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Good will

On ‘The Exception’ – Interview by Klaus Wivel, October 2004, © Alt for Damerne. Translated by Tiina Nunally. www.weekendavisen.dk

“People with whom we work closely can turn into dead meat for us.” Next week Christian Jungersen’s second novel will be published – a story of murder and office harassment among women who work at the Danish Center for Genocide Information.

Christian Jungersen is a meticulous sort of man. Today he is a full-time author, having devoted the last fifteen years to his writing. This tall, slender man wearing wool socks, jeans, and a hooded sweatshirt writes six days a week, morning, noon, and night. He is so diligent that during the past three years he hasn’t allowed himself to read any books except those that he could use for his novel. He lives alone in a two-room apartment in the Nørrebro district of Copenhagen – it’s rather like a monk’s cell with Seinfeld videos on the bookshelf and a panoramic view over the low rooftops on Tagensvej. And he has no distractions such as children or a job. He is now in his early forties. You would think that a man like him would be sending out a flood of books. But no. Not until next week will he be able to add book number two to his list of published works. Jungersen takes his time to write good novels. The Exception is the title of this book, which is more than 600 pages long. It’s a psychological thriller with a rare focus: the work environment of a public institution, whose employees are progressive, idealistic young women who have studied at Denmark’s liberal Roskilde University and who cultivate journalists at the leftist newspaper Information, and fall in love with them. Not exactly the most typical setting for this type of book, but the result is a fast-paced philosophical drama with all the trimmings, including threats and murder and a plot so tightly woven that it’s not until the very last page that the penny drops – and an entire worldview shatters.   “I’ve always been fascinated to hear people talk about the conflicts they have at their jobs and the people they work closely with who seem to transform into horrible monsters – people who, under other circumstances, are perfectly nice,” says Jungersen. “I’ve had my own experiences of working with certain people who would be very likable if I met them at a party. But when I worked with them, something happened that changed them. What causes that? How can it be that the same person who makes great contributions on behalf of other people, under different circumstances can behave so terribly? “The interesting thing is that it’s not always one group that’s good and one group that’s evil. So what is it that provokes the good in us, and what provokes the evil? That’s something I’ve been fascinated with for over ten years.” Evil in all its forms is the subject of Jungersen’s book. And what could be a more fitting setting for such an examination than a fictitious Danish Center for Genocide Information? A place where evil is not just the professional focus of the four female protagonists – it’s also something that slowly gnaws away at their relationships in the workplace. It all starts when the two younger employees, Iben and Malene, each receive an email in English that contains a threat against her life. Did it come from one of the Yugoslav perpetrators of genocide that they’ve written about in their articles? Or did it come from Anne-Lise in the next office, who clearly despises them, and whom Iben and Malene very quickly begin to suspect has a secret drinking problem? “I’ve deliberately chosen to describe people who have a thorough intellectual understanding of evil, but who have no practical experience with it. As the story progresses, they’re confronted with their own evil and that of others in a way that they never could have imagined in the beginning. “Of course I don’t mean to make light of the enormity of genocide – freezing people out is not at all the same thing as killing people. But many of the psychological mechanisms of workplace harassment are similar. People with whom we work closely can turn into bait for us. A type of callousness can arise; we can even summon it up ourselves, if it’s to our advantage.”   During the past five years, since the publication of his first novel, Undergrowth, Jungersen has spent his time learning about the latest research on social psychology and genocide. “With Undergrowth I had to immerse myself in the early 20th century, reading old newspapers and becoming familiar with the time period. With The Exception I started going to lots of genocide conferences. I’ve become a member of the International Association of Genocide Scholars, and last year I participated in a weeklong genocide conference in Ireland. I did this, of course, so that the novel’s facts about genocide would be accurate, but also to plant in my subconscious the same concerns as those that might be found in the subconscious of the characters in my book.” And some very sinister aspects of the women emerge. Toward the end of the novel, Iben, who is the most prominent of the four female protagonists, says: “We ramble on, with our big words and idealism, but it’s all just rationalizing after the fact for our own egoism.” Could this be some sort of motto for the book? “If a book that’s over five hundred pages long has a motto, then it’s a bad book. But it does express Iben’s very depressed view of the world, and, in part, my own. Like me, the characters are faced with a world of evil, and they’re trying to get their bearings in that world, trying to find some light in a place that turns out to be very dark. I can relate to that struggle.”

Are these people affected by the fact that their work has to do with genocide?

“Absolutely. But they try to rise above the evil because, as they say, ‘If we can’t rise above it, then who can?’ There’s a woman in the office who thinks she’s being harassed, but the others don’t agree, and so they use experiences from their world, from the Council for Conflict Resolution and the UN, and apply them to their own situation. They struggle to be good people. At the same time, what they’re working with is also depressing, and it weighs them down.”

You might get the impression that the people who work there are doing it for career reasons….

“No, they’re idealists. I decided to focus the novel on four women who work for an idealistic organization because that presents a more exciting story. Their fall is much greater. They set greater demands, they have high goals, and at the same time there is something driving them to try to annihilate one of their own colleagues. They want her dead. That contradiction is what I’m trying to map out. From my meetings with genocide scholars, it’s my clear observation that they are not career people; on the contrary, they’re people who have been shaken by what they’ve seen in the world, and they’ve made an existential decision about how they want to use their lives.”

The book presents a sinister picture of idealism. Are you a cynic?

