'When all the day have gone'
“That is where my dearest and brightest dreams have ranged — to hear for the duration of a heartbeat the universe and the totality of life in its mysterious, innate harmony.”
We are in nineteenth century New England with a gravedigger by the name of Ambrosius Moerk. He’s handed a batch of letters written in Danish; he has a series of magical encounters with, among others, a young lady, a monk and various animals, most notably cats. But this is but the outer shell. When All The Days Have Gone is a deeply inward journey of the spirit, a novel reminding me of the writing of none other than that German romantic, Hermann Hesse. Thus the above quote from Hesse’s novel Gertrude is very much in keeping with this fine imaginative yarn by Danish born, American author Lars Boye Jerlach.
Reading Hermann Hesse in my early twenties, I had the distinct feeling his poetic words were graceful markers for one’s own self-discovery. Likewise, with Lars' novel. Thus I have linked my own musings with several direct quotes from the book:
“He found that the longer he stared at the images the further he was from understanding them. There was no florid fragrance, no corporeality of tactility, exuding from the two dimensional plane, the fact that he could find absolutely nothing alive in the painting, and yet they had an unnatural almost spellbinding grip on him that he found both mysterious and inexplicable, as he had never been especially interested in the world of flora.” ---------- The flora spoken of here are flowers portrayed in Flemish oil paintings. A warmhearted aunt would take young Ambrosius on educational tours of Copenhagen’s Museum of Art. Through a number of passages, such as “When looking at real flowers, he could hardly distinguish one from another, but when faced with a painting he found himself drawn to counting the number of petals in a crown or the number of leaves on a stem.” we are given a glimpse of the ways a youngster first awakens to his own calling as an artist.
“He discovered that he was most intrigued by the smaller nondescript assemblies of feathers or tufts of fur. If there were any recognizable parts of the animal left or the smell of decay was still polluting the air, the image on the ground immediately lost its appeal and he never found the urge to sketch it.” ---------- Young Ambrosius recollects those penetrating memories of his out in the natural world, with animals especially, as a first step in transforming powerful experience into art. Sidebar: Another common ground with Hermann Heese: Lars Boye Jerlach is also a visual artist.
“You’re absolutely right,” she said, “The most intricate parts of the mind are indeed a dangerous maze full of pitfalls and perilousness not to be shared lightly and believe me when I say that there are a lot of thoughts in the world that are better left alone in the deepest darkest depths of their lairs never to see the light of day.” ----------- A captivating lass the age of Lewis Carroll’s Alice appears to Ambrosius Moerk when he is walking through the woods. This mysterious presence brings to mind the girl from Arthur Machen’s tale The White People with her knowledge of secret wisdom and nature cults echoing the worlds of Gnosticism and shamanism. And let’s not forget the English translation of the gravedigger’s last name is "mørk" as in dark, black. Very appropriate recognizing the depth of the main character’s metaphysical and psychological probings.
“A talking ship’s cat that for reasons unknown had promised the author the impossible gift of time, the author’s outlandish dream and his realization that the cat could read his mind was not only unbelievable, but surely the ravings of a deeply disturbed man. Yet, there was something about the order in which the letters had ben written and the honesty of the writer that for some reason or other made the narrative seem less ridiculous.” ---------- But one of the cats with special, otherworldly gifts casting its spell in the tale. Cats have long been connected to magic going back to the time of the ancient Egyptians. And through the medieval period cats were more directly viewed as occult messengers and a witch frequently kept a black cat as a companion to act as her familiar.
“As he was close to stepping off the precipice to lose himself in the efficacious coital vortex that would suck him to the endless bottom, he heard an innominate voice originating from somewhere near the center of his mind. “I wanted you to know that we can share each other’s dreams,” it said. He let himself go and was instantaneously lost in the vehement multisensory maelstrom.” ---------- ---------- I include this quote here to highlight the author’s luscious, lyrical writing. I highly recommend you treat yourself to When All The Days Have Gone.
’Where are you heading when nothing is moving and time is still?’’
Ambrosius Moerk’s profession has everything to do with time. And nothing. He is a grave-digger, responsible for the most permanent place of residence- in fact, the only permanent place of residence- where time and movement and change seize to exist. Living alone in a remote cabin, he has plenty of time to contemplate. An enigmatic man who preferred to work with the dead instead of a life spent on a fishing boat in his beautiful homeland, Denmark. When he is handed a series of nine letters written in Danish and addressed to his predecessor’s wife back home, a peculiar journey begins and its end is all but certain.
The beautiful, mysterious, haunting story takes place somewhere in New England, probably during the late 19th century. Time and place is far from clear and rightly so. Nothing is clear in this novel and there lies its bleak, unique, utterly perplexing beauty. Apart from Ambrosius, a deeply sympathetic man, we come to meet a fascinating array of characters and the queen among them is Victoria, a young lady with an otherworldly mind and beauty. She is alluring, wise, mysterious and ethereal, like a woodland spirit. A cryptic, mystical monk, cats, crows and other birds become characters in their own merit.
Lars writes in an elegant, eloquent, fascinating manner. His prose and dialogue faithfully depict the era, choosing words that may sound ‘difficult’ but are striking, adding a haunting musicality in the writing. There are quite a few symbols, each one with its own significance. The crows, the antithesis between the earth and the sea, the snow, the lanterns and the spades. The wilderness, the remote cabin and the cemetery. One of my favourite moments was the description of the gravedigger’s duties. Lars paints images from the burial preparations that are grimm, haunting and extremely interesting in terms of technicalities.
Poe and Coleridge seem to be major influences. ‘’The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’’, one of the most enigmatic poems ever written, is heavily echoed in the vital presence of the albatross. Like the sailor in the poem, the letters describe weird encounters, visions and dreams where the supernatural, the attraction experienced by a restless mind, the fear of facing the unexplainable and the struggle to balance the longing for love and the unquenched desire for adventure. The albatross becomes the mouth of conscience (although, ‘’conscience’’ is fairly subjective…) and stands for innocence, purity and sin. Everything is abstract, dual and fluid in this striking novel.
