Death Liberates in a Danish Master’s New Novel

August 19, 2019 | 2 books mentioned 4 min read

Ida Jessen’s A Change of Time, beautifully translated from the Danish by Martin Aitken, tells the story of “L. Høy, Schoolteacher,” as she’s introduced to the reader on the book’s first page. Her story is told in the form of a diary, recounting events in her life primarily from 1927 through 1934. The story is centered around the death of her husband, the traveling doctor Vigand Bagge, and her response to this loss; we watch as L. Høy, or Fru Bagge as she’s called throughout much of the text, slowly comes out of her grief and into her new life. As the story progresses, the reader gets an increasingly fuller sense of this woman—of the vibrant life of her mind, of the great trials and frustrations of her marriage, and of what it is she’d truly like her life to be.

The text shines as an honest reckoning with the death of a spouse—but one in a deeply companionless marriage—and the life of two people who shared little but space. We see a woman working through her conflicted feelings in real time: the wrestling with who her husband was and the form their marriage took; the remembrance of things she genuinely loved about him; her regrets about their life together; her wishes that things had been different (and imaginings of what would have made things different); and the deep loneliness that still descends upon her in his absence. There are no easy answers, even as our narrator finds a certain measure of freedom and independence that her repressive, distant, self-absorbed husband refused her.

There’s a passage from the October 19 entry of Fru Bagge’s diary, only three days after she received the phone call delivering the news that her husband died in hospital, in which the reader sees her doing this kind of wrestling in real time. She begins by recounting how committed Vigand was to avoiding being a nuisance to people, and how “he could be rudely offensive in order to avoid it.” She then turns inward toward their relationship:

Such an idea is of course in every respect honorable, and yet one may ask whether the right to be a nuisance ought not to be a human right? What if we were to eradicate every nuisance? Who would then be left?

Moreover, I have wished more than anything else that he would make a nuisance of himself to me.

She then backtracks: “Not that he never did. He was a nuisance. Just not in a way I could understand. A man who needed my help, his nuisance I would have understood. But perhaps then it would not have been a nuisance at all. I have never thought of it like that before.” This passage rings true in that it reflects the ebbs and flows of recollection, the processes of working-through. It’s no straight path of self-discovery, but a winding search for understanding and self-knowledge. Through it all, Fru Bagge’s deep, earnest desire for companionship shines through, even as she wrestles with what she wishes her husband, and her marriage, could have been.

As the days and weeks go on, the diary becomes more self-reflective and focused on memory—we hear much more about what brought her to the town, what her life as a schoolteacher was like, and what sort of companionship she found with the people of the town. The diary reads as an honest personal audit at a moment of change in the narrator’s life: Who have I been? To whom have I been a blessing and to whom a curse? These questions are rarely expressed explicitly, which sets this book apart: The personal reckoning is performed by recounting a life, not via vague existential questioning.

coverJessen is a tremendously gifted writer, and as the book progresses—with our narrator gaining more distance from the death of her husband—we glimpse what our narrator’s life becomes, and the writing really shines. Jessen, the Danish translator of Marilynne Robinson, among others, proves to have a keen Robinsonian streak of her own. She writes with the same narrative generosity, the same belief in the dignity and voice of characters that might usually be dismissed. Fru Bagge writes of herself in her grief, “I haven’t the inclination to look people in the eye, nor not to. I find myself in a state of shame,” and you can imagine the titular character of Lila expressing a similar sentiment. As Fru Bagge recounts a sermon by the small-town pastor—“Salvation…gives us solace, in that it does not take from us our grief, unlike happiness, which glints and glitters and is disinterested in everything but itself”—you can imagine it coming from the mouth of John Ames in Gilead.

What can occasionally get lost in work in Robinson’s tradition is a certain concreteness; as writers seek to emulate the sort of spiritual musings and fully-realized interiority that Robinson writes so well, they sometimes neglect the physical space their characters inhabit. Never Jessen. This work is firmly grounded, quite literally. The landscape, the heath surrounding Thryegod, the rural town in Western Denmark where our narrator resides, is a character in and of itself. The natural world is not neutral, simply a landscape about which our narrator feels comfortable waxing poetically. Rather, it acts on our narrator. She’s constantly aware of its presence; it dictates her moods, her stories, her movement. The reader has a real sense of the actuality of this place.

Furthermore, Jessen remains measured in her descriptions, often opting for the plainer turn of phrase—the town pastor is simply “a cheerful, ruddy man, [with] a cheerful, ruddy wife;” a companion from her school days, “talked loudly, sang loudly, laughed loudly, and was the most helpful person I have ever known;” her restrained, honest take on widowhood is simply, “We have our dead. Our hope is that we too will be someone’s.” Jessen can be lyrical when she likes, but perhaps more impressive is her restraint when it’s exactly what’s called for.

In the book’s acknowledgements, Jessen writes, “It has not been my intention to write a section of the history of the town in which I grew up, though I freely acknowledge the singular allurement of using the name Thryegod.” And that is how this book reads—before it is a glimpse into the interiority of a widow trying to reckon with her life and move forward, A Change of Time is a reflection of a place in a time that’s imbued with a personal, specific love. Jessen knows this place; she lets her reader know it, too.

is a writer living in Austin, Texas. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Rain Taxi, The Adroit Journal, and the Paris Review Daily.

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