Yahya Hassan: YAHYA HASSAN

yahya hassan pic

Foto: Søren Bidstrup

YAHYA HASSAN by Yahya Hassan is the best selling poetry debut in the history of Denmark. The 19 years old Danish citizen with Palestinian background has written a book that has gotten people in Denmark to read poetry (again). I like the book, it’s ok, sort of like good rap with a social realism twist, but what is much more interesting in this case, is why everybody is reading it. YAHYA HASSAN is a critical piece of work, critical of the author’s parents, critical of the self-alienating ghetto, critical of hypocrisy, critical of the role of religion in the environment in which the author grew up. As if to make the voice of the narrator as loud as possible, every single letter of the text is written in capital:

 

JEG BLIVER VÆKKET KVART OVER TO

PÆDAGOGEN HAR DÆKKET BORD OG LAVET KAFFE

INDEN JEG GÅR I BAD OG KLÆDER MIG PÅ

SKRIVER JEG HOLD UD PÅ ET STYKKE PAPIR

SKUBBER DET IGENNEM DEN SMALLES PRÆKKE TIL CELLE 3

FUCK DE ANDRE

JEG SPISER MORGENMAD MED TO BETJENTE

MIDT OM NATTEN

.

.

.

The text is filled with stories from a criminal life with little concern for the welfare of others. Hassan is involved in fights, robberies, and dealings in stolen goods. He was constantly pulled in and out of institutions and programs, all the while in conflict with family, friends, and well meaning but entirely helpless pedagogues. The narrator does not excuse himself for what he has done, but on the other hand he is so eager to tell, to unveil, that everything seems driven by a desire for confession. I believe this is one of the main reasons for the massive commercial success of YAHYA HASSAN: That it is poetry about life. It is life first and then poetry. The book was written because a particular life was lived, not because a particular plot was invented, not because some good fictional idea was made up in the author’s head. It is authentic, and it is authenticity we readers yearn for these years. But it is not just any old authentic account of a young life that we are presented with in YAHYA HASSAN. Hassan occupies a privileged position qua being who he is. Having been raised Muslim, Hassan is part of a minority that many Europeans have strong opinions about. And when writing from within a criminal Muslim sphere, he provides an access point; he gives rise to a glimpse into a world that the typical reader of poetry is far from being a part of. Besides that, it is not the typical reader of poetry who has added up to the massive commercial success of YAHYA HASSAN, there are barely 110.000 typical readers of poetry in Denmark. The typical readers of YAHYA HASSAN are not as interested in how what is being said, as the typical readers of poetry would be, the readers of YAHYA HASSAN are most of all interested in who is saying what in YAHYA HASSAN. And we all love to get our prejudices confirmed; since it means that we were right after all. And we love being right. So the fact that Hassan is implicitly so affirmative about the criticism that is often leveled against Muslim immigrants in Europe, is besides authenticity and readability, a major reason for why everybody in Denmark is suddenly reading poetry (again). And that is the good news.

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Per Petterson: Jeg Nekter

jeg nekter

According to the gospels of Mathew and Luke, Jesus said to his disciples to turn the other cheek when faced with aggression.

After having been beaten up badly by his father, the young boy Tommy limps up the stairs to his room, pulls out a baseball bat from underneath his bed, limps down the stairs and breaks his father leg with a blow from behind. The scene is disturbing and horrifying. In Jeg nekter, Per Petterson is, as always, an eminent realist. We are in touch with the characters, their environment, its sounds and its texture.

