Now an Academy Award-winning major motion picture, starring Academy Award-winners Eddie Redmayne and Alicia Vikander and directed by Academy Award-winner Tom Hooper
National Bestseller * A New York Times Notable Book * Winner of the Lambda Literary Award for Transgender Fiction * Winner of the Rosenthal Foundation Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters * Finalist for the New York Public Library Young Lions Award * Finalist for the American Library Association Stonewall Book Award
Loosely inspired by a true story, this tender portrait of marriage asks: What do you do when the person you love has to change? It starts with a question, a simple favor asked by a wife of her husband while both are painting in their studio, setting off a transformation neither can anticipate. Uniting fact and fiction into an original romantic vision, The Danish Girl eloquently portrays the unique intimacy that defines every marriage and the remarkable story of Lili Elbe, a pioneer in transgender history, and the woman torn between loyalty to her marriage and her own ambitions and desires. The Danish Girl’s lush prose and generous emotional insight make it, after the last page is turned, a deeply moving first novel about one of the most passionate and unusual love stories of the 20th century.
|Publisher:||Penguin Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||5.30(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.70(d)|
|Age Range:||18 Years|
About the Author
David Ebershoff’s debut novel, The Danish Girl, won the 2000 Lambda Literary Award for transgender fiction and has been adapted into a major motion picture starring Academy Award-winner Eddie Redmayne. His most recent novel is the # 1 bestseller The 19th Wife, which was made into a television movie that has aired around the globe. He is also the author of the novel Pasadena and the collection of short stories, The Rose City. His books have been translated into twenty languages to critical acclaim. Ebershoff has appeared twice on Out Magazine's annual Out 100 list of influential LGBT people. He teaches in the graduate writing program at Columbia University and has worked for many years as an editor at Random House. Originally from California, he lives in New York City.
Read an Excerpt
His wife knew first. "Do me a small favor?" Greta called from the bedroom that first afternoon. "Just help me with something for a little bit?"
"Of course," Einar said, his eyes on the canvas. "Anything at all."
The day was cool, the chill blowing in from the Baltic. They were in their apartment in the Widow House, Einar, small and not yet thirty-five, painting from memory a winter scene of the Kattegat Sea. The black water was white-capped and cruel, the grave of hundreds of fishermen returning to Copenhagen with their salted catch. The neighbor below was a sailor, a man with a bullet-shaped head who cursed his wife. When Einar painted the gray curl of each wave, he imagined the sailor drowning, a desperate hand raised, his potato-vodka voice still calling his wife a port whore. It was how Einar knew just how dark to mix his paints: gray enough to swallow a man like that, to fold over like batter his sinking growl.
"I'll be out in a minute," said Greta, younger than her husband and handsome with a wide flat face. "Then we can start."
In this way as well Einar was different from his wife. He painted the land and the seasmall rectangles lit by June's angled light, or dimmed by the dull January sun. Greta painted portraits, often to full scale, of mildly important people with pink lips and shine in the grain of their hair. Herr I. Glückstadt, the financier behind the Copenhagen Free Harbor. Christian Dahlgaard, furrier to the king. Ivar Knudsen, member of the shipbuilding firm Burmeister and Wain. Today was to have beenAnna Fonsmark, mezzo-soprano from the Royal Danish Opera. Managing directors and industry titans commissioned Greta to paint portraits that hung in offices, above a filing cabinet, or along a corridor nicked by a worker's cart.
Greta appeared in the door frame. "You sure you won't mind stopping for a bit to help me out?" she said, her hair pulled back. "I wouldn't have asked if it weren't important. It's just that Anna's canceled again. So would you mind trying on her stockings?" Greta asked. "And her shoes?"
The April sun was behind Greta, filtering through the silk hanging limply in her hand. Through the window, Einar could see the tower of the Rundetårn, like an enormous brick chimney, and above it the Deutscher Aero-Lloyd puttering out on its daily return to Berlin.
"Greta?" Einar said. "What do you mean?" An oily bead of paint dropped from his brush to his boot. Edvard IV began to bark, his white head turning from Einar to Greta and back.
"Anna's canceled again," Greta said. "She has an extra rehearsal of Carmen. I need a pair of legs to finish her portrait, or I'll never get it done. And then I thought to myself, yours might do."
Greta moved toward him, the shoes in her other hand sennep-yellow with pewter buckles. She was wearing her button-front smock with the patch pockets where she tucked things she didn't want Einar to see.
"But I can't wear Anna's shoes," Einar said. Looking at them, Einar imagined that the shoes might in fact fit his feet, which were small and arched and padded softly on the heel. His toes were slender, with a few fine black hairs. He imagined the wrinkled roll of the stocking gliding over the white bone of his ankle. Over the small cushion of his calf. Clicking into the hook of a garter. Einar had to shut his eyes.
