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.”
Hard to say that the New York Times doesn’t review translations after this week . . . In addition to Kakutani’s
possibly insane review of The Kindly Ones, this weekend’s Book Review includes articles on four works of literature in translation.
A signal literary event of 2009 has occurred, but if publishers had been more vigilant, it could have been a signal literary event in any of the last 60 years. This event is the belated appearance in English of the novel Every Man Dies Alone, the story of a working-class Berlin couple who took on the Third Reich with a postcard campaign intended to foment rebellion against Hitler’s Germany. Published in 1947, the book was written in 24 days by a prolific but psychologically disturbed German writer named Rudolf Ditzen, who spent a significant portion of his life in asylums (for killing a friend in a duel, for threatening his wife with a gun), in prison (for embezzling to finance his morphine habit) and in rehab. In spite of his precarious emotional state, he wrote more than two dozen books under the pen name Hans Fallada, which he took from Grimm’s Fairy Tales.
Then there’s Dennis Overbye’s positive review of Yoko Ogawa’s The Housekeeper and the Professor, which was translated by Stephen Snyder, another Salzburg Seminar participant. Ogawa’s earlier book — The Diving Pool — was included on the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize longlist, and despite my rather tepid review, is worth checking out. I’m sure we’ll review this one sometime in the near future as well. And according to Stephen, the next book of Ogawa’s that Picador is publishing is the best of the bunch . . .
Yet Doghead is a very different book from The World According to Garp, say, or A Prayer for Owen Meany. For all their eccentric habits and physical peculiarities, Irving’s characters are essentially realistic, capable of making a profound emotional connection with the reader. Ramsland’s are larger-than-life creations who go by a roll call of nicknames, among them Jug Ears, the Bath Plug and the Little Bitch. In the world of the Erikssons, life is shocking and childhood brutal. No one is to be trusted, family least of all. Rambunctious, often imaginative, invariably cruel, the stories rattle through a catalog of adultery, duplicity and casual violence. A father sells his son’s precious coin collection to buy booze. A mother hides the letters sent to her son by his distant love. A brother tapes his sister making out with her boyfriend in the room next door and shares the cassettes with his friends. None of these characters learn from their mistakes. Instead they run away from them. And those who stay make more.
Despite its earthy comedy, then, Doghead is ultimately a bleak book.
And last but not least is Floyd Skloot’s review of Antonio Lobo Antunes’s The Fat Man and Infinity and Other Writings. I wrote a very positive review of this for Quarterly Conversation (coming soon) and really hope that this book gets even more attention than What Can I Do When Everything’s On Fire? did. It’s more accessible, and a great intro to Antunes’s world. Skloot’s review isn’t entirely positive, but he does sum up the sundry nature of the book pretty well:
Now, in The Fat Man and Infinity, he turns his attention inward, onto his own life and mind, his own experience of place and community. Neither traditional memoir nor in-depth analysis, it collects 107 brief chronicles from the weekly or biweekly columns Lobo Antunes has written for various publications, particularly the Portuguese newspaper O Público. The Fat Man and Infinity is a genuine miscellany, roughly half reminiscence or reflection and half very short fiction, that struggles to cohere. Detailed and often lyrical, it is best at offering moments of nostalgic charm.
I’m sure people will still jump on Tanenhaus for something, but this is a pretty solid issue . . . now, hopefully one of these weeks an Open Letter title will slip in there . . .
Originally published in French in 2007, We’re Not Here to Disappear (On n’est pas là pour disparaître) won the Prix Wepler-Fondation La Poste and the Prix Pierre Simon Ethique et Réflexion. The work has been recently translated by Béatrice Mousli. . .
Even though the latest from Jean Echenoz is only a thin volume containing seven of what he calls “little literary objects,” it is packed with surprises. In these pieces, things happen below the surface, sometimes both literally and figuratively. As. . .
Who is this woman? This is the question that opens Xiao Bai’s French Concession, a novel of colonial-era Shanghai’s spies and revolutionaries, police and smugglers, who scoot between doorways, walk nonchalantly down avenues, smoke cigars in police bureaus, and lounge. . .
For the past 140 years, Anna Karenina has been loved by millions of readers all over the world. It’s easy to see why: the novel’s two main plots revolve around characters who are just trying to find happiness through love.. . .
Linn Ullmann’s The Cold Song, her fifth novel, is built much like the house about which its story orbits: Mailund, a stately white mansion set in the Norwegian countryside a few hours drive from Oslo. The house, nestled into the. . .
Karel Schoeman’s Afrikaans novel, This Life, translated by Else Silke, falls into a genre maybe only noticed by the type of reader who tends toward Wittgenstein-type family resemblances. The essential resemblance is an elderly narrator, usually alone—or with one other. . .
In Joris-Karl Hyusmans’s most popular novel, À rebours (Against Nature or Against the Grain, depending on the which translated edition you’re reading), there is a famous scene where the protagonist, the decadent Jean des Esseintes, starts setting gemstones on the. . .