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The Danish Girl by David Ebershoff. Viking Penguin, 2000. $16.00

I have often described my years as a young lesbian, who had neither words nor reference points for who I was, as “living in the airless horror of a vacuum.” It is from that personal historical vantage that I felt the deepest connection and greatest admiration for David Ebershoff’s award-winning book, The Danish Girl.

The Danish Girl is a polyptych, a four-panel portrait of Lili Elbe, one of the earliest people to undergo what is now known as gender confirmation surgery; of Einar Wegener, the Danish landscape painter who started life as a boy and man and became Lili; of Greta Wegener, Einar’s American wife, a portrait painter; and of their marriage. The polyptych is a creative evocation of these real-life artists and the relationship that existed between them. It is set in Copenhagen, Paris, and Dresden.

In the 1920s and early 1930s there was no map for them, any more than there was for me in the 1960s—nothing to guide them on the journey that Einar would make into his new life as Lili. In the description of that uncharted experience, Ebershoff’s brush creates the vivid imagery that defines an experience that occurred without external coordinates. Ebershoff wrote that he “wanted to convey the emotional essence of Lili’s life as she herself perceived it, not as history would interpret it.” Thus, as he points out in the afterword, his portrayal may be quite different from how transgender people today might describe the establishment of identities different from those assigned to them at birth.

I have not yet read any of the original sources Ebershoff used, so I don’t know if any of his descriptions derived from them—for example, as suggested elsewhere, the fact that Lili saw herself as a person completely distinct from Einar. In The Danish Girl, the separation is so radical that Lili eventually stops painting and becomes a shop girl in a Copenhagen department store. Not only is she no longer a painter, but she has lost all but vestigial memories of her former life. At one point Greta sets Einar’s many paintings out on the floor—all of them depicting the bogs of his youth. Lili asks if Einar really painted them and wants to know the name of the place. Greta tells her that it’s Bluetooth in Jutland and asks if she doesn’t recognize it. She says, “’I don’t think so.’ It troubled her, for she knew she should know the place: it had the familiarity of a face lost in the past.”

Earlier in the story, as Lili’s transition evolves, the fresh descriptions of Einar’s experience suggest an absence of any knowledge of anyone having preceded him down this path. We find him endeavoring to comprehend: “…in the skull it was almost as if there were two brains, a walnut halved: his and hers.” Einar is meticulous in his physical preparations to become Lili, but he acknowledges, “The clothes and the rouge were important, but the transformation was really about descending that inner tunnel with something like a dinner bell and waking Lili.” Closer to the description sometimes heard today of being trapped in the wrong body, the narrator says of Einar, “Something made him feel as if his soul were trapped in a wrought-iron cage: his heart nudging its nose against his ribs, Lili stirring from within, shaking herself awake, rubbing her side against the bars of Einar’s body.”

Greta, whose love and loyalty cause her to stretch herself, eventually sacrificially, on Lili’s behalf, has her own perspective on her husband’s transformation. As Lili’s main support and one half of the marriage, her sense of what happens on Lili’s first public outing is described as waiting “until Lili had filled up inside Einar, like a hand filling a puppet.” But she also feels bewildered at times, as if she’s being taught the rules to a new parlor game and is hoping that she’ll truly understand them when the game begins. Her ambivalence about what is transpiring takes place indirectly, as when she sets fire to a sheet that is “musty and milky with the mixed smell of Einar and Lili” and coffee Lili spilled. “Something in her wanted to see it burn away.” At one point she rationalizes the transformation she has been supporting by telling herself, “...who wasn’t always changing? Wasn’t everybody always turning into someone new?” But after Lili’s first surgery, Greta is grief-stricken, “Her husband was no longer alive. It, the tingling shock of it, felt like his soul passing through her.”

Not to be ignored, however, are the tremendous benefits that accrue to Greta when Einar becomes Lili. She begins to enjoy artistic and commercial success and fame when she starts painting Lili. Nevertheless, when she understood that Lili was in love with a man, “she sometimes wondered whether she would have gone along with everything if she had realized, at the outset, that it would end with Lili departing, … a slim suitcase in her hand.”

It is not only the individuals—Einar, Lili, and Greta—that must negotiate unmapped territory; it is also their marriage, portrayed as tender and respectful—a real marriage that is ultimately doomed, not because of infidelity but precisely because Greta is capable of great loyalty to the truth of Lili. It is also a marriage in which, as is so often the case, one partner, Greta, is more in love than the other. In a conversation with Lili, Greta mourns her loss: “Not so long ago we were married. You and me, we were married and we lived in that small dark space between two people where a marriage exists.” She feels that she has somehow failed at the entity that once existed in that small dark space. And Lili, on the verge of freedom to be herself, feels the tug of the other half of the marriage, as “an inexhaustible doubleness welling up inside her: she both loved and resented Greta for caring so much. It was as simple as that.”

Despite the fact that Greta, Einar and Lili have no set of directions to follow, they are not living entirely in a vacuum. Greta’s brother Carlisle accompanies Lili to Dresden for her final surgery. Physicians, still in the experimental phases of assisting transgender patients, in one instance with a level of over-confidence, also provide support. Hans, Einar’s best friend from childhood, is completely unfazed by Einar's transformation into Lili and gives support to both Lili and Greta. In a conversation with Lili after she has fallen in love, Lili asks Hans if she has done anything wrong. “No,” Hans said, releasing her hands, kissing her goodbye on the forehead. “But neither has Greta.” The secondary characters’ absence of judgment is refreshing, a breath of air in what could have been a complete vacuum.

Living now in the twenty-first century, I was, of course, not consigned forever to life in a vacuum. I, too, found words, made my road, and created reference points. Coming out is, in some ways, an endless process; coincidentally, an important part of my coming out took place in none other than Copenhagen, where I lived at one time and which I’ve revisited often. Thus Ebershoff’s accurate rendering of the sights and sounds of the city that is my second home brought me sweet pleasure.

© Anna Redsand 2016 All Rights Reserved
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