Monday, December 31, 2007

Articles of Note

Perhaps you've already seen these but on this last day of 2007 I thought I'd briefly mention some interesting articles I've read in the last month or so. TIME Magazine wrote about the death of French culture and Bernard-Henri Lévy responds in the Guardian. An essay by George Saunders on the Russian writer Daniil Kharms in the New York Times. Alissa Valles discusses her translation of the collected poems of Zbigniew Herbert in the Boston Review and W. Martin contributes a review of the work. And a number of articles at Ukrainian writer Oksana Zabuzhko on Europe's need to understand the buried history of Ukraine, a discussion of recent literary successes from the Urals, a feature on the Romanian writer Mircea Cartarescu, and an article on the new wave of films from Romania.

Sunday, December 30, 2007

Euro Pop Trash

I've written below of the influence that Dostoevsky and Ingmar Bergman had on the creation of Absinthe: New European Writing but perhaps I should fess up to the influence of all the '80s Brit pop I listened to. And, to be honest, it didn't stop in the '80s with Duran Duran, Depeche Mode, Tears for Fears, etc. Just last month the guys from Birmingham, Duran Duran, released a new album (sorry for the anachronism)--Red Carpet Massacre--that was partially produced by Timbaland and Justin Timberlake. As might be expected by the presence of the two Timbs, Red Carpet Massacre has some tunes that could keep the bodies moving in the NYC and LA nightclubs (and, yes, in the Absinthe office ... thankfully no YouTube videos will be showing up). Perhaps Simon LeBon was drinking absinthe (or reading Absinthe) when he penned the deep lyrics to the chorus for the song "Tempted": That is gonna tempt you/ oh yeah/ like you know it's meant to/ oh yeah/ devil gonna tempt you/ oh yeah/ how much do you want to?

Wednesday, December 19, 2007



It is no wonder that Duff Brenna’s The Book of Mamie was lavished with rave reviews all over America when it appeared in 1990 – east to west, north to south, in virtually every major and many minor newspapers. It is no wonder that The Book of Mamie won the national Novel Award of the American Association of Writers & Writing Programs (AWP). And no wonder that its readers find it like a gateway to a new New World, vast and exciting.

The wonder is that it was allowed to go out of print after its second edition sold out and while people were still buying it. The wonder is that it remained out of print for fifteen years until the excellent small press Wordcraft of Oregon put it back into print in 2006 where it continues to be in print and available for a new generation of readers. Those readers are fortunate. For The Book of Mamie is, itself, a wonder.

Anyone who ever dreamed that Mark Twain might be reincarnated to tell us an American story of our times can have his wish fulfilled right here. Any American woman who ever snorted skepticism at Paul Bunyan, thinking, It’s the women who were the giants, who had the real muscle – well, Mamie is your girl. As her narrator, Christian Peter Foggy, puts it, “If Orphan Annie and Paul Bunyan had had a daughter, I figured something like Mamie would be the consequence. Mamie Bunyan… Tinkerbell with a gland problem…” Uberfraulein. First Saint of the Church of Mamie.

Or anyone who wishes old Steinbeck could have given us one more of his best or who has read through all of Dickens and yearned that he might come back as an American, or that a new American Dostoyevsky might appear with a heartlands, tall-tale sense of humor – here they are, ladies and gents, reborn in a guy who has lived the life.

Duff Brenna is American literature at its best, and all our best writers inform his heart and his talent, though he is quite himself as well. He could make a dyed-in-the-wool New York City boy like myself yearn for the midwest and swear it truly is the real heart of the heart of our country.

The Book of Mamie makes you remember what a great novel is, a wild exciting read, a book that opens your eyes with wonder, that every twenty pages or so makes you jump up and walk a circle on the rug just to cool down enough to keep going. This is not art about art or the vague posturings of a writer reaching for a lacey metaphor; this is a great big, awe-inspiring, wonder-inspired story about American people in the heartlands.

Here you’ll find characters who step off the page into your life – or grab you from your easy chair and drag you into theirs: the fire-breathing John Beaver who would scare the proverbials off a brass monkey; old Jacob Foggy, the malapropic half-wise patriarch with his foggy wisdom; Kritch’n Foggy desperate to understand so he can teach that understanding, pummeled by jealous brothers and face to face with a moral choice that sets him on a merry chase from hell; and of course, Mamie Beaver herself, a benevolent pagan goddess innocent, idiot savant, who fishes with her nipples for bait and crackles with electricity.

The paradise of the American wilderness is born again here – fruit and game, rivers and green shelters, wild onions, roots and berries, streams and lakes full of fish. Here is an original American picaresque road show, complete with giants and mad preachers, creaky out-back diner philosophers who hypnotize you with the truth and steal your money, crotchety railway men and sumo-sized ne’er do-well seekers of Art who weep at a drop of blood, rifle-mad killer farmers, hunter taxidermists crazy as Norman Bates, good country people and bad country people and all manner of people, farmers who practice a religion based on Shakespeare, a whole town of Mamieites worshipping Melville and Shakespeare in conflict with the Christers, Church of J.C. vs Church of Hoomanity, suffering Catholics who worship pain, broken-backed workers felled by Hurry Up Money, and an ageing hot mama who thinks everyone is trying to peek up her dress – not to mention a cow named Jewel who’ll steal your heart and a golden lab named Emma so real you long to scratch her ears and you’d swear you really saw her dance beneath the moon in a snowy field… There are book burnings, sex and violence, incest and murder, fear and joy and the thunder of God, and heroes more innocent than rogue pounding along on their feet of clay, a cast of characters who would make Dickens and Twain sit up and salute: John and Mamie Beaver, Kiss of Death Cody, Mongoose Jim, Charlie Friendly the barman, Phoebe Bumpus, two-tonned Don Shepard, Teddy Snowdy, Robbie Peevey, railroad Amoss, thick-necked Bob Thorn, Blind Venus the hoochy-coochy carnie girl, Anna and Soren Gulbrenson and their feisty little Pekingnese riding herd on them all, and all the Foggy’s – Jacob and his sons, Christian, Cash, Cush, Calvin, Calah and Cutham and their sister, Mary Magdalene…

Brenna knows the people and he knows the land, knows how it’s been used and abused, he knows the machines and the scams used to work it, knows the animals and the plants and trees and fields, knows about harvest and silage, harrowing and plantings, he knows how the color of paint on a farmhouse will respond to the change of seasons, and he knows what people do and have done, and he tells us everything he knows and has learned and shows us his America in a language uniquely American, beautiful as the summer sky over a wild wood lake, soddy as the earth, snowy as a deep-winter pine forest, tender as fresh alfalfa in a cow’s maw, exciting as a car chase on a country road…

Anyone who has read the great American writers – the ones with strong blood beating in their veins, Twain and Faulkner and Steinbeck, Melville and Whitman and London and Sinclair Lewis, all of them -- will hear their spirit humming again in these pages, fueling Brenna on. And those who have not read them will discover a glimpse of them in the spirit of this new great American writer, Duff Brenna.

Praise to David Memmott and his Wordcraft of Oregon press ( for putting this American classic back within the reach of people hungering for a great read.
But there’s lots more good news. The Book of Mamie was Duff Brenna’s first novel and there have been six more since – all world-class novels by a world-class author. The novels are, by order of appearance:

The Book of Mamie (Iowa, 1990; Wordcraft, 2006)
The Holy Book of the Beard (Nan A Talese/Doubleday, 1996)
Too Cool (Nan A. Talese/Doubleday, 1998; Penguin Plume, 1999)
The Altar of the Body (Picador, 2001)
Willow Man (Wynkin deWorde, 2005)
The Law of Falling Bodies (Hopewell, 2007)

Brenna’s work has been translated into several languages – including German, Danish, Japanese – and has received rave reviews from coast to coast in the US. Both The Book of Mamie and Too Cool have been on the verge of going into film production since they were published, and at present a sampler film is being made of Too Cool, as exciting a read as you can imagine – about a 16-year-old kid who steals a car with his 14 year old girlfriend and they get trapped in the snowy mountains of Colorado. Willow Man – which has only been published in Europe so far – is about the same kid, Triple E, only this time he is in Alaska being chased by a mad mountain man who looks a lot like the ornery John Beaver who disappeared near the end of The Book of Mamie.

These are great novels, world-class, books you will remember about characters you will never forget.

And for the last, I saved his most recent book, The Law of Falling Bodies, which the new small press Hopewell Publications ( had the good sense to grab for its 2007 list. This is a novel about youth and war and love and hate and cows and animals and farmers, too. And a farmer I know who happened to read this book said, “Hey, this Brenna guy? He had to have been a farmer himself. He knows the life.”

Brenna was a farmer himself. And an airborne soldier in the American assault on the Dominican Republic in 1965. And he did time in jail, too. And spent hours sitting up in the cabin of a tower-high crane, reading Shakespeare to get his BA, back in the ‘70s. Ultimately, he became an award winning professor of English literature, too…

I discovered Duff Brenna’s books here in Denmark just about ten years ago. One of his novels was translated into Danish, but of course I had to have the English original, and all it took was one book to hook me. This man is the real thing.

I could go on about this, but I’d rather make it brief. In brief, read Brenna. Read the books of Duff. You won’t regret it.

