A Conversation with Carsten Jensen
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RT: You regularly presented draft parts of the novel to an audience in the local library in Marstal, where the novel is set. Did your meetings with Marstallers have the character of a writing workshop?
CJ: I did workshop with the people of Marstal over the five years it took to write the novel. I was born there but was also a well-known and public figure in the outside world. I read excerpts from the work in progress. I didn't ask for advice on how to write my book, but I wanted the locals' opinions, and I also needed their information. I thought of it as a kind of trade: you get a book about your town and in turn you give me information. So when the book was launched in Marstal, the town organized a celebration. There was a sailors' choir, the local mayor made a speech, and Danish flags flew along the main streets. There was the feeling that "We have done this together and we are celebrating it together."
Some people told me: "I heard these stories as a child." And I replied: "You can't have because I made them up." What had happened was that fiction and reality had become totally welded. In the mind of the locals, you could no longer tell what was a story from the novel and what was local history.
RT: That is an achievement on your part. I want to ask about two other characters in We, the Drowned. You highlight the danger of going native, as Laurids Madsen does in Samoa. And perhaps the most evocative element of magical realism involves the handing over of the head of Captain Cook from one generation to another. What do these two iconic characters mean to you?
CJ: I don't pass any moral judgment on Laurids Madsen; it is not the job of the writer. His son Albert does, and it has nothing to do with his going native—it is about him as a father. He abandons his family in Marstal and creates a new family in Samoa that is a mirror image of his former one. There actually was a man from Marstal who lived in Samoa in 1873. He was even a friend of Robert Louis Stevenson. He ran a local trading post, went native, and married a local native girl, a Samoan. For the English settlers on the island, this was the worst thing that could be done. A European lost social status if he went native. He could have mistresses, but he could not marry them. Resulting children would be of mixed race, and they would be looked on as outcasts. The way that Laurids Madsen's extended family in Samoa became parasitical was an idea I picked up in a little-known book by Robert Louis Stevenson called A Footnote to History, a short anthropology of Samoa based on his own observations.
Then there is James Cook. I often get the question: What did you make up in the novel and what actually happened? As a general rule, the answer is: The more unlikely it sounds, the surer you can be that it really happened. And the more everyday and commonplace it sounds, the more you can be sure that I made it up. I could find a lot of extraordinary events described in the Marstal archives, but the daily lives I had to invent. So then I'm asked: What about James Cook's shrunken head? And I have to say that that's the exception. I made that up.
The title of the book refers to the presence of death—and what is deader than a shrunken head? Mark Twain inspired me to come up with that idea. He wrote a short book about the Sandwich Islands, Roughing It in the Sandwich Islands, which he visited as a young man. In it he gives a very ironic description of the death of James Cook, whom he clearly doesn't have much respect for. He describes in detail how his dead body was chopped up by the natives and used in different ways— for example, the entrails were smoked. So I asked myself: What about James Cook's head? And I thought: This is where I come in. In the novel the shrunken head is a memento mori, a constant reminder of the presence of death.
RT: How is a drowned sailor memorialized?
CJ: Storytelling involves a beginning and an ending, but for the widows of Marstal whose husbands were lost at sea, there never was an ending. No burial, no ritual of saying goodbye—like a sentence without a period. I felt I was finally providing an ending to their story, bringing the dead back home and burying them. I was constructing a symbolic or metaphorical cemetery.
As one character in the novel explained why he needed to survive a storm at sea, "I want to be buried in the new cemetery."
RT: Your latest novel in Danish, Sidste rejse (The last journey), also focuses on the sea, this time as seen through the eyes of Danish artist Carl Rasmussen. In it you interrogate the meaning of art. How different a novel did you want it to be from We, the Drowned?
CJ: This latest novel is the story of an outsider who wants to enter a community but fails. It is a story about a painter—a child of the Golden Age of Danish painting in the mid- and late-nineteenth century. Painters of that school gave the Danes an image of themselves that we have never outgrown. It is a picture of a small, modest, harmonious nation. It has no great landscapes, no great heroic people. The beauty is to be found in the modesty of everything—the small towns, the intimate details of daily life lived by modest people.
