Oh the moments, how they slip through our fingers, seemingly lost to fading memory before we can even claim to have felt them. This month on the Ark Review we are exploring ephemera; those things so tied to the present that simply cannot come with you into the future. Today, Emilie explores that most fleeting and momentary of sensations; the Danish Summer (and coming-of-age literature).
Danish summer in life and literature.
There is nothing more ephemeral in this world than the Danish summer. It gently, teasingly, sticks its sunny, breezy head out from behind the clouds for a moment, only to be quickly caught by the closing fist of the rainy fall. “Lasting only for one day” – that is the original, Greek definition of ephemera, and should also be the definition of summer in this country.
With such short time to enjoy the sun, there is a sense of urgency as soon as it arrives. My friend from California once called this “Scandinavian sun guilt”: The feeling that any time spent indoors in good weather is wasted time. She had met a lot of Scandinavians in California, and tried in vain to make them understand that the sun would be out the day after tomorrow as well. The Scandinavians persisted in their outdoors activities.
Yet there is nothing more sweet than the Danish summer. The endless days stretching only slightly into dusky nights, the warm sun on tanning skin, the ocean breeze in hair and trees, the feeling of fresh grass under bare feet. A feeling of limitless possibility, of openness, of a slowly blooming horizon just barely out of reach. A sense of an impossible endlessness that is quickly snatched away before you manage to gain a foothold. Ephemeral in duration and in mood.
Perhaps this is why summer has gained such a mythical status in Danish life and literature. Like in many other regions with seasons, the onset of summer is of course a symbol of life, of love, and of good things to come. Winter is the season of death, of grief, of ending. Yet in Danish literature, summer is somehow also tainted with a bitter, salty aftertaste – a feeling of a potential that was there but never reached.
This feeling is often connected with coming-of-age novels. This is perhaps especially so because the rite of high school graduation is so prominent in the Danish imagination. The beginning of summer means a new wave of ecstatic, giddy youths waving white student caps from the top of their celebration trucks, bathing in fountains and beer, and believing the whole world to lie before their feet in a spectacular array of possibility. I was there myself, and I remember.
One of my favorite books in this genre is Den Kroniske Uskyld (The Chronic Innocence) from 1958 by Klaus Rifbjerg. Most Danes will sigh at the mention of this book, because it was most likely taught to them ceaselessly by a fervent teacher somewhere in their foggy youth. Yet to me, it still retains its mythical glow. In the book, we follow the pubescent Janus and his relationship with his best friend Tore and Tore’s girlfriend Helle. All three are in high school and, like any other students, looking forward to the day of graduation. Yet the heavy promise of summer becomes a fatal trap. At the moment of their graduation, when life seems to finally hold forth on all its promises, Tore is seduced by Helle’s mother, with severe consequences. Summer becomes a sticky, untouchable thing. A devil in disguise like Helle’s mother. It is no coincidence that the newest edition of the book bears a student cap on the cover.
Another Danish classic is Hans Scherfig’s Det Forsømte Forår (The Stolen Spring) from 1940 in which a group of school mates gathered at a high school reunion reminisce about their time at the strict and perversely disciplinary institution; a time which resulted in the still unsolved murder of their most hated teacher, Mr. Blomme. The title comes from the image in the novel of classmates sitting inside and cramming for exams, while other less obligated youths frolick around in the sun, their youthful promise blossoming while the students’ wither away. In Sherfig’s world, there is no remedy:
It is spring outside. It is light and odd and melancholic. You are grown up and free now, and can do what you wish. But you never really got to know the spring. You have neglected it. The world was young and green and juicy. And you let all your springs go to waste. And it is too late now … all their springs were stolen from them.
[Det er forår udenfor. Og det er lyst og mærkeligt og melankolsk. Man er voksen og fri nu og kan gøre, hvad man vil. Men man fik aldrig rigtig lært foråret at kende. Man har forsømt det. Verden var ung og grøn og saftig. Og man lod alle sine forår gå til spilde. Og det er blevet sent nu … man tog alle deres forår fra dem]
Like Den Kroniske Uskyld, Det Forsømte Forår was made into a movie whose ending spells out the unfulfilled promise of summer and youth. The reunion celebrators walk melancholically into the early summer morning as the new youth celebrates their own graduation. Yes, summer, like youth and innocence, is an ephemeral thing.