Greetings from this ancient capital!
Thomas E. Kennedy

PS: Look for the long interview I had the good fortune to do with Brenna and which will appear in the AWP’s Writers Chronicle in 2008. For those who want a little more, see Brenna’s website (

See also for information on four independent novels about the souls and seasons of Copenhagen, each written in a different style and set in a different season and which can be read independently of one another or together in any order desired: Kerrigan's Copenhagen, A Love Story, which is a novel disguised as a guide to the bars of Copenhagen, each chapter unfolding in a different serving house; Bluett's Blue Hours, a noir tale about the deep dark of Copenhagen winter and the seamier sides of life in this beautiful capital; Greene's Summer, about a Chilean torture survivor who comes to Copenhagen to be treated in a torture rehabilitation center and meets a Danish woman who has herself survived a violent marriage; and Danish Fall, a satire about 12 people connected to a Danish firm which is being downsized.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

No Man's Land--German Literature Online

No man’s land ( was launched in 2006 as the only online literary magazine to focus entirely on contemporary German literature in English translation.

From the editors at No Man's Land:

In our second issue, we’re very pleased to feature short fiction by Julia Franck, who won this year’s German Book Prize, as well as an excerpt from Clemens Meyer’s searing debut novel While We Were Dreaming, the literary sensation of 2006. Volker Röhlich takes an equally devastating look at German society in an excerpt from his autobiographical novel The Stumbler. A conception of prose as enigmatic, poem-like fragment is embodied in the work of Johannes Jansen and Veronika Reichl and reflects a strong tendency among young German prose writers, while stories by Daniel Oliver Bachmann and Florian Werner feature something less often associated with German writing – humor. Donal McLaughlin’s Glaswegian version of Bachmann’s story points toward our flourishing contacts with Scottish translators and an interest in dialect in translation which we will be exploring further in 2008.

The poetry in this issue moves beyond Berlin to include work by the widely-recognized – and under-translated – young poets Arne Rautenberg, Silke Scheuermann and Volker Sielaff. The Berlin scene is represented by two award-winning newcomers, Nadja Küchenmeister and Jan Imgrund, as well as new work from no man’s land 1 authors Anna Hoffmann and Ron Winkler.

Friday, December 14, 2007



Here in Denmark there is a police show on television every Sunday evening between 8.00 and 9.00 p.m. called Anna Pihl. The eponymous Anna Pihl is a tall slender, dark-haired, beautiful woman whose very face – eyes, smile, high cheekbones – radiate pure humanity. Not sappy, sentimental humanity. Real humanity. She is (of course) a negotiator and helps reason people out of making fatal mistakes – jumping from rooftops and the like – but not only with reason, with her pure humanity. And being human, she herself makes mistakes sometimes, too, and when she does, she apologizes and looks really sad. She is uncertain, but she has a clear identity, too.

Her best friend on the force, a blond to Anna Pihl’s brunette and one of the most gorgeous Danish actresses of all time who has been in famous American films, too, here in this program is dirty. It was brave of this actress to play a policewoman who is dirty, someone who is not good, not wise as she is fair. The way she went wrong was that she got stabbed in the arm by a crook early in the series, and that scared her and that was when she started to go wrong. It sort of makes you feel like you could help her, help her out of the terrible situation she is getting herself into, but it just gets worse and worse. And really, the stuff she’s ruining her life for is not worth it – like designer bags and that sort of stuff. And finally, you know, you begin to kind of lose respect for her, even though she is still gorgeous. No, somehow, she gets less gorgeous by her bad behavior. She gets in deeper and deeper, gets involved with this East European mafia type guy, sophisticated on the surface, not brutal, but scratch away that layer of sophistication and you know he is a bastard, right? So he gets her sniffing coke and then she gets careless with her service pistol, and he appeals to her greed and seduces her and gets her involved in his world of crime.

And poor Anna Pihl, she’s torn, you know? She wants to be a good friend to this dirty blond (I mean this blond policewoman who is dirty) but there is no way that Anna Pihl is dirty herself. I mean, it’s just not in the cards. She’s an honest cop because she is an honest person. And when you look at her face, the way she suffers over this problem – her eyes, the sorrow of her lips – I mean, it really tears you up for her on Sunday evening between 8.00 and 9.00 p.m., you know. You would really like to help her.

And if you yourself were a criminal and Anna Pihl arrested you, you’d just feel lousy for being a criminal because her eyes, her brown eyes, would look at you and she’d have this expression on her mouth – sort of like a smile, but not really a smile, a kind of composite expression of sorrow and humanity but basic belief in the goodness of life, too, although she will never be wealthy or well off – she even rides her rattling old bicycle to duty at the Copenhagen metropolitan police station everyday, but a bicycle, that’s good enough for Anna Pihl, keeps her fit, you know, and she worries about her young son, too, and her brother – God, her brother, is no good really, he drives drunk, and it aches in Anna Pihl’s soul that he does this, and she even has to turn him in once – I think she turned him in or she refused to cover up for him, or maybe she covered up for him, but then he did it again with serious consequences, and it was a lesson for life for Anna Pihl.

And her partner is a half-racist, half male chauvinist pig little guy (he’s shorter than Anna Pihl), but you feel sorry for him because you know that he has fallen for Anna, he has, and she has to disappoint him, which makes her feel bad. And the guy she loves, another policeman, a really handsome one (just as tall as she is), a really good cop, he gets into trouble thanks to Anna Pihl’s dirty blond partner, and he gets stabbed, yeah! And then he loses his nerve and becomes a pencil pusher. It’s enough to break your heart because you see Anna Pihl’s career going uphill as a negotiator, and this guy who she really loves and wants to be a good woman for, he’s going down, and it’s wearing on them both, every Sunday night between 8.00 and 9.00 p.m.

You really wish you could do something for them. You really do.

So anyway, the other week, I gave a poetry reading at 2020 DesArtes at this community center in a place in Copenhagen known as Islandsbrygge, right on the water, and it was gorgeous weather and my reading went pretty well, but I didn’t hang around because I was alone – Lady Alice was away at the time, in Paris for a week. So I walked out of the community center to Artillery Way, and I looked around outside to see if there was a taxi.

And you know what happens? Anna Pihl comes riding up on her rattling old bicycle and she puts it into a slot on the bike rack outside this community center and she locks it.

And she stands there, and she has that same look on her face – kind of a little uncertain but both happy and sorrowful at the same time, her brown eyes are sparkling with that mix of sorrow and joy, and she has that look on her mouth, too – a smile, but not a smile, the smile of life it seems like, the smile of existence. And she just stands there by her bike for a few moments, and I think to myself, That’s Anna Pihl.

So I take a few steps closer, and I open my mouth, and what I say is, “Am I insane, or are you Anna Pihl?”

She turns that look on me, and it’s the same, it doesn’t get disdainful or smug or off-putting. It is the same look, modest but radiant and full of pure humanity, the real thing. And she says, “I’m not really Anna Pihl. But it’s true that I do play Anna Pihl on television.”

And my mouth sort of moves a little, my lips part. This is the only opportunity I will ever have to tell Anna Pihl what I think and how sorry I am for all the trouble she has every Sunday evening between 8.00 and 9.00 p.m. and how I admire the way she handles her life and does her best for everybody without being any kind of self-righteous jerk or anything. A real solid person.

And I say, “You are even more beautiful in life than on the TV screen.”

And she says, “Thank you.” And she walks into the community center.

Just then a taxi comes by and I wave it down and hop in and ask the driver to take me home.

And I think to myself, “God damn. That was Anna Pihl.”

Greetings from this ancient kingdom!
Thomas E. Kennedy

­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­See also for information on four independent novels about the souls and seasons of Copenhagen, each written in a different style and set in a different season and which can be read independently of one another or together in any order desired: Kerrigan's Copenhagen, A Love Story, which is a novel disguised as a guide to the bars of Copenhagen, each chapter unfolding in a different serving house; Bluett's Blue Hours, a noir tale about the deep dark of Copenhagen winter and the seamier sides of life in this beautiful capital; Greene's Summer, about a Chilean torture survivor who comes to Copenhagen to be treated in a torture rehabilitation center and meets a Danish woman who has herself survived a violent marriage; and Danish Fall, a satire about 12 people connected to a Danish firm which is being downsized.

Thursday, December 13, 2007


In August, LitKarta, the most important Russian literature related website, came into existence. LitKarta is the brainchild of Dmitry Kuzmin (one of the most productive curators of contemporary Russian literature). Kuzmin’s idea was to create a site that would help Russian authors, from different regions, be aware of each others’ work. The idea is now a reality, and the project is huge!

Russia is made up of eighty-five regions (some of which are larger than Texas), and each region has its own capital. Because of Russia’s enormous size it is often easier to focus on Moscow and St. Petersburg than to search the provinces for the next Velimir Khlebnikov.

Russia may have officially abandoned the centralized system, but in reality both economically and artistically Moscow and St. Petersburg are pretty much the only game in town. People like Dmitry Kuzmin are attempting to change this, and LitKarta is such an attempt. It levels the playing field by putting cities like Samara on par with Moscow. Each region and capital is allotted its own space, and the authors in each region are given the same opportunities.

