The Irish freedom questions at the heart of my novel ‘Éilis from the Flats’

The Irish freedom questions at the heart of my novel 

Éilis from the Flats                               

(‘Éilis from the Flats’ is an existential and psychological thriller.

It is volume one of ‘The Good Friday Sting’ hexalogy)

‘Éilis from the Flats’ is the opposite of a right-wing Catholic tract

The ancient idea of personal guilt (in ancient times ‘fate’), and therefore ‘sin’, has nothing to do with dark thoughts about sex, or what an inherently bad person you are. The concept of guilt is strongly tied to our basic urge to be selfish and turn our backs on ‘the Other’ … and then a counter, vertiginous, urge to go beyond ourselves … to reach out. We might call it the ‘vertigo syndrome’.

          Of course, in the very act of that reaching out beyond yourself, you are not just embracing the Other, you are embracing existence itself with love, and getting love back. This tug of war between Bad and Good. The ancient human drama, which all of us write in our hearts, about trying to be good and failing, and then trying better, or giving up, is at the heart of ‘Éilis from the Flats’ and the ‘Good Friday Sting’ hexalogy (six novels). Then there is the question of how powerful forces can help or hinder that journey to the Good. How do we get the ‘Power’ to help us in our journeys and what types of power are available to us? I don’t have any ready answers to these questions, but I watch and write as my characters struggle toward some kind of answer. Some kind of redemption. For redemption there must be, if we are to have community. The opposite of selfishness.

‘Éilis’ – A tale of poverty. And a tale of resistance to poverty –

both economic and spiritual

 

An interesting thing happens in the otherwise excellent Irish Times review of my novel Éilis from the Flats late last year. The reviewer quite rightly states that in the novel a Catholic priest approaches the young Éilis’s bedroom at night and sprinkles her door with holy water. The priest, we are told, “lingers” outside her bedroom. This is the reviewer’s interpretation, who also asks why the close relationship between Éilis and the priest is portrayed as being unproblematic.

Éilis from the Flats, clearly features a real child abuser as a main character, but it is not this priest. Moreover, the reviewer doesn’t tell readers that Éilis is not alone back there in that bedroom. In fact, there is a young man in there with her. Another important factor with regard to this priest, Father McCartan, is that he has broken with the Catholic Church hierarchy, partly over the child abuse scandal, and is effectively married and in a long-term loving relationship with his housekeeper, Mrs O’ Grady. This is made clear fairly early in the novel and is called ‘nuance’.

Once the above points are foregrounded in the ‘holy water’ scene described above, it takes on an entirely different connotation to the dubious and ‘lingering’ kind suggested in the Irish Times review. The reviewer also states that the devout Catholicism of some of the characters belongs to an Ireland of 30 or 40 years ago. But not a single character in the novel is described as being a devout Catholic, or expresses such a position; not even the priest for the reasons already explained. So where did the reviewer get this impression? It is of course the hair trigger religious mote in the reviewer’s own eye. It seems to me that almost the whole of the Irish Commentariat has this same spontaneous anti-spiritual tick.

This blind spot aside, it should be stressed that, the Irish Times review is written with deep seriousness and acknowledges my writing skills and my ambition in the style and structure of the novel; a style and approach that has taken some of my well established group of readers somewhat by surprise. That is another reason for writing this backgrounder essay, now that sales of Éilis from the Flats have begun to take off.

People are continually at a crossroads. Life is not a ‘one off’ chance.

Image @ Phil Kelly

Part of the creative urge that has driven me to write Éilis from the Flats, and the Good Friday Sting series as a whole, comes from characters who feel real to me. They began calling to me long before I began writing them. Or are they writing me? These characters are asking questions about, amongst other things, what will happen to spirituality now that the authority of the Church hierarchy has, thankfully, collapsed. Or, say, how will we mark the change of seasons and the rites of passage of our children in this new time? How will we gather at weekends and other special days to acknowledge each other, remember our dead and ponder life’s mysteries? How will we in Ireland have wakes and bury people? These questions must not be left to right wing xenophobes who would drag us back to a Catholic Caliphate.

My characters are real live people and. just as with people outside of their pages, some of them don’t give a damn, or are even hostile, to thoughts of faith. Any sort of faith. Some of them even actively choose Evil, or at least the road to the Bad. However, most people would agree, I think, that humankind has an urge to the Good and to worship. Even that great hero of the anti-God squad, Friederich Nietzsche – the ‘Squad’ may be surprised to hear – wanted us to understand that human beings are an ‘animal’ that wishes to worship and that we need something to venerate in the absence of God.*

What then are we going to worship? Money? Property? Rich celebrities? Or Love? Nietzsche Plot spoiler here – Friedrich Nietzsche called for love, too. Or at least a ‘yea-saying’ to life and collective empathy. One of my favourite quotes from all of Nietzsche is: Das ‘Himmelreich’ ist ein Zustand des Herzens – Heaven is in the heart, (in my translation)**. And what is this metaphorical beating heart, only another word for Love? A Love that binds all people and all things in the Universe as the positive force that seeks to drag us away from personal destruction (a deadening conformity and loss of personal dignity and morals). If heaven is indeed in our hearts, then we are more Angel than animal.

The way things are at the moment, belief in Love (God if you like) is ridiculed, but belief in Evil remains intact. None of those who killed God have laid a finger on the Devil. Though you wouldn’t know it if you just listened to some of his English language commentators, Friedrich Nietzsche foresaw this problem and gave us an answer. This true Geist somehow moves through The Good Friday Sting.

Our need to come together and speak – image @Phil Kelly

Part of the need that Irish people feel to still attend Mass, despite everything, is linguistic. There is a basic human urge in people to come together and speak poetry and verbally mark our presence and community. This urge is as ancient as language itself. The rhythm and cadence, the rise and fall of sacred verse is rooted in an ancient verbal culture. What kind of Irish freedom is it to be bereft of these primordial things? This is especially the case with the oldest indigenous language in Ireland, An Ghaeilge – the Irish language – which is in crisis. The cultural elite and state system in Ireland have presided over the collapse of a precious linguistic treasure. It is also an environmental treasure. The characters in Éilis from the Flats, some of them anyway, struggle in this maelstrom to keep the language in their hearts in the face of this linguistic and environmental disaster and the worldwide tsunami of globally warming bad English.

What is Irish freedom without its language and the Gaeltacht areas in which Irish is spoken as a first language? In one scene, ‘our Éilis’ is in an ambulance after suffering some sort of fit and in her delirium speaks only Irish, the paramedic asks her to stop messing about and speak ‘the Queen’s’ (a reference to the English language). Can anyone say that this is an unlikely scene? Consciously and unconsciously, the characters push at this question of the freedom, or unfreedom, of speaking Irish in Ireland. There are also characters who hate the Irish language, or think it’s Polish. The ambulance scene is not anything that was planned by me. It came to me as a real event, unbidden.

In the Skin of a Lion, partly social protest

and partly a ‘challenged’ individual’s cry for community

 

I am not the first author to be inspired by Michael Ondaatje’s superb novel In the Skin of a Lion, which leaves its readers with the feel of moving through a shifting dreamscape, but then plunges us into the hammer of social realism, workplace death and political struggle. However, I am certainly one of the few who has been a merchant seaman and can read the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard in his original language. It is impossible to describe exactly how these influences impact upon your own work as an author, but I was pleased that the Irish Times reviewer remarked on the ambitious nature of Éilis from the Flats. There is something there about having a range of competing voices and that some of these voices should come from the realm of the dispossessed. Dostoevsky would approve. It struck me forcefully that the hero of In the Skin of a Lion – Patrick Lewis might be described as having mental health issues, because of his continued estrangement from society. A female character then began to talk to me about her estrangement and it seemed to me that these people are prophets, or at least sounding bells that ring the nature of our times.

This was the way that Éilis herself was born, I think, and she explodes into my consciousness in unpredictable ways, just as much as she does in the novel. I am aware that a number of the thousands of people who read my definitive book on collusion between the British state and unionist death squads, A Very British Jihad, were initially ambushed by the shifting narrative style of Éilis from the Flats. There are monologues, heightened language, jump cuts and some characters, or the narrator, address readers directly. Their names, meanwhile are often repeated, almost in a type of mantra. I suspect that this comes from this idea, or rather stereotype, of madness and how we deal with difficult or allegedly weird people, but who have a message, if only we would listen.

This set of narrative devices was not and is not deliberately planned by me, but they jump to me very readily as I compose fiction. To try and set down a series of dreams that continually occur to me in some sort of coherent but still fantastic and challenging way. Challenging to myself as the author and challenging for the novel’s readers also. Gradually, my readership has swung round to what I am doing with ‘Éilis’. I am also aware, because of my international influences and interests that news from abroad infuses my writing. It is by no means unusual for working class people to read Dostoevsky and Søren Kierkegaard but it is extremely rare to see them in the pages of fiction or drama. As with Nietzsche, they are crucially important figures where existentialism and human dignity are concerned and I am grateful to Danish academics Pia Søltoft and Mette Blok for clarifying my own thoughts on the question of ethics and the moral life, where Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, respectively. are concerned. Hopefully I can help bring more of their exciting research into the English speaking world. There is no doubt, this discourse has raised the polemical bar in this Good Friday Sting series.

 

The personal is intensely private, but also political and communal –

the human riddle – image @Phil Kelly

 

What we begin with in our lives is, by definition, our own personal story and how we ‘write’ that personal story as we live through our lives. As a person who was reared in a slum, I can tell you that poor people have to struggle ten times harder to imagine life as an art form. I mean that they could ever imagine they are creating their lives day by day as artists. The separation between ‘art’ and working class people is a chasm. The separation between English language philosophers and ‘ordinary’ people, is just as daunting and unacceptable.

At the same time, good philosophers, or at least the philosophers, writers and poets who speak powerfully to me, continually call on us to live our lives as artists. Recently, the Guardian newspaper carried an interview with the UK/Trinidadian poet, Roger Robinson, who makes clear that the hardest thing of all for the dispossessed to overcome is low self-esteem and bravely declare to themselves that they have an artistic mission. “Commit to your identity as an artist,” Robinson concludes. The problem is that posh people and a willing media have removed art from life and turned it into a commodity, a very expensive commodity at that.

But all humans can do metaphor. How astonishing is that? Once you begin moving those metaphors that are precious to you, you begin to move out, to reach out, and embrace existence. This has nothing whatsoever to do with a 10 billion euro painting in the Louvre Museum, but everything to do with art. Once you are existing and conversing within your vocation, you are living life as art. Nietzsche said you must take power (of yourself), not only so as to live as an artist but also – endlich für Alles – in the end to help everybody else.*** Also, crucially, that there are teachers along the way to whom we must listen. Step forward then Hildegard of Bingen, Rosa Luxembourg and Elizabeth Girlie Flynn, to name but three. It’s a very scary place though, because you have to make a leap of faith. Did I mention that word faith again?