The shoes were like the ones they had seen the previous week in the window of Fonnesbech's department store, displayed on a mannequin in a midnight-blue dress. Einar and Greta had stopped to admire the window, which was trimmed with a garland of jonquils. Greta said, "Pretty, yes?" When he didn't respond, his reflection wide-eyed in the plate glass, Greta had to pull him away from Fonnesbech's window. She tugged him down the street, past the pipe shop, saying, "Einar, are you all right?"
The front room of the apartment served as their studio. Its ceiling was ribbed with thin beams and vaulted like an upside-down dory. Sea mist had warped the dormer windows, and the floor tilted imperceptibly to the west. In the afternoon, when the sun beat against the Widow House, a faint smell of herring would seep from its walls. In winter the skylights would leak, a cold drizzle bubbling the paint on the wall. Einar and Greta stood their easels beneath the twin skylights, next to the boxes of oil paint ordered from Herr Salathoff in Munich, and the racks of blank canvases. When Einar and Greta weren't painting, they protected everything beneath green tarps the sailor below had abandoned on the landing.
"Why do you want me to wear her shoes?" Einar asked. He sat in the rope-bottom chair that had come from the backshed of his grandmother's farm. Edvard IV jumped into his lap; the dog was trembling from the yelling of the sailor below.
"For my painting of Anna," Greta said. And then, "I'd do it for you." On the point of her cheek was a single shallow chicken-pox scar. Her finger was brushing it gently, something she did, Einar knew, when she was anxious.
Greta knelt to unlace Einar's boots. Her hair was long and yellow, more Danish in color than his; she would push it behind her ears whenever she wanted to get busy on something new. Now it was slipping over her face as she picked at the knot in Einar's laces. She smelled of orange oil, which her mother shipped over once a year in a case of brown bottles labeled PURE PASADENA EXTRACT. Her mother thought Greta was baking tea cakes with the oil, but instead Greta used it to dab behind her ears.
Greta began to wash Einar's feet in the basin. She was gentle but efficient, quickly pulling the sea sponge between his toes. Einar rolled up his trousers even further. His calves looked, he suddenly thought, shapely. He delicately pointed his foot, and Edvard IV moved to lick the water from his little toe, the one that was hammer-headed and born without a nail.
"We'll keep this our secret, Greta?" Einar whispered. "You won't tell anyone, will you?" He was both frightened and excited, and the child's fist of his heart was beating in his throat.
"Who would I tell?"
"Anna doesn't need to know," Greta said. Even so, Anna was an opera singer, Einar thought. She was used to men dressing in women's clothes. And women in men's, the Hosenrolle. It was the oldest deceit in the world. And on the opera stage it meant nothing at allnothing but confusion. A confusion that was always resolved in the final act.
"Nobody needs to know anything," Greta said, and Einar, who felt as if a white stage light were on him, began to relax and work the stocking up his calf.
"You're putting it on backwards," Greta said, righting the seam. "Pull gently."
The second stocking ripped. "Do you have another?" Einar asked.
Greta's face froze, as if she was just realizing something; then she went to a drawer in the pickled-ash wardrobe. The wardrobe had a closet on top with an oval mirror in its door, and three drawers with brass-hoop handles; the top one Greta locked with a little key.
"These are heavier," Greta said, handing Einar a second pair. Folded neatly into a square, the stockings looked to Einar like a patch of flesha patch of Greta's skin, brown from a summer holiday in Menton. "Please be careful," she said. "I was going to wear them tomorrow."
The part through Greta's hair revealed a strip of silvery-white flesh, and Einar began to wonder what she was thinking beneath it. With her eyes slanted up and her mouth pinched, she seemed intent on something. Einar felt incapable of asking; he nearly felt bound, with an old paint rag tied across his mouth. And so he wondered about his wife silently, with a touch of resentment ripening beneath his face, which was pale and smooth and quite like the skin of a white peach. "Aren't you a pretty man," she had said, years ago, when they were first alone.
Greta must have noticed his discomfort, because she reached out and held Einar's cheeks and said, "It means nothing." And then, "When will you stop worrying about what other people think?"
Einar loved it when Greta made such declarationsthe way she'd swat her hands through the air and claim her beliefs as the faith of the rest of the world. He thought it her most American trait, that and her taste for silver jewelry.
