28 January 14 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Tiffany Nichols on A Fairy Tale by Jonas T. Bengtsson, translated by Charlotte Barslund and out from Other Press.

This is Bengtsson’s third novel, though his first published in English—the book is actually already available from House of Anansi Press in Canada, but they’ve teamed up with the wonderful Other Press to bring the book even further in its English Travels.

Here’s the beginning of Tiffany’s review:

It is destined that we will all become our parents. Some try to avoid it while others embrace the metamorphosis. Either way, it never fails— children eventually become their parents. A Fairy Tale is a psychological novel told through day-to-day activities that appear mostly normal from the narrator’s point of view and explores this exact phenomenon.

bq The novel is told in two parts: life with a runaway yet resourceful father through the eyes of his son, a child less than 10 years of age, and then the life of that son who, as an adult, attempts to avoid becoming this father through detachment from his former life. The novel follows this unnamed father and son on a journey through Denmark, mostly in Copenhagen. At first glance the pair’s numerous relocations seem innocuous, but when a closer look is taken, the reader will notice strange aspects of this transient family situation. Most apparent being the descriptions of the living conditions of the father-son pair and the mature aspects of life to which the father exposes the son, but never the relationship between the two.

After numerous rebellious actions are taken by the father to sabotage any semblance of stability, the father-son relationship is effectively destroyed when the father attempts to assassinate a well-regarded politician of the common people of Denmark. This action leads to a separation of father and son, and marks the end of the first half of the novel with no fuss, akin to the closing of a store by merely flipping the “open” sign to “closed.”

For the rest of the review, go here.

28 January 14 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

It is destined that we will all become our parents. Some try to avoid it while others embrace the metamorphosis. Either way, it never fails— children eventually become their parents. A Fairy Tale is a psychological novel told through day-to-day activities that appear mostly normal from the narrator’s point of view and explores this exact phenomenon.

The novel is told in two parts: life with a runaway yet resourceful father through the eyes of his son, a child less than 10 years of age, and then the life of that son who, as an adult, attempts to avoid becoming this father through detachment from his former life. The novel follows this unnamed father and son on a journey through Denmark, mostly in Copenhagen. At first glance the pair’s numerous relocations seem innocuous, but when a closer look is taken, the reader will notice strange aspects of this transient family situation. Most apparent being the descriptions of the living conditions of the father-son pair and the mature aspects of life to which the father exposes the son, but never the relationship between the two.

After numerous rebellious actions are taken by the father to sabotage any semblance of stability, the father-son relationship is effectively destroyed when the father attempts to assassinate a well-regarded politician of the common people of Denmark. This action leads to a separation of father and son, and marks the end of the first half of the novel with no fuss, akin to the closing of a store by merely flipping the “open” sign to “closed.”

In the second half of A Fairy Tale, the son is placed with his estranged mother and the father falls from the prose as if he never existed. After several socially awkward attempts to find inclusion within a non-transient society, the son reemerges under a fake identity (now Turkish instead of Danish), plants roots, and finds love. However, this arrangement is impermanent since, to bring us full circle, we all inevitably become our parents.

A Fairy Tale is addictive in the way it slowly progresses while preventing the reader from moving to another novel. It’s probably the strength of the father-son relationship with the combination of questionable life decisions on behalf of the father. As Javier Marías posed in The Infatuations, it is not necessarily the plot, but rather the experience the reader has while progressing through the plot that should be the focus of a novel. However, once the novel is completed, all we hold in our memories is that simple plot. A Fairy Tale is a direct example of this proposition.

The novel is also compelling for showing the dark side of seemingly normally things—the city of Copenhagen, theater shows, gardening—and its showing of the bright side of things that are normally seen in their darkest light—strip clubs, shoplifting, and mental institutions. The work is also carefully paced by short chapters and controlled prose that almost makes this nomadic anti-socialized life as normal as a cup of coffee with the newspaper every morning.

