Naja Marie Aidt's CARL'S BOOK (2017)

Naja Marie Aidt (pronounced ‘nia marie ight’)

’har døden taget noget fra dig så giv det tilbage’

CARLS BOG

’When death has taken something from you, give it back’

CARL’S BOOK (English translation Denise Newman)

READING NOTES


1) NARRATIVE(S) DISCLOSURES. What makes Aidt’s work inventive aside from being ‘just’ a harrowing account of losing her teenage son is the ingenuity with which she weaves together several narrative threads at in a way which feels natural and uncontrived. We have the recurring scene of the day itself, the ‘ground zero’ experience of learning that her son has died by a phone-call from the boy’s father. Written in italics and beginning with a family scene, a toast ‘for livet’, this narrative arc will take us through the impossible horror of the news, the journey to the hospital, the scenes of her son on life support and the descriptions of the brutal practicalities of organ donation before all is gone. The story keeps breaking off at highest pitch of intensity, a cliffhanger, sometimes moving the reader to tears, then resumes with the last line of the previous section. Multiple ending, being dragged out: we want this fateful day to stop and continue. Sliding in and out of this overarching narrative, there’s Aidt's diary entries, we follow the days when she was pregnant with Carl, his early life; then there’s the journal entries about the months in the aftermath of her son’s death, and the story of the funeral itself, plus the pieced together account of her son’s last hours and what led him to leap naked from an apartment window. Each of these five narrative arcs stop and start in a stochastic process which seems both effortless and deliberate: as if she’s trying to wind the snipped threads back together into some stronger lasting living whole.


2) MALLARMÉ’S FAILURE: CARL’S BOOK draws on Stéphane Mallarmé’s ‘A Tomb for Anatole’, an unfinished poem of over two hundred gaping fragments which were intended to serve as an elegy for the loss of his eight-year-old son Anatole, but which he could never make cohere. We assume Aidt read them to access her own experiences of loss, probably drawing some strange comfort from Mallarmé's failure. Their task is impossible but what’s left behind might have its own ruined grandeur. Aidt also seems to feel his central complaint: she curses herself for being somehow physically responsible for her son’s death, through giving birth to a son who was not psychologically strong enough to survive, just as Mallarme cursed the fatal inheritable illness he passed on to his son.


3) CARL’S FILM: What immediately strikes readers of CARL’s BOOK is the use of multiple typefaces, font-sizes, irregular paragraphing and layouts. This strong visual dimension of the text, which works like a kind of concrete poetry, is paralleled in the structure of the narrative itself. Flashbacks, alternative scenes, voice-over, hospital drama, crime thriller, and the rare poignant moments of comic relief (after a spending a whole day helping her son prepare a complex meal for his guests, they lay-down exhausted on the kitchen floor in laughter before the guests arrive), and the text messages from her son which announce themselves in courier sans. We learn that her son was a cineaste and that he was trying to get into film school. It's as if his mother's book is trying to edit and put together the rushes he left behind.


4) MYSTIC COMMUNION: If we can rationally accept that some special bond occurs between mothers and the babies who come to full form inside their bodies, then to what extent do parents carry that inexplicable communication throughout life? The day after my father died I went for a long eight mile walk to the highest point in town, a place called Castle Hill, a look-out post dating back to the Bronze Age on top of a steep moor in Huddersfield. I’d been at his side for over a fortnight, and so I’d been looking forward to the time when I’d be able to get out again, and the hill climb was physically demanding but cathartic, all the childhood memories of his care were washing back to me. When I reached the summit I can remember I felt these powerful currents of air at my back which were strangely warm despite it being October, and I knew my dad’s life was somehow part of that fast-moving air, which, in a way, of course it was. In CARL’S BOOK we learn that the Tibetans believe that the wind is the spirit of the dead, and that Aidt’s son was into exploring these spiritual questions. Some of the writing he leaves behind suggest a foreknowledge of his death. Some of it functions like words of comfort to his mother beyond the grave. In such a situation, how can we not interpret such things this way? What is to be gained by its refusal? All poetry is prophetic insofar as we define our lives by it.


5) DETECTIVE FRICTION: If her son’s terrible senseless death is just a colossal accident, then why does it seem that the boy’s dark ingenuous teenage lyrics are a strange self-fulfilling prophecy? Aidt's determined misreading of ‘meth’ as Hebrew for death. If his leap was simply provoked by an archetypical bad trip, then to what extent was that bad trip caused by the confession of his feelings of love for his friend ‘N’ which couldn’t otherwise be said, Like the police who respond to ‘N’s emergency call a little late after not quite taking the N’s concerns seriously enough, the dismissal of young teenage confusions as just that js criminal. The reader wants to get to the bottom of it all. Place blame.


6) LOVE DEFAMILIARISED: A message equally as cruel as redemptive: how else would you know quite how much your child meant to you except by their absence? Literature can enable us to see the world, and the people in it, in a strange new light. But CARL’S BOOK is not sentimental, the damage is too profound. You can’t envy her experience; that wouldn’t make sense: like wishing another child was your own. At no point does Aidt's narrative give in to glib platitudes. She doesn’t spare herself a feigned dignity either. There’s drink, screams, a desire to have her terrible grief removed as if it were a poisonous growth.


7) RESEARCHING SOLACE. Aside from the five or six narrative arcs already identified, there’s Aidt’s constant search for solace in other writers, artists, and film makers: memories of a grieving art critic. Here her voice is objective, calm, empathetic yet disinterested. We sense that it was useful for her to compare her own experiences with Mallarmé’s loss of his son, Jacques Roubaud’s loss of his late-in-life one true love, Anne Carlson’s loss of her brother: these ruminations provide some solace there and for the reader, and a breather from the pathos of Aidt’s overwheliming loss. Temporary islands of relief before they each go under.


8) SCANDINAVIAN MODERNISM: There’s an alternative route to modernism in Scandinavia. Where in the Anglophone world we conventionally trace it back to around 1910 with Woolf, when ‘human character changed’ along with the writings of Eliot, Joyce, and Pound, in Scandinavia they have Georg Brandes notion of ‘The Modern Breakthrough’, occurring in around the 1870s and thereafter, and originally typified in works like Knut Hamsun’s ‘Hunger’, where the artist becomes a kind of decrepit witness to life in society’s soiled underbelly. This strain of Scandinavian modernism riddles through Rudolf-Broby Johansen’s ‘BLOOD’, Tom Kristensen’s ‘Havoc’, and most explicitly in Tove Ditlevsen’s late novels, ‘Gift’, where the authenticity of Ditlevsen's harsh and cruel life experiences cannot and should not be detached from the value of the work. We can call it sensational autofiction, or a style of performance art, or we can parallel this notion with Antonin Artaud’s conviction that the artist is the one, whom, tied to the stake, is ‘signalling through the flames’. With CARL’S BOOK the reader comes back with something rescued from death. And we are left grateful for Aidt’s return.