There are two protagonists of Jeg nekter: Jim and Tommy. We encounter them as inseparable childhood children, and again as middle-aged men where they have not seen each other for thirty years. Tommy’s father beat him but Jim never knew his. Where Tommy was faced with indefensible violence, Jim was faced with a void. Tommy opposes his father, but Jim does not, how do you oppose someone that does not exist? If there is any moral to Jeg nekter, and there is not, but if there were, it would have been that we should refuse when refutation is due. Refuse, not by turning the other cheek, but by setting boundaries, by defending ourselves. Later in life, Jim does not tackle events nearly as well as Tommy does. And though nothing is black and white, Tommy is the active master of his situation and manages to take advantage of the opportunities that arise, whereas Jim has grown into being a dependent slave of the Scandinavian welfare system. As the young Jim says to his best friend, then it is he, Jim, who is the most Christian of the two. Though I do not think that either of the two are particularly religious, Tommy’s fate shows that turning the other cheek can only be a religious maxim. Sometimes the violence and intrusion is so overwhelming that the result of turning the other cheek is the probable destruction of oneself. And only through the existence of a benevolent God who cares about you after your destruction, could the choice to accept destruction by a malevolent aggressor be a meaningful moral act. In other words, if there were no transcendent justice, turning the other cheek would sometimes simply amount to letting the aggressor win, to give up. Sure, the rest of us may perceive turning the other cheek as a viable method to reduce violence, since doing so may prove to the aggressor that we are genuinely not interested in harming him, which might then reduce his aggression, and thereby a moral or at least a rational act. However, this line of thought points to the crucial difference between morality according to Jesus and morality according to Aristotle. Jesus wanted us to do the right thing, and that is, independent of the consequences. God’s standard of judgment does not rely on the causal relations of this world, nor on human praise, and it is only his judgment that counts in the larger scheme of things. Only by this premise can turning the other cheek be the right thing to do, regardless of the immediate outcome of doing so. In contrast to this, Aristotle would call for people to show a measured response to any given situation. The right thing to do is to act considerately and competently in the absence of ultimate principles. This is the difference between reliance on the fulfilment of a transcendent love and justice on the one hand, and a world-directed coping with realities on the other. However, even the Christians must live in this world, as already Augustine noted, and evidently, as Nietzsche among others have argued, reliance on transcendent love and justice is a way of coping with specific situations. I read Per Petterson’s Jeg nekter as being about ways of coping with difficult situations, and a story about a man who refused, and one who could not and I highly recommend it.

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Malte Persson: Fantasy

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Fantasy is the name of Malte Persson’s short story recently out on Readux Books. The book was translated from Swedish into English by Saskia Vogel, and it’s the English version I’ve gotten a hold of.

 

Fantasy is a word that refers to something going on in one’s mind, something that differs from reality. In addition the term in English, as well as in Swedish, Norwegian, and Danish refers to a literary genre. Fantasy is a fitting title for Persson’s book, since it deals with its own creation as a work of fantasy. Here are the first few lines:

 

“The whisper of castles in the sky collapsing. (Insert special effects here.) the drag force of passing deadlines and overdrawn budgets. Was it all just a matter of money, as usual? Or was there, as some say, another story, better insofar as it was much worse?”

 

The protagonist of Fantasy, let us call her ‘the author’, is a female writer in the processes of researching her next novel. In a bar one night she chats with someone who she names the Sorrowful Prince and is seduced by him, or rather by her own interest in his stories. It turns out that the person she calls the Sorrowful Prince is a young IT-genius who has financed the making of a film from a script, The Plot, written by a person the author calls the Witch Master.

 

However, when the author comes to know this, the production of the film has already failed for unknown reasons. The author is inspired by the failed project, and Fantasy is a description of her interaction with certain people who were involved in it. Especially the conversations with someone the author calls the Dwarf, who simply works on the project. The Dwarf has a keen scientific interest in languages, and almost studied linguistics at the university, before the department had to close down. This is a recurrent theme in Fantasy: the dynamics of almost. The film was almost produced, the Dwarf almost makes it into university, the author’s research almost bears fruit. However, on the other hand it’s a story about the creative processes, of putting pieces together, of connections. In between, we find the author’s reflections about recognition, money, superficiality and the creative arts. Language and money occupy central positions in the author’s reflections. Let us continue these reflections a bit here. Money is something that has a certain value because we can exchange it for products and services. In order for this exchange to be possible we need other people to accept our currencies. If one day all relevant actors decided to inflate the currency ten-fold, its value would change. It is somewhat the same story with language and words, if we decide that one word should take on a new meaning, and all relevant actors agree to this semantic change, then the word acquires a new meaning. In this way currencies are equal to languages and words to money, in that they receive their fundamental characteristics from social interactions. A private language is meaningless, as Wittgenstein noted, and money is without value if it’s not accepted in exchanges. Money and languages also play equally important roles in creative processes as carried out in contemporary capitalism. As the person we have called the author writes:

