Fiction

Epistolary Blazing

A Change of Time BY Ida Jessen. Archipelago. Paperback, 250 pages. $18.

The year is 1927. A schoolteacher who twenty-three years ago showed up with a bicycle and a duffel bag in Thyregod, Denmark, has just lost her husband. Vigand was a cold, pretentious doctor. Once, he could barely be bothered to make a house call on a man who had swallowed his dentures. Vigand knew he was dying. He drove himself to the hospital. He checked himself in, wearing his new gray suit. He told none of this to his wife, twenty years younger and ten times warmer.

In A Change of Time, Ida Jessen has crafted a masterpiece of the epistolary novel told in diary entries. Each log is rich with detail. Bon mots can be flimsy, but the narrator, known as Fru Bagge, is rarely too clever for her own good. Here, one-liners—beautifully translated from the Danish by Martin Aitken—are deeply felt. On her marriage and its lack of tenderness: “No more will he come striding unapproachably through the living room. No more will I sit opposite a raised newspaper at the breakfast table.”

And so begins a story that charts the experience of being alone after twenty-two years of marriage in the heathlands of Denmark. Perhaps Jessen writes most deftly about solitude, which is fitting for a novel about a woman trying to come to terms with the unexpected experience of being round-the-clock alone. When Fru Bagge—Lilly, as we learn much later, though throughout the novel she is referred to by her husband’s name—loses Vigand, she is forty-seven, living in a landlocked town where everyone knows everyone.

Instead of rushing to find a new husband, she resigns herself to a life of loneliness. In her diary entries, she is full of vivid memory, mostly of her younger days. Laughter and joy appear in her stories as touchstones of a life she could have had, rather than fond memories of her past. They are reminders of the way some might live, if they were to marry the right man. Or choose the right life.

One would be forgiven for thinking or hoping this might be a feminist text from the premise. But it’s not, though it is imbued with hints of feminism, and charts uncommon territory for 1920s Denmark. At first, being alone is unbearable. Then it becomes tolerable. And then it morphs into something altogether different, a way of being that is both understandable and right, perhaps even the way one should live. Then, of course, the suitors come calling—and Fru Bagge answers the door, at first with ambivalence but eventually with relish.

This is not a story about a middle-aged woman who comes to discover herself and her power in a time and a society when men and women were decidedly unequal. Fru Bagge, in her isolation, spends much of her time thinking of men she has known. Though she finds her way on her own for a time, she is most sure-footed with a man by her side. Or, as she puts it, “My heart runs on ahead of me. And I, I run after my heart. I cannot be without it.”

Throughout, Fru Bagge has a solo ritual: she lights a long-lost paraffin lamp. She returns most nights to the wick of the “frosted dome,” which she uncovers at the beginning of the novel, eventually prompting the memory of the time she purchased it with birthday money from the children she taught for a short while, before the handsome doctor married her and took her career away. The lamp is her constant companion, a mood ring of sorts.

In at least two instances, she notes that she does not light the lamp. After tearing apart the house looking for something personal left behind by her aloof husband, she finds nothing. Instead of despairing, she is stoic in the last lines of her diary entry that night. “I have fallen back on myself,” she writes. “No light on the stair. No light on the horizon. No lamp lit in the window. No moon held out in the palm of a hand.”

Jessen is at her best when she steps back and lets her narrator describe her sense of place without any tricks. “This strange gravity, the peculiar peace that descends in the evenings when the houses turn inwards and people retire to bed,” Fru Bagge writes of the after-hours thrill that late-night brings. “I have begun to expect it, to look forward. It requires so very little. That I am alone, and that darkness has fallen. That I light the lamp. That I gaze into its flame. I do not think of day.”

Solitude is a welcome state in some ways for her. In modern times, we turn to distraction at the slightest sign of discomfort. In the anxious state of waiting to find out if Vigand will recover, Fru Bagge tries to listen to the music she and her husband listened to together. “I put Winterreise on the gramophone and removed it again almost immediately,” she writes. “Only when the place is completely quiet am I comfortable. As if this were how one kept one’s equilibrium. The lamp is in the window.” How strange it sounds to be comfortable only in silence, without any diversion at all.