The project is ambitious. The site contains: authors’ bios, samples of written work and spoken word, a calendar of literary events, a social network of blogs, a list of literary projects, and so forth. If successful LitKarta will be the first of its kind, and may even serve as a model for future projects in other countries. Just imagine such a project in Europe, or the United States.

We will have to see. For now LitKarta is just beginning to blossom. As the project develops it will be interesting to observe how the Russian literary community responds. If successful there is talk of an English version! That way not only Russians, but English speakers will be able to participate in Russia’s vibrant literary scene.

For those of you who can read Russian I strongly encourage you to check out this site.

Thursday, December 6, 2007

Best Translation of 2007

In addition to Steven's recommendation below (and to elaborate on a site I previously mentioned) I would suggest checking out Chad Post's comments over at Three Percent on a daily basis. Chad writes about the international literature scene and he always has an interesting take on things. Right now he's soliciting recommendations for a list of the best fiction and poetry published in translation in 2007 so add your thoughts to the discussion.

Scott Horton's Blog "No Comment"

For those of you unfamiliar with it, let me recommend Scott Horton's blog "No Comment" found on the Harper's website. Not only does he provide very insightful observations and commentary relating to political and legal issues, he also frequently posts and discusses translations of poetry. Horton most frequently posts translations of German Romantic poetry, many of which he does himself.

It's refreshing to find poetry in translation made part of a larger conversation.

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Absinthe #8

Absinthe #8 is done and out in the world. It features some great writers and if you haven't seen this issue it's not too late to subscribe and have it delivered right to your door. Below is the introduction I wrote for issue 8:

From the Managing Editor

A response I sometimes get from people when they learn we’re publishing another issue of Absinthe is one of surprise and/or shock. Really? I never thought you’d publish a second (or third … fourth … fifth) issue. I’m unable to muster up any genuine offense because I’ve also had the same thoughts, but here we are with issue 8 and the odds are good we’ll be back with another in six months. In addition to great poetry and fiction (by Moikom Zeqo, Julia Franck, Manuel Rivas, and Bogdan Suceava, among others), Absinthe 8 features art by Kristen Pieroth, Clemens von Wedemeyer, and Markus Schinwald, thanks to our new arts editors Sanaz and Stefan Keisbye. The issue also includes work by two Welsh writers (Grahame Davies and Gwyn Thomas) made possible by the generous assistance of Peter Finch, Elin Williams, and Bronwen Price at The Welsh Academy.

In the last issue I mentioned my appreciation of Ingmar Bergman and while we were completing Absinthe 8 the great Swedish filmmaker passed away (on the same day, incidentally, as Michelangelo Antonioni). So it seems appropriate to add to my previous comments. My first experience with the films of Ingmar Bergman took place while in graduate school at the University of Michigan. Every week for a semester I went over to the Michigan Theatre to see these odd films: The Seventh Seal, Persona, Wild Strawberries, Fanny and Alexander, and many others. Until then, my idea of a good film was typical Hollywood fare like Star Wars or an Indiana Jones film. Though I wasn’t taking the Bergman course (and therefore, wasn’t required to attend these films) I was drawn back week after week by Bergman’s struggle to believe in a silent God, his explorations of familial relationships and his realistic depictions of the joys and sorrows experienced by lovers (and also, to be honest, by the beautiful Swedish actresses). Eventually I had rented every Bergman film available, read his autobiography and other books, and traveled to New York to see a half-dozen Bergman-directed plays performed at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Bergman led to Fellini and Tarkovsky and Kieslowski and Truffaut and Wenders and he also inspired my reading of Ibsen and Strindberg and Chekhov and Kundera and as the old shampoo commercial says, and so on and so on … Therefore, my interest in foreign film and the world of literary translation originates with Bergman and, consequently, it is no exaggeration to suggest that Absinthe would not exist without his films. So we dedicate this issue to the memory of Ingmar Bergman.

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

ALTA and more

Ok, it's time I mention my time in Dallas last month at the ALTA (American Literary Translators Association) conference. Of course, it was enjoyable to spend some time in the Texas warmth after the cold we experience here in Detroit but the best part of the conference was meeting new people, catching up with friends, and hearing the work of writers new to me. Usually, I attend a lot of the bilingual readings but this year I only made it to a few, including the session focused on Russian writers where I heard Peter Golub read. Several of Peter's translations of poems by Danila Davydov will be published in Absinthe 9 next spring. Peter is an enthusiastic promoter of new Russian poetry and he will be blogging here on occasion.

In addition to the readings, I attended sessions on "How to Promote International Literature in the United States," "The Contemporary German Literary Scene," and "To Be Translated or Not to Be: Discussion of the PEN Report on the International Situation of Literary Translation." The latter session was particularly good and I recommend taking a look at Chad Post's comments about it at Three Percent.

I also had the privilege of joining Sean Cotter and a number of talented grad students at the University of Texas at Dallas for lunch on Saturday afternoon before catching my flight home. The students at UTD have been reading Absinthe submissions for the last year so it was great to meet in person and to discuss the vision for the journal.

I should also briefly mention that we now have several other bloggers here at Absinthe--such as friend and Absinthe editorial advisor Tom Kennedy who has been posting regularly with interesting news from Copenhagen--and you'll have the opportunity to hear from these excellent writers and translators over the coming weeks.

A SHOUT FROM COPENHAGEN: DANISH XMAS LUNCH. Charles Manson & Please Pass the Pussy.

December in Denmark is dark indeed. That is why Danes invented the Danish Xmas lunch. December 1st was my first this year, and it was rather wild – to be expected perhaps since the hosts were a professor of criminology and theater director and most the guests were actors, writers, painters, a prison warden, and a teacher. The prison warden is a young Dane known to his friends as Skeleton Man because every year he attends the Burning Man Festival in Nevada dressed in a skeleton suit. The nationality mix included Danish, Swiss, American, Scot and Irish, and there were some half a dozen small to tiny kids: Maya, Axel, Eifleef, Silas, and the 10-month-old Molly.

The table was adorned with three kinds of onion-festooned herring (marinated, sherried, and creamed), curried cod-roe paste, my Lady Alice’s home-made liver pâté with mushrooms beneath a roof of crisp bacon strips, Danish meatballs, fat succulent medister sausage with pickled chopped red cabbage and white cabbage chopped with cinnamon, roast pork with crackling (that is a perfect roast pork with perfect crackling, provided by the perfect hostess, Methe), and assorted other delicacies – not to forget the chocolate cake with raspberries and ice cream, coffee and cognac.

But especially not to forget that which gives the Danish Xmas Lunch its special character. Bottled beer and iced snaps. The latter is sometimes referred to as schnapps or aquavite – the water of life, or perhaps lively water, which indeed it is. But the proper word is “snaps”; a Danish king of long ago decreed that the spirit would henceforth be known as snaps, from the German word which indicates something taken in one snap – or “bite.” The glasses in which the spirit was served yesterday by our hosts were perfect for the single bite treatment – just about 1½ centiliters. The perfect mouthful. Just enough liquid to allow the herring to swim – and, as the toast goes, Fish must swim (fisk skal svømme!)

On hand yesterday to wet the tongue after crunching the pork crackling was a fifth of Brøndums and a liter bottle of Linie, both eighty proof and misted with frost. The Brøndums is flavored with caraway seed (or as Danes are wont to write it on menus, “carryaway seeds”) while Linie is Norwegian; for over two centuries it has, after distillation, been shipped in wooden sherry kegs over the equator so that while sloshing about in the keg it takes a special flavor and color from the sherry-impregnated wood. Linie means equator, and it gives a delightfully mellow bite.

Meanwhile, chilling in the garden room, were several cases of various types of beer – pilsner, Xmas beer, porter, even Easter beer, out of season but still sweet and strong in the mouth.

As we enter the dining room, Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, and other American crooners sing Christmas songs from the sound system. Which reminds me of a South Carolina friend who just acquired a blue-eyed cat named Frankie Boy which I tell about as we find our places at the long table, set catty-corner in the dining room of the ground-floor Frederiksberg apartment. Eight adults at one end, five children at the other. As our host, Professor Dave, goes about pouring snaps, the basket of bread is passed. Des, a teacher from Galway, has never been to a Danish Xmas lunch, so the Danish actress Anne instructs him in the mandatory ritual with which one begins:

A half slice of dark rye bread is spread wth fat (brand name Bedstemors fedt which translates literally as “Grandmother’s fat”) upon which is piled a couple of pieces of herring filet then rings of raw onion (capers and dild optional) – an open sandwich to be eaten with knife and fork (knife in right, fork in left). You cut a mouthful, fork it in and chew, waiting for the host to lift his snaps glass and say skål. The guests follow suit and all along the table each person quietly meets the eyes of each other person, lifting the little glass to sip – or rather to bite.

“Fish must swim,” someone invariably says at this moment – in this case, me.

When the snaps is down, it’s chased with a mouthful of beer, following which the rituals have been satisfied, completed, and one is free to eat and drink at will, and each may say skål to all or one of his or her choosing. Only the first toast is reserved for the host – it is ill-mannered to take that from him – and in more formal settings than this, it is the host who sets the pace; if he empties his snaps glass on the first skål, look for a lively party. Incidentally, the toast skål means bowl; in Viking times the communal drink was passed in a bowl. Some say it is from the old Icelandic for skull, that the Vikings drank from the skulls of their conquered enemies –a good story but based on a mistranslation.

