Saturday, December 6, 2014

The Danish Girl, by David Ebershoff

This is a gorgeous, thought-provoking historical novel, loosely based upon the life (lives?) of Danish painter Einar Wegener and his alter-ego, Lili Elbe. The historical record, which describes Einar/Lili as one of the first recipients of sex-reassignment surgery -- in its experimental stages in the 1920s -- provides the merest framework for the novel, and Ebershoff fills it out with richly textured atmosphere and emotions, respectfully and gently raising questions of what love entails.
Lili Elbe by Gerde Gottlieb

The real-life Einar Wegener was married to another Danish painter, Gerda Gottlieb; in the novel, his wife is American-born Greta Waud. One day, as Greta nears the completion of her portrait of an opera singer, the model fails to turn up. Greta turns to her slightly-built, blond husband, Einar, and asks him if he would kindly don her stockings, dress and shoes so she can finish the work on time. After a moment's hesitation -- it will take him away from his own work -- Einar complies.

One afternoon a few days later, Greta comes home to find her husband once again dressed and made up as a woman, and the shy, blonde visitor introduces herself as Lili. Lili doesn't stay long at first -- a few hours here and there -- but when she visits, she models for Greta. Over the next months and years, Greta's portfolio grows with ever more mesmerising (and commercially successful) portraits of Lili. Einar's career languishes as Lili appears with increasing frequency, because Lili doesn't paint.

Greta's relationships with Lili and Einar are fascinating and complex. Her love for her husband remains warm and gentle; her bond with Lili ranges from protective older sister to demanding employer, especially as Lili grows into the role of primary artistic muse.
Lili had begun to appear unannounced in the afternoons. Greta would leave the Widow House for an appointment. When she returned she'd find Lili at the window in a loose dress, the back buttons unfastened. Greta would help her finish dressing, clasping a string of amber beads around her throat. It never ceased to startle Greta, finding her husband like that, waiting with the neckline of a dress open across his pale shoulders. She never once said anything to Einar, or to Lili. Instead, she would always welcome Lili as if she were an amusing, foreign friend. She'd hum and gossip as she helped Lili into her shoes. Greta would tip a bottle of perfume against her forefinger and then run her sweet fingertip down Lili's throat and up the inside of her arm. She would stand Lili in front of the mirror and whisper, her voice the soft intimate voice of wedlock, "There now . . . so very pretty."
Gradually Lili begins to go out in public. Greta introduces her at social events as Einar's visiting cousin. Her concerns for her husband's emotional health drive Greta to consult a doctor, a man who is far less accepting of Einar's alter-ego -- after a full consultation, he strongly advises Greta to have her husband forcibly committed into a mental health facility, as he poses a threat to public order and decency. Greta responds by telling Einar that the three of them -- the married couple and Lili -- would be more comfortable in France. They pack up their painting supplies and move south. 1920s Paris is indeed more liberal, and Lili comes into her own.
It was what she liked most: her head gliding across the surface of the pool like a little duck; the other ladies in their wool bathing dresses watching her with their mixture of indifference and gossipy intrigue; the way she could pull herself from the pool, her fingertips pruned, and pat the towel down her arms as she dried in the glittering light that reflected off the Seine. She would watch the traffic across the river. And Lili would think that all of this was possible because she and Greta had left Denmark. She would think, in the summer mornings, on the lip of the pool filled with Seine water, that she was free. Paris had freed her. Greta had freed her. Einar, she would think, was slipping away. Einar was freeing her. A shiver would run up her damp spine; her shoulders would shudder. 
Einar and Lili are engaged in a quiet, heart-wrenching battle, finding it increasingly difficult to share the one body, especially with its undesirable accoutrements.
... if she was in a particularly strong trance about her life and the possibility of it all, she would let out a little gasp when she discovered that down there, between her white, goose-pimpled thighs, lay a certain shriveled thing. It was so vile to her that she would snap closed her thighs, tucking it away, her knee bones smacking; she could hear the muffled smack, and the sound of it -- like two felt-wrapped cymbals meeting in crescendo -- would remind Lili, would remind Einar, of the girl at Madame Jasmin-Carton's who had danced resentfully and snapped her knees together in such a harsh manner that he could hear the smack of bone even through the smudged glass. 
Ebershoff never paints Einar's and Lili's shared predicament as a pathology, but he makes it painfully clear that it is a conflict for which they both want to find a resolution. On a summer visit to Paris, Greta's twin brother, Carlisle, takes Lili to see another doctor who may be able to help. Einar's earnest desire for a solution paired with Dr. Buson's enthusiasm make this one of the novel's more chilling passages.
"And that leads me to my procedure," Dr. Buson was saying. "It's a rather new operation, one that I'm quite excited about because it's so full of promise."
"What is it?" Einar said.
"Now I don't want you to get too excited when I tell you, because it sounds more complicated than it is. It sounds drastic but it really isn't. It's a rather simple surgery that is working on people with behavior problems. The results so far are better than any other treatment I've ever seen."
"Do you think it would work on someone like me?"
"I'm sure of it," Dr. Buson said. "It's called a lobotomy."
"What is that?" Einar asked.
"It's a simple surgical procedure for cutting nerve pathways in the front part of the brain."
"Brain surgery?"
"Yes, but it isn't complicated. I don't have to cut open the cranium. No, that's the beauty of it. All I have to do is drill a few holes in your forehead, right about here . . . and here." Dr. Buson touched Einar's head, at his temples, and then at a spot just above his nose. "Once I've put the holes in your head then I can go in and sever some of the nerve fibers, those that control your personality."
"But how do you know which ones control my behavior?"
"Well, that's what I've discovered recently. Haven't you read about me in the paper?"
"It was a friend who sent us here," Carlisle said.
"Well, he must have seen the articles. There's been quite a bit of press."
"But is it safe?" Carlisle finally asked.
"As safe as many other things. Listen, I know it sounds radical. But I've had a man come to me who believed he was five people, not just two, and I went into his brain and fixed him up."
"How is he now?" Einar asked.
"He lives with his mother. He's very quiet, but happy..."
Although Carlisle feels that Dr. Buson is credible, Greta has been having conversations with a doctor, as well -- a German professor who is offering a surgical remedy that will not render Einar a vegetable, but will render him a woman -- Lili. Einar trusts his wife implicitly and is more inclined to place his trust in the German surgeon.

