“Occasionally I dream in Danish and wake up exhausted from the sheer effort”

Liz Jensen is a British writer who lives in Copenhagen with her husband, the Danish writer Carsten Jensen. She is the author of eight novels including the best-selling psychological thriller 'The Ninth Life of Louis Drax'. With the impending release of both a Danish translation, and the Hollywood adaptation on streaming platforms, James Clasper sat down with Jensen to discuss identity, the power of words, and how writers can respond to the rise of populism

Am I right in thinking you’ve got Danish heritage?

My father came from Aalborg. He spoke perfect English with a very thick Danish accent, which my friends claimed they couldn’t understand. When I was very young I couldn’t understand him either. When he talked about home he always said “back in Aalborg” rather than “back in Denmark”, so my siblings and I used to think Aalborg was a country, like Austria or Albania. And a lot of people who know Aalborg would argue that it is a country, so perhaps we weren’t wrong. We grew up in a very Danish home without really realising it at the time. When my parents got married, my mother must have asked my father what he liked to eat and he probably said, “I like fishcakes, I like pickled herring, I like boiled potatoes, I like anything involving whipped cream, and I like meatballs”. So that’s the kind of thing we ate: it was only much later, when I spent more time in Denmark, that I realized that what we took for our father’s dietary eccentricity was just Danish home cooking.

So your heritage is primarily culinary?

Oh, it was much, much more than that. It was a mindset, a very Danish mindset. That’s why I feel at home here, and around Danes – particularly funny Danes. I love Danish humour. There’s an inbuilt sense of irony and a mistrust of pomposity, which is a big part of the British comic vision too, so there’s a crucial overlap. There’s also a very practical, down-to-earth way of living, which I feel in my blood. So, yes, I feel familiar with aspects of the Danish mentality. But having grown up closely acquainted with Janteloven [ed: tall poppy syndrome], I think I have a love-hate relationship with it too, just as I do with my own culture, or any culture in which I’ve lived, for that matter. I’ve come to see loving one’s country as something potentially very scary, especially now. Patriotism can transform people in very ugly ways. But what is patriotism? What does it even mean when you say, “I love my country”? Which country are you talking about? My Britain might not be the same as your Britain. The Denmark I love might not be the Denmark you love. Love is a big word. Country is a big word. You can make of those words what you will.

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Also, language is more powerful than we give it credit for. Words are never “just words”. They are vehicles for emotions, and emotions are powerful triggers. Words can, and do, kill. I’m not against free speech, and I don’t know any writer who is, but weaponise it, and there’s a problem. I think we’re seeing it now.

As a writer, are you interested in exploring themes such as patriotism and identity?

Everything that’s happening now is immensely exciting for writers. The challenge is deciding what to do with it. I’ve never known such a time of turmoil, of intensity – and of danger. It feels like there’s momentum, like there’s something game-changing on the horizon. And we can all only do what we’re best at doing, which in my case is to write. But I don’t necessarily think that we should all be writing about the present, because one of the things you can do with fiction is to set a story in another time, or place, or both, and let readers draw their own analogies. There has already been some wonderful writing – long-form journalism in particular – in this new era. I suspect that today’s convulsions are giving rise to an intellectual blossoming which history will look back on.

Louis Drax is a story about family secrets, which starts with a boy falling off a cliff and his father going missing. Where did you get the idea?

I figured out where it came from only after I’d finished writing it. I should have seen it right away. There was a terrible tragedy in my family in the 1930s, which was never solved, and which cast a shadow over my mother’s life forever. She never fully recovered. My grandmother either fell, jumped or was pushed off a cliff in Switzerland, four days after her eldest son disappeared. With fiction, you don’t necessarily know what your theme is or why you’re writing a book until after you’ve written the last page. The story of my missing uncle and dead grandmother was practically the first story I ever heard. No wonder I wrote about it. The only wonder is why I didn’t write about it before. Though I didn’t write about it directly – one never does. I wrote about a boy falling off a cliff and his father disappearing.

As a writer, how have you found living in Denmark?

Living in another country is always a kind of rocket fuel for my imagination, so it has been a joy. But it has been difficult, too, and I’ve had some setbacks, as all foreigners do here. Danish is the hardest language I’ve ever learnt – and I include Chinese. If my father were alive, I’d like to kill him for never having spoken Danish to us at home. Being bilingual – be it in Danish, Urdu, Swahili, French or anything else – confers a huge advantage and makes the brain more flexible. Occasionally I dream in Danish and wake up exhausted from the sheer effort. But I enjoy languages. I love working out how something changes when translated into another language. One of my favourite Danish expressions is Lars Tyndskids mark, which means the field of Lars’ Diarrhoea. It describes the backend of beyond or the boondocks. I laugh every time I hear it. It’s a wonderful, salty expression.

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I like the literalism of Danish, too. The classic example of that is brystvorte or ‘breast wart’, meaning nipple. I have a growing list of untranslatable Danish words. They tell you so much about any culture. One of my favourites in Danish is konfliktsky, meaning conflict-averse. It’s not a word we use in English so much. Maybe because we don’t need it, because we actually like conflict. The Danes have an interestingly intimate relationship with conflict aversion. It’s an everyday word, and I’m struck by how often I hear it. To me, konfliktsky is part of that set of words that’s particular to a small country where people in glass houses can’t afford to throw stones. Hygge is another one. It’s deeply connected to social cohesion. Menneskesyn is another word we don’t have, which means the way you see people. Not world-view, but people-view. That’s telling too. Perhaps the untranslatable words should be the first ones people learn when they come here because they reveal what’s unique to Danish society. M

The Danish edition of ‘The Ninth Life of Louis Drax’ will be published by Politiken this spring. The UK and US editions are published by Bloomsbury.


By James Clasper

Contributing editor. @jamesclasper

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