Translated from the Danish by Michael Goldman
(New York, NY: Spuyten Duyvil, 2017)
Translated into English for the first time, Knud Sønderby’s essay collection Fragments of a Mirror is both a journey through the Danish landscape and through the writer’s internal world. While Sønderby’s essays span nearly thirty years, they are consistently written with depth and humor. He observes the world with an attentive yet uncritical eye, meticulously recording detail in a gently reflective tone that welcomes readers into his most intimate memories.
Sønderby’s talent lies in his ability to stretch the smallest moments to reveal the idiosyncratic details that lie within seemingly mundane experience. “A Journey in 1944” documents an ordinary train ride, sparing no detail and transcribing overheard conversations. The prose is transporting, placing the reader inside the lush landscape of his memory, but it is also analytical, tracing the ways in which space and seasons connect strangers.
Each scene is approached with wit and appreciation. Rather than criticizing the poorly kempt train restroom, he teases the sign reading “Please Leave Toilet in the Condition in Which You Would Like to Find It,” a request that he remarks would “take several hours of work to comply with.” In this way he not only builds a strong sense of place but also comments on his surroundings with a lighthearted humor that reveals his love for his country and companions even in the most inconvenient moments.
By exploring figurative concepts such as time, age, and feeling, Sønderby’s essays run the risk of presenting as overly philosophical. However, his masterful balance of humor and depth allows him to get away with abstract, sometimes moralizing lines. His light-hearted style, which borders on self-deprecation, offsets potentially grandiose statements on subjects such as love and age. In “The Hawthornes,” an essay exploring nature and sound, Sønderby transcribes the imagined speech of a pond frog:
[An] underground reprimand is uttered: “May a frog at this unconventional moment have permission to raise his voice and make one small remark. Just a reminder that there are others around, and we also have the right to be present.” This croaking was delivered like a silent protest, a subterranean wisdom, just hinting at a secret that no power could force it to reveal.
The comical image of a speaking frog, combined with Sønderby’s hyperbolic tone, creates a space in which he and the reader can explore the greater meaning of the contrast between silence and sound, in a philosophical and abstract manner, while also indulging in some silly, fantastical imaginings.
Sønderby’s sincerity shines through even the most contemplative moments. In “The Black Swan” – perhaps one of the collection’s most endearing essays – Sønderby writes earnestly about how he inherited a boat from his cousin. He casually mentions a theoretical interest in owning a boat, which his cousin takes literally, insisting that he’ll find one the two can sail together. Sønderby describes the moment as “the puzzlement of a wish’s fulfillment. The discomfort of a wish’s fulfilment.” The contrast in these two lines, the words “puzzlement” and “discomfort” against “fulfillment,” portrays Sønderby’s greatest skill: his ability to write with such truth and transparency that contradictions actually relay a sense of comfort to the reader.
While the essays in Fragments of a Mirror explore simple and safe moments in life, Sønderby’s frank approach brings a brave and fresh voice to narrative nonfiction. His essays display masterful awareness toward the detail and nuance of even the most minor events. Brought to life by Michael Goldman’s translation, Sønderby’s decades-long legacy at last extends itself to English readers.
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Briana McDonald’s fiction has appeared in The Stonecoast Review, Glassworks Magazine, The Cardiff Review, Rozyln: Short Fiction by Women Writers, and Marathon Literary Review. She is an Associate Editor and a prose reader at The Literary Review.