I 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.