Madame Nielsen’s The Endless Summer is a passionate love story about a Danish woman and a much younger Portuguese artist. Translated from the Danish by Gaye Kynoch and forthcoming from Open Letter Books, the novel drifts through time and space, relating the lives, loves, and dissolutions of everyone who surrounds this unexpected couple. In the excerpt below, the woman’s daughter travels to America with one of her lovers, a boy for whom the trip becomes one of self-discovery.
Departure to America: railway station: farewell to the others: the mother, the Portuguese painter, the slender, sensitive young boy who will never really look like a man, the two little brothers, the handsome one’s little sister and, of course, the lanky Odense lad, we’ll bring him along with the others into the railway station to wave good-bye to the America-bound travelers: she, the girl, wearing one of her big loose summer frocks, the chipped polish on her toenails, ribbon sandals, and the long, sunbleached, split hair, the slightly hysterical voice she has inherited from her mother, stooping under the weight of the cumbersome faded-blue backpack. And handsome Lars? He sets out, “as he is,” he doesn’t need anything else: his young body, simple clothes: jeans, T-shirt (white), a light knitted sweater tied loosely around his neck (the suntanned neck), the shapely feet (suntanned, the summer sand between his toes), a pair of ankle socks in a pair of sneakers, and that’s it, a small backpack, the smallest, the most everyday, the practical Fjällräven (the type that most people use for an afternoon at the beach), and in it a windbreaker, an extra T-shirt, an extra pair of briefs (besides the ones he is of course wearing, even though they haven’t been mentioned here), toothbrush, toothpaste, passport, visa, a wallet with a few hundred dollars, that’s it, a person didn’t need more than that as the twentieth century drew to its close.
Do they land in New York? They do indeed. Like you do. They’re in New York, it’s day one, he wants to go down to the Lee Strasberg Institute, gateway to the dream of being an actor, to Broadway and Hollywood, she’d like a wander first, Central Park, the Empire State Building, see a bit of it all. He can’t be bothered, he wants to find the Strasberg Institute. She goes with him down to the Strasberg Institute. And then they’re there, an old building in a side street, a scratched metal door, loads of young people walking in and out, perfectly ordinary young people carrying bags and small backpacks with their rehearsal clothes, most likely, scripts under their arms. No one he recognizes, no stars. Nothing happening. What had you imagined? she says. He doesn’t know, be discovered, probably, he wants to be a movie actor. They’re there for half an hour. Then they leave. What now? We’ve only just landed! she says. He sighs. They stay in New York for a week or two. Like you do. She sees a bit of it all, excited, overawed. He goes along with her. Or he spends a day at the hostel, lies in bed and looks at the ceiling. Then they move on. They don’t rent a car (like you usually would) and drive across the continent to the Pacific coast. They do the trip by bus, Greyhound (like indeed you also would), but even by the time they get to Santa Barbara, where one or the other knows someone or other, they’ve started getting on one another’s nerves, or more to the point: his indolence, which unlike hers is not pleasure-filled, gets on her nerves, that he can’t be bothered to do anything, not even here in the New World where everything is possible and the sun is shining. She wants to go to the beach, see the Pacific! have a go at surfing! diving! Meet new people! fall in love! What with? With the whole thing! He can’t be bothered, he stays up by the house, all that exertion, first you have to get there, then get back. They part company, he hitches north, ends up in San Francisco, and that’s where it happens. What?