I’ve had the fortune to read ‘’The Somnambulist’s Dreams’’ and it became one of the most unique reading experiences. ‘When All the Days Have Gone’ can be seen as a continuation since there are motifs and themes similar to its predecessor. However, I loved it even more due to its bleak, dark, mystic, foreboding nature. And like my good friend, Thomas, has already stated, the end is marvellous. Utterly brilliant!
In my opinion, Lars Boye Jerlach set the bar impossibly high for himself with the mesmerizing The Somnambulist's Dreams. And then he stepped right up to it, and commenced by stepping right over it with When All the Days Have Gone.
After a fraction more hesitant start, I was soon engulfed in the narrative and more than once, this story made me lose focus of the outside world (I do most of my reading while commuting, and books range from 'I heardeverything my seat neighbor yapped about on the phone' to 'where am I? is this the right bus?').
One of the things to love about this book (as well as the first) is that - although chock-full of literary references and philosophical intricacies, it never once feels like a test of knowledge or intelligence, but lays itself open to interpretation by the reader in a beautiful way. Either that or, you know, I’m too stupid to get it all, and that would not really matter, since I loved the book.
I realize I didn’t say much about the story, but I really wouldn’t want to as to disturb anyone’s perception of it, so just read the ‘blurb’ to decide if it’s for you and then sail off! Brace for the ending, I should have seen that coming, but really didn’t and it hit me like a tonne of bricks - I‘m happy none of my fellow commuters looked up from their smartphones as they probably would have thought I just had a stroke.
”All you know and everything you will come to know will inevitably become part of your internal fabric. No matter what decisions you make; good, bad or insouciant, will shape your life much like a river cuts into the landscape. One thought is a fraction of all thoughts and one action is a fraction of all actions. The river broadens and narrows, curves and straightens, flattens and deepens but it’s always coming and always going. It deposits and redistributes everything you know and everything you need.”
Ambrosius is a gravedigger. An unusual profession and, as it turns out, a lonely profession. The mourners do not want to see him as his very presence reminds them that he will very shortly be scooping shovelfuls of soil on their recently departed beloved. It isn’t like someone will say, “Oh no, we are short one for dinner. Let's invite the gravedigger” (personally I’d find Ambrosius fascinating). Although from our perspective Ambrosius is a lonely man, he doesn’t seem to be adversely affected by being so. Lars Boye Jerlach’s protagonist for his first novel, The Somnambulist’s Dreams, is a lighthouse keeper who also has a lonely profession. I decided to ask the author about this lonely parallel between his two characters.
Jeffrey Keeten: In The Somnambulist's Dream, you had a protagonist who was a lighthouse keeper, and now in your new book When All the Days have Gone, you have a gravedigger as your protagonist. Both are in situations where they spend a great deal of time alone. They both are stimulated by letters left by a predecessor. So talk to me about the impact of being alone on the plotting of your novels?
Lars Boye Jerlach: "I believe I think about the idea of solitude/ loneliness a lot, not necessarily from personal experience, but more as a philosophical/ existential question of being. Deep down, I believe we are all alone, but that most of us have learned to either hide our solitude from others or live with others in our shared solitude. However, solitude/ loneliness is not only about being alone. I believe it’s a deeper, internal process and one that requires an internal exploration, a kind of forced mental labor, which can be uncomfortable, even sometimes excruciating. However, if you work hard enough, it does tend to become one of the most important relationships anybody ever has, the relationship one has with oneself."
I also wanted to explore the fact that Jerlach writes about these seemingly simple lives. By their choice of professions, they have eliminated a lot of the social aspects that the rest of us have to deal with every day.
JK: Your protagonists in both of your novels live relatively simple lives. I get the impression that you, too, would rather live in a simpler time or have a simpler life. Are you projecting those desires onto your writing?
LBJ: "I believe there's an urge in everyone to somehow simplify their lives and to find relatively uncomplicated meaning in the chaos.....hence the prevalence for religiosity or indeed other non-theocratic belief systems. While I believe that there is really no 'simpler' time or even a simpler life, as the complexity of existence is entirely dependent on the internalization and analysis of the intellectual output, I do readily admit that I project my own enervated desires onto my writing. The inherent problem is that simplicity very often equals complexity, i.e: what qualifies as an empty space? The question seems simple enough, and yet it's very difficult to answer."
Ambrosius finds some letters, left by his predecessor, that have a profound effect upon him. He can’t stop thinking about them, nor can he stop reading them. The letters are not only surreal but so strangely personal, as if Ambrosius has become part of the narrative. The letter writer meets a succubus in the course of his adventures, and in an odd parallel, a strange young girl named Veronica appears in the graveyard and starts up a conversation with Ambrosius.
”Her long raven black hair was held back by a broad white hair band revealing a face that was as flawless and expressionless as a Venetian mask. So meticulously placed were the dark symmetrical eyebrows over her large dark eyes: that it looked as if they had been artificially constructed. Her small straight nose sat over her full lips, that even in the faint light gleamed like they had been recently painted.
There was a slight iridescent glow to her pale, slightly translucent skin that made me think about sculptural works in marble and I was suddenly curious if she might also be cool to the touch.”
There are a lot of unnatural aspects to her, like being able to read the thoughts of a nearby cat, but she is so sane in her insanity that she is another puzzle for Ambrosius to ponder. She is so wise and erudite in her responses that it is hard to associate the mind with the body. This, of course, prompted another question for the writer.
JK:You have a succubus in your story, creating some sexual havoc, but you also have a precocious "girl" named Veronica, who is intriguing, beautiful, scary, and certainly confusing. There are a few overtones of Lolita as your protagonist scrambles to sort out the juxtaposition between her appearance and the wisdom enhanced conversations that are well beyond her years. Tell more about the evolution of this character and the relationship of you as a writer to the characters you create.
