Silence in October

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Overview

After eighteen years of marriage, an art historian wakes up one morning to find his wife standing in the bedroom doorway with her bags packed, leaving him with no explanation. Alone in his Copenhagen apartment, he tries to make sense of his enigmatic marriage and life. Memories of driving a cab, quiet walks in the snow, and intense sojourns in Paris and New York pass through his mind in fleeting, highly visual images. The more he thinks of his wife, however, the more mysterious she becomes to him. Slowly he ...
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Overview

After eighteen years of marriage, an art historian wakes up one morning to find his wife standing in the bedroom doorway with her bags packed, leaving him with no explanation. Alone in his Copenhagen apartment, he tries to make sense of his enigmatic marriage and life. Memories of driving a cab, quiet walks in the snow, and intense sojourns in Paris and New York pass through his mind in fleeting, highly visual images. The more he thinks of his wife, however, the more mysterious she becomes to him. Slowly he realizes that two people can live together for years without ever really knowing each other, and that the most important encounters in one's life are dictated by chance, not design.

Exploring with great subtlety the secret, unpredictable connections between men and women, Silence in October is a psychological novel of immense acuity and masterful storytelling. It heralds the arrival of a major talent in this country.
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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
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One morning, watching his beautiful wife of 18 years apply her lipstick in front of the bathroom mirror, the anonymous professor who serves as the narrator of this powerful novel listens as she announces her intention to leave. He regards her with subdued resignation but says nothing. He has no idea if she is leaving for a weekend, a fortnight, or forever, nor does he ask for clarification. He reasons that he has no claim on her, regardless of the pain he knows intellectually that he will feel if his marriage comes to an end. She leaves, and their home, once so full of noise, falls empty and quiet; and a kind of paralysis sets in. From this stillness, the masterful Danish novelist Jens Christian Grondahl fashions a lucid, meditative tale with a deceptively simple plot, one that achieves remarkable complexity as a psychological and philosophical study.

In the silence of the empty house, the professor, trained as an art historian, turns his acute powers of observation to his marriage, the world around him, and the years that led him to the present. He is haunted by the memories of his former lovers -- the exotic Inés, who spun her beautiful web around him, and the youthful Elisabeth, for whom he was prepared to leave those he loved most. As for his wife, he questions what he really knows of her, or what anyone can really know of another. "We move on sand," he muses. But with his U.S. debut, Grondahl has firmly planted his feet on American soil. This is a novel that refuses to yield its ground -- nor should it. (Fall 2001 Selection)

From The Critics
Grondahl's prose . . . is electrically charged, while the plot is gripping and full of emotion, making Silence in October a winner all the way.
Times
Grondahl's prose . . . is electrically charged, while the plot is gripping and full of emotion, making Silence in October a winner all the way.
Publishers Weekly
This spare new novel by acclaimed Danish author Grindahl tells the story of a dissolving marriage in a complex, elliptical and moving way. At the book's start, a Danish art historian wakes up in Copenhagen to find that his wife, Astrid, is leaving him. The novel then traces the events leading up to this separation. The art historian met his now departed wife while driving a cab to put himself through grad school; she happened to hail him the day she left her first husband. She sought refuge with her cabbie, and the two of them ended up together for 18 years. During the course of their marriage, the art historian falls in love with a sculptor while visiting New York on business. Though his great intelligence affords him many insights, it does not keep his private life from falling into disarray. Grindahl carves out a convincing milieu for his protagonist, with numerous believable characters, including the alternately sensible and volatile Astrid and various sly denizens of the art world. Images and events from the present and the past are seamlessly blended so that single sentences or paragraphs sometimes span years. Grindahl's Proustian game playing with the strictures of time is seductive and often captivating, a narrative tightrope that he walks without a stumble. He sprinkles the book, as well, with knowing observations about human nature, characters' perceptions of each other and memory itself, lending his tale a poetic depth that never ceases to surprise. (Oct.) Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
The Times
"Grøndahl's prose . . . is electrically charged, while the plot is gripping and full of emotion, making Silence in October a winner all the way."
From The Critics
A masterpiece.
Le Monde
Captures the essence of life.
Library Journal
Celebrated Danish novelist Grindahl makes his U.S. debut, and it is entirely welcome. His narrator is an art historian whose wife, Astrid, has inexplicably departed. Why did she leave? Will she return? These are the questions her husband ponders as he tracks her progress through Europe (via credit card use and bank withdrawals) to a place in Portugal that has special meaning for them. At the same time, he slowly sifts through his memories, recalling how they met (as a cab driver, he picked her up with her child as she was abandoning her unfaithful husband, a famous film director) and how they built a life together with a child of their own, now grown. At first, the reader's sympathies lie with the narrator, but slowly the story shifts, and he discloses an affair that Astrid may or may not have surmised. In the end, the novel reveals the complicity of both partners in making a marriage, for better or for worse. This is indeed an "October" novel, meditative, melancholic, and profoundly right in its portrait of the scrapings and balancings of married life. Not for the action crowd, this is instead highly recommended wherever people read for substance. Barbara Hoffert, "Library Journal" Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Were he still directing, Ingmar Bergman might have made a memorable film from this claustrophobic and emotionally charged portrayal of a destroyed marriage and its complex emotional fallout. Veteran Danish author Grøndahl, in the first of his eleven novels to appear here, slowly, slyly builds a devastating characterization of this 1996 tale's unnamed narrator: a ruminative art historian, former cabdriver, and blase sensualist, amoral betrayer of his wife, and-most interestingly-a passive emotional blank whose inchoate guilt feelings suggest a reluctant momentum toward a kind of religious faith. This very accomplished fiction also employs imagery drawn from cinema and theater to evoke the tactics by which its characters compulsively live: selectivity, hyperbole, and (especially) fabrication.
From the Publisher
Grøndahl's prose . . . is electrically charged, while the plot is gripping and full of emotion, making Silence in October a winner all the way."—The Times (London)

