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.