Inger Christensen: Azorno

What a puzzling book!  Or rather — what a puzzle of a book.  How to review it?  I think a good way to start is by contrasting it to books that failed me where it succeeded.  About a year ago I reviewed Nadine Gordimer’s The Conservationist.  My feelings toward that book have declined sharply, in part because it has come to represent — surely unfairly — something I despise.  To me, it was obfuscated solely for the sake of appearing more substantial than it was, mistaking opaque for profound.  That is about as bad in my book as being clever just to be clever.  I like inovative and unconventional and even obfuscated style, but it should serve and not detract from the substance of the book.  When I started Inger Christensen’s Azorno (1967; tr. by Denise Newman 2009), I was a bit wary because there are enough blatant contradictions and perspective shifts early in the text to suggest Christensen is just poking fun at the reader because, as the author, she can.  (However, there were never parts with strange abstractions like in Gordimer, and I remember that being the worst part of that book.)  Well, my worries quickly went away when Azorno, though not being clear in itself, clearly settled on some fascinating themes — and the obfuscation enhanced those themes (yes!).

Azorno

Review copy courtesy of New Directions.

The first line is very interesting.  It also introduces the loose boundaries of the text and the uncertain nature of the facts presented.

I’ve learned that I’m the woman he first meets on page eight.

I admit, I didn’t wait to read pages one through seven before skipping to page eight to see who was talking.  Strangely, there is no encounter of this sort on page eight, so either that first page is not talking about this book or it is lying.  Disoriented, I read on to discover what it was talking about.  A writer named Sampel is working on a book.  Azorno is the main character.  The woman who wrote this introductory sentence thinks she is the inspiration for the lovely woman Azorno meets on page eight of Sampel’s book.  In the next section, another narrator takes over, though at the time the transition is not apparent.  It soon becomes obvious that we are dealing with multiple narrators who are writing letters to one another.  But then come the contradictions:

But if the truth is finally to come out, there’s one thing that can’t have two meanings: Yesterday I was with Azorno here in Rome.  It was the first Sunday in May, and the noon hour was unbelievably hot.

It was the first Sunday in May and the air was unusually cool.  I had just said good-bye to Azorno and wasn’t sure which direction to walk now that I was alone after three uninterrupted days with Azorno, who always decides which direction to take . . . .

Slowly, despite the uncertainty of who the women are and where they stand in relationship with each other and with Sampel and Azorno, the women take shape in the minds of the reader.  Then Christensen blurs the image, and we’re just not sure (and I never was again sure) who was real and who was imagined, who was writing what I was reading and who was the potential pseudonym.  Was one of the women writing this book under an assumed name?  Was Sampel himself writing it?  Is it Sampel’s wife?  Is it Adorno?

This might sound frustrating, and I suppose it could be if approached with the wrong expectations.  However, as I alluded above, the technique is not without its purpose.  Furthermore, the story itself is very compelling.  See, there are five women in all.  The one who is silent for the first part of the book takes a greater role in the second half.  This is Bet Sampel, Sampel’s wife.  Here is a heartbreaking thing she says when she finally gets her voice and is not merely the subject of the other women’s letters.

As early as page eight I noticed a very incisive and loving account of the woman Azorno, the main character, meets.

At first I was flattered to think that Sampel had used me as a model for this compelling description, but gradually, as I read on, it became clear that he was describing someone else.

Trying to figure out just who is the inspiration for that fabulous description, Bet narrows it down to four candidates and, using a telegram from Sampel, invites them all to their house while Sampel is away.  Sampel has been away for months, and during this time Bet has found out she is pregnant with his child.  All four women show up, and all of the other four are also pregnant.  Christensen doesn’t let this go to melodrama, though, and the scene where the women sit awkwardly around while Bet analyzes them is fantastic.  It also ends bizarrely, alluding to the possibility that someone is insane, perhaps institutionalized.  And maybe someone has been murdered.  Maybe not.  Figuring out the truth is not the point.

There is nothing to be solved, but something to bind.  Bind one to the other.  Bind yourself to a random person whose random circumstances cause you to no longer recognize yourself simply as a human being, but rather as a human-made being.

11 thoughts on “Inger Christensen: Azorno

  1. Carsten says:

    What a pleasure to see that someone is reading Inger Christensen outside of Denmark! I did not know that Azorno was translated into english.

