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On the Fringe

Written by: Inger-Lise Hjordt-Vetlesen |

Vibeke Grønfeldt’s body of work has grown steadily and is now very comprehensive. However, despite the weight, despite the attention and respect surrounding her work, it stands strangely isolated in the literary debate. Just as the author still lives on the small Danish island of her birth, Samsø, so her work similarly insists on remaining on the fringe of culture.

Vibeke Grønfeldt (born 1947) shares experiences of life in the provinces and of the societal ruptures with a large portion of the generation that grew up in the post-war era, when urbanisation spread across Denmark. From the mid-1970s, the modernisation process influenced a steady stream of novels whose authors had lived through the ruptures and new developments. They had been involved in modernism, but also had their roots in a surviving provincial culture, and this clash of experiences resulted in new experimental prose forms. The fantasising and the fantastic, realism and surrealism, are characteristics that comfortably coexist in modern prose literature.

Kirsten Klein (born 1945): Musling ved Limfjorden, 1994. Photograph

Even though Vibeke Grønfeldt’s writing in a sense follows the general literary trends, it does so in a special way that sets it apart from the mainstream. For all its mobility, seems to move in place! The same provincial scenery, the same introversion is depicted again and again! The individual work, the individual chapter – even the individual sentence has a tendency to close in on itself, forming an aphoristic and self-sufficient system.

In a body of work of this magnitude, one should of course expect to find a broad epic portrayal of contemporary life or a classic Bildungsroman. However, the meaning of her writing – if indeed this can be said about a body of work that disappoints all expectations regarding linguistic ‘meaning’ – is that the common history has long ago been broken into myriad pieces. Cohesion is a thing of the past and the characters in Vibeke Grønfeldt’s universe fly around, each in their own periphery, in their webs of fictions and detached parts.

And yet this is paradoxically exactly what makes her work a portrayal of contemporary life, only seen from a different point of view than that of straightforward realism of milieu. The stylistic introversion that runs through every register of the breakdown reflects a society in which insanity has become a universal form of consciousness. When approached from this angle, her work becomes anything but peripheral! On the contrary, it is centrally placed – at the very hinges of modern civilisation.

From Tage Skou-Hansen’s speech for Vibeke Grønfeldt when she received the Otto Gelsted Prize in 1982:

“Under the surface of Vibeke Grønfeldt’s writing is something that rarely appears overtly in writing […]. The right word may be disgust with humanity or contempt for humanity […]. She renders visible the inner state that threatens our common existence. This is the current state of affairs in provincial Denmark. It’s not really something we want to acknowledge. Especially in art, we want the good to be more interesting than the evil. But in the end, human beings are still human – even when they are helpless, ignorant, or full of loathing. This may seem like a paradox. But it isn’t to Vibeke Grønfeldt.”

The Provinces

In terms of both chronology and motif, the novel Den blanke sol (The Shiny Sun) from 1985 represents a kind of midpoint in Vibeke Grønfeldt’s oeuvre, bringing together threads that are otherwise only visible as fragments and dislocated ‘remains’ throughout her work. The novel is told from the point of view of a little child, and depicts how the plague of the modern agricultural society – foreclosure – impacts a family, causing crisis and collapse, which again triggers the development of psychosis in the child. With relentless logic, the grand story encroaches on the little one, inflicting on the child-like individual a series of existential losses: loss of place, family, the mother – and ultimately loss of the linguistic meaning that helps differentiate between the self and the rest of the world.

However, concurrently with this psychotic development the novel tells another – poetic – story. For a long while, the girl survives by creating a magical universe of language with its own cruelty and beauty. And the fact that the narrator is congruous with the child endows the text with a poetry that both plays on and contradicts the psychological countdown.

The little girl in Den blanke sol is one of many neglected children who constitute a fundamental chord in Vibeke Grønfeldt’s writing, from her debut – the trilogy Djævelens trekant (1975; The Devil’s Triangle) – up to Et godt menneske (1995; A Good Person).

