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Writing Europe

Ursula Keller

Notes of an Escapist

Jens Christian Grøndahl

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Literature travels well, and it does so because for individual
writers, writing, as life itself, is a journey that
releases them from the confinements of hereditary identities,
taking them into the unknown.

1I was in St. Petersburg a couple of years ago and read from my novel Lucca to a group of students. After the reading, one of them asked, rather fascinated, how it was that Danes could leave their partner and find a new place to live just like that. It wasn’t the leaving part that seemed to intrigue her, it was the question of finding an apartment. I suppose that she had no choice but to live with her parents, whether they got along or not. This is possibly the widest gap of understanding I’ve encountered since being translated into other languages.

2The young Russian reminded me that my characters belong to the privileged Western middle classes and have freedom as their major problem rather than material necessities such as a roof over one’s sinful Western head. Our gap of understanding was social rather than cultural. Once married, young Russians may not be able to move out on one another just like that, though I am sure some of them would like to.

3Apart from that afternoon in St. Petersburg, I am usually asked the same questions in Paris, Amsterdam, New York, Barcelona, or Hamburg, and quite often I struggle to find new, ingenious answers. This probably testifies to my general lack of ingenuity, but I also take the recurring questions as a token that somehow people can relate to what I have written, no matter who they are, where they live, or which culture they belong to. (We shall see about that, though, when some day I am published in Afghanistan.)

4It is possible that I talk like this because I, myself, belong to that secular, globalized, relentlessly alienating Western middle-class culture, which has practically no culture left at all. But I don’t think so. I think that I am also touching upon what novels are and what they do.

5We are constantly being told that people cannot understand one another because of their cultural differences, and these days I have to remind myself all the time that understanding is less about what people can do than about what they are willing to. As I see it, there would be no novelists in this world without the will at least to give understanding a try, allowing for how much there is to know and how little of it all we shall ever fathom.

6Writing is a strange operation, adding to culture by revolting against it. Most of us write in our mother tongue, and that may seem like a comforting notion; but then again, who can imagine himself spending a lifetime under his mother’s skirt? For the writer growing up means finding a voice of one’s own, an approach to language that will almost make it sound like your own invention, interpreting the old words in a way that makes them resonate with personal thought and experience.

7This may seem like an overwhelming endeavor since all we have is the language handed down by the cultural community to which we belong, including what others have written before us. What we write, having become literature, will eventually merge into that national tradition and hopefully enrich it, perhaps even change it a bit. But if culture is enriched and changed by the work of writers it is because they have challenged the social function of language, that being the affirmation and certification of the values and conventions of this or that culture, or subculture for that matter. Even minority groups and so-called avant-garde movements are often afflicted with conventions, prejudice, and oppressive decorum.

8Literature should do the opposite. At least that is the only demand on it that I myself would ever accept: to question those values and conventions, to challenge the communal urge to belong, to transcend the imagined barriers between “us” and “them,” and to celebrate imagination as the adventure of individual freedom.

9As I write, exploring the endless possibilities of human experience, creating characters seemingly out of the blue, I discover that I, myself, am the product of my own imagination, the protagonist of the ongoing story of my life. This doesn’t mean that I could be anyone; it means that identity is closely linked with the very act of storytelling, just as literature reminds us that we are all storytellers rather than representatives of this or that common, but limited, cultural kinship, that we are indeed the narrators of those intertwining tales that form the ever-changing web that is human civilization.

10The wonderful thing about literature is that it remains faithful to a personal point of view while at the same time transforming that which is personal and private into narratives that may be read, understood, and interpreted in a million ways across the boundaries of time and space. That is why we are moved by stories from a different age or culture. Literature travels well, and it does so because for individual writers, writing, as life itself, is a journey that releases them from the confinements of hereditary identities, taking them into the unknown.

11You may ask yourself what all of this has to do with the European aspects of my work; but I hope that you won’t, because what I have already said is just another way of expressing what I have to say about that matter.

