The history of danish dr.., p.1
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The manor of Mørkhøj
Time that stands still
The house in Rudkøbing
Time that passes
The fishing village of Lavnœs
The new Virgin
On the run
Living outside the law
ADONIS AND ANNA
The tenement in Christianshavn
CARL LAURIDS AND AMALIE
The villa on Strand Drive
MARIA AND CARSTEN AND THEIR CHILDREN
The house by the Lakes
(and other matters)
A longing for order
Also by Peter Høeg
About the Author
THIS IS the History of Danish Dreams, an account of what we have dreaded and dreamed of and hoped for and expected during this century; I have endeavored to make it exhaustive and keep it simple and, as an argument for even so much as trying, I would like to mention two incidents.
One day in the early spring of 1929, Carsten was helping his father, Carl Laurids, to assemble a machine gun which, when it was finished, stood on a tripod and ranged from wall to wall of the pillared salon in the villa off Strand Drive. Anyone else might well have wondered at a machine gun in a living room, but Carsten saw it as a natural extension of his father’s brutal elegance. Lying on his stomach, looking along the perforated barrel, he had the feeling that the weapon pointed, with the most liberating determination, into a hazy future. Then Carl Laurids said, “Well, kid, you’re seven years old now, and old enough to be told my motto, which is: always look ahead because that’s where the money is,” and although Carsten was only five and had not understood a single word, still he listened, enthralled, because by this time it had become a rare occurrence for his father to address him directly. That is one incident.
The other took place at precisely the same moment, in a tenement building in Christianshavn, where Maria Jensen was watching her mother, Anna, cleaning. Anna had been engaged in this cleanup—which she intended to be the final, the definitive cleanup—for several years. Now she had borrowed, from the local doctor, a magnifying glass that allowed her to peer into the bottomless pit of germs on paneling she had believed to be clean and which she was now in the act of washing down with alcohol. Standing right behind her mother, Maria took a deep breath to conquer the stammer that had become more pronounced of late. Then she said, “Mom, wh-wh-why are you using that glass?” and Anna replied, “It’s so this place can be really nice and clean.” “But,” Maria objected, “it won’t do any g-g-good, because there’ll always be more dirt,” and Anna could find no good answer to this; she just stayed there for a moment, looking at her daughter.
The next moment, both incidents are past. Anna turns back to her interminable polishing. Carl Laurids dismantles the machine gun, and a day later he has disappeared without trace. It may not be a coincidence that their children have remembered these events and been able to tell me about them, but neither is it an indication that they were of any particular importance, since Carsten and Maria remembered so much else. The point is precisely that these two incidents resemble so many others. Nevertheless, I believe that, at the moment they occur, an astounding array of all the hopes of the twentieth century is assembled on Strand Drive and in Christianshavn. If I now carry on, in due course to return to Carsten and Maria, it is because I believe that encapsulated within many everyday events—and, yes, possibly any event whatsoever—lies the essence of an entire century.
The manor of Mørkhøj
Time that stands still
CARL LAURIDS is born at Mørkhøj one New Year’s Eve—it has been impossible to discover who his parents were—and adopted, not long afterward, by the estate steward. At this point the manor has been shielded from progress for two hundred years, at least two hundred years, by a very high wall, topped by iron spikes, its gray limestone speckled with the remains of fossilized mud creatures. This wall encircles the estate and its buildings, which are constructed from the same stone as the wall and are further protected by a moat in whose greenish waters, on summer days, catfish as big as alligators can be glimpsed, lying motionless at the surface, glinting in the scant light that steals over the wall.
Most people believe that Carl Laurids was born in the year 1900, New Year’s Eve 1900, although no one at the manor was aware of this. For here, in fact, time had been suspended. It had been standing still since the day the Count gave the word for work on the wall to begin and for all the ingeniously constructed clocks on the estate—which had, until then, besides time, date, and year, shown the positions of the moon and the planets—to be stopped. He then advised his secretary, who had hitherto been writing the history of the estate, that time had come to a standstill. Since, as the Count said, it is but a common, modern invention, anyway, never again do I want to see time on these premises; from now on, all time will be counted as year one.