This is a worthy introduction of Jonas T. Bengtsson to the English audience. Those drawn to Updike’s Rabbit Series and who have traveled to Denmark and Sweden and appreciate the European collective society will gravitate to A Fairy Tale because it has the underlying rebellious spirit that does not often bubble to the surface in such a collective environment.

3 August 12 | Aleksandra Fazlipour | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Hilary Wermers on Peter Hoeg’s The Elephant Keepers’ Children, which is translated from the Danish by Martin Aitken. The Elephant Keepers’ Children will be released from Other Press on October 23, 2012.

Hilary Wermers is a senior at the University of Rochester, majoring in English and Women’s Studies. Her book reviews have also appeared in The Bloomsbury Review. She hails from Denver, Colorado. This summer, you can find her sprawled in a lawn chair next to the pool, book in hand. This is her first review for threepercent.

Here’s part of her review:

Peter Hoeg, Danish author best known for Smilla’s Sense of Snow, has created a fictional world in his new work, The Elephant Keeper’s Children, which not only entices readers to return to it again and again, but also encourages us to examine our reality. The story takes place partly on the fictional island of Fino and partly in Hoeg’s fictional realization of Copenhagen. Peter, our charming fourteen-year-old narrator, tells of the adventures of himself, his older siblings Hans and Title, and their dog Basker leading up to the “Grand Synod”, a religious conference of improbable size and importance. Peter’s parents are mysteriously involved in the Synod; he and his siblings are on a mission to save their parents from themselves.

The title seems somewhat ambiguous until Hoeg reveals the definition and importance of “elephant keepers.” They are present throughout the story and a force to be reckoned with. Like the definition of elephant keepers, much of this novel is revealed at exactly the most satisfying moment, at the point when readers (or this reader, at least) begin to become frustrated with our lack of insight into Hoeg’s complex world. This delayed effect made me think of Peter as a thoughtful host, who brings up business or unpleasantness only when his guests are comfortably seated with a cup of tea in hand. Needless to say, I felt a great deal of affection for Peter by the time I turned the final page.

Click here to read the entire review.

3 August 12 | Aleksandra Fazlipour | Comments

Peter Hoeg, Danish author best known for Smilla’s Sense of Snow, has created a fictional world in his new work, The Elephant Keeper’s Children, which not only entices readers to return to it again and again, but also encourages us to examine our reality. The story takes place partly on the fictional island of Fino and partly in Hoeg’s fictional realization of Copenhagen. Peter, our charming fourteen-year-old narrator, tells of the adventures of himself, his older siblings Hans and Title, and their dog Basker leading up to the “Grand Synod”, a religious conference of improbable size and importance. Peter’s parents are mysteriously involved in the Synod; he and his siblings are on a mission to save their parents from themselves.

The title seems somewhat ambiguous until Hoeg reveals the definition and importance of “elephant keepers.” They are present throughout the story and a force to be reckoned with. Like the definition of elephant keepers, much of this novel is revealed at exactly the most satisfying moment, at the point when readers (or this reader, at least) begin to become frustrated with our lack of insight into Hoeg’s complex world. This delayed effect made me think of Peter as a thoughtful host, who brings up business or unpleasantness only when his guests are comfortably seated with a cup of tea in hand. Needless to say, I felt a great deal of affection for Peter by the time I turned the final page.

Much of the joy of this book comes from the intimacy formed by Peter’s narration and the extent to which we, the readers, become invested in the outcome of his adventures. Peter shares his fears, his hopes, and his myriad of insights with us:

If we’d had more time, and if I’d been less shaken, I would have asked her for concrete examples of who exactly had ever changed the course of their lives in seven minutes, but now Tilte takes me by the arm and draws me over to the open window.

Other than Peter’s family, The Elephant Keeper’s Children is populated by a whole cast of wacky characters. Leonora Ticklepalate is a Buddhist nun who performs phone sex to pay the bills. Count Rickardt Three Lions is a close family friend, drug addict, and proprietor of the Fino drug rehabilitation facility. Alexander Flounderblood is the head of the Fino school district and Peter’s sworn enemy.

