We’re attempting to unravel the tangled web of literary influence by talking with the great writers of today about the writers of yesterday who influenced them. This month, we spoke with two writers whose work investigates how individuals fare when wider forces spin beyond their control. Sarah Rose Etter (Ripe, The Book of X) discusses the portentous prose of Danish poet and memoirist Tove Ditlevsen, and Emily St. John Mandel (Station Eleven, The Glass Hotel, Sea of Tranquility) explores how the personal relates to the epic in Auschwitz victim Irène Némirovsky's great unfinished work.

Sarah Rose Etter on Tove Ditlevson

Ditlevsen is often called the great national poet of Denmark and is well known in Europe, but you don’t hear her discussed in the U.S. as much as she should be. Why is that?

I think in America we tend to play it pretty safe, and there they seem to be a little more accepting of topics that we sometimes won’t touch and are allowed to explore darker, more surreal topics.

You mentioned that you love her Copenhagen Trilogy in particular. What about it?

I love that it constantly confuses people. I frequently hear people refer to it as fiction, and I think that is because—on the line level—she's so good that her memoir can read like fiction. The other thing I love is “sad girl lit”—clearly there's such a lineage. In the book there is this kind of specter hanging over the whole thing. At first it's the addiction, which you know is coming because of the way it was published in those three volumes, and you know the third volume is called Addiction, so you feel like you’re going from innocence and straight into something difficult and horrible. It would be so much easier for it to go Childhood, Youth, Adulthood, right? Instead we go into the deepest, darkest thing.

And I think that is also what happens on the sentence level. Every sentence begins quite innocently, and then there is something looming. Each section starts with something crushing. In the morning there is hope, in the first book. It sounds so innocent because you're talking about the morning and you're talking about hope, but the fact that she's putting a time on it almost makes it fold back in on itself to mean that the optimism is crushed because it doesn't last. And then in the second section: I lasted at my first job for only a day. I love this because the idea of something lasting feels much longer than a day, so she's almost giving you hope, but then she's also folding it back in to be like, no, it's over. This to me is such a good sentence for capitalist dread. This sentence gives me so much anxiety. And then the first line for the third book: Everything in the living room is green—the carpet, the walls, the curtains—and I am always inside it. Within the sentence it becomes just like a prison, claustrophobic—she's trapped. I read that sentence and I want to go outside immediately.

What do you think writers can take from her in terms of craft?

A clean sentence. I think it's very easy, in the rush to get a book out, to forget how much time you should spend editing. And this, when I read it, what I see in it is someone who has cut all the fat off. There’s not a single sentence where you don't feel like she's picked it up and looked at it and decided whether it was carrying its weight and whether it deserved to be there.

I think there's something so fascinating about how declarative her sentences are, like, Childhood is long and narrow, like a coffin, and you can't get out of it on your own. When I think about that sentence conceptually, it is a melodramatic goth idea, but the second half is so serious and life-threatening that the first half becomes something you have to take seriously. And that's what I love about her. She manages to pull off ideas, especially on the line level, that lesser writers would make sound really bad. If you asked any other writer to compare childhood to a coffin, it would probably come off as very corny and ridiculous. She manages to make it urgent in the moment. Right now I need someone to help me out of this coffin called childhood, because otherwise I'm not gonna get out.

Foreboding definitely seemed to be her baseline. In the Childhood section she repeatedly expressed her fear that she would die before being published and recognized.

It is crazy to me that she is writing a memoir from the point of view of her seven-year-old self. That's great. If you tried to go sell a memoir that involved you being seven, most people would be like, get out of here. I know people who will not read a memoir by anyone under the age of 35.

The added element of the war is another layer of foreboding—another system that’s out of her control. There are many systems operating that are out of her control, and she's trying to grasp for how she fits into them as a human.

Emily St. John Mandel on Irène Némirovsky

Did you ever notice how Némirovsky mentions Tolstoy and Proust very early in her best-known work Suite Francaise? It seems clear that she had that scale of grand vision for the book, which she of course never had the chance to finish. And the writing is on that level.

I’m obsessed with that book. It was going to be a thousand-page book. Five sections. She wrote the first two, and it was never finished because she's arrested in July 1942 and dies at Auschwitz. And it feels to me like kind of a miracle of a book in a way, written in pencil and a notebook—how is that not like a seventeenth draft? And yet it somehow works and feels perfect and complete, even though there were all these other sections planned. I don't know how she pulled that off. A kind of clarity and lucidity in the prose style and exquisite character development, and at the same time this sense of history unfolding and these massive forces and a sense of action, which I think is incredibly difficult to pull off. It’s such an impressive and admirable combination.

I feel like that's kind of the book I'm always working toward. Maybe all novelists have that. It's like this Holy Grail of a book that you're aiming your books toward like arrows. That's what that book is for me.

As you said, the precision of her writing—especially when you know she never had the chance to edit it—is mind-blowing. A chapter that begins with a cat ends with a cat, and so on.

For me, anything that clever is like in draft number eighteen. Although I wonder—maybe there is something about not having the luxury to revise that forces a kind of discipline? I wonder about that with that book. You probably know the story behind it, which is pretty incredible.

So in 1942, Irène Némirovsky is living in France. She was born Jewish in Russia, but her family fled during the Bolshevik Revolution, and she and her husband had converted to Catholicism. She wrote for far-right magazines and newspapers, which is kind of creepy and fascinating, and did not consider herself Jewish—but the Nazis did.

In 1942, in the summer, she was living in a town in France with her husband and two children—her daughters were thirteen and five—and they would see her writing in this notebook in this minuscule handwriting. In July of that year she's arrested and never returns home. Her husband was arrested. A few months later they both died in the concentration camps. The girls were left in the care of a governess, who by all accounts kind of heroically kept them moving around France ahead of the authorities.

In the late nineties, one of her daughters decided that it was finally time to take a look in Mom's notebook. They'd assumed that it was a wartime diary and found the thought of reading it incredibly painful, but they decided they finally had to take a look, so they got a magnifying glass—the writing was that small—and it wasn't a diary. It was Suite Francaise, this incredible novel. I find the story behind it almost as haunting as the book itself.

It's very different from the novels that made her famous during her life, and it’s stood the test of time better. Why do you think that is?

There's something about stories that combine vastly different scales. On the one hand, it's intensely personal—individuals fleeing Paris, obsessing over their porcelain collections and really small, human, often quite petty things. But on the other hand, there's this incredible sweep of history kind of happening behind it. There's that combination of intimate, minuscule, human scale against this massive scale of the entire world changing. Those are the stories that I find consistently really grab my attention and stay with me.

What do you think writers should learn from that?

She wrote something in her notes for Suite Francaise to the effect of focusing on the personal and bringing personal lives and individual characters and concerns to the forefront, and keeping the kind of sweeping backdrop of drama and history and war in the background. I suppose one could argue that minimizes the backdrop—the war and the history and the drama. I think it actually does the opposite. I think it makes it real. It’s something about focusing on people in order to bring home the scale and mistakes and importance of vast events. As people, we're ultimately drawn to stories about people—I know I am. The end of the world is not interesting in and of itself. People at the end of the world are interesting.

These interviews have been lightly edited for clarity.

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