LBJ:"I deliberately wanted to create a series of adjacent characters that weren't necessarily bound by time, history, or place, but at the same time were interconnected conceptually and could merge with each other to create a more holistic narrative. I am, therefore, happy to hear your confusion with regards to the protagonist's relationship with the girl, who does indeed have a strong and calculated similarity with the succubus. Although 'Lolita' was not in the forefront of my mind when I started writing, I definitely began portraying 'Veronica' as enigmatically fluid to enhance the juxtaposition between her appearance and her conversational talent, but also to more succinctly link to the alluring succubus.
When I begin writing, I generally have a pretty firm idea for each of the individual characters. I do, however, allow for the natural fluidity of the writing process to guide their development, and it's only natural that my characters grow as I write, and sometimes get themselves involved in unexpected scenarios.
Though I often think I have a fairly clear idea of the individual and his or her traits, there were certainly some unanticipated surprises that arose when I wrote, “When all the days have gone,” and there's no question that I had to allow for a bit of flexibility in the narrative to appropriately accommodate the rather complex development of some of the characters. I knew from the beginning that Veronica would be a critical character and that she would flow in and out of the narrative throughout the novel, so I intentionally attempted to make her mysterious, enigmatic, alluring, intelligent, and wise to deem her unforgettable. As contrived as it sounds, I also attempt to give my characters enough time and room to breathe on the page so that they develop their individuality both naturally and fluidly. It is, as you well know, a very fine balance, and one that I'm still attempting to perfect."
”Although I hadn’t had any imprudent thoughts, her gaze nonetheless made me uncomfortable and I didn’t know how to respond to her gaze other than returning a somewhat strained smile.”
Who is she exactly? What is she? Intelligence is always an attractive trait in a woman/girl/succubus, although, as we all know, intelligence is not a box that needs to be checked as an attractive trait regarding a succubus. By design they are everything you desire.
Jerlach certainly explores a lot of ancient philosophical thought. Is the table really there sort of thing, but he wraps it all in this mystical tale that brings new life, new meaning to what we try to understand about our lives.
JK:You wrap mysticism around classical philosophical thoughts in your books. It can seem like an odd pairing, but both deal with what is real and what is not real. One may have more respect than the other in academic circles, but I get the impression that you, in your search for greater understanding, have embraced both mysticism and philosophy equally. For you, what is the definition of real?
LBJ: "The question about what is real and imagined is obviously one of the driving forces in writing the novel and in building the structure of the narrative. I believe my interest in mysticism can easily be seen as standing in contrast to the rationalist view under which one could argue that reason alone is considered evidence for the truth or falsity of some propositions. However, I am of the belief that anything you experience or reflect on, whether it be fantasy, imagined, dreamt, or tangible, past, present, or future, becomes an intrinsic part of the fabric of your individual reality. So in a sense, everything you have ever experienced and will come to experience, therefore, has to be regarded as real."
There is one last aspect of this novel that I found very intriguing. Ambrosius is trapped in his house in a snowstorm. Every time he feels the call of nature, he has to shovel his way to the outhouse. The snow is up to the windowsills and continues adding more inches of fresh snow every day. He is a man who notices the way a blue sky looks differently from the bottom of a grave, or the beauty in a dead mouse, or the yellow designs left in the snow by a cat.
JK: One of the things I really liked in this book was Ambrosius's ability to see beauty in the mundane, dead rodents, cat pee stains in the snow, etc. I, too, have always tried to notice more than just the things we are supposed to notice as we gallop through life. I have a feeling you are the same way. Share about how those unusual things that others may not bother to notice influence your writing and your art?
LBJ "Although I think we all have a tendency to observe the world around us as “the bigger picture,” it's probably somewhat unique that some people seem to pay closer attention to the smaller details in our daily life. I have quite a few friends who're artists/ writers/ other creatives, and it seems as if nearly all of us have an urge to highlight the insignificant so to make it significant. All the images, sounds, smells, touches we collate throughout our lives, no matter how small, are all just tiny fragments that together create the much larger, more complex whole. Although I am like everyone else, who most often look at 'the bigger picture' world around us, I am aware that I tend to be automatically drawn to the unobserved even when I'm not trying, so when I write about Ambrosius's tendencies, a lot of them come from my own personal experiences. I believe that the aggregate of qualities in the very small, often unnoticed, things are what gives the most unexpected pleasure to the senses and, therefore, exalts the mind and the spirit."
I want to thank Lars Boye Jerlach for graciously answering my questions. As you can see, this short novel, 220 pages, is full of grand ideas and explores the relationship that we all have with the world around us. Some of what happens to us is not readily explainable, and I think we have to learn to be comfortable with the uncomfortable. What is real? What is surreal? Is one more substantial than the other? I can’t imagine any reader walking away from reading this book without being inspired to look at the world around them with a more discerning eye.
....A cat that reads minds....
.....a man who prefers to eat alone....who while usually a lot on his mind....tries not to think too much while he is eating. And why would a man who lives alone - spends most of his alone - need to empty his thoughts while eating? Was he simply reflecting/ meditating? Perhaps he has silly or naughty thoughts that he feels won’t digest well with his cooking?
.....A mysterious enchanting young girl, Veronica, ....with a beautiful voice....humming something a cat was thinking earlier.....meets our mysterious gravedigger, Moerk, in the cemetery one evening.
.....Ambrosius Moerk, was curious. He didn’t understand how Veronica could know a particular piece of music as well as she did. He knew it was by the composer Johannes Brahms.... and that she was humming the beginning bars to Requiem.
Veronica had no idea who wrote that tune. Like she says: “The cat was working through some thoughts, and the piece of music must have gotten stuck in my head”.
Makes perfect sense, right? Ha! Does it?
.....The conversation that follows between Moerk and Veronica is priceless.