In the sheer number of hermits, alcoholics, hookers, eccentrics, and failed writers depicted in her work, there is a sense of both the neglected child and the loss of a place in the world. Considering the many marginalised and outcast characters in her books, one could actually speak of the failure as a kind of archetype. A neglected ‘child’ is, on the one hand, excluded from development and belongs to an almost pre-civilisation, while on the other, it is a hypersensitive nervous wreck who, with unbearable – often poetic – ease, plays the entire register of modernity’s paradoxes.

This duality in characterisation thus articulates more than an individual psychological problem. And although the emphasis throughout Grønfeldt’s work has clearly shifted from the subjective schizophrenic universe to the historical and global madness, the growth society, from its earliest pains, is the resonance room for psychotic cacophony.

In the novel Din tavshed er min skrift på væggen (1976; Your Silence is My Writing on the Wall), insanity is not limited to the first-person narrator. The fact that Ulrike is committed to a mental hospital is more a spectacular expression of the entire nature of the surrounding provincial society as a locus of exodus. The fact that Ulrike’s writing incessantly revolves around absence – an absent ‘you’ and an absent time when she was a “cow minder” and lived among the cows whose “thirty closed circuits are united in sounds and smells and superficial contact inviolably alone with yourself” – also makes it a symptom of the end of mutual conversation. It has become droning monologues that only haphazardly and momentarily come into contact with each other.

Vibeke Grønfeldt’s novel Den første sne (1979; The First Snow) continues the writing style and motifs from her previous works. However, this novel more controlled than compact in its language – the restricted and trivial life that takes place around the kiosk and pub in the provincial town is pregnant with “something”. An increasingly deferred release! The local Lolita, who is not yet a woman but has played on her gender for money to buy the coveted skis from the local men, has disappeared. Things around her have built up – in the knowing statements and the overly meaningful little things that have been laid out as clues. Broken lines in which every move comes closer to, but never quite reaches, rape. Thus, the plot is a crescendo that is also covered by snowy whiteness.

The “writing on the wall” – the accumulation of experiences of loss and modernity – can furthermore be heard in the subsequent novels as well as in her only collection of short stories, Baglandet (The Hinterland) from 1981. But it was not until the great epic Mulighedernes land (The Land of Opportunities) from 1989 that many of the dissonant strings were fully orchestrated.

Mulighedernes land is a voluminous and fantastic literary work that presents a history of post-war Denmark viewed from “one region of the country”. An array of scenes and short story-like sequences paints a portrait of how the global has invaded the provinces, or how the provinces have invaded the global – both the geographical and the mental landscapes have become a copy of anywhere in the modern world. Even imagination has become centrally organised:

“… all the wet dreams of the minister for nationalist propaganda have come true. The perfect electronic propaganda apparatus has been created. We own it. Its incontrovertible message sends on a daily basis millions on the same journey, via the same fantasies, the same dreams. We avoid age and winter, and maintain the vital desires of youth. Adapted desires that go the distance.

Not an island is forgotten. There is no avoiding the advent of radio, TV, films, motorways, ships, airplanes, TV dinners.”

The novel is at once monumental and rough along the edges. The major strokes – the stages and shifts in the development of the region – are broken down into a bustle of lines, and the motley throng of between two and three hundred characters covering all walks of life, from the old village society to the modern growth society, is only loosely connected. The characters are both close to and far from each other – sharing supermarkets and “special offers”, and yet isolated within themselves and their own stories. As such, the novel is an endless death dance with innumerable variations. Here, a scene is staked out in freeze-frame moments and overexposed detail; there, entire lifetimes are impaled with a single blow:

“[…] Jon has been thoroughly ruined by his father, who was ruined by the miniature town, which instead of growing from an atom into a universe has collapsed into a black hole.”