The cover of the author’s book on Britain’s Dirty War in Ireland

                                        – A Very British Jihad (out of print)

Finally, my sensibilities, the characters in these novels, and the settings in which their lives unfold, cannot be told without eventually embracing the North of Ireland, which suffered the indignity, not to say grave injustice, of being forcibly partitioned when the rest of the country won a somewhat rough and ready independence from British rule in 1922. The very fact that the National television station in the Hexalogy – Empire Television – shapes its whole raison d’être around a back-turning to the North brings those six estranged counties – now in the transition of the Peace Process – centre stage. The young County Galway journalist James Tierney discovers certain things about the way the war in the North has corrupted journalism and public life right across Ireland and his broad trajectory, I feel, is to investigate how that happened. The fact that Tierney does this in the maelstrom of his own personal and spiritual journey and that of the other characters is probably the biggest difference between The Good Friday Sting and my book about Ireland’s Dirty War, A Very British Jihad.

With a current affairs book, the author can be forensic and prescriptive, can state what happened, what should have happened and ways to improve things. With fiction, however, there is no such safety net. The broad sweep of the narrative aside – and the necessary correction of a clearly erroneous perception on the part of some with regard to the underlying ethos of The Good Friday Sting – we will have to discover together what these characters are going to do and how they will react to pressure situations and each other.

I believe I have found my signature way of writing fiction. It may not appeal to everyone but every literary author has to find a way of writing that suits him or her. It is a style and set of scenarios that are as exciting as they are unpredictable. Welcome to this odyssey.

 

Paul Larkin

Carraic

Co. Dún na nGall

 

(Any reader who wants a signed copy of Éilis from the Flats is welcome to contact this author personally, as my publisher Dalkey Archive Press kindly gave me most of the remaining stock due to the Covid-19 pandemic and my publicity events being cancelled. Contact: paul.offworld@gmail.com with your delivery details and the number of copies required.)

 

Footnotes

* Die fröhliche Wissenschaft – The Joyful Wisdom, Friedrich Nietzsche

** Der Antichrist – The Anti—Christ, , Friedrich Nietzsche

*** Schopenhauer als Erzieher – Schopenhauer as Educator, Friedrich Nietzsche

 

NB I am extremely grateful to the late Phil Kelly for giving me permission many years ago to occasionally use his work in my promotional work. Suaimhneas síoraí dá anam – RIP

Why all the things you have been told about Kierkegaard are wrong

Celebrating Søren Kierkegaard’s birthday – 5th of May, 1813

 

For a change I’m simply going to shoot from the hip, as that wonderful North American saying has it, and tell you some things about Denmark’s only world renowned thinker without any detailed referencing. Søren Kierkegaard preferred to be called a thinker, rather than a philosopher. One reason for that is that he described the philosophers of his age as having accomplished the perverse miracle of turning wine into water. He also suggested that when a city was getting ready for a hostile invasion, philosophers should rush up and down the street, just like Diogenes did when the ancient Greek city of Corinth prepared for siege. When Corinthians – yes they were and are a thing – asked Diogenes why he was rolling his tub up and down the street, he replied that he wanted to look busy like everybody else. With these quotes alone, we can see that Kierkegaard’s thinking and writing was not only incredibly perceptive but also very funny. Where did Kierkegaard get this rep that he was exclusively doom and gloom? He drank wine to beat the bands and was often the life and soul of the Danish coffee and pastry shop – the Konditorier  – and high society soirees to boot.

 

Of course Kierkegaard wrote about depression, and he was by his own nature depressive, but that was not his view of human nature as a whole and he described depression as a shout for freedom. And do you see this question of sin? According to some, Kierkegaard was no fun at all and ruled out all sorts of sexual fleshliness as being sinful. Quite the reverse is the case. Kierkegaard actually said that sensuality in love was vital for its full expression. The sin came in selfishness. That is, that you fell in love with someone else but failed to then embrace the world because of the joys of that love. Kierkegaard’s other main description of sin – called a category – was untruth. That is, that you were living a lie by not being your true self. You were split. We all know this to be true and we all know that it is our conscience that tells us this.

Below, I publish a poem I wrote about Kierkegaard in response to one of Ireland’s best living poets, Harry Clifton, who asks – in his train journey poem Søren Kierkegaard – what Kierkegaard would know of joy. (Night Train through the Brenner collection).

 

South With Kierkegaard

(For Harry Clifton)

 

I took you south with me Søren Kierkegaard

a two day train ride to Florence from Copenhagen

your pulp fiction parables impelling wheels, turning pages

Diary of a Seducer Don Juan –  the Either/Or twin track dialectic

hurtling through the Nordic psyche to the core of existence

 

Where did this myth arise that you are just a cold fish

Doctor Dread wallowing eternally in fear and trembling?

The Dane opposite me professes never to have read you

but describes your Diogenes rolling his tub up and down the street

in frantic efforts to look busy as Corinth prepared for war

 

We left on a day of cormorant mist, quiet ice and steaming coffee

no cardboard Danish for you – a connoisseur of Konditorier

the Fred Astaire of coffee shops, an intellectual athlete of  gustation

Pukkelrygget – hunchback , trousers too short for your palate and genius,

gifts from the gods to counterweight the callipers of your father’s curse

 

Blond men in rough clogs, red doors  in village hamlets

a heron on the wing

Scandinavia slipping intelligently by

a cornucopia of original erudition

your  passionate intuition through windows looking outwards looking in

I see that Kierkegaard must not be read but embraced

like the blue tint of low fjords emerging to frame the wanderlust sky

the Continental drift in your style

 

In the depths of Germany a flayed, ravished woman flashes by,

a nun, ghastly white and roused by loving hatred

Donna Elvira in pursuit of Don Juan

then your stoic Antigone who rejoices in being called to bear witness

your dramatis personae – stations of the cross flashing up

in a torrent of words, the train swaying again, again, again, again

 

So much of what you say has come true, Kierkegaard

the collapse of the church under the scandal of its own hubris

pre-disproving Freud by showing that spiritual angst not sex

is our zeitgeist – the desperate search for the self in a world

where nothingness is a fine art

 

When the German stations stopped  I hopped off

to hear your beloved Mozart

 

Finally in the soft heat and flowers of Florence

I recalled Regine Olsen

your whole life’s work a eulogy to a woman and the ideal of love

Not a philosopher but a Digter – Poet, Author and Thinker.

For you the mystery of the divine was either absurd or a leap of faith

refusing the host and platitudes from a starched priest’s breath

you died well and honourably

joyously writing for eternity

 

 

 

Paul Larkin

Kierkegaard’s vision of heaven

‘For, what is it to be, and to want to be, a sovereign individual?’ – Søren Kierkegaard

This is not about whether you believe in God, or are a Muslim, a Jew, a Hindu, a Buddhist or a Christian. It is primarily about thinking outside the box of human time – something we can all do instinctively. We are benders and shapers of time. In his writings, Søren Kierkegaard often described what we call heaven, or paradise, as ‘eternity’ – evighed in the Danish – and in one of his most profound and stirring passages, he painted a vision of that eternity. The place we have always imagined that is beyond time. A place where the sick are healed and all truth is astonishingly revealed as resting in the embrace of pure love. The heartbeat of all infinity. of all matter beyond time.

Say you are in a dentist’s chair and are one of those unfortunates who dreads such a scenario, or it might be that you sit in a plane and have a terrible fear of flying. Each second before the anaesthetic, sleeping pill or other tranquiliser takes effect feels like an eternity. Time stretches and the scientific fact of each exactly spaced second becomes meaningless. A second can become a century in the flux of human emotion.

Or more attractively, consider how bendy human time becomes for lovers approaching their first kiss, The pregnancy of that coming moment and the drag of anticipation makes a mockery of time. It can suddenly seem to run backwards as the moment nears, then get ahead of itself in the throes of ardour and passion. It is time as we dream it, rather than counting it.

In Stages on Life’s Way, Kierkegaard writes brilliantly on the eternal that lies at the heart of that kiss: “eternity’s aura emblazons this moment”. Don’t bother asking the lovers at what point in time this magic occurred for they will not hear your voice … “but ask out in the wide world in what century this happened, what land, what time of day? Nobody will give an answer, because it is an eternal image.” * Time only enslaves humankind if we let it. We are makers of our own miracles if have enough astonishment left to see and feel them.

Our notion of time in other words is elastic and subjective. If this is the case, what then of the moment of human death?

Roadside warning of a wake in progress -a very common sight in Ireland

In the Irish tradition of the wake – still very strong in our country – the dead person undergoes a passage of time and is ‘waked’ or assisted and accompanied to the other side of time. The passage to the realm of beyond time.

In the Irish language (Gaeilge) one word for death often used at wakes, and in the reporting of a death, is Slí na Firinne – the path of truth. We say that the departing soul is embarked upon the path of truth, or we might say the path of revelation, or full understanding. Complete fulfilment. It is this idea of the passage from time to beyond time that Kierkegaard explores in a remarkable, yet little noted section of, as above, Stages on Life’s Way.

The context for Kierkegaard’s vision of heaven, in this instance, is the question he continually asks himself: will he once again see his beloved Regine Olsen – who married another after he jilted her – in that same beyond time? The second part of Stages on Life’s Way – Guilty Not Guilty is an extended meditation on Kierkegaard’s temporal and eternal relations with her.

Regine Olsen – Kierkegaard’s one and only love

Kierkegaard’s vision of heaven:

Where then will we meet again? In eternity. Time enough then for reconciliation …And if eternity heals all sickness, gives the deaf their hearing, the blind their vision and the lamed their bodily beauty, it will also heal me. And what is my sickness? Depression. And from where does this sickness come? My powers of imagination and the impulsion of the possible. My obsession with these also. But the eternal removes the possible. And wasn’t my depression heavy enough in human time; so much that I not only suffered desperately with it but also felt huge guilt? The lamed must only suffer the pain of being disabled; how terrible it would be if being lame also inflicted great twists of guilt upon them!

Therefore Oh God in heaven – when my time is up, let my last breath be for You and my Soul’s utter fulfilment. But the one prior to that be for her. Or let me for the first time in an age be once more united with her, but for all eternity in that final breath.*

Just like a kiss. A final breath can last for all eternity. In this lies the secret of the Resurrection.

Beannachtaí na Cásca/Easter Greetings from Ireland.

