Over the past six months or so I have pursued few opportunities to write longer critical reviews for publication. In fact, I have been more interested in encouraging others to write reviews for me to publish at 3:AM Magazine. I’ve gotten out of the habit of looking to upcoming releases with an eye to what I might want to write about, especially sight unseen. Rather, I am more likely to find myself reading a book I already own and realize that I want to write about it at a greater depth than my typical blog post. But every now and then a book grabs my attention and I set out to secure an advance reader’s copy and review placement on instinct alone.
Such was the case with The Endless Summer by Danish writer and transgender performance artist, Madame Neilsen, recently released by Open Letter Books in a translation by Gaye Kynoch. I knew nothing about this book when I first saw it in an email newsletter but I confess that I was immediately intrigued by the unusual sounding author. And although I tend to tread very carefully around transgender themed writing or writers of any sort, I knew I wanted to read this book. And write about it. Endless complications in my efforts to obtain a review copy notwithstanding (it did arrive about two weeks after I submitted my finished review), I was thoroughly captivated by this lovely novel.
The story of a boy “who is perhaps a girl, but does not know it yet,” The Endless Summer is, in simple terms, an evocative requiem to that moment in life when all is possible and the harsh face of reality has not yet been confronted. I attempted to capture some of its strange and wonderful magic in my review originally published in the Spring 2018 edition of The Quarterly Conversation and reproduced below.
The Endless Summer by Madame Nielsen, translated by Gaye Kynoch. Open Letter Books.
I remember the year I became an adult. I was twenty-four. I had completed one degree, married, and moved across the country to continue my education. After rent, bus fare, and the student loans we’d secured, we were left with $10 a week for food and barely enough to keep the huge empty front room of our apartment heated through the frigid Ottawa winter. So we turned the registers off and retreated to the bedroom. Homesick, we missed our friends and families. By the end of the term we both recognized that something had been irrevocably altered; an intangible light had been extinguished. This was real life. We had grown up. Our own “endless summer,” that fragile Garden of Eden, was over.
“It is not the bite in the apple that makes the Fall. It is the idea of a life after this one-and-only now.”
Perhaps it is something you only notice once it’s gone; the last traces of a moment when you still believed in the possible, caught up in a lingering nostalgia for a time before the burden of responsibility took its toll. If only one could go back and recreate the mythical intensity of the past, eulogize the lost magic, just like the old woman whose most unusual story lies at the heart enchanting novel, The Endless Summer, by the equally enchanting Madame Nielsen.
The Danish transgender performance artist, has, over the course of her career, presented, masqueraded, invented, and re-invented herself many times, even having her birth-identified self, Claus Beck-Nielsen, declared dead along the way. (He was ultimately revived when the lack of any identity altogether proved too difficult to sustain.) The multi-facetted Madame Nielsen is a novelist, poet, artist, performer, stage director, composer, and singer. With The Endless Summer, newly released from Open Letter Books in a translation by Gaye Kynoch, Nielsen weaves a tale that sidesteps the common expectations of narrative progress and character development. Rather, an odd cast of characters is choreographed through a shifting, dreamlike landscape openly reminiscent of David Lynch, complete with digressions into side stories, tales from the past, and glances into the future. The stories are continually being started, interrupted, and resumed again. The influence of Proust and other French novelists is evident, but Nielsen’s wistful narrator, who will ultimately become an actor, demonstrates a strong theatrical sensibility throughout.
The novel opens with a simple statement, the oddly incomplete sentence: “The young boy, who is perhaps a girl, but does not know it yet.” This phrase will be echoed, with slightly different shades, gradation, and detail, throughout the text. Likewise, the other main characters’ defining characteristics or curious features will be continually evoked, elaborated, and elegized as the tale unwinds. This is, as the subtitle advises, a requiem. A deep melancholy is never far from the surface. But first there is the summer, the “endless summer” a nebulous state of being which exists outside of time, a world unto itself “where time and light stand still and the dust rotates and no one does anything, nothing other than living as if they were in a different era and a completely different location.”
The young boy, who is in fact in his late teens, but so slender, delicate, and shy, falls into this other world after meeting a girl, an ebullient, full-figured, dark-haired girl. He becomes her lover and slips into her household, joining her two little brothers, her jealous, gun-loving stepfather, and her enigmatic mother in a little white farmhouse. The last, a dazzling, long-limbed Nordic beauty spends her days riding her beloved stallion through the surrounding fields. The boy and girl spend their days in bed, losing themselves in one another’s bodies. All the while other characters are introduced, ready to take their places in the drama that will eventually unfold, we are warned, to its necessarily tragic end.