“If the main characters in the novel didn’t have their idealism, they would have nothing. But it’s hard to live up to idealism. In the book I draw on new psychological research on what today is called dissociative identity disorder. It turns out that the scientific perception is no longer that people are either ‘normal’ with a fully integrated personality, or they have a radically split personality that can, for instance, suddenly speak with a child’s voice or understand foreign languages – everything we’ve seen in Hollywood films. Instead there is a continuum between these two extremes. “The less extreme splits are interesting. They’re what make it possible for us, for example, to have several different worldviews at once. “In the novel, Iben and Malene think that of course they can treat Anne-Lise badly, because she’s so thick-skinned that she won’t even notice. At the same time, they hold another view that directly contradicts this: they can treat her badly because she does notice and it makes her unhappy, but she deserves it because she’s such a bitch. And then their third contradictory view is that they won’t tell their friends about what they’re doing at the office. In other words, they know deep down that it’s wrong. “We can jump back and forth between various identities. That’s where self-deception comes in. Iben and Malene choose not to listen to the voice that tells them occasionally that they’re heading in the wrong direction.”   Jungersen also describes Gunnar, a hot-blooded journalist specializing in Africa, who wears a black leather jacket and writes a regular column for Information. In the past he belonged to the inner circle of the Maoist Communist Workers Party, and he tells Malene how, back then, for about fifteen minutes each month he would realize what a terrible regime he was helping to support. “On a daily basis Gunnar was able to live with his Communist involvement and feel passionately about it, but each month there would be fifteen minutes when he would ask himself what the hell he was doing. As Gunnar says, ‘Evil is when you ignore those fifteen minutes.’ “Evil isn’t just the people we see in movies running around with big guns and trying to shoot everybody. Evil can also occur in people who do the right thing, who are members of Greenpeace and Amnesty International, who take their empty bottles down to the recycling containers, but who now and then realize that, in the long run, the idealism they’ve chosen to pursue is selfish.”

And why does Gunnar ignore those fifteen minutes?

“We all do. We all know that the money we spend having a good time in town could save the lives of several people in the Third World. And that thought does occur to us occasionally, but we shove it back into the shadow world where it leads its own life. If there are people in the Third World whose children die for lack of something from our world, it’s easy to understand why they would hate us and think to themselves: how can anyone be so callous? They would call that evil.”

Is that what it is?

“Yes, it is. A callousness that is voluntarily chosen – I would call that evil.”   Jungersen’s clever idea has been to allow the story to unfold among academic idealists, who also happen to be women. “I think that type of environment is not very well represented in literature. The dynamics of a workplace are even less represented. There are plenty of novels about love, about divorce, about how a harsh childhood can affect an individual in adulthood, and about the passage from one generation to another. But why are there so few books about life in the workplace, which can be just as filled with emotions, drama, and crucial experiences? “When you’re old and look back on your life and try to sum it up, a key factor is whether you had colleagues who made you feel that you were smart, respected, and well liked. Or who made you feel the opposite. Colleagues can totally change your own perception of yourself. And nobody writes about that.”

And what about the women? What gave you the courage to identify with four women at one time?

“That was actually terrifying. I never would have dared, except that in my last book I found that I actually succeeded in describing the world of an 82-year-old so well that I received many appreciative letters from retirees.”

You’ve written two books, yet you’re over forty. Why such meticulousness?

“Reluctantly, dragging my feet, I’ve been forced into writing books that were much harder to write than I thought I was capable of.”

And that’s what you want to do?

“Now I’m hooked. You put a lot of emotions into a novel. I think it was Norman Mailer who said that finishing a novel was like taking your child out into the back yard and shooting him. That’s not how it is for me. But you can compare finishing a novel to a child who moves away from home.”

We’re all just bloody molecules

On ‘You Disappear’ –
Interview by Kjeld Hybel, March 2012, © Politiken.
Translated by Misha Hoekstra.

www.politiken.dk

 

In his new novel, Christian Jungersen probes deep into the human brain. Do you become someone else when you’ve suffered brain damage? Can you have a soul if life is just a series of chemical bonds? And is it even possible to tell a tale that reflects the new kind of human that science has revealed to us? In You Disappear, Jungersen has a go.

We fight our way down the narrow lanes between sand-colored houses, headed for the seafront. Christian Jungersen goes first, furled umbrella in hand, then the photographer and last of all me, struggling to zip my jacket all the way up to my throat. I can’t stop thinking about the email Jungersen sent me a few days ago.

“I live right by a long promenade that’s elevated over some rocks where the waves wash in,” he wrote. “It’s easy to walk down in the rocky landscape among old swimming pools chiseled out of stone, patches of lunar desert, and a lovely old fort. But we have to remember that the sun can get quite harsh in the middle of the day….”

We turn a corner and cut across the street to the promenade, where black, windblown palm trees stand and shiver. The few people who have ventured outdoors jump to the side every time one of the immense waves slams up over the railings and sweeps across the red tiles. The sky’s the color of slate. The Mediterranean roars. The windowpanes in this part of town are all milk-white with sea salt.

That’s just fine, I think. You don’t need sunshine when you’re going to talk about man’s dark impulses. About injured brains, corrosive love, and life in the suburbs – the kind of things Jungersen tackles in his new book. Or when you’re going to talk about the soul.

I’m lagging a bit behind when a gigantic wave surges over the promenade and with a mighty splash breaks over the heads of Jungersen and the photographer. For a moment they disappear in a cascade of water. Then they pop up again, laughing and soaked.

We’re in the Maltese town of Sliema, where the novelist has settled after a number of years headquartered in Dublin. The photographer and I have just landed, and we’ll be flying out again tomorrow. We agree to conduct the first part of the interview in my hotel room – for as a sopping Jungersen says about his one-room flat, “It’s not a room with a view. It’s a view with a room.”

 

On the couch

So once the photographer has taken a roll of pictures with his wet camera, and Jungersen has been home to change into some dry clothes, we meet up at the hotel, where the author flings his six-foot-six frame onto one of the beds.

His back’s been bothering him since a yoga mishap. And besides, he just thinks lying down’s a good idea. I seat myself in an armchair at his side. And pose the first question: “I just finished reading your book on the plane, and I wonder – do you think we’re all walking around with brain damage?”

“It depends on where you define the threshold for brain damage,” Jungersen says. “For instance, what if during your entire childhood, you ate lunch from a lunchbox made of plastic that contained female sex hormones?”

“Yes, what if?” I say, seeing clearly before me my childhood plastic lunchbox.

“Well perhaps that’s why you grew up to be so nice and sweet. All of us are affected by physical things like that, and of course it’s humbling to think about. It’s a bit like when Darwin said that we all descend from animals.”

“Why’s that humbling?”

“A hundred and fifty years ago, people said, There are animals, and they’re primitive beings. And then there are us humans, ah, we’re spiritual, we’re gifted. And then they realized that in fact, we’re monkeys too. People can’t accept that. Or that your very thoughts, your deep, deep thoughts about the meaning of life, are affected by the sort of plastic softening agents that were in your lunchbox. That’s pretty damn humbling.”

