in review: The Endless Summer

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The Endless Summer
by Madame Nielsen (translated by Gaye Kynoch)
Publication Date: February 13, 2018
Publisher: Open Letter

 

Madame Nielsen’s novel The Endless Summer is an elegy for youth, a sensuous reflection on its fleeting promise and unrealized possibilities. In breathless prose that often reads more like poetry, Nielsen captures the feeling of long, sticky days that melt into a shimmering and ephemeral epoch. While Nielsen evokes the beauty and pleasure of this moment in her characters’ lives, her narrator suffuses the story with the portent of death: the endless summer must, eventually, reach a tragic end.

Nielsen’s loosely structured narrative revolves around the hedonistic lives of a Danish family and their friends and lovers. The mostly unnamed characters fall in love, create art, travel, have sex, eat bread, and so on. While the book opens with third-person references to its narrator—“a young boy, who is perhaps a girl, but does not know it yet”—it moves quickly to focus on the boy’s girlfriend, Stina, and her mother. After Stina’s abusive stepfather abandons the family in their run-down farmhouse, the women welcome into their world several young men: two Portuguese artists, Stina’s lazy but charming friend Lars, and the aforementioned narrator. However, a much larger cast of characters inhabit the novel. Nielsen takes leisurely detours in her narration—exploring, for example, the life and death of Stina’s biological father. These dreamlike deviations reflect the boundlessness of the setting: “‘the endless summer’ where time does not exist and space spreads and fills everything.”

The whole book has a mythic, dreamy quality, in which time and space seem meaningless or at least irrelevant. Nielsen weaves her way through characters, countries, and milestones. We jump from Denmark to Portugal and back again, summer to winter and back again. Early on, the narrator mentions that “dreamy state where the seasons swap places and autumn is followed by yet another autumn”; The Endless Summer resides entirely in that place, with its narrative spanning perhaps years, perhaps months, perhaps weeks. Or perhaps no time at all, as Nielsen posits at one point that maybe the endless summer is “just the liberation of which [the narrator] dreams.”

Ultimately, what matters in The Endless Summer is language. Nielsen touches on gender, sexuality, love, death, and art, but, like her characters, those themes largely remain archetypal, opaque. Rather, Nielsen emphasizes the power of language in memorializing life, in imbuing it with meaning. Her use of language and style is arguably the centerpiece of the work. Sentences that span pages and long parenthetical diversions can occasionally feel confusing or frustrating, or can leave the reader wanting more—more depth, more structure, more something. Still, Nielsen’s style succeeds emphatically. What might look like flaws in less capable hands contribute here to the book’s disorienting tone. Toward the beginning of the book, Nielsen writes, “And if the story so far sounds like a dream, a glossy tale of the kind one occasionally—on holiday or a long-haul flight—allows oneself to lean back into and, as if it were sinful, a praline, vanish within for a brief moment, then it’s because life is a dream.” Lean back into it. Vanish within.

 

—Alyssa G. Ramirez