Thursday, March 24, 2011

"As we drove through Trás-os-Montes, . . ."

". . . I thought once more how quickly the years had gone since the winter she moved into my apartment and broke my solitude. The years were like a train in the night that moves at such speed that the lighted windows flow together and you see nothing. I thought about how much of our time had been taken up with doing the same things every day, as the months passed and the children grew and we talked about all that had happened."

Copenhagen's Jens Christian Grøndahl is one of Europe's most popular contemporary authors. His novel Lucca was awarded the prestigious Golden Laurels Prize in 1999. Tavshed i Oktober (Silence in October, translated from Danish by Anne Born) was his 2001 American debut.

An art historian wakes up one morning to find Astrid, his wife of eighteen years, with a coat on and a suitcase in her hand. She turns and leaves without saying a word. Melancholy and meditative by nature, the narrator looks back on his life and ponders his relationships with his children, parents, friends, and old lovers. His memories form a series of stories, meandering back and forth in time as he tries to attend to his book on the New York School of painting. But his past haunts him, especially when his research takes him back to the city where he made his greatest mistake.

Silence in October is a quiet book. Grøndahl's poetic voice recalls the stark reverence of the art gallery and the subdued tones of the morning mist. Even the busiest of settings are muted and padded by the narrator's ruminations, further reinforcing the sense of him as an isolated individual despite his preoccupation with how other people have molded him. In Manhattan, for example, he "[stands] in the strangely cross-illuminated shadow at the bottom of the streets' deep shafts, confused and weightless with fatigue in the restless, unceasing stream of cars and faces, the same stream as always." Later in his hotel room, you can picture easily the fading urban evening through the window and the impersonal solitude of a room designed for transient strangers. In fact, the work of Edward Hopper comes to mind, a connection made by the narrator himself.

Silence in October is also a visual book. A recurring image is that of time flying by in a repetition of routine cycles which Astrid's abrupt departure brought to a halt. There is a tension between motion and stillness, between life and the frozen artifice of the painting or snapshot that allows for a depth of contemplation precluded by perpetual movement. "I cannot include everything," the narrator muses. "I have to select from among the images I have, I have to decide on a sequence, and thus my story will be quite different from the one she could tell, even though they are supposedly about the same subject." In that way the novel calls attention to itself as art and invites a postmodern examination of the boundaries between narrative and perception.


What Hopper's paintings evoke was not meant to be extended this far.

To put it simply, this is not 296 pages of material. Literature, after all, is art in movement. Whereas the painter produces a singular object, the author must continue to engage the reader by building upon their original premise. For all the prose reminiscent of Virginia Woolf, a middle-aged man just constantly pondering his relationships is a poor match for this particular art form. Silence in October should have been a novella, not a full-length novel. The thoughtful art critic becomes a self-indulgent bourgeois intellectual whose problems seem to stem from his life being too comfortable. But where Grøndahl fails in form he succeeds in expression. Silence in October is beautiful book while the appeal of its art lasts and still quite worth the time, even if it's eventually abandoned.


Caitlin said...

It's funny that you talked about Hopper vs. this writing and about literature being art in motion because as I read the opening quote I wondered if there would be a story there or just lots of pretty words.

Hopper does what the best painters do - he creates a moment to be shared with the viewer and much of what that moment is about is a conversation between the painter and the viewer. I think the problem with some writers is that they can't get to the conversation part - sometimes their art is so crystal perfect that it can't be intimate.

Great review!

E. L. Fay said...

Yes, I think you make a great point about art that says something and art that's just pretty. Alas, Silence in October started out as the former but overextended itself and ended up as the latter. Like Hopper, Grøndahl creates moments but after awhile you need something meatier.

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