12Europe is a thing as strange as literature. A Babylonian mumble of languages, a multicolored patchwork of cultures between Asia and the Atlantic Ocean, once connected by an empire, then by a religion, and lately, for little more than a century, by an idea — all of them with a propensity for universalism. In the Roman Empire universalism was achieved by law, but that law was forced upon its subjects by distant rulers. In early Christianity, universalism was a promise, calling upon the followers of Jesus to abandon their native communities and identities in order to share a deeper and wider human fellowship of equals. The Italian philosopher Gianni Vattimo has pointed to the Christian notion of God becoming Man as the very origin of secularization. He sees Christianity as a religion that has slowly secularized itself, thus laying the foundations for humanism and modernity.

13After the Enlightenment, democracy could no longer be thought of as a local affair, like the original Greek version of the polis. Vattimo’s German colleague, Immanuel Kant, dreamt of a worldwide community of free people united by shared, universal human rights — a vision more generous than anything fancied by the bureaucrats and politicians of our present day EU. Though Kant’s notion of a world community may still be a distant dream, we may get there some day. However, the remarkable thing about Europe is not, I think, the fact that this divided continent has seen an abundance of cruelty and terror committed by one people against the other, or by totalitarian elites against their own populations, or by Europeans against the peoples of the Third World. Cruelty is a rule rather than an exception in human history, and the universalism of terror is part of our European heritage, though so is the notion that we are individuals, persons in our own right, and equals, before anything else.

14With democracy now established throughout the continent, this has become less a dream than it was fifty, or even ten years ago; but even so, talking this way about universalism and the European individual may sound rather lofty, even a bit naïve, except when it comes to literature.

15From the troubadours of Medieval Provence to the dissident writers behind the Iron Curtain, literature has expressed the sensitivity of individuals, the individual life of the mind, and its resistance to the tyranny of imposed ways of life and thinking. From its very conception, the European novel has staged and interpreted the conflict between private and public life, between individual hope and fear, on the one hand, and social or historical forces on the other. The novel was a European invention, as was the notion of private man and the inviolable right to privacy. We have no reason to be ashamed of this or to fear the charge of eurocentrism. Mind you, both inventions are cherished by writers and citizens in countries outside Europe where civil rights and the freedom of imagination remain luxuries to be fought for.

16If the history of democracy is also the history of the individual and how the notion of selfhood has emerged from the warm, comforting, and utterly suffocating embrace of cultural identities, then the novel is a way to tell that story. So many great novels delve into the real or imaginary chasm lying between the pressure or indifference of society and the thoughts and feelings of individuals. There are so many novels about individuals who take leave of their homes and kinsmen, despairingly or in an act of rebellion, either forced into exile or exiling themselves as a consequence of self-creation. Freedom and despair, loneliness and chance encounters, unsought and sometimes utterly improbable: the novel connects the social sphere and the intimate life of the soul in its dramatization of their conflicting perspectives, that of culture and that of one’s secret fears and obsessions.

17But the notion of personal freedom as opposed to acceptance of the identity offered or imposed by society and culture is not only a story told in novels. A story like that is only told by someone who has discovered that he or she doesn’t fit in with the overall cultural pattern of values and behavior inherited from one’s ancestors. To write, and to have chosen to become a writer, are indications that somehow you feel like a stranger, even at home. It has been said that writing amounts to a form of mental exile — and I think it’s true. I think that writing itself is triggered by, and may indeed produce, a loss of innocence, a deep sense of not belonging.

18Once you start writing, you turn into a stranger because you realize that becoming your own self is tantamount to rejecting and denying what others would like you to be. But writing as writers do, searching for the intimacy of a personal voice, also leads you to the simultaneously terrifying and terrific, proud and shameful, discovery that your own self will remain undisclosed — that you will always be a stranger, even to yourself.

19In the process of writing, you appropriate common language according to your personal needs, finding words within yourself for that which you hardly know how to express. In doing so, you discover the otherness of your true self, and in the end you may even discover yourself in others. It is called fiction, but it has to do with the very business of being human — separate and lonely because of that, but capable of escaping loneliness and entering into a more true relationship with the world around you. What literature may thus communicate is the strange recognition that what we have most in common is also precisely that which divides us: that we are separate minds and bodies who can only share our innermost selves by becoming and remaining free individuals.

