It is a moving tale of love and grief and the devastating moments that change the course of your life and relationships forever. Its narrator, Leo Hertzberg, is an academic art historian residing in New York. The story follows 25 years of his life when he befriends an artist, Bill Weschler, and tracks their lives alongside each other. The story is bookended so we understand it comprises Leo’s reflections on his life as an old man.
The bird life on the Lakes in Copenhagen is surprisingly plentiful and diverse. Each time we walk around the lakes we notice new nests or – even better – new tiny baby birds in the coot’s nest, striped young ones on the back of great crested grebe or ducklings paddling with their mallard parents. If the weather is good, we stop to watch their funny antics and take photos. Today, mother swan was busy with six little grey cygnets, fussing to add feathers and other warm materials to the remaining grey-green egg. With spring comes new life, fresh and full of opportunities. It gives me moments of unbridled joy, following this happy addition to the abundant bird life in the middle of Copenhagen.
I am grateful to my sister for introducing me to author Siri Hustvedt, and once I discovered this American author, there is no end to where I see her. Of Norwegian descent and speaking Norwegian as her first language, Hustvedt’s latest work, The Blazing World (2014), in a world first, was turned into a performance by Copenhagen theatre company, Mungo Park, currently performed at Avenue-T until June. Then, on Friday in my neighbourhood on Nørrebro, a small international bookshop, ARK Books, launched the Ark First Edition, a small, hand bound book, in only six copies, with two previously unpublished texts, one by Hustvedt and the other by her author husband Paul Auster. Like meeting old friends unexpectedly on the streets, really.
Since I have been back in Denmark I have noticed things about the Danes that I would probably not have had second thoughts about had I not lived half my life away from this small country. Some are great, like the love of the bicycle for transportation – which I simply took for granted during the first half of my life, but had to shelve in hilly Brisbane with its high density of bike-hating drivers. Some are less charming, like the absolute rudeness of cyclists to each other and to pedestrians – like not stopping for the red light to let a pedestrian cross, riding out right in front of the unaware pedestrian on the foot path or on the pedestrian crossing or blocking the footpath with rows and rows of parked bikes.
Colour blindness comes in a version where green and red are indistinguishable. I cannot imagine not being able to see the many greens that colour spring and summer or the reds of tulips and cherry blossoms that are starting to show.
Richard Mosse (1980) is an Irish artist whose work The Enclave (2013) is exhibiting at Louisiana Museum of Modern Art presently. This work explores the war in the Democratic Republic of Congo, changing hues of green to hues of red and pink. Mosse used the now discontinued Kodak Aerochrome to film events in DRC – the US Army used this surveillance film to show invisible infrared light, turning green into red and pink to detect camouflage. This war is largely ignored by Western media and therefore largely unknown outside Congo and Rwanda, even though more than 5.4 million people have died in this war since 1998. Continue reading
How’s the new year resolution going, I hear you ask. It has been a while since I wrote about what I read. And I have been reading. 16 books so far in 2015.
Recently, I have read historical fiction. I have a keen interest in Danish history – I have traced my roots to the history books. I am fascinated by writers who can animate historic characters in historic scenes and make it seem real and believable. Of course, historical fiction is just that, fiction, and should not be mistaken for real history. But when history is told in a fictional genre, it is certainly easier to remember who is who in a turbulent time of Danish history.
Orlando (1928) is a short work of fiction, highly acclaimed and thought to be the most accessible of Virginia Woolf’s works. Frankly, I found it tedious and long in the tooth. It took me forever to read, getting lost in long passages of description. I had to look hard for the insights and gems.
Karen Blixen’s Den Afrikanske Farm (Out of Africa, 1937) is probably the most famous, internationally acclaimed Danish novel. Though I do not kid myself to have the great skill of Blixen, I like the parallel of her story with mine: A Danish woman immigrating to a foreign country to set up her livelihood and who starts to write late in life. I hope of course that similarities end there – I do not have a philandering husband, there is no Denys Finch-Hatton and though we may have had thoughts of living sustainably off the land at one point, we have abandoned this project and I have stuck to my secure employment.
It was with some amusement that I first heard of Erling Jepsen’s Den Sønderjyske Farm (The South-Jutland Farm). Inspired by Blixen’s masterpiece, Jepsen wrote his third novel about Allan and his childhood community in Gram. Nearly appropriating Blixen’s work, this novel starts by describing the landscape of Gram and how the main character, Allan, had a rabbit farm at the foothills of Gram Bakke.