 

Paul Larkin, Carraic, Donegal

Easter 2020

 

*The translations from Kierkegaard’s Stages on Life’s Way are my own interpretations and represent, I believe, some modest pointers to a different way of translating and interpreting Kierkegaard in English.

 

The Irish Times takes me and my novel ‘Éilis from the flats’ seriously – well done.

 

In 1977, Padraic Fiacc – perhaps the greatest urban poet ever to come out of Belfast in our modern times, wrote a remarkable poem called ‘An attempt on his life’ *. Fiacc didn’t just write about the Irish war. For example, he was a great poet of myth, and myth busting also, but he is very much a ‘Troubles’ poet. ‘An attempt on his life’ embraces the savage irony of being a subject of close up state brutality. The almost loving attention of a torturer being preferred to the “Hidebound silences of the others/So slyly passing by with their noses/High up in the cleaner air.”

Of course, I am making no analogy between a torturer and the Irish Times, though the ridiculous ‘Property Section’ can sometimes have that momentary affect on me. Rather, I am highlighting the savage importance for artists of not being ignored. This is especially true of writers who do not mix in literary circles and – like me – literally and metaphorically live and create at the margins of Irish life. Margins, though, can be at the centre of things, or become the centre of things, and I believe that my novel ‘Éilis from the flats’ sounds the depths of the marginalised and gives them new life and hope. Places them at the centre. Or at least, some kind of point where they are anointed with dignity. The Irish Times has accepted the validity of my creation and my artistic vision by choosing to study it in depth. That is a precious gift in the process of discourse that all artists seek.

I will make no comment on the opinions expressed by the reviewer, Joanne Hayden. For that is a sacred contract between the reviewer and the readers who take ‘Éilis from the flats’ into their hands and all parties to that profound literary and social contract must make their own minds up and draw their own conclusions. I was inspired to place a group of characters and life experiences into a particular environment and range of motivations and explore where that would take me. They will take to my stage again as actors in a hexalogy of novels – six books. It is for readers themselves to judge whether I have succeeded artistically; whether I have created a valuable vision from what was not there before – the miracle of art.

For her part, the reviewer does exactly what literary critics are supposed to do. My literary approach is thoroughly assessed and pointers to an underlying style, or set of styles in my case, are analysed; is the narrator omniscient and is he or she the voice of the author; is there one central character, or more than one; are the characters and their worlds believable; can the author craft and plot this story successfully and what is the underlying ‘message’. This latter point provides the opening lines of Joanne Hayden’s review, which can be read here (subscription only I’m afraid):

https://www.irishtimes.com/culture/books/%C3%A9ilis-from-the-flats-powerful-depictions-of-urban-poverty-1.4094254

There will be a number of launch parties Ireland for ‘Éilis from the flats’ and I will give notice of these at a later date.

 

 

 

Paul Larkin

Carraic, Dún na nGall

 

* See for ex ‘An attempt on his life’ – Semper Vacare collection, Padraic Fiacc, Lagan Press, 1999

How I was vanished from my own book

(As we prepare to celebrate the UN’s International Translation Day on September 30th, this article on the – still prevailing – abysmal treatment of literary translators has been sent to three national representatives at the UN: Geraldine Byrne Nason (Ireland); Martin Bille Hermann (Denmark) and Karel van Oosterom (Netherlands). All three countries are relevant to my story and that of other translators.)

How I was vanished from my own book

What I have to say below has nothing to do with my word against somebody else’s. Every important statement that I make is supported by incontrovertible evidence.

If your name is on the front of a book as an author, not only does literary and publishing convention sate that you are the author of that book, the buying public believes the same. This is so obvious that it should not need spelling out, should it?

Here is the book in question:

The above very well produced book – ‘Fraternité Avant Tout – containing my translations of world renowned Danish painter Asger Jorn’s essays on art and architecture was published in 2011 by ‘010, Rotterdam’. As is clear, my name and that of my co-author Ruth Baumeister are on the front of the book. The same goes for the inside cover page:

 

That red mark you see on Le Corbusier’s open hand sculpture in the two-sheet cover page is the designer’s mark up (in Dutch), in readiness for the actual printing of the book. It tells the printer that the image is to be free standing. Some readers will be aware that ‘Le Corb’ designed this hand to express: “the hand to give and the hand to take; peace and prosperity, and the unity of mankind.” It is a fitting symbol for the beginning of a book about Fraternité. The socialist Asger Jorn would have approved, despite his subsequent fall out with Le Corbusier.

The reason why I have a mark-up copy of our book is that I was the one who proofed and corrected the whole book, except for the introduction which I was never shown and never saw until I got a physical copy of the book in May 2011. We shall return to the question of the book’s ‘missing’ introduction shortly.

Thus, dear readers, it is clear that I was co-author of the book ‘Fraternité Avant Tout’ and we have seen just a small bit of the compelling evidence for my intimate involvement with it. This involvement represents the guts of five years of my life. But to remove any remaining doubt on the question of my co-authorship of ‘Fraternité Avant Tout’ let us look at the publisher’s 2010/2011 catalogue where our book features prominently, as you would expect:

It may be difficult for some readers to see, but the writing in red below the book’s title names Paul Larkin alongside Ruth Baumeister as the ‘editors’ of ‘Fraternité Avant Tout’. Let us have a look at this in close up:

 

I was perfectly happy, and am still happy, to be described as translator of the book, but my broader editorial role is clear and was important. The editorial role of translators is often ignored or misunderstood. There was also a laborious element to that editorial work because the book features scores of graphic images and captions, which I copied – one by one – from the original essays and pasted into caption documents, so as to make our translated essays as much of a mirror image of the originals as possible. Here is just one page from our book, in this case my/Jorn’s essay – ‘Yin/Yang- The dialectical materialist philosophy of life.

Snake decoration – Swedish Bronze Age rock carving

I estimate that I spent at least six months on the captions alone. Another important aspect of the above publisher’s catalogue is that it mentions a jointly written introduction by the editors.

Before we come to the huge turn in this story – which you all feel looming – let me stress that my co-author Ruth Baumeister, to whom I bear no personal ill-will and who is now an internationally known academic, also did a huge amount of work on our book and, within her own fields of expertise as an art historian and architect at least, she is extremely adept.

It’s also important to stress that I regard, and will always regard, Ruth Baumeister as the co-author of a very fine book we created together about and ‘of’ Asger Jorn.

Though she completed her 2009 PhD on Asger Jorn in the Netherlands, at Delft University, she is now a professor at Aarhus School of Architecture in Jutland, Denmark. Needless to say our book helped her career as a Jorn expert and raised her academic esteem generally. The book should also, and equally, have given your author a much higher profile in Jorn studies. But didn’t.

Professor Baumeister wrote to me on the 2nd April 2010 in order to get our lines right about our joint authorship and our joint introduction. This is what she said:

(Please bear in mind that English is not her first language)

“Since for quite some time we are talking about ‘our’ book, I was assuming that we co-author also the intro. The other day, in an e-mail, you were talking about a “short translator’s introduction”. My understanding was that in terms of translation, your part is 80% and mine is 20% and in terms of the intro, the other way around and this would finally make “our” book, please correct me if I am wrong. ……There is no immediate hurry, I just wanted to make it clear so that we do not suffer from misunderstandings as we go on the way.”

I was happy with this; not least because Ruth Baumeister wanted to make sure there would be no misunderstandings in the future about our co-authorship. In terms of our joint introduction, I simply wanted to make some references to Asger Jorn’s passionate interest in Nordic myth and identity, and also his interest in Kierkegaard and what we might call artistic spirituality. I submitted the galley proofs early in 2011 and the book was sent to the printer. I then looked forward to seeing the printed version of ‘Fraternité Avant Tout’ in early April 2011.

But I then got a mail from Ruth Baumeister on the 22nd of February 2011 telling me that my part of our introduction had not been included in the finished book:

I just delivered the intro myself and looking back at how it went now, I must admit that it was pretty naive on my end to ask you to do this together. And yet, I did so but unfortunately did not keep my promise for this one and I want to apologise to you for it. I am sorry for this and it was certainly not the correct procedure how I did it.

Hope you will survive this mail.

Needless to say I took a deep breath. But then decided not to make a big issue about the introduction. Overall, I was still very pleased with the book, as was the Danish Arts Council, which had partially funded our book. It was, however, an omen which in hindsight I should have noted. For if a big deep breath was required by me over my precious Fraternité book in 2011, I have never recovered from what happened next, in 2016.

It wasn’t until 2016 that I learned that, in 2014, my co-author had published a commercial version of her 2009 PhD and that this contained thousands of words from my translations in our Fraternité book and thousands more again in paraphrasing. I wasn’t told about this book prior to publication and my permission was not sought for the use of my translations. Nor was I credited as co-author of ‘Fraternité Avant Tout’. Furthermore, I was not paid for the extensive use of my work. I am not even thanked in the book. I am simply vanished.

Is this really the way the publishing of University PhDs works? I asked my astounded self.

It so happened that I knew a lot about Ruth Baumeister’s 2009 PhD from Delft University, because I had happily given Prof. Baumeister, and thereby Delft University’s Urban Architecture department, free use of two of my essay translations. One from Danish and one from Swedish. These were included in full in Ruth Baumeister’s 2009 PhD.

In that same 2009 PhD, which is in German, my co-author praises me to the heavens and tells the world that we are working together on a coming anthology of Asger Jorn’s essays

“(Note 76) Letztere sind Teil der Anthologie von Jorns Texten zur Architektur in englischer Übersetzung, die ich gegenwärtig zusammen mit Paul Larkin erarbeite.”

Translation:

“This latter forms part of an anthology of Jorn’s essays on architecture in English translation on which I’m presently working in collaboration with Paul Larkin.”

 

Yes we wrote a book together. That ‘anthology’, that book, is the book that came to be called ‘Fraternité Avant Tout’.

Now look at this picture of my translation of Asger Jorn’s essay ‘Dreams and Reality’ as it appears in our 2011 book ‘Fraternité Avant Tout’:

The above essay is quoted (several times) in my co-author’s 2014 book, but look at the footnote reference for the quote:

Jorn, Dreams and Reality, part 1 (1948), in Baumeister (ed). Fraternité Avant Tout.

As is immediately obvious, my name is no longer there.

