I reproduce below some fascinating insights into my translation of Martin A. Hansen’s Løgneren (‘The Liar’, New York Review of Books Classics, 2023). These reviews appear on the Goodreads website and are therefore ‘public’, but nevertheless will be missed by most people outside of that sphere. Most of these English language reviews seem to be from members of the New York Review of Books Book Club. The Liar was chosen as the ‘NYRB’ book club choice for the month of May. I have retained the icons or avatars that the reviewers use as their ID tag, for no other reason than the fact they appeal to me. To my mind, as the translator/author of the book, the first reviewer – ‘Joy’ – asks the question that lies at the heart of the novel – perhaps any novel:
“What is his heart’s truest desire?”
I have not edited the review texts in any way, even for possible ‘spoiler’ lines, though I have omitted the Danish language reviews and a small number of other reviews that offer little insight. However, all the reviews can be read here:
I offer my thanks to so many people who took the (worthwhile) trouble to read the book, but then to publish their thoughts about it.
Løgneren by Martin A. Hansen premiered to a captivated Danish audience in 1950 first over the radio, then in serial broadsheet newspaper format and finally in book form. Thought to be Hansen’s best work (he died in 1955) and one of the most luminous of Danish literary works, Løgneren has never been out of print through the years. NYRB’s 2023 English edition with Paul Larkin as translator and introduction by Morten Høi Jensen opens this psychological literary gem to English readers. The setting is Sand Island*, a small island off the coast of Denmark. It’s March, there’s sea ice blockading the island, preventing the ferryboat from arriving with passengers, supplies and mail. Migratory seabird sightings are anticipated and there are slow but sure signs of spring. Our narrator is Johannes Lye*, schoolmaster of the only school on the island and parish clerk (he is often addressed as Deacon). Johannes is a ‘blow-in,’ which means he is not local to the island but from the mainland. Nevertheless, he has been there for seven years and become a common fixture. People come to him to unload, to confess, for problem solving, he is trusted as a pillar of the community. With a title like The Liar, of course the reader would be alert to deception and fabrication. Johannes is an unreliable narrator yet his motives and backstory are hidden to us even as we are privy to the thoughts he is addressing to an imaginary confidante Nathan. His reason for leaving the mainland is also ever-changing, he deliberately muddles up the details. Pigro, his pointer setter dog, is his constant companion.
The Liar is a product of its time in showing apprehension about technology and questioning the meaning of life postwar. Some characters, like the young engineer Harry from away, are all about looking to the future and innovation. The engineer regards Johannes as a relic ‘fusty and musty.’ Others, like Frederik (richest man on the island), life is about accumulation of wealth. Frederik’s wife Rigmor wonders about the pointlessness of it all. Johannes has a bird’s eyeview of their lives’ goings-ons and personalities, he often compares the island inhabitants to birds by appearance and behaviour, which is quite amusing.
I love psychological tautness in a novel and was riveted especially in the last third. The intention and subconscious planning by Johannes keep the reader alert to feints and misdirection. Johannes is drinking heavily and fancies himself ‘an amateur psychologist.’ He is clearly learned and talented, knowing an impressive amount of Scandinavian history and mythology not to mention linguistics, theology, music and ornithology. Yet we wonder will he use the trust and insider knowledge to twist things to his advantage? What is his heart’s truest desire?
*The island is originally named Sandø in Danish and the last name of Johannes is originally Vig, which the translator notes the similarity to the Danish word svig meaning ‘deceit’ or ‘guilt’. In addition, Jensen in the introduction informs us that the Nathan Johannes is addressing is actually the disciple of Jesus Nathanael said to be incapable of deceit.
Quotes: “The island has immeasurable chapters of time in her. Vanished time and times that are yet to come. Against all this, a human’s age and memory are no more than a speck. The oldest legends now cling to human life by the most brittle and frail of roots and are best known by a schoolmaster who is a ‘blow-in’ to the island. But none of these legends are anywhere as old as the ancient barrows and dolmens. The language that was spoken at that time has been blown away.”
I could feel the bleakness of Sand Island. I could feel the loneliness of Johannes in every sentence. And I was wowed at what Martin Hansen gave us in a mere 240 pages. I can see why this is a big deal in Danish literature. Loved.
I first read this book as an exchange student in Denmark–apparently required reading there. It’s a lovely novel, and while considered a psychological novel, the sense of place and nature seems to me just as important–you can feel and hear the spring thaw as you read.