Unlike Africa, Denmark is a terribly flat place. The highest places reach only some 170m into the sky. Gram Bakke is no Ngong mountain and the cultural difference between the west-southern Jutes and the east-southern Jutes is not really the same as the cultural differences Blixen encountered in Kenya between colonisers and the colonised. A black woman, Mkali, does feature in the novel, but she is the daughter of an African-American soldier and a German woman. Perhaps her untimely end in an unsympathetic community draws references to the impact of the colonisers in Kenya on the first nations people in Blixen’s novel.
The humour of this author is warm, understated and sharp, as we learn about Allan’s attempts to impress and be acknowledged by his father, the failed milkman who got a bit too close to his daughter. The son suffers terribly for the father’s sins and childhood in Gram is a gruesome affair. In spite of the odds against him, Allan appears to grow up to live in Copenhagen and become a succesful writer who could not imagine writing without Coffee Punch – a drink from his homelands, made by pouring enough strong coffee into a cup that you can no longer see the bottom and then adding akvavit or ‘snaps’ until you can see the bottom again. Stir in sugar to taste, and the coffee will ensure you stay alert, while the snaps will release your creative juices.
I am not sure it is advice I will take in my pursuit of writing, though when I sit empty before the computer, I could do with a bit of creative release.
Jepsen’s first novel, Ingen Grund til Overdramatisering (No reason for too much drama, 1999), is similarly about a budding writer, whose main concern seems to be how to find a way to live off the public purse while figuring out his writing practice and life in general. This also seems like poor advice to the budding writer and probably explains a thing or two about what has gone wrong with the Danish welfare model.
I have wondered before how penniless Hemingway and the rest of the artist community in Paris in the 1920s could afford living how they did in Paris. My husband points out that in the past most artists and writers have either been from well-to-do families – such as Karen Blixen – or if from an impoverished background had a patron or two to support them – such as Hans Christian Andersen.
In Denmark, Julius Bomholt’s introduction of arms-length art support in 1964 legitimised the State’s support of arts and culture and a desire to support merit rather than wealth (in Australia Whitlam achieved the same in 1974). The pursuit of artistic expression became the province of all talented people. But of course you usually have to show merit first to be supported. Jepsen’s budding writer had shown none of that, other than being mistaken for a more or less successful screen writer.
How does one support oneself to get the time and the space to write? Should society support people who decide to abandon their education or paying job to follow their dreams to create? If so, who should decide which people are deserving of the support and how?
After enjoying Hemingway’s Moveable Feast, I decided to read the book that won him the Nobel Prize for literature in 1956 – The Old Man and the Sea. The library had it, not in English, but in Danish as a sound book. A number of cardinal sins already committed right there – a book should be read in the language in which it was written and listening clearly is a different experience from reading.
Santiago is the old man living in Cuba as a fisherman, but he is out of luck. For 85 days he has not caught anything and the boy, Manolin, is no longer allowed to go to sea with him. Santiago goes out on his own and catches a large marlin. He is dragged further out to sea by the large animal and it takes three days before it dies and Santiago can return to Cuba. He ties the fish to the skiff and raises his sail for the passat winds to blow him home, victorious. However, the blood from the dead fish attracts sharks and Santiago fights a brave fight firstly to protect his catch and secondly to protect his own life. He returns to the shore in one piece, but the marlin is reduced to its skeleton.
Much has been written about this story’s meaning – it is a much studied and analysed novella. Hemingway is quoted as saying:
No good book has ever been written that has in it symbols arrived at beforehand and stuck in. … I tried to make a real old man, a real boy, a real sea and a real fish and real sharks. But if I made them good and true enough they would mean many things.
I was mesmerised by the rhythm of Hemingway’s writing (or perhaps the reader’s voice?) The writing has a certain calm and patient quality. The story is a slow and patient battle between two proud creatures – Santiago and the marlin. While Santiago wins through his perseverance, they are both beaten by the sharks. Santiago’s time waiting on the sea brings with it lots of monologue, reflection and introspection as well as description of the natural environment in almost spiritual tones.
With my friend’s warning that Hemingway was a male chauvinist ringing in my ears, I was struck by a particular view of the sea that Santiago explains. Though others might refer to the sea in male terms, especially when it shows its unrepentant fury, Santiago considers the sea a woman because like a woman the sea cannot help what happens, it just happens. No women – aside from the sea – feature in this novel. However, this way of equating the nature of the sea with the purported helplessness of a woman to determine her own destiny is an inexcusable infantalisation of women.