Meanwhile, during the herring and snaps ritual, the children at their end of the table were busy stripping the bacon from the two bowls of liver pâté and had started filching the crackling from the roast pork – fortunately stopped while a good deal of the delicious crisp fat strips still remained.

It is the manner in which the beer and snaps combine with the food that gives a Danish Xmas lunch its particularly delightful, impressionistic quality. The impressionist stroke technique, in fact, broadens as the day matures.

There is, however, something of an expressionist quality as well – here expressed, for example, by the Swiss actress Katarina who after the third snaps stands up on her chair to demonstrate the yodeling technique she has just learned for a play in which she will be acting. She is tall and slender and wearing gaily colored Christmas stockings that extend the length of her long legs right up to the edge of her very short mini-skirt, and it is a riot to see her standing up nearly to the ceiling, chin raised, throat working like a bird’s and tongue fluttering as the yodels cascade across the room, drowning out Bing – who, I cannot help but comment, was said to have been a wife-beater and a child-beater.

“Here’s to Bing Crosby, the wife beater!” says Anne, raising her snaps glass.

“And the child beater,” adds another voice, toasting.

“Skål! Skål! Skål!”

“Someone pass the pussy, please,” Anne requests primly, then looks about in mock alarm. “Where is the pussy? Has someone forgotten the pussy?”

This is a reference to the preceding year’s Xmas lunch in this same place with some of these same guests. I had brought a house gift which was the Christmas Magazine published by my friend Lars Rasmussen at the Booktrader. This particular Christmas Album had, unbeknownst to me, included a detachable portfolio of erotic photographs by an artist named Niels Rydung. The portfolio consisted of close-up artistic portrait- photos of women’s genitalia. When my host had discovered this feature of my house gift, I was horrified, but he was delighted and had proceeded to pass it around the table, upon which Anne coined the refrain of the day, “Please pass the pussy.”

Niels Rydung, in fact, I tell the company, is a fellow who has never had sex with a woman without paying for it.

“We all pay for it,” someone says.

“But he has been with over 500 prostitutes in his life-time, has never had sex with anyone but a prostitute.”

“Pass the pussy, please,” says Anne.

“Alas there is no pussy this year.”

“There is pussy,” says Dave. “I saved the portfolio from last year. It’s still fresh,” he assures us, proceeding to pass it around.

“Smells fishy to me,” says someone, evoking a snaps cackle from someone else.

Des looks at me with a twinkle. “Tell us again about the blue-eyed pussy from South Carolina.”

Meanwhile Katarina has climbed down from her chair, yodel exhibition complete. What she does not know is that one of the children has a whoopee cushion which finds its way to her chairseat. She sits direct onto the cushion, placed there by her adorable 3-year-old Silas. An explosive sound emits from beneath her, and she pretends to be ashamed as everyone waves palm before nose to chase the make-believe smell while Katarina grabs the giggling Silas and pinches both sides of his bottom before covering his face with big wet smooches.

“I love to pinch their behinds,” she explains. “They are so sweet at that age, so delicious. Nothing undelicious about them. As soon as one begins to grow undelicious I just get pregnant again and have another.”

Lady Alice and I are a generation older than most of the adult guests here. I am exactly 20 years older than Dave, our host. We consider it a privilege to be among younger people and anyway I have always been immature. Doing my best to keep pace with their youthful drinking, I generally end up drinking twice as much as most.

While our beautiful hostess Methe is hurrying about, making certain that everyone has what they need, and I am filching one more piece of crackling from the roast pork, Des is telling about how difficult it had been for him to watch the Rugby world cup with Anne who kept joking about the players’ cauliflower ears and about the terms – asking whether a “maul” was a place where the teams shopped. Anne, for her part, decides to give a demonstration of bird calls, at which she is very good, but halfway through the blackbird decides instead to show how she died in a recent play.

She steps over to the door, opens it halfway, and speaks to an imaginatry person concealed outside.

“Who are you?! What do you want?! No, stop, leave me alone!”

Her half-invisible arm begins to be jerked by invisible hands as she is pulled further out the door. Now, her body is half concealed behind the door so that only her head and neck show, while hands choke her throat – her own hands of course, but they seem convincingly the hands of another. She gasps, gags, her tongue protrudes and she falls – kerbang! – to the floor and lies there, staring glassily upward, looking quite dead.

A smattering of applause brings her hastily back to life – “No, no, not yet, there’s more!” Then she is dead again, staring glassily, and her body begins to move, as though she is being dragged by the ankles by someone not visible behind the door, moving her body like a snake..

It is an amazing performance and I leap to my feet, applauding. She takes a bow and I sit again and the whoopie cushion explodes beneath me.

“You are so easy,” says Skeleton Man beside me as the children giggle and shriek and I pretend to be deeply mortified.

Now dessert has been served and soon we are into the cognac and the brandy, and Pete who is from Aberdeen is beautifully singing a Scottish ballad about love and death which soon has Des singing Irish ballads, a Percy French air, advising men that if they want a woman to run after them, then look the other way. Then someone puts on Johnny Cash singing another Percy French song, “Danny Boy,” which moistens my eyes since my own son is Daniel. I shed a tear or two as I eat another piece of crackling and chase it with icy snaps and cold pilsner.

Des explains that the name French is Irish, from Galway, originally with a double ‘f’ and has nothing to do with France, and Lady Alice, to my dismay, announces what a wonderful singing voice I have. She wishes me to render a song, but I do not wish to because I do not have a wonderful singing voice, and especially not when in my cups – then it is especially bad.

Fortunately, Dave saves the day by appearing with a guitar which he strums and sings,

Restless people
In a sick city
Burned their homes down
To make the sky look pretty…

Dave, professor of criminology, is singing a song by Charles Manson, “Sick City,” soon followed by others, “Cease to Exist, “Big Iron Door,” and “People Say I’m No Good.” It seems his profession gives him access to such things.

“Pass the pussy, please,” someone croaks and cracks up laughing as if only now having discovered the humor of the expression, and another sits so hard on the whoopee cushion that it bursts. There follows the weeping of a child and then the administration of a bag of wine gums and contented slurpings.

One guest comes past to lean down and murmur in my ear, “Than’s fa won’ful day,” as he departs, and it occurs to me, as I bite down yet another snaps, that perhaps it is time for Lady Alice to put me to bed as well.

Soon a taxi arrives and before much longer, I am supine upon my mattress, two miles east, mentally reciting the wonderful poem by Steve Davenport, discovered only that morning, “Last night my bed a boat of whiskey going down…” But soon I am roaring and riding in a dream of sweet sinking.

Twelve hours later I groggily open my eyes – wondering if the words groggy and grog are related – and drag out to my computer to send an email to my hosts saying “Tak for igår” – “Thanks for yesterday,” a Danish custom to thank promptly. (A smack and a thanks should come at once, goes the old Arhusianer saying.) It also eases the sense of hungover guilt that too often accompanies the morning after and gives an opportunity to plumb the waters as to whether one was in fact buffoonishly intoxicated.

Soon I have an emailed response from my host:

“The last of the guests kept on until around 2:00 a.m., though my memory gets a little short there. I think I was in bed at 3.00, rose at ten feeling dizzy, but human, went to an annual Xmas Tree Party that we always attend, and I am now back in my office. I have to prepare to administer 37 oral examinations to students at the law institute within the next three days. Thanks for your great company yesterday And thanks to Alice for that great liver pâté and all apolgies for the behavior of those fresh kids who stole the bacon from it! Please greet my lovely friend, Alice. She’s a doll!” From Methe comes another mail praising us for being such good guests.

Ah! ‘Tis a civilized land!

Now I sit and think ahead on the various Christmas festivities that await us during this month of drear December. The next is, in fact, tomorrow – at the Tivoli Gardens.

What can I say? ‘Tis the season. The best of it to all of you from each of us!

Greetings from this ancient kingdom!
Thomas E. Kennedy

See also for information on four independent novels about the souls and seasons of Copenhagen, each written in a different style and set in a different season and which can be read independently of one another or together in any order desired: Kerrigan's Copenhagen, A Love Story, which is a novel disguised as a guide to the bars of Copenhagen, each chapter unfolding in a different serving house; Bluett's Blue Hours, a noir tale about the deep dark of Copenhagen winter and the seamier sides of life in this beautiful capital; Greene's Summer, about a Chilean torture survivor who comes to Copenhagen to be treated in a torture rehabilitation center and meets a Danish woman who has herself survived a violent marriage; and Danish Fall, a satire about 12 people connected to a Danish firm which is being downsized.

Monday, December 3, 2007

Blood and Aphorisms--Nietzsche

From Nietzsche's Thus Spake Zarathustra (tr. R.J. Hollingdale):

Of all that is written I love only that which is written with blood. Write with blood: and you will discover that blood is spirit.
It is not easy to understand the blood of another: I hate the reading idler.
He who knows the reader does nothing further for the reader. Another century of readers--and spirit itself with stink.
That everyone is allowed to learn to read will in the long run ruin not only writing but thinking, too.
Once spirit was God, then it became man, and now it is even becoming mob.
He who writes in blood and aphorisms does not want to be read, he wants to be learned by heart.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

A SHOUT FROM COPENHAGEN: Rudy G. & the Scent of Corruption

by Thomas E. Kennedy

Recently I was surprised to receive an email from a Newsweek journalist, saying she wanted to phone me in Copenhagen to interview me for an article about one of my high school classmates, Rudy Giuliani. I had no idea that Giuliani had been in my class.

