Prince: A Novel

Prince: A Novel

Paperback(First Edition)

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For lovers of Howard Norman's The Bird Artist, Prince is an evocative, richly imagined novel about a defining season in the life of a young outcast. In 1912 at a provinical Danish seaside hotel, twelve-year-old Malte, a charity case from the city, revels in the freedom of summer. Largely a solitary boy, Malte spends his days on the beach, transfixed by the sea. When a coffin containing a young sailor drifts ashore, Malte is soon absorbed in the sailor's tragic love story and dramatic death, and their fates become dangerously intertwined.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780312273255
Publisher: Picador
Publication date: 04/07/2001
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 320
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.50(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Ib Michael is one of Denmark's foremost writers. The author of more than twenty books, he has traveled throughout the world. Prince is his first novel to be published in the United States. He lives in Copenhagen.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One


It begins in mist. Far up on the top of the world, where no one sees, the ice splits with a crack that rings out over white fjords. The sea shows blue between the floes; the night that has lasted half the year, with the sun lying below the horizon, is over. The ice rim creaks and groans, fissure chases fissure as a mountain of glass—the size of the palace of fairy tale, with turrets and crenellations and windows long hidden by the snow—breaks off and puts out to sea in howling winds.

    The long day has returned.

    It rocks on seas running south, is tossed by storms that wash its sides smooth once more while its turrets taper into awls and drip under a sun that climbs the heavens, a little higher with each day.

    The palace rests on a foundation of aquamarine shadows. As the heat gains a hold, the ice grows brittle. The water starts to undermine it, outside and in; small lacunae appear, drop by drip it is whittled away. In certain lights it resembles a cathedral with stained-glass windows, round and tall, as the ice forms prisms and breaks up the light. Or it twirls gently in the current to reveal a mosque with onion domes.

    Everything floats and the sun wheels in its course. The rifts slice right through; with an echo of the fjord which, after more than half a century's slumber, set the iceberg free, it too calves. A shape comes to light at the heart of it, a darker pattern reminiscent of tattered cobwebs in the palace halls.

   Relentlessly the erosion continues. The salt of the sea, days of sunlight, the steadily rising temperature. Like fairy-tale palaces, this one is in fact porous; ever so slowly, as it nears human habitation, it is trickling away of its own accord. But the structure at its heart still stands, the cobwebs hanging now from spars; the palace has altered shape and no turrets now reach skywards.

    By the time it leaves the Arctic Ocean and the North Atlantic winds take over, it has become a shadow of itself, a crystal formation, all sharp edges.

    These are the next to go. From cathedral to village church, from palace to ruin, the transformation progresses into more rounded contours. The iceberg bobs on the waves like a message in a bottle from wastelands where men and dogs perish. Within the confines of the glass the image is starting to develop. It looks like a ship with a hundred masts.

    Ninety-seven of these disappear; they were but reflections in crystal, refractions of the light, particles and impurities within the fabric. But three remain, and three are enough for a ship. A wooden craft with broken masts that have collapsed onto the deck to lie there in a welter of savagely ripped sails and ropes from the rigging.

    Still it lies behind glass, but the glass runs with moisture, eaten away to a thinner pane with each day that passes. Details become visible.

    The ship appears to have been caught in a gale. The galley has been smashed to pieces, the cabin lies shattered beneath the spanker, the blades of oars stick out here, there, and everywhere from lifeboats that no living soul had time to launch. Spars and cleats have come adrift, davits have been twisted out of shape, and ventilator cowlings crushed beneath the shrouds.

    There are no dead to be seen. Only the shambles they left behind them.

    Under the hatches, emptiness and ivory hold sway; in the hold a coffin lies lashed to the foot of the mast. I hear the hooting of a ship in the fog, wake, stretch, and give a great yawn in these cramped quarters so reminiscent of a bunk. We are approaching a foreign coastline. One by one, foghorn answers foghorn.

Chapter Two


I see a boy. Hard to say how old he is, I'm no expert on children; but he is at the age when the wonder is great and the grief, when something breaks, devastating. The beach is fraught with wind and the world cuts right through him as he comes tearing around the bend, all dog roses, sandy track, and farmsteads, and suddenly finds himself, out of breath, by the sea. It is the best bend in the world and he flies around it with his arms spread into wings.

    Farther on, beyond the cliff that rears up, crowned by windblown tufts of sedge and lyme grass, stands the lighthouse. The lighthouse at the end of the world. A delft-blue cap is all that can be seen, sticking up above the cliff side with its drifting sands and foxes' lairs; spy holes in the whitewashed tower and glass all the way around carry the light across white nights in which birds never cease to sing, while the day hovers and grows thin on the horizon.

    The sea holds him transfixed. It knocks the feet from under him, whether it is stretching glassy calm as far as the eye can see or thundering against cliff faces and stone dikes that shatter its teeth. A sea that devours sailors and crushes their spirits like eggshells. He can hear it—even when he is asleep in his berth with the timbered walls and the window that lets in the white sky. Distant thunder murmurs when he puts his ear to the wall. He lives in a conch of a house, and the windowsill is spread with his collection of seashells and pebbles.