“Well okay, but I suppose it depends on the degree to which you’re affected?”

“Yes,” Jungersen says gently. “Something might have happened during gestation. It could have been when you were growing up. A minor blow you received, that no one gave a second thought – a fall from your bike when you were 7. Some of it could be what you eat. But of course, it’s all chemistry.”

 

When are we ourselves?

“So let’s just say that everything’s chemistry,” I say. “But what is the soul then?”

“Yes, what the devil is the soul?” Jungersen thinks a bit as he tries to find the most comfortable position on the bed. “I’d say that, even though we’re chemistry, we’re still responsible beings. We’re creatures who nonetheless take responsibility. And do we have a soul?”

I find myself interrupting this train of thought, thinking it’s time to connect the conversation more directly to the book that is the occasion for our being here. It’s called You Disappear. The narrator is Mia, a 40-something schoolteacher who discovers during a vacation on Majorca that her husband, the headmaster Frederik, has a brain tumor that is affecting him. And not just a little.

“When in the book is Frederik most Frederik, really himself – is it before or after the tumor?”

“All the characters in the book have their own interpretations of that,” Jungersen replies. “His father thinks Frederik was most himself when he was a workaholic, just like the father had been. And when Frederik becomes a family man who stays home and hangs out with his wife and children, he’s an inferior type of man.”

“And Mia thinks the opposite,” I say. “She thinks it’s a bit strange when she finds out that Frederik’s had a tumor during the best three years of their relationship.”

“Yes, my main character takes it rather hard. I really like having an alpha male who turns into a homey family man because of a brain injury.” Jungersen chuckles. “So his wife thinks he finally becomes nice and normal after he gets sick in the head. But are you most yourself when you’re unaffected? Of course, we’re never completely unaffected….”

“So we’re never ourselves – or what?”

“If you define yourself – and your soul – as someone who is unaffected by the physical aspect of being human, then no, you’re never yourself. But you could also define yourself as someone who encompasses the physical too.”

“And that’s how you define it?”

“That’s probably where I stand. We’re the sum of it all. Even when you’ve hit your head, you’re still a self.”

 

Avant-garde

”What is the book’s most important job?”

The book’s most important job,” he says. “Well, one reason so many author interviews end in the ditch, is that journalists have been taught that if you can’t say, This is the point, then you don’t have a position, a stance. For authors, it’s the opposite: if you can express what you’re trying to do in a few sentences, then you don’t have a novel.”

Then he makes an attempt anyway.

“What’s important for me – in this bewildering fog – is to try to introduce a new way of looking at the world. As you said yourself, we’re all brain-damaged…. I want to present a new mode of talking about how people become who they are.”

Jungersen calls it a fumbling effort to invent a new form of narrative, one that reflects our understanding of human nature – an understanding that has been undergoing radical transformation.

“A few years ago, ADHD and depression were personality traits; now they are illnesses that we can medicate our way out of. Soon we might also have drugs for laziness, hot tempers, self-absorption, and the inability to make long-term plans. It was my ridiculously ambitious hope to discover a story that fit this previously unheard-of way of understanding people – and with it, a genuinely new narrative form.”

“And therefore a more chaotic narrative form?”

“That’s the way people have gone about it when they’ve tried to be avant-garde; they break up continuity and chronology. But I’ve tried to write a page-turner. That is to say, a narrative that moves forward.”

“In terms of narration, then, how is this book different?”

“Well, the difference is certainly not in the structure. Some people say that if the world’s fragmented and doesn’t make sense, then you should write fiction that’s fragmented and doesn’t make sense. No, on the contrary – you should write a story that’s tight! But about a world that doesn’t make sense.”

Jungersen’s own world can also seem fragmented. You Disappear was written in Dublin. During the past winter he moved to Malta, but he has many of his things in Denmark, and a storage room in New York. He has printers in the US, Ireland, Cyprus, Malta, and Denmark, and telephone SIM cards for the same countries. And he has bikes waiting for him in Ireland, Denmark, and New York.

“But I have only one adjustable-height desk,” he says. “And that’s in Ireland.”

 

What about you?

I cast a sidelong glance over at the peeling yellow-brown wall that comprises the view from the hotel room. Then I ask Jungersen on the bed, “So do you have a brain injury?”

“I don’t have a diagnosis,” he answers slowly. “But then again, when I remember things as poorly as I do, and am as abstracted as I am, then I don’t know…. I hope it’s connected to such a large part of my life being illusion. It’s my profession to make my imagination just as real as my life. Ideally, my physical reaction to it should be just as strong as my reaction to what I experience in reality.”

“Is it?”

“It is, in fact. It can be just as amazing for me to lie on my bed and imagine that I’m walking barefoot on some tropical beach, as it is to actually walk barefoot on a tropical beach. That’s the way it should be, too. And I hope that my cursedly bad memory has something to do with the fact that my brain uses its resources on something else – and that it’s not because I’m slow-witted or demented.”

“How bad is your memory?”

“I have a hard time recognizing people on the street. I often feel as if what I walk around and experience is something I dreamt some time ago….”

“I also ask because illness is a pivotal element in all three of your books. Why’s that?”

It grows a bit quiet on the bed; Jungersen’s thinking.

“It has to do with … hmm. I have a personal fascination with illness. I have a dread of our vulnerability, of everything being so dangerous. It’s all just bloody molecules! The whole thing can collapse!”

The vulnerability Jungersen feels is something he wants to share through his books.

“At the same time, I believe that a heightened sensory intensity can be bound to a certain level of fear. So in a novel I want to create a sense that the carpet might be yanked out from under you. It’s also a narrative technique in which I want to give people the feeling that This stuff is real!

 

She dies

Jungersen believes that in his third novel, he’s finally found his voice. And that he’s more present in this book than in the previous two, Undergrowth and The Exception.

In You Disappear, one of the things he manages to do is to make the text vibrate by working in things that, in context, don’t immediately make sense. “’When it’s done right, it can contribute to the flow, the richness, if the text suddenly leaps sideways and the readers say, Where the hell did that come from? So they’re not just being hurried down a single path, but instead find themselves running a second and a third way.”

