Often I Am Happy by Jens Christian Grøndahl (translated by the author): A meditation on grief, love and friendship

Cover imageI remember reading Jens Christian Grøndahl’s Lucca when it was published in the UK in 2003, too long ago to recall the detail of its story but an impression of quietly elegant prose stuck which is what attracted me to Often I Am Happy. Its premise is also an intriguing one: recently widowed, Ellinor stands in front of her dearest friend Anna’s grave and tells her about the death of Georg who was once Anna’s husband before she died in a skiing accident together with her lover, Henning, then Ellinor’s partner.

Georg has been felled by a heart attack at seventy-eight. He and Ellinor have been married for decades but she’s never quite shrugged off the feeling that she’s leading Anna’s life. Now that Georg has died she’s bought herself a small apartment in the down-at-heel neighbourhood of Copenhagen where she was brought up believing that her farther died in the war. Both Anna and Henning were killed in the accident but not before Georg had discovered their affair. Stunned by grief, Ellinor had taken herself off to Anna’s house in the afternoons after her death, helping to bring up her twins and keep house for Georg until they became a couple. Ellinor has always cast herself as an outsider, falling in love with Henning and into a marriage which didn’t feel entirely right. She’s a stepmother who has never felt the children were hers; accepted by the family but standing at the edge of it. Now that Georg has died there is no one that she wishes to talk to except Anna.

This is a quietly powerful, beautifully crafted novella. Grøndahl’s pose is elegantly spare, studded with vivid images: ‘the snow on the summits resembled torn lace where the grey-blue mountainside showed through’; ‘Life went on without you; the years passed like an express train, its windows full of new faces’. Ellinor’s grief is such a private, painful thing, not a rending of garments or tearing of hair but a constant ache of absence as much for Anna as it is for Georg. Anna’s twins while accepting of Ellinor’s love as children have grown into distant middle-aged men while her love for them has become ‘the recollection of a feeling, not the feeling itself’. ‘Yes, it is true that one is no longer oneself’ in the face of grief she tells Anna but as Ellinor unfolds her story, revealing secrets long hidden, it seems as if she has never quite inhabited herself. At the heart of Grøndahl’s novella is a loving, forgiving friendship for a vibrant woman of whom Ellinor says I have ‘warmed myself in front of you’. It may be a meditation on love and loss yet the title is a reminder that life goes on.

18 thoughts on “Often I Am Happy by Jens Christian Grøndahl (translated by the author): A meditation on grief, love and friendship”

  1. How very unusual to have the author translate her own work! Did you find there were any awkward phrases, or is the author perfectly bilingual? (Mind you, I’m not sure I could translate my own work in Romanian…)

        1. I’ve never thought of it from the point of view of literature in translation but you many well be right. I much prefer the kind of concision exemplified by the likes of Haruf and Toibin and have often wanted to cut swathes from the many chunksters out there!

          1. If he’s bilingual, it’s probably not a translation, as such. Samuel Beckett, a native English speaker, wrote in French and later translated his work into English. Vladimir Nabokov, a native Russian speaker (although trilingual in Russian, French and English), wrote in English and translated some of his works into Russian. I suspect that they were equally eloquent in both languages.

          2. I’d forgotten about Beckett and hadn’t realised Nabokov wrote in English. Such interesting relationships with language. Jhumpa Lahiri also did something a little unothodox with her memoir about her passion for learning Italian, In Other Words, which she wrote in Italian then had translated by Ann Goldstein into English.

          3. Beckett’s French was so good that he was on our reading list when I studied French at university. Nabokov’s English speaks for itself. My favourite story about Italian is that Clive James learned Italian so that he could translate Dante. It was his life’s work and had taken him 50 years of learning Italian and writing poetry.

          4. That’s an excellent story. I see from James’ Wikipedia entry that he’s able to read ‘with varying degrees of fluency’ in six languages besides English!

  2. This sounds like a beautifully written, meditative novel. Not a writer I’d come across before, but worth looking up I think. Great review, Susan.

    1. Thanks, Belinda. It’s a beautifully expressed, contemplative novel, although inevitably rather melancholy. Someone on Twitter recommended another novel by him to me today – Silence in October – which I’ll be searching out soon.

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