This book manages to be both highly entertaining and seriously thought provoking. I must also mention the flawless translation, which allows us to step into the streets of Copenhagen and to enjoy Hoeg’s play with words. Peter regales us with tales of his hilarious misdeeds on one page and delves into the true nature of spirituality on the next. I closed this book feeling wiser. I want to reopen this book when I am feeling lonely to find company among friends.

23 May 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Larissa Kyzer on Peter Adolphsen’s The Brummstein, which is translated from the Danish by Charlotte Barslund and available from AmazonCrossing.

Apparently, this is the week of Larissa and AmazonCrossing books . . . As with her review of The Hitman’s Guide to Housecleaning, this sounds like a really interesting book:

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. [. . .]

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.

Click here to read the full piece.

23 May 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

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.

7 May 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by regular reviewer Larissa Kyzer on Copenhagen Noir, edited by Bo Tao Michaelis and translated by Mark Kline (with one lone translation from the Swedish by Lone Thygesen) and published by Akashic Books.

As Larissa notes at the start of her review, this is one of the recent entries in Akashic’s long-running and very successful “CITY X Noir” series. Here’s a list of all of the noir books they’ve published.

And here’s the opening of Larissa’s piece:

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.”

Click here to read the full review.

7 May 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

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 omionous outsiders that frequent the collection.

18 April 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by K.E. Semmel on Carsten Jensen’s We, the Drowned, now available from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in Charlotte Barslund and Emma Ryder’s translation from the Danish.

Jensen’s book has been getting a lot of good attention—especially from booksellers—but another reason we really wanted to run a review of this is because he’s going to be here in Rochester on May 2nd as part of the PEN World Voices Festival, where he’ll read at Writers & Books along with Marcelo Figueras and Najat El Hachmi. We’ll post more info about this in the next few days.

K.E. Semmel is the Publications & Communications Manager of The Writer’s Center in Bethesda, MD. He’s the recipient of translation grants from the Danish Arts Council, and his translations of the work of Danish authors Simon Fruelund, Pia Tafdrup, and Jytte Borberg have been published or are forthcoming in numerous literary journals. His translation of Karin Fossum’s The Caller will release in the UK this July.

Here’s the opening of his review:

We who are alive in the age of the eBook may not be used to reading 675 page sea adventure tales. When we think of such novels—at least here on these shores—we probably think of James Fenimore Cooper and Herman Melville, venerable writers who penned some of the most enduring American classics of the genre. Though Denmark is one of the greatest seafaring nations in the history of the world, we typically don’t think of Danes when we think of the literature of the sea. Carsten Jensen’s fabulous first novel, We, the Drowned, should change that.

For three decades, Jensen has been one of the finest commentators in Denmark, distilling meaning out of everything, from political events to world developments, in his newspaper columns. With his deft touch, ordinary stones dazzle with sharp, brilliant light. Back when we still lived in Denmark, I eagerly anticipated the arrival of Politiken just so I could read his column. Over the years, many of these short pieces have been collected into books (and two of those titles have been translated into English).

But in 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).

Whew. That’s sure a lot.

Click here to read the full review.

18 April 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments [1]

We who are alive in the age of the eBook may not be used to reading 675 page sea adventure tales. When we think of such novels—at least here on these shores—we probably think of James Fenimore Cooper and Herman Melville, venerable writers who penned some of the most enduring American classics of the genre. Though Denmark is one of the greatest seafaring nations in the history of the world, we typically don’t think of Danes when we think of the literature of the sea. Carsten Jensen’s fabulous first novel, We, the Drowned, should change that.

For three decades, Jensen has been one of the finest commentators in Denmark, distilling meaning out of everything, from political events to world developments, in his newspaper columns. With his deft touch, ordinary stones dazzle with sharp, brilliant light. Back when we still lived in Denmark, I eagerly anticipated the arrival of Politiken just so I could read his column. Over the years, many of these short pieces have been collected into books (and two of those titles have been translated into English).

