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Portrait of a writer

Svend Åge Madsen

By Glyn Jones

Photo: © Karin Munk

Many facetted, fantastic, timeless - all of these are adjectives which in one way or another can be applied to the work of Svend Åge Madsen, one of the most prolific, original and widely-read of contemporary Danish novelists. Confusing, chaotic are also adjectives that might be chosen, though with the reservation that there is definitely order in the apparent chaos, and if the reader is confused, then perhaps he should look again. For Svend Åge Madsen has a mathematical mind - indeed, he is a trained mathematician - and his work is based not only on a remarkably fecund imagination, but also on a highly logical working out of the plots of even his most fantastic novels. That not everyone is confused by them is betokened by the great popularity the author enjoys - particularly among readers who are young either in years or in mind.

The range is remarkable. There are great fantasy novels filling six or seven hundred pages and discarding all principles of linear time. To name one, Syv aldres galskab (Seven Age Madness - a title that almost echoes the name of its author!), a derivative of the historical novel, it takes place simultaneously in medieval and modern Århus and shows them to have a remarkable amount in common. In its way, this is a development of the technique already found in the 1976 Tugt og utugt i mellemtiden (Virtue and Vice in the Middle Time), a fantasy novel of revenge which at the same time is a grandiose review of life in Århus in the 1970s - as seen by a 21st-century historian. A different genre is represented by brief novels written specifically for teenagers - such as Jagten på et menneske (Manhunt) centred on an inventive way of combatting unemployment in Århus, i.e. by issuing permits for hunting and shooting the unemployed during certain hours of the day!

The biting nature of the social satire in this is parallelled by that in Edens gave (The Gift of Eden) from 1993, in which the solution to the problem of how to lose weight is solved by the invention of a substance which will allow (affluent) people to eat twice as much without any ill effects. There are ill effects, and humanity is about to be wiped out. Then there are very short novels such as Kvinden uden krop (The Woman Without a Body) from 1996, in which a man whose wife is dying of cancer and who cannot face the prospect of being without her, literally incorporates her, absorbs her into his own body, whereby he becomes two people, neither of whom - unfortunately - can have secrets from the other because they are one.

The logic is unassailable, the plot part comic, part tragic. Something similar applies to Dage med Diam (Days with Diam), a mathematical puzzle with 32 different solutions to the original situation: the reader makes the choice of which to take - though most will read all of them! Not surprisingly, Svend Åge Madsenīs logic has led him to write detective/mystery novels - though they would not be by Svend Åge Madsen if they followed anything like the normal rules of the detective novel. Two of these, which he has written in conjunction with his wife, are published under the pseudonym of Marianne Kainsdatter. Nor should one forget the sophisticated short stories, of which there are many, and which echo themes found in the novels. One of the most riveting of these is Kvindens Skaber (The Man Who Created Woman) about the child born in a library and never going out, living literally in the worlds contained in the books by which he is surrounded.

By and large, Svend Åge Madsenīs novels and stories are set in a more or less recognisable reality, with the use, for instance, of real street names in Århus, but that reality tends to disintegrate thanks to the certainly less-than-realistic plots of the novels. Svend Åge Madsen in fact creates his own universe and peoples it with regularly reappearing characters whose names border on real names in the same way as the Madsen universe borders on the real universe, though none of this is what the average reader will recognise as the everyday surroundings known to all. In this way, Svend Åge Madsenīs novels reflect the predicament of modern civilisation, and it is doubtless for this reason that some of them have established an almost cult following in Denmark. He is both a social - or civilisational - critic and a philosopher in his writings, but he is both of these with a sense of humour that has placed him not only among the most distinguished writers of modern Denmark, but also among the most popular.

(1999)

The photo is reproduced with permission from the photographer. The photo must not be reproduced on paper or digitally. Further rights can be obtained by contacting Karin Munk: +45 86 13 42 75.

 
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