So I mailed back to the journalist saying that to the best of my knowledge I had not known Rudy, never even knew that he existed other than as the Mayor of New York. But she still wanted to talk to me to get some background about life at Bishop Loughlin High School, 1957-61. She mentioned that she had read an article I wrote about Loughlin in those years, that she found it "fascinating" and hoped I would be available to speak with her. We made an appointment for her to telephone me next evening.

I spent some time trying to prepare myself by thinking back on my time in Loughlin. They had not been particularly happy years. The atmosphere had been oppressive, anti-intellectual, jingoistic, and brutal. The only truth was Catholic truth. Questions were not encouraged, but memorization was, and sex – in general – was wrong. I recall our religion teacher telling us that once we were married we could do whatever we wanted with our wives as long as the seed found the womb, but that we shouldn't be pigs about it. Everything was dictated – from the length of our hair to the cut of our pants. Ties and jackets were mandatory. As for violence, one Brother told us that any boy who had not had five good fistfights by the age of 15 was on the wrong track; he liked to threaten to crack our jaws. So much for Christian love.

As I waited for the phone call, I got to thinking that my article on Loughlin that the journalist referred to contained an account of a senior year student- president election that had what I remembered as a certain scent of corruption. I learned years later that the father of the winning candidate – who had seemed to come out of nowhere and to have the support of everybody, including the school administration – had raised a very large sum of money for a building project for the order of brothers who ran the school.

Possibly I was mistaken about all this, but at the least a case could be made for it. And it occurred to me to wonder whether the Newsweek journalist suspected that Giuliani might have been involved.

I googled Rudy Giuliani and Loughlin 1961, and a good deal of information came up. It seems that there were in fact three parties in that high school election, and that Rudy Giuliani served as campaign manager for one of the candidates. Could it be? I dug deeper for the smoking gun. But there was neither smoke nor a gun. Rudy's candidate in that election lost. Quite possibly Rudy didn't even know about the fix – if indeed there really had been a fix. But when you consider that a slush fund of a million dollars was enough to undo the President of the United States in 1972-73, how much could that equivalent contribution to a building fund have done to help win a student-president election in a Brooklyn high school in 1961?

It occurred to me that the Newsweek journalist might have been following that scent of corruption, possibly had not realized that Rudy had not been on the possibly corrupt side in that high school election.

I waited for her call, curious to see if I might learn something from her, but she didn't call. At the last moment, she emailed an apology; she was stuck in a meeting and asked if she could call the next day, but no further calls or emails came until several days later when she let me know she'd spoken with a couple of others and got the background information she needed and politely noted that since I hadn't actually known Giuliani and lived so many time zones away and her deadline was close upon her….

I emailed saying that was fine, but wondering with whom she had spoken. She told the names of three persons – two classmates I vaguely remember as being prominent in the school and the Vice Principal, now in his 80s. I remember that Vice Principal as sarcastic and cold. The journalist told me it was fun speaking with them, that they were "very nice."

And it occurred to me that there might be people who go through high school happily, go on to happy college years, good foundations for happy lives. It took me ten years to get over my Catholic school experiences, the whole oppressing effect of 12 years of stunted men and women having authority over me.
Perhaps I have a strain of conspiracy-nut in me -- it is also tempting to suspect that the journalist made the same discovery I had about that possibly corrupt election. If that distant, 45-year-old high school election really had been tainted, the taint had NOT been on Rudy G. He was cleared. Which, presumably, might make this bit of gossip journalistically less interesting.

However, in the course of all this, I discovered that I did remember Rudy from back then. At least I think I did. A google source reminded me that he had been the guy who started the Opera Club – a pudgy guy who wore dark suits, white shirts, gleaming black shoes.

Among the members of the Opera Club was as close friend of Rudy Giuliani's, a boy named Alan Placa, whom I don't remember either. However, some readers may be familiar with the name of Alan Placa; he would become a wealthy Long Island Monsignor and would later be accused in a Grand Jury hearing of the sexual abuse of adolescent boys and of protecting priests who were guilty of such abuse and ultimately relieved by the Church of all priestly duties and deprived of the right to administer the sacraments – whereupon Rudy Giuliani hired him in his law firm.

According to a New York Times article from February 2003, Msgr. Placa denied the allegations and remembered the adolescent he was alleged to have molested "as a 'troubled boy' who was always 'singling himself out.'" Perhaps that is another way of saying that the boy was unreliable, hungry for attention. Such a boy, no doubt, would be easy prey. Msgr. Placa also pointed out, able lawyer that he is, that the statute of limitations had already been exceeded on all the allegations.

This past weekend the Newsweek article appeared in print and on-line. The portrait of my school was of "a fortress-like high school run with an iron hand by the Christian Brothers." But I was surprised to find that Alan Placa was mentioned only with a fleeting reference – that allegations of sexual abuse had been made, that he had denied them, and was never formally charged. There was no mention of the fact that he had also been accused of protecting other priests against whom such allegations had been made and of concealing his law degree in dealing with boys who had spoken out about having been abused. Nor were the facts mentioned that Alan Placa had been relieved by the Church of all priestly duties or that Rudy Giuliani hired Placa to work for his law firm afterwards.

I sent an email to the journalist congratulating her on having captured the atmosphere of the school, but wondering about the Placa omissions. Was the press distancing itself from this connection in deference to the Republican candidate in a much higher-level election? Her response was forthcoming: "Thanks for writing - we should have included that about Placa. I appreciate you reading the story. All best…"Actually, although I did not have a very good time in high school, maybe others did – Rudy and Alan, for example.

Greetings from this ancient capital!
Thomas E. Kennedy

See also for information on four independent novels about the souls and seasons of Copenhagen, each written in a different style and set in a different season and which can be read independently of one another or together in any order desired: Kerrigan's Copenhagen, A Love Story, which is a novel disguised as a guide to the bars of Copenhagen, each chapter unfolding in a different serving house; Bluett's Blue Hours, a noir tale about the deep dark of Copenhagen winter and the seamier sides of life in this beautiful capital; Greene's Summer, about a Chilean torture survivor who comes to Copenhagen to be treated in a torture rehabilitation center and meets a Danish woman who has herself survived a violent marriage; and Danish Fall, a satire about 12 people connected to a Danish firm which is being downsized.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

A Shout from Copenhagen: Silence Was My Song. Two mistakes were made that day

by Thomas E. Kennedy

Suddenly I heard a quivering voice whisper, 'Sister, do you think we're going to die?'
'Yes, I whispered back. 'Yes, I think we are going to die.'
'Do you think it will take long?' she asked.
'Maybe,' I replied. 'Maybe. I don't know.'
-from Silence Was My Song: The Bombing of the French School, by Alice Maud Guldbrandsen

On March 21st, 1945, the Royal Airforce sent a fleet of mosquito bombers toward Copenhagen on a precision bombing mission: to take out the Gestapo headquarters in German-occupied Denmark.

Admirably, under difficult conditions, the RAF managed to destroy Gestapo HQ without killing the Danish resistance prisoners on the top floor of the building, which the Gestapo was using as a human shield. However, as too often happens in such "precision" undertakings, there was "collateral damage." One of the planes hit a light mast and went down beside a school; the smoke that rose from the exploding plane misled those coming just after into mistake the school for their target. Before the mistake was discovered, the school building had been bombed.

The school – the so-called French School – was in session at the time, and many children and teachers were buried beneath the building. Some of the children were boiled alive in the water from burst pipes heated by the fires caused by the bombs. Others drowned in that water. Still others were simply crushed beneath beams and chunks of walls and staircases.

In all, over 100 civilians were killed, 86 of them children. 394 children and 34 adults were rescued – and had to live with the memory of what they went through and witnessed that day.

One five-year-old girl, Alice Maud Guldbrandsen, was buried beneath the rubble, but managed to claw herself halfway out and was saved by heroic rescue workers who risked their own lives to get the children and nuns who were still alive to safety before the building collapsed totally. Alice Guldbrandsen was brought to a hospital in the Frederiksberg section of the city and was told to join a line of children before a desk where a nurse sat writing down their names. When she got to the head of the line, the nurse asked her name, but Alice was unable to speak, so she was sent to the back of the line, but when she got to the desk again, she still could not speak. Finally she was placed under a blanket in a bed in one of the over-filled wards where, finally, after many hours of frantic searching, her father recognized a lock of her blond hair peeking out from beneath the blanket and brought her home.

Then another mistake was made. The parents of the surviving children were told that it would be unhealthy for them to discuss what had happened with the children. If the children tried to speak about it, they should change the subject, or say, "We'll just forget about that now and put it all behind us." But such things can not be forgotten or suppressed. They come back in dreams, in the form of anguish and fear – fear of elevators, of basements, of airplanes, of dust and plaster, a haunting sense of loss… They linger and fester in the forced silence.

