Novella a Day in May 2020 #15

Often I am Happy – Jens Christian Grondahl (2016 trans. the author 2017) 167 pages

I really enjoyed the female narrator’s voice in Often I Am Happy. She is an ordinary, decent person who can also be quite cranky and sarcastic. It’s a woman’s voice that we don’t hear in fiction very often.

Ellinor is grieving her husband Georg, who was married first to her best friend Anna. Anna has been dead forty years and in her grief for Georg, Ellinor talks to Anna.

“You were my country, first one and then the other, and now I am stateless.”

She tells Anna about her life with Georg and raising Anna’s children. She is clear-sighted but also compassionate:

“He was so considerate, and I think he had come to be really fond of me. The years passed, mind you, and in the end we belonged together, simply because we lived side by side. We underestimate the power of habit while we’re young, and we underestimate the grace of it, Strange word, but there it is.”

Ellinor is seventy years old, and is a woman who has lived long enough to know who she is and to accept herself and the world without sentimentality. This means she sometimes loses the social niceties that her suburban step-children and their partners wish she had kept. Ellinor was raised by a single mother with little money, and never really felt she fitted in with the bourgeois surroundings she found herself in as an adult:

“since you died, the women of the commercial upper middle classes have found a post-colonial solution to the difficult arithmetic problem of career multiplied with self-realisation plus motherhood. You get yourself a third-world servant and call it cultural exchange, but nine out of ten live in the basement where they can Skype with the children they’ve had to leave behind”

Ellinor decides to leave the suburbs and move back to the multi-cultural, urban area she was raised in. Her family do not understand this choice, and she begins to withdraw from them, uncertain that she ever really fitted in with them anyway:

“There is nothing like a conflict to do the difficult work for you. It is an underrated remedy, cowardly as we are, but it makes everything so much easier. Free at last, I thought, and stepped out onto my bike.”

Ellinor is not bitter, and she’s not bitchy. She’s actually content, and as the title tells us, although deeply sad in her grief, she’s doing ok. But she has reached a point where she no longer compromises her view or actions, because why should she need to?

“Apparently, nothing is more purifying for people’s self-esteem than to place themselves at the very edge of someone else’s grief and show that they are not at all dizzy.”

Often I Am Happy is a wonderful character study of an older woman, and a portrait of deep grief experienced within a life that still needs to be led on the individual’s own terms.

“his absence felt like a lump growing inside me, making me suffocate. I never felt so alone. One is used to reality responding or just resounding with whatever one thinks or feels. Death shuts up the living; the real is our enemy in the long run.”