Of Darkness by Josefine Klougart (tr. Martin Aitken). Deep Vellum Publishing. 308 pp., $15.95
The human-precipitated Anthropocene promises unprecedented loss: of beauty and wildness in the natural sphere, and the comforts of convenient consumption in the domestic sphere—yet outside of science fiction, this has yet to register in our literature. In The Great Derangement, Amitav Ghosh argues that the blame should be put on the very structure of the novel, which employs depictions of mundane reality to conceal a scaffold of more remarkable plot points, and which developed at a time when nature was viewed as a bucolic canvas upon which human individuals acted rather than a system of which we are part. The best way to think about the Anthropocene may be through images, Ghosh suggests—film and television already seem to be having a more successful time. Danish writer Josefine Klougart’s cinematic experimental novel, Of Darkness, would seem to be the sort of novel Ghosh would appreciate: it moves in and out of images, dissolving the false border between human beings and nature in a series of interlocked vignettes that add up to a metonym for the large-scale loss implied by climate change.
Readers who prefer plot-driven novels will not be satisfied. A cohesive narrative never emerges from the various sections that retrace recurring scenes in forms as diverse as flash prose, lineated prose, Sapphic fragments, and even a screenplay. (Personally, I feared they might draw together by the end, and was relieved when they did not.) Tellingly, the screenplay section spends much more time describing the setting and directing the shots than on dialogue between its two characters, WOMAN and MAN. The novel makes implicit and explicit references to cinema like a director paying homage—“He’s talking about Duras, that film with the very lengthy shot of a naked woman in it, the breast of the woman asleep. You think you’re looking up into the crown of a tree, only to discover that what you’re seeing aren’t branches at all, but the photographed capillaries of a heart.”—and throughout Klougart aims to evoke a Herzogian plumbing of landscapes. Yet unlike many visually stunning films without much plot, Klougart’s prose is riveting rather than monotonous, and never feels like an exercise.
Departing from a Brodsky quotation about how the eye takes in light and perceives beauty, Of Darkness privileges the visual: “It’s that time of day, a fade into blue, / like certain fungi when the finger indents the flesh, or bruises on a thigh. / One could say the light draws a boundary, outlining one thing, marginalizing another.” Klougart milks her images until the shapes lose their borders—then she redraws them. Before introducing the motif of a couple walking on a beach, she writes: “Plains and skin. Coasts, cuticles. / Such leaps, on all imaginable scales.” Bodies are continually conflated with the landscape. As the perspective pulls back, we realize the shoreline and the sea is actually a woman’s arm over a blue blanket. Klougart notes “An absence of interest in nature as it is found out there, / or perhaps an interest in what is human in nature. / Nature’s humanity, if that’s something we can talk about,” and as she brings nature inside, she breaks the fourth wall between her readers and the text.
Klougart’s characters are unnamed, but they’re not archetypes—they possess the universal specificity of poetry. Not only is our gaze directed from different angles, the narrative point of view also changes, sometimes within a single piece of flash prose:
She pauses in the middle of the floor, in darkness.
His voice, wrenching the skin from my frame in a single movement; imperceptibly your breathing has made a fine incision at the nape of my neck, and now you skin me.
What do you want, the man asks her.
The kitchen crackles, and light from the street enfolds the darkness, wrapping it up in its pallid slough.
We view the scene from the doorway, the room is dark, or nearly so.
It is tempting to identify the first-person narrator with the author, to forget that one is reading fiction. With the veer from third- to first-person, it is tempting to view “she” and “I” as one and the same, this method of viewing oneself objectively a common technique of many nonfiction writers. Across a semicolon, “his” becomes “your”—but can the reader assume the subject is the same? Then, at the end, Klougart’s use of “we” explicitly references the frame and implicates the reader in the audience, but it could just as easily describe the couple in the scene. This play with pronouns causes the characters to dissolve into one another, and the reader to lose any semblance of narrative arc.
Standing out from the prose’s mesmerizing visual movement are several incredibly visceral depictions of violence toward the eyes. In the titular section of the novel, horses seemingly startled by a sudden reflection of sunlight on a field rear up, throwing the girls riding them to the ground and to their deaths. Later, the scene is referenced again, but this time only one girl has been hurt by an unruly stallion, “castrated too late”: “The horse had stepped on her face, the left side, a loose tack in the shoe had gashed her open from just above the eye, a fleshy flap hung from the socket, her apple cheek parted like the tall grass of the meadow through which they rode. / Who was she out with.” The other girls gather round, passing judgment (in a poignant peculiarity of style, the novel contains many unpunctuated questions). Translator Martin Aitken matches visual resonances with linguistic ones, heightening the horror of the image all the more, as while the girl lies on the ground, she hears “The flap, flap of horse lips smacking together, the moist rending of pasture detached by the teeth.”