It’s worth reproducing the text, my text, to which this footnote in the 2014 book refers, not just for its beauty, but precisely because your author translated it from the original Danish:

“When le Corbusier says that a machine-turned sphere is more beautiful and complete than an apple, this is due to the very fact that he does not understand that the beautiful and complete is what lives; the thing that exists as part of life. He does not understand that the very same stalk which breaks the apple’s perfect spherical shape, or geometry, is also the umbilical cord that binds it to the material world, to the universe. This same principle also applies to the door of a house, the stairs and passageways. It is this that is the most significant point. For it is this that links the house to the world around it, makes it an element of the social and urbanist whole, which in turn is nothing more than an element of the universal whole. It is precisely for this reason that the perfect and complete is to be found in the fragmentary, the open; objects that are organically linked with other living elements.”

We now also understand that whilst my name has been removed from the credit for the book from which the above text came, the text itself, my text, has been used extensively.

There was worse to come. Not only has my name as co-author and translator for the above quote been removed at this place, it has been removed hundreds of times in the 2014 book, for hundreds of quotes. In a book of, I estimate, around sixty five thousand words, the number of words used from my texts is over four thousand and that’s not counting paraphrasing. Again, it is a book in which I am not even paid or thanked for suffering the indignity of being ‘rifled’ and having my name as author removed at the same time.

If readers want to gauge my shock when I read this 2014 book for the first time, we can simply take the footnote references for the same page (page 71) as the above quote, with five of my essays quoted across pages 70 and 71, all with my name removed:

On pages 70 and 71 alone in this commercial PhD there are 424 of my words and that’s not counting the paraphrasing of my translations.

In total, right across this 2014 book by Professor Baumeister, seventeen of my finely crafted and beautifully written essays are quoted, paraphrased and cited, often at length as we have seen above and my name has been deliberately detached from all of them. Five years of my life as a translator, author and artist vanished. My essays chopped up and used in ways I would never have agreed to, if I had been given the chance to decide – as per copyright law.

Copyright law and academic practice also state that, where permission is not sought, an author may only quote a restricted amount from another person’s work and, even then, the relevant author must be credited. We have already seen the massive scale of my work used in the 2014 book and the absence of crediting.

So what exactly was this 2014 book – see picture above – that contains so much of my work without my permission? Again for the sake of clarity, it is an exquisitely produced commercial version of my co-author Ruth Baumeister’s 2009 Asger Jorn PhD from Delft University – entitled ‘L’architecture Sauvage’. The publisher was ‘Nai010’ of Rotterdam, which is a sister publisher to our original book’s publisher ‘010 Rotterdam’. What a shame I wasn’t invited to my own party, apart from a ‘fig leaf’ passing mention of my name at the head of the chapters that contain scores of my fine translations. How tacky.

According to the publisher of the 2014 book, Professor Baumeister has signed a contract with them claiming ownership of all the contents of the above book, ownership therefore of all of my essays. Ownership of me.

So by 2014, I was disappeared as author of ‘Fraternité Avant Tout’, but by September 2019 – literally just weeks ago – my co-author is to be found publicly describing our jointly written book in a quality Danish newspaper as: “the book I wrote in 2011.” I am not even history. I am not even toast. I’m just erased. As is any notion of Fraternité.

The Danish newspaper which raised my case recently is called Kristeligt Dagblad, which despite its ‘Christian’ title is seen as one of the most culturally sophisticated publications in Denmark. Kristeligt Dagblad is a really excellent non-sectarian (in the religious Irish sense) newspaper and has a broad, discerning and growing readership.

Though behind a paywall and therefore subject to copyright, the two articles in ‘KD’ can be – partially at least – read here, if you have Danish, or if you are just curious to see the headlines:

https://www.kristeligt-dagblad.dk/kultur/et-taet-intellektuelt-samarbejde-er-endt-i-trusler-om-retssag

Translation: A close intellectual collaboration on Asger Jorn has ended in threats of legal action-

https://www.kristeligt-dagblad.dk/danmark/asger-jorn-er-midtpunkt-i-juridisk-strid-om-ophavsret

Translation: Asger Jorn at the centre of a copyright dispute

The articles were published after Kristeligt Dagblad learned that I had approached a well known and highly respected Belfast human rights lawyer, Niall Murphy of KRW Law, to help me restore my artistic name and dignity.

One of the striking things about these newspaper articles, which caused quite a stir in Denmark, is that Professor Baumeister refused to respond to the points put to her by the newspaper. Only when the articles were published did she finally reply with a response that was published several days later. Rather unusually, the newspaper gives a response to Baumeister at the bottom of her letter, pointing out that she had refused to answer the specific points put to her, despite being given ample time to respond.

Professor Baumeister’s short letter is astonishing and does her no favours. She says, for example, that we have no joint copyright contract for a book.

Here is the wording of our 2009 joint copyright contract, which clearly refers to the production of a book and the shared royalties on “the public sale of the work”, though at that point our book had a different working title.

Professor Baumeister’s letter to Kristeligt Dagblad also states that she alone is the author of ‘Fraternité Avant Tout’. That she still felt able, considering the irrefutable evidence above, to make this statement after reading the newspaper articles is some feat. Not least because one of the articles also makes clear that the Jorn Museum’s own website describes me as the co-author of ‘Fraternité Avant Tout’, along with Professor Baumeister and Asger Jorn as the originator:

https://www.museumjorn.dk/en/visit/webshop/product-presentation/?AjrDcmntId=1172

Moreover, the newspaper revealed that it was none other than Professor Baumeister herself who had confirmed our co-authorship to that very same Jorn Museum back in 2010. Here is her email to me in May 2010 confirming. not only that everybody at the Jorn Museum, and certain Jorn experts, were delighted with my translations but also that we are co-authors of our book:

4th of May, 2010

“… (they said) you really succeeded in bringing over Jorn’s irony and translating the special character and sometimes twisted character of his writings … I made it very clear that we are both authoring this book.”

So, just as with Professor Baumeister’s confirmation of our co-authorship – “our book” -n April 2010, which we have seen earlier when discussing our joint introduction, the very next month Professor Baumeister is found to be again making clear that I was the co-author of the book which bears my name on its cover. In fact in 2011, on the eve of ‘010 Rotterdam’ publishing our book, Baumeister made clear that we are the contracted authors and that we – both of us – licensed Fraternité Avant Tout to the publishers.

8th February 2011

“As we have described in our contract, we have the copyrights on the translations, which is the normal situation at 010 as with any other serious publisher. At the same time, now that the book will be published with 010, we give them the license to publish the material. This license will expire 2 years after the book is sold out and 010 has, on written request by us, no intention to publish a next edition.”

No joint copyright contract? No co-authorship? Deary me. The facts and Professor Baumeister’s own copious testimony speak for themselves.

But let us be clear about the literary and social dynamics that are at play here. My co-author badly needed something she didn’t have – without my permission – which was a set of priceless, never before translated, essays that unravel and illustrate Asger Jorn’s most complex and profound thoughts, and rather than admitting my expertise and the need of my help, she simply took them and used them to help fill up her book. The word for that in English is plagiarism. She has been able to get away with this behaviour because she is fully aware that I am not a man of means and that the Universities to which she is attached in the Netherlands and Denmark – which both have grand mission statements about ‘reaching out’ and the sacredness of learning – say it’s nothing to do with them.

At all times through this nightmare, I have simply asked for an apology, an admission that a ‘mistake’ was made, and a correction of the crediting error. A thank you note and the gracious gesture of a payment for the use of my work might also help. Translators being respected, credited and paid properly for their work? Whatever next?

Yet a high profile academic can simply ignore my – three year long – reasonable attempts at coming to a settlement; something she also freely admits in the letter referred to above, in which she accuses me of harassment for having the temerity to raise these issues. How very dare I? She has also ignored solicitor Niall Murphy’s attempts at correspondence, but responded to a newspaper immediately once this scandal went public.

Would she have ignored such missives from a famous, celebrity academic? Would she even have contemplated using a celebrity’s work without permission? Would such industrial scale purloinment of another artist’s finely wrought works of art have happened to a well connected middle class author/academic/celebrity with influence and friends in high places across the literary and university spectrum? Not a chance.

So there we have it on this day for translators – ‘ITD’ (International Translation Day). A day devised by the UN to celebrate the vital cultural mediation and exchange role of translators. Or as UNESCO has put it: “… ITD highlights the role of translation in promoting an understanding of the intangible cultural heritage of others in order to encourage mutual respect in our changing world.”

Mutual respect? In all of the above, there has been zero respect shown to translators.

Weyland the blacksmith – fire walk with me …

Though you wouldn’t know it from studying most Jorn books, Asger Jorn had an abiding interest in the peasant legend of Weyland the blacksmith. Weyland, or Vølund in the Danish, was so good at his craft that the elite of bygone days cut his leg tendons so as to hobble him for life and curtail his flight. To vanish him if you like. Weyland is of course also Hephaestus or Vulcanus. He is even Oedipus – the deliberately crippled Οἰδίπους (Swollen Foot).

Jorn loved the Weyland legend, not just because – like the original Danish ‘Amled’ (Hamlet) story – it depicts the brilliant artistry of the common man (and woman), it also speaks of a peasant belief that though the elite may hobble you, a natural justice will always prevail in the end.

My interests in Asger Jorn explore his own deep engagement with questions of spirituality, Kierkegaard, Danish and Nordic identity and artistic materialism. How that individual artistic freedom can be married to social concerns also. A perfect alternative look at the current ‘hygge’ zeitgeist and comfy coffee table books, one would have thought.

As Jorn things stand, I don’t even have a name, let alone an identity.

 

But, with the help of good, ‘common’ people, that will change.

 

 

Paul Larkin

 

Carraic, Derrybeg, County Donegal

The Danish folk tale background to my 2019 novel, Éilis From the Flats, part of ‘The Good Friday Sting’ series

 

‘Éilis’ – inspired by Danish author Steen Steensen Blicher’s folk tale –
Hosekræmmeren/The Stocking Merchant

After an unavoidable delay, American/Irish publisher Dalkey Archive Press will be publishing my novel Éilis from the Flats in August of this year in readiness for a full launch programme this autumn.

See https://www.amazon.com/Eilis-Flats-Paul-Larkin/dp/1628972769

I began throwing out shapes for this novel a long time ago. I even once pinched a BBC film crew and, using real film stock, directed a short period piece with the now world famous Eva Birthistle as ‘Éilis’.

Éilis from the Flats is partly based on the 19th Century Danish story Hosekræmmeren (The Stocking Merchant) by Steen Steensen Blicher, which was published in 1826. I actually translated – was impelled to translate – Hosekræmmeren as soon as I read it. This very short but incredibly powerful story about a young woman living with her parents on a wild heath and driven mad, as I read it, by greedy parents and social circumstances has gripped me ever since my days in the Danish merchant navy. In particular, it’s the idea that parents would sell their own child that haunts me and this is a central scene in my modern day version in which Blicher’s Cecil (Cecelia) becomes Éilis from north-side Dublin tenements (‘flats’ being another term for tenements). The drawing above, by Robert Jensen, depicts Cecil refusing the banns for her marriage to a wealthy landowner. In my version, Éilis is sold to a drug dealer. For me, the modern version is even more haunting, if possible. But then I go back to the original and think not.

