The latest addition to my website is Harald Voetmann‘s Vågen (Awake). Voetmann is a classicist and this book is about Pliny the Elder, famous for his Natural History, an early encyclopedia, and for his death from the fumes of Vesuvius. The book is narrated by Pliny and by his nephew and adopted son Pliny the Younger. We follow Pliny the Elder’s compilation of the work but also see a comparison between his worthy intellectual effort and the ugliness of the world in which he lives. Pliny aims to catalogue the whole world but even he realises this is not feasible and many of the things he believes to be facts are not, with our greater knowledge, at all accurate. His nephew takes a more pragmatic view, preferring sex to his uncle’s great labours.
The latest addition to my website is Suzanne Brøgger‘s Jadekatten (Jade Cat). This is the family saga of the Løvin family, a Danish-Jewish highly dysfunctional family. The focus is on the three later generations, with the first two generations having to cope with World War II, when Denmark was occupied by the Germans and the Jews had to flee, in this case to Sweden, with Katze, the non-Jewish matriarch staying behind with her daughter Li. They do survive the war but marital tension and infidelity, major parent-child disputes, mental health issues, poor decision-making regarding careers and finance and poor choice of partners/spouses result in continuous problems and disasters. Indeed, the entire family both the Løvins, their spouses and closest friends can be said to be thoroughly dysfunctional which means we never get bored and can only be grateful that, however bad our own family may be, it cannot be this bad.
The latest addition to my website is Peter Adolphsen‘s Brummstein (The Brummstein). Though a Danish writer, Adolphsen sets his book mainly in Switzerland and Germany. It tells the story of strange stone fragments, collected from the Hölloch Cave in the Swiss Alps. Josef Siedler, who collected them believed that the cave was a gateway to a mysterious subterranean civilisation (Hölloch means Hell hole in German). He did not find the civilisation but he did finds these humming stones. Much of the book is about what happens to the stones after his death, as they are passed to his nephew and then to various people in Nazi Germany, East Germany and post-war Germany. Adolphsen tells the often unusual stories of these people and, as Siedler’s note explaining their origin remains with them, we are left wondering whether someone else will go to Hölloch and explore further. It is a most original book and a very well-told story.
The latest addition to my website is Peter Adolphsen‘s Machine (Machine). This is another short but very inventive novel from Adolphsen. We follow the life of an oil molecule, from its creation some fifty-five million years ago (from the heart of a Eohippus) and how it either directly affects various various people or how things happen to them when it is being transported or used. There are two main characters – Jimmy Nash, originally from Azerbaijan, who extracts the oil from the ground, and Clarissa Sanders who puts the molecule in her car in the form of petrol. Their lives and the molecule interact in surprising ways. It is very clever, very inventive, very informative and a joy to read.
The latest addition to my website is Janne Teller‘s Hvis der var krig i Norden (War). This is a story that imagines that it is the Danes that become refugees (in the Danish original) but the British in this translation of the book. Britain as been taken over by a dictator with his nasty Britification police and is at war with the Scandinavian countries, who are bombing the UK. The fourteen year old boy (though Teller uses the second person to drive the point home to the readers) and his family have to flee and go to Egypt where there is a large refugee camp but where they are not particularly welcome, not least because the British behave badly. We follow their difficulties in trying to get asylum, work and learn the language, while things are not going well at home. Showing the problems faced from the British point of view is highly effective and, is of course, Teller’s aim.
We have just returned from our continuing tour of East European capitals – the third this year and the fifth in the past two years – with a visit to Riga. This was not a literary trip but… I have only one Latvian author on my Latvia page and own only eleven Latvian novels, not all in English. Indeed, very few have been translated into English. The bookshop you can see above left claims to be the largest bookshop in the Baltics. However, unlike in Western bookshops, they did not have a display of recent arrivals. Indeed, their display – which did not have any promotional signs, just the books – had books such as ones by Umberto Eko (sic), Paulu Koelju (Paulo Coelho) and, perhaps not surprisingly, Džordžs Orvels‘ 1984. While we do mess around with foreign names in Latin script in English, when it comes to place names and historical figures, I do not think we do it for contemporary authors. Anyway, I cannot give you much of an idea what Latvian authors are being read in Latvia today.
I did look for statutes of Latvian authors in Riga but the statues seemed to be mainly Latvian historical and political figures. The figure to the right is an author but it is Pushkin, apparently a gift to Riga from the City of Moscow in 2009 (see the Wikipedia article on it for more info). Understandably, I suppose, the inscription is in Cyrillic only, so instead of Aleksandrs Puškins, we merely get A. Пушкин, whose meaning may not be obvious to many people.