"It's a good thing you don't have much hair on your legs," Greta said, as if noticing it for the first time. She was mixing her oil paints in the little ceramic Knabstrup bowls. Greta had finished the upper half of Anna's body, which years of digesting buttered salmon had buried in a fine layer of fat. Einar was impressed with the way Greta had painted Anna's hands holding a bouquet of day lilies. The fingers were carefully rendered, the knuckles puckered, the nails clear but opaque. The lilies were a pretty moon-white, stained with rusty pollen. Greta was an inconsistent painter, but Einar never told her so. Instead, he praised as much as he could, perhaps too much. But he helped her wherever possible, and would try to teach her techniques he thought she didn't know, especially about light and distance. If Greta ever found the right subject, Einar had no doubt, she would become a fine painter. Outside the Widow House a cloud shifted, and sunlight fell on the half-portrait of Anna.
The model's platform Greta used was a lacquer trunk bought from the Cantonese laundress who would make a pickup every other day, announcing herself not with a call from the street but with the ping! of the gold cymbals strapped to her fingers.
Standing on the trunk, Einar began to feel dizzy and warm. He looked down at his shins, the silk smooth except for a few hairs bursting through like the tiny hard fuzz on a bean. The yellow shoes looked too dainty to support him, but his feet felt natural arched up, as if he was stretching a long-unused muscle. Something began to run through Einar's head, and it made him think of a fox chasing a fieldmouse: the thin red nose of the fox digging for the mouse through the folds of a pulse field.
"Stand still," Greta said. Einar looked out the window and saw the fluted dome of the Royal Theatre, where he sometimes painted sets for the opera company. Right now, inside, Anna was rehearsing Carmen, her soft arms raised defiantly in front of the scrim he'd painted of the Seville bullring. Sometimes when Einar was at the theatre painting, Anna's voice would rise in the hall like a chute of copper. It would make him tremble so much that his brush would smudge the backdrop, and he would rub his fists against his eyes. Anna's wasn't a beautiful voicerough-edged and sorrowful, a bit used, somehow male and female at once. Yet it had more vibrancy than most Danish voices, which were often thin and white and too pretty to trigger a shiver. Anna's voice had the heat of the South; it warmed Einar, as if her throat were red with coals. He would climb down from his ladder backstage and move to the theatre's wings: he'd watch Anna, in her white lamb's-wool tunic, open her square mouth as she rehearsed with Conductor Dyvik. She would lean forward when she sang; Anna always said there was a musical gravity pulling her chin toward the orchestra pit. "I think of a thin silver chain connected to the tip of the conductor's baton and fastened right here," she would say, pointing to the mole that sat on her chin like a crumb. "Without that little chain, I almost feel I wouldn't know what to do. I wouldn't know how to be me."
When Greta painted, she'd pull her hair back with a tortoiseshell comb; it made her face look larger, as if Einar were looking at it through a bowl of water. Greta was probably the tallest woman he'd ever known, her head high enough to glance over the half-lace curtains ground-floor residents hung in their street windows. Next to her Einar felt small, as if he were her son, looking up beyond her chin to her eyes, reaching for a hanging hand. Her patch-pocket smock was a special order from the white-bunned seamstress around the corner, who measured Greta's chest and arms with a yellow tape and with admiration and disbelief that such a large, healthy woman wasn't a Dane.
Greta painted with a flexible concentration that Einar admired. She was able to dab at the gleam in a left eye and then answer the door and accept the delivery from the Busk Milk Supply Company and return effortlessly to the slightly duller glare in the right. She'd sing what she called campfire songs while she painted. She'd tell the person she was painting about her girlhood in California, where peacocks nested in her father's orange groves; she'd tell her female subjectsas Einar once overheard upon returning to the apartment's door at the top of the dark stairsabout their longer and longer intervals between intimacy: "He takes it so very personally. But I never blame him," she'd say, and Einar would imagine her pushing her hair behind her ears.
"They're drooping," Greta said, pointing her paintbrush at his stockings. "Pull them up."
"Is this really necessary?"
The sailor below slammed a door, and then it was silent except for his giggling wife.
"Oh, Einar," Greta said. "Will you ever relax?" Her smile sank and disappeared into her face. Edvard IV trotted into the bedroom, and began to dig through the bedclothes; then came a fed baby's sigh. He was an old dog, from the farm in Jutland, born in a bog; his mother and the rest of the litter had drowned in the damp peat.
The apartment was in the attic of a building the government opened in the previous century for the widows of fishermen. It had windows facing north, south, and west and, unlike most of the townhouses in Copenhagen, could give Einar and Greta enough room and light to paint. They had almost moved into one of the burgher houses in Christianshavn on the other side of the Inderhavn, where artists were settling in with the prostitutes and the gambling drunks, alongside the cement-mixing firms and the importers. Greta said she could live anywhere, that nothing was too seedy for her; but Einar, who had slept under a thatch roof the first fifteen years of his life, decided against it, and found the space in the Widow House.