“Can you give me an example?” I ask, handing him a copy of his novel.

“Yeah, let me see now….” He leafs through it. “Yes, for example here it says that Mia dies.” He reads aloud: “‘Shaking, I collapse on the toilet, and there I die of food poisoning from the lunch we had at that small restaurant in the mountains.’”

He looks up. “She doesn’t die. But it’s not a mistake that it’s in the text.”

It’s quarter to eight. We have to break off this first session because we’re meeting Jungersen’s girlfriend, the journalist Mette Thorsen, at an Asian restaurant perched atop the Palace Hotel, not far from the much more humble Park Hotel the photographer and I are staying at.

 

Too blunt

While we sit and enjoy our Singapore slings, Jungersen talks a little about how it was to suddenly earn a lot of money from a book.

That’s not the way it was in the beginning.

First he wrote for four years, during which everything he sent out was sent right back. Short stories, film scripts, a theater piece. No one would touch any of it. Then he spent four years writing his first novel, Krat. That was sent back to him too. For two years, Jungersen sent the manuscript to one publisher after the other while he worked as an information officer and advertising copywriter.

“Then the book was accepted. It became a bestseller and won prizes, and I’ve been able to live off my writing ever since,” says Jungersen. His next book became an even greater success.

“What do you do with the money?” he asks rhetorically. “Do you use it to make your life comfortable? Or do you use it to challenge yourself? Do you use it to create more distance from people – or to get closer to them?”

Jungersen didn’t choose comfort. He traveled to New York and tried to learn something from his publishers there. He admits that he let himself be overly influenced. His style became too minimalist, and he got away from himself.

The detour meant that he had to scrap more drafts than he usually does. Four of them. He compares his method to smashing a clay sculpture and then creating a new one from the shards, again and again.

 

Back on the bunk

The next morning, Jungersen shows up again at the Park Hotel. We meet in the lobby and take the elevator to the fifth floor and room 402. He throws himself familiarly on the bed.

“I don’t think I’ve ever interviewed a recumbent author before,” I say.

“A brilliant idea,” he says.

“Do you lead a bit of a monklike existence in the periods when you’re working on a book?”

“Yes, there’s probably something monastic about it. You focus on your interior world – a daily meditation. But then when it’s over, you just have to go out and meet people and party and travel and experience things. So that as a person you don’t go to seed. In the two or three years between each monkish existence, I try to live life to the hilt.”

But in the monk’s cell, hard research awaits. To get up to speed on a topic, Jungersen’s not content to just hop online or call up people. He prefers to head out into the world to speak with them in person. He flew to Dartmouth College in USA, to talk to a neurophilosopher there. And he also visited a number of teachers in Farum, the Copenhagen suburb where You Disappear unfolds.

“I called up a school in Farum and said, ‘I’m writing a novel that involves a female teacher about 40. She has a teenage son, she’s quite good-looking, she teaches math and PE. I’d really like to talk to someone like that.’ ‘Oh, we have lots of people like that,’ they said. So I went out and spoke with some of them. I asked them, ‘Is it okay if I videotape your apartment? What sort of clothes do you put on when you’re in a good mood? How about when you feel more vulnerable?’ All kinds of questions.”

He spoke with doctors, lawyers, and accountants. And through an association for people with gambling problems, he contacted a man who’d been convicted of swindling. He spoke with the man for three days running over a phone in the corridor of the prison where the man was serving time.

We laugh a bit about that. Then Jungersen says, “For me, research also functions as a lovely break. When you sit alone for four years just writing, it’s pretty damn nice to be out visiting a school.”

Then he hastens to add, mildly irritated, “But the research isn’t really the crux of what I do, not at all. There’s way too much focus on that when I’m interviewed.”

 

The crux

“The magic comes from a whole other place. It’s difficult to talk about, and that’s why people talk so much about research instead.”

He lies on the hotel bed, twisting and turning. He can’t seem to get the pillows to behave properly.

“These pillows here,” he mutters. “Some weird sort of batting – some elf that’s had a turn in a blender….”

“Well,” I say, “shouldn’t we talk about the crux then?”

“We can certainly try,” he says carefully, and then his voice drops almost to a whisper. “What is the crux? It’s something strange, almost magical. I do all these superficial things: sitting down at the computer, talking with those people. It’s all just like the surgeon washing his hands before an operation. There are limits to how long we can talk about the damn hand-washing before it gets boring.”

He tries to explain how this impalpable aspect of writing reminds him of a dream state. “The next day when I read something I’ve written, I often think, What will happen next? I can’t actually remember what I wrote.”

“You surprise yourself?”

“Sure. Lots of people find that they get their best ideas when they’re in the shower or just about to fall asleep – when they’re not consciously looking for them. In a novel like this, there should be a hundred ideas on every page. And how does one create a working routine around that? Ideally, one would stand in the shower all day.”

“How does one do it?”

“It has something to do with directing yourself to a place that feels undirected, uncontrolled. If you say, Now I’m going to pull myself together and write – then nothing of quality will come of it. You need to situate yourself where you can let it all flow over you. That’s one of the reasons that I write in Ireland and other places. Where I can sort of fumble around half dreaming for hours every day. That’s easier in an unfamiliar place. You have to enter the zone. And I simply live there.”

Jungersen thinks that such a life is ill-suited to a job, kids, and family gatherings. “I’m only able to manage it because I’ve been lucky to have a girlfriend who is just as claustrophobic about relationships as any man I’ve met. Mette would flip if I were always around. Ha ha….”

“What’s it like being in the zone?” I ask.

Totally addictive. It’s like the coolest computer game inside your head, where all the rules keep on changing, and the language, and everything….”

 

The lobotomy

“Why do you need to write?”
Again he grows quiet.

“For me it’s one of the most meaningful things you can do. If I don’t write this novel, no one else will. And in my early 20s, I had the sense that I wasn’t really able to come in contact with things, with the world—”

He interrupts himself and starts again.

“The lobotomy,” he says. “I read about someone who’d been sitting in a hospital, simply screaming with pain, psychic pain. He’d been that way for years. Then the man has a lobotomy. The next day the doctor comes in, and the man is quietly playing chess with a fellow patient. ‘Well,’ says the doctor, ‘that’s wonderful that it doesn’t hurt anymore.’ And the man says to him, ‘But it does hurt, and just as much….’”