Ellegaard, Inge (born 1953): Drawing. In: Inge Ellegaard: Diana Distinguens, Galleri Prag, 1989

The draw from the “black holes” is also felt in the mode of expression. The graphic surface is actually cracked: entire pages are laid out like a newspaper column with a headline in bold – “Comments from the Chairman” – while the body text is regularly interrupted by italicised parenthetical texts. Furthermore, the realistic framework for the novel constantly slips into the surreal, and is pervaded entirely by a sense of uncertainty about whether we are on the level of the narrator or that of the characters. Not only are the characters oddly absent in their comings and goings, but the narrator, too, is unstable and ambiguous. Present and absent at the same time, and marked by a lack of passion that conspicuously veers off into often violent episodes.

The logic of development that made psychosis the end-point in Den blanke sol has in Mulighedernes land branched out and shifted, taking on the form of an endless system of contradictions: on the one hand, a scientific mapping that spans more or less all phenomena in the real world, and on the other hand, a humanity that has regressed to primitive reflexes. Programmed from the outside by “the perfect electronic propaganda apparatus” and from the inside by imaginary phantasms.

A consequence of this “rejection” of the growth society is that the novel deconstructs its own narrative form. Because when there is no exchange between people and nature – when nature is either excessively or inadequately controlled – storytelling becomes impossible.

In the Flesh

Nonetheless, a story is told – for dear life, one could say! The explosion into fragments of the course of events corresponds to “the black holes” that threaten to suck up all meaning and transform it into an impenetrable mass. And in the crossfield between plot structures and utter ‘noise’, the female body arrives on the scene as an overdetermined sign, an expression of the ambiguity of the concept of nature in post-war technological civilisation.

The female characters in Vibeke Grønfeldt’s works are mirrored in an animal-like and completely perfected and functionalised body. They appear in glimpses as simple and bare flesh – “Porous as rotten rubber” she writes in the novel Stenbillede (1986; Stone Image) – yet they also approach intangible and abstract dimensions. The many women’s names have a mythological ring – Erika, Penelope, Julie, Ruth, and Amanda, for example – and each marks her manic striving for the elimination of the flesh by “taking history into her own hands”. There is therefore a kind of paradoxical logic to the fact that Vibeke Grønfeldt primarily associates the technological dimension with women.

Det fantastiske barn (The Fantastical Child) from 1982 is about motherhood and the ultimate control over human reproduction. With cloning as the scientific or technological element, the novel takes already existing trends in society to their farthest extremes: complete control over human nature. Sabine is the chosen individual with utterly perfect genes that give her a “natural right”, as she puts it, to close the gap with nature by artificially copying herself.

In the chaotic flicker that disrupts the textual surface of Vibeke Grønfeldt’s science fiction novel Det fantastiske barn (1982; The Fantastical Child), the child, who is otherwise programmed to be a perfect copy of the perfect human, is placed on another motivic and stylistic level. In this way, the child figure is an anticipation of the neglected child in the novel Den blanke sol (The Shiny Sun), which Vibeke Grønfeldt published in 1985:

“Against the metal-gray light, the ball changed colour from purple to black to yellow. There were coloured circles in the air around it. The heartbeats pounded throughout the body. It played with more and more routine, thought of birds, of glass marbles, stubbed its fingers on the ball and dropped it, saw its good mother fly away among the trees, all the way behind the earth to the sun. There were shadows on the grass. The men behind the house laughed at her. The earth was round and scary […].”

The provocative coupling of women and technological sense continues in the novel Mekanik (Mechanics) from 1992. Through three generations of women – the “original mother” Lilit, her daughter Cora, and her grand-daughter Alberta – the twentieth century’s industrial-technological development in Europe is presented. For each chapter, the cog of time moves forward a notch – the telephone, electricity, the gramophone, the automobile, the airplane, television, and the information network all come into being as the setting shifts in time with wars and market forces. And while Lilit moves up the ladder as a captain of industry, Alberta leads the family dynasty into the information technology age in which the technology of power is wireless and computer-controlled.

With its intense plot dynamics and its vast reach, the form of the novel is gothic in its ambition – the entire spectrum of increasingly refined and specialised command of nature is built into its towering construction. Time itself becomes weightless – during the course of the more than one hundred years covered in the novel, the characters have oddly enough only aged by about twenty years.

