We are popping the champagne bottles. Firstly, because we are wrapping up our stay Copenhagen and are saying goodbye, farewell, see you later to the people we have spent time with while here. Secondly, because I have reached an important milestone for my Pied-a-Terre blog: Today it has been accessed 5000 times by nearly 2500 unique visitors. I am overwhelmed at this level of visitation, which surprisingly comes mostly from search engine referrals.
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.
Karen Blixen started her writing career in earnest as a man. Not like some Orlando, who experienced an acute sex change overnight, but because she understood that in the 1930s her writing might have more weight if everyone thought she was a man. Seven Gothic Tales by Isak Dinesen was published in Denmark and Great Britain in 1934 and won her some acclaim. When she wrote Min Afrikanske Farm or Out of Africa about her 18 years in Kenya, she wrote and published as herself in 1937. And the rest is history, including film 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?
As I settle into my reverse expat experience of my home country here in Copenhagen, I picked up Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast (1964), written about his time as a young, poor writer in Paris with his first wife, Hadley, and son.
I have never read a word of Hemingway before and my knowledge of him was quite vague and second hand. But he kept cropping up as someone to read for an example of simple language and so I plunged in. I was not disappointed.
It is an easy read, though sometimes the narrative is fractured, as memoirs can be. From time to time the short book reads like elaborate name dropping. Gertrude Stein here, James Joyce there, a bit of Picasso and a dim view of Scott Fitzgerald, the person, and his mad wife Zelda. He names streets, cafés and hotels and I want to go to Paris to experience the artist community he is part of. This was a time, Hemingway claims, when there was no official uniform for the artist uniform and one could wear what one pleased, when sitting in cafés all day long, bent over a notebook with a pen, nursing a café creme while the waiters swept and cleaned up.
In this novel the gems about establishing a writing practice may be mere wall paper to most readers. But these were the bits that I found most interesting. Hemingway realises that his obsession with winning at the races interferes with his writing practice because to earn a living that way one must know much more about horses and acquiring that knowledge takes time away from creating good writing from which to earn a living. Perhaps my equivalent is the temptation to find a ‘real job’ to supplement our savings (and to be easily able to explain what I do with my days), but this too would take time away from writing. I repeat to myself: I am a writer.
Hemingway’s clearest writing advice is to work until something has been written and stop only when you know what is going to happen next. If stuck, he would remember:
Do not worry. You have always written before and you will write now. All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know. (p12)
By truest sentence he meant a sentence that he knew or had seen or heard someone say – a simple, declaratory sentence. He called elaborate writing scrollwork or ornament that could be discarded.
At some point Hemingway’s writing practice involved leaving the flat to go to the local café to write, hoping that he would not meet anyone to disturb his flow. His wife would also go out and leave their young son in his crib with the cat, F Pussy. While this would have social workers well concerned in this century, it seemed accepted practice then. Until the flat got too cold for the baby to stay in during winter. Then the family went skiing in the Alps.
Hemingway also advises to stop working and stop thinking about the work between working, so as to let the subconscious work on it. He would then be able to listen to the conversation of other people and to notice things. Using his writerly sense.
For someone so poor, Hemingway consumed an inordinate amount of coffee, meals and wine in the cafés of Paris. But maybe those cafés were affordable and had a different business model to cafés in Copenhagen nearly 100 years later. Daily coffee and lunching in the plentiful cafés in my local neighbourhood would soon deplete our savings. But also, Copenhagen coffee is not that good: I have come to realise how spoilt for good coffee we are in Brisbane. Rather than the smooth drop with well frothed milk and a touch of real chocolate sprinkles that I know from my favourite Brisbane coffee joint, John Mills Himself, a Copenhagen cappuccino is a crass affair with none of the sweetness. And expensive too – about twice the price I pay in Brisbane.
In my attempts to write, I have tried to establish a writing practice. Sometimes, I leave the flat to write, not because the flat is cold, but because I need to get out. I might sit in the foyer of the Black Diamond, the Royal Library building on the canal front, where I listen to the conversations of students on progress of their thesis, the hearing of their disputation or their new love. If there are other writers and artists around, they are not wearing a recognisable artist uniform.
I also leave the work to do other stuff – my husband and I visit galleries and museums and we walk the streets of Copenhagen, noticing architecture, nature, people and graffiti. With my writerly sense.
But I need more discipline to write enough every day. Or I feel as useless as Hemingway did on an escapade with Scott Fitzgerald – a day wasted not writing.
Perhaps it is my insatiable need for order and organisation, perhaps it is an occupational hazard of my year-long work with measurement of performance, and perhaps it is completely counterproductive that my new year’s resolution for 2015 is to read a book a week.
