The longing for emotional connection and the difficulty of transcending individuality are central themes of Silence in October. The narrator, a forty-four year-old art historian without a name, addresses feelings of loss and loneliness that result from his wife, Astrid, leaving him after an eighteen-year marriage. Through the novel, he relates his life story from the period before he meets Astrid through her departure and its aftermath.
Silence in October is the first book that Jens Christian Grondahl, a Danish writer, has had translated into English and published in the United States. Grondahl writes about the dissolution of a marriage and the emotional and psychological chasms between men and women. His reflections on human beings – on their fragility and fears, their emotional evasiveness, and the perpetual illusions that couples use to cover up the banality of their lives are profoundly perceptive. His commentary on human psychology and behavior applies in large part not only to husbands and wives but also to friends, family, and lovers. By examining the particular way in which men and women interact Grondahl makes universal observations about human nature.
Grondahl is a master of precision and restraint. The book opens with Astrid applying make-up in the bathroom as she resolutely informs the narrator that she will be leaving. He does not challenge her or ask when and if she will return. This passivity is the reader’s first introduction to one of the narrator’s major flaws – the ease with which he allows life to slip past him without making any attempt to affect it. Later in the book he reflects on the fact that he met Astrid in a similarly passive way: as a cab driver in Copenhagen he picked her up as she fled the home of her ex-husband with her young son in hand. He speaks about his former job as a taxi driver circling the city of Copenhagen, how he has felt himself circling aimlessly without a fixed goal for as long as he can remember.
Grondahl’s style is expressive and rigorously introspective without being melodramatic. He offers fresh perspectives on eternal topics from the significance of a kiss to the eerie sense of loss that photos invoke. Capturing the essentially awkward aspect of human interaction, and the way people try to give expression to the emotional through the physical, the narrator comments on a kiss: “People kiss each other because they don’t know what to do. You have nothing other than your silly lips, your silly hands that brave the same language while the world changes.” Looking at pictures from family trips to Portugal, the narrator observes, “Our eyes are no more than minute black holes in the halted moment’s area of colours, reflections and shadows, insignificant perforations into all that went before, out to all that was to come, memory and uncertainty, limbo and flickering hope.” The narrators tone remains so intimate that even his alienation and despair are presented honestly and without reservation. In part, the author’s detachment from his emotions makes this openness possible.
The withdrawn tone of the narrator expresses the existential terror of not knowing himself and, as a result, of questioning his (and the reader’s) capacity to ever know and love anyone else. The narrator wants to understand why life unfurls as it does, but is unable to come to any conclusions. “While I weave my way on, it occurs to me how much in life remains unspoken, in shadow. How does it take shape? When did it take on it decisive direction?” This concern accompanies the narrator’s overall predicament – that he cannot become intimate with others and have their personalities transcend the barrier that he builds between everything outside of himself. The narrator explains this inability to transcend self in a reflective passage on his failed attempts to be open emotionally to others.
As far back as I could remember my thoughts and feelings had been like a distance between the person who I was inside and the world flowing around me, its days, places, and faces. It was as if I was always somewhere else, and I longed to wipe out that distance, I so much wanted to open myself up to allow the light of places and other people’s eyes to fall upon the unknown one who hid in the darkness there, but the light and the eyes never penetrated far enough…
But Grondahl does more than evoke and comment on the emotionally caged state of humankind. He explores the limitations of intellectual and aesthetic ability in the realm of love and human connection. The narrator writes highly analytical articles about art. He is eloquent and perceptive in social situations, able to deconstruct and explain the most complex personalities and the significance of the movement of someone’s eyes or hand, or of a word muttered under someone’s breath. Yet these abilities do little to support his personal well-being. His intelligence and aesthetic sensibility have no effect on his own self-understanding and the fulfillment of his wishes. He is never happy. Indeed, he disdains the concept of happiness because it seems trite to him, so distant is it from his own reality.
The narrator can describe Astrid’s physical beauty in detail, he can even depict her character with insight, describing the way she moves through life seemingly unharmed by its vicissitudes, not oblivious to pain but able to withstand it.
Astrid was inviolable. Even the most intimidating comment, even the most offensive idiocy glanced off her crooked smile and indolently narrowed eyes… She herself decided that she would reduce the distance that surrounded her like an invisible defense.
But he does not love her and does not know who she is, why she is, what she is.
In his romantic life, the narrator seeks out exotic women. Before meeting Astrid he is obsessed with Ines, a somewhat mysterious and attractive woman whose father is a French diplomat and whose mother is Persian. He is fascinated by her confidence and the way in her presence he feels challenged to open himself up. “To make love with Ines was an unceasing battle that would not stop, an ungovernable, unmerciful rage, as if she wanted to wrench us over an abyss and fall through the empty space where her body locked around mine in an endless dizzy dive.” Later, after marrying Astrid, the narrator has an affair with Elizabeth, a Danish artist in New York City, where he is doing research. She, unlike Ines, appeals to him partially because her beauty is gentler, although his sexual attraction to her is highly charged.