"A masterpiece."—Bookseller (UK)

"Captures the essence of life."—Le Monde (France)

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781841951782
  • Publisher: Canongate Books
  • Publication date: 8/28/2001
  • Pages: 288
  • Product dimensions: 5.16 (w) x 7.80 (h) x 0.75 (d)

Meet the Author

JENS CHRISTIAN GR\u00d8NDAHL is one of the most celebrated and widely read authors in Europe today. He has written plays, essays, and twelve novels, and his work has been translated into more than a dozen languages. He lives in Copenhagen.

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Read an Excerpt

Astrid stands at the rail with her back to the town. The breeze lifts her hair in a ragged, chestnut-brown flag. She's wearing sunglasses and smiling. There is perfect harmony between her white teeth and the white city. The photo is seven years old, I took it in late afternoon on one of the small ferries that cross the Tagus to Cacilhas. Only from a distance do you understand why Lisbon is called "the white city," when the colors flatten and the fa‡ades' glazed tiles melt together in the sun's afterglow. The low light falls horizontally on the distant houses rising behind each other over the Pra‡a do Com‚rcio up to the ridges of Bairro Alto and Alfama on the other side of the river. It is a month since she left. I haven't heard from her. The only trace of her is the bank statement showing the activity in our joint account. She rented a car in Paris and used her Mastercard on the route via Bordeaux, San Sebastian, Santiago de Compostela, Porto and Coimbra to Lisbon. The same route we took that autumn. She withdrew a large sum of cash in Lisbon on the seventeenth of October. She has not used the card since. I don't know where she is. I cannot know. I am forty-four and I know less and less the older I get. When I was younger I thought my knowledge would increase with the years, that it was steadily expanding like the universe. A constantly widening area of certainty that correspondingly displaced and diminished the reach of uncertainty. I was really very optimistic. With the passage of time I must admit that I know roughly as much as then, perhaps even slightly less, and with nothing like the same certainty. My so-called experiences are not at all the same as knowledge. It is more like, howshall I put it, a kind of echo chamber in which the little I know rings hollow and inadequate. A growing void around a scant knowledge that rattles foolishly like the dried-up kernel in a walnut. My experiences are experiences of ignorance, its boundlessness, and I will never discover how much I still do not know, and how much is just something I believed.

