From Complacent to Content : A Review of Companions by Christina Hesselholdt
by Erin Britton
Friends. The ones you’ve known for years and the ones you just clicked with straightaway. The ones you feel like you’ve known forever and the ones you hope you’ll never forget. The fun ones. The loud, in your face, I’m-a-bit-mad-me ones. The serious ones who are always willing to listen (and who seem really to hear you). The ones who would do anything for you and the ones who melt away as soon as times get tough (only to reappear, without apology, when things are looking up). The ones most likely to need an alibi. The ones you admire (but maybe don’t let it show) and the ones you can’t help but compete with. The ones who are so different they make you different, better, more interesting, and more exciting. The ones you’re secretly in love with (at least a little bit, quietly, at night). Friends who can tell just from your voice how you’re doing.
Companions, the first book by Christina Hesselholdt to be translated into English, is comprised of a series of monologues by a group of friends who are confronting the trials and tribulations of middle age, the problems of the past, and the uncertainty of the future. Camilla, Charles, Alma, Kristian, Edward, and Alwilda are a disparate bunch bound together by a near lifetime of shared experiences and the comfort of truly knowing each other. That’s not to say that they always like each other, or that they always act as good friends should, but rather that they travel through life together with their individual and frequently complementary foibles; that is, they are true companions.
The book is a collection of four novellas – Camilla and the Horse, Camilla and the Rest of the Party, The Party Breaks Up, and Marooned – with the character of Camilla serving as the central focus, although her friends also have key tales to tell, both in relation to Camilla and in their own right. Camilla is a deadpan and delightfully astute character, especially when it comes to assessing her own personality traits. Although she is now a successful writer as well as an in-demand lecturer, Camilla is under no illusion that she was not once a shameless pseud, who fortunately managed to grow into the role she cast for herself in life:
“… I had not written a single word, much less a poem, when I hauled my 7.5-kilo typewriter along on a train journey with stops in Rome, Florence, Venice, without ever managing to write a single word, but it was completely worth it when a young American girl told me that s she understood why I was dragging that heavy beast around because ‘what is an author without her typewriter,’ she said.”
Camilla has a delightful way of describing monumental feelings and events as though they are mundane, while at the same time managing to catastrophize anything or anyone that intrudes upon her comfort zone:
“In that respect, I have always imagined dying in a bathroom, a clean death, practically antiseptic, slumped against white enamel, a sampler of the coffin’s white calm, but I hope that the bathroom I die in will be bigger than this cubicle in the hotel room on Alexanderplatz, a little more spacious, a little more Todesraum, bitte.”
Although all the characters in Companions seem to pivot around her, Camilla’s most significant relationship is with her husband Charles. The pair have a generally solid and playful relationship; they will happily visit a strip club together in search of interesting conversation, but Camilla is horrified that Charles might have heard her vomiting after an epic drinking session. For a while, when Charles falls ill and is later bedridden, their relationship is characterized by an unexpected level of grown-up strength. However, the apparent strength of their feelings is eventually proved to be impermanent, and it seems that their love might have run its course. As Camilla notes, “We never thought we would get stuck.”
All six friends experience at least some degree of romantic trouble, disappointment, or exhilaration in Companions, with their amorous exploits frequently involving other members of the friendship group. Alma and Kristian begin the book as a relatively happy couple enjoying a touring holiday in England, although Alma is having trouble focusing on the “we” rather than the “I” of their trip. They visit a number of sites of literary significance, which allows Hesselholdt to quote from the likes of William Wordsworth, Sarah Coleridge, and Emily Brontë as Alma muses on the beauty of the landscape and the nature of inspiration. They also have the (dis)pleasure of encountering a particularly sleazy stripper and a fervent Brexiteer, which presents an opportunity for Hesselholdt to introduce the notion of a pair of racist woolen knee-length stockings. Again, it is illness that serves as the tipping point for the relationship. “The we that once existed, it no longer exists. How I loved that we. How it fulfilled me.”
On the other hand, Edward and Alwilda had broken up prior to the events depicted in Companions. While Edward is at first arguably most companionable with his new dog, he eventually succeeds in escaping his shell of protective melancholy and embracing the possibility of human intimacy. Edward is perhaps the most interesting of the six friends, although he is the hardest to get to know. His life seems to have been shaped by both an inherent lack of belonging and tragedy, but it remains unclear whether he is deeply troubled by past events or rather unemotional all round. For instance, when describing his current (solo) living arrangements, he states:
“I am the kind of man who lives in a death house. Literally. I moved into my parents’ home when they passed away. Joint suicide. They loved to demonstrate their rock-hard realism whenever possible. Their realist and Socratic position, I would say. Life as an illness. Goodbye and thank you, we’re slipping away now. While we can still do it ourselves. Very considerate. Nonetheless a shock.”
It’s all very matter of fact. He even muses on the practicalities of his parents’ deaths in a manner more suited to a scientific inquiry than to a grieving son trying to come to terms with tragedy:
“I have no idea how they managed to get up on the chairs, she with her osteoporosis and a compression fracture in the spine, he with his Scheuerman’s, the failed operation on his herniated disc, the numb leg that he had to drag around; how did they even get up there; one final, caring joint endeavour, or did he snap at her, even in that situation?”
Yet, he keeps a journal of his thoughts and feelings in relation to becoming an orphan in such distressing circumstances. Like Camilla and Alma, Edward is a character with a literary bent. All three are fond of making literary allusions and they are all keen observers of other people and their environment. They all seem to think and feel things deeply, although Camilla at least does not credit herself with any significant depth: “I have an equally difficult time with rocks as with the sky – I stare and wait for something to happen, but nothing happens, and after a moment I give up.”
Christina Hesselholdt, in this case most ably translated by Paul Russell Garrett, has a real knack for spotting the remarkable hidden within the mundane. Her writing is by turns humorous and tragic, moving and flippant. In Companions, she uses the lives of six intimately connected people to explore universal themes such as love, commitment, health, purpose, forgiveness, and aging, and she does so in an extremely witty and engaging fashion. As her characters move from country to country, from relationship to relationship, and from complacency to contentment, Hesselholdt exposes their flaws and their weaknesses, and she highlights their humanity and their hope for the future. None of them end the book in the position they might have expected, but their lives have all been enriched by their experiences and their slow, often unwilling, movement toward responsibility, and it appears that their friendships will continue to grow, tangle, and support as they confront their shared new reality.
Translated by Paul Russell Garrett
30 August 2017
Erin Britton is a freelance editor and book botherer for The Coil, Nudge, and nb magazine.