The facade was painted red, and the house sat one block from Nyhavns Kanal. The dormer windows stuck out of the steep, clay-tile roof, which was black with moss, and the skylights were cut high in the pitch. The other buildings on the street were whitewashed, with eight-paneled doors painted the color of kelp. Across the way lived a doctor named Moller who received emergency calls from women giving birth in the night. But few motorcars sputtered down the street, which dead-ended at the Inderhavn, making it quiet enough to hear the echo of a shy girl's cry.
"I need to get back to my own work," Einar finally said, tired of standing in the shoes, the pewter buckles pressing sharply.
"Does that mean you don't want to try on her dress?"
When she said the word "dress" his stomach filled with heat, followed by a clot of shame rising in his chest. "No, I don't think so," Einar said.
"Not even for a few minutes?" she asked. "I need to paint the hem against her knees." Greta was sitting on the rope-bottom chair beside him, stroking Einar's calf through the silk. Her hand was hypnotic, its touch telling him to close his eyes. He could hear nothing but the little rough scratch of her fingernail against the silk.
But then Greta stopped. "No, I'm sorry," she said. "I shouldn't have asked."
Now Einar saw that the door to the pickled-ash wardrobe was open, and hanging inside was Anna's dress. It was white, with drop beads along the knee-hem and the cuff. A window was cracked, and the dress was swaying gently on the hanger. There was something about the dressabout the dull sheen of its silk, about the bib of lace in the bodice, about the hook-buttons on the cuffs, unlatched and split apart like little mouthsthat made Einar want to touch it.
"Do you like it?" Greta asked.
He thought about saying no, but that would have been a lie. He liked the dress, and he could nearly feel the flesh beneath his skin ripening.
"Then just slip it on for a few minutes." Greta brought it to Einar and held it to his chest.
"Greta," he said, "what if I"
"Just take off your shirt," she said.
And he did.
"What if I"
"Just close your eyes," she said.
And he did.
Even with his eyes closed, standing shirtless in front of his wife felt obscene. It felt as if she'd caught him doing something he had promised he would avoidnot like adultery, but more like resuming a bad habit he'd given his word he would quit, like drinking aquavit in the canal bars of Christianshavn or eating frikadeller in bed or shuffling through the deck of suede-backed girlie cards he once bought on a lonely afternoon.
"And your trousers," Greta said. Her hand reached out, and she politely turned her head. The bedroom window was open, and the brisk fishy air was pimpling his skin.
Einar quickly pulled the dress over his head, adjusting the lap. He was sweating in the pits of his arms, in the small of his back. The heat was making him wish he could close his eyes and return to the days when he was a boy and what dangled between his legs was as small and useless as a white radish.
Greta only said, "Good." Then she lifted her brush to the canvas. Her blue eyes narrowed, as if examining something on the point of her nose.
A strange watery feeling was filling Einar as he stood on the lacquer trunk, the sunlight moving across him, the scent of herring in the air. The dress was loose everywhere except in the sleeves, and he felt warm and submerged, as if dipping into a summer sea. The fox was chasing the mouse, and there was a distant voice in his head: the soft cry of a scared little girl.
It became difficult for Einar to keep his eyes open, to continue watching Greta's fast, fishlike movements as her hand darted at the canvas, then pulled away, her silver bracelets and rings turning like a school of chub. It become difficult for him to continue thinking about Anna singing over at the Royal Theatre, her chin leaning toward the conductor's baton. Einar could concentrate only on the silk dressing his skin, as if it were a bandage. Yes, that was how it felt the first time: the silk was so fine and airy that it felt like a gauzea balm-soaked gauze lying delicately on healing skin. Even the embarrassment of standing before his wife began to no longer matter, for she was busy painting with a foreign intensity in her face. Einar was beginning to enter a shadowy world of dreams where Anna's dress could belong to anyone, even to him.
And just as his eyelids were becoming heavy and the studio was beginning to dim, just as he sighed and let his shoulders fall, and Edvard IV was snoring in the bedroom, just at this moment Anna's coppery voice sang out, "Take a look at Einar!"
His eyes opened. Greta and Anna were pointing, their faces bright, their lips peeled apart. Edvard IV began to bark in front of Einar. And Einar Wegener couldn't move.
Greta took from Anna her bouquet of day lilies, a gift from a stage-door fan, and pressed them into Einar's arms. With his head lifted like a little trumpet player, Edvard IV began to run protective circles around Einar. While the two women laughed some more, Einar's eyes began to roll back into his head, filling with tears. He was stung by their laughter, along with the perfume of the white lilies, whose rusty pistils were leaving dusty prints in the lap of the dress, against the garish lump in his groin, on the stockings, all over his open wet hands.