Here Jungersen drops his voice before finishing the story. “And then the man goes on playing. That is to say that the pain was the same, but he’s no longer in contact with it. I find that so spooky.

“And that’s a bit how it was with me as a young man. I didn’t feel that I was fully in contact with the world and my feelings. For me the years of writing have had the opposite trajectory of a lobotomy. By training my attentiveness and empathy for hours, each and every day for decades, I’ve achieved what feels like a very intimate contact with the world. I think I’ve simply developed certain neural pathways. The brain is flexible, after all.”

“So in a way, you’ve written yourself closer to the world?”

“Yes. I’ve written myself closer to the world. It feels utterly euphoric, utterly intoxicatingly delicious. Besides which there’s that entire dream world. One can just float around.”

 

Chemical love

“Where’d you actually grow up?” I ask.
“Humlebæk.”
“What did your parents do?”
“My father was a lawyer and a banker, and my mother taught Greek and Latin in gymnasium.”
“So you lived your entire childhood in Humlebæk?”
“Yes. Why?”
“It’s just nice to know.”
“Where do you come from?”
“Brønshøj.”
“Do you think that’s significant? Does someone know you better if they know you come from Brønshøj?”
“Well, no….”
We don’t go any deeper into his history. There doesn’t seem to be any particular reason to.
“Before we finish, we just have to talk about love,” I say. “After all, You Disappear is a sort of romance, isn’t it?”
“Yes, I think so.”
He rests his legs on the foot of the bed.

In the same way that crime has gone from being a trivial genre to being an influential literary one in the last 20 years, Jungersen says he’d really like to take the romance novel off the newsstand and invest it with something more than Um, should she choose the baron or the chief surgeon?

“So your book is sort of Barbara Cartland meets Dostoevsky?” I ask.

He laughs. “Sounds good.”

“Okay,” I say, “but isn’t love simply chemistry?”

“Well, with my head I want to say yes,” he replies. “It’s all the law of nature. We are animals. That’s what I say when I think about it.”

“What about when you feel?”

“Then I reserve the right to be confused. I’m not going to say that what I think is wrong, but … I’d like to reserve the right to say Uhhh….”

“What’s behind the uhhh?”

“Argh – I do think it’s all chemistry! But what’s interesting is, why does whether it is or isn’t chemistry mean something to you and me? We have the sense that a world that’s elevated above the chemical would be a more romantic or soulful one. But why, actually?”

“Good question,” I say.

The photographer steps into the room to take some pictures, and I go out to the bathroom. But I forget to turn off the tape recorder.

“What kind of watch do you have there?” asks Jungersen.

“It’s lovely, isn’t it?” says the photographer. “It’s not very accurate, and it makes weird sounds.”

“Really?”

“I’m quite fond of it. It’s got 260 parts, and that’s why it’s not very accurate. Sometimes it loses a bit of time, other times it’s fast. There’s no system to it. Sometimes it keeps perfect time for three weeks. Then it thinks it should gain a minute….”

“Well then. The question is: does this watch have a soul? We’ll have to ask Kjeld. Kjeld!”

“What?” I ask, stepping back into the room.

“Per’s watch – sometimes there goes a week when it loses time, and then three weeks when it tells time perfectly. So my question to you is: does this watch have a soul?”

“I’d have to say yes. Because metals are chemistry and chemistry has a soul. We did agree on that, didn’t we?”

“Now don’t go blaming me for that,” says Jungersen. “But look at it. That’s one soulful watch, right?”

He sees through women

On ‘The Exception’ –
Interview by Birgitte Bartholdy, October 2004, © Alt for Damerne.
Translated by Tiina Nunally.
www.altfordamerne.dk

Christian Jungersen has chosen not just one, but four female protagonists for his new psychological thriller, which is also a harrowing story about harassment in the workplace. We talked with him about his studies of what it’s like to be female – and about the evil that even the best of us are capable of committing.

Four women work in an office in Copenhagen. A secretary, a librarian, and two academics. From the outside, it looks like an utterly typical office scenario, with jokes, small talk, and brown-bag lunches in the kitchen. But if we look closer, it’s a nightmare of pretense, fear, and harassment – at least seen from one woman’s point of view.

How could things go this far? How can two of the women, Iben and Malene, who are perceived by others as sweet, charming, and intelligent, end up using little remarks, intrigue, and lack of eye contact to snipe at the librarian, Anne-Lise? Why does the secretary, Camilla, merely look on? And what’s behind the threatening emails that have suddenly appeared? Were they written by the persecuted Anne-Lise as a means of revenge against the others?

The scene shifts.

The answers are to be found in the mind of a man in a small apartment in the Nørrebro district of Copenhagen. His name is Christian Jungersen. For more than three years he has lived and breathed the story of his huge novel The Exception, which deals with these four women and how the threatening emails turn the office upside down to such a degree that the result is murder and hostage-taking.

The four women work at the Danish Center for Genocide Information. Each day they send out reports, write articles, and draw attention to books that have to do with the insane scenes of terror that occur around the world – in Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia, and all sorts of other places. Yet they have a hard time recognizing the terror in their own office.

“I’ve long thought it enormously interesting that people you think of as congenial, charming, and nice can sometimes completely change character and turn into virtual demons if certain situations present themselves,” says Jungersen.

As part of the research for his novel he has read enough books to fill many bookshelves on the topics of genocide and war crimes; again and again he has come to the conclusion that evil is not just committed by blatant psychopaths whom we see in films leering horribly as they murder people right and left.

“In reality, evil is most often committed by people like you and me, who think we’re doing the right thing and that what we’re doing is perfectly reasonable. With this story about four women, I want to show the self-deception that makes it possible for all of us to be evil and yet convince ourselves that we’re not.

“In one way we’re like computers. Some of us run on the same program our whole life and never get forced into situations that will boot up other programs. But at some point or other, most of us have the experience of behaving more cruelly that we had ever imagined possible. We end up in some unfamiliar program because we’re in a war, or we’re about to get divorced, or we’ve been subjected to some type of injustice at our workplace.”