However, in the text’s complex hall of mirrors, the gothic is reflected in grotesque forms. And the more synthetic the behaviour of the mechanics, the stronger is nature’s downward pull. This is illustrated partly by the characters’ insatiable appetite for pleasure and partly by the tangled mass of bodies and realia which the plot is constantly on the verge of drowning in. At once both fantastical and massive, objects exert pressure on the arc of history – history is swallowed up in a grotesque and organic physicality that culminates in the war scenes in outright Bruegelian formations: “She stares and stares. The strangest ideas pass by in a flow as terrible as the flow of homeless: open skull fractures, gashes in flesh from thighs held together until the man loses consciousness […]. And his tongue becomes too large for his mouth as the bloody flesh flower is inverted from the bone, and the neighbours on the floor scream […]. A woman with a shattered hip socket gives a piercing cry at each touch. The flood of suffering is endless and without the relief of predictability. Bruised, empty faces protected by a special kind of deafness and blindness show themselves in the windows before they spread out indoors among the others and tell their inconceivable story.”

From one point of view, the “inconceivable story” is consistently ultimate: time is spent, the image of the world is spent – and gender is spent. Whether it is the mother Lilit, the lover Cora, or the fantastical child Alberta is of no consequence when all qualitative meaning has been transformed into so much (meat) waste or data. It is the same difference!

From the opposite point of view, however, the endless flood of fantastical body figurations signifies a poetic surplus. In the diverted attention of writing, where the volume of desires is weighed against the volume of terrors, there is an embedded artistic realisation. The fantastical questions its own practice – questions the relationship between art as construction and art as a “repetition” of nature’s growing forms.

In both her style, in which entire worlds are reflected in the crystalline density of individual sentences, and in her constant focus on the place where artistic and psychotic euphoria flow together, Vibeke Grønfeldt resembles the older Norwegian writer Cora Sandel. In the novel Mekanik (1992; Mechanics), the connection is symbolically marked through the name of the main character. Cora is directly “named” – and Alberta has “inherited” her name from the main character in Cora Sandel’s trilogy about Alberte, a character who, like Vibeke Grønfeldt’s women writers, writes on the verge of madness.

In Art

Is it at all possible for language to express the now or – as one of the many aspiring poets in Vibeke Grønfeldt’s books puts it – is it a medium “for forcing the now or obliterating it entirely in a verbal framework of past tense like barbed wire around an old, reassuring, and unchanging haunt that can later be visited as one would visit a museum”?

Vibeke Grønfeldt’s novel Sommerens døde (1978; The Death of Summer) is sprinkled with a network of meta-fictions and textual elements that directly or indirectly comment on the novel as a writing process. Thus, the title refers to, among other things, a successful novel written by one of the characters; a phase he has now written off in that he looks down on the writer’s need to “mirror and reflect in scratches on paper”. It also refers to the title of a novel – “Summer’s Death” – that plays a “part” in Vibeke Grønfeldt’s previous novel Din tavshed er min skrift på væggen (1976; Your Silence is My Writing on the Wall). Finally, the two connected female characters in the novel, of which one is an aspiring poet, are each bound to their own representative of the male literary institution – a writer and a publisher respectively. A web of writing projects that indirectly points to the work itself as a fiction within fictions.

Most of her work takes up such meta-aesthetic questions. The self-reflective is a general characteristic of Vibeke Grønfeldt’s fantastical universe, and in some of her books the issue of writing is so extremely intrusive that it overshadows the motifs. From her later works we have her novel Dødningeuret (The Deathwatch), which was published in 1990 as a kind of philosophical interlude to the historical novels Mulighedernes land and Mekanik. Both stylistically and thematically, Dødningeuret can actually be viewed as a reflection on the poetics of her entire body of work.

Even in the title, a poetic ambiguity is in play in that the “deathwatch” is more than just the name of a beetle that digs mazes of tunnels in furniture and woodwork. It is also a metaphor for the novel’s complex network of corresponding labyrinthine structures.