“Money is a product of fantasy that produces new products of fantasy”

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Review of Glenn Christian’s Fabriksnoter

I’ve written a short text on Glenn Christian’s Fabriksnoter for the new issue of the magazine Danish Review. The summer 2013 edition of Danish Review in which the text is published, can be accessed by clicking here.

I’ve finished a translation of Fabriksnoter into French (Notes d’usine), if anyone knows of a French publisher that might be interested in some high quality contemporary groundbreaking Danish poetry, feel free to contact me!

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Amalie Smith: Læsningens Anatomi

forsidelille bagsidenet

Læsningens Anatomi is a book whose back cover introduces itself as a series of notes about reading, jotted down by Amalie Smith throughout May 2012 and published on Forlaget emancipati(t/ss)ionsfrugten. Due to a concussion, Smith was not allowed to read for quite a while, but once she was able to read again she read about reading, and met with scientists, fellow writers, and friends so as to better understand what reading is.

Læsningens Anatomi is not only composed of Smith’s notes, but also of those who have thought, pictured, and written about reading before her. On each left page there is an image of text or an image related to text, and in one case, namely that of an excerpt of Henri Michaux’s Narration: an image of an image of text. “Narration” is pictured below the review.

In Læsningens Anatomi Smith approaches the act of reading from different but intertwined angles. There are implicit and explicit questions throughout the book: why is an alphabet necessary to writer letters? What goes on in the brain while reading? How ought we read, and how do we become engaged readers?

Like most of Smith’s works in print, Læsningens Anatomi takes its point of departure in Smiths’ daily life, but even moreso. We get the impression that she simply writes the notes and later decides to publish them. Thus, the text is somewhere between diary writings and scientific observations, and similar in genre to the well-known notebooks of Freud, Darwin or Da Vinci. Læsningens Anatomi is, nonetheless, fundamentally different from these notebooks in that it was written for publication. Notes are usually not written for the purpose of being published. In this particular sense, Læsningens Anatomi is more similar to the diaries of Kierkegaard. Kierkegaard foresaw early on that he would be studied after his death and that his diaries would be published, so he began to edit previous entries and write his diaries with an intended reader in mind. So, if one were to raise an objection against Smith’s work it would be that, paradoxically, hers are not notes, as notes are by their very nature unedited. Notes typically contain spelling mistakes, digressions, and bad notation. Smith’s writings are simply too beautiful to be notes:

 

«Linje A til Farum fra Ryparken station, kan ikke se om P har lavet et linjespot fra Farum-sporet. En flok amerikansktalende forretningsfolk tager toget to stop, folder efter tur parablyer ud som faldskærme, idet de træder ud på perronnen.»

 

I find it difficult to believe these two sentences were jotted down as notes and not edited. Instead, I believe we should read them as literature with an intended reader in mind. On the back cover it says:

 

“LÆSNINGENS ANATOMI er mine læsenoter fra maj måned.”

 

But is Læsningens Anatomi really all the reading-related notes she took during the month of May? Is everything there? Did she take notes to the notes, did she omit notes from publication, did she re-write some notes? A positive answer to any of these questions, I think, would challenge the categorization of the text as ‘notes.’

When reading Læsningens Anatomi, I come to think of the important distinction to be drawn between events, literature, and other artifacts that thematize themselves as art, and those that do not. Marcel Duchamp’s premise that art ought to relate to itself as art has over the years become mainstream wisdom. As an example, I believe most would say that Lady Gaga is closer to satisfy our concept of art than Beyoncé, even though they both make pop music. And the main reason is – I suggest – that Lady Gaga is explicitly aware that her identity as we perceive it is entirely mediated by the media and that this mediation creates new possibilities of expression.