You’ll be so glad they became acquainted..... and that you became acquainted with them. These two characters are memorable— readers will remember them both long after finishing this short creative novel.
.....Moerk is handed a collection of letters written by his gravedigger-predecessor— he couldn’t rid himself the feeling that many connections between himself and the author of those letters —( although supposedly just imaginative fantasies), — were filled with similarities and coincidences.
Lars writing is filled with images that stay bright in your mind- tangy smells in the air - temperatures- graphic details- from snow covered grounds - to lanterns, - a candescent glow - honey colored tea - hauling buckets of heavy clay - a mouse curled up on its side - lifeless rodents - sputtering faucet - creaking floor to the fireplace - etc. etc. His writing is both playful and reflective.
This book is ‘quality’ writing....with juicy vocabulary words-and gorgeous detail descriptions. Simply outstanding!
On every page - I could pause and reflect - often think about experiences.... those we have lived - and those we have imagined - and ultimately what’s the difference? I thought about the wandering souls - loners in our world who prefer to live in seclusion. What can I learn from them?
“When All The Days Have Gone” is a compelling piece of work… an enlightening form of solitude that is both rich and nourishing.
Here’s just ‘one’ beautiful excerpt:
“When you look into the lake everything beneath the surface is as clear and as vivid as you could possibly imagine. In fact, it appears as if there is no surface at all, and that you are looking deep into an infinite ocean with a complete comprehension of what you are seeing. However, as soon as you begin to contemplate the things you discover, an infinitesimal ripple appears on the surface that ever so slightly obscure what you thought you already knew. So you attempt to concentrate on what recently escaped you, and by doing so you create more ripples, only this time the ripples are slightly larger than the last time and further obscure your view. The more you think, the bigger the ripples become, until the entire surface is in turmoil and you have forever been deprived of what you originally found”.
Thank you, Lars.... this book is exquisite! You’re becoming one of my favorite writers....
Sincerely! You have a rare talent - an artistic flair that is unique — intelligent - and your writing is absolutely beautiful!
The author himself calls this a ‘desolate tale’ and we certainly have the setting for it. An immigrant arrives somewhere in New England near the Canadian border as a gravedigger. Since he traveled on a sailing ship to get to the US we assume this story takes place around the turn of the last century. He is alone and dreams of seeing his wife and child, apparently left behind for now.
While digging graves he begins to be visited by a precocious 14-year-old girl with her black cat. She thinks about why people do terrible things such as “…and the worst of it is, that all these terrible things are often powered by some form of dark self-interest that goes way way back, perhaps even to the beginning of time.” And she speculates “The question is: if solitude increases the perception of self and grants us something valuable, why is it then that we choose not to be alone?” The gravedigger never finds out where the girl lives or who her parents are.
The girl claims to transmit thoughts from the cat: “It mainly has thoughts about art, ethics, religion and more complex thoughts about what it means to exist.”
Winter comes. The girl leaves but the cat stays. This is Winter with a capital ‘W.’ it snows for days with bitter cold and each day the gravedigger has to shovel out the path to the outhouse, the chicken coop and firewood. I kept thinking of Orhan Pamuk’s book Snow.
The cemetery director gives him a box of letters left behind by the last occupant of the house. They are written in a foreign language, which turns out to be his own – Danish. Each night he reads a letter the previous occupant wrote to his wife. (Why were they never mailed? There’s a mystery.)
The story become hypnotic. With no grave-digging to do in the frozen ground, the main character lives in absolute solitude. Each day he shovels, gathers eggs, cooks them with a slice of canned meat, stokes the fire, feeds the cat, makes hot tea. Day after day, night after night.
His dreams intertwine with the story he is reading and the story starts to intertwine with his life. The story and his dreams are laden with symbolism: an albatross, a friar on the ship who plunges overboard attracted by a voice, a black cat, a white cat, a lantern with strange symbols on it – left behind by the prior occupant and dangling in front of him as he reads. It turns into quite a philosophical tale.
Below are some passages I liked:
'Father Fromm had had the most unpleasant tendency to hold on to his hand a fraction too long … he had nonetheless suspected that the grip from the hand of death itself would not be too dissimilar'.
About Greek urns on grave markers: 'It was more the strangely conflicting fact that so many Americans had chosen to have a draped urn standing on top of their earthly remains for all eternity since none of them, as far as he knew, were Greek nor had chosen to be cremated'.
A good read and I also enjoyed the author’s The Somnambulist’s Dreams that I have also reviewed.
A Danish gravedigger, from Hamlet perhaps; a sailor, apparently from the disastrous Franklin expedition to the far North of Canada in 1848; a girlish apparition, who provides some continuity between the two; and several opinionated cats and birds - Jerlach has once again assembled an enigmatic cast in a sort of metempsychotic fantasy.
Time is stretched, distorted, and turned inside out. Maelstroms and terrestial sinkholes act like astronomical black holes to permit time travel. Characters therefore have a sort of eternal Platonic existence. They are their (our?) collective past, bound up in little packages of anonymous thought and feeling that are passed mysteriously from generation to generation. Thus we necessarily become our forebears in a way that is more than genetic. The days never do end until thought and feeling cease entirely. Do I detect a Jungian tendency?
My first thoughts were that the book needed a better English editor. The vocabulary is frequently archaic or arcane, and some usages less than idiomatic. But eventually it became clear that these were part of the 19th century flavour that was intended. Coleridge plays a big part, as does Poe, Scandinavian myth, and perhaps even Mark Twain, Charles Dodgson and Thomas Aquinas (as Brother Thommen OP!). The names Ambrosius and Veronica point to Augustine but perhaps that’s only in my head. As the story settles into my unconscious, I’m quite sure many more literary allusions will become clearer.
Jerlach is discursive, allusive, erudite, and great fun. Reading him is like being inside Hermann Hesse’s Glass Bead Game, unexpected connections across various dimensions pop up continuously. A literary sleigh-ride.