Eyes are often referred to as planets, another leap of scale, as in this sequence, which seems at first entirely realistic yet turns stranger and stranger, as in a dream:
The eyes are planets too.
The slowness lies between the objects.
The individual body, the individual planet, possesses unimaginable speed and is proceeding insanely towards destruction. She reaches up and raises her eye to her lips. With two fingers she presses the orb between them. She stands for a moment, the eye in her mouth, the planet soon to block out the light from the window in front of them.
The scene recalls the famous opening of Bunuel and Dali’s Un chien andalou, where a woman’s eye is bisected by a razor as a branch crosses the moon. Eerily, the earlier scene of the horse accident is also described in astronomical terms, “The way the planets drag with them their moons, this is how the horses drag the cold frames of their girls.”
To be attentive to the natural world, Klougart reminds us, is to be constantly aware of death. Destruction of the natural landscape amplifies the devastation of the novel’s human losses. On a walk around a lake with her mother after a disagreement over how she is portrayed in her writing, the narrator observes, “The oak trees had just come into leaf before being cut down, the way a person might think of something they should remember to say. Summer, and a conversation that could have been.” The observed landscape “out there” bleeds into the depicted landscape in one of many ekphrastic flash prose pieces:
There are so many layers in the landscape, the solemn trees closest to us cut up the picture like the cracks of an oil painting, a fracture in the wall in the corner of the bedroom. Is it worsening. It’s hard to tell from day to day. A translation—then, now. The past, continually collapsing like buildings behind us, becoming something else.
Again, Aitken’s translation covers the original like a skin, allowing us to connect these scenes both visually and linguistically. The standing trees “cut up” the landscape like cracks, casting a similarly dissonant violence to the image of the “cut down” trees, aborted in their verdant season. The outside world leads inward, to the cracks in the home and family. Klougart has crafted an unsettling metaphor for our inability to perceive change over geologic time.
Klougart’s use of mirror and window as reflective frames reminds me of Don Mee Choi’s keynote at the 2016 American Literary Translators’ Association Conference, in which she described translation as a mirror, “a deformation zone,” in reference to Ingmar Bergman’s The Silence, which features a seriously ill translator. A recurring image of burning fields, an illegal practice, as the narrator notes, is pulled into the screenplay section as part of a long description of setting: “In rain. A summer, everything threatening to burst into flames at any moment. Bonfires and watering are banned. All glass is forbidden, mirrors are, tin foil, gold leaf.” There is a violence to mirrors, the way they seem to show the truth, yet in reality can distort whatever we hold them up to, the way they interact with our psychology, the way they reflect and refract light. I hesitate to call what Klougart has written an eco-narrative, as that would seem to diminish its achievement. She has managed to make the unimaginable loss we face visible in the mundane reality of human life.
Lucina Schell works in international rights for the University of Chicago Press and is founding editor of Reading in Translation. Her translations of poetry by Daiana Henderson are forthcoming in Cardboard House Press’ DRONE chapbook series, and her translations of Miguel Ángel Bustos appear in Tupelo Quarterly, Lunch Ticket, The Bitter Oleander, Drunken Boat, Ezra Translation Journal, and Seven Corners Poetry.
Read More on this Subject:
More from The Quarterly Conversation:
- Ibn Fadlan and the Land of Darkness: Arab Travellers in the Far North It’s Ibn Fadlan’s account of his remarkable journey that takes up the larger part of Paul Lunde and Caroline Stone’s newly translated anthology Ibn Fadlan and the Land of Darkness: Arab Travellers in the Far North. In 922 Ibn Fadlan set off from Baghdad as the envoy of caliph Muqtadir,...
- The Irresistible Heart of Darkness: Jáchym Topol and the Devil to Pay “I can’t stand still,” Topol claimed in a book of interviews of the same title, and his restlessness lends speed and urgency to the surface of his writing. His texts are a series of flashes before a vague storm; his characters spend their lives reeling from their thrownness in the...
Related posts brought to you by Yet Another Related Posts Plugin.
Read more articles by Lucina Schell