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The Englished fiction of Jens Christian Grondahl

In tenth grade, I got to be friends with a foreign-exchange student from Greece. The most extroverted woman that I had met to date, Kathy (as she was known to everyone) boiled over with enthusiasms and opinions. It was thanks to pressure from her that I read The Alexandria Quartet - although not quite then. When she went home, we corresponded briefly. It was now that incompatibility emerged. I'd been drawn to Kathy precisely because she was European, a hurricane of fresh air in banal Westchester. But Kathy was even more strongly drawn to the United States. To my suggestion that I'd like to live in Europe some day, she wrote back insistently: No, Robert, Europe is old and tired. Europe is the past. Or words to that effect.

That's what I liked about Europe, of course - that it had a past. I didn't understand how toxic the past can be, especially when populism heats it up and the outline of dates and facts melts, like plastic, into an amorphous blob of wreckage and resentment. And over the decades between the 60s and now, Europe seemed at times (alarmingly to me) to outstrip my own country's modernity; with its fast trains, nuclear power, and well-developed social supports, Europe made the United States look quaintly underdeveloped. I certainly never thought of Europe as tired - not until just the other day, as I was slogging through Lucca, the new novel by Danish writer Jens Christian Grondahl (1998; Harcourt, 2002) 

Mr Grondahl has written a dozen novels, but Lucca is only the second to appear in English, and, like the first, Silence in October (1996; Harcourt, 2000), it has been ably translated by Anne Born. I read Silence in October earlier this year, and liked it very much - which is why I picked up Lucca. Silence in October is the first-person narrative of an art historian and critic whose wife has just walked out on him after eighteen years of marriage. What follows this opening is the narrator's attempt to understand how someone whom he thought he knew so well could suddenly wish to become a stranger. The result is an autobiography told with artful disregard for chronological order. It is also a gradually built-up indictment of the narrator, who, if not exactly unreliable, tells his story in a manner that's palpably self-serving. He tells us the bad stuff only when he's got nothing else left to tell. 

The shift, in Lucca, to the third person could probably not have been avoided, but it conduces to a wearying attenuation. It is one thing to hear a confession, and quite another to read one at second-hand, and I was restless and impatient long before the middle of the book. The novel is told from two points of view, the first, that of a doctor, and the second, that of a beautiful patient who comes under his care after a serious automobile accident that leaves her blind. Blindness, I hasten to note, is a key metaphor in both novels; toward the end of Silence in October, the narrator poignantly observes, 'But perhaps we were never so blind as when we looked into each other's eyes in order to be recognized.' That novel closes with the narrator contemplating the one photograph that his wife took of him on their trip to Portugal seven years ago (a trip that she appears, from Mastercard statements, to be retreading).

I am standing on the grass beneath the Gothic arches, outlined like rib bones against the sky. I am smiling at her, the invisible photographer, but she has taken too long to focus, the smile has stiffened. There is actually no smile left, only a forced, fatuous grimace as I meet my own gaze, as if I am looking straight through her. As if by looking myself in the eye I open a void into which she has already vanished.

Robert, the doctor, and Lucca (named by her Italian father after the town in which he was born, despite the fact that 'Luca' in Italian is a man's name) do not, unfortunately, talk to us directly. Rather, we overhear what each tells the other during Lucca's long convalescence, which concludes with Robert's bringing her to share his home - very much as friends, not lovers. Had I been Mr Grondahl's editor, I should have suggested that he rewrite this novel as a long conversation between Robert and Lucca, a change that I think would have made the novel at least as personal as Silence in October. It would have greatly reduced the tedium of Lucca's involved amatory history, and lifted Robert out of the semi-depressed haze in which, until the very end, he appears to be stuck. The lack of the spoken, personal voice is a great detraction.

Robert is the child a home that was broken by the time he was born; his mother worked hard as a sort of waitress and, unlike almost everyone else in the book, avoided further romantic entanglements. Until a few years before the novel begins, Robert was married to Monica, but, returning prematurely from a trip to Oslo, he encountered another man in his bedroom; Monica moved out shortly thereafter. Somewhat later, we learn of the first love of his life, Ana. Polish perhaps, at any rate a refugee from behind the Iron Curtain, she was nearly nineteen to his seventeen; having responded to his adoration by consenting to initiate his sexual life, she lost interest in him thereafter,  and was soon seen with an older man. Between Ana and Monica lay an unspecified number of casual lovers, but Robert appears to have given up on love. What draws him to Lucca is the instinctive opportunity to take care of someone - something he manages to do without pity. 

For her part, Lucca has been around, not surprising for a very pretty actress. The first lover whom she names is Daniel, an avant-garde composer who is much better at the keyboard than in bed.