But in 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).

Whew. That’s sure a lot.

And yet, though We, the Drowned explores a wide range of territory, it’s actually compact in the way only Jensen can make it. A lot of ground, and yes, water, is covered. But Jensen builds an impressive edifice out of the Marstallers’ lives. What happened to them, we could say, happened to all of us.

Though there’s a large ensemble cast, the narrative circles around several key characters. First, there’s Laurids Madsen, a sailor with near superhuman powers. On the very first page of the novel he’s blasted into the air when his ship explodes at the end of a losing battle against the Germans, but he survives. Returning to Marstal, his status exulted by his near-death experience, he’s revered. Eventually, however, he sours of life in Marstal. He signs on to another ship and never returns. Then the narrative shifts to one of his sons, Albert—who even as a boy resembled his father—and he takes up the seemingly hopeless cause of finding the man who deserted him. In Albert’s narrative we meet a host of strange but delightful characters: the brutal schoolteacher Isager and his whip (who teaches hardness but not much else); first mate O’Connor who’s even more brutal than Isager; the con man Anthony Fox and the dastardly Jack Lewis who gives Albert a shrunken head he claims is that of James Cook. Midway through all this, as if to personalize Albert’s search for his father, the point of view shifts to first person singular:

I signed on for Singapore and from there to Van Dieman’s Land, to Hobart Town, the last port where my father had been seen. But it wasn’t just his final port: it was everyone’s dead end—and if it wasn’t yours, it soon would be, if you didn’t get yourself out in time. Picture the workhouse in Marstal: that’s what Hobart was like.

In literature as in life, finding a runaway father often leads to disappointment. Such is the case here for Albert Madsen (though for readers the high seas quest is rife with adventure). Before long—and returning home to first person plural—Albert is an old man serving as a father figure to a young boy, Knud Erik Friis, and as a reluctant lover to the boy’s widowed mother, Klara. When Albert dies—literally frozen to death in his father’s lucky boots—he bequeaths his fortune to Klara. And so begins the final stage of this book, with Klara and Knud Erik front and center.

Klara, a woman who lost her husband when his ship went down, wants to punish the sea for all the damage it has inflicted on Marstallers’ lives—particularly the town’s women. Ironically, she wants to use Albert’s fortune, built on the waves of the oceans, to end Marstal’s dependency on sailing. She visits a powerful businessman in Copenhagen named Markussen and tells him of her plan. He responds:

“Have you heard of Xerxes, king of Persia?” he finally asked. “Xerxes got it into his head to punish the sea because a sudden storm arose and destroyed his fleet before a decisive battle against the Greeks. His method was somewhat unusual. He had the sea whipped with iron chains. I’d say, Mrs. Friis, that you’re a modern-day successor to Xerxes” [. . .] “I hope you understand that your plans will have fatal consequences for your little town.”

She understands that only too well. But does her plan succeed? Well, I won’t give it away. You can decide for yourself.

All told, We, the Drowned is a tour de force, a colossus, that gives Americans an opportunity to witness the gears of a great writer at work, turning the ordinary into the extraordinary. Richly translated by Charlotte Barslund and Emma Ryder so that obscure nautical terms like “ketch,” “old luggers,” “cutters,” “fore-and-aft schooner” flow naturally in translation. Sentence after sentence is strung together like bright bulbs of light. In his first work of fiction, Carsten Jensen creates characters with whom readers can empathize, and even the lowliest among them have real, identifiable motives behind their actions. This novel may be big and heavy, but it’s worth every single page.

5 October 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The call for submissions for the 2010 Susan Sontag Prize for Translation was posted last week, and this year the focus is on translations from Swedish, Norwegian, Danish, and Icelandic.

This prize was launched two years ago to encourage the development of young literary translators. Applicants must be under the age of 30 on the date the prize is announced (in this case May 14, 2010) and if selected, they are expected to be able to complete their translation by October 2010.