My greatest enemy to establishing a successful writing practice is the allure of the internet. The time-wasting, the frantic social currency of scrolling, the keeping updated, the checking, the FOMO (fear of missing out) keeps me from spending my time on my writing practice. These distractions also prevent me from reading.
To be a writer, you have to read. In short moments of peace, I have been reading Stephen King’s excellent ‘memoir of the craft’: On Writing (a departure gift from a dear – and clever – colleague of mine who shares my passion for writing). King’s advice to read, read and read is both valid and worthwhile. So I decided that I must do better than reading five or six books of fiction in a year: I want to put behind me one book each week in 2015.
On the second day of 2015, I went to the book shop and bought a book. It was the first book I picked up, which happened to be Peter Høeg’s 2014 book, Effekten af Susan (The Susan Effect). Høeg rose to international fame with his 1992 novel, Frøken Smillas fornemmelse for sne (Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow), which I read – no, swallowed – in Danish and English at the time.
It took me exactly one week to read this novel. It is a political conspiracy thriller set in a world vulnerable to climate catastrophes and chaos. The political ‘solution’ to this problem is elaborately plotted and jealously guarded by those in power. This creates a tension between them and the main character, Susan who keeps digging to join the dots.
Susan is 43 years old and a successful scientist with a dysfunctional upbringing and traumatic early experiences. She finds peace in the laws of physics and science in a chaotic and unpredictable world. Juxtaposed against Susan’s scientific world view is her inexplicable skill to make people open up and confess their inner-most secrets and feelings. This juxtaposition exposes the importance of human relations through the cracks of what is explicable through scientific inquiry.
In three parts, Susan and her family slowly uncover what is going on. I enjoyed thoroughly reading Høeg’s exquisite writing and the elaborate plot development, even if the book felt some 100 pages too long.
However, I found Susan barely believable and not particularly likable. Portrayed as a superwoman, her inner dialogue reveals the cost of her scientific worldview to her relationships. Early in the novel, her mentor says: Your problem is that you don’t really believe people like you. I found it hard to believe that anyone actually does like Susan. I do not particularly want to meet her or make her my friend: she seems to have her own agenda with everyone she meets – and vice versa. I also found the myriad of smaller characters underdeveloped and difficult to distinguish, even when they were important to the plot. Perhaps this is my weakness: I also struggle to follow spy movies because I cannot distinguish the characters in their black suits and shady agendas.
It reveals something about me that the notes I have taken about the book are mainly about human relations, not the conspiracy. To me Høeg’s human insights are much more interesting and convincing than his climate catastrophe plot. Though well-developed in the thriller genre, the conspiracy seems merely the framework within which unquantifiable ‘truths’ about human relations are hung.
During the second week I read Danish author Helle Helle’s Rester – ‘leftovers’ (1996). Helle writes about not much: her stories are not action packed and what happens is limited to what passes between humans as the smooth surface of their relationships cracks in a confrontation where all that remains are leftovers. I enjoy Helle’s simple and direct writing. Rester is a book of very short situation stories – sometimes the book seems just like leftover ideas that have not fitted into longer works. Yet this book was Helle’s breakthrough work and perhaps it was more a taste of what was to come. Helle’s writing cleverly leaves me with a sense of recognition of the situation, the characters and the feelings. And discomfort with what is left behind.
Then I read Peter Fogtdal’s breakthrough novel Letmælksprofeten (1991) – ‘the profet of trim milk’. It is a self-referential novel about the life of Gregers. Born in 1956 he grows up to be an actor and then an astrologer with broken relationships. Gregers rises to fame when foresees the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the demise of Ceaușescu in Romania in 1991. Set in Copenhagen and North Sealand, Fogtdal’s book appears to be a portrait of the times and describes a world of astrology, healing and mystique. And megalomania – Gregers gradually looses his grip and starts believing he is God.
1991 was the year I left Denmark for Australia and therefore my Danish experiences coincide with the era of this book. The new age world Fogtdal describes is not at all one I recognise from my formative years in Midtjylland during the 1970s and 80s. Apart from unquestioning belief in the Lutheran god, the local culture was to dismiss these new age trends as hocus pocus: we kept our feet firmly planted in the sandy soils that nurtured us. New age flight of fancy may be been everyday fare for cosmopolitan young people living in Copenhagen, but did not take root in the provinces or in the country. At the time, critics labelled the book as a farce. Read as such its lack of credibility may make much more sense.
Three books in two weeks is a good start. My performance is already over target 🙂
What books are you reading in 2015?