At first their interactions begin in friendship, but this yields to an affair because the narrator chooses not to restrain his attraction to her. His self-awareness is acute, and he reflects critically on his inability to look beyond a woman’s physical beauty towards the beauty of her soul.
How depressingly trivial it was. Could I really not meet a woman who thought and talked on the same frequency as myself without immediately getting ideas from the sight of her thighs just because they were lovely, and because she unwittingly exposed them to my ferocious gaze.
The narrator has trouble seeing beyond his immediate erotic interests. His fascination with women also has intellectual components, but these are bound up with the erotic ones – the narrator does not respect their thought and identities, he creates fantasies from them where he, by having sex with them can act upon his fascination. But without love or respect, he experiences human beings as abstractions – they are symbols of knowledge or power but they are not individuals that he can access.
The narrator looks for love in Ines and Elizabeth, but he is unable to see beyond their surfaces. He is painfully aware of how pathetic these amorous obsessions are. In particular, he realizes the absurdity of the dream he concocts of leaving Astrid for Elizabeth (before Astrid thwarts this plan by leaving him). The narrator is concerned with his own sense of existential aimlessness and believes that sleeping with Elizabeth will, partially at least, reinvigorate his passions. He is not too bothered by this betrayal of Astrid’s trust, and when speaking with her on the phone from New York City is impressed by her inability to notice his act of rebellion. Yet his betrayal also happens not only out of lust and insensitivity but also out of a genuine though misguided effort to break the silence and loneliness that so pervades his life, to try to find intimacy, even if its primarily physical.
Silence in October is filled with comings and goings between places: Lisbon, New York City, Paris. Life is characterized by movement that lacks purpose, the narrator argues. We travel towards and away from one another. But this travel only reflects the mathematical notion that two people standing at opposite ends of a room coming closer by splitting their distance between one another in half actually never meet.
Through the narrator’s failure to form meaningful loving relationships Grondahl implicitly criticizes those who are too busy protecting themselves and too fearful that someone might bridge the distance that they maintain between their vulnerable selves and their confident exterior. It is distinctiveness that Grondahl believes scares humans: the fact that we are wholly different from one another and yet we so want and need to reach beyond those differences, but we do not know how.
The narrator analyzes the superficiality of most social situations, and the conformity that has become essential to the maintenance of modern life. He despises the monotony of his life even when it is a pleasant one. He knows that the monotony has robbed him of himself; instead of being an individual he becomes someone who feeds his children, who writes articles, and who sleeps with his wife when she comes home at night. He is a human automaton – floating through life, but not living.
Reflecting on how physicality effects our emotional and creative encounters, and how sex can be both a means of transcendence of self and an evasion of a genuine encounter with another human being, the narrator offers incisive analysis of the relationship between mind, soul and body. One’s husband or wife, the narrator suggests, can alternate between being a person or a mere body – depending on how willing we are to acknowledge and accommodate their individual humanity.
Grondahl writes with rich visual imagery and reflective, nuanced observations:
I stare into the darkness, but it closes around my eyes, I see something gleam briefly, but the gleam dazzles me and immediately switches off again, so only an indistinct fading after-image stays on the retina. For it isn’t there any more, it was all so long ago. Nevertheless I go on, even though I know that the truth dwells in the pauses, in the silent spaces between the words.
Employing a combination of stream of consciousness writing and philosophical reflection, Grondahl’s sentences and paragraphs are lengthy – but the writing is consistently lucid, intense and graceful. At the end of the book the narrator describes memories Astrid lyrically:
Sitting in the Rossio, on the pavement in front of a café on the square, where the trams screech close by our table and the sun shines in the thin smoke from the chestnut sellers’ braziers as she bends her face and looks down into the coffee cup in front of her, quite lost in thought…
The book resists simple moral judgments. It leaves the reader the freedom to decide on his own the moral significance of the narrator’s affair with Elizabeth, and whether the narrator is a cold and selfish sleazy man or a sensitive and desperate man in search of meaningful connection. He is a combination of both, and this duality, which Grondahl depicts with ruthless honesty and complete fairness, is a particularly troubling though realistic conclusion.
There is little redemptive about Silence in October beyond its immense honesty and the clarity of the author’s perspective on human nature. Grondahl takes the complexities, neuroses, and vulnerabilities of the human heart, and while never simplifying them, makes them accessible. His work is extraordinarily beautiful and is also a frightening testament to the potential loneliness of life and the difficulties and love and relationships entail.
Throughout the work, Grondahl deftly develops the reader’s sympathy with the protagonist’s suffering. Yet the highly intellectualized reflections lead to an unfulfilling endpoint. Despite the seemingly intimate self-disclosure, the aloof identity of the narrator remains frustratingly beyond our grasp.
This is a novel about limitations and boundaries and the book concludes with the narrator remaining lonely and unable to love and know others. The reader feels that even though he had learned a great deal about the narrator’s life and perceptions he does not know who the narrator is. The chasm that the narrator so wishes to transcend remains.