"You're a whore," the sailor below called tenderly. "You're one hell of a beautiful whore."
From downstairs, the silence implied a forgiving kiss. Then there was even louder laughter from Greta and Anna, and just as Einar was about to beg them to leave the studio, to let him change out of the dress in peace, Greta said, her voice soft and careful and unfamiliar, "Why don't we call you Lili?"
What People are Saying About This
Praise for The Danish Girl
“Heartbreaking and unforgettable . . . a complete triumph.”—The Boston Globe
“An unusual and affecting love story.”—The New York Times
“A sophisticated and searching meditation on the nature of identity.”—Esquire
“It is nearly impossible not to be moved.”—The Baltimore Sun
A sophisticated and searching meditation on the nature of identity.
Reading Group Guide
On a gray April day in Dresden a few years ago, I climbed the forty-one steps to the Brühlsche Terrace to have a look at the view. The river Elbe was running dark and fast, and the city, a ghost of its former self, sat sternly beneath a sky sagging with a late snow. The city bustled—electric trams and sub-compact cars and bicycles with wicker baskets and a police van in a chase with its blue light flashing. Across the river were stucco apartment complexes with washing tubs on the terraces and slab-concrete shopping arcades where garbage blew in a cold wind.
A city shaking itself alive after a century of terrible history, it seemed to me that day. From that view it was nearly impossible to imagine the former Dresden, once called the Teutonic Florence, and the terrace where I sat in the chill was known as the Balcony of Europe. "The most beautiful city on the Continent," proclaimed a 1909 English guidebook, Romantic Germany, the sort of book with hand-tinted illustrations of half-timber houses and water wells with little thatched roofs. And now this, a city bombed and burned and then choked for more than fifty years by the grip of the Communist East, startled by its recent freedom and the early green shoots of prosperity. Little remained to remind one of Dresden circa 1930. The view from the terrace only spoke of the air raids of February 1945; of the quartering of the German nation a few months later; of the long haul through the Soviet reign; of the wall a few hours to the north crumbling in November 1989. But I was there to research the beautiful past, the history through which Einar Wegener and Lili Elbe walked.
The wind was sharp and I sealed my eyes against its bite, and there, in the half-instant of a blink, lay the old Dresden where Einar arrived one cold day in 1930 to transform himself once and for all into a pretty shy girl named Lili. My job was to imagine the past, to hunt through the remnants that lay in the streets and in the library archives that could suggest a world that once was. I was in Germany alone, and other than the librarians at the Dresden Hygiene Museum and my hired translator who scrolled through the microfiche with me, I spoke to no one during my stay. And it was that day on the Brühlsche Terrace that I came to recognize one of the fundamental tasks of writing a novel such as The Danish Girl.
Every novel has its own internal memory, the organic creation that the reader and the writer recall, directly or indirectly, as the story propels itself along. But, as I sorted out the story of Einar and Lili and Greta, I began to wonder whose memory was relevant to my role as novelist. For Lili Elbe, that young Danish woman whom Greta Waud first brought into daylight, had a history and a memory that belonged to Einar—but did it really? On that gray day I began to understand some of the novel's questions: whose memory informs our own; how does the past, seemingly obliterated, infuse our vision of the world at hand, and of ourselves.
Dresden was gone, razed by an impressively American combination of firepower and efficiency, and yet the city, all of it, lay at my feet, beneath the terrace where lovers rented paddleboats, in the square outside the Semperoper, in the young grass growing along the banks of the Elbe. 1930 was within my grasp, and so was Lili Elbe conjuring memories of a person gone—her own person gone; but not really. It led me to this: on the day that Professor Bolk performed his surgery on Lili Elbe, Einar Wegener disappeared; yet where did he go? From then who would house his memories? He was dead but unburied, and Lili, who very much believed she was a different soul than Einar, had to live with a history that was and was not her own.
I asked myself if this is any different than what humanity shoves upon the rest of us? Each of us is defined by our own past, but also by that of our family and lovers and friends and enemies, as well as our country and civilization. On that April day the wind crossed the terrace with an iciness that stung the eyes, and the novel which I was writing about Einar and Lili, still untitled and far from complete, took shape.
Identity—the loss and acquisition of it, the borrowing, the stealing, the rejection, the embrace; we grow up and declare ourselves yet the beautiful and awful past lingers forever. Beneath the rubble and the char, inside the pre-fab concrete and the asbestos tiles, swirling amid the factory belch and the cough of the car, rising in the wind, in the face of a daffodil bending beneath the last snow of the year, history and memory are held aloft by imagination and the sun as bright as a white kite above the river. Nothing is lost, I told myself that day in Dresden. A novel is written so nothing can be lost.
