Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Friday, August 13, 2010

mirror lands

He sits himself down on a rock protruding from out of the dry ground. The light is sharp between the fig trees on the mountain slopes around him. He screws up his eyes as his gaze passes over the trees and beyond to the mountains on the other side of the Popovo valley. In his hand at his knee hangs a letter. A white sheet of paper, lines of hastily scribbled letters slanting sharply to the right. Each word utters itself without him reading. They say that his wife is dead and that she will be buried in Dubrovnik beyond the mountains the day after tomorrow at 4 pm. That she was found on the bathroom floor. That it happened while his son, who has written the letter, and his daughter-in-law were in with the neighbours for no more than half an hour, and that she could not have been lying there very long. At the bottom of the page, a busy little symbol is scrawled, and although it is almost quite illegible, he recognises the name of his son.


Now Frane’s coughing returns to him. It consumes him with guilt about the sour, sulphurous feeling in his stomach that its maddening sound on occasion brought up in him. Although he by no means wished to be like that, he was: He was unable to abide the sound of her asthmatic hacking that both of them were aware sooner or later would be the death of her. He found it simply too intimate an experience to hear the mucus rattle in her throat before being loosened, to hear the sputum being worked against the roof of her mouth before being swallowed or spat out into the lavatory. It offended his modesty in the same way as when people champed on their food or quite unashamedly enjoyed the sound of their own singing. He could not endure this demonstration of the force of her asthma, its insufferable momentum and predictability. The illness was a problem medicine was unable to solve, merely adjourn, and which could only annihilate itself by unfurling to the full and killing her.
He picks up the letter from his knee and reads it again: Frane is dead. They found her on the bathroom floor. She had been lying there for half an hour at the most, while Tomislav and Svetlana were in with the neighbours having coffee, and she will be buried from the Danče church the day after tomorrow at 4 pm. Not a word does it say about needing him home.

extract from sample translation

© Birgithe Kosović & Gyldendal, 2010
Translation © Martin Aitken, 2010

Thursday, July 29, 2010

how they look

PRECIPICe is a literary magazine out of Ontario, Canada. The new issue just out contains a recommendable review of Scandinavian literature, including poems by Jørgen Leth and Niels Hav in my translations, one of which is this one from Leth's 1987 collection Hvordan de ser ud [How They Look]:


How they look
not how they are

stop along the way
lay small things out

investigate what happens
vinyl flashes across the fields

a tree burning
a horse that looks up and listens

describe how they look
a person with an onion in their hand

a handful of earth with metal in it
not how they are

from Hvordan de ser ud [How They Look] (1987)

Saturday, June 26, 2010

faeries are cool (new vampires)

Carlsen have got me translating the third in Melissa Marr's bestselling urban fantasy quartet of Wicked Lovely novels, this one entitled Fragile Eternity. Read about the book here>> and visit Melissa's website here>>.

Tons of readers for this, I reckon. And one of the characters smokes. Faeries are cool.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010


Translations of mine just out. 'My father's wristwatch', a poem by Niels Hav in The Los Angeles Review (here>>) and 'Boredom: seven poems around a theme' by Jørgen Leth (selected by the translator) in The Literary Review (here>>).

More from both writers to come soon in Canada's PRECIPICe Magazine.

Monday, June 7, 2010


My translation of Janne Teller's Nothing, published this spring on Simon & Schuster's Atheneum imprint in the US and Canada, will be coming out on Strident in the UK & Commonwealth in April 2011.

Friday, May 28, 2010

silhouette of a sinner

Leonora Christina Skov's extraordinary queer Gothic salute Silhuet af en synder [Silhouette of a Sinner] came out here a couple of weeks ago on Rosinante to ecstatic reviews across the board. Lilian Munk Rösing at Information (here>>) summed it nicely:

[a] metaliterary, pulpy nest of plot-boxes packed with ghosts and ghouls, lesbian incest and voyeurism, cross-dressers and changelings ...

Here's a short extract - the book's opening paragraphs - from the English sample I did recently for Gyldendal. It's already stirring up interest in the UK. Watch this space.