    Nor do I know what place this is, though I have—in my time—seen many like it. A fishing village, with boats on the beach, stones, rollers, and a winch for hauling the boats out of the water. The winch is turned by a fishing stake that has been washed ashore, scoured white, and saturated with saltwater that lends its weight to the wood. It takes one man to brace his chest against the stake, another to keep the dinghy on an even keel as it runs up onto the rollers. Fishing nets are hung out to dry and when the sun hits the live-boxes the airholes shine like silver coins.

    Summer clothes have changed since my day; lacy flounces flap about the legs of the women, who wear flat bonnets of straw, with streamers of ribbon fluttering from them. The gentlemen sport walking sticks and waistcoats on the beach, watch chains draped from their pockets across their stomachs. They wear light-colored suits on summer evenings.

    It is the boy who has dreamed me up: a secret playmate, the sort born when children play too long under the full moon. He carries on long conversations with me when we are alone. The boy is alone a lot. We are alike, we two. He has furnished me with a fearless name, whiskers, and a ring in one ear. I have been to every corner of the globe and stand tall in the world of men, a head higher than most. Above all, I am always there when he needs me.

    He is a summer boarder. At a guest house called Sea View, which nestles in the front row of dunes running down to the sea. He sleeps in the attic, in the gabled room above the servants' quarters. It is a linen room and otherwise bare. Here he has his bunk bed. Above him the bunks are piled high with quilts. Below him the chamber pot. For the rest there are cupboards and chests of drawers, sheets, comforter covers, and neatly folded tea towels. And tucked between them, bags of naphthalene crystals. The rough floorboards are strewn with little lumps of plaster that crunch when he steps on them. The dust does not bother him—not as long as it is dancing in the sunbeams that stream through the attic window.

    Sea View is yellow-washed, thatched with sun-ripened straw, and hedged about with brier roses. One wing has been given over to guest rooms. There are bluebells on the wallpaper, a marble top to the washstand, and a mirror with a shelf. At the top of the mirror, the frame curves into a gilded Greek vase; in the washbasin float sprigs of lavender that are changed every morning and fill the room with their pungent scent.

    The main building houses the dining room with a white grand piano at one end, the kitchen and pantry, and, in an adjoining room, the captain's saloon. The hall is dominated by a large Venetian mirror, hallstand, and bureau. The bureau is painted with bunches of violets and red ribbons, the hallstand hung with the guests' summer hats. Clothes brushes are laid out on the glass shelf in front of the mirror, a shoehorn hangs down at the side, and the floor is taken up by bootjack, umbrella stand, and overshoes.

    Above the captain's saloon, overlooking the sea, is an open veranda of wood, its boards creosoted. On sunny days the balustrade bubbles and fills the air with the scent of resin. Throughout the summer season, deck chairs are put out and each evening before sunset the cushions have to be taken in. On gray days we have the veranda to ourselves. We sit in the bare deck chairs, study our feet, and tell each other stories.

    I can see right inside his head when he talks, as if his skull were made of glass—green glass, like the balls the fishermen use for their nets. He has a ship there, a frigate from the days when steam and sail took turns. You can tell by the tall funnel positioned between the masts. The bowsprit rears up, along with jib, foresail, and flying jib. When he gets excited, the rigging blazes with Saint Elmo's fire and bluish sparks encircle it.

    I tell him of the harbor in Surabaya, where the boats have eyes painted on their bows so that they look like sea monsters, and the streets are full of boys his age running around pulling rickshaws. He can roll a name like the Sunda Strait around his tongue for hours without tiring of it, reel off the volcanoes of Indonesia, round Tafel Hoek in the dark, and come ashore on coastlines where the great turtles have buried their eggs in the sand.

    On Komodo he puts his ear to giant lizards that could eat a man whole; he accompanies me to a street circus in Shanghai, where coolies with naked, sun-wizened torsos swallow live snakes and send them shooting out of their mouths again on tongues of flame, stroking their limbs with lit torches all the while. We eat meat on skewers, dipping it in bowls of satay, and fiery chili peppers burn holes in our throats and turn us, too, into fire-eaters.

    He sees a monkey chained to a platform the size of a bird feeder and frets over the rattle wrung from the chain by each restless movement. When he goes to feed it a banana, something unknown in his world, it bites his hand and he throws down the fruit in fright. Out of reach of the monkey. The expression in its eyes makes us laugh, and the boy sucks at his wound and feels the first touch of wonder at a pain that is mingled with delight, though it springs from the same source.