In my book of life, there are bad people and a lot of very good people and then people who waver in between. These are just some of the ways in which my novel, and indeed all of my writing, tends to differ from some of the more popular novelists, particularly in a place like Ireland where many writers have surprisingly little interest in folk tales or folk culture and have, in my view, a very cynical view of human nature. Though they are good and sometimes great writers; in their world, nobody is honourable or happy, and to be proud of, or fight for one’s culture is – bizarrely in a post-colonial country like ours – seen as inherently conservative; everybody is tainted; everybody has issues. All families are at loggerheads and seem to carry dark secrets. Therefore, for these doom merchants, the classic postmodern hero in fiction has to be a stoic for enduring such misery. It’s like Greek myths, but without the grand vision, the catharsis or the craic. And no gods or ambrosia, to boot. I would exclude Sebastian Barry from this category and – though he is the guru of the miserabilists – Colm Tóibín. Almost despite themselves, these two superb writers instinctively divine the spiritual in all of us, even as they stare into the abyss of unbelief. Patricia Highsmith does the same.

Think it’s a block of flats? No, a block of books
The brilliant work of Voluspa Jarpa –
his first name a beautiful confluence with the Norse Vøluspá

Maybe it’s just that I was always, even when young, an old fogey with a romantic streak but ‘tales of the pessimistic’ don’t do it for me. For, despite the fact that I had what many would say is a tough upbringing, permanent misery is not my experience of life, and I’ve been lucky enough to live a full and interesting existence. Of course people have problems and of course there are bad people, but that is not the true essence of humankind. Most humans I’ve ever met are curious and interested – inter – est. And if I’m right, then fiction, or my fiction at least and the fiction I hold dear, will emerge from the heroic task of doing good or trying to be good and often failing. Of maintaining inter – est. Stories also of people who, at key turns in their lives, try and do the right thing. Take a writer like Cormac McCarthy, who clearly views natural forces as implacable. They are just there. And then there are human beings who exploit their power to, say, torture a wolf (The Crossing) or drag the world to near destruction (The Road). Well, Billy Parham failed in the end but at that moment when he turns to go back into the dog fighting pit for his wolf … nobody can tell me that he is not a hero, or not trying to do the right thing. At the end of the utterly bleak Road, meanwhile, is the possibility of redemption. We move into myth – very like the Norse Vøluspá that tells of Ragnarök and a possible bright dawn to come. Possibly …

It is humankind that must decide. It is humankind that creates the beauty in Nature’s implacable neutrality. We do art because it’s not there and Nature doesn’t care less, unlike God. The God we humans create, or feel, to mediate the unknowable that is the Love we feel for each other and some beating vibration there in that otherwise implacable ether. It is humankind that tells stories. It is humankind that makes fictional characters real – they are as real as any living person. As real as an artist’s tree, which is essence of tree. More tree than the tree.

Then there are characters who inexplicably change from good to bad and then back again – probably most of us, but always wishing they could be better.

In my dreamspace, there is magic, myth and horror
and heroes in the meanest of places

I believe it was inevitable, I mean it was meant to be, that Dalkey Archive Press would publish Éilis from the Flats. Its proprietor John O’Brien has the philosophy of using the benchmark of talent, along with a certain cussedness or oblique eye, to decide whether he wants to publish something or not. Though by no means a slick, upmarket publisher – quite the reverse in fact – Dalkey is an outstanding imprint with a track record for not only defending and encouraging diversity in literature but also making fiction in translation a central part of its raison d’être. I am already a Dalkey translator. Therefore I am doubly and extremely proud to be one of Dalkey’s fiction authors.

Moreover, I am highly influenced by North American writers. I write, primarily, because I enjoy it and it was William Faulkner who encouraged me to do that. His flow of words – his amaze and unamaze and suspiration of words, that sometimes happen to him in the flux of writing, exhilarates me, because it’s beyond the rational, but makes perfect sense. This kind of writing takes a lot of self-confidence, though. Not just in your ability to write, but also in your convictions as an artist. The confidence to write what you want and stand by it, though the levees breach …

Faulkner was steeped in the Deep South of the USA and innately understood its passion. The lives of the whites and the blacks and their rhythm of being in the world. In that sense, the Glasgow writer James Kelman is very like him. He exudes a deep and wise sense of place and it is there both writers get their depth and confidence to write in their own voice, or voices. That sense of engagement and, God forbid, fun even in the midst of trauma and mayhem bounces off the page. Their empathy with people is also an important part of that sense of place – including what are now called ‘damaged people’. Herman Melville is also a master of empathy but he has a much bigger social vision than Faulkner, in that he wants to sound the depths of the whole world and the philosophy of our very existence, as with Moby Dick, rather than just the ‘Deep South’ of Faulkner. Like me, Melville was himself a mariner and worker, and also a journalist of sorts, frequently devoting long asides to the facts of whaling for example, or flogging at sea – an iniquity he helped to get stopped.

So it is with this idea of fiction as embracing the world: as journalism, reportage and news from the streets, as a folk tale, that I find myself drawn and is an inspiration for Éilis from the Flats and the ‘Good Friday Sting’ series. It’s very much a 19th Century idea, not just from Melville, but also Dickens and Dostoevsky – probing human nature and the human condition amongst ‘peasants’ and the lower classes, then bringing people together to have a huge row. That in essence is what Jane Austen and George Elliot also do in their own social milieu. My recently published translation of Danish writer Henrik Pontoppidan’s classic – A Fortunate Man – is another good example of polemical, polyphonic, yet gripping, literature that has a proper story. A beginning, a middle and an end.

But before all this starts sounding like a programmatic set of bricks that I’m going to lay down one after the other, let me report that I haven’t a clue what’s going to happen with my characters. I just have a vague idea of how things might end. What the young journalist James Tierney does in Éilis for example bewilders me and annoys me sometimes. I did not, and do not, want him to have a relationship with Ronagh Durkin in their world. But as I wrote, his character pushed my narrative down a particular road. Similarly my vision was for the young Adonis, Finn Dempsey, to be much more prominent, maybe even come to the rescue, but his character became more complex and less prominent – that is how fiction works.

I should probably stress that Dalkey has thus far only pledged to publish the first book. Let’s see if I can make Éilis so successful that the next one – Fifth Column – can follow quickly.

I believe Éilis From the Flats will be read by a lot of people who don’t tend to read ‘highfalutin’ novels. I have already had some notice of this. It is for those people that I write, as much as for myself, because they are my people – the place I am. They give me my voice and I, in turn, know their voices. We are what Melville called the “mariners, renegades and castaways”. The scum of the earth.

I will give more details of official launch dates for Éilis From the Flats as the autumn/fall approaches.

 

The Bayeux Tapestry (1070s)

Ordinary folk have done stories since time immemorial – we know how to do it.

 

 

 

 

 

@ Paul Larkin
Carraic
Gaoth Dobhair
Mí an Mheithimh, 2019

The infallible human artist test

Kierkegaard taking his daily menneskebad – a people bath *

If you were there, or saw the above scene at a gallery or in a movie, you might not remember the date, time or even exact place, but you will forever recollect the scene. Bring it to life again and again as it returns to you.

Do you ‘remember’, or do you ‘recollect’ something? Actually all human beings do both. Unless of course they fall victim to bouts of amnesia or aggressive forms of senility. Our profound ability to remember and recollect vast amounts of information is one of the precious gifts that all humans have. But equally profound is the difference between re-membering and re-collecting something. Don’t try and think about this difference too hard. Just feel it. Yes, you re-member a certain date for a particular reason, or the name of a distant aunt, but you re-collect (gather up again) a scene on that date, or scenes in which your aunt featured.

Thus, once you move beyond remembering the fact that your far flung aunt was called Matilda, you begin to re-collect Matilda. Even if you never met her, you will make efforts to conjure a scene about her; piece together things that people told you so as to conjure a Matilda Movie or maybe a Matilda soundscape. Or both. You are in fact being the artist you innately are. Don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t do art. Humans recollect: create scenarios and populate them all the time. And this means you innately understand and can recall moods, atmospheres, colours, smells, emotions, things or people and their features and characteristics. No human is without this gift. It is this gift that leads us to dream.

Your powers of recollection are infallible proof that you are an artist. But don’t just take my word for that, listen to the beautiful words of my guiding light and great mentor Søren Kierkegaard:

Hukommelsen er umiddelbar og kommes umiddelbart tilhjælp, Erindringen kun reflecteret. Derfor er det en Kunst at erindre.

Remembering something is immediate and is there to help in an instant. Recollection is utter reflection. Thus to recollect is an art form.

(The author’s own translation and interpretation)

Stadier på livets vej – Stages on life’s way **

 

I don’t know where Kierkegaard gets this reputation of being perennially doom and gloom. For in his book Stages on life’s way (Stadier på livets vej in the original Danish), he writes some of the most inspiring, heartening and ‘loving-of-people’ words I have ever read. I suppose it’s because in this tabloid, quick-fix age, there is the problem that he has to be read deeply and several times over. The culture now seems to be – read a book and then never go near it again. Great thinker-writers like George Steiner and Michael Ondaatje have championed the cause of deep reading and the re-reading of the same book to discover its true beauty and significance. Deep reading of books also requires silence or relative quiet, which is hard to come by these days.

I also wonder whether Kierkegaard is being translated into English correctly. Or rather, I think he has often been translated correctly but not so as to reflect the underlying meaning in what he says and impart that to a modern age. I am personally, I admit, a champion of rewriting a book in its new language. The success of my A Fortunate Man (Henrik Pontoppidan’s Lykke Per) shows why, I think.

A facsimile of the original text of Stages on life’s way, showing the start proper – In Vino Veritas – Pre-recollection. The first paragraph contains the lines: “forgetting is the curtain that is closed; recollection the Vestal Virgin that delves behind that curtain.”

Stages on life’s way is a continuation of Either/Or. But with Kierkegaard this time trying, in my view, to work out how he will ever get his beloved Regine back now that she’s rejected a lifelong platonic relationship with him and gone and married another man. Part of his answer lies in recollection – or recall if you like – and what’s fascinating for me is that Kierkegaard says that recollection is only present if it’s a happy recall. Once we begin recalling nasty events, we zoom in on the horrible details and are back in the realm of immediate memory – remembering.