Every year the Foundation chooses a different language/region to highlight: in 2008 it was German, and last year was Spanish. Personally, following my trip to Iceland and the grand success of Jan Kjerstad’s books, I’m very interested to see how this year’s award turns out. (Coincidentally, of the winner and two honorable mentions named in 2009, we’re publishing both Juan Jose Saer and Sergio Chejfec, although we have yet to sign on either Roanna Sharp’s or Emily Toder’s translations.)

Applications are due by February 13th, 2010, which gives interested translators a decent amount of time to get all the necessary materials together . . .

10 July 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

I’m planning on writing a post next week with the current list of books that have been nominated for the 2010 Best Translated Book Award longlist. (It’s an era of transparency, no? And besides, wouldn’t you like a bit of time to be able to read some of these titles before the longlist announcement?) I don’t think I’m giving too much away by admitting that Christensen’s Azorno is on that list.

Timothy Nassau’s review (Tim’s been doing a fantastic job interning here over the summer), pretty clearly demonstrates why at least one of our judges really likes this book:

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.

Click here for the full review.

10 July 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

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.

Explain Azorno

Explain

Plain

In

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.

19 June 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

A River & A Sound is a brand new online magazine published in association with the Rainier Writing Workshop at Pacific Lutheran University that grew out of a one-of-a-kind, literary entertainment program designed to make literary events more exciting.

You can check out the rest of the magazine at the link above, but the piece that caught my eye was K.E. Semmel’s translation of Phosphorescence by Danish author Simon Fruelund. (I think this is a week of short stories, what with the Guardian pieces and now this . . .)

We have a few Fruelund works on submission, and they’re pretty interesting. Not all are quite as straightforward, almost Hemingway-esque, as this particular story. In fact, the more recent work has a bit more of a David Markson tinge to it . . . Anyway, this piece is worth checking out, and I know that A River & A Sound is planning on running more works in translation in the future, and is looking for submissions . . .

13 April 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

When first published in Denmark in 2005, Morten Ramsland’s Doghead was a staggering success. Although Ramsland’s prior poetry collection and first novel had been largely overlooked, Doghead received widespread popular and critical acclaim, winning numerous national prizes, including the prestigious Danish Booksellers’ Golden Laurels Prize. Four years later, Doghead has now made it to the United States, and has already garnered its author the perhaps well-meaning, but dubious title, of “Denmark’s John Irving.”

A sprawling, dark-humored, frank, and stringently cynical novel, Doghead traces four generations of the Eriksson family, whose vividly offbeat members include wayward sailors, epic drunks, would-be painters, over-attentive mothers, adulterers, accomplished liars, orphans, and escapists. It’s a generally unhappy clan, a collection of almost-strangers who find themselves bound together not so much by blood ties or loyalty, as by common history.

For this is a family that is irrevocably steeped in its own lore. Each person is defined by several stories that are repeatedly told to nephews, nieces, and grandchildren—by the three or four nicknames that each of them have been christened with. (The narrator, Asger Eriksson, is known at various points of the novel by no less than five titles: The Liar, The Latchkey Kid, The Bastard Boy, The Danish Shrimp, and The Bandit. Each name is the product of its own story.) It’s a hermetic mythology, as illuminating as it is often reductive. But it is only by retelling (and painting) these family legends that Asger can connect with his family and finally reconcile with the years of misunderstanding, neglect, cruelty, and obliviousness that have characterized most of the Erikssons’ interactions. “It’s as if the stories have started taking control of me,” he admits. “They’re driving me back towards my own birth and motives that I’m not sure I’m quite ready to confront.”

In her recent New York Times book review, Clare Clark declares Doghead to be a “bleak book” which “. . . while enthusiastically engaging with the coarser aspects of life, displays a grimly pessimistic view of human nature.” And though she’s certainly not wrong in her estimation of the novel’s resignation to the realities of familial callousness and vindictiveness, Clark does perhaps disregard the book’s real motives. This is not a novel that seeks to redeem its characters, so much as it is a story about the possibility of catharsis through art. Asger’s grandfather struggles all his life to have his cubist-inspired paintings accepted, only to find peacefulness in mundane pastel landscapes in his old age. His grandmother Bjørk is for decades the family storyteller, weaving tales not only about the family’s history, but also the beauty and magic of her Norwegian homeland. Asger himself runs away to art school in Amsterdam following a grim adolescent episode.

