Ebershoff, David (2000), The Danish Girl, Penguin
Usually, the advantage of a novel dealing with a real life character vis-à-vis a nonfiction work, say a biography or a historical study, is the ability to gain vividness, color, excitement. To get a unique, in-depth take on someone’s psychology or the cultural context. Dealing with facts alone – and the unreliability of sources and witnesses – tends to make nonfiction a bit more spry and their narrative a bit more formulaic, given the reliance on historiographical method. That’s why books like William Vollmann’s exploration of Shostakovich’s life are so powerful, or Pynchon’s masterpiece, the sprawling Mason & Dixon. I cannot, however, imagine any nonfiction treatment of Lili Elbe, the pioneering transsexual figure, and her wife, the painter Gerda Wegener (“Greta” in the novel), be more formulaic and overall dull than David Ebershoff’s debut novel The Danish Girl, which has recently been turned into a movie. I have never regretted my habit of reading a book before watching a movie based on that book as much as during the time I spent reading this book. I’ll say this: it’s not all bad. Ebershoff is a clever, talented author, and he uses the devices of fiction to interesting effect sometimes. Sometimes, his treatment of Lili’s point of view leads to stunning results, frequently, it does not. Ebershoff’s apparent fascination with the way art intersects with gender presentation is interesting, and his clear decision to forgo garish scenes of confrontation and scandal, which must have happened at various points in the real Lili Elbe’s life, is commendable. His treatment of Lili (both before transition, when she was known as “Einar Wegener”, and after) is tender and careful, which becomes nowhere as clear as in the final scenes of the book where he renders her final moments with delicacy and beauty. Ebershoff departs from the historical facts in many places (and he admits as much in his author’s note), but his main alteration leads to the book’s most emotionally powerful creation: the enduring love not just between Lili and her wife, but also between the larger family of brothers, former lovers and friends. There is a pastel tenderness to the whole book, which is something that is hard to keep up over more than a short story. Regrettably, Ebershoff lacks the tools to imbue this emotional vagueness with a literary precision and a keen sense of history. Too often, the author settles for the easy emotional punchlines, preferring to tell a nice story rather than a good one. Horrible similes and awkward descriptions crowd the book’s syntax, which is repetitive and imprecise to begin with. Although I have yet to see Tobe Hooper’s movie version of the book, it’s easy to see how the material as presented in The Danish Girl would make for a lovely and emotionally engaging movie. The novel’s prose is its biggest weakness and that kind of book tends to do well on the silver screen.
To be clear, Ebershoff does some very interesting things that wouldn’t be captured by a study of biography. One is his constant insistence on the difficulties of exact representation through art. Both Lili, when she presented as Einar, as well as her wife Greta are painters, although their styles (and their relationship to the outside world) couldn’t be more different. Einar is a painter of “quaint” pictures of a bog somewhere in the Danish province, whereas Greta paints portraits of people who sit for her. The bog is the one in Einar’s home village and he paints it from memory. The memory of his youth as a boy is so strong that the mere thought is enough to paint pictures of it. As Einar transitions to Lili, his memory, and his ability (or wish) to paint the bog fades away, a pretty way of Ebershoff connecting the increasing freedom Lili feels as she unmoors from tradition and expectations. Similarly, Greta’s portraits are also representative of her role in the novel. She is the first to paint good/moving pictures of Lili, and in the novel, for a long time, she is our only outside view of Einar’s transformation. As she loses a sense of who Lili is and her connection to him fades from the book, so do her pictures. Regrettably, as Ebershoff also removes the clarity of her outside view from the last third of the novel, he does not replace it with anything, not even with a clearer voice for Lili. If we look at the novel as a construction of representations and mirrors, this is the gravest instance of the author maybe trapping himself in his own clever construction. The vagueness and hurried nature of the final chapters fits into the construction of the novel, it does not make for good reading, however. Other instances of mirrors and changed representations are the way opera is used, through songs, physical buildings and actresses, as well as the fact that Ebershoff gave Greta a twin brother. Whether or not that twin brother is supported by historical records, in the novel he serves as an example of the insufficiency of doubles. At some point, towards the end of the novel, Greta remarks that she does not recognize herself in her brother, and her brothers physical disabilities correspond to his role in the novel as he becomes the most vocal advocate for dangerous surgical measures. There are other examples involving former lovers, but suffice to say that Ebershoff uses the characters in his drama carefully, as well as the tropes of art and representation. The results of this can be dubious, however.