The not very attractive building to the left is the National Library of Latvia, opened in 2014 and the other side of the River Daugava from the Old Town where the bookshop, Pushkin and most of the tourist attraction are located. When I visited, they had an interesting exhibit on the history of the printed book in Latvia, starting with early bibles and travel accounts, up to the present day. As it was in the dark, with low level lighting for the exhibits, it was not possible to take photos. Incidentally the Latvian for book is grāmata, presumably from the Greek γράμματα, meaning letters from which, of course, we get our word grammar.
The building is eight storeys tall and is all open inside, so you can see up to the stacks, as in the picture to the right. When I arrived they were holding a wedding in the large atrium! Unlike in other national libraries (British Library, Library of Congress, for example) it is easy to gain access to the stacks and I was able to wander around. Knowing about three words of Latvian, I could not find much that I recognised. I do not know if they have large offsite or underground stores as with the British Library, Library of Congress, etc. but there did not seem to be a large amount of books available. It was disappointing to see relatively few people there, apart from the wedding party and a couple of parties of schoolchildren.
I wandered round the stacks, failing to recognise virtually all of the authors but was glad to see this small display of books by Regina Ezera, the only Latvian author currently on my site. You can see that the two books from the left are her novel Aka, which I have read and reviewed. Sadly it is not available in English (I read it in German).
I would like to hope more Latvian novels make their way into English but I am not optimistic. We saw virtually no-one reading a book (e.g. on the train), no Kindles (though plenty of mobile/cell phones) and only two bookshops in Riga, so I am guessing that reading is not a big thing for the Latvians.
Back in the West, we did not do much better for literary statues in Copenhagen, except, of course, for Hans Christian Andersen, who does not appear on my site. In the photo to the right, you can see the largest bookshop in Copenhagen, Arnold Busck. It was an excellent bookshop, with many books in English as well as in Danish.
The photo to the left shows their display of new fiction in Danish. Here is what was on display:
Mich Vraa: Haabet, a novel about the Danish involvement in the slave trade in the Caribbean in the early part of the nineteenth century.
Merete Pruds Helle: Folkets skønhed [The Beauty of People]. One of her books – A dream of antiquity journey : an imaginary journey around the ancient Mediterranean has been translated into English and a couple of her other books have been translated into French and German. This one is a family chronicle about a poor family in the 1930s set on the offshore island of Langeland.
Katrine Marie Guldager: Bror og Søster [Brother and Sister]. Her collection of stories called Copenhagen as well as her book of poetry called have been translated into English. This book is the fifth in a family saga called the Køge Chronicle. Set in 1976, it focuses on the relationship between a brother and sister (as the title tells us) called Henry and Leonora.
Benn Q. Holm: De døde og de levende [The Dead and the Living]. This novel is set during the German occupation of Denmark in World War II and is about Karen and Ebbe. Ebbe manages to escape to Sweden but, after the war, when he returns, things between him and Karen are not as they should be.
Morten Vittrup: Argentineren der kom sejlende på en cedertræsplanke [The Argentinian who Sailed on a Cedar Plank]. This novel is about Victor de la Vega, an Argentinian who washes ashore in Malaga in 1954. He meets Sofia who is thinking about becoming a nun but changes her mind on meeting Victor. The novel, spanning some eighty years, is about the life of the couple and involves not only various fictional characters but Che Guevara and Borges.
Lotte Kaa Andersen: Hambros Allé 7-9-13. This is a novel about the residents of Nos 7, 9 and 13 Hambros Allé, an exclusive part of Copenhagen, with the basic message that money does not necessary bring happiness.
Ane Riel: Harpiks [Resin]. This novel is about a strange family who live on an isolated island. Mother is too big to leave the bedroom and father collects junk. Lots of it. He also announces the death of his still living daughter.
Charlotte Weitze: Mørke cyklister [Dark Cyclists]. A couple of her books have been translated in to German. This is a collection of stories where reality and fantasy collide.
Nitesh Anjaan: Kind of Blue. A story of three rootless young men in Copenhagen, trying to find meaning in their life.
Aydin Soei: Forsoning [Reconciliation]. An autobiographical novel about growing up in Iran and then fleeing to the Soviet Union and finally to Denmark.
Johannes Lilleøre: Mårhund [Raccoon]. Lars Peter grows up in a remote part of Denmark and finds most comfort talking to animals, including raccoons. Twenty years later, things are not much better.