20It is unbecoming, though, for a writer to generalize too profusely in regard to the blessings of literature — and this is the perfect place to stop myself. Fiction is nurtured by detail, invoking the life and outlook of this or that specific person. Novels are usually written in the singular, and singularity is their whimsical claim to such a thing as universal truth.

21What a writer may have to say about The Novel is usually nothing but a plea for his own personal way of going about it. I am no exception, and my writing has grown from among one of several modern traditions: that of setting plots aside in favor of introspection, memory, observation, and reflection, articulating the adventures of the mind rather than those unwinding out there in Reality. I would concur with any writer who shares the hunch that nothing is more real than the mind’s way of interpreting and responding to the flux of appearances.

22My private literary tabernacle hosts an eclectic range of idols who might well grumble about the company they’re in since form rather than topic is what brings them together: Marcel Proust, Patrick Modiano, Thomas Bernhard, Saul Bellow, just to name a few. What they share in spite of all differences is a penchant for soliloquy, leaving the writing itself to become the vibrant cord stringing thoughts, emotions, impressions, digressions, and events together in the narrator’s effort to equalize world and self.

23Most of them are French, by the way — and none of them is Danish. How come? Perhaps it is easier to point out inspirations that have required an effort. Anyway, I have come to acknowledge that inspiration is often a matter of productive misunderstanding. Obviously there are Danish masters who whisper in the back of my head, but I don’t hear them, so much are they part of the atmosphere I breathe. There is the soft-spoken intimacy and subtle, ironic inversions of perspective in Hans Christian Andersen and his universal way of losing himself in the world of detail. There is the melancholy sensitivity in Herman Bang, a certain mildness of inflection, a hush despair, always so close to his characters that you can hear them breathe in the silence of their rooms, where a clock chips away at eternity.

24The living room, not the world, is our stage, for Denmark has spent most of its days on the outskirts of History. We were only grazed by the tragedies of the century now behind us, hence our strangely numb sense of distance between our emotional interiors and the thunderbolts on the horizon. This, if anything, is my Danish theme for you, political as well as philosophical. But more often than not my novels could take place in any modern Western society where rigid cultural patterns have given way to the bewildering impermanence of urban life.

25This is why being translated has been such a redeeming experience. I don’t see myself as a particularly Danish writer — European perhaps, but that sounds far too pretentious, especially for a Dane. Escaping labels is the concern of any writer, and I am just as touchy as everyone else. “Escapism” would be the only reliable exception; so please, don’t read me for the rustic charms of my exotic “Danishness.” As the very cosmopolitan, yet very Danish, poet Henrik Nordbrandt — himself a great escapist — once said: “What’s wrong with running away if you can afford the ticket?”

26Another major poet has defined poetry as that which is lost in translation. But I am just a storyteller, therefore for me it is the other way around. If there isn’t something in there that will survive even a lousy translation, I don’t think it is worth bothering. Writing in a small language such as mine is really to act out the paradox of the novel, if you will allow me one last generalization. Most of us write in our mother tongue, yet there is an ambition in any novel worth writing or reading to transgress the contingency of one’s own kinship, culture, etc. to become recognized, in any sense of that word, for the way you explore the singularity of personal experience.


Further Reading:
Silence in October. Translated by Anne Born. Canongate Books Ltd, 2000.
Lucca. Translated by Anne Born. Canongate Books Ltd., 2002.
Virginia. Translated by Anne Born. Canongate Books Ltd, 2003.

Table des illustrations

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Born in 1959, Jens Christian Grøndahl studied philosophy in Copenhagen. He trained to be a film director and wrote radio plays and essays. He has received many awards for his novels, which have been published in over twenty countries. He achieved a breakthrough in 1996 with his novel Tavshed i oktober (Silence in October).

© Central European University Press, 2003

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