One odd result is the way that Ebershoff uses the gaze. Greta, as he writes her, is imbued with a sometimes close to predatory gaze, an adjective I use because in some scenes, her erotically charged gaze appears to frighten or intimidate Lili, especially at the time when she presented exclusively as Einar. As a portrait artist, of course, the novel assigns the gaze as an uncomplicated, successful act, to her, but it does some odd things in order to achieve this. One is the fact that Ebershoff turns Greta from a Danish woman, which she was historically, to an American woman with an outsider’s fascination for Denmark. And not just any American woman: a rich heiress from California. Instead of offering us a psychologically plausible portrait of a Danish artist who falls in love with a wisp of a man who ends up transitioning to a woman, Ebershoff appears to have constructed his Greta from literary readymades. Henry James’ Isabel Archer probably looming largest, Greta, as we meet her in the novel, owes less to the historical character and more to the trope of the wild American woman who goes to Europe and gets into some kind of trouble there. It’s as if all the work and empathy that went into Lili meant that Ebershoff had to cut corners when it came to writing Greta. What’s more, the fact that Greta’s gaze is so strong, and so supported by wealth and social status, is balanced by a lack of confidence when it comes to Lili’s gaze. Not only is she the object of Greta’s sometimes irritatingly sexual regard (irritating because it plays on a long exploitative tradition), but she consistently fails to be able to establish one of her own. Mirrors are difficult, and even a mid-novel expedition to a real peep show ends in disgrace and expulsion. Now, this difference could be used productively, one remembers, for example, Heiner Müller’s remarks on the way the peep show is a trope for the way capitalist society functions. But Ebershoff never really does anything with this. These things happen almost in the background. Ebershoff deals with his material and, really, with his own novel, as if it was a translation of sorts and he was just trying to get the basic beats right. Honestly, that would explain the prose, as well. There is so much potential in the material that Ebershoff’s quick treatment of it is sometimes genuinely upsetting. The book is both bloated and oddly bare bones.
It’s strange, really, how this book feels both very detailed and very broad. There is a lot of detail on Lili’s epiphanies and important moments. They are dealt with well, although, as with every other aspect of the novel, the last chapters offer only an extremely skimmed summary of events. At the same time, as mentioned, Greta is dealt with very broadly, and her many comments and monologues feel bloated because they are never part of a plausible character. Outside of the descriptions of Lili, they are chock full with sentimental bloat. And at the same time, Ebershoff barely grazes the social and political context. We get, in a very rough Foucauldian sketch, a quick recap of the various medical opinions which doctors of the time may have held regarding Lili’s physical and mental health. Yet the period, the late 1920s and 1930s, was very interesting, especially in Western Europe. Robert Beachy has given us a great account of the period in his study Gay Berlin: Birthplace of a Modern Identity, an extremely readable and interesting book on the way opinions towards gay and transsexual identities developed in the Weimar years. Beachy’s book itself isn’t as detailed as one could wish, but it’s in pursuit of a thesis and that it does genuinely well. In The Danish Girl, by contrast, we feel no real sense of this kind of historical context. For what I assume are reasons of readability, the book is set, despite its use of accurate dates for its events, in a kind of vague time and place where unique qualities of places or years barely dent the fabric of the story. Clearly, the author’s main interest was in Lili, and the rest of the book was assembled around a series of psychological sketches of Lili, sketches moreover that are not interested in Lili’s agency or free will (she is a helpless toy in the hands of other for most of the novel), but in some interest in transsexualism that’s equal parts prurient and sentimental.
I would be tempted to say that Ebershoff would have been better served had he restricted himself to just that – a series of pared down sketches, highlighting the poignancy of certain situations and emotions – if not for the fact that he does manage to add something to the book which is genuinely interesting and affecting: the marriage of Greta and Lili. Greta, towards the end of the book, as she has lost Einar, and as she is about to lose Lili, describes marriage as “liv[ing] in that small dark space between two people where a marriage exists.” Deviating from historical record, Ebershoff paints a picture of marriage as the ultimate loyalty. To be clear, in the novel, the heterosexual woman is the one who is loyal, while Einar/Lili is merely helpless and lost, and that is obviously a problem. That said, the love and closeness between the couple was deeply affecting. Through all of Lili’s travails, Greta is the only one who consistently believes her and in her, who helps her, supports her. She is never repulsed or really disturbed. In fact, as the novel’s opening sentence tells us, Lili’s “wife knew first.” She knew her husband well enough to see that something was wrong, and she loved him enough to find out what it is and help him, even though he is never really able to articulate his feelings. In many ways, the book is just as much a paean to the strength and support and trust that a marriage can provide as it is a retelling of Lili Elbe’s life. One wishes Ebershoff had a harsh and talented editor because a sharper, clearer version of this novel could really have been impressive. Instead, we get a warm, sad, sentimental story in pastel that’s both too long and too short. Don’t read this book. Find some good scholarship on Lili Elbe. Read the Beachy book. I’m willing to bet that the success of the movie will lead to at least one big biography that will do the material justice. Apart from the portrait of a marriage, Ebershoff has nothing to add. Limited empathy, limited literary skills do not make up for the cuts in context and urgency. Lili Elbe was a pioneer. Her life and death are significant. She deserves better than this.
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