Drawing this crude distinction, Smith’s book is an artwork in that it thematize itself as a readable object by being about reading. However, the appearance of Smith makes us forget that we are reading literature and not the diary or private notebook of someone doing research on reading. We experience the exact opposite result when someone by the name of Paul Auster suddenly appears in a novel by Paul Auster. Auster’s presence in the novel stresses that we are in a made-up story. Smith’s presence suggests that we are reading her private notebook. The distinction between private notes and literature is most brilliantly in play when Smith’s friends occur in the text as P, R, A, and so forth. On one interpretation, her use of capital letters to refer to her friends is due to the fact that Smith prefers to protect her friends from the exposure that comes with appearing in a published work, which means that she is writing with an intended reader in mind. On another interpretation, it is due to the fact that she does not need to refer to her friends by name since she knows them. And on this interpretation, the reader is of no significance. I think the correct interpretation lies in between, Smith is aware that referring to her friends by single capital letters plays on the distinction between literature and notes and so uses it to stress the tension inherent in the work. And this further underlines that Læsningens Anatomi is not a printed notebook, since the tension derives from writing to an intended audience.

henri-michaux-narration-excerpt-1927

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Audun Mortensen: 27 519 tegn med mellemrom

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This is a review of Audun Mortensen’s newly published 27 519 tegn med mellemrom out now on Flamme Forlag. Audun Mortensen is a young (1985) highly productive up and coming Norwegian writer based in Berlin. A hardback with thick covers, 27 519 contains poems — or something like them. More precisely, the book contains lists, tests, suggestions, and prescriptions for action. Such action may be said to result in small works of performance art. As an example,

portrett av en dame #2

se eat pray love

med italiensk tale

og undertekster på hindi

spill samtidig av lydboka

på indonesisk

portrett av en dame is from Henry James’s famous novel Portrait of a Lady, an item of high culture, in contrast to the film Eat Pray Love starring Julie Roberts, a product of mass culture. In addition to the indirect appearance of Julie Roberts and Henry James, 27 519 is populated by well-known public figures. Some of these are known mostly within the boundaries of Norway, such as the politician Kirsten Halvorsen, and some are known globally, such as Adolf Hitler, Bruce Willis and John Cage. The naming of these public figures helps place 27 519 in relation to other art forms, whether by Brian Wilson, Beyoncé, or Robert Rauschenberg. 27 519 is one of those artworks that utilizes our conception of other art forms and artists in order to produce new art. This is done most simply when the poems are constellations of names, such as

portrett av kunstneren som ond mann

nicolas cage (john travolta)

or the list-poem:

young timeline

la monte

neil

malcolm

angus

will

I believe that lists, whether they are of names, places, brands or things, are something we will see more of in contemporary literature. Bue. P. Peitsersen, whose work has been reviewed earlier on this blog, also writes lists-poems, such as lists of brands of nail polish. Lists are often  highly compressed. A listed item, such as the name ‘James Dean’, carries for most readers a whole host of connotations all contained in a single word. Lists therefore fit nicely with the format of our time, namely the format of Facebook and Twitter messages. These very brief messages demand a high degree of tacit knowledge if they are to convey as much as possible on such limited space.

27 519 tegn med mellemrom is a reference to a quantifiable property of the book itself, somewhat similar to Mortensen’s novel from 2010, titled Roman. The back of 27 519 is pictured below.

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The back states facts such as the number of keystrokes with and without spaces that makes up the book, the number of printed copies, and that Innkjøbsordningen for ny norsk skjønlitteratur has promised to buy 1000 copies and distribute them to schools, libraries, and a few Norwegian Seamen’s Churches (a very generous and to my knowledge unparalleled system that motivates publishers to take chances). All this information on the back cover makes me think about the notion of a ‘quantified self’ coined by Gary Wolf and Kevin Kelly from Wired Magazine. The quantified self is a term for the contemporary practice of keeping track of quantifiable properties of oneself by employing technology such as video, EEG, ECG and wearable computers. 27 519 is conscious of itself, not just as an art work, but as an object with quantifiable properties, exactly like the self-consciousness employed in the quantified self. Furthermore it can be seen as an extension of some works of conceptual art from the 60’s in which the definitions of the art work became part and parcel of the art work itself, such as Joseph Kosuth’s One and Three Chairs (1965) depicted below. I find Mortensen’s book to be intelligent, conceptually interesting and fun to read.