August 1973

These many years gone by not a single day has passed without me thinking of the time I returned to Liljenholm. It was in November 1941, a little after four in the afternoon, and just where the avenue of lime trees comes to an end and the manor reveals itself in full view, my feet stopped all by themselves.
“My God!”
In front of me, my dearest Nella turned around. Her skin was like porcelain, even in the wind that had long since got the better of her carefully done hair; she brushed a long curl away from her eyes and put down her suitcase for a moment.
“What’s the matter?”
She took no notice my pointing finger, but simply picked up her suitcase again and pulled her collar further up around her ears.
“I’d suggest you get a move on,” she said over her shoulder.
“But can’t you see …?”
“Do hurry. It’s going to rain soon.”
It had been five years since we had been there last, and in our absence, the hall had fallen in on itself like a hunched old man. Or perhaps it was merely the wilderness that had grown up around it. Bare creepers lay in wait in the fading light of afternoon, having crawled up the redbrick walls and covered most of the entrance. The hole in the wilderness where the main door had to be resembled something more than a hole, however. It looked like … well, I hardly know how to put it. But imagine opening a thick, old book one wishes to read again. One turns the pages, oblivious, the paper crackles and naturally one is expecting a familiar story to begin. Perhaps it even says Chapter One, yet underneath one finds only a hole the size of a fist, a hole in every single page so all that remains are useless, amputated sentences. That is how it felt to see Liljenholm again. Even as I went closer, I saw only disquieting darkness where the entrance was supposed to be.
“One could hardly claim Liljenholm has aged with grace,” I commented, if only for the sake of saying something to make things settle again, and Nella was almost inside the hole now. Flanked by two moss-covered stone lions, rampant and with teeth bared. I vaguely remembered having seen them before.
“Hardly. Had you expected it to?” she asked and patted one of the beasts, the one on the right that had lost half its wig-like mane, a clean break from the top of the head to a point midway down its muscular back. Her matter-of-factness surprised me, although really it oughtn’t to have. After all, this was Nella’s childhood home, not mine. Eighteen long years spent here with her mother, Antonia von Liljenholm.
Are you familiar with the name? I hope so. Regardless of what one otherwise may think about Antonia, she was certainly one of Denmark’s leading Gothic authoresses up to World War II, though the passage of time has been unkind to her reputation. Even the most major of her thirty-two novels have been forgotten, and if we are to include her personal life history, mention must be made of the fact that all those around her died or disappeared (or, in Nella’s case, fled to Copenhagen), leaving Antonia to spend the last ten years of her life alone in the hall here. She died of cancer at the age of fifty-two. In 1936.
“To think she could bear to live here on her own,” I exclaimed, just as the outline of the main door loomed up in front of us, Nella putting the key in the lock and turning it three times. We were here only to bring order into Antonia’s personal documents and to sort through the heirlooms before the manor was to be sold and our futures could begin. Well, Nella’s future, to be exact. I was here just to keep Nella company and to lend a hand where I was able. An appendage, one might say, of no great weight, though the latter description, in consideration of my appearance, would require some small amendment. Nella turned her head and caught my gaze. Her face was devoid of expression, like a bedsheet that had been ironed.
“Are you ready?” she asked, then pushed at the door until it opened with a groan of capitulation. I assume I said yes. But I was not in the least bit ready at all. Even today, so many years later that it could all be something imagined, just to think of the moment I stepped over the threshold is so very disagreeable. Everything I knew disappeared behind me without my having any idea what was going on. Everything I was suddenly became open to question, and I do not even know what disturbs me the most: the fact that it happened, or that it just as easily might not have happened.

For the fact of the matter is that I never left Liljenholm again. That is the short version. And the long one? You shall have it, of course, as soon as this foreword is written to end. Yet I shall linger a moment before handing the pen to that considerably younger version of my self. She who committed to writing all that happened at Liljenholm that winter, and all that had happened in the years before, and who later, in 1943, published it all as the real story, Silhouette of a Sinner. Under the rather inadequate pseudonym A. von Liljenholm, no less. But before I lose myself entirely in the past, allow me to draw attention to the fact that I am writing this foreword under duress. I cannot see that a book such as Silhouette of a Sinner should have any need at all of a foreword, yet my publisher seemingly is of a different opinion. Bella, she is called. She is Nella’s daughter, and I have never before found difficulty saying no, but I cannot possibly say no to a person who resembles Nella so much. My Nella. That is what love does for one.

© Leonora Christina Skov and Rosinante/ROSINANTE&CO, Copenhagen 2010
Translation © Martin Aitken 2010


My Danish translation of Boyd Morrison's The Ark came out yesterday on Lindhardt & Ringhof.

Sunday, May 2, 2010


The Silence of 1915 occurred on September 7 and embraced Western Europe and the countries from the Baltic in the north to the Balkans in the south. Since it was unforeseen, no accounts of it exist. Many failed to even perceive it, fleeting and incidental as it was, and this despite their own participation in it. There was no question of recalcitrance, neither was there time. The silence occurred, catching Europe between two breaths and with one leg aloft, as it were, whereupon everything and everyone carried on as though nothing had happened. How indeed should one have known that the silence one so unwittingly upheld embraced all of Europe? Naturally, it might have been made the subject of discussion immediately following its occurrence, but since its few witnesses were unreasonably distributed – many lived far from civilised parts, in regions where silence already was their confidant – the subject was quickly changed. The news media, who besides participating in the event also received incredulous enquiries concerning it, realised immediately that it would be impossible to verify and might therefore lead to most anything at all, and hushed it up. He who seeks information about the event is even now, so many years after, at a loss. A Bulgarian agronomical journal mentions it in a subclause in the context of an article on watermills in the north-eastern provinces, and the pseudonym Ludwig Renn treats the phenomenon with ill-bestowed irony in his novel of 1936, Vor Grossen Wandlungen. It should also be noted that in France in 1921 initiative was taken to repeat the event on its 6th anniversary, though this remained but a local enterprise, betrayed by a dog in Containcourt and pigeons in Honfleur.

(extract of sample translation)

© Per Højholt & Gyldendalske Boghandel, Nordisk Forlag A/S, 2001
Translation © Martin Aitken, 2010

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

on auricula

"Much of this appears in subclauses and people will say to themselves: he’s making this up! But they can check and see: all of it’s true! And then they’ll suppose all the rest of it’s true as well, which it isn’t!"

Højholt on his then unfinished 'Auricula', in conversation with Lars Johansson in 1997, from Johansson's book Udsatte egne - det er mig. Samtaler med Per Højholt (Borgen, 1998)

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

new letters

Just out, and featuring two of the aforementioned stories by Dorthe Nors. Thomas E. Kennedy, too. See contents and read The Duckling and She frequented cemeteries here>>

Saturday, April 24, 2010

on auricula

Just found this English piece on Auricula, from Nordic Literature Yearbook 2003.