 

Unhappy at the advertising agency

Some of the scenes in the novel are taken directly from personal experience, Jungersen confirms, from the period when he worked as a copywriter after finishing his first novel, Undergrowth. But it was never as bad as what Anne-Lise experiences in the book.

“Though that was a period of my life when I was the unhappiest and the most creatively blocked,” he says.

“It was a hot, big-time ad agency in downtown Copenhagen, but you could just as well have made me bail out over New Guinea and parachute into a tribe where they walked around with huge penis extensions. It was that different. The eye contact, the body language, the things other people thought were fun and exciting, everything. The men talked about sports, cars, and money; the women didn’t really expect the men to talk about anything else. If I tried, they would think, ‘What’s he up to? He’s weird.’

“One of the managers told the others that he cringed every time I came into the room, and so it’s interesting to look at what happened between them and me. There was one woman I thought would have been a good friend if things hadn’t gone in that direction. Even though it was abominable, it was also deeply fascinating. I learned a lot.

“It’s possible to harass someone just through eye contact. No matter what Anne-Lise says in the book, the others look away and answer her in monosyllables. All week long, month after month – and at the same time they’re laughing and having fun with each other. That’s more destructive than you could ever imagine.”

 

It takes a long time before the others realize how much they hurt Anne-Lise….

“But they really do know all along. At the same time, they’re unaware of it. They both think, ‘We can do what we want because she’s so thick-skinned that she won’t even notice.’ And ‘We can do this because it’s justified.’ At the same time, they also think, ‘What we’re doing is very wrong; we’d better not tell anyone about it.’

“The same mechanism existed in the concentration camps of the Holocaust. The officers were told that they were making a great contribution to humanity by exterminating the Jews; people would thank them for the next thousand years – but they had to remember to eliminate all traces of what they did. We’re capable of living with many contradictory realities inside ourselves.”

 

Men don’t hear the undercurrents

Why did you choose to write about four women?

“If I had written about male career attorneys, journalists, or spies, people would say, ‘Oh, they’re all a bunch of scoundrels, we know that.’ But such sweet, idealistic young women, who work for an organization with a humanitarian purpose and who are members of Greenpeace and Amnesty International – we expect goodness from them. And then if it turns out that they also have an evil side, it must be something that holds true for all of us.

“I think women have a greater tendency than men to want everyone to be nice to each other at work. That’s why they were more interesting to write about. They have farther to fall.”

 

How did you manage to enter into the female psyche?

“I don’t really think that men and women are that much different inside. But the way we communicate is very different. Maybe because women have always had to adapt to the fact that they can’t get their way by using physical force, they learn to be more sensitive to nonverbal signals from others and to rely on the same sensitivity in others. Like so many men, when I was younger I was terrible at deciphering others’ hidden meanings. But my girlfriend has taught me a lot about what’s really going on between people below the surface.

“I’ve also benefited greatly from my writing group. We’re all published authors and meet for dinner once a month to talk about each other’s new chapters. The group includes two men – Rasmus Heiberg and I – and three women – Christina Englund, Sulaima Hind, and Charlotte Weitze, who regularly gave me their reactions to my descriptions of women.

“In one of the first chapters, for example, there’s a scene in which Malene, a beautiful woman with lots of drive, is invited to a get-together at a friend’s place. She makes several attempts to tone down what she wears. But when she arrives, the hostess still looks her up and down and says, ‘This isn’t a party, you know.’ The women in my writing group reacted strongly to that, so I knew that I had gotten it right.

“When women talk to each other, there are lots of undercurrents that men don’t hear. Taken to the extreme, you might say that if a man buys an ugly pair of pants, his male friends will say to him, ‘You look like an idiot in those pants,’ but he won’t care and he’ll keep on wearing them. If a woman buys an ugly pair of pants, her girlfriends will say to her, ‘Oh, how pretty,’ but the woman will hear from their tone of voice that they don’t really mean it, and she’ll stop wearing those pants.

“Books about writing screenplays always emphasize that the dialogue should be like one long argument that lasts the whole film. The characters should always have different opinions, otherwise there’s no tension. But that’s not how reality is! Especially not among Danish women. Women spend a lot of time saying how they agree with each other: ‘It’s the same way for me’ and ‘Isn’t it like that for you?’ and ‘I feel the same way.’ Sometimes they’re telling the truth, but of course it’s more exciting to write about when they aren’t. It’s important to me to present these undercurrents as accurately as possible, because facial expressions and changes in a coworker’s tone of voice mean a lot in terms of the tension in my book. These subtle signs are all the characters have to go by in order to pinpoint the murderer.”

 

At the age of seventeen he went to a consciousness-raising group

Back when Jungersen was growing up in Humlebæk, a suburb of Copenhagen, no one would have guessed that he would one day become a writer. On the other hand, from a young age he displayed a great thirst for knowledge.

“As a teenager I spent an enormous amount of time in the library, in the psychology and philosophy sections. And that was where, in a magazine called Sexual Politics, I found an invitation to a meeting of the men’s movement, which was formed in parallel to the women’s movement. And so I went. I was only seventeen. That was in 1979, so today I’m probably one of the youngest people who experienced being part of a consciousness-raising group in the ’70s. Once a week for almost five years I would meet with men who were between twenty-five and thirty-five to talk about relationships, feelings, and sex. It taught me a tremendous amount, especially about the problems that men have with women.”

After finishing high school Jungersen hitchhiked through Europe and then earned a university degree in communication.

One day he was sitting in a circle of singers at a summer festival for the performance of funk music, and he heard someone say, “I’m here because I discovered that I have a few years left before I have to throw myself into all that stuff with family and a career.” The singer paused for a moment and then went on, “Maybe in ten or fifteen years.”

At the time Jungersen laughed, but afterwards he thought to himself that it also applied to him.

“It was quite an eye-opener. I actually had greater freedom than I had imagined. And so I didn’t take a regular day job, and at the same time I started writing screenplays. I wrote two screenplays a year.”

None of them were bought, and when he was about to start on screenplay number seven, he just couldn’t do it.

“And then I thought to myself, I need to publish a novel first and make a name for myself. I thought it would take me six months to write, and after I’d been writing for six months, I thought, ‘Well, it’ll take me two years.’ And after I’d written for two years, I thought, ‘I guess it’ll take four.’ And fortunately that’s how long it took.”

