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Form and Expectations

Written by: Anne-Marie Mai |

In the spring of 1994, the Danish literary community anxiously awaited the publication of Kirsten Thorup’s new novel Elskede ukendte (Beloved Unknown). Expectations were high. A very popular and highly recognised author was deemed to have reached new heights in her literary career. Kirsten Thorup belonged to the generation of authors who brought post-war women writers out of an isolated position as exceptions in a male-dominated society and placed them at the centre of the literary institution. In this way, Kirsten Thorup was in line with Inger Christensen and Dorrit Willumsen in Denmark, with Sara Lidman, Birgitta Trotzig, and Kerstin Ekman in Sweden, with Bjørg Vik and Cecilie Løveid in Norway, with Eeva Liisa Manner in Finland, and with Svava Jakobsdóttir in Iceland.

In the weeks up to the release date, the leading Danish newspapers brought a variety of advanced reports, interviews, and follow-ups. Kirsten Thorup had all the publicity and sympathetic mention of her important new novel she could want. However, on the day of release, there was a lack of criticism that captured the nature of her work with the novel genre. In several reviews, there appeared to be a degree of confusion: some compared it to an old realist ideal of “the great Danish contemporary novel” and concluded that this was just what Kirsten Thorup had written, or rather had not written. Some emphasised that Thorup’s great loaf of a novel rose nicely and contained “lots of raisins”, even though the ingredients were heavy and it was “somewhat sticky” in the middle, while others spoke of it as distinctly monotonous and one-dimensional, a nerve-racking, compulsive repetition of actions and patterns. Some reviewers acknowledged some confusion and discomfort in connection with Elskede ukendte, but called the discomfort an interesting quality. John Christian Jørgensen in the Danish daily Politiken characterised the novel as inescapably and heart-wrenchingly frightening, and concluded his review with the following reflection: “Reading Elskede ukendte is a masochistic pleasure that anyone is free to avoid. I cannot put it in less paradoxical terms.”

Hindsbo, Sys (born 1944): Kvinde danser for hund, 1991. Print

The more or less vociferous moaning about the novel’s construction, purported stickiness, one-dimensionality, monotony, and actual collapse are indications of Kirsten Thorup’s ability to write a novel that encourages a discussion of form and genre that often remains unspoken in connection with women writers. “We have a literary tradition for placing in times of need our faith in the good powers of woman, art, and child. But Kirsten Thorup certainly does not continue in that tradition”, declares John Christian Jørgensen about Kirsten Thorup’s characters. One might add that this tradition also implies a certain deep-seated scepticism about women’s work with aesthetic form and tradition when this work leads them to the limits of genre, or even directly pushes those limits. It is apparently difficult to comprehend such shifts in genre boundaries, making declarations of lack of capabilities seem logical.

“[…] as a whole, Kirsten Thorup’s project fails […]. A few – at best – confused literati attempted not long ago to breathe new life into the cultural debate by calling for the so-called great, all-encompassing ‘contemporary novel’. Kirsten Thorup’s Elskede ukendte (Beloved Unknown) is the best evidence that such a novel cannot be written.”

(Henrik Wivel, Berlingske Tidende, 17 March 1994).

“In some places Elskede ukendte calls to mind the unconcerned chattiness of the great American lady’s novel […].”

(Hans Andersen, Jyllandsposten, 17 March 1994).

“For me, it is particularly the parts about the Pentecostal Movement with its simplified pietistic rhetoric that contribute to the monotony of the reading experience.”

(Jette Lundbo Levy, Information, 17 March 1994).

Women authors lack a forming ability, claimed Georg Brandes at the end of the nineteenth century, and that view still echoes in more recent literary criticism’s repetition of “too much” or “too little”, of “too simple” or “too inaccessible” when characterising important women’s texts and works in contemporary literature.

In her dissertation Det moderne gennembruds kvinder (1984; The Women of the Modern Breakthrough), Pil Dahlerup discusses Georg Brandes’s view of women’s literature and, among other things, comes to the conclusion that:

“Georg Brandes could never see any art in women’s literature […]. They had ideas, points of view, lives, experiences, and adventures, but no power of artistic form.”

Perhaps the discussion about the monstrous novel that reverberated among the literati would be relevant in connection with Elskede ukendte. For its part, Kirsten Thorup’s novel addressed the realist novel tradition from the nineteenth century in the discontinuity and continuity which characterise other contemporary experimental novel projects, such as works by the Danish author Svend Åge Madsen or the Norwegian author Jan Kjærstad, who are often lauded for their formal talents. However, no one really managed to catch Kirsten Thorup’s attempts to transform the bildungsroman and the psychological narrative as we know them from the tradition of the realistic novel into a form that questions the ability of the novel to represent human nature. Rather than a work of classic psychological realism, Kirsten Thorup gave us a novel form that presents the starkest implications of modern human clichés. Elskede ukendte does not strive to reproduce traditional realism, and the novel does not work through human empathy with quiet and pitiable characters. Instead, desperation and gallows humour characterise the novel’s form and narrative about the failed student René, who ends up working as Father Christmas in the very same department store where he once sold himself to satisfy the sexual desires of its middle-aged women customers. We are dealing with desires so predictable and commonplace that they oddly enough appear to be the opposite. And readers expecting traditional realism and commitment to reality will naturally be disappointed, just as Jan Kjærstad, Peer Hultberg, and many other contemporary authors will disappoint the reader in this regard. Elskede ukendte deals with the clichés of myth, language, the psyche, religion, sexuality, madness, and art, and the novel becomes monstrous in its depiction of the seamlessness of the clichés’ constant chatter and self-generation. As such, it achieves a frightening perfection in its description of modern-day life. It is not a matter of insufficient command of form, plotting devices, and composition, but of a formal command of the limits of both norms and clichés.

