From ”Life in Another Language,” excerpted from Riding the Dog: A Look Back at America by Thomas E. Kennedy (Ft. Collins Colorado: New American Press), 2008.
Copyright 2008 by Thomas E. Kennedy. Reprint only with author’s written permission.
“The expatriate life, for me, has been a good one, although it does complicate one’s identity. There is no doubt that living in another country, more important in another language, changes your view of things. I know that I will never become completely Danish, yet somehow I also know that I am not quite completely American anymore either. And just as I could never find it in my heart to surrender my American citizenship, I don’t think I could bear to leave Copenhagen for more than the few visits I make to the States each year.
As a writer I worked for years in the United States and never published a thing. Not until I had been living in Denmark for a while did I begin to write things that interested American publishers. And I think this was at least partly thanks to the opportunity of viewing my native culture through the lens of the new one – because at first I was still writing fiction about American characters in American settings. Only after my fifth book of fiction did I venture to set a novel in Denmark and include Danes among the characters – a challenging and liberating experience, casting Danish sensibilities into English. After that I wrote a novel through the eyes of a Chilean torture survivor and a 40-year-old Danish woman, who is the book’s central consciousness – I don’t know what that might say about the changes I’ve been going through. There was not even a single American in that novel…”
“. In the early 1970s, the so-called summer of love had long since gone sour, replaced by violence, drugs, guns, racial and political animosity. I had a girlfriend on East 2nd Street between Avenues B and C – Alphabet City – and because she had a dripping faucet, one of her neighbors emptied a rifle through her door one day. Miraculously neither she nor her 5-year-old nephew, standing right behind the door, were hit. But seeing those bullet holes in the door, combined with my own couple of experiences of people shoving guns into my face, ignited my wish to try life in Europe – a wish, admittedly, that had long been fueled by my reading: Dostoevski, Camus, Huxley, Balzac, Flaubert, Gide, Orwell, Grass, Mann, Mansfield, Hemingway, et al. – and most notably James Joyce with his Dedalus proclamation in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man: “I will not serve that in which I no longer believe, whether it call itself my home, my fatherland, or my church; and I will try to express myself in some mode of life or art as freely as I can and as wholly as I can, using for my defence the only arms I allow myself to use – silence, exile, and cunning.” Seditious stuff! But the censors who came after Joyce were apparently more interested in his “obscenities.”
Following the Alphabet City shooting, my girlfriend grew troubled. What had attracted me to her was the simple clarity of her nature, her slender, freckled confidence and level-headed healthiness. After the bullets, she developed the conviction that I was bribing the mailman to spy on her and that she was in telepathetic contact with Yuri Geller. Today, in Denmark, it is standard practice to offer psychological crisis help after such an experience. I don’t know if any of the States do that now, but there was no such offer back then in laissez-faire New York.
Right about then I was working for an international organization which sent me to Copenhagen to attend a conference. My first evening here, out alone sampling the good Danish beer, I lost my way amidst the dark, narrow, winding streets, my footsteps echoing on the cobblestones, and I felt quite relaxed. I thought, Here is where I want to live....”
“But it was not only the peace, not only the Danish beer, virtually everything about Copenhagen attracted me: the elegant old buildings, the thousand-year history, the people, their calmly friendly manner, the Danish smile, and the Danish distance as well – I liked the fact that Danes grant a perimeter of solitude. This is a contrast to the open-hearted jovial welcome that Americans tend to extend to new-comers.
Another thing that won me was the Danish light – the light nights of summer and the big sky, especially compared to New York City where the sky is mostly just another tall, thin building amongst tall thin buildings, but also the profound darkness of winter with its quiet, moody beauty and the many candles that Danes light against that darkness. At the height of summer, the day starts a little before three a.m. and ends around ten at night; in deep winter, the day starts near ten a.m. and ends around half-past three in the afternoon.
Perhaps those short winter days are particularly attractive to a writer. They give a quiet and a peace that is conducive to meditation. But best are the summer evenings, yellow skies that take long, slow hours to fade into a pale, ever-darkening blue with the streets going dark more quickly than the sky. It is like the Magritte painting, “Empire of Light” – a dark street scene beneath a daylight-bright sky, one of his many paradoxical pictures (is it night or day?); but here in the north that paradox is plain reality.
The impact of the changing seasonal light, in fact, inspired the four-novel progress I published under the collective title of the Copenhagen Quartet (2002-2005), each new novel “embedded,” if you will, in one of the four Danish seasons. [Those four novels are being republished, world-wide, by Bloomsbury USA – the first two volumes are now available – In the Company of Angels (2010) and Falling Sideways (2011) – the third will be out in 2013 and the fourth later.]
And I recall walking one summer afternoon at the end of the ‘70s along the bank of one of the street lakes on the north side of Copenhagen and seeing there, lying alone and unafraid on the sloping grass, a purely naked young woman sunning herself, wearing – as Ferlinghetti put it – only a very small bird’s nest in a very existential place, eyes closed in the warm pleasure of the light, and that remains for me in memory a symbol of the northern Europe which drew me to it.”
Download to read the full excerpt.