Niels Lyngsø: Himlen under jorden [Heaven Underground]. His poetry collection Pencil of Rays and Spiked Mace has been published in English. This novel is the second in a trilogy (the first is called Min ukendte bror [My Unknown Brother]), this novel is about Nadia Nazir, anthropologist and expert on sexuality, who lives in a commune in the Paris Catacombs, where the people experiment with sex, and about Hans-Peter, the unknown brother of the previous book, who is in Geneva dealing with scientific crime.
Carsten Jensen: Den første sten [The First Stone]. His novel We, the Drowned has already been published in English. This novel is about a platoon of Danish soldiers in Afghanistan during the recent war and the moral conflicts they face.
Morten Pape: Planen [The Plan]. An autobiographical novel about growing up in a ghetto where crime and violence are part of daily life.
I thought that this seemed a most interesting collection of books but, sadly, I doubt if we will see many or even any in English.
The photo to the right is a shelf in Helsingør public library. You can see Danish versions of Ali Ollikainen’s White Hunger, a Finnish novel which has been translated into English, Katherine Pancol‘s La valse lente des tortues, translated into English as The Slow Waltz of Turtles, Antonio Pennacchi’s Il fasciocomunista, not yet translated into English, though two of his other works have been, Ruth Ozeki‘s A Tale for the Time Being and Véronique Olmi’s Le premier amour (which has also been translated into Chinese German, Italian, Polish and Russian but not English, though one of her other books has been translated into English). I have copies of all but the Pancol. I do not think I would find any but the Ozeki in my local library.
Kronborg Castle aka Elsinor
Helsingør also has strong literary connections as its English name is Elsinor and Shakespeare’s Hamlet was set there. We do not really know much about the real Hamlet, though his name appears in legends dating back to the tenth century, well before Kronborg Castle was built. We also have no evidence that Shakespeare visited Helsingør, not least because it was royal palace in Shakespeare’s day and not open to the public. Nor do we know his sources. They may have come from what we now call Ur-Hamlet, a now lost play, possibly written by Thomas Kyd. Even if the connection between Kronborg/Helsingør and Hamlet is at best dubious, apart from the name, they certainly cash in on the connection and To Be or Not To be t-shirts and fridge magnets and other souvenirs are readily available. Hamlet has been performed there on numerous occasions, with English actors such as John Gieglud, Laurence Olivier, Derek Jacobi, Christopher Plummer and David Tennant, as well as various Danish actors having performed in it. With its magnificent setting overlooking the Øresund towards Sweden, it is easy to see why. If you are ever in Copenhagen, it is well worth the visit, a forty-five minute train journey from the city.
The latest addition to my website is Hans Scherfig‘s Det forsømte forår (Stolen Spring), a book probably written before but published after Den forsvundne fuldmægtig (The Missing Bureaucrat) but which features some of the characters from that book. It is set primarily in a prestigious fee-paying school in Copenhagen, based on the school Scherfig attended as a boy and which he hated. The story starts with the murder of the headmaster, Blomme, one of whose favourite malt drops is poisoned with strychnine. We then learn of a class twenty-fifth year reunion for former pupils of the school. Most of them have gone on to do well (though not all) and we also learn that the murderer is among their number. We then follow this class over a period of years when they were at school, including the actual murder, of which no-one suspects anything, except the perpetrator. In Scherfig’s view, the teachers were almost all borderline psychopaths and frustrated that they have ended up as teachers in a school. They take it out on the boys, with both physical and psychological abuse, though the boys themselves, doubtless following the example of their teachers, pick on the other, weaker boys. In short, Scherfig paints the portrait of a rather unpleasant school, where the only surprise is that only one teacher is murdered and only one of the class ends up in prison. It is not as good as Den forsvundne fuldmægtig (The Missing Bureaucrat), not least because Scherfig’s bitterness predominates.
The latest addition to my website is Hans Scherfig‘s Den forsvundne fuldmægtig (The Missing Bureaucrat). This novel takes the form of a detective story, when two men in Copenhagen are found missing within a short while of one another. The first is a respected civil servant, working in the War Department, Teodor Amsted, a man who has always been punctilious in everything he does, both at work and at home. The second is something of a tramp, but clearly an educated one, as he reads books in foreign languages and asks the newsagent for the London Times. Initially, there seems to be no connection between the two but then the police do find a few connections. They also suspect that Amsted may have killed himself, when his office receives a suicide note and, later, the army find a badly exploded body but with Amsted’s watch and wearing the expensive clothes that Amsted wears but which are not common in Copenhagen. However, Scherfig uses this story, as he does in other of his books, to mock the bourgeoisie – their hypocrisy, narrow-mindedness and their self-imposed constraints. It is told in a very dry, ironic style but is very funny and, despite the fact that it is nearly seventy years old, it is probably still relevant today.
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