'The Somnambulist's Dreams'
Being from New England, lighthouses hold a special place in my heart. While I love all varieties of lighthouse, I admit my favorites are the ones on some small, rocky island off the coast of or seemingly in the middle of the ocean. Whenever I see a picture of one or pass by one in a boat, I like to imagine the people who lived and worked there, maybe even families, and wonder what drove them out there to essentially live a life of solitude.
Of course, I'm being romantic about it. Realistically, I know the life of a lighthouse keeper couldn't have been much fun. Being away from everyone else, a slave to the light, only company maybe a cat or dog and the passing ships. Having to wait for supplies every month or every two months, etc. I don't think I would have enjoyed that kind of life, myself.
And yet, any book that has to do with lighthouses I usually end up picking up (except The Light Between Oceans, funny enough, maybe that's because it seems like one of those novels in the Women's Fiction category alongside My Sister's Keeper or The Memory Keeper's Daughter). This book was no exception. A bunch of odd writings detailing the deranged dreams of the old lighthouse keeper? I never clicked buy so quickly.
And it was exactly what it was advertised as. From the first letter I was hooked. I enjoyed the trips I took in the grief twisted mind of Enoch Soule, and in particular had fun guessing where or who was in each dream of his. Some I got right away, like Poe or Bowie, but others I had to guess at a bit more. For instance, I can't tell whether the artist who did the chessboard is Marcel Duchamp (of the signed urinal fame) or Rene Magritte. I thought it might be Duchamp, because of the bicycle wheel on the stool, but then he said "Ceci n'est pas une pipe" which is Magritte. I don't know. I admit, I'm not as versed in this area of art history as I should probably be (though I am a casual admirer of Magritte's work- of course, I just like surrealism. Duchamp, on the other hand, loses me).
The writing is very Scandinavian. Even without a name like Lars, I could tell he was from somewhere up north. It reminded me a lot of the writing in Wolf Winter, a very simplistic, almost cold style of prose. It eventually grew on me, though it was jarring after the last few books I read, which were all very purple. My favorite by far was the contrast between the simple sentences (he did this, he did this, then he did this) and the fanciful narrative of the dreams. By doing this, Jerlach exemplified the contrast between the unnamed lighthouse keeper's rather mundane regular routine and the dreams without ever telling us.
I would go more into the plot, but I went into this book mostly blind and ended up enjoying it more for it. This is one of those books best discovered and interpreted by oneself. So pick this one up one night, maybe put Space Oddity on in the background, and enjoy your trip in the mind of Enoch Soule.
This is probably one of the most original and unique books I've read this summer, a captivating, thrilling work heavily immersed in dreams, philosophy and fantasy. In just a short length of a novel, the author paints a vivid, riveting portrait of a lonely lighthouse keeper engrossed in the ramblings left behind from another who came before him. Do these writings mean something special and important, or are they just the insane thoughts of an isolated man? Telling his story to a childhood friend by the name of Emily, Enoch, a somnambulist, pours out a hidden tale that you can read again and again and never be bored with.
If there's one thing I loved about this book above all else, it's the style in which it's written. Old-fashioned and yet simple to understand, it's the type of story that could easily appeal to any reader. Each character is realistic and unforgettable and the scenery and surroundings are depicted flawlessly, as though watching an old film. The Somnambulist's Dreams is a book that everybody should read, not only because it's engaging but also because it's unlike any other book I've ever read.
(On a side-note, can I just add that the front/back cover graphics are absolutely incredible?) :)
A lighthouse keeper on the coast of Maine in the 1800’s finds a cache of letters from a previous keeper. In these writings, the man recorded his strange dreams; dreams that were so real he felt he was living or re-living or (since most are in the future) anticipating someone else’s life.
And what dreams these are! He has a penchant for getting involved with celebrities: David Bowie’s Major Tom appears and Renee Magritte (ceci n’est pas une pipe). He has sex with Sigourney Weaver on the set of Aliens. He’s dying from gangrene as a famous Antarctic explorer. We’re at the bottom of a well with one of Murakami’s characters and his cat.
In these dreams Poe’s raven appears; sometimes as a white raven, sometimes black. The man converses with the raven in his dreams and we touch on reincarnation, the meaning of existence and ceasing to exist, consciousness. We’re treated to snippets from philosophers such as Schopenhauer.
In between his readings of the previous keeper’s papers, there’s a deliberate repetition of the dull daily life of the present-day keeper. He makes tea, makes porridge, checks his watch, rewinds the mechanism that rotates the light. At first I thought this was overly repetitive but the gimmick succeeds is inducing a hypnotic state so that we can see how isolated keepers can go bonkers.
Of course nothing is as it seems, so we get some surprising twists near the end. A good read.
I picked up this novel yesterday, and I have been lost in its pages ever since. This book is transcendent. The writing is mellifluous in tone and extraordinary in content. It is a book of dreams that have no reason to exist given the time in which the dreamer sleeps. The past and the future are non-existent, and each account occurs in the here and now. A lighthouse keeper finds pages of a journal recounting the enigmatic dreams of his predecessor. As he goes about his routines throughout the night, the keeper is drawn further into the mysterious world he is reading about. Like me, he is enraptured. Lost. Each panorama brings up questions of time, reality and sanity, and each question is answered in its simplest and truest form. As the readers of this book, it is ultimately up to us to personalize this experience and give it our own meanings. Allow the words to transport you, and keep a mirror handy. Highest recommendations.
Janie C (Goodreads)
This book is Neil Gaiman dreaming of Alice in Wonderland. It is a metaphysical beauty.
The story is of an unnamed lighthouse keeper who spends a single night reading a group of letters apparently left from a previous keeper named Enoch Soule. Soule has written 12 letters about his dreams. Each chapter contains one of the mysterious letters followed by the reflections of the reader and his boring night of winding the mechanism that keeps the light turning, making tea and eating the same thing night after night.