Carl Rasmussen was a member of the second generation of these artists. He gets caught between this traditional art form and the modern, industrializing world and has an artistic crisis. The novel is about a painter who cannot see because narrow-minded ideas of what art is prevent him from seeing reality when it doesn't conform to his ideals. Carl Rasmussen may have met Gauguin, who was married to a Dane and lived on and off in Copenhagen. Gauguin wrote an insightful book attacking the Danish mentality. The two painters meet in my novel. Gauguin's modern canvases are a total shock to Rasmussen, whose works remained traditional. (He was a mediocre painter and has been completely forgotten.)
I made a choice to write a novel about a Danish painter who is mercifully forgotten today. It wasn't his art that interested me but the limitations of his art. In many ways that art reminds me of Denmark today: introverted, conservative, partially blind.
RT: Your fiction does not betray how politically engaged you are in Denmark. How do you resist the temptation to politicize your novels?
CJ: When I write my essays or am invited to speak on television, I feel I have a very immediate impact. I raise my voice whenever there is silence on a political issue that I feel is relevant. The novel is where I explore other ideas, including existential ones. The first section of We, the Drowned describes a battle to take control of a German town in the Schleswig War. I depict these people as being far removed from politics. They don't even understand the word, never mind the purpose of the war.
I am now writing a novel about Danish soldiers in the war in Afghanistan. After I went there I formed a totally different opinion from the official one. But this novel, too, is not intended to be a political lecture about what is right or wrong; it is about men in extreme situations and what it does to them. Novels are about exploring unexplored territory in the human experience or, at least, drawing new maps of old lands.
Table of Contents
SPECIAL SECTION: German Crime Writing
Guest edited by J. Madison Davis
- Introduction, J. Madison Davis, guest editor
- FICTION: Lisa Lercher, "Forty-three-year-old woman seeking..."
- ESSAY: Beatrix Kramlovsky, "Show Your Face, oh Violence"
- ESSAY: Almuth Heuner, "Germany's Crime and Mystery Scene"
- FICTION: Nina George, "The Light in the West"
- ESSAY: Hughes Schlueter, "The Grand Duchy Strikes Back"
- ESSAY: Paul Ott, "Murder in the Alpenglow: Swiss Crime Writing in the German Language"
- ESSAY: Thomas Przybilka, "A Resource for Lovers of Crime Writing: The Bonn Archive of Secondary Crime Writing Literature"
SPECIAL SECTION: World Cup/World Lit 2011
Guest edited by John Turnbull
- Introduction, John Turnbull, guest editor
- INTERVIEW: John Turnbull, "A Conversation with Nalinaksha Bhattacharya"
- FICTION: Nalinaksha Bhattacharya, "Hem and Football" an excerpt
- POETRY: Mona Nicole Sfeir, "Laws of the Game (adapted from FIFA 2010-11)"
- INTERVIEW: Sandra Kingery, "A Conversation with Ana María Moix"
- ESSAY: Jennifer Doyle, "Soccer, Art and Desire"
- INTERVIEW: John Turnbull, "A Conversation with Elísabet Jökulsdóttir"
- ESSAY: Clarice Lispector, "Armando Nogueira, Soccer, and Me (Poor Thing)"
- WLT Online Book Club: The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine by Alina Bronsky
- Author Profile: Jonas Hassen Khemiri
- Czesław Miłosz Centennial
- City Profile: Tallinn, Estonia
- Raquel Chalfi, "Double Exposure in the Black Forest"
Q&A: WLT INTERVIEWS
- Ray Taras, "A Conversation with Carsten Jensen"
WEB EXCLUSIVES: MARITIME READING
- READING LIST: More Maritime Reading
- PHOTO GALLERY: Marstal Maritime Museum Photos
- EXCERPT:Vi sejlede bare (2009; We just sailed) by Carsten Jensen
- POETRY: "The Castaway"by Alessio Zanelli
OUTPOSTS: Norwich, Norfolk
- Norwich, Norfolk