As a part of the labyrinth, the main character, the wood carver Severin, is a fascinated observer of the furniture beetle’s invisible movements – and is a kind of beetle himself: a visionary madman and artist who, analogous to the furniture beetle, consumes himself in the creation of his work. Severin’s – and the text’s – challenge is the boundary between nature and art. The fact that it shifts, that the work is not “finished” until the wood is dug out, until the form has devoured itself.

In his parallel run with the furniture beetle, Severin is caught up in a context in which the structures shift – in which the beetle’s rhythmic knocking on the wood may only be a “fraction of an individual piece of a century long, millennium long composition that no one knows beforehand” – and in which this process of shifting spreads further out into the text. Just as the deathwatch is a scientific, a psychological, and an artistic category, so the novel is built up as an ornament that continuously takes on new forms.

The ornament concept is played out in the text on several levels – the ornament is, in part, an artistic decoration and, in part, influences the text’s shifts in time and planes. For example, the novel is punctured by quotes from the sciences – a “frieze” of texts that are clearly quotations, but also magical signs that influence the fictional space.

Similarly, the characters are both bound up in their own moments and connected through this ornamental structure in which the characteristics of one spread to the other. The shifts between planes can be seen in yet another variation in the story of Severin’s work on the large cabinet – his life’s work.

”Finally he is sitting at the table working on the large drawers and doors piece he has put off for years. He is drawing the cabinet, each of the sixteen drawers, eight doors, forty pieces of decorative moulding, thirty-six larger surfaces, forty-eight carved knobs, inlaid pictures and mirrors, legs, shelves, and drawer partitions, a total of four hundred and sixty parts in addition to the more than one thousand dark and light rose petals in the pictures. He adds old ornaments as inlays and creates new ones, forces himself on, pushing and pushing so that nothing is hidden this time.”

In this description, the ornamental is a tool that establishes a connection between the registers of the real world and the poetic world. The ornament is neither here nor there, but an area somewhere in between construction and figuration, between system and process. The mathematical numerical series, which is in itself devoid of meaning, is paradoxically the pattern that gives the artist the freedom not to overlook anything – “nothing is hidden”. In the ornamental creativity, which is both fixed and improvisational, there is an openness to everything that otherwise only exists under the attention threshold. Be it the labyrinths of the furniture beetle or cosmic compositions, the ornamental form of recognition magically gives access to the totality of existence.

This is how the novel’s method appears – not directly, but rather allegorically and labyrinthine. And it is this indirectness that places Dødningeuret within a meta-aesthetic reasoning that is partially in line with, and partially makes a break from, the aesthetics of modernism. Vibeke Grønfeldt’s work shares the inherent reflection on the gap between language and reality; however, whereas modernism accentuates the difference between artistic and biological structures, her writing emphasises the correspondence between these planes.

In the end, Severin’s infuriated shout at his girlfriend – “I’m not finished. Do you hear me” – may even illuminate the black holes in Vibeke Grønfeldt’s entire body of work, giving the madness meaning! For it is in the receptivity towards the growing, the not yet finished, that art and madness meet; in an instinctual chaos, but also in an openness that is entirely free of linguistic barbed wire. In all its piercing atmosphere of doom, in all its exposure of the unfinished – everything that becomes rubbish in the mechanical grinder – Vibeke Grønfeldt’s writing can be viewed as an argument that there must be room for the random and uncontrollable if mankind is to survive.

Vibeke Grønfeldt’s practice is reminiscent of the poetics of Inger Christensen. In Erik Skyum-Nielsen’s collection of essays Modsprogets proces (1982; The Process of Counter-Language), Inger Christensen says of the artwork:

“[…] a work of art is not a statement about the world, it is a statement about how human beings make the world. The structure of a work of art says something about humanity’s relation to the world, the way people view it. However, there is something important here that I think is very difficult to grasp. I believe the artistic structure is at one and the same time an extension of a biological structure and influenced by consciousness.”

Translated by Jenifer Lloyd