Nearly sixty years later, Alice Guldbrandsen decided finally it was time to break that silence. She contacted some of the girls who had been in the school with her – neither had the children who experienced the catastrophe discussed it with one another – and invited them to her home to talk about what had happened to them that day and the after-effects in their lives since then, through the years.

At last the silence was broken, and Alice Guldbrandsen asked the women who had joined her that evening to write down their memories of the day – or she interviewed them and wrote down their recollections. She contacted others – the nuns, some of whom were still alive, up in their 90s, those still living parents of the children who had survived and some who have since died, rescue workers, doctors, nurses, firemen, a photographer. She even got hold of one of the RAF airmen, a navigator, now in his 80s, who wrote his description of the day and told her that the disaster had haunted him for all those years.

Alice Maud Guldbrandsen says, "In the course of time, during my research for the book, I scrutinized very many reports from the period of the war but didn't come upon a single book that told the whole story about that disaster. At most it is dealt with in a single short sentence or two, summed up in a quick phrase – 'The French School in Copenhagen was by a fatal mistake bombed…' So there was still reason for me to put words to this apparently 'forgotten' event."

Out of the thirty-five accounts that she gathered, including her own, the key report, Alice Maud Guldbrandsen put together a mosaic of what occurred that day, creating a record that would for all time defy the silence that had been imposed upon the children who survived those dreadful events. And she discovered that on that very day, in the very hospital to which she had been brought, unable to speak, one of Denmark's most celebrated contemporary poets was born and years later had written a poem about the bombing, which begins, "Like most people, I was born during a war…" Alice Maud Guldbrandsen used that poem as an epigraph to the book she wrote and published in Danish in 2005, entitled (in English translation), Silence Was My Song: The Bombardment of the French School in 1945.

At this writing, I am nearly finished translating the book into English. A major excerpt from the translation was published in The Literary Review (Vol. 49, No. 2, Winter 2006, pages 23-48), including the poem by Henrik Nordbrandt. The book sold well in Danish, its hardcover edition sold out and a paperback version was issued in 2007. The English version is now ready to be offered on the English-language market.

Alice Maud Guldbrandsen tells that her reason for writing this book was not merely to give words to the dark silent song within her, but to put a face on human catastrophes of this sort, including those that occur now, everywhere in the world. So that when one reads in the newspapers and sees on television, as one does weekly, daily even, about civilian collateral damage during military conflicts, terrorism, torture, persecution and other violent abuses – the bombing of a school, a hospital, a refugee camp – that it will not be seen as one undifferentiated lump of a mistake. But as a series of individual human beings and their families and their friends who suffer the loss of their lives, whose bodies are damaged, their minds and spirits hurt for all time.

"Fortunately there were many who survived," says Ms Guldbrandsen, "but most of them have since then carried the burden of that experience in their bodies and minds – some of which might have been avoided if they had not been met by silence in response to their inner suffering. That was the only 'crisis help' offered in those days – when the best advice given to the shocked parents of the shocked children was, 'Don't talk about it – they'll forget.' But none of them forgot."

Reading and translating this profoundly moving book, I was struck by the fact that each of the 35 stories of this same event had its own distinct character – even when recounting the same or similar details and responses to it, the individual personality of each of the girls – now women – shone through and demonstrated unforgettably how this was not a single tragedy but more than 100 tragedies – more, it was a tragedy for those lost as well as for all of those who were deprived of all those loved ones and for all of the children who survived as well and the adults who witnessed the terrible sight of children broken and dying because of the predictable imprecision of a so-called "precision" bombing..

Of course, the Second World War was different than most wars. Perhaps it was inevitable. There was an honorable cause. But what about all the wars which could be avoided, which are pure and unadulterated stupidity? What about all the victims of those wars?

Personally, after reading this book, I will never feel the same about any catastrophe I read about in the newspapers. It will never be a plane that went down or a hospital or school or bus that was bombed; it will be a plane full of people, a school full of children, a hospital or bus full of human beings.

I know Alice Maud Guldbrandsen personally. She is a beautiful, kind and loving human being. And her beauty and compassion are reflected through her book. One can be thankful she survived that tragedy as well as the silence that followed it, that she lived to find the words for this darkly beautiful song – a song of sorrow but also of hope.

If any readers are interested in more information or if publishers are interested in seeing the manuscript of the translation for possible publication or if magazines are interested in publishing excerpts from the book or in interviewing the author, please do not hesitate to contact me through this blog or through my website (

Greetings from this ancient kingdom!
Thomas E. Kennedy

See also for information on four independent novels about the souls and seasons of Copenhagen, each written in a different style and set in a different season and which can be read independently of one another or together in any order desired: Kerrigan's Copenhagen, A Love Story (2002), which is a novel disguised as a guide to the bars of Copenhagen, each chapter unfolding in a different serving house; Bluett's Blue Hours (2003), a noir tale about the deep dark of Copenhagen winter and the seamier sides of life in this beautiful capital; Greene's Summer (2004), about a Chilean torture survivor who comes to Copenhagen to be treated in a torture rehabilitation center and meets a Danish woman who has herself survived a violent marriage; and Danish Fall (2005), a satire about 12 people connected to a Danish firm which is being downsized. Also available, free of charge while they last, is a 29-minute DVD documentary about these books: "The Making of Thomas E. Kennedy's Copenhagen Quartet." Preview film-clips of the DVD can be accessed on

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

A Shout from Copenhagen: The Meeting with Evil

“Now more than ever, the world needs to be told about the extent to which men, women and children are being subjected to torture. Thomas Larsen’s book about Inge Genefke’s Meeting with Evil and her 30-year fight against it bears that witness”
-Tim Robbins, Star of The Secret Life of Words

“Fifty years ago, the Nobel Laureate Albert Camus said, ‘For every man tortured, ten terrorists are born.’ Inge Genefke and the organizations she founded are working to help the victims and stop the torture. What better way to wage the war on terrorism?”
-Julie Christie, Actress. Played Inge Genefke in The Secret Life of Words

“As Thomas Larsen says in his introduction to The Meeting with Evil, torture victims are the loneliest people in the world. Their tormentors inflict upon them excruciatingly painful abuse which they are helpless to defend themselves against and which can permanently damage or completely destroy their bodies and spirit. As the only Holocaust survivor ever elected to the United States Congress, and one who has personally experienced a concentration camp during the Second World War, I feel compelled to ask, Who will speak out for these unfortunate human beings in their loneliness and suffering? It is a comfort and reassurance to know that there is at least one human being who has dedicated the major force of her adult life to doing so. That extraordinary woman is the subject of Mr. Larsen’s book – Dr Inge Genefke, a Danish physician, an outstanding humanitarian, and a distinguished medical doctor who uses her training and compassion to bring healing to those who have endured the pain of torture.”
-Tom Lantos, United States Congressman (in his foreword to The Meeting with Evil)

I just dotted the last ‘i’ on the translation of a book which was at one and the same time terribly distressing and enormously heartening to work with. Translating it into English made the horrific things described in it seem to be unfolding in slow motion and the courageous fight against these things, also related in the book, awesomely heroic.

In English, the book – which is currently in search of a publisher – will be titled, The Meeting with Evil, and subtitled Inge Genefke’s Fight against Torture. The book was written in Danish by the distinguished political journalist, Thomas Larsen and published in Copenhagen in 2005. Its subject is a Danish physician by the name of Inge Genefke.

The book includes a foreword by Tom Lantos, United States Congressman ( , himself the survivor of a camp during the Second World War, as well as endorsements by Isabel Coixet who directed a heartbreaking and hopeful film dealing, in large part, with the work of Inge Genefke, and Tim Robbins and Sarah Pally who starred in that film, The Secret Life of Words (2006), as well as Julie Christie, who portrayed Inge Genefke in the film.

Inge Genefke has devoted the past half of her 68 years fighting against torture and struggling to ensure that the world is aware of the terrifying extent to which torture is being employed throughout the world as well as to see to it that care is provided for those whose lives have been broken by these crimes against humanity and to fight against the continuing existence of this inhumanity.

Her efforts and those of her colleagues have resulted in a situation where undeniable evidence now exists to disprove the lies of those political and military regimes who seek to deny the fact that torture of the most heinous sort not only exists but is being widely employed. Employed – as Inge Genefke states – not to obtain information really, but to eradicate the personalities of courageous individuals taking a stand in society. “Torture,” she says, “does not produce reliable information. Under torture, a person will say anything to make the torture stop, will confess to crimes he knows nothing about, will sign blank pages to make the pain stop.”

Inge Genefke’s efforts and those of her colleagues have resulted in the establishment of two centers for rehabilitation and research against torture in Copenhagen which formed the model for scores of other centers throughout the world, providing treatment for hundreds of thousands of victims and gathering research for the treatment of the victims as well as evidence which can be used to prove that torture is in use and produced in court against those responsible.

The pages of Thomas Larsen’s book are filled with equal parts of horror and hope and contain a portrait of the woman who has had the courage and tenacity to fight for all these years against this ugliness. Inge Genefke provides the hope. It is encouraging to know that there exists a force in the world willing to confront this evil -- she and her husband, Dr. Bent Sørensen, and all her colleagues at Copenhagen’s Rehabilitation Center for Torture Victims ( and the International Council for the Rehabilitation of Torture Victims ( and those throughout the world who have been trained and aided by them in their own fight against torture and struggle to help its victims.