He doesn’t know who or what he is, for pity’s sake. Isn’t it enough simply to exist? All that stuff you absolutely have to try out. Why? What is it you have to find out or arrive at? He’s right here, damn it. He closes his eyes, let it happen, once, OK, just the once. What? Back home on the island, in “the endless summer,” he did of course smoke hash, once (it made him sleepy, even more lethargic, fall asleep), get drunk (made him melancholic, sentimental, pining, instead of dancing and letting himself go, gave up, didn’t even give in, just slumped on a chair at the table, stuck his finger in the hot wax under the flame, withdrew his finger and let the wax dry on his fingertip and stared at it, the finger, the wax, rubbed it off and stuck his finger in the liquid wax under the flame, went off into a reverie, and so forth), of course he knows, he’s intelligent, he’s perfectly capable of seeing himself, he smiles, lazily, indolently, no end to his charm, after all, now he’ll just give it a go with another man, just the once, it’s not anything he’s been thinking about for ages, not anything that has spent years of longing inside his flesh, “ah!” not anything he’s had to hide throughout his entire boyhood and youth in the little provincial town with all its restrictive norms and rules, not recurring sighs at the sight of a tight boy-butt, not an irrepressible frisson of desire to be able to say, uninhibitedly, coquettishly, “hi, girls, so how are we today?!” when they meet in the gay bar, after all, he’s not “coming out,” what happens just happens, first option: he drifts around the streets, up and down them he goes, the steep streets in the sun in San Francisco, the narrow streets in the slightly older, run-down, charming neighborhood with all the colorfully painted houses, this atmosphere of the eternal hippie, time that can no longer be bothered to pass, it suits him, he likes it, he sits for a while in the sun in front of a café, or at the bar counter in the late afternoon, flickering sunlight shining in through the windows, handsome as he is, fair, the sun-bleached salty hair and the suntanned limbs, the carelessness, laziness of his movements, which here on the American West Coast suddenly seem provocatively nonchalant, coquettish, irresistible, first the one, then a second, then a third guy comes over to him, would he maybe like a drink or a freshly-squeezed juice, “how are you doing?” and “where do you come from?” he can’t be bothered, he just smiles, laughs with a sigh, this damned charming sexy breathy laughter, why, after all, why not, they get talking, the evening draws in, it gets dark, and the other guy suggests they go home to his place, and that’s what they do . . .
At some point, after a few weeks, months, he meets up with the girl again, he can’t be bothered anymore, he hasn’t for a long time, he just hasn’t made the effort to go home (what’s he meant to do there?). What he’s been up to? Nothing, he’s just drifted around a bit, in San Francisco, then later he hitches down the Pacific coast, is he in Los Angeles? Maybe, maybe not, does it really matter if he’s in Los Angeles, loads of other people must be or have been there, lots of wide streets, people in their cars, Sunset Boulevard, but no loci, at least there were those in San Francisco, one day he was out at Malibu Beach, walked a little way up into the dry hills, pissed on a faded-green bush—or was it an agave?—turned around and looked out across the ocean, it looked like an ocean. At some point he meets up with the girl again, quite by chance actually, somewhere between Santa Barbara and Santa Monica, maybe, she’s run out of money, or maybe it’s time for her to go home, and so he goes with her.
They’re back on the island, in “the endless summer,” the girl euphoric, for weeks, months, with shiny dancing eyes and nonstop prattling, laughing, waving around her both chubby and long, both gracious and bungling fingers, always in motion, like tentacles on an insect, she is overflowing with stories, longs to be back, has crazy plans for her future in America, Mexico, South America, she’s in love, as usual when traveling she’s met the one, the love of her life, maybe she’ll go back to him, live with the Mexican or Venezuelan or Colombian guy she presumably met on the beach, in Santa Barbara or Santa Monica, or maybe she’s been all the way down to Baja California, Yucatán? one of those suntanned idlers always drifting around like one of the more or less “locals” on every beach around the world where the sand burns under your feet, she was made for him and that life and that climate, not Denmark, not the endless cold, slushy winters, the grumpy people, she’s a life-loving person, she wants to live, dance, enjoy life, she almost can’t wait, she’s just popped home to say hi, earn some money waiting tables or tending bar, as soon as she’s got enough money she’ll be off again, out! He, on the other hand, handsome Lars, has nothing to tell, he can’t be bothered, what is he meant to say? America, well it’s just . . . America. But he looks a dream, they all say that, “Lars, you look like the American dream!” Long-Beach-tanned, with sunbleached hair, those twinkling blue eyes, hasn’t he been discovered? Wasn’t he going to Hollywood? Well, sure, that was the plan, but he didn’t really quite get there, or maybe he did, he went to the Strasberg Institute, in New York, but that was just a school. Right, well, they say, you have to start somewhere, it’s hard work, what had you imagined? Nothing, that things would just happen; isn’t that what happens in America, it’s there things happen, isn’t it? He smiles, resigned, charming, he knows what he’s like, but he can’t be bothered (“know yourself,” for pity’s sake!). He resigns himself to what there was, does as he did before he left for what really was and turned out to be the journey of his life (whereas for her it was just one of the numerous trips with which she postponed her life, and which thus ultimately became her destiny, her modus vivendum, the eternal deferment); nothing, that’s what he does, unlike the girl he doesn’t seem to have had any kind of significant or unforgettable experience, “the journey of my life,” nothing happened.
Copyright © 2014 by Claus Beck-Nielsen. Translation copyright © 2018 by Gaye Kynoch. Excerpt by agreement with Open Letter Books.