By Ulrich Sonnenberg
Until now Erling Jepsen’s literary landscape has been Southern Jutland, his childhood homeland. Erling Jepsen’s four novels – including the two books that have very successfully been made into films, Kunsten at græde i kor (‘The Art of Crying in Chorus’) and Frygtelig lykkelig (‘Fearfully Happy’) – and innumerable plays take place in that region of Denmark and work with entirely personal experiences.
In his new novel Biroller (‘Bit Parts’) Erling Jepsen has shifted his plot to Copenhagen, where he has himself now lived for over thirty years. Fortunately, however, he has not given up his role as ‘his life’s detective’ entirely, for the action in ‘Bit Parts’ is played out in a theatrical environment – and there he lives and works at home as a successful dramatist.
Helene, a young drama student with eating disorders, dreams about having a career as an actor. She loves the world of the theatre and has talent, though no more so than many others. By chance she gets to know the director of a minor theatre, but he is less interested in her than in her little dog, which is perfectly suited to the play he is in the process of putting on.
In fact, the dog proves to be exceptionally talented – which is a fact Helene has considerable difficulty taking on board: ‘It can’t be that easy either, when everything you have dreamed of goes pear-shaped, and then a dog goes and succeeds.’
But Helene knows that the path to success in the theatre often demands rather unusual initiatives. ‘There are some of us who go the whole way.’ One morning the dog is found dead and, to save the production, Helene takes on the role of the dog. However, she is not entirely happy with this bit part with no lines either. Helene goes to bed with the director and manages to wangle an extension of her role. Erling Jepsen provides en passant here a fabulous, self-ironising self-portrait through his literary alter ego, Allan Jensen. ‘A middle-aged playwright from the darkness depths of Jutland could keep his end up better than you might think.’
But Helene has still not reached her goal, for she believes that she is a considerably better actor than Beate, who has taken the main part in the play. After a series of clashes and bitching typical of the stage, Beate suddenly disappears and is found dead in Copenhagen harbour a couple of days later. Helene appears to have nothing to do with it. For ‘she was no murderer – how could anyone believe that? She was just an actor hunting for a role.’
‘As in my earlier books,’ says Erling Jepsen, ‘the overriding theme is the role of the individual. How he or she becomes part of a community and the price that has to be paid. This time, the community is a workplace – a theatre to be more precise.’
In ‘Bit Parts’ Erling Jepsen takes a look behind the props of stage work and plays elegantly with the daydreams and fantasies of omnipotence that fill the mind of a young woman who consciously or unconsciously – and Erling Jepsen shrewdly allows the answer to the question to hang in the air until the very end – increasingly makes herself into a work of art. ‘In her attempt to find out what is expected of her, what draws attention to her and makes her interesting, everything become a stage. Even her personal life.’ This is how the author himself sums up his main character. Helene is prepared to go a long way to win the favour of the public, for she is convinced that ‘if you’re good enough and successful enough, other rules apply. Then you can do what you like – and then everyone will forgive you, even for the most unbelievable things.’
Erling Jepsen may have left ‘darkest Jutland’ behind him in ‘Bit Parts’, but he retains his own particular brand of artfulness, with which he uses a crow-black humour and nothing far short of the comedy of the absurd to tell us about the deepest abysses of human experience. And the deeper you delve into Erling Jepsen’s cosmos, the more often you find the laughter seems to stick in your throat.
Translated by John Mason
Photo: Flemming Gernyx