Friday, April 23, 2010


Dorthe Nors (here>>), whose stories I've translated for AGNI, The Boston Review, Fence Magazine and New Letters, has a new book out in Danish on May 7. If the other stuff's anything to go by, you should buy it. Pulitzer winner 2009, Junot Díaz, was prompted to write this after reading those stories:

Beautiful, faceted, haunting stories ... Dorthe Nors is fantastic ... a rising star of Danish letters.


The spring issue of Danish Literary Magazine, just out online, features an extract from my sample translation of multi-talent Mathilde Walter Clark's riotous new novel, Priapus. Read it here>>.

Have a look, too, at Mathilde's website (here>>).

Thursday, April 22, 2010


Things to do between jobs. Like, finally, a sample translation of Per Højholt's monumentally absurd Auricula. If this is to be published, it'll be the slowest, most meticulous translation ever. And my epitaph will say: He translated Auricula and needs the rest.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

in the company of angels

Copenhagen-based writer, editor, lecturer Thomas E. Kennedy (here>>), also an adept translator of Danish literature (e.g. Dan Turèll, Henrik Nordbrandt), is currently in the middle of a major-league international breakthrough with Bloomsbury just having published In The Company of Angels, the first in Kennedy's already well-reviewed Copenhagen quartet, previously out on now-defunct Irish small press Wynkin de Worde.

'Absinthe Minded', the blog of US journal Absinthe, has a piece including review extracts here>>.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

i am not here

Dorph/Pasternak (here>>). Two novels already out, third just done: Jeg er ikke her. I Am Not Here. Nordic crime, dark as fuck. Easily the best thing going on in the genre here. The Danish original won't be out for a while, but here's a brief taster from the English sample:

Erik Rohde turned his head in front of the bathroom mirror and pulled back his lips with two fingers. He got the torch in his mouth and found the right angle and turned it on. Fine and smooth it was, and he felt the relief in his stomach, the penicillin had done the trick. He felt with the tip of his tongue, caught his pupil in the mirror, made to contract by the light. Be fine again. He opened his mouth again to make sure, and there on the back of his tongue was a nubbly lustre of tiny white spots. The thrush was all over now, inside the dark of his organism. He felt dizzy and imagined it spreading to his guts and eating him up and spitting him out so he tumbled into his open grave. He got his head over the toilet bowl and felt the spasms in his stomach, but there was only slime to come up and some of it landed on the seat. There were dark strands in it, he wiped it up with his index finger and turned it in the pale light. Blood.
“Dad, are you finished in there?”
“Go back to bed and sleep, Marie”
“I need a wee.”
“Can’t you use the downstairs toilet?”
“It’s too cold.”
“Go, for Christ’s sake!”
It was quiet again and he heard Marie Louise go down the corridor and the stairs to the ground floor creak. He felt sorry he’d snapped. He heard the door of the downstairs toilet. Kartoffelrækkerne – the Potato Rows – crooked, old houses in three storeys facing the Lakes, full of your kids and my kids, now our kids, stripped pine furniture, Christiania bikes and architects, nothing more than stairs and built-in cupboards, tiny rooms, and you couldn’t open a door without the whole place creaking and groaning and howling.
He stood listening to the sounds of the house. Ann Charlotte had put on a record. Bartok’s concerto for viola and orchestra. She was saying something to Marie now, he couldn’t hear what.
He and Ann Charlotte rarely spoke, he avoided her, they were busy, took turns staying at work and looking after Peter. The little chap with his middle ear infections since March, and they’d drained the fluid, it got better, he wasn’t crying any more at night, but it hadn’t really gone away either.
He missed her.
Rohde clenched his fist. It’d all be like before, before the fever and the thrush and the dry cough, the purple rash on his throat and his face, and the eternal stitch in his side and the nausea. The new broad-spectrum penicillin just needed time to kick in.
He stood at the mirror again. Had he put on weight as well?
He opened the cupboard and took out Ann Charlotte’s powder case, it was Chanel, there was a little beige pad in it. He smoothed some powder out with difficulty, pressed it with his finger, it seemed so stupid, but he was obsessed by it, covered up the purple spots, covered up his whole face.
He looked in the mirror again.
Good as new.
He smiled. Nightshift in twenty minutes. KCB. Kriminalpolitiets Centrale Beredskab. Crime Investigation Department. He put on his work clothes, light blue shirt, flannels, Ecco shoes.
Six hours by himself.
Six hours to think about something else.

© Christian Dorph & Simon Pasternak 2010
Translation © Martin Aitken 2010

until you perish

Julie Hastrup's debut crime novel En torn i øjet (here>>) was published recently to decent reviews by Gyldendal, having initially been set to come out on now defunct Bazar. English title for the sample is Until You Perish. Here's the murder:

The blow was hard and abrupt. Anna collapsed on top of the branch, striking her forehead as she fell. Something warm and sticky ran down her face. She struggled to get to her feet, and was dealt a second blow to the back of the head. Her face was mashed into the ground. Her mouth filled with earth and gravel. She tried to scream, but the sound stuck in her throat. She felt another’s breath against her skin, and a familiar scent. There was a third, savage blow. A sound of something splintering. Blood spewed into her mouth. She felt the surge of nausea, and gradually became faint and lifeless inside. Come on, come on! Get away! She wanted to pick up the branch or find a sharp stone, defend herself. Fight. But her body would no longer comply. She felt something sharp in her back. Over and over. There was a faint gurgling. Suddenly, she was in doubt as to whether it was her own. Then sound disappeared. The last thought in her mind was: “Now I am dying,” and in some way it was a comfort. Nothing more could happen to her now.

