Hands up who saw this post title and thought that I’d be talking about Mrs. Woolf? Well, that was the immediate connection in my mind when I saw Virginia on the shelf in my local £2 bookshop. If it was the title that made me pick it up, it was (a) the beauty, (b) the brevity, and (c) the Scandinavian..ity… that made me buy it. You know what a sucker I am for all those things. And it felt just the right book to read after church, in the park, on a beautifully sunny afternoon.
Jens Christian Grøndahl is a Danish writer who’s probably really well known, but was new to me. Virginia (2000, translated 2003 by Anne Born) is a deceptively simple novella about guilt and the ways in which brief encounters in other people’s lives can change the paths taken for both. If that’s ringing Atonement-sounding bells in anyone’s minds, then you’re not entirely off the mark – but Grøndahl treats the topic rather more calmly. I haven’t read enough Scandinavian literature to comment, I suppose, and I can’t read any except in translation, but I’m going to generalise wildly nonetheless. Scandinavian literary fiction seems to bathe the action in a haze – the beautiful landscapes are reflected in the choice of language, which isn’t short and sharp, but slightly dreamy and pensive. The Guardian reviewer wrote that Virginia ‘makes even Chekhov seem effusive.’ Of course there’s The Girl With The Gruesome Shocks to prove me wrong, but I did say ‘literary fiction’…
Virginia begins in 1942 in occupied Denmark. A young woman (I’m going to take a plunge and say that she’s unnamed, because I don’t *think* we’re told that she’s called Virginia – that name becomes important elsewhere) leaves Copenhagen to stay with a family she barely knows on the North Sea coast – presumably to avoid a city in wartime, although this is never really spelt out. Here is the first paragraph of Virginia, which gives you a taste of the prose:
You could never get used to the sound, the distant drone of aircraft engines passing high overheard in the night. It was hot under the sloping timber roof, and she kept her window open. She lay with one leg outside the duvet, breathing in the stuffy holiday cottage air and feeling the cool breeze on her calf and thigh, listening to the small dry click when the wooden edge of the black-out curtain bumped against the window-frame. She’d just had her sixteenth birthday that summer, the only time she stayed at the house by the sea. She didn’t belong here. She slipped out of our life and we slipped out of hers.One of that family is our narrator (also unnamed?) who, at fourteen, is a couple of years younger than her, and something of a distant admirer. There is precious little dialogue between them, and almost no indirect speech – in fact there is barely any direct speech throughout Virginia – but Grøndahl evokes their dynamics perfectly. He is full of calf love, and she doesn’t really notice he’s there. The awakening of first infatuation is a topic which has been treated time and again, and although Grøndahl’s approach is gentle and subtle, it would not suffice as the pivot of even so short a novella – and indeed it is not the pivot.
In a local outbuilding there is an English solider, whose aeroplane has come down. While the narrator is infatuated with the girl, she in turn is experiencing her first love – for a man with whom she cannot converse, and whose presence she must keep secret. We learn this piece-by-piece, through the eyes of a fourteen year old boy. Or, rather, through those eyes as remembered by the same boy fifty years later – for Virginia is a novella of remembering, and incomplete recollections. The narrator calls the boy ‘he’, even though it is himself. We see the scenes through a glass darkly – and this is the pivot on which the novella turns. The boy has accidentally discovered the English pilot’s hiding place:
The German soldiers had stopped on the other side of the planked wall. He could hear their voices quite clearly now but couldn’t understand what they said. When he looked up again the pilot gestured excitedly at him as if to urge him away, out of the shed to where the soldiers were coming round the corner to the doorway.
He did not move while the other repeated his desperate, soundless gesture. Not a single thought passed through his mind in the seconds that followed, but through all the succeeding years I have asked myself whether the German soldiers had seen me go into the shed and whether it would have made any difference if I had gone out to them alone instead of letting them find us together.
Maybe they would have searched the place anyway. On the other hand it is not impossible that they might merely have laughed at the terrified boy who came out of his hiding place before they went along the path, while in fact the boy stayed there watching them and holding his breath. The possibility has stayed with me always, like a thought I have never been able to think through to the end and so have never finished.These thoughts stay with the reader as well as the character through the rest of the novella – we move forwards fifty years. The narrator saw the girl (then a middle-aged, grey-haired woman) only once more, in Paris – he later meets her ex-husband and children. These scenes are haunted by his uncertain guilt – even more subtle than Atonement, because he cannot be certain that his actions were wrong, or just simply tragically unfortunate. It is a moment which has defined much of his life – but one over which he may have had no control.
In so slight a novella, so much is evoked. There is even something of a twist, which I shan’t spoil, but which is elegant and sobering. As I wrote at the top, Scandinavian authors seem to have a beautiful way of encasing a narrative in a sort of hazy beauty. Grøndahl enhances this by having almost no direct dialogue – which makes the novella so much more authentic as the recollections of a 64 year old man for his youth, as well as putting the events at a suitably nebulous distance. For those of you who love novellas as much as I do, Virginia is a really beautiful, thoughtful example (and there are copies from a penny on Amazon!) – I look forward to finding what else Grøndahl has written. Anyone?
Books to get Stuck into:
Crow Lake by Mary Lawson: this portrayal of rural American [edit: I mean Canadian, thanks Elizabeth!] family life, and the sister who left and has felt guilty all her life, has an equally clever twist, as well as being funny, sad, and thoughtful.
Atonement by Ian McEwan: well, it had to be, didn’t it? I’ve not reviewed it on SiaB, but writ on a larger scale than Virginia, it’s undoubtedly a clever and moving examination of how momentary decisions cause lasting guilt.