Inge Genefke has received many awards and distinctions from many countries throughout the world for her efforts and has been repeatedly nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. Her struggle is not political, but humanistic, apolitical. Her aim is to stop the torturers and help the tortured.

Thanks to the United Nations Convention against Torture – which is also analyzed in Thomas Larsen’s book – torture, for all signatory countries, is a crime without a statute of limitations and one which can be tried anywhere, not only in the country where it has been committed. And the effects of this have already been seen. Torturers like Augusto Pinochet are no longer safe to travel freely in the world, enjoying the profits they have reaped from their activities. There is no more immunity for such people. Torturers, from the top on down through the hierarchy, are no longer safe in their misdeeds. A soldier or military policeman or “special adviser” is no longer free to claim that he was only following orders. The UN Convention makes it clear that such orders are unlawful and that it is unlawful to obey them.

The distinguished, 70-year-old literary magazine, New Letters (,
published by the University of Missouri Kansas City and edited by Robert Stewart, beginning with its Autumn 2007 issue, will publish a series of articles with excerpts from Thomas Larsen’s book about Inge Genefke. For a preview of what will appear in the book, readers are invited to read those issues of New Letters. At the same time, a forthcoming on-line publication, Exploring Globalization, co-edited by Walter Cummins (who also edits The Literary Review, currently celebrating its 50th anniversary, will include in its inaugural number an interview with Inge Genefke and Bent Sørensen. That interview is now accessible at

Readers with questions about this important topic, publishers who are interested in acquiring the English translation of this book and periodicals interested in articles or interviews are invited to contact me via this blog or my website (

Greetings from this ancient kingdom! Thomas E. Kennedy

See also for information on four independent novels about the souls and seasons of Copenhagen, each written in a different style and set in a different season and which can be read independently of one another or together in any order desired: Kerrigan's Copenhagen, A Love Story (2002), which is a novel disguised as a guide to the bars of Copenhagen, each chapter unfolding in a different serving house; Bluett's Blue Hours (2003), a noir tale about the deep dark of Copenhagen winter and the seamier sides of life in this beautiful capital; Greene's Summer (2004), about a Chilean torture survivor who comes to Copenhagen to be treated in a torture rehabilitation center and meets a Danish woman who has herself survived a violent marriage; and Danish Fall (2005), a satire about 12 people connected to a Danish firm which is being downsized. Also available, free of charge while they last, is a 29-minute DVD documentary about these books: “The Making of Thomas E. Kennedy’s Copenhagen Quartet.” Preview film-clips of the DVD can be accessed on


Tuesday, November 6, 2007

A Shout from Copenhagen: Bookshops of Copenhagen

Tuesday, November 6th, 2007

A SHOUT FROM COPENHAGEN: The Bookshops of Copenhagen

One of many things I love about Copenhagen is its wealth of small bookshops. Most book-lovers in the United States mourn the continuing disappearance of the cozy neighborhood bookshop with an owner you knew by name and who knew your tastes in reading and was quick to tell you, “Say we’ve just got something in I think you might like…” The voracious goliaths have taken over the scene with their plethora of discouraging sloppy tables overflowing with remaindered hardbacks, making life difficult for independent publishers and writers. I don’t know how many reports I’ve received from people who tried to buy one of my books in one of those giant emporiums only to be told that I was out of print – which in Borders or B&N lingo means that my book was not distributed by their distributor so I might as well be dead and why don’t you join me in kicking the corpse? Maybe that sounds bitter. I’m not bitter; I live in Copenhagen.

Here there are plenty of small to medium-sized independent bookshops. Those that sell new books and the so-called antiquarians. Even the few shops that could not be classified as small – I’m thinking of Arnold Busck on Købermagergade, near the Round Tower, which has a café and readings on its 2nd floor, and Politikens Boghal on the Town Hall Square, both of which stock a fine supply of English language books. There is the wonderful Paludan’s Book Café on the cobblestoned Fiolstræde, just across from the ancient university Library – a big, roomy shop with tall windows which features a greate series of Thursday readings, excellent draft beer and red wine and a sandwich of Italian cheese and prosciuto ham to die for; and let us not forget that in the basement antiquarian sector of the shop there is an eerie exhibition of modern sculpture nestled in its shadowy recesses, haunting forms. And a stone’s throw from there, on Nørregade, just to the right of Our Lady Cathedral, is Atheneum International Book Dealer, whose English section is run by the elegant Sidsel Brun who is passionate about stocking books that matter; here you’ll find the esoteric English books you cannot find elsewhere.

Then there is Chester’s Book Café at Strandgade 26 in the charming city neighborhood known as Christianshavn (which is also home to the so-called Free State, “Christiania,” an abandoned military encampment taken over by squatters nearly 40 years ago though which, sadly, is currently under assault by the current less than liberal government; a visit to Christiania is rather like a visit to the wild west in the middle of a civilized city). Chester’s Book Café is in a semi-basement, just down the street and across the avenue from the Danish Writers Union and features Wednesday evening readings by some of the best of contemporary Danish and international writers. Tranquebar Book Café (on Borgergade – just across the street from the Torture Rehabilitation Center – which will be subject of a later entry in this blog series) is a sprawling place named for the only colony Denmark ever had in India and modelled after the travel bookshop in the film “Notting Hill,” though this one is considerably more elegant and roomy. Its stock includes not only travel books but the literature of the countries you are considering travelling to as well as products from those countries – textiles, objets d’art, knickknacks, beer and wine! You can sit in one of its many chairs sipping a glass of red wine and reading for hours, undisturbed.

All these shops are personally welcoming with friendly and helpful personnel you might also bump into when roaming the old serving houses of this ancient capital. I regularly run into book-sellers in bars like The Fiver (Femmeren) on Classensgade or at Rosengaards Bodega just off the Coal Square or at the Café Under the Clock on Silver Square. Although not strictly a bookshop, I would also like to mention The Jazz Cellar on Skindergade because, although it specializes in jazz CDs and DVDs (I recently purchased a copy of the great restored DVD version of “Jazz on a Summer’s Day,” a film I had seen in 1960 and which made me understand I could love both jazz and rock and roll – it featured numbers by Chuck Berry as well as Anita O’Day…) But the Jazz Cellar – so named because it started out in a cellar on Grey Friar’s Square, although it is now in larger mezzanine quarters on Skindergade – also stocks books about jazz and was even so kind as to extend its concept to stocking my four novels about Copenhagen because of their taste for jazz as well; they sponsored an event once during which I read selections of each of the four books while my lady, Alice, womanned the DVD player, providing just the right background music mentioned in the novels at just the right time – Coltrane, Davis, Getz, Adderley, Lady Day…

I have saved for the last the bookshop in which I spend many a happy hour, alternately perusing the stock and chatting and sipping red wine with its owner – himself a writer and publisher – Lars Rasmussen about whom many have remarked his close resemblance to Feodor Dostoyevsky (see “Dostoevsky on Skinnner Street on, click enter, then in the upper right quadrant, click “The Literary Explorer” and scroll down to the desired title.) His shop, a broad expanse of plate window in a semi-basement, is called The Booktrader (

See also for information on four independent novels about the souls and seasons of Copenhagen, each written in a different style and set in a different season and which can be read independently of one another or together in any order desired: Kerrigan's Copenhagen, A Love Story, which is a novel disguised as a guide to the bars of Copenhagen, each chapter unfolding in a different serving house; Bluett's Blue Hours, a noir tale about the deep dark of Copenhagen winter and the seamier sides of life in this beautiful capital; Greene's Summer, about a Chilean torture survivor who comes to Copenhagen to be treated in a torture rehabilitation center and meets a Danish woman who has herself survived a violent marriage; and Danish Fall, a satire about 12 people connected to a Danish firm which is being downsized.
Greetings from this ancient kingdom!
Thomas E. Kennedy (

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Irish writer wins Man Booker prize

Irish author Anne Enright won the Man Booker prize for her novel The Gathering. I haven't yet read this, but according to Booker judge Howard Davies, the novel is “powerful, uncomfortable and, at times, angry." Enright was a longshot for the prize, and it's certainly encouraging to see a long-shot win a major award.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Kundera on Translation

I finally read Milan Kundera's fascinating essay on the novel--The Curtain--and he makes the following comment on translation:

"... ever since Europe added rhyme to rhythm in its poetry, the full beauty of a verse can no longer be transplanted from one language into another; by contrast, faithful translation of a prose work, while difficult, is possible; in the world of novels there are no state borders."

Thursday, September 20, 2007

German Book Prize

The shortlist for the German Book Prize has been announced and the list includes Julia Franck who has a story appearing in the upcoming issue of Absinthe (to be published in October).

You can read about the other finalists and read excerpts from their novels at the excellent web site

UPDATE: Franck was named the winner of the German Book Prize. You can read more about it here.

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

I Pity the Fool

My friend, filmmaker Brent Coughenour, is headed out west with his current film project titled I Pity the Fool. And no, it's not a documentary about Mr. T. The film, shot in Super 8, captures beautiful scenes of decay in Detroit and weaves through it a narrative of sorts, involving the discovery of some mysterious letters and photos in an abandoned trailer park, and a possible murder. If you live on the west coast I encourage you to take the opportunity to see it but if you're looking for a typical Hollywood film this is not it. Watch closely and you might even spot this writer.

