Poet and novelist Naja Marie Aidt's latest is the novel Rock, Paper, Scissors, an engrossing and sharp-edged look at a collapsing family that also brings a poet's attention to language to the story. Aidt picks her 10 favorite novels by poets.
As a poet, it is almost impossible for me to read literature not centered on the language itself – which is why I have severe difficulties reading most crime fiction. A good plot or great story is not enough for me. I need the language to be precise, sensual, intense, and distinctive. I love novelists like Vladimir Nabokov, Marguerite Duras, Paula Fox (please read Desperate Characters if you haven’t already!), and Per Petterson for just this reason. But these aren’t poets; even if their language verges on the poetic, they still fit the usual paradigm that poets write only poetry, fiction writers only fiction.
My own body of work, though, consists of writing across all literary genres, and I find the constant shift from poetry to prose, from prose to drama, from drama to children’s books, and back to poetry again challenging and important to my development and growth as a writer. I recognize myself mostly as a poet because poetry is the place I always go back to. And it is such a merciless place: there is nothing worse than a bad poem, and I feel it hardens me up as a writer to work with the language in the most extremely nerdy way. In fact I feel that through poetry it becomes possible to express even the most unspeakable things. Here is a list of novels, like my own book Rock, Paper, Scissors, that bring a poetic sensitivity to language into the history of the novel. Included here are a couple of Danish poets that American readers might not know – please enjoy them, they are great!
1. Azorno by Inger Christensen - The late Inger Christensen is the greatest Danish poet of the last 50 years, and all of her deeply original and beautiful poetry has been published in English. Combining strict compositional systems with existential themes, Christensen’s poetry has inspired generations of poets all over the world. Among her few novels, Azorno stands out as perhaps the most experimental and yet entertaining. The narrative complexity of this modern Don Juan story is like a hall of mirrors, constantly reflecting on desire, truth and identity.
2. The Murder of Halland by Pia Juul - In a perfect balance between crime fiction and the literary novel, the prize-winning and internationally acknowledged Danish poet Pia Juul tells the thrilling story of Beth and Halland. It is characteristic of Juul’s dry and dark sense of irony that she reveals the name of her victim already in the book’s title. Nevertheless, The Murder of Halland is a true page-turner, written in powerful sentences till the very last period.
3. The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath - When I recently reread The Bell Jar, I was struck by the variation in Plath’s syntax, the complexity of her metaphorical language and her bottomless sorrow. Personal and political grief are interlaced on so many levels, beginning with the opening lines’ depiction of the electrocution of the Rosenbergs – which is connected to electroshock therapy later in the story.
4. The Notebook by Agota Kristof - If I had to choose only one favorite writer it would probably be Kristof. The Notebook is the first novel of her trilogy on war and identity, following identical twin brothers Lucas and Claus as they are placed with their not at all nice grandmother in a small village somewhere in Eastern Europe to hide from the war. The novel is as simply written as a child’s notebook, but it has the most brutal beauty to it. The lack of sentimentality is striking. Part of the reason why this book is so unforgettable is that Kristof chooses to write in the first person plural, narrating the entire book in the voice of the twins’ indivisible “we.” I recommend reading the entire trilogy to see how Kristof gracefully explores second person narration as well. Taken together, the three books make up a sort of a labyrinth. When you finish the third novel you want to go back to the first to solve the mystery… Reading The Notebook many years ago persuaded me for the first time of the necessity of the novel – being then pretty arrogant, I had seen prose as the stupid younger sister of poetry!
5. The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge by Rainer Maria Rilke - Rilke’s fragmentary novel about a young Danish nobleman in Paris was inspired by the Danish writer J. P. Jacobsen’s novel Niels Lyhne. Rilke even learned Danish in order to read and translate Jacobsen! The style is wonderfully overflowing with detail, and beauty clashes against decay and decadence. Childhood memories from the countryside in Denmark, urban observations of Paris and ruminations on death make this poetic prose simultaneously tender, harsh and heartbreaking.
6. The Making of Americans by Gertrude Stein - Although best known as a writer of poems, Gertrude Stein wrote several novels, and The Making of Americans is probably the most celebrated. Tracing the lives of an American dynasty – the Hersland-Dehnings family – in painstaking detail that stretches over more than a thousand pages, Stein circles in her sentences, stammers and repeats, slowly giving rise to one of the most nuanced and unique portraits of American life ever written.
7. Malina by Ingeborg Bachmann - A masterpiece! The Austrian poet and writer Bachmann castigates the structures behind Nazism as well as patrirachal violence. The langauge is overwhelmingly stark and innovative (one should for instance notice Bachmann’s use of unfinished sentences in dialogue). Malina is the name of one of two lovers in the female main charachter’s life, and a very important figure for the shocking ending of the book. Bachmann might have been overshadowed by some of the men she had relationships with, – including Max Frisch and Paul Celan – but is without any doubt one of the best European modern writers.
8. Insel by Mina Loy - A friend of Stein’s and legendary British modernist, Mina Loy wrote only one novel, Insel, and it wasn’t published until twenty-five years after her death. Too bad – the language is elegant and cluttered in a very interesting way. Deft turns of humor and a deeply compassionate rendering of bohemian artists in 1930s Paris make the book a treasure. Based loosely on Loy’s real-life friendship with the German surrealist painter Richard Oelze, Insel is a powerful document of its age and place, and it tells a timeless story of art and friendship, love and fascination.
9. Autobiography of Red by Anne Carson - In this verse novel Carson points to the fact that poetry and fiction have never been strictly separate categories. She combines myth and modernity in the guise of a boy named Geryon, who is also a red, Ancient Greek monster with wings. He begins to write an autobiography at the age of five, and later he falls in love with a boy named Herakles, who leaves him. As usual, Carson brings "eros the bittersweet" very much to life, and described the heaviness of lost love in a tone of elegant lightness.
10. Leaving the Atocha Station by Ben Lerner - Poet Ben Lerner’s semi-autobiographical first novel is not only a novel by a poet, it’s a novel that is largely about poetry and the questions poetry raises. Centered on the 2004 terrorist bombing of Madrid’s central train station, Leaving the Atocha Station is a pot-fueled, poetry-soaked quest for answers to the big questions about how art and language intersects with life and experience, and the complicated question of whether one is growing more mature with time, or simply becoming more able to fake their way through adulthood.