefine’s new novel comes out in Denmark. I don’t remember the title at this second . . . I do know that it was supposed to come out last year, but she started revising and adding things and suddenly there were 200 new pages, bringing the total book to 700 pages. Given our string of 700 page books (Gesell Dome, Invented Part, etc.), I think this is destined to be an Open Letter title.
Danish Women Writers Series: One of Us Is Sleeping is the second book in Open Letter’s Danish Women Writers Series, preceded by Naja Marie Aidt’s Rock, Paper, Scissors, and followed by Justine by Iben Mondrup (November 2016), The Eternal Summer by Madame Nielsen, and The Easy and the Lonely by Asta Olivia.
This series grew out of a trip to Copenhagen in 2013 and a generous grant from the Danish Arts Foundation. Initially the grant was simply to do five books from Danish, but given that all the books we gravitated toward were written by women, and given the fact that so few books by women are translated into English, we thought we’d make this exclusively a series to promote Danish women writers. It’s an amazing list of five books that covers a range of genres and styles (from Aidt’s more thriller-esque novel to Olivia’s poetry) and is an attempt to bring more attention to writing by international women.
Of course, these books haven’t been as well reviewed as they should be (my opinion), and I’m scared to compare the amount of attention they’ve received against the books we’ve published by men around the same time. Someone should write a feature or blog post about this series though. Occasionally you see pieces like this—like about Dalkey’s Library of Korean Literature . . . Perhaps we should’ve published all five at once in similarly bland covers? That’s a joke, but there is a gimmick element necessary to get attention. Doing interesting publishing projects like this in a straightforward, meaningful way isn’t going to get you written up in the New Yorker. Seriously though: If you’re interested in reading more women, supporting women’s lit in translation, or just finding some great Scandinavian books, give this series a look.
A Rochester Shout-Out: I have to mention that when Josefine was here, she was on WXXI Connections with Evan Dawson, which was one of the first radio programs (I think she said “the first,” but I’ll give everyone the benefit of the doubt) she ever appeared on in which the host had actually read the complete book. And thought about it. And marked passages to read aloud during the program. It’s nice to share some kind words about our town.
Jacket Copy: Not the easiest book to describe, given how imagistic and non-linear it is. But here’s what we went with:
The English-language debut from one of Denmark’s most exciting, celebrated young writers, One of Us Is Sleeping is a haunting novel about loss in all its forms.
As she returns home to visit her mother who is dying of cancer, the narrator recounts a brief, intense love affair, as well as the grief and disillusionment that follow its end. The book’s striking imagery and magnificent prose underpin its principal theme: the jarring contrast between the recollection of stability—your parents, your childhood home, your love—and the continual endings that we experience throughout our lives.
A true-to-life, deeply poetic novel that works in the same vein as Anne Carson, One of Us Is Sleeping has won Klougart countless accolades and award nominations—including the Readers’ Book Award—securing her place as a major new voice in world literature.
And here’s Josefine’s statement from her website:
One of Us is Sleeping is a novel about leaving and being left behind; a story about the unfolding of a relationship that insists on the necessity of sorrow. It is a novel about loss, homelessness, and light.
Audience: Do you like to feel? Do you like sadness? Do you like to experience emotional loss? Then this book is for you!
To be serious, this is one of the most emotionally charged—and pretty depressing—books we’ve ever published. It’s intense and gorgeous and loaded with feelings.
When Is It Best to Read: The Winter.
It’s strange, he lies, I never miss you when you’re not here. I get so scared I might forget you, he tells her. He has talked her into meeting. I’m beginning to forget you, he says. That’s the way it’s supposed to be, malicious voices tell her, only these are her own thoughts, they carry her signature. And presumably it is what he wants, or what a person dreams about at night; dreams about during the day, not wishing it upon one’s worst enemy. They walk there together, in the park by the National Gallery. It is summer adn they are constantly on the run from someone. Both of them seeing someone else now, and one of them always wanting to try again. But only one.
Longer Excerpt: Check out the excerpt from our catalog.
Personal Pitch: I don’t have the time (or health to be honest, I’ve got a cold and I’m fading) to do a full-blown pitch like last week, but there are a few things that I want to say.
First off, I really don’t intend to highlight all our new books in this series as they come out. But with Josefine on tour, I wanted to bring a little extra attention to this book. It was absolutely incredible to hang out with her and her editor Jakob Sandvad here in Rochester. Their publishing company, Gladiator, was featured in the Danish Literary Magazine last fall, and presents an interesting way of conceiving of a publishing house. A lot of their focus is on involving authors in the whole process, including having them recommend authors for translation into Danish, and sometimes even doing the translation. When they were here, we spent a lot of time talking about how to reach readers, how to make events more exciting, how to make literary conversations more rich and fulfilling. It’s a breath of fresh air to talk to engaged literary people like this.
Also, I beat them badly at basketball. Well, this basketball:
Secondly, One of Us Is Sleeping is definitely the sort of book I was thinking of in last week’s post about wanting to reread particular novels. Although in this case, I think of it more as having to “read slow.” There’s no way to rush through this book. If you do, you’ll be completely lost and unaware of the recurring images and the ways in which the story could be restructured into something much more linear. English classes exist—at least in some regard—to train students how to read slow and read critically, skills that are very beneficial when it comes to serious literature like this. There should be some sort of “slow read” movement to go along with all the “slow eating” and “slow” everything movements that exist right now.
Finally, when Josefine was on the aforementioned radio show last week, she explained how she wrote this novel. Paraphrasing here, but basically, she kept a single Word document open on her computer for a year and wrote a page a day. After that, she went back and started looking through it for recurring images. And then built the book around that, retaining its nonlinear nature, since that’s really how our lives work. As she said, at any moment in time, our consciousness is living in the now, in the past, and in the future—almost simultaneously. One of Us Is Sleeping captures that feeling in beautiful, soul-crushing prose. And once you know the way it came together, it makes even more sense. Especially if you read it slowly!
Buy It: Of course you should buy it from us, but if you happen to be in the Bay Area next Tuesday (October 4th), you can catch her at Green Apple on the Park. Also, I know she signed copies at a number of New York area bookstores, and in Houston, Chicago, Dallas, and Portland. Go get one!