Take homesickness, as Kierkegaard does. A negative thing when you concentrate on the detail. But when you are back home and conjure that feeling of longing for home, which you felt whilst away, you not only conjure an illusion, you artistically create that illusion as a scene and all their emotions and placements until they feel right. It is a sublime feeling. To envisage homesickness once you are back home is art creation. You have created an ideal and it took quite a bit of effort. And as a work of art, it is always there. We are in the realm of the immortal and spiritual. There is nothing physical about it until it’s brought from behind the curtain again. As Kierkegaard says, try and throw away a recollection and, like Thor’s hammer, it will just come back at you – eventually.

It is for this reason that we venerate old people. Old people lose the memory of detail – it becomes shaky – but their recall of scenes in their lives is vivid and those scenes carried the scent of the humanly experienced before they were preserved and corked in the memory. The old amongst us sound the well of eternity as they delve to recollect and they are known as wise and possessing this eternal gift. The child on the other hand carries eternity within it but, as yet, has no real recollection.

A Catholic procession near my old school in Salford – we are all artists and art is everywhere.

Growing up in a poverty stricken part of Manchester – actually Salford to which Manchester is near – with many of us of Irish immigrant stock, there was little talk of innate artistic propensities. The fact of us as human artists. Quite the reverse. But Kierkegaard told every one of us many many years ago in his beautiful text, Stages on life’s’ way, that we are all great artists. All we need do is re-collect all those scenes and moments as the artistic beings we are. We are the soul’s movie makers.

 

 

 

Paul Larkin

Gaoth Dobhair

Mí Bealtaine 2019

 

* I was unable to find the source of this image, so if any readers are aware of it, please let me know so that I can credit the creator.

** Cover of my Kierkegaard colleague Niels Cappelørn’s edition of ‘Stadier pa livets vej’ – Stages on life’s’ way (Niels’ book is in Danish only as far as I know).

Haruki Murakami, Kierkegaard, Christmas and the Winter Sun-Shift

Haruki Murakami, Kierkegaard, Christmas  and the Winter Sun-Shift

 

Haruki Murakami – A worker bee

 

Magic realism is supposed to be Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami’s forte, yet he is in fact closer to a worker bee, as we shall see. But a worker that can suddenly and miraculously transform our world into a range of astonishing phenomena. Just like bees. The Danish thinker and writer Søren Kierkegaard, meanwhile, is supposed to be a depressing, dour we may as well all slash our wrists right now this minute Germanic Lutheran, but is in fact very often hilarious. Just like the Danes.

‘Merry Christmas’ the postcard says – yes, these are those ‘dour’ Danes …

 

Never judge authors, or indeed races of people, by oft repeated shibboleths about them. Both of these brilliant writers are far more complex and surprising than their typical rubrics would indicate. They also have far more in common than has ever been remarked upon, as far as I know. In my long experience as a writer and reader, fiction authors and writers are often the best thinkers and philosophers. A lot less boring usually, also.

A spaghetti pot – mundane or magic? Or both!

With Murakami  and Kierkegaard, their mutual magic is, ironically we feel, to be found in the commonplace, because that’s the only place human astonishment can begin. Astonishment starts with an ordinary thing and ends in transcendence. In this I seem to stand Kant and other philosophers on their heads, as they think the sublime must be something very rare. But it is we humans who impart material things like paintings, toothbrushes, music and poems with magic. Astonishment is Christmas to which we impart specialness with those daft hats, tinkling bells and tinsel and the lowly babe in the refugee camp manger. Magic. Our better selves. The sublime. Humans are magic incarnate. There are of course other miracles at that manger if we dream it to be so.

Christmas and the winter Sun-Shift are upon us. They never fail to excite me and gladden my heart. Every year. And there’s an ancient reason for that.

 

The modern age’s ‘wine to water’ miracle – dumbing down to ‘facts’.

 

The modern age, Kierkegaard once said, has managed the strange miracle of turning wine into water. Very funny but also very profound. It is a crucial point. For though I’ve just said that astonishing things come from the commonplace, that is not to glorify the commonplace but to go back into it and feel the miracle there. That added ingredient of human magic again. To imagine water, if you like, into becoming wine. To write or paint water into wine. To raise water to the level of magic – ‘the wine dark sea’ of Homer or the Norse ‘Swan Plain’ (a lake). The modern age does the opposite of this, straining everything down into a pot of alleged ‘facts’. The Science of less is more. More water. Far less wine. I must have been born to be a thinker because like Kierkegaard  I always wondered why we couldn’t have both. More wine. More Water. More magic. Why would anyone object to magic?

 

On the surface at least, Haruki Murakami does often appear prosaic and deadpan in his writing. As if he’s having a chat with his readers – dialogue with readers being his intention. So the phone rings as he’s cooking. Terrific! It’s the start of the ‘Wind Up Bird Chronicle’ and the hero ‘Toru’ is boiling spaghetti. We get all the social realist stuff; the detailed list of what’s in the kitchen – that the pasta is spaghetti, that it’s boiling on a gas ring, the radio is playing music and the phone starts to ring. I’m not a great fan of social inventories in literature but Murakami manages to weave a fascinating sociology – a sort of print out of the fabric of Japan – into a set of beguiling mysteries and weird occurrences. Having been to Japan and having practised its martial arts and worshipped some of its film makers, his ‘Bird’ chronicle is like the whole of Japan in all its rigid formality and flamboyance captured in one single book. Then, with a final look back at the spaghetti, Toru finally answers the phone  and the weirdness begins. Murakami is like a book version of David Lynch. It is an extraordinary experience – like exactly where is this bird or birds that are frequently referred to? It is at once a statue in a garden, a night bird and a dawn chorus.

But Murakami also does funny. Take this from his ontological (about life) memoir about running, ‘What I talk about when I talk about running’ – in this case competing in a triathlon. In one passage, Murakami has to abruptly move from swimming frantically in the sea to pedalling furiously on a bike: “you feel like a salamander that’s developed overnight into an ostrich.”

Well … we see how he can take natural science and play with it. More is more. Darwin meets the miracle of human art.

Life-changing humour is one of the places where Kierkegaard and Murakami meet and there is another, just as important, shared trait – the existential choice. What to do with your life.

 

Very early in his journals, the diaries he kept throughout his life, Kierkegaard asks what is it – this thing, this idea – for which he would could live and die? This motif runs across all of Murakami’s books, or at least the ones I’ve read. When we are a good bit into his Bird chronicle book, the unemployed Toru says “I don’t have an image of the one thing I really want to do.” It’s Kierkegaard’s leap again and it stems, must stem, from a period of doubt. Depression even. Depression is normal. Anxiety is the dizziness of freedom, said Kierkegaard. Toru retreats into a well.  Just as Murakami does in his running book. Just as Kierkegaard did with his tungsind – his heavy mind. Looking deep down into their own subjective, psychological, deep wells. We can only ever grasp life if we first grasp ourselves.

Towards the end of ‘What I talk about when I talk about running,’  which title is  in itself a homage to another writer saint, another Knight of Resignation – Raymond Carver – Murakami gives an extraordinary description of what he initially calls ‘Runners Blues’. After completing an Extreme Marathon of over 60 miles, he falls into what he describes as “resignation”. He becomes more introspective and says “you might even call it a philosophical or religious” mental state. In fact, it becomes clear that the whole book is at least partly a product of this depression, these ‘Runners Blues’ and Murakami’s emergence on the other side of them. And what does he emerge to? Well in typical documentary Murakami style, he says that all that running and in particular his later change to triathlons may well have been like “pouring water into an old pan that has a hole in it” but, and it’s a big existential but, he goes on to say that “what’s most important is what you can’t see but can feel in your heart.” And so he decides he will  keep on running. Keep on greeting other runners. Keep on trying. We are right back with Kierkegaard. Murakami-san is talking just as much about writing and creating art here as he is about running. You have to feel it in your heart before it can move you to artistic creation. You might fail countless times, or feel like a failure, but joy comes from the simple act of trying. Them comes the miracle. The leap that actually does bring you to other side.

What Murakami really wants to do is to write. The running and other forms of sport help him to do that. In other words, he uses physical work to keep his mind and body in great shape to prolong what he really likes doing for as long as possible. Work is exalted. The idea of exertion and effort is exalted. The idea of the body as the temple of the soul, or at the very least as a precious receptacle, a vehicle for profundity, is vibrant. But at the same time, and just as with Kierkegaard, you sense strongly that Murakami really feels for all those people who are not living their life to the full. He writes about and for them because he sees the danger –  the ‘sin’ Kierkegaard would say and he’s right – of not using mind and body at full throttle. For all their mutual weirdness, they are full of empathy.

Walk, run, keep moving and engaging, to keep your creativity sharp

In essence, I feel what really unites Kierkegaard and Murakami is their sense of duty to their art and their craft. That includes physical exertion – walk, run yourself through that wall that brings you to inspiration at the other side of physical exertion. That they devote long hours to walking the town as Kierkegaard did – his daily ‘people bath’ –  or running marathons in Murakami’s case, is to pay  homage, to hone and polish their artistic selves. They are both Knights of Persistent Art but they understand the significance of this in both its negative and positive spheres. This negative artistic sphere is the knowledge that you are a Knight of Infinite Resignation as Kierkegaard put it. This means that you are no saint who can do miracles by the simple act of being. Unlike Knights of Faith who cure the sick, part the seas at will, or conjure the birds from the trees, with a wave of  their hands, the artistic Knight of Resignation must paint or write miracles into being with not only inspiration but perspiration. In performing this sacred act, they are almost on a par with the Knights of Faith. Through their art of bringing the impossible into being, they attain the highest heights of faith in that higher sphere of life and the soul. These are just other terms for the unknowable but felt God. I don’t care whether you call it a Divinity or the Glory that is in all matter.

As with other great festivals that humans celebrate all over the world, Christmas is not a question of a series of facts, but what you passionately feel in your heart and your art.

I send best wishes to all my many readers for a Happy Christmas and a peaceful, creative New Year.

