Saturday, July 16, 2011

Carsten Jensen

Carsten Jensen (b. 1952) is a Danish novelist, essayist, and critic who writes for the Copenhagen daily Politiken and serves as a commentator for Danish television. Born in Marstal in 1952, he studied literature at Copenhagen University. His three fictional works include Earth in the Mouth (1994), We, the Drowned (2010), and Sidste rejse (2007; The last trip). He has also authored a number of travelogues, of which I Have Seen the World Begin (2000) is available in English. In 2009 he was awarded the Olaf Palme Prize for outstanding achievement.

From his Q & A with Ray Taras at World Literature Today:

Ray Taras: Among favorite stories about the sea written by Scandinavian authors, you have singled out ones written by Hans Kirk (about whom you wrote a dissertation) and Knut Hamsun. Are there other Scandinavian novelists whose literary styles and narrative plots have influenced your writing?

Carsten Jensen: There is actually not a great tradition of maritime novels in Scandinavian literature, strangely enough because we are seafaring nations, especially Norway and Denmark. Writers were never recruited from among sailors, and sailors did not end up as writers in the way that Joseph Conrad did. If you take Kirk's novel The Fishermen, written in 1928, it is about a community of fishermen—and I really distinguish between sailors and fishermen because they lead such different lifestyles and have such different relationships with the sea. Hamsun didn't write maritime novels, but some of his so-called Nordland novels, which take place north of the Polar Circle, are about little ports where sea and ships and trade play a big role, and where sailors are always cosmopolitans—the "baddies"—because Knut Hamsun was very much attached to the soil and to traditions and, as we all know, tragically ended up having Nazi sympathies as well. In his novel August, sailors were not just cosmopolitans but something worse—they were Americanized. They were the symbol of modern soullessness and rootlessness.

In writing a maritime novel, I wanted to know what kind of tradition I was about to become a part of. So the few Scandinavian novels there were I did read. If there is a tradition of maritime novels, it is British and American: Herman Melville, Jack London, Joseph Conrad, and the South Sea tales of Robert Louis Stevenson. You cannot really imitate their style, and I didn't want to. But there are a lot of hidden literary quotes in my novel. Already on the first pages of We, the Drowned I refer to a Melville character who sailed on a man-o-war having the ridiculous name of "Never Sink." I have stolen that name from Melville's novel White Jacket. These allusions are intended as little winks at the knowing reader, though it is not really important whether all readers recognize the reference. I wanted to capture the atmosphere in these maritime novels. The part in my novel about the South Seas, which is the only part told in the first person, is actually...[read on]
--Marshal Zeringue