The Count had never cared much for the passage of time and especially not these days, when his instincts were telling him that the old aristocracy were to be the main losers in this new age. At one point, during the course of his energetic youth among the folios and parchment scrolls of the great European libraries, he had discovered that the great natural scientist Paracelsus had once visited Mørkhøj and, while there, had disclosed the fact that the center of the world was to be found somewhere on the estate lands. This discovery might not cut much ice nowadays, and even for that time it was pretty farfetched, but the Count became obsessed with the idea. In those days, every educated person—and the Count was one such—was a bit of a historian and a doctor and a philosopher and a lawyer and a collector and a chemist and a clergyman. And it was because the Count was all of these things that he was able, more or less single-handedly, to build the big laboratory that he installed in the attic of the manor house. It was built according to guidelines laid down by Christian IV’s court alchemist, Petrus Severinus. It was a full-scale laboratory complete with alembics and books and machines uniting Paracelsus’ doctrine of Definitive Matter with the philosophy of Aristotle and Plato and the very latest mechanical aids. Besides which, it had running water and a bucket for shitting into. Once it was finished, the Count stayed in there among his star charts and geometric constructions, and rarely came out.
After what appears to have amounted, at the very least, to a lifetime, he succeeded in pinpointing the center of the universe quite precisely and accurately at a spot on the edge of the coach-house dunghill. Only then did he truly emerge into the sunlight, and have an iron balustrade forged and gilded and erected around the spot. His great moment had come. Now he would prove that he had not lived in vain and that his family, which had always been at the heart of things, reigned supreme. He must also have had some vague, muddled
This idea strikes me as being both weak and unsound. Nonetheless, his contemporaries greeted it with some interest, and when the Count invited the court-shoe and powdered-wig brigade, they turned out to a man. That is to say, the scholars and the representatives of Church and Crown and Parliament, not to mention Caspar Bartholin—Bartholinian mafioso and owner of the University of Copenhagen—and his son-in-law the great astronomer, engineer, inventor, and member of the Paris Academy, Ole Rømer.
The Count opened the proceedings by serving up fifty barrels of old Hungarian tokay, the grapes for which had been harvested when the Great Paracelsus was a child. He then described his epoch-making discovery and how his calculations had shown him that, were he to dig here, right at the center, he would discover a substance with which he would be able to produce the Philosopher’s Stone, build a Perpetuum Mobile machine, and isolate a quantity of the Cosmic Seed.
The assembly sat on rows of chairs arranged around the gilded balustrade, listening to music played by the Mørkhøj orchestra. Before their eyes, twelve footmen in red silk stockings and breeches commenced digging inside the enclosure while the Count read aloud from the writings of Paracelsus. They dug until the hole grew so deep that the walls collapsed with a hollow belch and they were buried beneath the dunghill without finding anything other than the jawbones, picked clean, of a pig. Even so, none of the spectators laugh, all of them sympathize with the Count. Then the great Ole Rømer gets to his feet, totters over to him, lays a fleshy hand on his shoulder, and wheezes, “Tell you what, here’s a tip, from one colleague to another: the earth is round, which means its center can be found all over the place, and all you’ll find if you dig is shit.” After which everyone takes his leave and the Count is left with the dunghill and the empty barrels and the gilded balustrade and the appalling melancholy derived from knowing that you are the only one, apart from God, who knows that you are right and that everyone else is wrong.
The next day he gave orders for the building of the wall to begin and for Mørkhøj’s clocks to be stopped. These clocks, designed by Ole Rømer, were driven in ingenious fashion, by the water that passed, splashing and murmuring, through the fountains and the moat. With the flow of water now stemmed, the stone basins dried up and the moat was transformed into a murky morass in which poisonous water lilies and big catfish were the only visible sign of life. From then on, the only sound of time passing heard at Mørkhøj was the monotonous chant of the watchmen, and that, moreover, was in Latin, “since that’s the way I want it,” said the Count; “it’s the only language fit for official use, dixi!”
And as time went on, the watchmen’s song became all that was heard of the laborers and peasants on the estate, of whom there were around one thousand when the wall was built. They had never had any say in things before, and now, with the high wall throwing a dark shadow across the estate and keeping the outside world out, the only bright spots visible to them were one another’s ever more indistinct features. By the time Carl Laurids was born, they had all but lost the power of speech and had intermarried so often that they were all one another’s children and parents and uncles and aunts, and the awful fact is that eventually it became hard to tell the difference between them and the red cows. Having been equally deprived of any infusion of new blood, these had lost their horns and were wont, more and more often, to get up and walk around on two legs.