 

Haruki Murakami as a Knight of Persistent Art

             Maximum Respect

 

 

 

 

 

@Paul Larkin_Nollaig_2018

New York Review of Books reviews ‘A Fortunate Man’

The Danish Tolstoy

 

 

Henrik Pontoppidan rules over the province of Danish letters with a grey-bearded authority akin to Leo Tolstoy’s or Henry James’s. The author of three sweeping epics,Det Fortjættede Land (The Promised Land, 1891–1895), Lykke-Per (A Fortunate Man, 1898–1904), and De Dødes Rige (The Kingdom of the Dead, 1912­–1916), he was awarded the 1917 Nobel Prize for Literature, an honor he shared with his exact contemporary, the now little-read Karl Gjellerup. Ernst Bloch admired him, and Georg Lukács likened his novelistic achievement to Flaubert’s. On the occasion of his seventieth birthday in 1927, Pontoppidan was lauded by Thomas Mann in an open letter to the Danish newspaper Politiken, describing him as “a full-blooded storyteller who scrutinizes our lives and society so intensely that he ranks within the highest class of European writers.” In August, a cinematic adaption of Lykke-Per by the Academy-Award winning director Billie August opened in Danish theaters.

And yet, Pontoppidan’s writing has remained almost entirely unavailable to English-language readers. He has occasionally been invoked as proof of the Swedish Academy’s penchant for giving Nobel Prizes to seemingly obscure minor writers (Adam Gopnik, writing in The New Yorker, once asked: “Who wouldn’t rather be in the company of Proust, Auden, and Nabokov than of Erik Axel Karlfeldt and Henrik Pontoppidan?”), though it’s probably safe to assume that such judgments are not based on any great familiarity with Pontoppidan’s writing. Lykke-Per, his masterpiece, was not published in English until 2010 (in a translation by Naomi Liebowitz titled Lucky-Per), and only then in an academic edition costing a little over $80. At long last, an affordable new translation by the Irish writer and filmmaker Paul Larkin, published by the Danish Museum Tusculanum Press and bearing the more English-friendly title A Fortunate Man, is now available. Though I do not always agree with Larkin’s choices (in particular, regional dialects and Danish colloquialisms are often rendered in a rustic, sometimes archaic English, like something out of Thomas Hardy), it is on the whole an impressive, fluent achievement. It presents the first real opportunity for English-language readers to encounter what the scholar Flemming Behrendt, in his afterword, calls one of the most re-read and talked about novels in Danish literary history.

Published serially between 1898 and 1904, A Fortunate Man offers a vast, fictional panorama of Danish society in an age of social and industrial change and cultural renewal. It is set against the backdrop of a Copenhagen that, in the final decades of the nineteenth century, was transformed into a battleground of struggles between conservatives and progressives, Christians and atheists, the old and the new. The influential critic Georg Brandes gave a series of lectures on modern European literature, championing French naturalism and Darwinian freethinking, that inaugurated the prolific cultural and intellectual flowering known throughout Scandinavia as the Modern Breakthrough, encouraging writers like Ibsen, Strindberg, Hamsun, and Jacobsen. (Brandes appears in A Fortunate Man under the guise of the aesthetician Dr. Nathan.) And while Denmark’s defeat by Bismarck’s Prussian troops in the war of 1864 had instilled a pervasive sense of national humiliation, the feeling that a new and better age was dawning was shared by many. The expansion of the railways, the building of new industries, and the city’s growing working-class neighborhoods led Copenhagen’s population to more than double between 1864 and 1896.

A Fortunate Man tells the story of Per Sidenius, the descendant of a long line of austere clergymen, who revolts against the dogmatic piety of his family home and embarks on the young man’s familiar march on the metropolis, where he intends to seek fame and fortune as an engineer. His great ambition is to build a massive harbor project on Denmark’s west coast that will, he fervently believes, “transform Denmark into an industrial manufacturing power of the first order.” Neglecting his studies at the College of Engineering, Per spends his days and nights in his poky abode, reading up on hydraulics and turbines and making elaborate and detailed drawings.

But even stronger than his belief in the soundness of this project is Per’s belief in his own purpose. Strong and handsome, ambitious and self-absorbed, Per ruthlessly schemes and plots to overcome his poor, provincial origins and conquer the city’s elites: “He knew that his destiny lay far beyond the realm of everyday concerns and mediocrity. He felt the blood of one who was born to rule coursing through his veins and nothing but a place at life’s top table, in the company of the world’s highest freeborn men, was good enough for him.”

A Fortunate Man breathes the excited, tempestuous air of its time, but it often feels strikingly modern. What is Per if not an ancestor of the Silicon Valley positivists of our time? His zealous belief in man’s ability to master nature is hardly distinct from the conviction, common enough among tech gurus today, that mortality is a disease with a cure like any other. And just as our contemporary tech-utopianism is a kind of ersatz religion, so Per’s ambitions are often couched in a language with a distinct theological hangover. Walking through Copenhagen’s streets early one morning, for instance, Per hears the factory horns blowing and stops to listen to them “with the air of a worshipper being called to prayer”:

At first there was just a couple of blasts coming from the direction of Nørrebro, then one started in the docks at Christianshavn; eventually the sound was coming from everywhere—a cock crowing with a thousand voices, an Evangelium for a new age, which one day would drive away all the dark forces of spookery and superstition—never to return!

Per Sidenius’s engineering ambitions are inextricable from his desire to rid himself of the poison of his religious past, and he can sometimes resemble Nietzsche’s Zarathustra, who said that “man is something that must be overcome.” (Indeed, Per’s youthful battle cry is, “I will! Therefore it is done.”) Believing man to be “the master of the earth and absolute ruler,” he views Christianity as an unnatural inversion: “a grotesque kingdom of humpbacked underground trolls who shunned the bright light of life, where the poor were counted as blessed, the meek exalted and death was the only glorious salvation—an upside down land where small things were deemed to be big and the crooked declared to be straight.” For Per, the Christian concepts of guilt, pity, and compassion are little more than a hoax designed to prevent man from reaching his full potential.

Like Jens Peter Jacobsen’s influential novel Niels Lyhne (1880), which Pontoppidan would have read, A Fortunate Man is often intensely atheistic, and testifies to the oppressive influence of Christian fundamentalism on Danish society. Pontoppidan read Nietzsche while at work on the novel and was surely inspired by the German philosopher’s assault both on Christianity and the cult of rationalism. One of the novel’s more memorable characters is the heretical pastor Fjaltring, whose medieval contempt for the liberalizing movement within Christianity is articulated in wonderful, rather belligerent monologues. Like Nietzsche, Fjaltring finds it difficult to reconcile the Old and the New Testaments, and even suggests that one is the travesty of the other. And like that other great religious scold, Søren Kierkegaard, he warns of the difficult passion true faith requires: “But if the man called Jesus was not the son of God, who then can guarantee that Our Lord did not in fact place him amongst us, and allow him to be tortured and suffer an ignominious death, so as to serve as a terrifying example of what true faith requires?”

It is a great credit to Pontoppidan’s imaginative sympathy, though, that his depiction of religious conflict includes the Christian worldview but also that of a minority often targeted by Christians. As strange as it may sound, one of the few vibrant and complex portrayals of Jewish life in the nineteenth-century European novel happens to have been written by this son of a provincial Danish pastor.

When Per’s ambitions are obstructed by his professors and other high-ranking engineers, all of whom dismiss the harbor project as a naïve and youthful fantasy, he finds an ally and supporter in Ivan Salomon, the son of a wealthy Jewish merchant family. It is Ivan who gives Per his nickname—“Hr. Lucky Per! The Fortunate Man personified indeed”—and who grants him entry into the Salomon household and the wider world of Copenhagen’s Jewish bourgeoisie.

More importantly, it is through Ivan that Per meets Jakobe, one of the Salomon daughters, and the novel’s sometime co-protagonist. Though less conventionally attractive than her flirtatious sister Nanny, Jakobe possesses a commanding intellect: she is prodigiously well read, widely traveled, and firmly independent. She is also, from a young age, painfully conscious of the degradation and injustice that Jews encounter everywhere from their Christian neighbors across Europe. In a striking passage, she recalls seeing on a trip to Germany a group of Jewish refugees at Berlin’s main railway station, outcasts fleeing the pogroms in Russia:

All summer long, she had been reading newspaper reports about these legions of refugees and the shameful acts which the mob had visited upon them—either to the indifference of the authorities or even with their outright collusion. The newspapers described how Jewish homes had been set alight with the families still inside; Jewish families had been robbed down to the very clothes they stood in; their women had been violated and abused; old Jews and children alike had been stoned to the point where gutters ran with blood.

The experience in Berlin, and the casual bigotry she finds wherever she goes, incites Jakobe’s hatred of Christianity, which she regards as little more than “a pitiless executioner of her kinsfolk.” In a wonderfully blasphemous letter to Per, Jakobe writes that she would only ever consider a rapprochement with Christian beliefs on the condition that the Church admits its guilt: “The Church must beg forgiveness for its sins. On its knees willing to suffer for the truth—the truth it has suppressed—for injustice, which it has blinded.”

Generations of readers have celebrated Pontoppidan’s moving portrayal of Jakobe, and it is not hard to see why. (I doubt many male novelists have deigned to write about their female characters’s menstrual cycles: “Her natural functions had always been characterized by a marked irregularity.”) Jakobe is the ideal foil for Per, to whom she is eventually (but only briefly) engaged. The vicissitudes of their difficult relationship provide the novel with some of its most memorable scenes: Per showing off his physical prowess by outrunning a horse carriage at the Salomon’s country home, much to the dismay of his future in-laws; or the touchingly intimate days Jakobe and Per spend together hiking in the Alps, days that are like “a new baptism” for Per, who in his excitable, devil-may-care state fires a revolver at a wooden crucifix: “Here’s a shot to herald the dawn of a new century!”

Jakobe’s independence and quiet dignity provide a respite from Per’s coarse manners and sense of entitlement, and the suspicion sometimes arises that she is the novel’s true conscience, its better self. Even as their engagement is broken the narrative seems to expand rather than diverge; it is as if Pontoppidan was so affected by his own creation that, unlike Per, he could not bear to be without Jakobe, whom we never entirely lose sight of.

Still, it is Per Sidenius and his conflicted, beleaguered soul that Pontoppidan plumbs. A proper Bildungsroman, the novel parades its hero through a variety of conflicting influences, from his dogmatic father to the progressive Dr. Nathan, the liberal-minded Pastor Blomberg, and the Nietzschean Fjaltring. Per senses early on a division within himself, an inability, as he puts it, “to be reconciled to a specifically defined life philosophy.” He undergoes a series of moral and religious crises throughout the novel, and even at one point rekindles his interrupted faith and marries the daughter of a provincial pastor, settling down far from the crowded Copenhagen of his youth. But even this quiet life in the country cannot calm Per’s restless soul:

As sure as day followed night, and then night came again; and just as if all life on earth was born out of this dialectic between the dark and the light, so too was religious life conditioned by this inexorable paradox that, with its conflicting forces, ensured that the soul was in constant flux. A Christian faith that was not continually renewed by doubt was a lifeless thing – nothing more than a broom handle, a crutch which might help a soul to forget its lameness for a while, but could never be a life-affirming construct.

