Thøger Jensen was born in Næsbjerg, a small town in West Jutland. He has published seven novels and two collections of short prose. His latest novel, Zhōng (2016) is a travel book about China, or rather, a record of three journeys to China: in 1923, 1983 and 2013 respectively. Another novel is set in the Hebrides in West Scotland (Serpentine) and Fugle i frostvejr is set in the Provence of Paul Cézanne. Although the books are written in a simple, exquisitely elegant style, they are nonetheless complex and uplifting works and have secured Thøger Jensen a loyal readership.
Test translater’s note
Thøger Jensen’s novel »Serpentine« is written in short prose pieces, each an episode either in the failed mountain expedition of the characters Alex and William, or a story within a story, a philosophical reflection, a piece of fascinating information. Unlike a normal novel, which lives in part on the speed in which it is read, this form of prose pieces demands the reader meditate on each of the moments presented. It is a luxuriously slow reading Jensen asks of us, and his style and humour bring great pleasure.
Two men working at a Scottish hotel on the Isle of Iona travel to Mull to climb Ben More, the highest mountain in the area. A herd of Scottish Highland Cattle block their car and by not moving aside, force the little expedition to a grinding halt. After a few days, they are joined by Cornea, a tourist travelling by car on Mull. She too remains stranded on the road to Ben More, surrounded by the almost immobile cattle, and becomes friends with William, who is Danish, and Alex. Conversations, thoughts, emotions slow down and acquire depth. The failed trip to Ben More instead becomes a charged and intense trip into each character. In the end, what the three people gain is far more interesting than any view from the peak of a mountain.
publisher and translator
Excerpt from Serpentine
Except for the view, the A849 is a horrible road. Single-laned and with countless blind hilltops and curves. At any moment, an on-coming car traveling at high speed can show up, its occupants perhaps attempting to make the ferry in Craignure or Fishnish. At the side of the road, a sheep suddenly takes two hesitant steps in the wrong direction. A deer jumps across the road. Or you would bump into Scottish highland cattle. Black and red and with shaggy coats and horns so large, any Viking would have envied them their size. A small herd of ancient cattle that simply stands there. Because that is what they do. Stand there. Like a constellation fallen from the sky. All this a few kilometres beyond Bunessan. William brakes. Beep beep, here comes a Volvo!
– I’m convinced their hearts beat only a few times per hour, says Alex and opens the box with Sophia’s chocolate cookies.
The animals act almost as if they were part of a dream. In case it’s possible to act without actually moving. Or is it the restless human eye that can’t perceive their motion? Perhaps these strange beasts are on a long and slow trip and have just temporarily left a distant galaxy to hold up an international mountain climbing expedition.
Alex looks over to the other side of the firth, where Ben More rises with the same imperturbable mass as always.
– Couldn’t we simply drive around its perimeter once?
– Well, says William, – just remember what Brigide of Kildare said when her driver once fell over along with her carriage: “Shortcuts make broken bones.”
William rolls down the side window and speculatively regards the marshy meadow that begins at the side of the road. The Volvo does have certain similarities to a tractor, but …
Instead they slowly drive up to the nearest cow and try to nudge it a little bit. That does no good at all. She doesn’t even look irritated, but instead seems content to just ignore them. What are these creatures doing there anyway? Are they simply standing in the sun, taking an afternoon nap?
William shuts off the engine and leaves the car. He notices three slight, whistling sounds. The cattle are brushing off insects by switching their tails. Swallows swoop and eat the insects. The wind supplies the swallows with fresh air so they can fly.
– Aren’t you coming? asks William.
Let’s make use of the time by taking a closer look at the route, says Alex and unfolds a map on the bonnet of the car.
William dons his hat. The sun is blazing, it’s several kilometres to the next tree, and even further to one that’s big enough to offer shade.
– The mountain is too steep to hike straight up, look how close to each other the contour lines on the south side run. Supposedly there’s no path besides those the sheep have trodden here and there, but in the beginning, we should be able to follow this mountain stream through the valley. Then we’d also be sure we wouldn’t get lost, though that shouldn’t be a problem with the clear weather today. And then we could storm up the mountain from here, about halfway over, at a slight diagonal.
– Is it even possible to cross the stream up there? William asks and tries to follow the route through the binoculars. – It rained a lot this week.
– Of course we can get across, says Alex.
A flock of starlings comes flying from the firth and descends on the meadow not far from them. Young starlings on their way in from the Outer Hebrides, now they will let their wings rest a bit.
– How about a stroll to the bay, while the cattle hold their siesta? William suggests. – So we don’t waste too much time. Then we can continue in the late afternoon.
Alex starts taking the fishing rod down from the luggage rack straight away.
Excerpt from Fugle i frostvejr (Birds in Frost Weather), novel, 2006.
1 The school, located on a field some place in West Jutland, is brand new. Hellebjerg. He has been hired as a janitor and is responsible for the planting. The wind is fierce in this area. It requires storm shelters from the wind, living walls of fir trees, and he has great expectations for the red hawthorn. “But what,” he asks the recently graduated teacher from Kalundborg, “should I plant in the long bed in front of the windows of the classroom out near the schoolyard?” “Peace roses,” she says.
2 She has moved into the teacher’s compound above the gymnasium. It is her first apartment. From her parents she’s borrowed 500 kroner to buy new furniture. The sofa and the two recliners have dark green covers. The porcelain is light blue and has the same name as her. “Sonja,” the janitor says and spills a little coffee on the table cloth, “will you come with me to the dance at the Town Hall on Saturday?”
3 It has always been like this. When he meets an attractive woman, he has to either hate her or love her. He decides on the latter. Sonja and the janitor begin dating. A year later they get married. The wedding is held at the teacher’s compound. The tables are decorated with Peace roses. In his speech to the bride he promises to one day show her the nursery in France where Peace roses come from. In Antibes. But it’s only 1957; there’s plenty of time left. Peace roses can live for up to 40 years, maybe even longer than that. Time will tell.
4 Two years after the wedding, the janitor leaves her. He remains gone. It’s October; the starlings migrate. The janitor leaves behind three things: a dove-blue Volkswagen, a bed of Peace roses, and a son named Ole. “Where did he go?” the driving instructor from Varde asks. “We don’t know,” Sonja replies and passes the road test on the first try.
Translation: Kyle Semmel
Excerpt from Høfde Q (Groyne Q), prose 1998-2008
As Seen in Certain Feathers
While the cashier assists the customer in front of him—she asks about the most durable lipstick—another customer slides into his field of vision from the right, edging in from behind, which is to say from the wrong side, his side of the counter. Excuse me, she says, may I grab something from the eyeliner rack? She has been working on her own eyes. Her lightly fluttering eyelids glint green and metallic, like you see in certain birds’ feathers, gray male ducks and magpies, among others. Her somewhat slow way of moving, a little tense, nearly floating, maybe a little flutter of insecurity. Does she have a problem with her back? Her own, it turns out now, unforgettable way of defying gravity. Starling, it occurs to him. Starlings also have that type of feather in the spring.
Translation: Kyle Semmel