The narrative advances through a series of scenes played out on this other plane of existence, a fairytale space without distinct boundaries. It is not clear when it begins, or when it is truly over. This extended moment of impossibility, or rather, all possibilities, draws others into its sphere of influence—young men on the cusp of adulthood, wayward artistic wanderers, and those going nowhere, like the perfectly handsome, utterly unambitious Lars, the daughter’s best friend. Other characters circle, like satellites, around the periphery of this space of suspended reality, and thus on the edges of the story, providing substantive props against the ephemeral timelessness of the “endless summer.” Aware that the cautious reader may be inclined to advance with incredulity, the narrator is quick to advise:
… if the story so far sounds like a dream, a glossy tale of the kind one occasionally—on holiday or a long-haul flight—allows oneself to lean back into and, as if it were sinful, a praline, vanish within for a brief moment, then it’s because life is a dream, a dream from which you never wake up, but which one day is nonetheless suddenly long since over, but you’re still here and can either use “the rest of your days” to forget and “get on with it” or on the other hand, like me, abandon what is and try to retrieve what was, even the tiniest little thing that has been lost, even what perhaps didn’t really exist but nonetheless belongs in the story, call it forth and tell it so it doesn’t vanish but on the contrary now at last becomes real and in a way more real than anything else.
At the nexus of this act of remembering is the almost otherworldly presence of the mother, a romantically idealized woman, cool, impenetrable, and independent, who casts a spell on all who fall within her orbit, including the Portuguese artist half her age who will become her lover. The slender young boy is clearly enthralled by her, by “the inscrutability and the light that makes it impossible” for him to ever be finished looking at her, “because as soon as he glances away for a moment he has a feeling that he has not yet seen her.” She can be thought of as the embodiment of womanhood to which he, the boy who might be a girl but doesn’t know it yet, is unconsciously drawn. His first sexual and gender explorations are deeply enmeshed with the softly rounded body and pleasure-loving spirit of the daughter, but it is the mother who holds him in awe.
The only character about whom we have no solid background, who falls into the “endless summer” with little more than a passing reference to a family that pretended they had money but in truth had none, is the narrator’s own past self, the slender young boy. The rest of the cast, even those who pass through peripherally, have a story, with dramatic beginnings and occasionally exceptional, but most often disappointing or tragic ends. Early on, when he is spending his days lost in bed with the girl, she entertains him with accounts of her childhood with her grandparents in Spain, her discovery of the truth of her real father’s identity, and the details of her stepfather’s inherited wealth and decline into possessive aggression. It is noted that she has lots of stories. He, on the other hand, has only those he creates.
So this story, this winding, dreamy, melancholic tale of the “endless summer” and everyone and everything it contained, where does it lie? In memory? In longing? Or in the romantic imagination of the “weird cobweb-flighty female being” that the young boy, who might be a girl but doesn’t know it yet, ultimately becomes?
The success of this unlikely, sprawling reverie with its expansive cast and uncertain timeline lies in the emotionally absorbing, reflective tone of the narrative. To read is to submit, to trust the voice. The repeated descriptive motifs are reassuring rather than affected. When new characters appear, instantly vivid portraits are created with the capture of curious details and ineffable traits and qualities:
And shortly after midnight, the two Portuguese arrive with their rucksacks, the one, the pen pal, actually not so dark at all, far from it, tall and strong and with golden curls, Peixe, he is called, “The Fish,” but where he comes from they call him “o Vikingo,” the other one is smaller but equally masculine, dark and mysterious, a little shy like a wild cat, the same soundless movements, an abrupt laughter cracking his face in a flash of light that has disappeared before you have seen who he is.
However, the illusory nature of the entire enterprise, this attempt to recreate the transcendent quality of the “endless summer,” is never denied. Little by little, disillusionment and disappointment dilutes and denudes the magic; characters begin to fall out of that other world, and back into this one. But the end of the “endless summer” is as mutable as its onset.
The transformation of the slender young boy into an old woman lost to her memories is never openly explored. It is an inevitability written into the texture of the account. Rarely does the narrator admit a first person pronoun. This is her (or his) story retold from the sidelines of his (or her) life—a life in which “none of the things he promises himself or dreams about will ever come to anything, while all the things he has never wished for or promised himself will happen and amount to all there has been.” As a reader who was, at one time, a girl who was a boy, but didn’t understand it, I registered a particular resonance with The Endless Summer. The experience of living and writing across a gendered expression creates a haunting sense of disconnect, an otherworldliness. But this poignant novel is much more. It is a requiem for the death of dreams, and a hymn to keeping the spirit alive in the exercise of living beyond the moment when you still believed.
“Earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust.”