The film will be screened tonight, Tuesday, August 7, at 8pm at the Northwest Film Forum (1515 12th Ave.), along with Jack Cronin's Invisible City as part of Vanishing Ruins: Visions of Detroit.

Future screenings include:

Friday, August 10th, at 8pm at the Ink People Center for the Arts, 411 12th Street in Eureka, CA.

Friday, August 17th, at 8pm at Artists' Television Access (ATA), 992 Valencia Street, San Francisco, CA 94110, (415) 824-3890.

Sunday, August 19th, at 8pm at Echo Park Film Center, 1226 N. Alvarado St., LA, CA (213) 484-8846.

Monday, August 20th, at 6pm at Unurban Coffee House, 3301 Pico Blvd., Santa Monica, CA.

Also check out two interesting interviews with Brent at the SIFFBlog and at Hot Splice.

Monday, July 30, 2007

Ingmar Bergman 1918-2007

Awoke to the CBC providing the sad news of Ingmar Bergman's death at age 89. I was introduced to Bergman's films as a grad student at Michigan and was immediately drawn to his work, no doubt in large part by the way his films depicted his struggle with faith and his emotionally powerful portrayals of relationships between men and women and families. In his films close-ups of the human face were often used to convey the subtlest of emotions, and were photographed beautifully by his long-time collaborator Sven Nykvist in films such as Persona, Cries and Whispers, and Fanny and Alexander. I was fortunate to see Bergman's final film, Saraband, at its North American premiere in Montreal at the Festival des Films du Monde in 2004. It was clear the master filmmakers' skill had not diminished with age.

In addition to his work as a film director, Ingmar Bergman had an even longer career as a theatre director but his work in theatre did not appear to receive the recognition it deserved. A number of his theatrical productions were staged at the Brooklyn Academy of Art and I had the opportunity to attend four: Peer Gynt, The Ghost Sonata, Ghosts, and Mary Stuart (and after the performance I met Bergman's friend and frequent collaborator, Erland Josephson). With a minimalist approach to stage and set design the viewer became an active participant in visualizing the drama onstage.

Ingmar Bergman made over fifty films and published several novels. Those who know me well will not be surprised that I've seen just about every film and read almost everything by and about Bergman that has appeared in English (I even once had a sweet cat named Ingmar).

At 89, I'm sure Bergman was tired, but I had selfishly hoped for a few more films.

As the Eastern Christians say, may your memory be eternal, Ingmar Bergman.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

Absinthe partners with Dzanc Books

Absinthe is pleased to partner with Dzanc Books to publish translated fiction from Europe. Below is the press release issued by Dzanc:


To Whom It May Concern:

Dzanc Books is joining forces with the editors of Absinthe: New European Writing ( to bring great works of European fiction to North America for the first time.

Dzanc is committed to finding the absolute best literary fiction to publish. We believe acquiring and publishing works from around the world is important on two fronts – a) there is some incredible work being done in Europe that has not been made available to those who only read English, and b) reading fiction from different world view points is essential to having a better understanding of the world we live in, and our own place in it.

Dwayne Hayes and Jessica Bomarito, editors of Absinthe, have been publishing wonderful translated material in their journal for close to five years now, and have built up a fantastic array of talented translators they communicate with regularly and Dzanc will, in partnership, help Absinthe further their own mission by getting this work into book form and distributed to stores nationwide. Our intent is to find an excellent work of fiction for publication in 2008, and then continue this joint arrangement annually. Other authors and translators may also contact us directly as well by sending manuscript submissions through our website at and writing us with attached materials at

Please feel free to share this information and if you know people who are interested in contemporary European literature, or writers and/or translators of European fiction looking for a North American publisher, we would be thrilled to hear from them. We look forward to reading the submissions and hope to share more news of our efforts soon.

Best wishes,

Dan Wickett
Executive Editor and Publisher

Steve Gillis
Founder and Publisher

Dzanc Books is a 501(c)3 non-profit literary publisher based in Ann Arbor, Michigan. If you would like to learn more about books and programs, or make a donation, please visit our website at

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Wedding Bells

A long silence since the last post because the Absinthe editors were married at the end of May. We expect to post more frequently in the coming months as we look forward to the publication of Absinthe #8 in the fall.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Absinthe Reading at Oakland University

On April 16th our two interns (Crystal and Christina) organized a reading at Oakland University to celebrate the release of Absinthe, issue 7. They read selections from the new issue and students Mary Dunn and Liz Perales read from their own translations. In addition, Professor Fran Meuser talked about her experience working on a translation and Doris Runey read a selection from an interesting translation of a novel adapted as a film script(!).

It was a very good event thanks to all our participants, Annie Gilson, and the work of Crystal and Christina.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Arthur Phillips reading at Shaman Drum

Five years ago I had the opportunity to attend the Denver Publishing Institute--a month long graduate-level course in all aspects of publishing. It was during this time that I conceptualized Absinthe and while in Denver received advice from a number of the faculty and visiting lecturers. Also in Denver, at the Tattered Cover bookstore, I met the writer Arthur Phillips who was in town promoting his debut novel Prague. Arthur had spent some time living in Paris and so I discussed with him my plans for Absinthe and he recommended I contact David Applefield, the editor of FRANK. Since that time Arthur has continued to be a valued advisor to the journal.

Last night he was in Ann Arbor at Shaman Drum bookshop to read from his new novel Angelica. It was the first night of his book tour and if he stops by a city near you I highly recommend making it out for the reading and purchasing a novel or two or three.

Sunday, April 1, 2007

Copernicus Lecture

On Friday evening I attended the annual Copernicus Lecture at the University of Michigan. This series is organized to promote a deeper understanding of Poland, its people, and its culture and they've brought in a number of important Polish writers, artists, and intellectuals over the years, including Adam Zagajewski in 2005.

This year the speaker was Krzysztof Czyżewski, a social activist, poet, essayist, and publisher. He founded The Borderlands Foundation and since 1993 has been the editor-in-chief of Krasnogruda, a publication devoted to Central and Eastern European cultures, art, and literature.

He spoke on the subject of borderlands, its relation to the work of the great poet Czeslaw Milosz, and the need for a new movement of bridge-building and dialogue among peoples.

It is my hope that Absinthe, in a very small way, can contribute to bridge-building between Europe and the U.S.

Friday, March 30, 2007

Why publish a journal of European writing in translation?

The comments below are from an editorial appearing in the upcoming issue of Absinthe:

I am frequently asked, with differing levels of sincere interest, why it is I have chosen to publish and edit a literary journal of European writing in translation. It is usually assumed that I must speak many languages (in a few European languages I have the vocabulary of a small child), or work as a translator (perhaps in the future, when my vocabulary moves into adolescence), or originate from a European country (yes, but many generations ago). I am often dissatisfied with my response.

The true and simple answer is that Absinthe originates from a quite selfish interest. Proust wrote that "every reader, as he reads, is actually the reader of himself. The writer's work is only a kind of optical instrument he provides the reader so he can discern what he might never have seen in himself without this book."

For me Dostoevsky’s novels are important “optical instruments.” When I first read Father Zossima’s claim that we are, each of us, responsible for everyone it was a clear rebuke to my Cain-like spirit that denies responsibility for anyone else. So I am grateful I can pick up a book by Dostoevsky, a novel written in Russian, and read it in my own language. I am grateful that a translator has made these words available to me, allowing this writer who lived in a place I've never been, who writes in a language I speak very little of, and who wrote a century before I was born, to entertain and challenge me. And to help me understand a little more about what it means to be human.

Reading Dostoevsky (and other great Russian writers) along with viewing films by Ingmar Bergman, Andrei Tarkovsky, and Krzysztof Kieslowski led me to seek out literature and films from other countries and languages and eventually led to the founding of Absinthe: New European Writing in 2002.

In the pages of Absinthe 7 we present writers from Sweden, France, Poland, Russia, Spain, Italy, and elsewhere. These poets, novelists, and short story writers—from Anna-Nina Kovelenko’s recollections of life in the Soviet Union, and Julia Oxtoa’s dark tale of a slaughterhouse, to the “Aerolites” of Carlos Edmund de Ory, and Claudio Magris’ comments about the art of translation--reveal something to us about this world and how we might go about living in it, if we have eyes to see (or read, in this case).

For me the opportunity to discern what I might never have seen in myself is one of the great pleasures of editing this journal. I hope it’s one you can share by reading its pages.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Some comments about our trip to AWP now that I've had a few weeks to recover. I attended several sessions related to translation, including one dedicated to the question of whether it's necessary to be a poet to be an effective translator of poetry (consensus: a good translator of poetry must have a "poetic sensibility." I'll leave that for others to debate.)

However, most of my time was spent at the Absinthe table meeting people and talking to subscribers, potential subscribers, editorial advisors, contributors, and potential contributors. This is always the best part of the conference for me--making friends and seeing old ones.

I'm already looking forward to the conference next year in NYC.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007


Absinthe: New European Writing is a biannual print journal of poetry and prose by contemporary European writers in English translation. Check out our website at

In this blog we'll discuss what we are reading, our experiences at literary events and conferences, and anything else that might be of interest.