She liked Daniel best when he sat at his piano and seemed to forget she was there. Something hard and decisive came over his mouth and eyes when he bent over the instrument, head slightly to one side. As if the music hid itself somewhere inside the black, varnished box, and he had to search for it blindly, infinitely careful not to chase it away. There was a restrained strength in the touch of his hands on the keys, his fingers moving so swiftly and precisely. His hands displaced a confidence there, in contrast to his clumsy, vague way of caressing her in bed.

This is not the place to catalogue Lucca's subsequent relationships, nor those of her friends, her parents, and seemingly every character in this novel. It's enough to point out that they're all terminated on one side or the other by carnal restlessness. This is not the same as cheating, for cheating spouses remain (as such) attached to their wedded spouses. The lovers in Lucca simply move on whenever they find that the thrill is gone. This pronounced motif means that the novel exhibits much of the emptiness with which promiscuous gay sex has so often been charged by critics of 'the bar scene.' For Mr Grondahl is no Proust, no obsessive anatomist of the stages and varieties of love. Inconstancy is rather the default setting of his characters' libidos. 

The endless roulade of relationships is wearying in itself, but it becomes perplexing when Lucca is shocked to find that her husband, Andreas, has been cheating on her, and has even contemplated leaving her. We have known from the book's early pages that her accident, which might have been a suicide attempt, followed some sort of fight with Andreas, because when she regains consciousness she refuses to allow him to visit. This, indeed, is how Robert begins his involvement with her, acting as a go-between for the remorseful husband and his implacable wife, and arranging, too, for the visits of little Lauritz, their son. (Robert has a daughter of his own, about twice Lauritz's age).  But we don't know what led up to the estrangement until nearly the end, and, while it's engrossing and dramatic - for once a character is moved to passion, even if it's only the passion of the wronged wife - it does not fit the climate of the rest of the novel. Nor have we been allowed to see the transformation of Lucca from randy soubrette to devoted housewife. One might say that the important part of the story, the part we'd most like to know, has been omitted, its place taken by tedious annals of commitment-phobes. 

Going through Andreas's pockets (innocently looking for matches), Lucca comes across a letter from The Other Woman, who repeats Andreas's clinching come-on line, "Sometimes you have to believe your own eyes." Lucca recalls that Andreas used these words with her, too, and that they had been decisive. 

Of course there was more to it than words. Ambiguous feelings and mysterious glances, a peculiar restlessness, an unexpected ease and the alluring powers of physical attraction. But the words made the difference, encouraging her to give herself once more. His words about believing what you saw, instead of being skeptical and cautious because you were no longer a spring chicken and had seen it all before. And yet the words had no more weight or meaning that those glances and feelings, jittery, intoxicating carnal dizziness. The words were the same, just as the glances and feelings were. Only the faces changed on the way. The faith in what you saw, that Andreas had spoken of, was itself faithless. You could believe in so much and so many. He was probably sincere when he said it. 

This is masterful, but it is only half the story. The other half, the half missing from Lucca (and not much in evidence in Silence in October, either), would tell about the very different relationship - one not founded in 'jittery, intoxicating dizziness' - that ought, for Lucca to feel betrayal so intensely, to have slowly but steadily substituted itself over the long years of marriage to Andreas. Perhaps no such 'married' relationship developed, and that's why Lucca is left confronting an abyss. Perhaps the whole disaster can be chalked up to Lucca's pursuit of motherhood and housewifeliness, to her failure to attend to Andreas as a man as well as as a husband. But if this is so, then the banality of Lucca's story is unrelieved. We must take her for a very dim creature indeed, but Lucca on the page is anything but dim. 

Alternatively, perhaps the atmosphere in which these characters live is too thin to support seriousness. This was the somewhat stereotypically American, somewhat prim response that Lucca elicited from me - or would have done had Mr Grondahl omitted an intriguing, elusive epilogue (much like that of the film, Place Vend˘me). Robert and Lucca are two adults who seem never to have witnessed, much less personally known, lasting love. Is that because lasting love is a childish illusion that only Americans, who differ from other Westerners most greatly in religious conviction, can sustain? Or has Denmark moved straight from repressive Calvinism to unfettered sexual freedom without any experience of wholly voluntary marriage? Must men and women be coerced into long-term relationships (regardless of the occasional lapse), or is it possible to find within marriage a bond more desirable than sexual allure? I wouldn't know how to read Lucca without raising these very serious questions, and I'm more than a little depressed by the evidence, albeit fictional, entered by Mr Grondahl. 

Although I haven't written much about it here, I do recommend Silence in October, especially to any reader curious about contemporary European fiction and not addicted to literary experimentation. As the narrator's story unfolded, out of order, a troubled emotional life emerged with all the transmuting refinement of art. No such transmutation seemed to be at work in Lucca, however; 'believing your own eyes' is something that comes after, not before, knowing your own thoughts. (August 2003) 

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