There are crossing of many threads; some more subtle than others. There is some symmetry in the mystery of the letters and the boredom of a lighthouse keeper's night, the recurring use of white and black, life and death, the use of the letters N and S, and the themes of reality and dreams. And then there are the questions of when does Enoch Soule's dreams end and who is actually reading his letters.
The dreams are a mixture of past and future events both real and in some cases as characters in a book (such Toru from The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle). In some Enoch is human and in others he is a raven. Some of the people he meets seem to be ghosts or from Danish folk lore.
It is a book that needs to be better known
This book captured my attention in such a delicate, unassuming way. Right from the beginning, I got enthralled by the language - it emanates such tenderness, you can almost feel the quietness of that lonely coastal night when you turn the pages. The images seem so delicate and sensual, they unfold and take on a new essence, just like the leaves in the lighthouse keeper's teapot. I may have a slightly overgrown thing for the use of language but I cannot imagine how this beautiful vocabulary drifting through the lines of the story could go unnoticed and unappreciated - the high-flown, sonorous adjectives alone make your head spin as if you've been spoiling yourself with the most exquisite wine.
Aesthetics aside, the language seems to play an important role here. When Enoch meets a dying bull under the African tree, we are presented with the relativity of "here" and "now", which reminds me of Deutscher's "Through the Language Glass" - a brilliant linguistic book that shows mutual relations between languages and cultures. Deutscher talks at length about the Hopi tribe whose language does not include any words or grammatical forms that would refer to what we call "time" and what can be described as a flowing continuum of what is past, present and future; he also writes about spatial orientation influencing vocabulary and syntax in different languages. In "The Somnambulist's Dreams" we repeatedly observe how relative one's understanding can be when it comes to both time and space ("There is always where here is not"; "We are always here") and this paradigmatic haziness of what we tend to perceive as certainty in our Western minds rings quietly but persistently through the whole book ("Everything around us seemed to lose definition"). The book relies on double (if only!) meanings, which corresponds with fluidity of the characters and places, and also expresses itself in the dream-like existence of Enoch Soule. The words "I am ceasing to exist here" and "Nothing is ever what it seems" become the status quo of the momentary reality - everything interlaces, amalgamates together; everything is a part of something bigger, like the chess pieces that create almost limitless amount of combinations. Multiple layers are demonstrated not only in the storyline but also on a deeper level where "The Somnambulist's Dreams" turns into a meta-text commenting on itself through the description of the actual book's cover visualised in one of the dreams.
The distorted reality might not have an obvious explanation but somehow it seems to me that the meaning of it all is closely linked to being spiritually present in the eternal "here and now" as opposed to our space-bound, restricted by linear time physicality - and just like the white raven says at the bottom of the well, "maybe it is not about what you are searching for, but what you have already found".
The book contains many literary and cultural references - Poe, Murakami, Norse mythology, Marcel Duchamp (if I identified him correctly) and undoubtedly many others which remain unknown to me; discovering these connections and putting them into a bigger whole makes the reading even more enjoyable and rewarding. I also thought that the writing style of "The Somnambulist's Dreams" had a Scandinavian feel to it, known to me mainly from contemporary, niche Norwegian literature - marked by silence, alienation, unknown spaces and perpetual rewinding of the lighthouse mechanism, the book brings to mind permanent suspension that, interestingly enough, made me partially align my reading with that of the lighthouse keeper and mark it with hectolitres of freshly brewed tea.. Of course this (imagined by me?) Scandinavian feel might have something to do with the author's Danish background (I'm possibly twaddling now) but whatever the case, it made me love "The Somnambulist's Dreams" even more.
And here's my favourite fragment of the book:
"Time is never waiting (...) You are dancing an eternal waltz to the sound of your own beating heart. When the music stops, time has already moved on".
T for Tongue-Tied (Goodreads)
There is something tragically romantic about lighthouses: The structures themselves stand watchful and solitary, a beacon of warning and assistance to those at sea. The broad scope of protection proffered by one individual toward so many others. It makes the profession of lighthouse keeper appear selfless, but in my mind it’s more symbiotic than that. I imagine a lighthouse keeper as someone who strives to be useful, but requires isolation the way others require companionship. Introspective in a world that forces continual socialization; the job facilitating a way for them to achieve fulfillment while maintaining the functional distance they inherently need. I imagine them as superheroes in a way. Working alone in the dark for the betterment of humanity, but if they’re really being truthful, they do it for themselves more than anyone else. I’m obviously taking a lot of liberties here, but it’s how I’ve always imagined that world and those who inhabit it.
As far as I understand, modernity has mostly removed the need for lighthouse keepers, relocating that profession to an era of the past. This only adds another layer to the romance and tragedy for me. Basically, this is a long winded explanation of why I am inexorably drawn to stories featuring lighthouses, or lighthouse keepers, and what a story this one was.
We have two main points of view nested within each other: A third person narrative of a lighthouse keeper on a particularly cold night, reading a parcels worth of letters written by his somnambulant predecessor, each detailing a dream experienced during his sleepwalk events. These personal accounts are where the bulk of the story is contained, and in my opinion, where it really shines. The third person interludes between the dreams felt unnecessarily repetitive to me. I wanted something more introspective from these sections. However, I do believe the context in which they reside would change on a subsequent reading, so that may be a rash judgement on my part as a reader.
The story itself has some strong elements of Paul Auster’s style of storytelling. Mystery upon mystery. Or maybe it’s more along the lines of Haruki Murakami’s fantastical realism. In his dreams, the somnambulist momentarily inhabits the bodies of others (or sometimes Poe’s raven Nevermore). Some of these characters are historically known to him, others are known to the lighthouse keeper reading the somnambulist's accounts, and others still, aren’t known by either (but should be apparent to the reader of this book itself). There are a few fun surprises here as you become aware of who is being inhabited, and the way that these characters relate to each other. The somnambulist is unsure whether his dreams are genuine experiences, premonitions, or merely dreams. It’s really a clever story structure; each additional dream sequence adding to the mystery and intrigue as the story unfolds toward its conclusion.