Where the book does ultimately misstep, however, is in its failure to flesh out this catharsis for its readers. Rather, the novel seems to collapse under its own weight by the last third of the book, when Asger begins to relate his own role in the family history. Rattling off one tragedy after another, Asger’s personal revelations feel mechanical and disconnected, and at times, unnecessarily dramatized. Where Asger, The Narrator, was a perceptive and empathetic figure in the novel, Asger, The Character, reads far less truthfully, even in the midst of his most intimate disclosure—a story in which the eponymous “Doghead”—the monster that he believed lived under the basement stairs of his childhood home—is finally revealed.

Despite its shortcomings, Doghead remains an impressive tribute to the complexity of familial relationships, the profundity of art, and the importance of a shared history. “The stories were the glue holding our family together,” Asger explains at the end of the book, “it was only after they vanished that everything began to disintegrate, and slowly we were scattered to the winds.”

10 February 09 | Chad W. Post |

Drawing comparisons to Borges and Kafka, Adolphsen has written parables and parodies, “ultrashort biographies,” children’s books, and a collection called En Million Historier (A Million Stories), which allows the reader to construct, well, a million stories, from ten pages of interchangeable two-line segments. Machine, Adolphsen’s second novel to be translated into English, fits very well within this paradigm. . .

Read More...

20 November 08 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Larissa Kyzer’s write-up of Danish author Peter Fogtdal’s The Tsar’s Dwarf is the latest addition to our review section.

It’s fitting that Larissa would be the one to review this—in addition to reviewing for The L Magazine and working towards her Master’s in Library Science, she’s also studying Danish.

Fogtdal is the author of twelve novels (_The Tsar’s Dwarf_ is the first to be translated into English), and also writes a very entertaining blog. His rant about Michael Phelps was pretty funny and here’s an entry from his recent reading tour:

My last stop was Scandinavia House on Park Avenue in New York. Scandinavia House is the mecca for Scandinavian con artists coming to the US. It’s owned by the governments of Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Iceland, and Finland. It’s a stylish place in stylish concrete. Actually, it used to be the East German embassy, but when DDR ceased to exist, the Scandinavian countries bought it.

“Are there still hidden microphones in the ashtrays like in the good old days?” I ask my host.

Kyle shakes his head. He doesn’t think so, but then again, what does he know? Well, maybe more than he wants to admit. Kyle’s name is Reinhart, that sounds pretty East German to me.

I decide to pull down the shades and interrogate the man.

“Who’re you working for, anyway?” I demand to know. Kyle laughs. He is actually from Minnesota and has lived in Kulhuse in Denmark. If you’ve never heard of Kulhuse don’t feel too bad; no one else has.

In terms of the novel, Larissa’s review if quite positive and makes this sound really interesting:

During a recent reading at the Scandinavia House in New York City, Danish author Peter Fogtdal explained some of the circumstances that led to the creation of his twelfth novel (and first to be translated into English), The Tsar’s Dwarf. Having set out to write an account of the ill-fated meeting between Denmark’s King Frederik IV and Russian Tsar Peter the Great from the latter’s perspective, Fogtdal had something of an epiphany. “How could I write from a Russian perspective, if I’m not Russian?” And so, he explained, he “did the only natural thing: I wrote a novel from the first person perspective of a Danish female dwarf.”

