The Danish author unveils the literary process behind her latest translated work
In the four years since it was first published, Danish author Ida Jessen’s novel A Change of Time has had a charmed existence. In 2016, the intimate portrait of life, love and loss swept Denmark’s literary world picking up numerous plaudits as well as the Danish Broadcasting Corporation’s Best Novel Award and the Danish Writers Association’s Blixen Award for Best Fiction of the Year. Along with the critical acclaim, however, the work has also helped cement Ida Jessen’s role as one of the leading authors of the Nordic realist narrative tradition.
Now, newly translated into English by translator Martin Aitken, A Change of Time is generating praise on this side of the Atlantic with reviewers celebrating the novel as “a little jewel,” a book of “masterful restraint,” and “a quiet novel that prompts contemplation on the part of the reader.”
On the sidelines of a literary salon held at the Residence of Denmark In New York in October, we caught up with Ms. Jessen to discuss the literary process behind her work, her engagement with her readers, and the joys of successful translation.
Denmark In New York: Your award-winning novel A Change of Time has just been translated into English. Told in the first person, it revolves around the dramatic changes affecting a middle-aged Danish woman at the beginning of the 20th century and her consequent realizations. Tell us a little bit about your novel and how you developed it.
Ida Jessen: I wanted to write a story that goes on in the town where I was brought up — a hamlet on the old moors of Jutland. I wanted to write a story of a time when the old railway station towns were built, a time of prosperity and energy and hard work in order to build community in even very desolate places. So, for several years I was reading a lot of local history.
A Change of Time is the story of a young free school teacher that comes to the town of Thyregod to run a free school in 1904. She gets married to the much older, much stricter, district doctor and the book opens 22 years later when her husband dies after 20 years of a marriage without nearness. Now, as a mature woman of 50, she has to find a meaning to her life, and she wants to find love, too.
The novel is told through a series of diary entries. How did you settle on this form of narrative structure as the definitive vehicle in telling fru Bagge’s story?
Ida Jessen: I wanted to write this kind of narrative several years before the voice of fru Bagge appeared in my head. So I was looking for a main character that I thought well fitted for this kind of writing, and it took a couple of years before she came. It simply happened in a strange moment. One moment I was without her, in the next she was there, fully formed and able to tell everything that was on her mind, from minor things to very important things — which are the characteristics of diary-writing. You can make these jumps from big things to very, very small things and vice versa almost seamlessly. You can omit a lot, and you can tell a lot. It is a very free form. But there is a possibility of nearness, an intimacy, which was what I wanted in this book. I wanted a voice like a dearness, if you can say that in English.
In many ways, the novel is a study of “change” — whether it be through the death of fru Bagge’s husband or the metamorphosis of her identity and self-perception. But “change” is also a very universal theme that all readers can identify with. How do you think contemporary readers will engage with the novel and its characters and what are you hoping that they will take away from the work?
Ida Jessen: When writing, my mind is not on the readers but on the characters. But, after a book is published, the readers tell me how they read the book. So I know a little bit about it. Readers have told me that they feel consoled by the voice of fru Bagge. They say the book makes them feel connected to their past and that it gives them hope. That is all I could ever hope for.
Translations can sometimes affect the tone of a book. Do you feel the tone and atmosphere from the original Danish is preserved in the English translation? And can you tell us a little bit about how you as an author lived and experienced the translation process.
Ida Jessen: I am a translator myself, and I know how important it is to be able to work without anybody hanging over your shoulder controlling your work. You work so well when you are trusted but, when you are being controlled, you get self-conscious in a way that is not productive. So, a writer has to trust the translator to do a proper job. And if the translator isn’t doing a proper job, there is nothing the author can do about it. Yes, correcting singular mistakes of course — but you are not able to correct the tone or the rhythm, which is the most important thing.
I know Martin Aitken, the translator — I wanted him to do this translation. When I got the published book in my hands I was of course very excited. I opened the book at random pages because that is the best way, I think, to see, how things are done. And I thought: “Why, Martin Aitken is fru Bagge! It is tremendously well done.”
We hear that you’re planning a follow-up to A Change of Time. Can you tell us about how you’re planning to continue fru Bagge’s story?
Ida Jessen: The follow-up is already written and was published in Denmark in 2016. It is called The Anagrams of Doctor Bagge. Doctor Bagge is the husband of fru Bagge — he who dies in the beginning of A Change of Time. After having finished A Change of Time, I continued hearing the doctor’s somewhat harsh voice, so after some time I wrote this book about this man, who doesn’t want to talk about himself, who doesn’t want to be near other people, and who is doing so much good in his job, and doing it in a very unemotional way. I had to lure him into telling me about himself. You have to listen very carefully to your characters. If pressing them in wrong directions, they tend to go silent completely, and if that happens, you have to give up your story. So in the disguise of an editor of a medical magazine I asked him to write his memoirs of the old days as a young doctor on the moors — and very unwillingly he began telling about his job, after some time he also began revealing bits and scraps of himself that neither fru Bagge nor anybody else knew.