A more didactic novelist might have viewed Per’s retreat as an opportunity to condemn modern society, with its teeming masses and blind, mechanical advances. Pontoppidan was indeed ambivalent about the triumph of modernity over tradition; as a young man, he had become known for his social-realist sketches of the plight of Denmark’s rural poor. But Pontoppidan neither reproves nor moralizes; like Chekhov, he knew the novelist’s duty was not to offer solutions but simply to ask the right questions. Per’s disillusionment with modern society is thus permitted to coexist with Jakobe’s cosmopolitanism. Late in the novel, Jakobe has again traveled to Berlin to visit a childhood friend, and there feels “like someone who had come home to her own kingdom.” She entertains no illusions about the perils of the modern metropolis, the dangers and risks associated with living in such dirty, crowded spaces, and yet she finds in it a beauty also:

A huge city containing millions like this possessed something of the magic of the ocean. There was something of the siren call of the rolling waves in this murderous existence, in this wild tumult, this incessant ascending and descending, which right to the moment of extinction continued to hold out the promise of new and limitless opportunities.

Pontoppidan is always of two minds about things, and it is for this reason that A Fortunate Man, while being one of the great novels about modernity, never once buckles under the weight of the ideas and currents it depicts. Pontoppidan is repeatedly drawn out into the abundance, the noisy pluralism of life, even as his hero travels deeper and deeper into the small privacy of his own being. The narrative’s spaciousness, Pontoppidan’s humane breadth and tolerance, remains deeply affecting throughout. As Thomas Mann put it in his birthday letter:

As a genuine conservative, [Pontoppidan] maintains the novel’s grand style in a breathless age. As a genuine revolutionary, he sees in prose above all a scrutinizing power. With that charming, indeed captivating, stringency which is the secret of all art, he judges the times and then, as a true poet, points us towards a purer, more honorable way of being human.

A Fortunate Man, by Henrik Pontoppidan, translated by Paul Larkin, is published by Museum Tusculanum Press and distributed by the University of Chicago Press.

 

 

Why everybody should read ‘A Fortunate Man’

Very occasionally in your life, you will experience a moment where your efforts in a particular discipline all meld together into a sense of great harmony. That something you did was exactly as you wanted it and had worked for. It doesn’t matter whether you excel at knitting, crown green bowling, flower growing, bird watching, darts or painting. They are all forms of play, of fun and enjoyment, the basis of all art; but also represent years of practice, dedication, grim determination even, in the face of past failures in your chosen calling.

Just one of those moments when everything goes right; all your abilities and interests, your passions, coalesce to create something unique.

My translation of A Fortunate Man – called Lykke Per in the original Danish – by one of Denmark’s best ever authors, Henrik Pontoppidan, is one such moment for me. Of course, I got crucial help from others when translating, writing and imagining this book into existence. It’s a huge story with a large cast of characters. It was also written in what’s now regarded as ‘old fashioned’ Danish and depicts a time when horses or shanks’s pony (your legs) were the main means of transport and people still differentiated between formal and informal modes of address (De and Du in Danish), with professional titles also used – Hr Engineer, Pastor, Doctor and so on. Thus I consulted experts in various fields and in particular the sagacious Flemming Behrendt from the Pontoppidan Society who also wrote the afterword to my book. Then at the other end of the process was my brilliant editor at Tusculanum Press, Jordy Findanis. But overall A Fortunate Man is my creation with the original author in the Danish – blessed Henrik Pontoppidan – at my shoulder.

I’m not going to explain all the many reasons why this translation is such a success and don’t want to say very much about this heartrending but paradoxically uplifting tale. I urge you all dear readers to simply get the book and be astonished. Once you start it, you won’t be able to put it down.

I do, however, want to make a point about the scandal of needless poverty and its echoes in A Fortunate Man – indeed very many of Pontoppidan’s works – and how this teaches us something about language and therefore translation. But to get to that point, I need to describe, very briefly, the way I approach translations.

The late and much lamented artist, writer and thinker John Berger is a moral, political and artistic lodestone for me and I want you to hear what he told us in his last book, Confabulations, about the art of translation. It was a Eureka moment for me. But I wasn’t discovering something new in what John says; rather I was confirmed and uplifted in what I already knew. This too is a form of astonishment. To be confirmed by others in your convictions.

Essentially John Berger rejects the idea that human language is exclusively verbal and textual. He describes the key to “true” translations of literary works as being in the discovery of – “what lay behind the words of the original text before it was written.” What we must discover is the atmosphere, the inner drama, the motivations and context of the original author as he or she brought their texts to life. The key thing is that, beyond the different individual languages, is a meta-language that we immediately know. The linguistic Mother of all Mothers. No language is entirely separate. We all know symbols and signs, gesticulations, feelings in the air, a space charged with a particular colour.

There is a wonderful scene at the start of A Fortunate Man where our young hero, Per Sidenius, is tobogganing, or ‘sledging’ as the old term is in England, on a snow-swept hillside above a provincial town. There is deep snow, twinkling stars, a racing moon and silvery ethereal clouds. The atmosphere is heightened further by the fact that the young Per shouldn’t be there at all and his absence from home has been discovered.

As he does in the whole of this novel, Henrik Pontoppidan puts his heart and soul into the depiction of this scene, but the words on the page are just the tip of that vibrant, “quivering’” – as John Berger puts it – pre-verbal entity that I wanted to bring into my text of the same scene. How to conjure that excitement. The thrill. The audacity. Then the rooftops and the red street lamps in the snow-clad town below. The feel of them.  A dictionary cannot help me in that imaginative leap. Listen to John:

We read and reread the words of the original text in order to penetrate through them, to reach, to touch the vision or experience which prompted them. We then gather up what we have found there and take this quivering almost wordless ‘thing’ and place it behind the language into which it needs to be translated. And now the principal task is to persuade the host language to take in and welcome the ‘thing’ which is waiting to be articulated.

Yes, language is a logical, physical thing, but it’s also visceral, metaphorical and a dream state. So a word or many words might occur to the translator once he is in that pre-verbal place. They may not be exact translations but they release the exact vision of the scene in the new language.

Charlie Chaplin

Elsewhere in Confabulations John Berger writes about Charlie Chaplin and two things strike me very forcibly here. One is that Chaplin’s performances were pre-verbal – all depended on body language and the reactions of others to it and then the scene in which the event was staged. Yes we laugh at his slapstick and it’s obvious, but then we feel the pathos, just by a raised eyebrow or the start of his walk down a long road. This is discourse without words and we all ‘get’ it.

Henrik Pontoppidan spends a lot of time in this sort of discursive space. He will describe a physiognomy, or bodily features and body language, at length, so we are left feeling that visceral intensity of understanding that lies behind a mere description. It may be tragic, or comic, or suddenly profound and uplifting. This is exactly what Charlie Chaplin does. Also, Chaplin showed the scandal of poverty and the dignity of poor people in making it through. Even finding time to create art in that pressed space. In the same way, John Berger shows us the lives of rural peasants and the way they become washed up amongst the urban poor. All this is more about empathy and emotion than words.

In relative terms, the fact that Henrik Pontoppidan placed a great deal of his literary focus on poverty has attracted little attention, as far as I know, but this was indeed a central theme in his work, and not just in his early social-realist period, which is where this is most discussed. Poverty features very strongly in A Fortunate Man, as part of Pontoppidan’s – I would argue – overarching ‘folkelighed’; his embrace of the common people. Pontoppidan’s descriptions of poverty, the desperate need for money, and its baleful effects on the soul, are equal to anything that Dostoevsky wrote.

By a happy set of coincidences, in 1906 Pontoppidan made this commitment to ‘ordinary’ folk culture clear to his literary comrade Martin Andersen Nexø, the author of Pelle the Conqueror (Pelle Erobereren in Danish). Nexø’s book was made world famous by the Danish director Bille August who made the 1987 film version starring Max von Sydow. The happy coincidence comes not just in the fact that Pontoppidan and Nexø were literary, social brothers in arms – Nexø dedicated his Pelle book to “the Master, Henrik Pontoppidan” – but by the fact that Pelle director Bille August and his son Anders August are now completing a film version of Lykke Per and, as with my book, the international English language version will be called A Fortunate Man.

You can see the first brilliant trailer for this film here – don’t worry if you don’t have Danish:

In correspondence with Nexø to thank him for his “Master” dedication, Pontoppidan says that they are as one in trying to create a literature that showed possible scenarios (I paraphrase) for “the art of living” – levekunsten in the Danish – which Pontoppidan describes as the “most difficult of all the arts”. A life-art, if you will, that was based on the lives of ordinary folk and not the finer points of elitist aesthetics. Again in his sweeping portrayals of the masses and their lives, and in his brilliance as a polyphonic writer, Pontoppidan bears equal comparison with Dostoevsky – especially in Dostoevsky works such as Demons and Crime and Punishment.

The sometimes biting burlesque of Chaplin, the emotion of a Dickens, the deep soul searching of Dostoevsky, the respect of the dignity inherent in manual labour as depicted by say Waldo Emerson or Jack London; the hot coals of love and lust and the shock-of-ice rejection thrown on that love – say in Thomas Hardy. Pontoppidan is all of these things. But he goes further and challenges both his characters’ and readers’ assumptions and dispositions; so that we feel we have to make an effort to decide what we believe and what is ‘true’ about these people and these events. We are there beyond mere words once again. In this ‘ironic’ approach to storytelling Pontoppidan is very close, of course, to Kierkegaard.

It is a quintessentially Scandinavian approach to art.

A Fortunate Man will begin appearing in shops at the end of this month (July 2018) but readers can order at a discount from the publishers – Tusculanum Press here:

https://www.mtp.dk/details.asp?eln=203746

I would also encourage my many readers to contact their favourite bookshop and request that the book be stocked as this encourages them to look beyond the ‘usual suspect’ list of authors and publishers.

There is an excellent, and very erudite, review of my translation by Rasmus Vangshardt – for those who can read Danish at least- in Kristeligt Dagblad. This article has the advantage of also explaining why this great novel never ‘broke through’ internationally, until now. It can be read here (but via a paywall I think):

https://www.kristeligt-dagblad.dk/kultur/held-og-lykke

This followed an article by Bjarne Nørum in the same newspaper that fruitfully highlights my view of the art of translation and the upcoming film referenced above – with the same paywall proviso.

https://www.kristeligt-dagblad.dk/kultur/lykke-er-klar-til-erobre-verden-igen

 

 

 

@ Paul Larkin, Carraic, Dún na nGall