A Review of The Endless Summer by Madame Nielsen

Translated from the Danish by Gaye Kynoch
(Rochester, NY: Open Letter Books, 2018)

Early in The Endless Summer, the narrator comments that

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 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.

This sentence eloquently articulates the aims of Nielsen’s poignant novel, which might just as well be described as a lengthy prose poem. Working in the tradition of Proust and Woolf, Nielsen elegizes a bygone period in the lives of the book’s characters, taking us back to a time when “everything is still possible.” But The Endless Summer also celebrates the capacity of language to evoke the past, transforming it from memory into art and, in so doing, making it eternal.

The story “begins with a boy, a young boy, who is perhaps a girl, but does not know it.” This boy-who-is-perhaps-a-girl remains unnamed, with Nielsen typically referring to him as the “slender boy” to differentiate him from other characters, such as the “handsome boy.” Many years and pages later, the boy has become “an old woman” with “no other urges than language and death,” the implication being that this character and the story’s narrator are one and the same. The slender boy meets a girl and, through her, comes into contact with the other “dramatis personae” who comprise and make possible the endless summer: the girl’s mother, who falls in and out of love with a new man every seven years; a younger Portuguese artist from a poor background, who eventually marries the mother; and the aforementioned “handsome boy,” a childhood friend of the girl’s, who is not merely lazy but unable to “face anything, not a thing, not even life, it’s simply too much bother.” These figures, joined now and then by others, reside together in a “white farmhouse” for an unspecified period of time.

Of course, the endless summer does end: the narrator announces early on that death is “coming, don’t worry, it’ll come, death comes in every story like this one, in the final cadence or maybe abruptly like a dumdum bullet forcing an entry in the midst of life and leaving it ripped apart, spread out across the earth.” In the meantime, the narrative does everything it can to postpone the inevitable. Stylistically, Nielsen achieves this effect through her long, flowing sentences, in which the steady accumulation of modifying phrases and subordinate clauses draws out the moments described – as with this account of how “even here while they [the mother and the Portuguese artist] dance, in the explosion of laughter, in his toss of the head and backward jerk in the armchair and the crashing of the armchair and later, when they are lying in the darkness, in the throes of cannibalistic lust, in his bite and her bitten lips, and in her misty eyes, next morning when she steps out through the bedroom door and sees them, the girl and the two young boys … , lying there in the sitting room on the mattresses that overlap one another, asleep in the morning sun, yes, even there, in the tears in her eyes and the smile that breaks out, it exists, the future, all the things that can happen.”

Nielsen also achieves this lengthening effect through a series of narrative detours, which relate the histories of various peripheral characters. So, after the initial meeting of slender boy and girl, The Endless Summer tells us about the girl’s snobbish aunt, her violent and controlling stepfather, her itinerant biological father, and the man – the mother’s first husband – who believes for years that he is the girl’s biological father and is devastated to learn he is not. At one point, the narrator imagines the white farmhouse as “not a place in time but a narrative room after room after room,” and these brief accounts of secondary characters function in precisely this way: as individual rooms, fairly self-contained, which Nielsen has built into the structure of the novel, and which give us a more complete blueprint of the main characters’ lives.

Lurking on the periphery of this endless summer is its antithesis: not only death but also “endless winter,” a kind of death-in-life characterized by rigid conventionality and “miserly Protestantism that no longer has any god other than work.” These two worlds come together in a brilliantly rendered scene, in which the Portuguese artist, who has been given an exhibition at a bank, decides to stage a protest against this other, drabber world and leads a mission to reclaim his paintings from the bank’s walls in broad daylight. It’s true that banks are, themselves, a conventional target of critique by now. Nonetheless, Nielsen’s attempt to imagine alternative ways of living remains powerful and necessary. The novel creates a space in which an older Danish woman and a younger Portuguese man can share a love that disregards “traditional rules and gender roles,” and in which the slender boy who is perhaps a girl can stave off, for a time, his “growing despair.” A beautiful, moving book, The Endless Summer invites us to partake in its vision of living “in the here and now,” with little regard for hierarchy, judgment, or shame. But it never allows us to forget that this period of seemingly infinite possibility is brief, over almost as soon as it has begun.

 

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Greg Chase is a writer who lives in Boston. His work has appeared in such forums as Harvard Review Online, Rain Taxi, Guernica, and The Millions. He holds a PhD in English from Boston University and currently teaches at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, MA. To read more of his work, go to gregchasewriting.com.