One morning in early October Astrid said she wanted to go away. She was standing at the bathroom sink leaning towards her reflection, painting her lips. She had already dressed, elegant as always, in her usual dark blue. There is something reserved, discreet in her elegance; dark blue, black and white are her favorite colors, and she never wears high heels. That is not necessary. After she said it she met my eyes in the mirror as if to see what would happen. She is still beautiful, and she is most beautiful when I realise once more I am unable to guess her thoughts. I have always been fascinated by the symmetry of her face. Symmetry in a face is not something one can take for granted. Most faces are slightly irregular, either the nose is, or there is a birthmark, a scar or the divergent curve of a line that makes one side different from the other. In Astrid's face the sides mirror each other along her straight nose, which in profile forms a faint, perfectly rounded bow. There is something luxurious, arrogant about her nose. Her eyes are green and narrow, and there is more space between them than in most people. She has broad cheekbones and her jaw is angular and slightly prominent. Her lips are full and almost the same color as her skin, and when she smiles they curl in a subtle, conspiratorial way, and the incipient wrinkles fan out delicately around the corners of her mouth and eyes. She smiles often, even when there is apparently nothing to smile at. When Astrid smiles it is impossible to distinguish her intelligence from her skin's spontaneous registering of the environment, the temperature of the air, the warmth of light and coolness of shadows, as if she has never wanted to be anywhere other than precisely where she is. The years have discreetly begun to mark her body, but she is still slim and erect even though it is eighteen years since she had her second child, and she moves with the same effortless, lithe ease as when we first met.

I would have put out a search for her long ago if I didn't have the bank statement. But she didn't want to be found, I understood that much. I am not to look for her. I asked her where she was planning to go. She didn't know yet. She stayed there in front of the mirror for a while, as if waiting for a reaction. When I said nothing, she left. I heard her voice in the living room as she was phoning, but couldn't hear what she said. There is something lazy, laid-back, about her voice, and every so often it cracks, as if she is always slightly hoarse. Shortly afterwards I heard the door slam. While I was in the shower I saw the sun's reflection on a plane passing overhead between the buildings in back. I had to keep wiping the mist from the mirror so as not to disappear as I covered my face with shaving foam. The same distrustful gaze always meets me in the mirror, as if wanting to tell me he is not who I think he is, that man with white foam all over his face. He looked like a melancholy, tired Santa Claus, framed by the frieze of glazed blue plant stems on the Portuguese tiles around the mirror. She'd found them in a foggy village near Sintra, we had driven the mountain roads' winding green tunnels, I swore because I got my shoes muddy, while she fastidiously and capriciously inspected the detail on the blue tiles as if they differed radically, and the corners of my mouth trembled when I took a drink of the rough wine that a peasant with his jacket full of straw offered me from a barrel on the back of a donkey cart. At night we made love in a blue hotel, and against the shining blue petals and sailing ships and birds on the walls her muffled moans took on an enigmatic tone, making her remote and close at the same time. When I came out of the bathroom she had gone out. The flat was quite. Rosa had more or less moved in with her new boyfriend, and Simon was riding his motorbike somewhere in Sardinia. It wouldn't be long before we were really on our own, Astrid and I. We hadn't talked about it much, maybe because neither of us could quite imagine what it would be like. It was a new silence and we moved about in it with a new carefulness. Before, we had enjoyed the freedom when for some reason the children were away from home. Now the rooms opened out like a distance that we either put behind or allowed to grow between us.

Copyright c TK by TK. English Translation c 2001 Anne Born, published by Harcourt, Inc.
All rights reserved.

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First Chapter

Astrid stands at the rail with her back to the town. The breeze lifts her hair in a ragged, chestnut-brown flag. She's wearing sunglasses and smiling. There is perfect harmony between her white teeth and the white city. The photo is seven years old, I took it in late afternoon on one of the small ferries that cross the Tagus to Cacilhas. Only from a distance do you understand why Lisbon is called "the white city," when the colors flatten and the façades' glazed tiles melt together in the sun's afterglow. The low light falls horizontally on the distant houses rising behind each other over the Praça do Comércio up to the ridges of Bairro Alto and Alfama on the other side of the river. It is a month since she left. I haven't heard from her. The only trace of her is the bank statement showing the activity in our joint account. She rented a car in Paris and used her MasterCard on the route via Bordeaux, San Sebastian, Santiago de Compostela, Porto and Coimbra to Lisbon. The same route we took that autumn. She withdrew a large sum of cash in Lisbon on the seventeenth of October. She has not used the card since. I don't know where she is. I cannot know. I am forty-four and I know less and less the older I get. When I was younger I thought my knowledge would increase with the years, that it was steadily expanding like the universe. A constantly widening area of certainty that correspondingly displaced and diminished the reach of uncertainty. I was really very optimistic. With the passage of time I must admit that I know roughly as much as then, perhaps even slightly less, and with nothing like the same certainty. My so-called experiences are not at all the same as knowledge. It is more like, how shall I put it, a kind of echo chamber in which the little I know rings hollow and inadequate. A growing void around a scant knowledge that rattles foolishly like the dried-up kernel in a walnut. My experiences are experiences of ignorance, its boundlessness, and I will never discover how much I still do not know, and how much is just something I believed.