One of the biggest successes in Nordic literature is the novel series by the Norwegian author Herbjørg Wassmo. Throughout the Nordic countries, readers and critics have been fascinated by her Tora books, with the last one garnering her the Nordic Council’s Literature Prize in 1987, and the enthusiasm and interest were just as great in connection with Dinas bok (1989; Eng. tr. Dina’s Book). With the first Tora novel, Huset med den blinde glassveranda (1981; Eng. tr. The House with the Blind Glass Windows), there was already general agreement among reviewers that it was a good or excellent book, perhaps even “a book on an international level”. At the same time, it is interesting to note how a discussion of form and genre is hinted at by several of the reviewers, without ever being specifically broached. The discussion can be glimpsed in connection with a critique of either the (too) large gallery of characters, the (too) many comments and explanations by the author, or the ending that was (too) artificial. The novel about the war child Tora, who for many years suffered sexual abuse by her stepfather, appears deeply fascinating and significant in human terms, but problematical in terms of aesthetics and genre. A degree of distance between form and material is established in several of the reviews, and even though it is emphasised that Herbjørg Wassmo does possess a linguistic power of expression, it appears to be viewed as an element of the novel that harks back to her poetry. Some even speak of the narrative as being of a stagnant nature, with an abstract presentation style, a (too) sudden ending, and unmotivated attacks on moral, social, or religious beliefs.

“[…] the book is so overloaded with clichés that it quickly becomes embarrassing to continue reading it.”

(Fartein Horgar, Arbeider-Avisa, 7 December 1981).

Several reviewers focus on the bleak depiction of reality in Huset med den blinde glassveranda (1981; Eng. tr. The House with the Blind Glass Windows), and some turn the tough living conditions against the author, who should have countered the bleakness with humour or proposed solutions. Fartein Horgar ends her review thus: “Yet what is most striking is the author’s complete lack of humour. Lord have mercy on those who laugh! The world is sad and evil. So you should be too!” Another reviewer emphasises that life is not always “ugly”. “It doesn’t have to be that way, and it isn’t always like that. For some reason young authors seem to prefer writing about these evil and terrible lives […]. But some of us protest against this. It is not always that way: it can also be otherwise. They should not be allowed to terrorise us with such standardised literature.”

(Knut Hauge, Valdres, 13 March 1982).

In her analysis of the reviews of Huset med den blinde glassveranda in the article “Kampen for menneskeværd” (The Struggle for Human Worth), Norsk litterær årbok (1982; Norwegian Literary Yearbook), literary researcher Jorunn Hareide describes a discussion about the novel at a critics’ seminar:

“When Huset med den blinde glassveranda was discussed at a writer and critics’ seminar hosted by Gyldendal in the spring of 1982, one of the first speakers claimed that the book lacked plot, ‘action’, an ‘epic supporting beam’. In short, it fell apart in episodes.”

While Kirsten Thorup’s novel allowed traditional realism and character portrayal to fail, consequently making it both “too much” and “too little” for several critics, and while Herbjørg Wassmo’s breakthrough novel Huset med den blinde glassveranda along with being characterised as a “masterpiece” was also labelled (too) stagnant and to a (much too) great extent without plot, several years previously in Sweden an extended debate had taken place about literary incomprehensibility and men’s and women’s criticism, based on Ann Jäderlund’s (born 1955) poetry collection Som en gång varit äng (1988; Which Had Once Been Meadows), which was criticised for being too dark and closed to the world. In a review in the Swedish daily Svenska Dagbladet, Tommy Olofsson wrote:16 September 1988:

“She perverts the established motifs and hinders any possible interpretation. The paradox is a trick she often uses. One could say that some of her poems contain a refutation of themselves. This can be very effective. With reversals worthy of old Zeno, they cancel each other out. In Jäderlund’s universe, the swift-footed Achilles never competes with the turtle. Real life does not stand a chance against the thought constructions and the genderless, self-generating lyrical structure. The poems mean as little as possible, safely wrapped up in their own contradictions, and give very little reward to those who are willing to go the distance and are ready to take Ann Jäderlund at her word.”