© Julie Hastrup and Bazar Forlag ApS 2009
Translation © Martin Aitken 2009


Janne Teller's Nothing, recently published in my translation by Simon & Schuster's Atheneum, imprint has received its fourth starred review in the States - no mean achievement. The review - in The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books - has gone online here>>

Sunday, April 4, 2010


Jacob Ejersbo's critically acclaimed African trilogy - Exile, Revolution, Liberty - is being published in the UK by Christopher Maclehose's Quercus. Maclehose, who previously brought both Peter Høeg and Stieg Larsson to the attention of British readers, is interviewed here>> in Politiken (Danish only).

Monday, March 8, 2010


Just a few weeks ago, Anne Lise Marstrand-Jørgensen received Danish weekly Weekendavisen's prestigious Prize for Literature for her recent and much acclaimed novel, Hildegard, a stunning, claustrophobic fiction depicting the life of the Blessed Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179). A masterful work deserving of widespread attention. Gyldendal commissioned me for a sample translation, a small excerpt of which follows here:

The Archbishop leads the procession through the church. Brushing silk robes; jangling, golden crucifixes. From the thuribles a good smell issues, an intoxicating, heavy scent, and in a moment they are to rise from their uncomfortable position. He blesses them with outstretched hands. A thousand fireflies leave his hands. They burn on their backs. He splashes water on their outstretched bodies; small, grey islands appear on the white cloth, a circular pattern, beautifully symmetrical. Jutta lies motionless. The child trembles. A single word is sufficient sign for Jutta, who is concentrated on all that is said, and slowly she rises to her knees, places both hands under the child’s arms and pulls her upright with her. Hildegard’s face blushes red and white, the twigs have left a labyrinth on her cheeks and chin, the garland of straw has dropped halfway down over her eyebrows. It seems she will fall: she sways from side to side, opens and closes her hands, but remains standing. There is a priest on either side of them; he hands them each two lighted candles. One candle for the love of God, one for the love of one’s neighbour, burning tallow running down Hildegard’s hands.
Thy dead men shall live, together with my dead body shall they arise. Awake and sing, ye that dwell in dust: for thy dew is as the dew of herbs, and the earth shall cast out the dead.
The expelled air of bodies rising. Someone drops something on the floor with a harsh clatter, another coughs, another groans. Jutta is a branch of a young tree. Hildegard is a hard, unripened fruit, fastened to the tree by a pliable stalk. She totters no longer. Hildebert and Mechthild step forth and stand beside their child. Hildebert is standing so close that Hildegard can inhale his familiar scent. Mechthild is behind him. With the bishop leading the way, the funereal procession proceeds through the church. Hildegard’s feet are tingling; she keeps a tight hold of the candles, her body now woken from torpor. Hildebert is standing so close she can feel his cloak, the soft fur brushing intolerably against her arm.
Veni, Creator Spiritus, mentes tuorum visita, imple superna gratia quae tu creasti pectora.
Before the altar they must kneel three times.
Suscipe me, Domine, secundum eloquium tuum, et vivam et non confundas me in expectatione mea.
The four candles, Jutta’s two and Hildegard’s two, are to be placed on the altar. The draught almost snuffs out the flame, and the priest must shield the candles with his hand. The fire sparkles in his golden finger ring, turning Hildegard into a sleepwalker child reaching out her hand to touch the flame. Hildebert takes her by the shoulder, arresting her outstretched hand, turning her round so that she must follow Jutta and the rest of the procession back to the uncomfortable bed. The warmth of his hand seeps through her clothing. During the reading and the sermon they again lie prone and when once more they are allowed to rise, Hildegard surveys the congregation, looking for her father’s face. People have come from all over, men and women, uneasy, tripping feet, colourful capes, furs, and mouths agape. It is a day without end, the moment before death, in which the light of Paradise, distant and unattainable, beguiles. Hildebert towers above the other men; hunched and broad-shouldered he stands with folded hands. When Hildegard’s name is uttered in barely comprehensible prayer, a twitch passes across his otherwise so expressionless face. Mechthild’s face is only barely visible in shadow and light, soft, shimmering fields concealing her eyes and motionless mouth. Hildegard stared and stared before being made to lie down on the spruce needles. Her eyes are dry, but their faces were a collision with an absence almost forgotten. Little jolts, a scorching hot tongue against the inside of an iron bell.
The girls are kneeling on the floor in front of their cell. The shovel is so small it almost vanishes in the hand of the bishop. A fine layer of dusty earth gathers along the straw garland on Hildegard’s head. Then the bishop sprinkles earth on Jutta’s head, too, and she blinks. De terra plasmasti me et carne induisti me. Redemtor noster resuscita me in novissimo die.
Mechthild places her arm under Hildebert’s, but he pulls away from her. Sophia sends Mechthild a nod. She nods back as tears flow down over her cheeks and mouth, despite Hildebert looking upon her with harsh, condemning eyes. Mechthild looks at her daughter, who is kneeling with her back towards her. She herself will never set foot in the chambers in which her youngest born will spend the rest of her days. Until now she has been able to hold the void at bay by fantasising of reunion, but on this mountain daydreams have no place. She will at best be able to speak to her daughter once a year through a tiny, barred window. In this bare church room, she will sit on a wooden chair and listen to the voice of her child; here she will manoeuvre her fingers through the bars in order to stroke her hands; here she will see the years extinguish the child’s face she knows, and replace it with that of a woman. It was her own idea to send Hildegard to the cloister, yet even though she cannot see any other way, doubt has been eating at her ever since Hildegard was sent to Sponheim. On several occasions she has felt ready to ride alone the entire way to Sophia’s estate and take back her daughter. She has been quite unable to speak of the matter with Hildebert. He says almost nothing any more, but behaves as though they have an account to settle.
O lord, thou hast searched me, and known me. Thou knowest my downsitting and mine uprising, thou understandest my thought afar off.
The male voices of the choir sound beautifully through the church. The girls sway forward on their knees, the congregation remaining standing behind them. Some mumble along with the psalm; most are silent, their eyes on the girls, the Archbishop, the priests and the monks, who follow on into the little cell bearing thuribles, holy water, mortar trough and trowel. Jutta is gone first, then Hildegard. Jutta’s radiant, white clothing cannot withstand the dark; only the voice of the bishop still prevails, strong and masterful.
Thou shalt come to thy grave in a full age, like as a shock of corn cometh in in his season.
The priests’ response is a mumble so subdued those at the front must take a step forward.
Verily, verily, I say unto you, Except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone: but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit. He that loveth his life shall lose it; and he that hateth his life in this world shall keep it unto life eternal.
Hildegard is gone; the darkness engulfs its corn of wheat, and Mechthild wrings her hands until they pain. Sophia touches her arm. She is saying something Mechthild cannot hear. Mechthild is thinking only that it is as though Hildegard never was in the world at all, but crept straight from her mother’s womb into her grave at the rear of this foreign church.
© Anne Lise Marstrand-Jørgensen and Gyldendal 2009
Translation © Martin Aitken 2010

