In January 2008, records show, I bought a copy of The Diary of a Parish Clerk and Other Stories by Steen Steensen Blicher, translated by Paula Hostrup-Jessen. I can’t for the life of me remember why, though I imagine it was the result of following up a reference in another book. Anyway, it’s finally come in useful, as it meant that when I got to Denmark there was a book ready and waiting.
Blicher (1782-1848), like many of his characters, was a clergyman by profession, though not, perhaps, a typical one. The seven stories in this anthology are set in his native Jutland and are concerned with the small lives of the landowners, farmers and clergy who live there. They are also frequently lurid, gossipy and scabrous.
The 1824 story ‘The Diary of a Parish Clerk’ was Blicher’s first major success. It consists of a diary that intermittently spans nearly fifty years of the life of Morten Vinge, from youthful piety through an adolescent passion for the girl of a grand family, to his disappointed old age. Blicher comes across here as a fan of realism. One early diary entry opens, ‘Alas, alas! My dear father has frozen to death!’ These unexpected tragedies happened in Blicher’s time, the bleak Jutish landscape harsh and unforgiving, and as much a character in these stories as any of the personnel.
Blicher’s narrators are an odd bunch of liars, tale-tellers and fools. Though ‘The Diary of a Parish Clerk’ is told through the clerk’s own words, one senses Blicher’s gentle amusement at the Latin tags sprinkled through the early diary entries, and at Vinge’s po-facedness generally. Taken in by a French-speaking family, he attempts to learn French by reading a translation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, which he knows in Latin, and has some success.
But one thing is odd: when I hear them talking upstairs, I don’t seem to hear any French words – they are certainly not discussing Ovid.
(He’s like Adrian Mole.)
Peer the Fiddler, who narrates the story ‘Alas, How Changed!’, shares Vinge’s lack of self-awareness. At the outset Peer acknowledges himself to be a fool, a ‘useless nitwit’, and proceeds to tell stories against himself, of a catalogue of embarrassing incidents on a duck shoot, for instance, but even he does not seem to realise just what a notorious geck and gull he is. When Peer relates that the object of his affections is taken with him when he strikes a particular pose, the reader senses instinctively that he is the butt of a joke. It’s an amusing and poignant story, but whether Peer is meant to be scorned or pitied, I can’t tell. Perhaps both. I’m sure Blicher knows.
Elsewhere, the unreliable narrator is a speciality. ‘The Gamekeeper at Aunsbjerg’, a story of grief, death and sexual intrigue, is a delight in this respect, its narrator admitting at the start, ‘I am well aware that I have a reputation for lying; and at this point too someone may perhaps accuse me of fabrication.’ What is the reader supposed to think? To a passing reference to ‘this true story of mine’ is appended an asterisk, which leads to the footnote, ‘It is indeed true’. I love a writer who knows how to deploy the comic footnote. The incompleteness of this story does lend it credence, though, and an air of the folkloric; and my favourite story of the collection is indeed based on a true story.
This is ‘The Pastor of Vejlbye’, a crime story with elements of horror. The pastor of the title is accused of having killed a man, and comes to believe that he may have committed murder in his sleep, being a sleepwalker by temperament; but is all what it seems? There is a directness, a paring down to the bare elements, in the way this story is related, that made me think of Ingmar Bergman’s masterpieces of the early 1960s, Winter Light especially (though that might just have been the presence of the pastor). The story’s cold-bloodedness is both shocking and invigorating. It would make a superb film (has been made into three already, in fact). If you’ve got half an hour to spare, you can read a different translation of it (as ‘The Rector of Veilbye’) here. Go on.