by Inger Christensen
Reviewed by Douglas Messerli
The death of Inger Christensen in January of this year has left us without one of our greatest celebrants of living and life. For that reason it is bittersweet to have her poetic 1967 fiction Azorno finally translated into English. As with most of Christensen's writings, Azorno is a highly structured work. In this case, seven characters -- two men and five pregnant women -- are in the process of writing fictions. Each of their narratives contains similar actions, phrases, and events, although one would be hard placed to describe any of them as having a plot.
Various of these figures write on pages topped by a Rome address and telephone number. Several of them travel through Alpine passes before approaching "the hot, crisp, spicy landscape around the border," singing with the car window open. Other characters wake each morning to watch the person across the way dress before going to a small cafe where, to free the locals from seeming to be observed, they stare at a rag, a sandstone sculpture, and a little greenish manikin. Or they sit in the Piazza della Repubblica without a hat or gloves, observing someone, then return to write on the papers headed with their name and address -- papers kept in at the bottom of a suitcase full of "a multicolored heap of extra bras, girdles, panties, stockings, sandals, scarves, gloves, creams, cosmetics, and a white hat, all rolled up in a glossy transparent plastic tube with a handle made of twisted gold thread."
Indeed, lists dominate the structures Christensen employs to make this work cohere. At several points, characters visit a beautiful lake home, approachable only by boat, where the writer Sampel has created a rose garden with special breeds of roses: "Rosa rugosa, Rosa rubiginosa, Rosa pimpinellifolia, cream-colored Rosa 'Nevada', yellow Rosa hugonis, and deep scarlet Rosa moyesii." But there is some action amidst the recurring imagery; Bet Sampel, Sampel's wife, at one point invites all the other women to join her at the lake house, whereupon they discover that each of them is pregnant and, together, upon the arrival of Sampel, proceed to claw him to death.
Most of these figures speak of two ways of destroying life, with poison or freedom:
Both equally gently. Every confinement can terminate from within: e.g., by giving the tree poison and quickly paralyzing the tissues in their multiple functions. When everything stands still this way, a mute block, all movement begins to go downward: flowers disintegrate, leaves curl up, rustle, are carried away, twigs on branches dry up, break, and the trunk cracks, caves in. Slowly consumed by everything. Or the confinement can end from without: e.g., by giving the tree freedom, an excess of space, light, air, water, nourishment, by which it's made to unfold in a series of ecstatic flowerings, abruptly followed by exhaustion, withering. At last the tree dries up, a mute block that is slowly consumed by itself. By everything.
In many respects one might say that the two methods of death described above are at the center of this "story." In several instances, the women seem trapped, poisoned by the relationships or lack of relationships they must suffer. One sits in a dark room where outside it perpetually rains. Another is locked away in an institution. Another is trapped in Sampel's bedroom at the beautiful lake house. Others move, like Beckettian figures, "in" and "out" in seeming freedom, but with nowhere to go, they wander the streets, sit at tables to drink, or cross the various Alpine passes by car.
We soon realize that these figures are all, in some way, creations of the artist Azorno, who admits to using the pseudonym Sampel. In their imagination, each is indeed made pregnant by the author, and each rearranges these series of events, like the ever-recurring image of a bouquet of various-colored tulips that is described in many scenes. This dynamic allows Christensen to ask, in a highly original manner, what is reality? Who of us is real? Several of her figures often have the feeling that somewhere there is a person making exactly the same notes they are, to be woven into a novel about him or herself.
It is only in the final section of this lyrical work that we sense we may have broken through to a seeming "reality." In that section, Azorno and Bathsheba are in Paris (not Rome), where he is writing while she shops and walks the streets. There are many of the elements we have seen at work throughout the book: he loves listing the roses from his garden as if saying a charm; the suitcase is packed with tablets and toiletries as described elsewhere. Yet here, while Azorno attempts to write his story, Bathsheba (no longer called Bet) ponders whether she should consider herself as "simply a human being" or "as a human-made being." She comes to see that she is an image to Azorno, not a reality.
Christensen does not leave the story there, but finally takes it into a possible reality, as Bathsheba announces she is going to have a baby. The couple put their arms around each other and kiss, yet, as the author describes the event, it is still a symbolic act: "It was a question of gentleness." At that same moment, however, Azorno seems to come alive, realizing for the first time that the woman with "the dark orange dress against her dark skin against the dark evening" is something separate from himself, that the mass of people around him are not the same as his creations, that he is living not a life but his life, his only life. He realizes that he is "a person. Maybe more. Who just now thought exactly this." The revelation changes everything as the author, mimetically, becomes living human flesh:
When the gardens were about to close and the water jets sank down so that the water's surface became calm, there was a moment of soundlessness, everything was silent, though certainly never completely silent, since there was the sound of many people's movements quickly increasing, as the sound of all that I have written was quickly increasing and limiting my freedom to experience, but it was in this moment of soundlessness that we got up, and the whole time I heard Bathsheba breathing, and I kissed her, it was in that moment that we kissed each other, that for the first time in our lives we experienced the mild evening air. And sang.
And with that song the "pictures resembling creatures," of which Soren Kierkegaard writes in Azorno's endnote, are transformed into the creatures themselves.