The writing style took some time to become accustomed to. The whole book is double line spaced, there are almost no first line indentations, and the author has an on-again/off-again relationship with paragraphs. It feels like a stylistic choice, and I’ve seen it before, but I’m still unsure of the reasoning.
The Somnambulist’s Dreams is postmodern literature with a capital P. Which I’m all about, but have to be in the right kind of mood to properly enjoy. When it comes to postmodernist writing like this that is more ontological, paradoxical, etc, I find it often helps me if I know that that is what I’m getting myself into from the start. The gorgeous cover artwork and synopsis communicate this quite nicely. Every thread may not pull itself together into a pretty little bow in the end, but that’s part of the appeal; it’s the journey, not so much the destination with this kind of novel. I enjoyed this for the type of presence it cultivated while being read, not so much the definitive conclusion or ending that a traditional story builds toward. That’s not to say that The Somnambulist’s Dreams doesn’t conclude in a satisfactory way, it does. It’s just that it’s a bit of paradox in itself, which to me can be infinitely more interesting when it’s handled with grace like this.
When fellow Scandinavian and name-fellow Lars offered me a copy of his first book, The Somnambulist's Dreams I hesitated only slightly - I'm always a bit reluctant to read and review someone I have social contact with (or know even). In the past, this has gone both ways, actually, but I must say that most experiences have been very positive, and so odds say 'go for it'. And the synopsis for this one sounded intriguing enough!
I read the book more or less in one sitting - just changing from train to plane at about 50 pages, at which point I made a kind of relieved update, praising the writing and intricate story. Phew! I knew now I wasn't going to have to write a negative review.
I knew nothing.
After being completely absorbed in this seductive book for a good chunk of today, I realized I had no choice other than to award it all the stars that Goodreads lets me. I did not expect it to come to this, but really, nothing is like it seems, as I was to learn.
I actually thought I had a first quote for this review, because that very first one is really quite irresistible - but my friend beat me to it.
Enoch Soule's (the Somnambulist of the title) vivid and detailed dreams makes the main part of the story, and they are fascinating to behold - are they dreams or is he actually traveling? In time, if not in space, or is he astral traveling? How come he seems to have different roles (bodies, minds) in different dreams? How come he doesn't seem to remember certain things he's seen before or that should remind him of something? Is the story chronologically told at all? These are just some of the questions I had.
But there's perfect clarity here as well! In Enoch's travels, we get to meet some very familiar people and places, or at least some representation of them - but don't be fooled into believing that these are riddles to be solved or overly clever meta references only! One of my favorite parts of the book is that much is open to interpretation. Some conclusions are more easily reached than others and some of yours will probably differ from some of mine, but this does not really matter, it never feels like an intelligence test (despite being intelligent) or that every piece of the puzzle will have a 'right' and a 'wrong'.
"Wouldn't you say that seeing ghosts is out of the ordinary?"
"Perhaps your ordinary is different from my ordinary. In my experience, what is real are the things that are still there, even after you stop believing in them."
The dialog of the encounters with famous people (or no people at all, read it and you'll see...) reads very much like a play and is another great feature of the story.
A very happy surprise and a great privilege, I'm certainly looking forward to future offerings from Lars!’
"There was no denying it was lonesome.''
Few situations in life are lonelier than living in a lighthouse. How quiet it must be when the only thing you hear is the sound of the waves. How dark and frightening when a storm is raging and the human being is but an insignificant dot amidst the fighting elements. All these constitute the perfect environment for the birth of dreams, visions and hallucinations.
The current lighthouse keeper on the coast of New England finds a collection of his predecessor's disjointed, weird writings. The man, whose name is Enoch Soule, claims to be a somnambulist, one who engages in sleepwalking (''somnia'' means ''dreams'' in Latin) and Enoch states that these writings are the dreams he's having night after night. The letters are addressed to his wife. This is the premise of this highly unusual and fascinating book.
There are so many questions that arise from the first pages of the novel. Are Enoch's dream actual dreams or are they hallucinations? And, taking it to the extreme, is he shape-shifting or even teleporting? Hard to make any assumptions and that is what I really enjoyed in Lars' book. There are symbols and cryptic elements that force your mind to work in great speed as you read to try and uncover anything similar to an answer.
The central symbol is the lighthouse. It rules over absolute darkness, it provides light in the midst of danger upon the troubled waves, it protects sailors by shielding them from certain death. For me, the lighthouse keepers stand there like the guardians of life, of safety and, perhaps, of a different knowledge and perception of the world. Then, comes the raven. The raven is the heart of the story, it provides the major element of magical realism, even surrealism, and acts like a crossover between Poe's Nevermore and Odin's Huginn and Muninn. Thus, the raven keeps all the answers to life and observes everything. Yet, it discloses nothing.
The dreams create striking images as Enoch finds himself in Kenya, in Antarctica, in a cemetery full of Victorian Gothic features, in Space, in a cell, in a well. The story of the Taxidermist is my favourite. It is a haunting, nightmarish vision where the word ''ghosts'' is mentioned for the first time. This dream echoes Poe's dark tales directly.
The language is beautiful, communicating difficult questions in a powerful simplicity, working through dualities. Black and white, Darkness and Light, Death and Life. This antithesis is wonderfully depicted in the striking cover by Kyle Louis Fletcher. The current lighthouse keeper is -in my opinion- the most enigmatic presence in the book. We see Enoch's inner thoughts, strange as they are, but not once do we enter the mind of his successor who counts the silent minutes in his domain, and I found this particularly puzzling and fascinating. Edgar Allan Poe's presence is thoroughly felt during the narration and I also sensed an echo of Samuel Beckett and Eugène Ionesco's plays.
This is not an easy book, it won't give you answers, but will cause you to think and transport your mind into an apocalyptic world where nothing is as it seems...