ABOUT DAVID EBERSHOFF
David Ebershoff is the publishing director of the Modern Library, a division of Random House, Inc. He is the author of the international bestseller The Danish Girl and visiting lecturer at Princeton University.
A CONVERSATION WITH DAVID EBERSHOFF
How did you discover the story of Einar, Greta, and Lili?
A few years ago, a friend who works at a university press mailed me a book about gender theory that his press was publishing. I took it home and casually began to flip through it. Not much of a reader of theory, I didn't expect to like the book. And I was right—too much discussion of literary constructs and not enough of character, story, and plot, the notions that really get a novelist going. But buried in the book, parenthetically in fact, was a short paragraph about Einar Wegener, the first person ever to undergo a successful sex change. I had always thought that Christine Jorgensen, an American GI from Brooklyn, had been the first man to surgically change into a woman. Something in this tangential paragraph—it mentioned that Wegener was a painter and that his wife had helped him in his transformation—made me curious. Why was this man forgotten from history? Who was he? Who was his wife? How did such a change affect their marriage?
Curious, I went to the New York Public Library and began to search for references to Einar Wegener. I found none in my first attempt. So I turned to books about gender and sexual identity, and that was where the name Lili Elbe first came up in connection to Einar Wegener. A number of references, short and often contradictory, ultimately led me to Lili Elbe's diaries and correspondence, which were published in 1933, soon after her death. This is where my true research began.
How did you research the facts that are left to us?
In some ways writing a novel, especially a novel set in the past and about characters who once lived, is about amassing enough details and arranging them properly in order to offer the reader a verisimilitude that satisfies his or her curiosity about the story at hand. And yet all of this must be done in a voice and style that makes the story the novelist's own. The Danish Girlwas written with the assistance of the staffs at five libraries, each of which provided me invaluable sources about the novel's subjects and places: the Royal Danish Library and the library of the Royal Academy of Arts, both in Copenhagen; the library at the Dresden Hygiene Museum; the New York Public Library; and the Pasadena Public Library.
Some of the most important references for the novel include the news reports on Wegener's transformation that appeared in the Danish press in 1930 and 1931, especially those in Politiken and Nationaltidende, which I read on microfiche at the Royal Library in Copenhagen. In 1931 Lili Elbe set out to explain her life to the public, cooperating on a series of essays in Politiken. She had a friend who was an editor at the newspaper who allowed her to pen the articles as if they were written by a third person. These essays told the world about Einar's gradual evolution from married man and prominent artist to young woman, and the doctor in Dresden who performed the three surgeries. Months after these essays ran, in a final gesture to Lili Elbe's fantastic story, Politiken published Lili's obituary under the by-line of Fru Loulou, although much suggests that Lili wrote the article herself; hence, Lili, in characteristic fashion, scripted the last words the world would read about herself.
Shortly after Lili Elbe died in 1931, a friend of hers, Niels Hoyer, edited her diaries and correspondence and published them in a book under the title Fra Mand Til Kvinde (Man Into Woman). The diary was an invaluable source of information about Einar Wegener and Lili Elbe, especially about the transformation, his stay at the Dresden Municipal Women's Clinic, and the medical procedures and examinations performed on him. The diary also gave me clues of where to look for other information: the Royal Academy of Art and the neighborhood around Nyhavns Kanal, the radium institute in Rungsted, the rural bog-villages of Jutland where Einar grew up, the medical clinics in Paris and Dresden.
Why do you think the story of Einar and Greta was forgotten?
One could speculate forever why the story was nearly forgotten. Wegener underwent his surgeries in the early 1930s, a time of great anxiety in the world, especially the parts of Western Europe where he lived—Copenhagen, Paris, Dresden. The dark cloud of economic disaster, fascism, and, eventually, Nazism had already rolled over the continent. It does not surprise me that this story was lost in the horrible events of the subsequent fifteen years. That is one reason. Yet, of course, another reason is the nature of Wegener's transformation. Even today transgendered people struggle to incorporate themselves into society, without much assistance from most of us. But in the 1930s the story was almost too much to absorb: not only was the world hearing for the first time about a person with a jumbled state of gender, the headlines were also shouting that gender switching was now medically possible. Around the world the newspapers reported Wegener's transformation with a mixture of awe and judgment. It was a big story at the time, but when Lili Elbe died in 1931, even the most sympathetic newspapers in Copenhagen reported it as more of a footnote than as a summary of a remarkable event. But Lili Elbe made her best attempt to keep her head above the closing waters of history with her self-authored obituary in Politiken.
What inspired you about this story to make it the subject of your first novel?