Winterreise, it turns out, offers an elegant analogy for death a few pages later. Fru Bagge is trying to talk to Vigand while he lies unresponsive in a hospital bed. She can’t find the words. At last, she settles on a synopsis of her quiet night. She tells him of Winterreise, which “I had been unable to listen to, because it was not he who had put it on, bending over the gramophone with his back to the room, carefully putting the needle down, and then, once it had found its groove, abruptly straightening up to remain standing there, brimming with anticipation, immersed in something that was of no one else’s concern, until the first tones struck up and he raised his arms and began to conduct.” The breathless sense of grief.

Fru Bagge is a woman who notices. She knows exactly how her husband puts on a Schubert song cycle, and understands that she will likely never be able to listen to it again. She notes that a child’s neck is “covered in the fairest down.” Her attention to the weather is unsparing; on one occasion, she refers to “fifty minutes of sulphurous yellow sun on the horizon” after a rainstorm, which meant “the colors in the garden changed.”

Epistolary novels can be stifling, especially those comprised of diary entries, but Jessen has sidestepped most of the pitfalls and produced a shining example of how to do it right. One exception is her occasional use of clichés. When Fru Bagge attends a poetry reading and tries to force herself to pay attention and “remember everything,” she remarks, “My memory is like a sieve. Everything runs through it.” We’ve heard that one before.

In a novel told this way, flashback is almost impossible to avoid. For the most part, Jessen skips the sentimentality and sticks to the facts. But in the middle of the book, her prose begins to lag. In a flashback featuring a handful of potatoes, meant to be a didactic tale of the town’s history, the point is lost along the way. Jessen excels at telling stories about relationships, and the ways her narrator avoids or embraces them, how she weaves solitude through her life. These unwieldy flashbacks, and the too-convenient reappearance of characters who star in them, are the only part of the book that feel contrived.

This is a novel about the abrupt reckoning a death can demand. Fru Bagge feels regret when she examines her choices. “Thinking back, I almost feel envious of that young schoolmistress,” she writes, looking at herself twenty-three years ago. “In fact, there is no almost about it.”

She both revels and panics in her isolation. Before Vigand dies, she pictures, or tries to picture, a life without him. A life completely on her own. “What will I do when he is no longer here?” she writes. “Who will then remind me of what I am to think? Who will keep me in place?” And then: “I shall have to find my own place.”

At first, her place looks like eating single bowls of porridge for dinner, the way one might eat a paltry bowl of Lucky Charms on an off night. She takes breakfast on the sofa, “since from there one may look out directly into the garden.” It’s not so terrible, this seclusion, for with it comes a certain freedom.

The night after Fru Bagge’s husband dies, she stands on the step and takes in the sky, and the neighbors. “The hour is so late now that all lights have been extinguished, including those of the sky,” she writes. “No stars are out, no moon over Thyregod. Not the slightest twinkle from Vester Farm’s water-logged field.” And yet—though she misses her husband and feels completely disoriented by his absence—all she wants is more darkness, more silence. “I am filled by a mad desire—not to cease to exist, but to be alone. To have no one come. No one look in on me. No kindness, no outstretched hands. What are they supposed to help me with? To realize how grateful I should be for their visits, now that I have no one else in the entire world?”

In their years together, many things happened—“a world war, motor cars, electricity, women’s suffrage”—but to Fru Bagge, her time with Vigand feels like “one long and unbroken day. For me it has been a quiet time.” It seems as though she started out living with exuberance, bicycling about to the shock and amusement of the town; then she quieted herself down for two decades; and now, the expanse has opened up again. “Widows are a community,” she proclaims. But it’s a community she refuses to join. She’d rather be solo, lighting the lamp alone.

Bibi Deitz lives and writes in Brooklyn, and recently finished her first novel; more at bibideitz.com.