Som en gång varit äng is a little book that seeks out the limits of a traditional poetic vocabulary and inventory of meadow, moon, flower, forest, bird, and clouds, and experiences and emphasises the imagery value of this inventory. A portrayal of a loving relationship between a female ‘I’ and a male ‘you’ develops from words and collocations. However, this theme should be taken entirely literally and not too symbolically as established assertions about an ‘I’s perception of its ‘self’ and its ‘you’. There are no representations of reality of any type, descriptions of or assertions about a loving relationship, but rather a searching in language, a listening to meanings. The poems test the words to see where they lead in patterns and structures that are strong and weak. The movement in the poetry collection leads from the first poem, with the title “Stark struktur” (Strong Structure), through a review of the sustainability of various new word patterns in relation to the female ‘I’. “Det lyser på grænsen” (It Shines at the Boundary) is the title of the first group of poems in the collection, and it is in just this place in the language where the female ‘I’ becomes visible and marks a difference, forming a boundary that is important in these poems, a boundary where the language both fails and supports. In the poem “Stark struktur”, the poetic speaker talks about not being hidden by either words or flowers, about a wealth of shadows, slate leaves, and obscure windflowers that do not “hide me”. A number of different stylistic figures are used in an extremely subtle and suggestive way, especially tautologies, parallelisms, and repetitions.

Ann Jäderlund emphasises the secretive and surprising aspects of the places created by the linguistic structures, and the rhythm in the poetic language. The poems are closed to common meanings and statements, and yet they are open in their immersion in language. Plenty of poets have more or less successfully pursued the type of symbolic exploration of language that takes place here, and there is nothing particularly new or incomprehensible in this project. It could be said that Ann Jäderlund’s poetry is very closely related to the symbolic tradition; however, it should also be noted that the poems represent one of the ways in which symbolism becomes important for young poets in their attempts to find other literary paths beyond the literature of formation and realism that characterised so many writers in the 1970s. It is also thought-provoking that several critics quickly rejected the literature of formation as (too) comprehensible and (too) colloquial in its language.

Åsa Beckman begins the debate on Ann Jäderlund’s poetry collection Som en gång varit äng (1988; Which Had Once Been Meadows) by criticising the male reviewers’ interpretation of the poems. She discusses in particular Tommy Olofsson’s review:

“He begins with a quick characterisation of the collection. It becomes clear that he has no real grasp of the poems and that this awakens in him both aggression and irritation. He calls the poems puzzle-like ‘because they do not open up’. He even characterises the text he is analysing as a cold or unwilling woman.”

(Dagens Nyheter, 24 November 1988).

In the further debate, Tommy Olofsson responds, and a series of other contributions follow suit. The debate also covers the power, influence, and “cronyism” of different cultural environments.

Charges of incomprehensibility and formal inadequacy naturally affect both men and women writers of contemporary literature. However, it is conspicuous that in connection with the assessment of women’s works a set of traditional literary norms is often present just under the surface: recognisability and psychological realism, dramatic outer storylines, comprehensibility and lyrical clarity or sensuality. Many contemporary women writers appear caught up in a paradox of form: on the one hand, women in contemporary literature create literary aesthetics that navigate the boundaries of genres and forms, and that do so by virtue of the subject matter and themes they work with; on the other hand, women writers are constantly evaluated in relation to relatively traditionally defined norms and expectations. Unless it is a matter of a handful of sanctioned geniuses, the most valuable literary efforts of women are still preferably accorded to their subject matter, which is more than welcome to break taboos and be daring or controversial. The aesthetic value of prose works is rarely associated with the form of the works. Poetry is read to a greater extent with respect and attention to form, while the subject matter in many cases is characterised as incomprehensible or without “life”. The focus is most often on the message of the works, and on how valuable and important they are in human terms. Against this background, it is not so surprising that women writers who make a break from traditional forms, and whose works consequently invite an interpretation and discussion of form, are seen as uninfluential or incomprehensible. Nor is it strange that it was so difficult for some reviewers to actually grasp that Herbjørg Wassmo’s subdued debut novel, which is told from the fringes – where emotions and the psyche are in constant danger of triggering fierce and violent events – is about years of incest. In women’s literature, too, form and subject matter are inextricably linked: any linguistic detail in Herbjørg Wassmo’s work speaks about the incest, and the extraordinary and sudden dramatic ending is also extraordinary and dramatic in composition because it gives evidence of the crime.

Marianne Stidsen comments in her article “Det absolut individuelle og det absolut universelle” (The Absolute Individual and the Absolute Universal), Grif (no. 2, 1992), on the reception given to Pia Juul’s novel Skaden (1990; The Injury). She begins by pointing out that the Romantics, and especially the Danish poet and playwright Oehlenschläger, broke free of genre conventions, and notes the recurrent criticism of Pia Juul’s work:

“Just as her poems have for the most part been given a positive reception by reviewers, so too was Skaden, more or less. For it was not what one would normally expect from a novel. Bearing Oehlenschläger in mind, however, we may be surprised that this break with conventions almost automatically gave rise to concern, but alas – it did just that.”

Anne-Marie Mai

Translated by Jenifer Lloyd