One morning in early October Astrid said she wanted to go away. She was standing at the bathroom sink leaning towards her reflection, painting her lips. She had already dressed, elegant as always, in her usual dark blue. There is something reserved, discreet in her elegance; dark blue, black and white are her favorite colors, and she never wears high heels. That is not necessary. After she said it she met my eyes in the mirror as if to see what would happen. She is still beautiful, and she is most beautiful when I realise once more I am unable to guess her thoughts. I have always been fascinated by the symmetry of her face. Symmetry in a face is not something one can take for granted. Most faces are slightly irregular, either the nose is, or there is a birthmark, a scar or the divergent curve of a line that makes one side different from the other. In Astrid's face the sides mirror each other along her straight nose, which in profile forms a faint, perfectly rounded bow. There is something luxurious, arrogant about her nose. Her eyes are green and narrow, and there is more space between them than in most people. She has broad cheekbones and her jaw is angular and slightly prominent. Her lips are full and almost the same color as her skin, and when she smiles they curl in a subtle, conspiratorial way, and the incipient wrinkles fan out delicately around the corners of her mouth and eyes. She smiles often, even when there is apparently nothing to smile at. When Astrid smiles it is impossible to distinguish her intelligence from her skin's spontaneous registering of the environment, the temperature of the air, the warmth of light and coolness of shadows, as if she has never wanted to be anywhere other than precisely where she is. The years have discreetly begun to mark her body, but she is still slim and erect even though it is eighteen years since she had her second child, and she moves with the same effortless, lithe ease as when we first met.

I would have put out a search for her long ago if I didn't have the bank statement. But she didn't want to be found, I understood that much. I am not to look for her. I asked her where she was planning to go. She didn't know yet. She stayed there in front of the mirror for a while, as if waiting for a reaction. When I said nothing, she left. I heard her voice in the living room as she was phoning, but couldn't hear what she said. There is something lazy, laid-back, about her voice, and every so often it cracks, as if she is always slightly hoarse. Shortly afterwards I heard the door slam. While I was in the shower I saw the sun's reflection on a plane passing overhead between the buildings in back. I had to keep wiping the mist from the mirror so as not to disappear as I covered my face with shaving foam. The same distrustful gaze always meets me in the mirror, as if wanting to tell me he is not who I think he is, that man with white foam all over his face. He looked like a melancholy, tired Santa Claus, framed by the frieze of glazed blue plant stems on the Portuguese tiles around the mirror. She'd found them in a foggy village near Sintra, we had driven the mountain roads' winding green tunnels, I swore because I got my shoes muddy, while she fastidiously and capriciously inspected the detail on the blue tiles as if they differed radically, and the corners of my mouth trembled when I took a drink of the rough wine that a peasant with his jacket full of straw offered me from a barrel on the back of a donkey cart. At night we made love in a blue hotel, and against the shining blue petals and sailing ships and birds on the walls her muffled moans took on an enigmatic tone, making her remote and close at the same time. When I came out of the bathroom she had gone out. The flat was quite. Rosa had more or less moved in with her new boyfriend, and Simon was riding his motorbike somewhere in Sardinia. It wouldn't be long before we were really on our own, Astrid and I. We hadn't talked about it much, maybe because neither of us could quite imagine what it would be like. It was a new silence and we moved about in it with a new carefulness. Before, we had enjoyed the freedom when for some reason the children were away from home. Now the rooms opened out like a distance that we either put behind or allowed to grow between us.

Copyright © TK by TK. English Translation © 2001 Anne Born, published by Harcourt, Inc. All rights reserved. For permission to reproduce this information, go to our Permissions and Copyright Requests page at http://www.harcourtbooks.com/pol-copyright.html

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Reading Group Guide

1. Why does the narrator say that he "cannot know" where Astrid is, after her seven months' absence? (1) Why doesn't he make every effort to find her and go to her? Why did he not question Astrid when she announces that she is leaving? Why did she not voluntarily offer him an explanation?

2. How might Astrid's appearance and characteristic actions differ from the way in which narrator presents them? He says of Astrid: "Her story is not the same as mine, after all. The pattern of my story hides the story Astrid could have told me if she had not left…" (242-3) In what ways do Astrid's story and Astrid herself emerge through the pattern of the narrator's story? To what degree is Astrid the central being of the novel?