He reflects upon the impending death of Einar Wegener, painter, should he go ahead and become Lili. In a moment of delightfully farcical back-story, Einar recalls the beginning of his artistic career.

The man in the cloak spoke softly, and word spread through the halls of the academy that he was a dealer from Paris. He was wearing a wide-brimmed hat trimmed with a strip of leather, and the students could barely see his eyes. There was a little blond mustache curling down around his mouth, and the faint smell of newsprint falling behind him like exhaust. The acting director of the academy, Herr Rump, who was the less talented descendant of Herr G. Rump, introduced himself to the stranger. Rump escorted the man through the academy halls, where the floors were gray and unvarnished and swept clean by orphan girls not old enough to conceive. Rump tried to halt the stranger in front of the canvases painted by his favorite pupils, the girls with the wavy hair and apple-perky breasts and the boys with the thighs like hams. But the man in the cloak, who was reported to say, although no one could ever confirm it, "I have a tongue for talent," refused to be swayed by Herr Rump's suggestions. The stranger nodded in front of the painting of the mouse and the cheese done by Gertrude Grubbe, a girl with eyebrows so yellow and fluffy it was as if a canary had shed two feathers across her face. He also paused by the scene depicting a woman selling a salmon painted by Sophus Brandes, a boy whose father had been murdered on a ferry to Russia, due to a single leer at the murderer's adolescent bride. And then the man in the cloak stopped in front of Einar's little painting of the black bog. In the painting it was night, the oaks and willows only shadows, the ground as dark and damp as oil. In the corner, next to the boulder speckled with mica, was a little white dog, asleep in the cold. Only the previous day Herr Rump had declared it "too dark for the Danish school," and thus had given it a less-than-ideal spot on the wall, next to the closet where the orphan girls stored their hay-brooms and changed into the sleeveless apron-dresses that Herr Rump insisted they wear. "This one is good," the man had said, and his hand reached into his cloak and pulled out a billfold made of -- again, this was rumored too -- lizard leather."What's the artist's name?" he asked.
"Einar Wegener,"said Herr Rump, whose face was filling with the hot bright color of choler. The stranger handed him one hundred kroner. The man in the cloak pulled the painting from the wall, and then everyone at the academy -- Herr Rump and the students who had been watching from the cracks in classroom doors and the adminstratrices in their pinned-up blouses and the orphan girls who were secretly plotting a plan, which would later fail, to push Herr Rump from an academy window, and, last of all, Einar Wegener, who was standing on the stairs exactly where Greta would later kiss him -- had to blink.
Is it really a "brazenly American trait", the need to move abroad and reinvent oneself? (Well, it certainly seems so in my case.) What becomes clear, though, is that Einar's wish to transform himself comes from no innate love of change -- he simply can't cope any longer with existing as a man. Becoming Lili seems to be a biological and psychological necessity.
Greta would need to be alone in Denmark, relationless in Europe, in order to become the woman she saw herself as. She needed to put an ocean and a continent between herself and her family in order to feel that at last she could breathe. What Einar didn't understand then was that it was another of Greta's brazenly American traits, that bubbling need to move away and reinvent. Never before had he imagined himself doing the same.
So Lili boards the train to Dresden by herself -- she tells Greta that she can only do it alone. The fictional Lili dies not long after her fifth surgery, as the real-life one had, during which the surgeon transplanted a uterus in the hope that she might bear children. Much as she wanted it, her body rejected the organ. She is buried in Dresden, the city with the Elbe running through it. Looking out the window after her first surgery, Lili told the clinic staff that her new name would be Elbe. Lili Elbe.

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