The result was Undergrowth, which was published in 1999 to excellent reviews; the book was on the bestseller list in Denmark for three months.

 

How did it feel to have something published after writing for seven years?

“I thought, ‘Now people will think I’m a total freak.’”

     And you are, too!

“Well yes, but can’t you tone it down a bit? I’d been going around to one publisher after another for two years, so it was fantastic. Also because I could now say to people, ‘You know what, I can’t come to that dinner because I’m in the middle of writing something.’ I wanted my occupation as a writer to be taken as seriously as other jobs, and that made lots of things easier.”

     You’re forty-two, have a rather Spartan lifestyle and you still live alone….

“My girlfriend is a journalist and works at home, like I do. We enjoy having our own apartments and visiting each other on weekends or sometimes during the week. I try to spend as little time as possible on the practical day-to-day things so that I can devote the majority of my time to imagining, pondering, and writing. And I’m happy with my life; I don’t know anyone who’s as happy as I am. If I won five million kroner in the lottery and could do whatever I wanted, I’d still start writing another book. I feel that I have an abundantly full life.

“I guess that’s a writer thing. Most people would probably think my daily life sounds rather lonely and meager, but whenever I talk about it with other Danish authors, they all say, ‘It sounds perfect.’”

 

Once again, Jungersen engages our hearts and minds

On ‘You Disappear’ –
Interview by Marius Aronsen, April 2012, © Bokklubben.no 
Translated by Misha Hoekstra.
www.bokklubben.no

How did you start writing You Disappear? Was your impetus the theme, or was it an idea for a story that demanded you immerse yourself in neurobiology?

I had more than a hundred different ideas on my computer, but I didn’t know which of them would make for the most riveting and thought-provoking novel. So I wrote on several of them at once, and when this story suddenly began to come alive in a way that the others didn’t, I decided to concentrate all my energy on it. One of the reasons I was so fascinated by it and couldn’t stop writing was that I thought I could present something new and different with respect to so many other novels. These years now are the very ones when neurology is transforming our conception of human nature. I thought that if I became one of the first to explore this new conception in a novel, then the manuscript I was writing might become innovative and thought-provoking in a different way than novels that don’t admit neurology into their universe.

 

Don’t you think that it’s a little scary that our personality can change so readily – that it can be completely out of our control?

I think it’s completely, unbelievably scary! So, among other things, it’s my own fear that I’m writing from. Sometimes I feel strongly that everything can vanish in the space of a single second. And it’s true! Everything really can disappear in a second – if you have a stroke, for example. And if you’re lucky as an author, this feeling of being in great danger can lend an extra intensity – and beauty as well – to the book you’re writing.

 

Isn’t the neurobiological view of people rather reductive? Or is it just that it’s such an unfamiliar perspective?

If you believe that everything in life can be explained by looking solely at the brain, then yes, the neurobiological view is terribly reductive. But very few people think that way; I’ve never met any myself. On the other hand, if you take knowledge of the brain’s functioning and add it to what we already know about being human, then it can be tremendously expansive and enriching. The opposite of reductive. You discover new connections, new explanations and questions. And an even greater complexity.

 

The newspaper Politiken has described you as an author in the mold of Georg Brandes, saying that your literary works are so vivid not only because of an impressive amount of effort, but also because you raise contemporary issues for debate. Is that a prerequisite for you as a writer?

I’d never start a novel just to raise some contemporary issue for debate. But I am interested in narratives that explore what it means to be human and how we, using the greatest available knowledge about ourselves, ought to live our lives. So in that sense I might very well be a Brandesian author, albeit not on purpose.

It’s also true that I work on my novels a great deal. It’s taken me five years of fulltime effort to write You Disappear. The trick of course is to get the book to still feel easy and fluid to the reader. The focus of my efforts has been, above all, to make my characters come to life. They need to leap off the page; you should believe in them. As part of this work I do a great deal of research. It isn’t to force knowledge on the reader; it’s so that I expose myself to the thoughts and experiences that the characters in the book are exposed to. It takes time for all that knowledge to settle into my unconscious, so that I’m changing my own personality during the course of the writing. The idea is for me to write about my own feelings when I’m describing the feelings of my characters. So that both the interior and the exterior world of the narrative seem utterly real.

 

What authors and books have inspired you? Are they novels or nonfiction?

I like reading rather demanding authors, such as Botho Strauss, Nathalie Sarraute, Rainer Maria Rilke, and Marcel Proust. But also to a great degree authors who manage to treat life’s great questions with a light, cheerful tone, like Douglas Coupland, Kurt Vonnegut, and George Saunders.

Of course, the challenge is even greater when you’re writing a novel about a brain-damaged protagonist; the book should have room for something uplifting. There should be place in what happens for humor and the grotesque.

We are our brains

On ‘You Disappear’ –
Interview by Stine Charlotte Hansen, April 2013, © Fynske Medier.
Translated by Misha Hoekstra.
www.fyens.dk

 

Meet the successful writer who’s not afraid to doubt – who on the contrary, wants to be confused until he dies. 

Author Christian Jungersen has kind eyes and a heartfelt laugh. He’s sitting on a barstool in the restaurant on the top floor of Illum in Copenhagen, eating risotto and zander filet. Around him is the music that’s supposed to get the shoppers on the floors beneath us to buy more.

Jungersen has been fascinated by the human brain for years. Out of that fascination grew You Disappear, a novel about how our brains function – and what happens when they break down. It was on the 2012 bestseller list and has just been awarded the Readers’ Book Prize.

We’ve come to Copenhagen to talk with him about the exciting part of the human being that can be so difficult to grasp. And it’s here, by a high black wooden table in a universe of designer vases, glossy magazines, and cappuccino with foam on top, that we begin a sometimes unpredictable discussion of the brain and what it can do. Who we are. Why it’s not a bad thing to doubt. And how nothing is certain because we have free will.

Our brain controls everything we do. Can you fathom that?

“I wouldn’t say that we’re controlled by our brains; we are our brains. And if that’s so, then of course everything’s controlled by us.”

     But we can’t control what happens in our brains – so then how can we be our brains?