Kosuth_OneAndThreeChairs

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Stinne Storm: Edens

edens_02

Edens is a book by Stinne Storm published in 2012 on Forlaget Virkelig. I previously reviewed another book by Storm, namely Fastland. Edens is less minimalistic in style but likewise composed of relative short, thematically interrelated texts. As in Fastland, Edens contains references to objects and actions related to hunting, and embellishing the front cover is a detailed pencil drawing by Sara Katrine Thiesen. Edens is composed of three sequences of texts entitled en ø; stalking; midsommer. In stalking, we find descriptions of different types of hunting, for example:

 

gemsejagt foregår ved at vekslerne for gemse spærres. gemse finder

sædvanlige veksler spærrede forvinder sig ud på klippespidser og

afsatser hvor ingen udvej for redning findes (…)

 

A gemse is a chamois, belonging to the goat-antelope subfamily. And the poem explains the way that chamois are caught.

If we reflect upon the title Edens/of Eden in relation to hunting, it suggests that the hunter is in the Garden of Eden. One interpretation of the myth of Eden is that it is a myth about the inability of humans to not try to know, it is apples hanging on the tree of knowledge that Adam and Eve are prohibited to eat. From a Judeo-Christian perspective there are negative consequences to this yearning for knowledge. It leads to the violation of a prescription by God, and entails that we become like God in one respect: by eating the fruit, we, like God, come to posses knowledge and can never again return to the innocence of the pre-fall state. For this we are expelled from the place He originally assigned for us. So the expulsion from Eden is the shadow hanging over the  human longing for knowledge, the price we have had to pay. Likewise there is a shadow hanging over the hunter’s practices, which might be exactly the killing of another sentient being. Remember that in Eden, Adam and Eve did not have to kill the animals to stay alive. Thiensen’s drawing nicely illustrates the ambiguity of hunting: the beautiful structure and feathers of the wing, and similarly the violence of a wing torn off. With the title in mind, one almost cannot help seeing the wing as having belonged to a dark angel.

The last and most lengthy sequence, midsommer, describes nature in the absence of hunting. In this sequence we find lines full of joy and serenity. The first poem goes:

 

højsommer hjortehoveder op over korret der rør sig i vinden

and i want to havrens bjælder paa i want to havrens bjælder gaar

and i want you i want you i want to release you

 

I read this as an ode to nature itself. Here the narrator is fascinated, is attracted to nature, just like the hunter, but contrary to the hunter the narrator refrains from interrupting nature. The narrator does not want to capture, domesticate, or kill the deer, but to release it. And the best way to do so is to abstain from interference; the release becomes a release from human interference as such. The poem that follows the above begins:

 

en ensom bioson står sin plass mot ulver for å overleve …

 

A lonely bison is a bison left alone. But a bison which acts in order to survive, similarly to the strife of all animals regardless of whether human beings interfere or not. This is the lesson learned by the narrator as the text proceeds, namely that nature is in conflict with itself and that we are part of nature and so also part of the conflict:

 

det er du ikke. du går i skoven du er inde i skoven du skjuler din form i dag ser du ingen statuer i skoven. de kamuflerer sig. du får til havnen du ser havet skifte farve.

 

The subject also makes use of camuflage, and so does the ocean. In the last few texts the subject appears to be in harmony with the fact that animals can, so to speak, die a natural death.

 

din krop synger i vandet er der smårejer og krabber du ikke vil træde på

slatne vandmænd i strandkanten de tørrer ind ved lavvande i tangen

 

I find Edens to be another interesting book by Storm and I like how it touches on some deep issues concerning our relation to nature in a broad sense of the term, while the poems as such remain simple and beautiful. Furthermore, knowing that Edens would still be a pleasure to read with or without the more philosophical musings of this review makes the book even better.

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