Friday, February 12, 2010

denmark in the wind

I translated this little piece for the novelist Hanne-Vibeke Holst, and then forgot all about it, until falling over it here>> in the New York Times.

Monday, February 8, 2010


My translation of Janne Teller's award-winning novel for young readers, Nothing, is published in the US and Canada by Simon & Schuster on their Atheneum imprint tomorrow. Branch magazines have already given it three so-called starred reviews. Apparently, that's exceptional. Check Booklist (December 1, 2009), Publishers Weekly (here>>) (January 4, 2010) and Kirkus Reviews (January 15, 2010) (below):

The seventh graders of Tæring School are much like any others, until Pierre Anthon has an existential crisis, climbs a tree and refuses to come back to school. The other students can’t live their lives as usual with one of their classmates sitting in a tree, pelting them with unripe plums every morning and yelling, “In a few years you’ll all be dead and forgotten and diddly-squat, nothing.” Determined to prove to Pierre Anthon that life has plenty of meaning, the students embark on a dire quest. Over the course of months, each student is required to give up something full of meaning, something chosen by the previous sacrificing student. The sacrificial items start small—a favorite pair of shoes, a fishing pole—but become more and more dreadful as the pile of meaning grows. Quietly and without fanfare, the students’ adventure develops into one that rivals Lord of the Flies for horror. The matter-of-fact, ruthlessly logical amorality of these teens is chilling. Gorgeously lyrical, as abetted by Aitken’s translation, and dreadfully bleak.

Kirkus Reviews, January 15, 2010

Sunday, February 7, 2010


While we're at it, two more of Dorthe Nors' stories in my translations have been nominated for a prestigious Pushcart Prize (see here>>) in the US. They are The Buddhist [Buddhisten] here>> in The Boston Review (Sept/Oct 2009), and The Wadden Sea [Vadehavet] in AGNI #70.

Friday, February 5, 2010

mutual destruction

The new issue of the excellent US journal FENCE Magazine (here>>) contains, amongst a wealth of other good stuff, my translation of Dorthe Nors' eerily suggestive story Gensidig aflivning from her critically acclaimed collection Kantslag [Karate Chop]. The English title is Mutual Destruction and it starts like this:

He whistles his dog to him, puts a collar on it and pulls it a short way back from the edge of the wood so they’re not stuck out like a sore thumb. It’s late in the day and there’s a big fallow field between him and Morten, so he can remain standing here. Morten is going about the farmyard with the red bitch at his heels. It’s lean and rough-haired, and he’s always only ever had Dachshunds. Small, aggressive animals that chew the lead and the floor mats in the car, and Henrik doesn’t like small dogs. But when they go hunting foxes, Morten takes his Dachshund, and when they go shooting by the fjord, Henrik takes his Small Munsterlander and the decoys. Many’s the time they’ve sat in the caravan on the Gardener’s land down in the bog, drinking weak coffee from plastic cups to the smell of wet dog and talking about how practically things divided up, Henrik having a big dog for the one thing and Morten having Dachshunds for the other. But now Morten’s going about the farmyard down there alone. A single light is shining from the kitchen window. He must have forgotten to switch it off, and the dog reaches only to his bootlegs. It looks like he’s trying to fix some part of the door in the gable end. There’s a lot needs fixing now. There’s a lot needs to sink in.