3. To what extent has what the narrator calls "the casino of coincidences" (35) and "randomly coincidental, mutually trivial circumstances" (125)-rather than decision or design-determined his relationships, his actions, and the key events of his life? How important might coincidence and random chance-"minuscule deviations in the blind growth of chance" (126)-be in all our lives?

4. What do the narrator's observations concerning Cézanne, Giacometti, Mondrian, Hopper, and other artists have to do with his view of himself, of Astrid and his relationship with her, and of life itself? What does it tell us about the narrator that, as he himself confesses, he "had only been able to breathe in the flat, silent, and unmoving world of pictures"? (88) Why has he always been so attracted to "the motionless and mute universe of pictures"? (151)

5. In what ways have the narrator, Astrid, and other characters in the novel betrayed one another and themselves? Iseach instance of betrayal or self-betrayal the result of choice or of circumstances? Why does the narrator say that his greatest betrayal was his failure to tell Astrid, on their first evening in Lisbon, that he was on the point of leaving her to live with another woman? How would you describe the process and the consequences of the narrator's betraying his "own inflated, self-consuming heart"? (53)

6. The narrator admits that the story he tells "will only be one of many I could have told with the same strands. How could I know whether any one is more truthful than another?" (54) How would you answer that question? What are the important strands of the narrator's story? Why does he tell his story? We do we all tell stories, to ourselves and others, about our lives and relationships, and how can we know which of our stories are truthful?

7. The narrator likens himself and Astrid on the evening of their first embrace to "unknown, separate worlds, whose boundaries suddenly impinged on each other." (62) To what extent do the partners in any relationship remain unknown, separate worlds to one another? What boundaries and thresholds are crossed and uncrossed in the novel, and with what consequences? How important do you think it is that boundaries-personal and other-be maintained?

8. In relating his chance encounter with Inés in Paris, his life after returning home from the ruined house, and other incidents in his life, the narrator speaks of himself as two personalities-for example: the "old" person who loved Inés and the "he" to whom Astrid had come "like an unexpected gift;" and the hermit and the young lover. To what degree should we view the narrator as composed of distinct personalities, determined either by phases in his life, by his emotions, or by circumstances? What effect might such a view have on the credibility of the narrator's narrative?

9. What is the effect on the reader of the author's presentation of events out of chronological sequence? How does Grøndahl manipulate our responses to characters and events by shifting among various levels of time, ranging from the narrator's childhood to several weeks after Astrid's disappearance? How might Grøndahl's storytelling technique reflect the dynamic flow of memory itself?

10. How accurate is the narrator's mother's diagnosis of his character when she tells him that "ever since I was a child I had carried a darkness within me, which I concealed from my surroundings and which therefore had only grown denser through the years, impenetrable not only to others but even to myself"? (261) What indications, and what consequences, of that darkness appear in the novel? Is the narrator's mother the only person who has seen it? What does she mean when she says that one has to go out into the light on one's own, "at least occasionally, when the darkness within grew too dense and impassable"? (262)

11. "It is only our own helpless lack of synchronicity," the narrator speculates, "the inertia of our senses, the illusory power of memory and habit, that shields us from facing the unknown when we open our eyes in the morning, washed up on the shore of yet another alien day. Every morning we tread an unknown path, and we have only faint and failing memories to tell us who we might be." (291) What additional references are there to the sources and circumstances of our identities and the difficulties of creating and maintaining our identities? To what extent might we view Grøndahl's novel as a study in the fragility and pricelessness of identity?

12. What do you think are the narrator's primary character traits? How do they affect the story he tells and the way he tells his story? How have they affected his relationships and his behavior?

Copyright (c) 2001. Published in the U.S and Canada by Harcourt, Inc.

Written by Hal Hager & Associates, Somerville

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Sort by: Showing all of 3 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted December 1, 2001

    Steadily develops into a powerful treatise on marriage

    The story is a powerful look at contemporary marriage from the viewpont of a fifty-ish Danish man who's wife unexpectedly leaves him one day. He looks back on their years together and reflects on his and her shortcomings. Very well written, great story that makes you want to read more the farther into it you get. This book is translated from the Danish native language it was originally written in; this at times may add to some confusion when the author jumps from past to present and place to place, but if the reader pays attention at the beginning, he will be well rewarded.

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    Posted March 28, 2011

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    Posted August 15, 2009

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