     “We have just as much control over our brains as we have over our experiences, which also affect us. The brain doesn’t knock our free will out of commission any more than our experiences do. You can have involuntary experiences that you can never let go of. And conversely, you yourself can influence your brain. If you think in a particular way, it does change your neural pathways. The brain is something that can evolve.”

 

The authorial brain

We shift from the mass of brains over to a specific brain. The author’s. When Jungersen creates the universes and characters of his books, it requires that they really reside in his head. That he enters into his protagonists.

Do you enjoy being in the world of your characters?

“Yes and no. It’s fascinating to live other people’s lives in your head. But in my books, they’re often not doing so well,” he explains. “So I can definitely become affected emotionally.”

Jungersen began writing in order to feel that he was coming closer to the world, to experience its nuances. He points to a green plant on the table.

“This flower, for example: how does it look? One often thinks of plants as being green. But it isn’t merely green, of course. Look here, there are red streaks on the underside of the leaves. The green buds have yellowish shadows. It has all kinds of colors, all kinds of shades and textures and forms. It’s insanely complicated. To see the complexity in it is intense and real. I felt that my world was too flat until I began to write. But to write is to explore and to open oneself to the world’s riches, so it’s been good for me. For the flower isn’t just green, you see; that’s a simplification. It’s a lie to call it green!

“And you have to do the same thing with your characters. Open them up. Find the unexpected. Experience them more richly by living your way into them. The writing life might seem deathly dull to someone standing outside, for apparently you just stay home at sit at your desk. But it’s extremely draining and marvelous and good. It’s lovely when you’re overwhelmed by what you’re imagining, but if it’s six hours a day, it’s easy for me to feel that I almost can’t take any more mentally.”

Doesn’t it ever get to be too much?

     “It’s never too much if you’re trying to write the best book possible. But yes, it can become too much for me to handle.”

What happens when it gets too overwhelming?

“Then I feel as if I’m a VW bug and someone’s equipped me with a rocket engine. It’s a great experience, but I feel that I’m just about to go to bits. Then I just need to take care of myself. To take a day off. Cool down a bit.”

 

Design your own brain

Even though there are lots of gaps in our knowledge of how the brain functions, we’re getting to know it better and better. So well that, in time, we’ll be able to change it at will.

So will we be able to order another personality?

“Yes, we can already do that now to some extent. We can affect the brain in many ways; your drinking coffee, for example. That’s changing your brain, after all – it’s not psychology. You’re not changing your experiences or your personality; you’re affecting your brain chemistry in order to focus and concentrate better.

“At present, the effects are rather imprecise. But as we start being able to see where in the brain we make long-term plans, where we deceive, where we empathize with others, and as we start to become more familiar with the mechanisms, it’s possible we’ll be able to say, This medicine will change your ability to make constructive choices with respect to your education. Or Your wife’s complaining that you never ask her how she’s doing, but with these pills you’ll be more empathetic and interested in it. That’s easy to imagine. But it’s still a long way off.”

It’s still a little freaky.

“It is. And that’s because we live in a world where we forget that we’re biology. We try to repress it because we have a hard time understanding it. And it’s uncomfortable to think about – just like we don’t like to think about the fact that we’re going to die.”

 

Terror reveals what’s meaningful

Why is writing the most important thing in the world? Or is it?

“No, perhaps it isn’t – it’s not the most important. Probably not.”

Jungersen’s eyes grow distant.

“The first time I was going to read aloud for someone something I’d written, many years ago, was in a small writing group with six people, in one of the others’ kitchens. When it got to be my turn, sweat was pouring down my face and my heart was hammering like crazy. I was terrified. It was strange – because I’d had job interviews, flirted with girls, been to oral exams, the whole time thinking I was pretty good at keeping my cool. But apparently I wasn’t as cool as I’d thought. It was just that those other things weren’t so important to me. It was a very surprising evening.

“There I realized what really meant something to me. And I saw that as a sign – that it was what I should be doing, precisely because could make me afraid. It meant something. Writing.”

 

Free will

The conversation proceeds to free will: the ability to decide oneself. Free will is something we’re all happy to think we have.

I have a hard time understanding that free will can exist. If I am my brain, how can my will be free?

“Because no one can predict what your brain will do.”

     Not even if I have a genetic predisposition for something?

     “Exactly. One could make a qualified guess, but one thing that’s unique about humans is that, even if all the analyses, experiments, and statistics say that now you’re going to kill your cousin, there’s still a chance that you won’t. You may surprise everyone – because you’re human.”

Could the opposite occur as well?

“Sure. No one can be completely certain what you’re going to do.”

     But doesn’t it depend on the situation?

“If you’ve killed 20 people, and you’re standing there, switchblade in hand, one would of course think that things don’t look so hot for number 21. But it’s possible that you won’t kill her. That’s one of the fantastic things about people. Your brain is so complicated that no one can figure it out. No one.”

 

Confused until death

Jungersen seems very confident in his case, there in the middle of the restaurant, and all this talk about the brain and free will suddenly becomes too much for this truth-seeking journalist.

But if free will is random, we can’t count on anything whatsoever!

The author remains unperturbed by the outburst. His gaze becomes more attentive. He replies.

“You shouldn’t despair of complexity; you should embrace it. Being confused is a fine, beautiful, special thing about being human.”

Than how can we trust that things are as they appear?

“We can’t, and we shouldn’t. We should ask questions about everything. And part of literature’s job is to extract that certainty from us. Doubt needn’t be a bad thing. One can be both happy and full of doubt at the same time. One ought to doubt everything.”

One ought to? Isn’t it nice to know how the world works?

     “Yes. But we don’t know how the world works, do we. It might well be that it’d be lovely to believe so – but that’s a pleasure that won’t last long.”

But I’ve spent years trying to figure things out – for instance, why people act in certain ways.

     “There’s no contradiction there; I’m not saying that you should stop studying things and just drop it all. I’m trying to learn new things myself, to become smarter, to read and live. It’s just that, with some parts of reality, you get the most accurate picture of them by doubting. If you say, That’s definitely the way it works, you diminish reality. Then you’re almost lying. Just like with the green plant.”

But what if I want to feel secure? That’s what most people want, don’t they?

“Then I think you should find another way to feel secure than by making yourself dumber than you are.”