[excerpt copyright Dorthe Nors]

Monday, January 25, 2010

the ark

Boyd Morrison (here>>) is not as yet a name known to many. But having self-published three novels in Kindle e-book format and woken the established publishing houses with their roaring success, he was picked up by Simon & Schuster, who are now putting out his first 'proper' novel in the spring and pushing him as a new Dan Brown. The Ark (or The Noah's Ark Quest as the Brits are calling it) is a swashbuckling, boys' own affair with a combat engineer in the starring role. Think Indiana Jones behind the wheel of the improbable vehicle pictured above (which, among a lot of other shiny hardware in the engineer's wet-dream category, has a prominent role in the proceedings). Don't look for The Ark in your Literary Studies curriculum. But then, who needs a fancy pen when you've got a Liebherr T282 mining truck to play with?

The Ark will be out in my Danish translation in the spring, published by Lindhardt & Ringhof. A likely Danish title: Jagten på Noas ark.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

no danes in delhi

Hands on the stop button, I got involved in what seemed like a major publishing drive for Danish (and Dutch, and Norwegian ...) literature in India. It always seemed too good to be true, and as Information reports here, it was. I managed to get one book off the keyboard before the hotline from Delhi self-destructed: Mette Finderup's excellent novel for young readers, Blink. Gyldendal are now picking up on the translation and will be pushing it at the Bologna fair in April. There's an extract from the draft posted here.


I recently translated Jørgen Leth's wonderful liner notes for a new jazz release, Balladeering, by Danish guitarist Jakob Bro. Read about that here on Jakob's site, listen to some of the music and watch excerpts from Sune Blicher's film of the recording sessions, Weightless. The English liner notes are here:

New York Invitation

Yellow cab from Battery Park up through Manhattan. September 14, 2008. Pulling up now. 441 West 53rd Street. I’ve a feeling about this. This is déjà-vu. I’m stepping into a past. I press the button outside Avatar Studios. I’m buzzed in, and I take the elevator up. Solid iron door, press the button. Now I’m inside. Invited in. A tingling, thrilling atmosphere.

“In New York I’ll be following the highly talented young Danish guitarist Jakob Bro during recording sessions for his new album in the legendary Avatar Studios together with the likes of Paul Motian, Bill Frisell, Lee Konitz, and Ben Street. An unprecedented line-up of some of the greatest, most trailblazing jazz musicians alive. We’re filming in the studio Monday and Tuesday. If Jørgen wants to stop by, he’s more than welcome. We could even do a scene with Jørgen listening to the music and meeting Jakob and the other musicians. My US number is 19175443714. I’m in New York from Friday night.”

These were the words of the young filmmaker Andreas Koefoed, forwarded by a mutual friend, that sent me on my way.

And now I’m here.

He knew I was in New York at the time. I was taking part in a film project Jennifer Elster had been working on for a couple of years, and as always there was so much else for me to do in New York before going on to Haiti. What is this? I thought. Back to jazz? Do I want this?

But wait, this is an offer you can’t refuse: Avatar Studios, of course I want to go and look. It was like a piece of archaeology: Was it real, or was it a dream? It was a whole lot New York, at any rate. Ring the buzzer. Come on in. Hear voices and the sound of guitars being tuned. Friendly people bidding welcome. I meet Jakob Bro, and I meet the Danish filmcrew, headed up by director Sune Blicher, who are recording everything that’s happening, even before the music has commenced. What kind of occasion is this? The young Danish composer Jakob Bro has succeeded in gathering together some legendary jazz musicians for a recording session in which they are to play his compositions. I don’t know what’s going on in Danish jazz, so I need to get my bearings from scratch. But it turns out not to be difficult. Just a matter of keeping my ears open. I realize this is major. The music is out on its own. And Jakob Bro is highly appreciated by some of the world’s best musicians. This is major.

Lee Konitz was one of my heroes back in my youth when I wrote about jazz. To have the opportunity of meeting him now was like an invitation from providence. In Copenhagen, Lars Movin had finished editing En dag forsvandt Duke Jordan i Harlem/One Day Duke Jordan Disappeared in Harlem, my book of jazz writings from the 50’s and 60’s. There are quite a few lines about Lee Konitz in that book. He arrived with this new sound and became the exponent of what we right away began calling Cool Jazz. I was crazy about him and with the thought of how, as I saw it, he introduced the air into the instrument in an easy, steady flow, and then shaped his flourishing figures in what seemed so effortless an exertion. It may all be a myth. But it was how we saw him. Inapproachable behind his glasses, yet eternally inspired and creatively at the forefront.

Back then he stood right there alongside bebop’s greatest and most inventive soloist, Charlie Parker. Both played alto sax, and there were plenty of grounds for exciting comparisons. Konitz was one of the white musicians Miles Davis had invited into his trailblazing octet for the Birth of the Cool sessions. One of the junctures at which a new language of jazz took shape. Another early inspiration for Konitz was the pianist Lennie Tristano. It was jazz history. Later, Konitz soared above it all. His lightness of tone and his lyrical playing gilded everything he touched.

But most impressive is his endurance. He’s always right in there, never afraid of new combinations, new challenges. It’s not just his tone, his way of playing that’s cool. It’s the way he is. He is a paragon of cool. Always present, always distant. Anyway, these were the kinds of associations that occurred to me when I learned I could meet Lee Konitz all these years after I lost touch with jazz. It was a supreme gift of chance.

