Translated by Gaye Kynoch
Open Letter ($14.95)
by Richard Henry
Danish artist Madame Nielsen is best known for her multiplicity. After declaring the death of her birth-identity in 2001, she produced work under multiple names (Anders Claudius West, Peter Hansen, etc.) before arriving at “Madame Nielsen,” an evolution accompanied by a switch from male to female pronouns. Nielsen, who identifies as multi-gendered, works in a number of different artistic zones, ranging from performance art and music (her latest album Mum and Dad has just been released) to acting and writing novels. Her 2014 novel Den endeløse sommer has now been translated into English as The Endless Summer.
While Nielsen’s creative work is often the site of identity issues, surprisingly few drive The Endless Summer as its multiple dramas unfold. At most are the introductory scenes playing off the opening line: "The young boy, who is perhaps a girl, but does not yet know it. The young boy, who is perhaps a girl, but will never touch a man, never strip naked with a man and rub skin against his skin, never ever, no matter how titillatingly repellant the notion might be.” So goes the young boy, "so fetching, so delicate," who sleeps platonically with his stepsister as a matter of love and comfort. Eventually, however, the non-sexual drifts into the sexual, a sexuality that is simply part of the landscape here, an ordinary exploration into the human experience: "the girl and the sensitive, slender boy, who across the years, and every time they return from each their travels and each their adventures with other, unfamiliar or far too proximate genders, have kept on meeting up and resuming something that is long since over."
Is The Endless Summer a love story? Perhaps. As the narrator says: "all this improbable but entirely credible love story is, like every story in this story, a story in itself, which must constantly be interrupted and then resumed until every story has reached its more or less tragic ending." This larger story, a story which must constantly be interrupted, focuses on a woman and a much younger man from Portugal; they find each other by chance and discover a kind of happiness amidst the swirl of summer. The woman is married, however, and her relationship with the Portuguese hitchhiker actually constitutes her second affair. The reader learns that the woman’s husband, saddened by his wife’s first affair and the overwhelming demands of running a large estate he has inherited, vanished in the night—all with barely a comment from the narrator. In the fallout from his disappearance, the nameless woman drifts and eventually takes up with the nameless Portuguese man. The woman’s children, including the unnamed step-siblings and “handsome Lars,” drift also. The course of the novel is nearly dream-like as the characters move about as if in a cloud, as if lost in Nielsen's prose.
Perhaps The Endless Summer is more an elegy—an elegy for the beautiful boy, whose death marks the end of summer. It is the beautiful boy, the handsome boy, Handsome Lars, the sensitive slender boy, the boy who sleeps with his stepsister (who might as well be his brother). And with the passing of Handsome Lars, not from "those three letters of the alphabet, or at least in the silence that follows them," but from a "cold [that] turns into pneumonia, but it's not pneumonia, the doctor says, it’s it,” summer has ended, all things are undone. The mother and her Portuguese lover part ways, and so forth and so on, as the drama unfolds from sentence to sentence.
The Endless Summer is a lush read, best done in a single sitting, for its prose is luxurious and tumbling. Indeed, what most drives the narrative is Nielsen's style, a style captured by translator Gaye Kynoch as she moves from "The young boy, who is perhaps a girl, but does not yet know it" to "through the Word, unto eternal life."