By Martin Kongstad, Author
Words by Nikolaj Hansson / Illustration by Sine Jensen
Born and raised in the Eastern part of Copenhagen, Martin Kongstad has depicted the creative class of Copenhagen with a combination of ironic and grotesque writing throughout his two first books, Han Danser På Sin Søns Grav (2012) and Fryser Jeg (2013). We linked up with Kongstad for a talk about literature, the Copenhagen of today and the monogamous state of relationships.
Have you yet to grow tired of discussing whether or not the monogamous relationship as we know it is soon to be dead?
I have discussed it for half a year now and naturally there are some paths and questions that I´ve been through numerous times, but nevertheless I always enjoy talking about it, as everybody gets very emotional when discussing the subject. The other day, I was in a hearing and there I met a couple, that actually lived in an open relationship, and the amazing thing was, that after some time, one of them fell in love with another person. That is one of the key questions: “What if my partner falls in love?”
When the woman from the couple found out, that her man was in love with another woman, she arranged to meet her and tell, that she was really fond of her relationship and wanted it to last and asked the other woman, if she could support that. She agreed and promised, that she wouldn’t try to steal him. After one year, the man stopped seeing the new woman and everything went back to normal.
I still think, that the monogamous relationship will be considered very old fashioned in ten years from now, but I´m also aware, that my friends and I are too old to get on the train. The main theme in the book (Am I Cold) is that the monogamous relationship, due to the liberation of women, the way young people act on the social networks and the intense focus on energy (in life, food, work, spare time and so on) will eliminate the static way we have shared love for more than two hundred years; the romantic love, the searching for the one and only. But I realise that I might be either wrong or ahead of times. Underneath all of that, I simply wish to make it all a little bit better and if people stop telling each other the same old stories, when they are out for a romantic dinner, I am fully satisfied. “Stay open” are the keywords.
What are the greatest difference between the main character in your two novel series, Mikkel Vallin and the author, Martin Kongstad?
Mikkel Vallin went to a very sophisticated public school, where I myself went to the school next door and my best friends’ fathers were working men and taxi drivers. I was raised in a radical chic environment, but as a young kid I realised, that there was a wide gap between what people said and meant, and what they actually did and a lot of my writing focuses on that. Mikkel is divorced, and got fired as a food critic, and in the new novel, Am I Cold, he dates a young female artist and tries to live as a free spirit. I have been together with my wife for 14 years, monogamously, and I actually turned down to be the new main food critic in Denmark, because the whole thing got too messy in my head (to write about a fired foodcritic and by the same time work as such). I share a lot of Vallin's thoughts, but it has always been my thing, as a journalist before and now as an author, to make the lines between reality and fiction the thinnest possible.
You were born and raised in Copenhagen, where you’re still residing to this day. How do you think the average male Copenhagener has changed from the 1980s compared to today?
There was a lot of confusion in my generation in the eighties. We are sons of the women’s liberation and we tried our best, which meant that we, to be quite down to earth, had more focus on the female orgasm than our own, or our common, satisfaction. We learned, that we owed her the orgasm and I have spent hours and hours satisfying the females, or at least trying to do so.
I was in my mid-thirties before I realised, that a fulfilling sexual relationship is between two people. I think, and hope, that men today are aware of the fact, that their desire is a main ingredient, and that they don’t have to be ashamed of it. And here is another thing: the vanity among men has grown radically through the years. It was a big step for me to start wearing shirt and tie back then. Nowadays, it seems like the men are spending more time in front of the mirror than women do and at the same time they, quite obviously, are trying hard to obtain their masculinity, the sailor look being an example of this. Women today, the Danish especially, are quite rough, so men are using clothes and hair to show their integrity, while all the girls sit in the bar knocking down shots.
You’ve worked within quite a lot of different fields ranging from food criticism over advertising to writing novels. Do you ever think you’ll settle within one field of writing for good, or will change always be a necessity?
I always wanted to be an author. That was my one and only goal and in the mean time, I learned myself to write in any possible way; plays for theatres, advertising, journalism, columns, movies, comedy, lyrics for songs. Right now, I am intensely thinking of what to write the next book about and while I do that, I really enjoy to write for papers and to do the occasional piece of copywriting. For the next four months, I will be busy writing my own sitcom for kids for National Danish television.
Are there any pieces of writing, whether it being literature, articles or poetry that you would have wished you’d written?
The opening lines of Lemonworld by The National: “So happy I was invited - Gave me a reason to get out of the city.”
Excellent beginning of a book, a movie or here: a song. In fifteen words, we learn that he is invited somewhere, and that he uses this invitation to get away from something or somebody. Tension is built and we also learn about the character. He needs a reason to get out. He uses it. He is a dishonest man. I´ve written lyrics myself and I think it is one of the most difficult things to write. These opening lines are a masterpiece.
Can it be claimed, that you keep your private life free from attention by creating a main character somewhat similar to yourself?
Yes, it can. But I think that my books are more interesting than I am.
What do you find to be the greatest difficulties facing the young generation of Copenhagen today?
I really like the new generations and especially the women are much more fun than women were, when I was younger. Icons like Spice Girls and Madonna showed the new generations that it was okay for a woman to be loud and outspoken. I truly enjoy the company of the new generations.
You’re depicting a certain environment, that being the cultural class of Copenhagen. Are you ever afraid that this might seem to the readers, as if they’re being excluded, if they’re not part of this segment?
I´ve heard that before and it is plain rubbish. You don’t have to own a horse to watch a western movie, do you? The funny thing is, that the people who accuse me of writing exclusively for certain groups always understood every word themselves, which means that they conclude on behalf of other people. Quite dangerous, I’d say. Another thing is, that it is interesting to learn how life is in social circles, that you are not a part of yourself. I write about these people because I know them. I know how they think, what they talk about and what they dream of.
You’ve reviewed topics such as music and food and now you’re being reviewed yourself. What’s it like to be on the other side of the table?
Quite disappointing I’d say. This time, only one or two reviews were useful. Most of them concentrated on me – or what they think is me - instead of the book. I would love to read what they thought about the plots, the dialogue and so on. But I understand that a book reviewer has to read an awful lot of books and therefore, I think, it is tempting to jump on conclusions. Another thing is that most Danish reviewers are from the university and I am not. We speak different languages.
You recently wore a turban on a press photo for your latest novel series, something that surely can be considered as an homage to the iconic Danish author, Karen Blixen. What writers have inspired you the most throughout your life?
Bret Easton Ellis, and more specific American Psycho, a novel that, not for the splatter part, but for the description of modern behaviour, was, and still is, ahead of our time and I love the way that Thomas Mann forces the reader to bear the mind of his characters. I’m a big fan of classic American sports writing from the seventies and from my year as a law student, I learned to love the way of expressing very specific and quite complicated matters in precise terms and words. I love Henry Miller, because he wrote like no one else could write. And so on. Danish writers like Tove Ditlevsen, Lars Frost, Suzanne Brøgger and Henrik Stangerup.