    He is with me in Zanzibar, where the clove tree scents the whole island when it blooms. Where the blacks shout "Jambo!" and old men with ash-white curls clamber about in the tops of palm trees, nimble as monkeys, collecting coconuts. Where I was set on a throne made out of the jawbone of a sperm whale and given one of its vertebrae for a footstool. Where I dived in the realm of the dolphins and the school's chief female reared up onto her tail fin, opened her bill, and sent a stream of sounds warbling through the water at me like the singing of sirens. I reached out my arm and her nose nudged my finger. At that moment a spark leapt from God to Adam, I rose up and became a man unlike any other. That was before I fell, Malte, and my light went up in flames. Then they called me the very Devil himself and mistook my endeavors.

    He nods and yawns heavily, soon he will slip away from me, and when the turmoil of his dreams overtakes him I see the ship light up behind his eyelids and take on a bluish cast. I am alone with my echo, watching over his slumber until the dawn.

There are nights when he suddenly sits up in bed, swings his legs out over the edge of the bunk, and tags along behind, feet shuffling mechanically across the floor. The boy walks in his sleep. One night he walks through the French windows, which some guest has forgotten to close, out to where the garden runs into sand and lyme grass, and on down to the beach by way of the roses' winding path.

    I follow him at a suitable distance. He is dangerously close to the breakers, one with the darkness in his blue-striped pajamas, the ship alone rocking with its ghostly light over the waves. With eyes that see nothing, he gazes out to sea—until the lighthouse flashes and the small figure on the beach gives a start. In the instant, that same sensation strikes at me, like spindrift on skin, and I dart forward and grab his hand.

    There is saltwater on the boy's eyelashes, he is awake now and afraid of the darkness he has just passed through. I lead him back along the path to the house. Grateful, he turns his face up to mine, breathes easily only after I have him back under the eiderdown and tuck it in well at his sides. Everyone has the right to an angel, I whisper from my point in space. His eyes close. In the morning, when he wakes, he will have no memory of his nocturnal foray. It will merge with his dreams.

    He spends his days on the sands. The strong light on the beach makes his head reel. His body is gypsy-brown, his trunks wet from rolling around in the shallows. He builds, gathers pebbles and shells, breaches the moat wall, and lets the water run into channels he has dug with his fingers. He finds sticks and fits them with pennants of seaweed. He catches crabs and pops them into jelly jars, feeds them beach fleas, and tips them out as the day is drawing to a close. Or else he lays starfish in the bottom of the jar and holds them up to the sky. Slowly he turns in a circle, leaving a wreath of sunflower petals in the sand with the soles of his feet, puts his eye to the bottom, and uses the jelly jar as a stargazer. Dissolved in light, he watches the galaxies whirling through space.

    He takes his meals with the adults in the guest-house dining room. Three times daily, young Oda, the housemaid, strikes the gong with a padded hammer and calls the guests to table. Minding his manners, but with his thoughts as far away as any spaceship, he forgets half their questions and the rest he answers so vaguely that they leave him to his own devices and pick up the threads of a conversation that has no beginning and no end. It summons up faces that talk and listen by turns, serves no other purpose.

    When new people arrive at the guest house, it is not unknown for the widow Swan to come bustling out from the kitchens to greet them. Then she will put her arm around him and introduce him to the new arrivals. "This is Malte, my summer boy!" she says, and squashes his nose flat against her apron pocket. She smells of pastry and margarine. Sometimes he gets flour on his cheeks and clothes and has to be brushed off.

    Mrs. Swan inherited the guest house from her late husband. She makes berry custards, rose-hip jam, fish terrines, soup, and roasts. Serves up bowls of curds and cream for breakfast, bakes rye bread and reuses the crumbs, which she mixes with brown sugar and sprinkles over the curds, over the yellow skin that makes his stomach turn. His standard approach is to bury it in the sugary crumbs, then shut his eyes and puncture the skin with his spoon.

    As long as he keeps his eyes shut, it slips down all right. Under the skin, the curds are white and glistening. The spoon is the icebreaker and his lips supply the sound effects as the floes are plowed up.

    If the sun is shining in a clear blue sky he spends the rest of the day chasing the orb of the sun, and when the light has baked him blue and the surf tossed him about, he heads for the opening in the cliff to find shade and feel goosebumps on his skin again.

    He has found a fox's lair with cubs in it, and he brings them leftovers from the dinner table: chicken bones garnished with paper frills, heel ends of ham, the rind turned to caramel in the mesh in which it was bound. He can hear the cubs down there in the darkness, yapping and whining as they poke their noses into these tasty morsels, growling and snapping at one another's fur.

    He walks home along the cliff top, balancing at the rim, where the soil has crumbled away and ruffs of grass jut out precariously into space. Far below, the silt churns. Pebbles and gravel plummet into the depths. You hear no splash, only the distant sigh of the sea, and from up here the foam does not look real. He walks along with his tongue stuck in the corner of his mouth; then he stops, slowly raises one leg and both arms, and teeters—deliberately—on the edge of the world. Just as he is about to fall, the roar of the wind swells in his ear. He does not know why, but he carries the seeds of that fall in his belly.

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