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The City and the Writer: In Copenhagen with Janne Teller

By Nathalie Handal

Special City Series/Copenhagen, Denmark 2015

If each city is like a game of chess, the day when I have learned the rules, I shall finally possess my empire, even if I shall never succeed in knowing all the cities it contains.

Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities

Can you describe the mood of Copenhagen as you feel/see it?

Stillness. Floating water, floating people. Waveless, stormless. Old, older yet. Here and there the new. Also people. White. Color sprinkles here, there, little little. Tiles, tarmac, cobbled stones, new stones, smooth stones. Bicycle lanes. Bicycle traffic jams. No car jams. New cars, new queues. Neat. Also the houses. Bricks, old, mostly old. Five stories. Copenhagen is five stories tall. Lots of light. In the summer. In the winter, lots of darkness. Indoor life, indoor light. Early to bed. Summers don’t sleep, no darkness. Just jazz. Smooth saxophones and beer, lots of beer, girls, guys. Freedom. Stillness. More jazz. Go Tivoli. Do as you please, and more jazz, more beer, more girls, more guys. No trees. No trees, but parks. Quiet walking streets, shop, and listen. Clean shops, street music, clean street music. Quiet. Waiting for the jazz. Café here, café there. Friendly, nice, thunderless. Do what you want. Feel free. If you’re a Dane. If you’re not Arab. If you’re not African. Particularly if you’re not Muslim. Feel free. Do what you want. Be friendly. Be nice. Be thunderless. The others won’t like Copenhagen anyway, says Copenhagen; just like Copenhagen, Copenhagen of 2014, doesn’t want them, says, Oh nobody. Do you know him? So. Feel free. Jazz and beer, guys and girls. Do as you like. Be nice, be friendly, be thunderless. If you’re not a Dane. We prefer Danes. So just pretend you’re one, have a beer and be one, guys and girls, enjoy, do as you like, like we do it, we are wonderful. Wonderful Copenhagen. Quiet Copenhagen. Still Copenhagen. Welcome!

What is your most heartbreaking memory in this city?

Heartbreak, heartbreak, Copenhagen doesn’t know what heartbreaking means. Gray maybe, sad maybe, depressing surely. But heartbreaking no. (Except among its immigrants, of course, but here we speak of Copenhagen the city, and the inner city has yet to adopt its immigrants like they have adopted the city). No. Tragedy has no streets in welfare states. Tragedy finds no hidden alleys, where all is allowed, and freedom be not a dream but a highway open for all. Heartbreak itself remains but an elusive dream Copenhagen conceives late night when imagining Madrid or Jeddah. Bogota, maybe.

My grayest memory of Copenhagen is the cutting down of all the trees in the city a decade ago, due to elm disease.

What is the most extraordinary detail, one that goes unnoticed by most, of the city?

That it’s almost impossible to get anything decent to eat after 9 p.m.

What writer(s) from here should we read?

The obvious classics, Karen Blixen and H.C. Andersen. The lesser-known classics, J.P. Jacobsen, Johannes V. Jensen, Inger Christensen for sure. Contemporary, well, not much exists in translation, so why not start with the stories in Karate Chops by Dorte Nors, or perhaps my own Nothing.

Is there a place here you return to often?

Café Kejzer and Christianshavns Vold (the former is a great café not far from the latter, which is the elevated old defense bastion of Copenhagen, a beautiful, quiet walk among the trees above a lake).

Is there an iconic literary place we should know?

Rungstedlund—the Danish home of Karen Blixen, where she wrote most of her stories, made a bird sanctuary, and where today the Danish Academy resides.

Are there hidden cities within this city that have intrigued or seduced you?

Christianshavn—it’s not really hidden, but an island part of the city of Copenhagen that encompasses Christiania and the canals. But truly it’s the downtrodden history of sailors and lowlife that gives the area its particular atmosphere. Even if today it’s so gentrified and posh that you will have to know your way to find the true spirits in the old beer and billard kro (special old Danish bistro type). But go slow and you’ll find it, it’s still there.

Where does passion live here?

Passion, Copenhagen? Doesn’t go together. Walk naked in the streets, lie topless in the parks, have sex under the bushes, or go to family Sunday shows in the swinger clubs—but no, don’t attempt this passion thing, Danes consider it highly dangerous, akin to an especially lethal form of terrorism. Go abroad, and you’ll see semi-conscious, alcohol-ridden Danes lured into suicidal grasps in Ibiza, Mallorca, more recently Phuket, Costa Rica, and Gambia. But no worry, they’ll soon and very quickly return to their city, sobering their lost hearts up with beer, gray liverpaté and of course, one order of Danish sex please, plenty of naked skin, a slight bit of froth and sweat, but no passion, thanks.

What is the title of one of your works about Copenhagen and what inspired it exactly?

Odin’s Island—it was inspired by the canals in Christianshavn, where I imagined an old fisherman living on a battered fishing boat, where he could hide the lost Odin while searching for the unknown island in the Straight between Denmark and Sweden that you can almost see from the harbor run there…

Inspired by Levi, “Outside Copenhagen does an outside exist?”

Yes: My life! My love!

Janne Teller is a critically acclaimed Danish novelist of Austrian-German family background. Her work circles around existential and ethical questions of life and civilization, and often sparks controversial debate. Her novels include Odin’s Island (1999), a contemporary Nordic saga about religious and political fanaticism; Europa, All That You Lack (2004), about European identity and the binds of history in love and war; and Come (2008), about ethics in art and modern competition driven life. Her existential young adult novel, Nothing, after initially being banned, became an international bestseller; many critics consider it a classic. In 2013, she published the novella African Roads, which begins at Karen Blixen's African farm, and the short story collection Everything. Her books have been translated into more than twenty-five languages. She has received numerous literary grants and awards including the American Michael L. Printz Honor Award for Literary Excellence. Teller also publishes political essays in international magazines, such as Lettre Internationale, and is actively engaged in many human rights issues. She was one of the initiators of the Writers against Mass Surveillance action. In 2014, she was named a member of the jury of the prestigious German Book Peace Prize. She has lived in Mozambique and Tanzania, and currently resides in New York.

All photographs of Copenhagen in the Special City Series/Copenhagen, Denmark 2015, running January through February 2015, are by the Danish photographer Mathias Olander. His work explores the urban outskirts of the Danish capital. See more: Instagram: fagrenyeverden

Published Feb 2, 2015   Copyright 2015 Nathalie Handal

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