Paul Motian I knew from the early Bill Evans Trio, whose café recordings of Waltz for Debby and a series of other tunes were so marvellous. This was the best of all trios. The deeply introvert Evans, the virtuoso bassist Scott LaFaro (who died all too prematurely), and then Motian at the drums. All of it fabulous, breathed poetry, immersion, lightness of touch. I remember Paul Motian from that time as a quite unrivalled, sensitive drummer.

I left it all behind years ago, at about the time when Albert Ayler and Cecil Taylor were the renewers of jazz, and I know little about the newer names. I ended up with violent aversions toward the much too repetitive middle-ground jazz, usually tenor sax quartets in the style of Johnny Griffin, all of it a meaningless dirge. The last thing to interest me was Monk’s quartet, though I would have preferred them without Charlie Rouse.

Being so unaware of what’s going on in jazz today is not something I’m proud of. But I know what I like among the things I do know and still care for. I’m very choosy. I return all the time to Miles Davis, Bill Evans, Getz, Antonio Carlos Jobim (who became my good friend and did the music for one of my films, Det legende menneske/Moments of Play, in 1986), Joao Gilberto, Coltrane, Monk, Bud Powell (about whom I made my very first film, Stopforbud/Stop for Bud in 1963), Billie Holiday, Lester Young, Duke Ellington, Chet Baker. Those are probably my favourites, the ones who last through all time.

Now I know a little more. A lot more, I would say. It was a major thrill for me being in the Avatar Studios that day in September. To feel music so ethereal and so full of poetry is a fabulous experience. For music to possess such qualities is in itself exceptional. This was the feeling that was all over that day. I felt myself seduced and transported away by the slow dreaminess of the ballads from one cut to the next.

All of a sudden I’m standing before Lee Konitz, a slight, elderly gentleman. A gleam behind the glasses. I tell him right away how much I have admired him and how often I have written about him. In days gone by. He listens politely, but would rather talk about more legitimate things. He lives in Cologne, but owns a house in Poland, too. A house in Poland. Such excentricity. The information makes a strong impression on me. So many of my founding experiences in jazz are from Poland, way back in 1959-61 when I accompanied Danish musicians (Louis Hjulmand, Max Brüel, John Tchicai, Niels Brøndsted) to jazz jamborees, as they were called. I became good friends with the great Polish composer Krzysztof Komeda (who later did the music for a number of Roman Polanski’s films, and some of Henning Carlsen’s, too, among them Sult/Hunger). I arranged a residency for Komeda and the tenor saxophonist Jan Wroblewski (still active) for a few weeks at the Jazzcafé Montmartre in Copenhagen. Stan Getz was the first American jazz musician to play concerts in Warsaw. And now Lee Konitz has a house in Poland. Pure mythology! Jazz musicians are the most peculiar people sometimes. They seek out strangeness.

The musicians were getting ready. I took in the studio. In the centre, a very large room with the drum kit in the middle, then at the sides, three or four enclosed spaces with glass walls facing out toward the big room. This is just like a movie, I thought. And thought, too, that it was so obvious now, the famous acoustics had to come from all those wooden panels cladding the walls.

I talk with Lee Konitz again. About many years ago when he was in Haiti with the bassist Eddie Gomez (known from his long association with Bill Evans). They recorded an album with the Haitian jazz composer and pianist Gérard Merceron. Collectors may note this is a rarity barely figuring in the discography. I know of it only because my old friend Ebbe Traberg had a copy. He had everything. Knew everything.

The sight of Paul Motian fascinates me. I sense I still can be a total fan. Like with the bike rider Lance Armstrong. I know Armstrong, have looked into his eyes and taken in his replies to my questions so many times. Yet am still reticent as to approaching him directly. I’m not going to approach Paul Motian either, definitely not, I’m simply going to observe. He hides what is most probably his bald head beneath a woolen beanie. His presence is one of privacy. Very special. A very strong charisma. I am fully aware that he is a key figure in this exclusive set-up. He has played with Jakob Bro many times. Even before I have heard a note of Jakob Bro’s music, I know his class, I can register who it is he makes music with in New York.

And I needn’t wait any longer than the first ballad he’s prepared for them.

Paul Motian’s drumming with the whiskers and the sticks. I’ve never heard anything like this. Ebullient, yet simultaneously discreet. The tension thickens. Bill Frisell making the guitar sing, crisp and poignant. Konitz plays better than ever in my opinion. His tone and his arabesques touch me. I’m thinking that Jakob Bro can get so very much out of this. Bro and Konitz join up, a form of dialogue. Konitz, master of cool, putting his heart in. It’s the same thing with poetry. The sparser the language in a poem, the more sensuous it becomes.

I relish everything I experience in these rooms. I note that Lee Konitz insists on rearranging the light, not just in his own room, but in the room in the middle, too, Paul Motian’s room, for there’s a lamp reflecting in the cymbal and it’s in his eyes. It won’t do. Paul Motian laughs discreetly. Afterward we sit in the production room. Rows of chairs. We listen to the cut they just recorded, a fabulous ballad. Now they all have lights in their eyes, especially Jakob Bro. Lee Konitz is the only one with reservations. I sense that’s the role he wants to play: the perfectionist. He believes he can do it better. It’s hard to comprehend. He plays like an angel. A wise, inspired, elderly angel. But when it transpires everyone is crazy about the first take, he doesn’t push it, doesn’t want to “argue with everyone”. This is his way of marking his perfectionism, at the same time as he’s loath to give way.