Perhaps this view is Hemingway’s response to the gradual liberation of women through his lifetime, which may have made his philandering and womanising more difficult. Juxtapose this with my other reading, Virginia Woolf’s essay A Room of One’s Own, based on a series of lectures on Women and Literature she gave in 1928 at Cambridge University. Her basic tenet is that for women to write literature she must have her own money and her own room, quite literally. And that women need access to education. This is at a time when women still largely were property of men, first their fathers, then their husbands and a time when the Oxbridge universities were entirely male dominated and largely closed to women, expect for select faculties. Yet, Woolf reflects, if one only knew women as described by men in literature, one would imagine them to be even greater than men.
At the time when Hemingway was developing a writing career in the cafés of Paris, Woolf stood up for women in the halls of Cambridge and called out the reasons why only few women were able to do what he was was.
If through the 20th century all men retained Hemingway’s ossified view of women as helpless creatures unable to determine their own destiny, then gender equality would still be a major battle in the Western world. It still is in some places – even in the Western world – but when girls are given access to education, they excel at traditional male subjects and in 70% of countries exceed the performance of boys. It is only a matter of time before this excellence and excess will show in the centres of power.
In Denmark, it seems the first female prime minister, Helle Thorning-Smith, is much maligned for being a woman, just as Australia’s first female prime minister, Julia Gillard, was. Gillard famously admonished the leader of the opposition in her Misogyny speech – reflecting perhaps that we have some way to go still before women are judged for what they do, rather than their gender.
For the first time, in my home state of Queensland, a woman has taken a party from opposition to victory in a state election. She has also included a record majority of women in the Cabinet room with eight out of 14 ministers being women. Time will tell whether people will judge her on her performance or on her gender. I hope for the first, perhaps against hope?
The plan to come to Copenhagen for a year did not come to me in a flash – it evolved slowly from that feeling of not quite belonging where I was. A tiredness from being a just little bit out of place, a little bit different. A feeling of being surrounded by truths a little bit – or sometimes a lot – different from what I knew to be true when I was much younger than today.
We have now been in Denmark for eight weeks and in our flat for five. It is four weeks since our older son left to go back home to Brisbane, Queensland, Australia – home to our younger son who did not want to come. Thankfully, they report that they are both doing well.
In that time we have been exploring our new place. And: I love Copenhagen. There are so many things to see, to do, to enjoy. I love hearing Danish language around me. I even love the cold, especially on a sunny day when every spot of sunshine on the street walks fills up with people catching just a bit of that sun. I love seeing my family and my friends. And I love that my husband is so completely on the journey with me. But it is too soon to say if I belong here.
It is hard to come home when you don’t belong writes Maren Uthaug in her debut novel Og sådan blev det (And so it was) from 2013. Like the main character, Kirsten, Uthaug lives in Denmark, but her parents are Sami and Norwegian. The story is about going back to ones roots to discover identity. Kirsten is born as Risten in Northern Norway into a Sami community. When she is seven years old, her parents separate and with her Norwegian father she moves into the home of a well-meaning Danish woman. In all her well-meaningless and desire for minimum conflict and otherness in her midst, the woman changes the girl’s beautiful Sami name to a Danish one. She also changes the name of the Vietnamese orphan who came to live with her when Vietnamese boat refugees came to Denmark in numbers so large that authorities had to billet them with private individuals.
Kirsten’s plan to reconnect with her Sami family also does not come in a flash and when she finally visits her mother in Northern Norway, her sense of belonging to the country and community in which she was born is blurred by years of absence, growing up in a different country, community and culture. Even the belief system for keeping evil away that she learnt from her grandma; the silver, the chants in an old Finnish language, Kvensk, the warning to never look at the northern light; are foreign to the Sami community to which she returns.
Just before she leaves with her father for Denmark, young Risten commences a massive project to draw a fantastic tree covering numerous taped together pieces of A4 paper. She wants to draw the roots, the crown, the branches. The roots of this tree – of this girl – are clearly deeply buried in the northern country near the arctic circle. When she returns she probes to discover just how deeply her roots are buried – they are so well covered up by an alternative truth that they are nearly impossible to discover.
This is a touching and moving story, well written and beautifully told. Being out of place in a well-meaning, but much misguided ‘civilisation’ parallels stories of first nations people across the world. And I am happy to say, it is a far cry from my own experience: my struggle for belonging are nothing on a scared little girl far away from home, clutching her grandma’s silver ring and chanting to keep evil spirits at bay and holding tight to cultural truths that no-one surrounding her has any possibility of understanding.
My story has none of that drama at all. I deeply respect the genuine struggle of all people who are displaced, especially to those who did not – and cannot – themselves chose to be where they are.