If the complications of believably rendering a voice so different from oneself weren’t enough, consider the circumstances of the novel—Sørine Bentsdatter, the titular character, is gifted to Peter the Great during his visit to Denmark in the early eighteenth century. Alternately treated as a grotesque oddity and a beloved pet, Sørine is forcibly taken to Russia, where she acts as a jester for the Tsar and Tsarina, is committed to a cloister where monks employ whips and bloodletting in order to free women of their evil spirits, and is eventually shipped off to the Tsar’s Curiosity Cabinet, where she is displayed alongside embalmed bodies, reptiles, fossils, a trained bear, and all manner of “human subspecies and deformities.” [Click here for the rest.]

20 November 08 | Chad W. Post |

During a recent reading at the Scandinavia House in New York City, Danish author Peter Fogtdal explained some of the circumstances that led to the creation of his twelfth novel (and first to be translated into English), The Tsar’s Dwarf. Having set out to write an account of the ill-fated meeting between Denmark’s King Frederik IV and Russian Tsar Peter the Great from the latter’s perspective, Fogtdal had something of an epiphany. “How could I write from a Russian perspective, if I’m not Russian?” And so, he explained, he “did the only natural thing: I wrote a novel from the first person perspective of a Danish female dwarf.”

If the complications of believably rendering a voice so different from oneself weren’t enough, consider the circumstances of the novel—Sørine Bentsdatter, the titular character, is gifted to Peter the Great during his visit to Denmark in the early eighteenth century. Alternately treated as a grotesque oddity and a beloved pet, Sørine is forcibly taken to Russia, where she acts as a jester for the Tsar and Tsarina, is committed to a cloister where monks employ whips and bloodletting in order to free women of their evil spirits, and is eventually shipped off to the Tsar’s Curiosity Cabinet, where she is displayed alongside embalmed bodies, reptiles, fossils, a trained bear, and all manner of “human subspecies and deformities.”

Fogtdal’s indisputable talent, then, it is for taking this impenetrable character and these bizarre circumstances and not only making them live for the reader, but frequently, rendering them with unexpected humor. Consider the following passage:

I keep staring at the monstrosity of a cake. It’s not yet finished, but the monster is taller than I am. Looking closer, I see that it has been adorned with all the details: gables, archways, and gilding. Even the doors look real, down to the last door handle, hinge, and doorframe . . .

“Put the dwarf inside the cake,” says Callenberg.

Before I manage to say a single word, a servant lifts me up. I try to scratch his face, but the servant is too strong. He laughs and drops me into a big hole. I land on my feet and can just barely see over the edge . . .

Now the hole is covered with a lid. The world disappears, and I find myself in the heart of the world’s most ridiculous cake, inside a hole big enough to hold only a dwarf. I gasp for breath and pound on the cake. There’s no air. I feel nauseated. I’m going to die. And if that weren’t bad enough, I’m going to die inside a cake!

Sørine is a rich and deeply realized character, but she is also often a difficult one to connect with. There’s a very good reason for this: not only has she been dropped within a set of almost farcically terrible circumstances, but, as a result of the lifelong mockery and abuse that she has experienced, her demeanor is caustic and aggressive, cynical and frequently quite cruel. She further compounds the distance between herself and other characters by referring to “human beings” as almost an entirely different species from herself. In putting the burden of empathy on the reader, and forcing one to fully consider the emotional consequences of the treatment that Sørine has received, however, Fogtdal uses his heroine’s alienation to the narrative’s advantage.

This process of learning to empathize with another is actually twofold: as the reader is learning how to empathize with Sørine, Sørine is also learning to empathize with others. Where at the novel’s start she’s equally spiteful towards “human beings,” dwarves, and “goodfolk,” by its end, she’s arrived at a place of acceptance towards those who have wronged her.

Sørine’s world is one in which everyone has their own share of suffering and everyone has been wronged. Tsar’s sons are murdered by their own fathers. Infants die of plagues. Dwarves are forcibly married for the amusement of aristocrats and displayed in museums. The Tsar’s Dwarf is a novel that shows us that regardless of the form that it takes, it is suffering that binds us together. And ultimately, it is this shared experience that makes it possible to be compassionate towards individuals who at first, seem impossibly different from ourselves.

....
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