''There is no winning or losing, only the eternal plasticity of the game itself.’’
Apocalyptic for the 21st Century
I spent several years of my young adult life serving on what were then called Ocean Stations in the mid-North Atlantic. Bouncing around on small ships which were meant to act as electronic beacons, floating lighthouses really, for overflying aircraft, we spent four or five weeks every two months at sea. The only way to stay sane, for many of us, was to bring a library of books and music along on each patrol. So Jerlach's setting in Somnabulist's Dreams of an isolated lighthouse and its keeper, with a fixed routine of watch-taking and daily living, feels very familiar.
The difference between Jerlach's lighthouse keeper and me is that his diversion in isolation comes not directly from literature and song but indirectly through the dream diary of one of his 19th century predecessors, one Enoch Soule. Enoch has recorded a series of remarkably precise prophetic, or more accurately apocalyptic, dreams involving figures as diverse as the Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami and Jerlach's fellow Dane Karen Blixen (to name any more would spoil the fun of discovery).
I say apocalyptic rather than prophetic because the name of Jerlach's protagonist-once-removed, Enoch, is an explicit reference to the Judaic patriarch, author of the apocryphal (non-canonical) Book of Enoch. At one point a dream-Magritte addresses Enoch in the form of a raven as "the man who apparently didn't die," a reference to the legend that he was taken bodily to heaven by God.
An important section of the biblical Book of Enoch recounts a series of dreams involving the history of Israel. Most of these are not prophecies in the sense of foretelling future events, but rather reinterpretations of historical events in terms of the ultimate destiny of Israel. This is the characteristic of that particular genre called apocalyptic, an eschatological interpretation pointing to final triumph from the midst of apparent disaster.
Frequently Jerlach's lighthouse keeper reads that "nothing is what it seems" in the dream diaries. Animals speak, dreams overlap and interweave, their meanings are never quite clear. This is also the biblical Enoch's technique. For him animals represent people, people represent angels, and the interaction between the two is as enigmatic as in the most obscure of biblical writing. There is an intoxicating overload of possible intention and signification in both sets of dreams (not surprising then that Soule, Enoch's surname, is the first person singular of the French verb 'to induce drunkenness').
For the lighthouse keeper and Enoch Soule, Enoch's dreams are prophetic. They are about the future and people and events of which neither the keeper nor Soule have any knowledge or interest. For them therefore the dreams are confusing rather than revelatory. They are in no position to understand what the dreams or the found-text might mean.
But for us, the readers of Jerlach's book, the dreams are definitive interpretations of the literary and historical events described. They are events of the past that are familiar, at least to some degree, to the reader. Often they are literally terminal, that is, about approaching or recent death. They are always about that present moment and that precise place. There is no future, only 'now'; there is no place other than 'here'. Jerlach presents them as definitively revelatory. That is their meaning, their last meaning.
This brilliant apocalyptic play by Jerlach makes the reader part of the narrative, in fact, the ultimate narrator of the book. It is the reader who puts the final meaning on each event, a meaning which cannot be gainsaid. A remarkable use of the apocalyptic genre for the 21st century.
I feel somewhat nostalgic about my former life at sea, primarily because it did indeed allow the regular reading-leisure to consider many apocalyptic meanings, as well as the meaning of apocalyptic
”’Time is never waiting,’ the raven said.’It’s script-less and senseless. It’s never hanging around for anyone to catch up. You are dancing an eternal waltz to the sound of your own beating heart. When the music stops, time has already moved on.’”
Being a lighthouse keeper is a lonely job. A job that is very similar in many ways to being a fire lookout in a National Forest. Edward Abbey did that job for a few seasons, mainly because he couldn’t hold down a real job and wanted time to write.
I can’t remember the last time I spent a full day alone. Sometimes I’m alone for an hour or maybe half a day, but always with the knowledge that I will be soon joined by other human beings. My brief moments of aloneness are not loneliness. A lighthouse keeper or a fire lookout might be in an area where the next closest person is fifty miles away or a hundred miles away. I can enjoy my brief moments of being alone, even relish them, but for a lighthouse keeper, the weight of being alone and knowing that it might be days or weeks or even months before they see another person can do strange things to his mind.
Then there are guys, like Jack Torrance from The Shining, who even with their wife and son with them descend into madness without the daily interactions of people to rebalance their equilibrium of proper decorum. Well, he might have had some help finding the road signs that led him to crazy town.
I prefer gentle madness, like the type experienced by Enoch Soule in this story, than the Jack Torrance…Here’s Jack with an Axe...way of dealing with madness. Of course, I may be casting unnecessary aspersions at Soule, for the question of whether he is insane or simply a man with a contemplative mind are up for interpretation.
Soule is having strange dreams.
I’ve mined my dreams for pieces of stories. Sometimes I’ve dreamed whole novels only to watch them evaporate like a snapchat photo before I can even fully appreciate the rosy hue of nipples or capture the sun dappled riverbank or see the dark shapes beyond the dust motes hanging suspended in a barnyard window. I’ve had strange dreams, foolish dreams, and dreams that woke me up with cold shivers that had me fumbling for a pen and a piece of paper so I could jot a few notes of what I’ve seen.
Not only does Soule remember his dreams, but he writes them down. Not only does he dream his dreams, but he steps into them. He becomes someone else, someone different every time.
When the new lighthouse keeper arrives, he, of course, as all of us do, makes the place his own. In the course of this settling in, he finds a manuscript titled: The Dreams of Enoch S. Soule. The days are long, and the nights are longer, and soon he is looking forward to the time every day he can spend reading these seemingly deranged writings of a man who is experiencing dreams that would make the most sane among us wonder if Poe’s raven has perched permanently in the halls of our remaining sanity.
Loneliness can lead to many things: existential dreams, brilliant novels, self-reflection, and madness. Can dreams be caught like a petulant virus from those who dream them? Can madness pass through the inked words of the insane? Are you ceasing to exist even as you read this review?