When we get to Paul Motian’s miraculously subdued, economically meted little solo, Konitz turns around in his chair and sends Motian behind him a glance. No inkling of a smile. Just the head turned halfway and then the glance. For me this was a rare moment: one master’s acknowledgement of another. And this was how Paul Motian took it, too, I noticed. Without words. I must say that the moment touched me.

A year later, days sitting alone in my house in Jacmel, Haiti, on the top floor, the room with the blue tiles. I’m listening to the completed CD. I realize how unparalleled not just the project, but the work itself actually is. They play ballads – they balladeer. Not standard ballads, but original, flowing, impassioned pieces of music. It sounds like nothing I’ve heard. Which makes sense. That’s why they got together. It appeals so profoundly to me. So often I’ve felt irritation at the way jazz repeated its most hackneyed patterns. As though it worried about not pleasing everyone. Take, for example, the recipe for most recordings: first an uptempo number, then a ballad, then an uptempo – maybe even a jumpy – number, then maybe a ballad more. A dull recipe! It’s beyond me how jazz musicians, who ought to be noncomformists, ever got that neurotic thought that such variation of tempo was so necessary. I have so often wished they just would play a few more ballads. I mean, even Miles Davis constructed his records that way, but with him it didn’t matter, because everything was up in the stratosphere and in that certain mood, a climate that was created from album to album.

Just as infuriating is that old, unshakeable habit of standard quartet line-ups featuring tenor sax always running off the sax solo first, then the piano, then bass, then drums, as though some misconceived democratic notion dictated that everyone get his own – far too protracted – solo. This routine, too, worked absolutely fine for geniuses like Parker, Bud Powell, Gillespie, Max Roach. Note, though, that Max Roach never imposed long solos upon either his audience or his fellow musicians. Why should he, when his whole performance was almost a solo in itself.

And now Jakob Bro is here, throwing out the family heirlooms. His approach is crystal clear: He is pushing back the borders of the ballad. A context in which it’s legitimate to immerse oneself into a given state and to see what is going to happen. What I hear is that these musicians are exploring outlines, developing them, toying with them, reflecting upon their endless possibilities. Dreamy pieces in slow motion. Ethereal music. I’m reminded of Alexander Calder’s mobiles. And I think of the crackled resonances allowed to hang suspended, the intimate whispering of instruments to one another. The feeling sometimes that Frisell, Street and Bro are tenderly guiding Konitz through some strange landscape. And the feeling of time. Paul Motian almost stroking the surface of the drums, showing us what kind of an instrument a drum actually is when taken into consideration and caressed.

A point of departure is the crucial discovery of the innate lightness of the pianoless combination that Mulligan and Chet Baker introduced so early, and of course even earlier there was Django Reinhardt and Stephane Grapelli. A wealth of associations occur to me when I listen to this music. The title of the first track, Weightless, provides a precise idea of where we’re going. Sometimes there is something about the musical progression like water rolling in an ocean, a feeling that a tone is established and pursued wherever it happens to go. And one can sense rings spreading out in the water. And time and again, Konitz across the decades, a voice issuing out of the dark currents of time – and in one piece ending so suddenly and so full of pain.

In the third track, Vraa, there occur what one may venture to call unison passages that can be construed as a kind of antithesis to those unison passages in Monk where piano follows horns note for note. Antithesis, because Monk’s unison passages were heavy and full of edge, whereas Jakob Bro’s are light as a feather, transparent, a crucial distinction. One has the feeling that the musicians are spelling their way through the material in a kind of forwardly directed, mumbled unison. Motian guides with smouldering intensity. Sometimes it is like a children’s song: a slow, slow naïvist narrative, no-one pushing.

The fourth cut, Starting Point. An effervescence from the fingerboard of the guitar, and suddenly amidst it all, clear, exclamatory tones from Frisell putting things into place and opening the door for Konitz to sneak in and commence his own narrative. Another association: This musicianship reminds me of Chinese caligraphy; we filmed a Chinese artist one time, all those light, rapid strokes, the truth test of it all residing in the fact that none of it could be corrected afterward. In the fifth track, Greenland, Motian, as though in some naïve painting, alludes to a more classical percussionism; it feels like push and shove up against a fluid movement. The theme fades slowly into silence, a quivering of drumskin and the crisp tonal dissolution of guitar. Another incomparable moment. Terrace Place, the sixth cut, sleepwalks; it comes to a standstill, it stops, the momentum is pulled tight, then Konitz’ sparklingly clear narrative, great brush strokes pointing on and illuminating it all. And inside this dynamically highly restricted field, the paradoxical gleam of light in the seventh track, Sort.

Always the exchange of lines in motion, halting, remaining stationary, a diversity of pulses entering in, jostling, opening up and exuding light. The light is there, it is visible on the outskirts, it forges a path through scrub and undergrowth.

Jørgen Leth

Translated by Martin Aitken

biking and blogging

Back when I was an avid bike racer, heaving myself through three or four training sessions a week with the local club, I had a motto as regards bike maintenance. A golden rule, you might say, to the effect that the bike always, and without exception had to be cleaned after use. Unless, of course, you couldn't be arsed. The same is pretty much true of blogging. I haven't been arsed for quite some time now, and who wants to keep up with a blog if there's nothing to keep up with. It's all just old newspapers waiting to be binned. Anyway, I'm going to try to be conscientious now, if anyone should still be there, and without kidding myself that the world lost anything it loved.

I'll write something about translation now. Wait and see.