Elliptical, dissimulating, ruminating. If there is some place, time, region to which our narrator Johannes Lye is bound, clearly it is the opaque and existential post-war years, a nonetheless probing, inquisitive, novel just as much myopically idiosyncratic as broadly metaphorical. Flights of existential consternation and malaise may be for some source for rolling of eyes, for others matter into which, as though we spoke on pudding and spoon, to plunge, context is here as always, of course, key.
The island of Sandø, which is the setting of this novel vaguely reminds me of Summerisle from The Wicker Man (1973). This is because of passages like this: “The sea is never so wild and strong as when it has just taken a human sacrifice” (pg. 96) or “At last I’ve come to realize it, and it seems to me that I’ve stepped into a pagan rite, where humans are sacrificed” (pg. 125). The narrator of the novel is Johannes Vig who writes to a fictional friend named Nathanael. I particularly enjoyed passages like “I can feel you getting closer, my strange friend. In a way, you’re getting closer than I like. You would like to pry into my dark mind; you would like me to show you more of myself, be more open and frank with you, tell you everything, particularly what is disgusting and not so nice about myself” (pg. 69). It feels as though Johannes Vig is speaking directly to the reader who is indeed wanting to hear a confession. I would recommend this book to people who like Søren Kierkegaard and other epistolary psychological novels like Doctor Glas (1905) by Hjalmar Söderberg.
While the writing style does provide some beautiful descriptions of the island this story takes place on, the story itself leaves much to be desired. The characters are somewhat flat, there is no clear focus point and the ending is very inconclusive.
Carol (cls929)’s profile
I just reread this Danish classic (in English), and am fascinated by Martin A. Hansen’s exploration of what is true and what is not. His main character doesn’t seem to think of himself as ethical and kind, but his actions are often selfless. Hansen was strongly influenced by Kierkegaard, and I can see elements of The Diary of a Seducer in this novel from right after the Danish occupation during WWII.
“Just as an awful lot is now too late. And it’s all remembered and must ever be remembered.”
“The Liar” reads as an affecting chronicle of life on a small, isolated scandinavian island. it is peppered with beautiful moments and musings on memory in the face of post-war modernization. a personal favorite of mine is the story of a man who was killed by an underwater mine while boating. no part of his body was recovered. johannes, his former teacher and the titular liar, ruminates on the loss while looking at a boat the man had carved into his desk as a student. in lieu of a body, johannes asserts that that childhood carving is the only remembrance of him, his grave and gravemarker.
if the whole book were moments like that, it’d be an all time favorite. as it were, the book is held back by some moments of dostoeyevskian teeth gnashing and pontificating on ~the soul~, along with a weirdly pointless metafiction of johannes lying in his narration, which never amounts to much of anything.
Is he a liar or not? If he is, then there’s a few others that belong to the club as well. This book has ratings all over the place, but for me, it is one I will revisit. Why? The pace, the tone, the ideas explored, the setting, and that old dog. Yes, him too.
Extraordinary. Johannes’ confessed “lie” is a literary device: writing the bulk of the novel more than a year after events transpired. I didn’t care: a minor transgression, particularly where entire conversations, geographical paths, and internal events are recounted in such minute detail. So that can’t really be “the lie.” Instead, ‘the lie’ must have been about his posturing: one face to the community (schoolmaster, clerk, deacon) while inside roiled a man at odds. But we (readers) knew that at the beginning. So where is ‘the lie?’
Johannes lays himself so bare to us throughout, I never questioned trusting him. The confession to the reader, even naming the reader “Nathan,” creates remarkable intimacy. Nihilism and existentialism collide, and through it all, we find a man at peace with chosen his place in the world. There is no ‘lie;’ there is only a man who courts trouble and inter-personal complications while decrying them: a minor transgression (if even that) for growth and renewal.
I wish I had been schooled by Danes. Reading and discussing this work as a youngster would have been grand.
This book was the May 2023 New York Review Classic (NYRB) selection. Set on a fictitious Danish island, Sand Island, the book is a series of “diary-like entries” written by the schoolmaster, Jonathan Lye, and addressed to Nathaniel, a fictional character “named for the biblical Nathaniel, a disciple of Jesus who was said to be a man incapable of deceit.” The book is set after WWII and occurs over four days. The schoolmaster records the mundane events of the island and the lonely, troubled hearts that inhabit it of which he is the loneliest. He’s in love with Annemari , a brilliant former student who has a 3 year old son by Olaf, a gentle giant, but is also carrying on an affair with a “visiting engineer.” Other characters Jonathan writes about such a Rigamore and Elna are searching for love as well. It is Jonathan’s indecision about love and life that is the crux of the story and which make him a “liar” to himself – even his last name gives testament to the man’s inherent problem. Additionally, Jonathan is an unreliable narrator so can the things he write about be trusted. While there were some interesting moments in the book, the novel just didn’t resonate with me.