Marriage fascinates me: how we negotiate its span, how we change within it, how it changes itself, and why some relationships survive themselves and others do not. There isn't a single marriage that couldn't provide enough narrative arc for a novel. As I see it, the heart of the story of Einar, Lili, and Greta lies not in the sex change but in the intimate space that made up their marriage. They were in love, across several years, even when they lived as two women. What kind of relationship can withstand a shift like that? Put simply, it is the question that we perpetually ask ourselves: what is love?
Something else I came to understand when I began to read about Einar Wegener and Lili Elbe is that we all, in some ways, are born into the wrong body. We struggle throughout our lives to learn to accept the shell that transports us through this world. I believe everyone has at least once looked in the mirror and thought, "That is not who I am. I was meant to be someone else." Obviously most of us do not take such drastic measures to come to terms with who we are, but there is universality to Einar's question of identity—look not at my body, look at my soul.
How much of The Danish Girl is based on fact? Why did you choose at times to stray from the facts—especially with the ending?
ASome of the basic events of Einar's transformation are based on fact—the first time he dresses as Lili, the mysterious bleeding, the stay at the Dresden Municipal Clinic, for example. But most of the novel is invented. I wanted to write a love story, the novel about Einar and Greta's marriage. To do so required speculation and imagination of how they lived, how they worked together, how they fought, how they loved each other. In The Danish Girl I changed many parts of their story in order to write a love story with its own logic. Probably one of the greatest changes I made was making Greta (whose real name was Gerda) an American. She is the hero of the novel, in my opinion. In order to convey the depth of her love for her husband, and then for Lili, I felt the need to invent a new character with a history that helps to inform how she approaches her marriage to Einar. The end of the novel is an extension of all this. In my ending I needed to resolve their marriage—this after all is what the novel is about. In reality, Gerda Wegener and Lili Elbe drifted apart, which seemed nearly implausible, and hopelessly sad, after all they had done for each other.
What challenges were involved in creating a character that begins as a man and ends a woman?
The most interesting part of imagining such a character was thinking about past and present. The past plays a great role in the novel, as it does in most fiction. But what intrigued me was whose past was it. When Einar was living as Lili, whose childhood was remembered, which memories, both physical and emotional belonged to Einar, to Lili, and to both? Einar Wegener entered the Dresden Municipal Women's Clinic in the spring of 1930, and several months later Lili Elbe exited it. What happened to Einar's past—all his fondness and regret and frustrations and remembered dreams? How would I account for that?
In reality, Einar Wegener truly felt that he did a full switch from man into woman; that with the blade of a knife he went from male to female as efficiently as you or I turn on or off the light to a room. But I believe this was simplistic of him. My understanding of what happens in the transformation is different. I believe, and this is another reason I wrote this story as fiction, that Einar was both man and woman, not one or the other, and that living his life as either would never have been exactly correct. Physically this was true he had physical characteristics of both men and women. But more important, his psyche and his spirit belonged to both genders, perhaps not equally, but even after the operation Einar was not entirely female. How could he have been? He thought he was, but that was not the case. Certainly writing about a person who is both male and female is a challenge, but in the best sense because of the possibilities.
What were your literary influences?
It is hard to say which writers have influenced me, but some of my favorite contemporary writers are Joyce Carol Oates, Joan Didion, John Updike, Alice Munro, Mavis Gallant, Eudora Welty, Kazuo Ishiguro, and Doris Lessing. I also adore Jane Austen, the Brontes, E. M. Forster, D. H. Lawrence, Thomas Mann, and Thomas Hardy.
Greta is a fascinating character. Why does Greta encourage Einar to cross-dress? What motivates her and how does she reconcile these motives with the pain it also causes her?
Greta possesses an unusual combination of independence and fidelity. She is self-driven and fiercely individual, yet at the same time she holds a profound sense of dedication to the two men she marries, especially Einar. She will do anything for him. She knows him better than he knows himself and recognizes even before Einar that he responds to dressing as a woman. Greta encourages Einar to live as Lili because she knows it is what Einar wants—and that is always enough of a reason for Greta. Except nothing is ever that simple. Greta's career takes off with her paintings of Lili. She needs Lili as much as Einar. And I believe Greta is never fully honest with herself or her husband about how Lili has changed her life as an artist. Einar could not have become Lili without Greta, but Greta could not have become the artist of her ambitions without Lili. Their motives and actions are snarled and inextricable.
How did writing this book affect your views on the choices of the transgendered?
Writing the novel gave me a new understanding of courage. And seventy years after Lili Elbe made her historically courageous decision, it still requires nearly super-human courage to decide to proceed with a sex change. This is changing, gradually, slowly. It requires a faith that you can turn your world on its head and yet still emerge with a sense of yourself intact. How many of us are strong enough to do something like that?
The Danish Girl is about a lot more than the story of the first transsexual. What do you hope readers will be left with when they read this novel?