    Sadly Christensen died earlier this year.

    I think her best work is “Sommerfugledalen” (Butterfly valley: a requiem). A very beautiful and impressive work of art which consist of 15 sonnets.

    – a reader from Denmark

    Carsten

  2. Trevor says:

    The pleasure was very much mine, Carsten. I saw that she died in early January, so this translation (which will be released later this month) was already in the works. A few of her books of poetry are translated, but not much else. I hope that changes soon!

    Thanks for dropping by!

  3. Randy says:

    Trevor,

    This sounds right up my alley, so I need to try to pre-order it. Besides, my Danish fiction section is a small one. I had not heard of her…

    Randy

  4. Trevor says:

    I’m not sure that I have any Danish fiction besides this one, Randy. What else do you know of? I’d like to expand.

  5. Randy says:

    Well, when I said small, I should have said consists of: The Quiet Girl by Peter Høeg,a post modernist novel, The Girl of the 7th Century (published in 1917) by Jens Peter Jacobsen and The Apothecary’s Daughters, by Henrik Pontoppidan (1917 Nobel prize winner, called the Danish Zola).All unfortunately unread by me.

    Randy

  6. Stewart says:

    Hmm, if you fancy a bit of Danish minimalism, you could try Peter Adolphsen. I read his Machine earlier this year, but neglected to write about it – no worries, should I want to, as it’s just shy of ninety pages. The story, which covers prehistory through to recent days, isn’t all that interesting — well, ninety pages is never going to do such a time span justice — but it’s how he gets there and with all manner of slight diversions along the way that makes it interesting.

  7. Hm, I have to admit Trevor, it does sound a tad clever, and I use that word there in the British uncomplimentary sense.

    Perhaps I’m burned by Lawrence Norfolk, who would change narrative voice mid sentence on occasion so deliberately throwing the reader, in my case right out of the narrative.

    It does sound at the end like one is left slightly unclear who was who, what happened and why, are you left then with a mood? A sense of significance even if significance of what is unclear? I ask as M John Harrison’s Viriconium novels specialised in uncertainty, in a complete lack of clarity as to what if anything happened, but had a very strong emotional content so that while nothing may or may not have happened the emotional consequences were yet clear, the effect on the reader was powerful even though the reader cannot know what if anything has occurred. Harrison writes in a different field to Christensen, but I find myself wondering if the effect is similar.

  8. Trevor says:

    I didn’t say it in the review, Max, but the book has a quote by Kierkegaard at the end that really explains the purpose for all the cleverness.

    And your questions are excellent ones, Max, so excellent in fact that I see a major gap in my review above! The latter half of the novel shows some excellent desperation in the characters, so well in fact that one does not care whether they are real or fictional or the same. In fact, the effect is better since we can combine or separate them at will, to great results. It could have easily fallen into being too clever, but this one — to me, at least — skirted the line nicely.

    Thanks for the comment, Max. I think it adds great content to this review!

  9. One of the fascinating things in reading someone else’s review of (or comments on) a book one has written up, is the different takes each reader has. Anything really worth writing about has more in it than any one person will capture in a single blog entry. A thought that personally I find rather cheering. I’d hate personally to write up a book and feel I’d said all there was to be said about it, it would suggest I’d wasted my time in reading it.

    Besides, I only ask questions because the review was interesting enough to make me want to learn more.

    You did say the cleverness had a purpose, that does make all the difference doesn’t it? There’s nothing wrong, and can be a great deal right, with clever books that play with narrative and reader expectations. It’s only when it’s done for its own sake, for showiness, that it becomes a bore.

  10. Carsten says:

    Trevor, If you want to read contemporary danish authors, I can also recommend Peter Adolphsens “Machine”, but there are so many good authors that are not translated into english. “Machine” is not Adolphsens best work, but it is a good introduction to his writing either way. Also Solvej Balle: “According to the law”.

    If you want to read classic danish authors: Karen Blixen (Isak Dinesen) of course, J. P. Jacobsen, Henrik Pontoppidan (nobel prize winner), Johannes V. Jensen (nobel prize winner) and my favorite danish author: Herman Bang. He is the danish Oscar Wilde.

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