NYRB is killing it with unreliable narrator novels lately—The Fawn, and now this. Compact narrative told by a narrator whose relationship with the truth is as complicated as his romantic relationships on Sand Island.
“So I suppose I should introduce myself. I am, may God help me, still a schoolmaster on Sand Island, which is nothing more than a dot in the surrounding seas. A bachelor and baldness fast approaching. My name is Johannes Lye. Don’t say that name too quickly, Nathan. Johannes Lye.”
“Because this whole new modern and refined civilization is built upon the idea of being happy. The whole world obsessed with the hunt for happiness. Maybe we need a harder, more rigorous goal. A more severe code of life. More demanding of us and what we can achieve. But what do I know?”
“But can anything actually be vaster than that hill there? I thought to myself. Aye, a small hill that counts for nothing in figures of altitude, climate, astronomy. But dear Lord, see how it soars to the heavens. Were a man to lie down in that field out there, he would be overwhelmed by the sight of the hill above him. His eyes filled by it.”
“Don’t you think we’re all pretty strange? I don’t just mean spiritually or mentally. I mean as creatures on this blessed earth. Have you ever seriously pondered those absurd, gristly contraptions people have on either side of their heads? Like mussel shells. The ears. Or look at your hand, Nathan. Move your fingers. Really look at it. Is it not the most absurd thing?
Not because I’m trying to be deeply philosophical or anything, Nathan. But a guest of Mother Earth has to learn to be amazed and astonished. What am I meant to say as I walk through the flowers in one of our meadows? My words are often not enough. Indeed. Do we fleeting souls have any kind of real acnhorage, other than those moments when we wonder at the very fact of our own existence? Ah well, best not to give it too much thought, Nathan.””
When my grandpa told me to read this book, I only did for him. I went into it thinking that this would just be another boring read, to get through as fast as possible. And it was really boring, I was bored most of the time while reading it, and I didn’t really understand it.
I finished it late last night, and when I woke up this morning, having thought the book through, I realized how amazing a book it actually was. I’ve never had a book do that to me before, and it felt magical, hence the five stars.
The book starts of with a lonely man, Johannes Vig, just after the second world war, and is written in diary form. He is a school teacher, and he is attracted to two different women, the young, and former student Annemari, and the married, older woman Rigmor.
This is one of the biggest books in Danish literature, and it should be, because it is amazing. I can’t say anymore.
I have been trying to read this for so long, and so many times. The book is beautifully written, and I really enjoyed the language and the descriptions of nature, but I could not get through it all, because there is no drive, no real climax to aim or hope for. That does not make it a bad book though, and I’m pretty sure I will return to read this book eventually, once I’m ready for the challenge.
Originally written as a radio sequel (not a play) that emptied the streets, this has become one of the 20th centuries most important Danish novels. A definite must-read if you’re interested in Scandinavian post-war literature.
Exciting and interesting book, with rich and enthrilling use of language. Good read, but not a 5-star story for me, it just didn’t me enough like other books have. Still. A great book.
First published in 1950, a Danish modern classic, this 220-page novel is set over four days on a fictitious Danish island, Sand Island. It is a series of diary entries written by our protagonist, the schoolmaster, Johannes Lye, and addressed to Nathaniel, a fictional character “named for the biblical Nathaniel, a disciple of Jesus who was said to be a man incapable of deceit.”
Johannes records the mundane events of the island and the lonely, troubled hearts that inhabit it of which he is the loneliest. He’s in love with Annemari, a former student who has a 3-year-old son by Olaf, but is also carrying on an affair with a “visiting engineer.”It is Johannes’s indecision about love and life that is the crux of the story and which make him a “liar” to himself. But the part that is most interesting is that Johannes is an unreliable narrator so can the things he writes cannot be trusted. It gave me by Nabokov vibes (minus the paedophilia).3-3.5 stars. It was good and I would recommend to lovers of classics/modern classics but I don’t know how much I will think about this one in years to come.
I went from liking to loving this book by the end. A schoolmaster/deacon on a tiny Danish island writes journal entries to an imaginary friend about the goings-on of the island’s inhabitants, which gradually becomes a meditation on how best to live a “meaningful life”, if such a thing is even possible. Accept what you have or strive for more? I found this story to be deeply affecting.
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