Whom do we love, and why do we love them, and how do we love them, and what do we do to help and harm that love—a better understanding of all that is, ultimately, what I hope a reader thinks about when the last page has been read. Those questions, and: there once lived a brave man with a beautiful wife and a mysterious Danish girl, and their story, their marriage, their individual and joint transformations, are worthy of our memory.
- What is the true nature of Greta and Einar's marriage? Is it, at heart, a love story?
- Who do you think must cope with the most change?
- Would Einar have become Lili without Greta's help? Why does he initially agree to try on Anna's dress? Would Greta have done the same for Einar?
- What role does the city of Copenhagen play in influencing the lives of its characters?
- Greta loves the men in her life in different ways. Are there any similarities between her love for Teddy and her love for Einar?
- When Henrik says to Lili "I already know. Don't worry about anything but I already know" (page 60) what does he mean? What role does Einar play in Lili telling Henrik she can't see him anymore?
- What is happening to Einar when he goes to Mme. Jasmin-Carton's and dances for the man? How does this influence his full metamorphosis into Lili?
- Why doesn't Lili pack Einar's paintings to take with her to New York? What do the paintings symbolize for Lili?
- Why doesn't Lili tell Greta about re-meeting Henrik?
- Should Greta have done more to stop Lili's last operation? Why or why not?
- How much does the last operation mean to Lili, in terms of becoming a complete woman? Should she have risked it?
- Of the people Lili feels are responsible for her birth—Henrik, Anna, Carlilse, Hans, Greta—why doesn't she include Einar?
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
This is a most unusual, perhaps unique novel of one man's journey from being a man to becoming a woman. Einar is Danish, and married to a California woman. They live in Denmark, and the story starts in the 1920s. There is a woman entrapped in Einar's body, and as the book progresses 'Lili' becomes the predominant personality. Einar/Lili's wife Greta is supportive, and loves both persons. She and their circle of friends help Einar find a doctor who performs on Einar what is evidently the first transsexual operation. This book is based on a true event, but the author's motivation in writing the book is not to record history. He attempts to focus on the emotional life of the characters. What does Greta feel as her husband slowly fades away, and a young woman takes his place? How does Einar cope with his sexual confusion? I feel the author is not totally successful in meeting this literary challenge. Greta is almost saintly in her support. Would she not have gone through more emotional turmoil than is predicted here? For one thing their weak sex life all but disappeared shortly after they married. All of their friends are totally behind Greta and Einar. Were people in Europe in the 1920s that much more tolerant than 20th century Americans? Perhaps so, but the author seems to me to have buried an awful lot of feelings. I worked for many years in the field of mental health, and came across a few transsexual patients. They were seriously conflicted individuals. In any event this is a novel unlike any that I have read before. Highly recommended unless you find such topics threatening.
In the 1920's, Denmark saw the rise of one of its most renowned artistic couples, Einar and Greta Wegener. Einar was a native Dane, born and raised in the bogs of Bluetooth by an elderly grandmother and a bedridden father. Motherless and alone, Einar befriended the son of the Baron who helps Einar break out of his shell and learn his first lesson about gender identity. After years of smothering his feminine feelings, Einar picks up the paintbrush and loses himself in the scenic panoramas of his art. Greta Waud grew up in the orange groves of California. Heiress to her parent's orange empire, Greta constantly felt the need to escape her life and found this escape in her first husband, Teddy, and then in Copenhagen. Greta's first marriage ended with the death of her husband and her child. Greta's second marriage ended with a death and a birth. But, Greta's artistic career flourishes when she begins to paint her favorite subject, a shy but pretty young woman named Lili. The Danish Girl is a fictionalized account of the life of Einar Wegener, Danish painter and the first person to undergo gender reassignment surgery. It is also a story about love, marriage, loss, and metamorphosis. David Ebershoff does a wonderful job of portraying the depth of love that one person can have for another and the almost split personality that the transgendered must endure in order to cope with a body that doesn't match with who they are. A motion picture based upon The Danish Girl is in the works.
I have never before reviewed a novel on this site, just because i never saw a point, or perhaps never read a novel good enough for me to really recommend. But The Danish Girl deserves the credit. A novel and story that i became emotionally connected to and was unable to put down. Beautiful.
As a book lover of the somewhat off beat, I was intrigued by the information on the cover... I was surprised at how much I enjoyed reading this, something I really didn't want to put down. I was swept away into Lili's world, filled with happiness, sadness, fear and self. Truely worth the read.
I couldn't put this book down! The author does a wonderful job of transporting you to 1930's Paris and Dresden. Also, if you are at all interested in questions of sexual or gender identity you will find this book a must read.