On those few occasions when a worker did recover his voice to protest and rebel, he was beheaded, and that was the end of that.
When all contact with the outside world was severed and the clocks switched off, time came to a standstill for the Count and his family. Dressed in his braided coat and with a face lined by a long life of fierce concentration, he entered his library and laboratory and, once there, launched himself back through history and out into space and down into the corrections of his own calculations in the hope of, at long last, being able to establish something. Occasionally he forgot what this something was, although it was, of course, the location of the world’s midpoint. When he did show his face outside the main manor house, it was to take a drive in a little coach drawn by more and more of the decrepit horses and with a dumb coachman on the box. Wherever they went on these occasions, with the laborers dropping to their knees at sight of the carriage, the Count’s face resembled the stone of the wall. By his side in the carriage sat his wife and his children, laced and powdered and transfixed in a seemingly perpetual youth.
Having realized that he had pressing business in his laboratory, the Count then entrusted the management of that time which he had had suspended to his two immediate subordinates. One of these was his secretary, Jacoby, whom the Count had sent for from England because he wrote such a marvelous form of cancellaresca script and because, after two or three or four bottles of wine, he could reel off Latin and Greek toasts and paeans and epitaphs and impromptus, and because he was a walking encyclopedia of the genealogy of the European aristocracy and was possessed of a profound insight into military history and Venetian double-entry bookkeeping. When the Count lost interest in everyday matters, Jacoby took on the keeping of the manor accounts—in which everything, absolutely everything, to do with the self-sufficient running of the estate was converted into Dutch gold ducats (in the Count’s opinion, the only currency worth its salt)—and, most important of all, carried on recording the history and chronicle of events at Mørkhøj. This record was one of the Count’s most vital sources. It confirmed that time had been frozen, was at a standstill, because look, said the Count, this is still, and always will be, year one, and if anyone has any other ideas we’ll have him beheaded.
The other person who enjoyed the Count’s confidence was Carl Laurids’s foster father, the Mørkhøj steward, into whose hands the Count had entrusted the supervision of the medieval agricultural techniques, the stables, the storehouses, the tile works, the farm laborers’ cottages, the manor chapel, the workshops, the grain mill—which was hand-operated because all of the water on Mørkhøj lands was stagnant—and the dairy where, in age-blackened churns, the ever-diminishing milk yield was turned into the estate’s own small, tart cheeses. Then, too, he was the one man who could tell the Mørkhøj employees apart; who kept count of the stableboys and grooms and muckers-out and woodcutters and smallholders and gamekeepers and dairymaids and tradesmen and the pastor and the parish clerk and the eighty-two Polish girls and their Aufseher who had wandered onto the estate one day by mistake, while looking for work. They entered at a spot where the wall had collapsed, and once the estate closed around them, they continued to work, eat, sleep, give birth and die and drop to their knees at Mørkhøj, without ever remembering anything at all about the world they had left behind. This says something about how efficiently the Count had succeeded in realizing the dream of the Danish aristocracy and landed gentry, of time standing still with the hand pointing to feudalism and the rights of the few over the many.
At the manor house itself the steward kept an eye—once blue, but now gray with experience and the burden of responsibility—on the housekeepers, on the tally of Mørkhøj linen and lawn, on the kitchen maids and a cuisine that observed the conventions of the seventeenth-century French court. Hence, at evening meals—which the Count partook of aloofly and joylessly—marzipan was served before the roast, which was followed by a fish terrine (made, since nothing else was available, from the muddy flesh of the moat catfish) and candied fruit and smoked meat. The steward also saw to it that two men were constantly assigned to polishing the silver, which, despite the suspension of time, grew tarnished in the drawers and chests, and that butlers and servants and tapsters were chosen from among those of the estate tenants who could still walk upright with ease and who could be trained to balance the gold service, the colored wineglasses, and the dusty, monogrammed jars and bottles from the endless cellars of the manor house.
The letters were handed over to the steward, but Carl Laurids’s father never sent them. Naturally he never sent them. He unsealed them and rewrote them. Carl Laurids’s earliest memories were of his father hunched over the black script on the finely contoured paper, painstakingly writing, his pale face drawn and lined by the weariness of two hundred years and his sight partially ruined by his constantly having to keep an eye on everything and peer through the darkness of the estate, illumined as it was by nothing other than tallow dips and wax tapers. The steward knew there would be no point in mentioning the new moderator lamps and oil lamps to the Count.