Archive for the ‘Jens Christian Grondahl’ Category

Often I Am Happy

October 9, 2017

Danish writer Jens Christian Grondahl had a brief period of translation into English in the early 2000s, beginning with Silence in October, which probably remains his most famous novel. This was followed by Lucca, Virginia and An Altered Light (which had a US release only), all translated by Anne Born. Now we have his latest novel, Often I Am Happy, which, perhaps frustrated by the last ten years, he has translated himself. It’s a short novel which opens with a simple conceit: the narrator, Ellinor, is addressing her friend Anna – who has been dead for forty years:

“Now your husband is also dead, Anna. Your husband, our husband.”

The entanglements of their relationship, which the novel will slowly unpick, are more complex than simply a shared husband. Ellinor tells us that the husband, Georg, would not visit Anna’s grave – “I don’t think he ever forgave you completely” – and soon we discover why:

“You went to bed with your best friend’s husband and allowed him to drag you to your death.”

Georg and Ellinor’s marriage is perhaps not as unusual as it at first appears: when Anna dies in an avalanche while skiing, and Henning, Ellinor’s husband cannot be found, she and Georg grow close and eventually marry. It is Georg’s revelation as Anna’s life support machine is switched off which adds symmetry to their later relationship:

“’I saw them… In our room.’…You and Henning stood in front of the window. You had just time to let go of him as George entered, but only just.”

The novel is therefore a mediation of both loss and love. Ellinor, having suffered the loss of Henning in her youth, now must cope without Georg:

“I missed him as I was riding home on my bike. I miss him all the time, but it is something different about him that I miss at different times. His body next to me in bed, the sound of his steps, the familiar timbre of his voice in the familiar rooms.”

And later:

“There are times when I cannot hold his absence, and the feeling is a physical one, Anna; it is not a metaphor.”

Her internal grieving, however, does not satisfy Georg’s two sons, whom she has, of course, been a mother to. Her decision to sell the family home and move back to the neighbourhood where she was brought up has not gone down well. Perhaps to understand her story, we must first understand her mother’s. In the course of the novel Ellinor tells us about the experience of her mother, a young woman during World War Two, who fell in love with a German soldier during the time Denmark was occupied:

“It’s not that I want to romanticize. What is a love story? Two young people who feel driven towards each other.”

Sher mother discovers she is pregnant just as the war ends and her lover, Thomas, has to return to Germany. She is treated as a collaborator – “She and the other girls had their hair cut off before they were taken through the town on an open truck” – but continues to wait for his return long after Ellinor’s birth. Eventually she tells Ellinor the story of her father:

“’I suppose he forgot you,’ I said harshly when she had told me her story. She shook her head. ‘Oh no,’ she said softly, ‘that would make no sense.’”

Perhaps Ellinor learns from her mother’s inability to move on (when she is at one point offered the chance of another relationship she rejects it) and twice refuses to sacrifice her life to what she has lost. For all the drama, however, both lives are presented as ordinary, partly as a result of Ellinor’s conversational, and retrospective, narration. Grondahl’s point seems to be, as the title suggests, we continue to find happiness in face of adversity, and the reader’s overwhelming impression is of the resilience of the two women. This is, perhaps, why we end, among the graves, with images of love: the framed picture of Georg and Anna dancing, and “Thomas Hoffmann, that late summer when he walked with my mother under the harvest moon, out at the cove.”