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.”
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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