Waiting for Josefine Klougart in the bookstore, I overheard a man talking about Three Percent and searched online, finding the journal dedicated to literary work in translation. By the number that gives the publication its name, only 3% of books published in the U.S. are works in translation—but that is all books, the majority are nonfiction—the number is around 0.7% for literary fiction or poetry in translation.
Of that 0.7%, the books by women are at most half, let’s estimate—rounding down, in this case, 0.3% of all of the fiction and poetry books in translation published in the United States are written by women. Using another international lens, look at how many women have won the Nobel Prize for Literature, from 1901 to 2016, over the course of one hundred and fifteen years, only fourteen women have been awarded the prize, the other 99 (with a few years skipped for World War II) were men.
I have sought out authors from the Nordic countries, and each month I pick up the events calendar at Powell’s. Admittedly, I put this reading on my calendar for the sole reason that she’s from Scandinavia, from Denmark. Josefine Klougart read from her book, One of Us Is Sleeping, in September. She introduced herself and said her book is about grief and then she said it is also a book about a woman in her twenties who loses two men in her life and her mom gets diagnosed with cancer. She read from the beginning and it was addressed to you. It was in second person and carried emotions and thoughts and it wasn’t her accent that made this hard to follow: it was the absence of a narrative. Was she reading a story?
She paused and spoke for a moment—she said she read that part so we would get introduced to the themes—and then she took up again with her novel and read the final pages. She read the end of her novel. Her book is like prose poetry, though for the span of a novel. She said I know this is unusual at a reading for an author to read the end of a novel, but my book is not linear, I am going to read you the end. It doesn’t matter, she said, and with that she read us the end.
My only experience of her writing is what she read and I admit, I’ve also written prose poetry. Her book will appeal to your love of language, and writing a story wasn’t her point of entry into the work—she addressed this in the questions and answers. I tried to think of a question to ask, and when she ended her reading and asked for questions, I had by that time eliminated the obvious and I asked: In Scandinavian literary culture when a book is released in Danish, is it simultaneously published in Norwegian and Swedish?
She said my editor must have paid you to ask that. He is sitting behind you.
I turned around in my seat and looked briefly at a man in his thirties, fitting my idea of Danes being big—not fat. It’s not just heels, Josefine is tall. Josefine Klougart is tall with brown hair that has grown past her shoulders where it is blond. She speaks with an accent, asks on occasion how to pronounce a word in English, searches for a way to translate her thoughts, what word can she use? The plant is called brine in Danish, she says. No one in the audience knows what that plant is. She says the leaves have a pattern, like fractals, can I use that word? The audience nods, and she says I want to say the way the leaves grow, it is a pattern. She wears a black blouse with a soft V neck fringed by a narrow lace pattern. Her cheekbones are high. Her jaw is square and now she is shinning!
She is a beautiful woman, an intelligent and powerful woman and when she went on to answer questions about her creative process and she said, I write a lot. I believe it. I saw in my mind this woman with her computer like a loom, creating a tapestry, weaving sentences from her life, connecting with the Other through her relationship with words. It is not a rational thing; it doesn’t have a point, it isn’t an argument. It is a thing in itself, a voice. The voice has desires, it has sorrows, it yearns for something, for connection. I think, in a secular society, a relationship with art, with books, with the voices of history and humanity, one can have a relationship with the divine this way.
Imagine a reader, alone with an author’s voice, why that voice? Why did they pick it? Was it a friend who recommended the book, do they want to join a conversation about the book, to be with others? And the reader is alone with a book, a voice, and in the long conversation, in a lifetime of reading, you will ask questions of yourself and of life. And many of us seek to understand the mysteries of life through reading. It is as if all of life could be represented in language. The novel is the ultimate technology of the self; it is where identity is constructed.
Maybe that is why I struggled to follow Josefine’s words, as the novel I have come to know is not a voice, it is not like me writing what I’m thinking or transcribing other people’s voices; there is art to it, it is artificial, it is not natural, it is not the way we speak. We don’t describe things with as much detail and at such length as a novel allows; a book can be long, no one can speak so long. Josefine said she writes everything, her diary and everything, all into one document, and she tries not to go back and read what she has written, making an effort not to read it until she can’t wait any longer and she says, let’s see what’s there. She said it can be 400 pages, and then she reads and looks for patterns, what can be extracted and composed into her novel.
She said she is more like a poet, the way she works. But she’s careful at that point, because then it’s possible to have ideas about the book and she says literature is not about ideas. They way literature is taught in school is like there is an idea in the book that can be unwrapped from the language. She says literature is not like that. She says reading and writing is activism. She thinks of herself as an activist. Because in reading you can be transformed.
She holds up her book and says politicians can’t understand this.
It is five minutes past 8:30 and the clerk says, Josefine we must stop now. We have time for people to get their books signed, and you can continue talking. She steps over to the table and says we can continue the conversation here.
Narrative is an art of compressing and expanding and exploring time, and in the art, we can develop a relationship with characters. A prose poem can hold images, feelings, thoughts; it can have a presence, a voice; it can say “you” and evoke the Other, and yet even all that isn’t enough to hold my attention for the duration of a novel. I need a story, reading hundreds of pages is somehow easier with someone to follow, a desire to know what happens to them carries me deeper into the text, this unnatural thing, this artifice. This device of narrative developed by thousands of authors over the past five centuries to create the Novel. And in the 21st century, why read a book? Why not watch a show? HBO can tell you a human story.
Why the book? Because inside ourselves is a voice. Yes, we carry images of memory and dreams. And yet the voice inside you, that is your relationship with yourself and through books, your relationship with an author and with all of humanity. I am thinking that relationship can reach deeper, you can listen for a greater wisdom; it is a collective inheritance for any who would reach up and take a book. It is yours!
For a book published in Danish (about five million speakers), only a few of those books are later translated and released in the other Scandinavian languages. The press—the news in all of the three Scandinavian countries of Norway, Sweden, and Denmark—has a gentlemen’s agreement with publishers that they won’t review a book released in a neighboring country until it is published in their language, a year later—if that. Josefine said the countries used to be much closer. Strindberg, which country could claim him! All of the Scandinavian countries read Strindberg. The publishing company co-founded by Karl Ove Knausgaard, Pelikan, and a new publisher, Gladiator, who will publish Josefine’s new book: they are working together to publish her next book simultaneously in Denmark and Norway—in one language. Her novel will be in Danish, published in Norway, because on the page the languages are very similar and can be understood by readers in both countries. Currently when Knausgaard publishes a new book it is first in Norway, and it is hard to get in Denmark. She said it was difficult even with the internet, and thus the business model of their new publishing companies, Gladiator and Pelikan.
It used to be the countries were much closer, she says. Strindberg, it would be, which country does he belong to? They each could claim his culture. She says we can feel very alone as individuals.
I think of literature, in that moment, of reading, as a relationship with something greater than myself. What is Life without a story? I think reading connects me to deeper understanding. The books. I think, maybe I enjoy reading because I’m empty, and I can let the character in the book fill out within me. Josefine says she will change perspective in a single sentence because that is how our minds work, we can be here in the bookstore experiencing the moment and think about the past and then tomorrow, all in a moment.
One of Us Is Sleeping, by Josefine Klougart