The Danish Girl

Paperback | February 1, 2001

byDavid Ebershoff

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Now an Academy Award-winning major motion picture, starring Academy Award-winners Eddie Redmayne and Alicia Vikander and directed by Academy Award-winner Tom Hooper   

National Bestseller * A New York Times Notable Book * Winner of the Lambda Literary Award for Transgender Fiction * Winner of the Rosenthal Foundation Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters * Finalist for the New York Public Library Young Lions Award * Finalist for the American Library Association Stonewall Book Award

Loosely inspired by a true story, this tender portrait of marriage asks: What do you do when the person you love has to change?  It starts with a question, a simple favor asked by a wife of her husband while both are painting in their studio, setting off a transformation neither can anticipate.  Uniting fact and fiction into an original romantic vision, The Danish Girl eloquently portrays the unique intimacy that defines every marriage and the remarkable story of Lili Elbe, a pioneer in transgender history, and the woman torn between loyalty to her marriage and her own ambitions and desires.  The Danish Girl’s lush prose and generous emotional insight make it, after the last page is turned, a deeply moving first novel about one of the most passionate and unusual love stories of the 20th century.

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Now an Academy Award-winning major motion picture, starring Academy Award-winners Eddie Redmayne and Alicia Vikander and directed by Academy Award-winner Tom Hooper   National Bestseller * A New York Times Notable Book * Winner of the Lambda Literary Award for Transgender Fiction * Winner of the Rosenthal Foundation Award from the Amer...

David Ebershoff’s debut novel, The Danish Girl, won the 2000 Lambda Literary Award for transgender fiction and has been adapted into a major motion picture starring Academy Award-winner Eddie Redmayne. His most recent novel is the # 1 bestseller The 19th Wife, which was made into a television movie that has aired around the globe. He i...

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The 19th Wife: A Novel

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Pasadena: A Novel

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Danish girl
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Format:PaperbackDimensions:304 pages, 8 × 5.3 × 0.7 inPublished:February 1, 2001Publisher:Penguin Publishing GroupLanguage:English

The following ISBNs are associated with this title:

ISBN - 10:0140298487

ISBN - 13:9780140298482

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Rated 5 out of 5 by from AMAZING Very compelling and the fact that it is loosely based on a true story makes it that much more tragic.
Date published: 2016-04-15

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For Mark NelsonTable of Contents Praise for David Ebershoff and The Danish GirlAbout the AuthorTitle PageCopyright PageDedication Part One - Copenhagen, 1925CHAPTER OneCHAPTER TwoCHAPTER ThreeCHAPTER FourCHAPTER FiveCHAPTER SixCHAPTER SevenCHAPTER EightCHAPTER NineCHAPTER TenCHAPTER ElevenCHAPTER Twelve Part Two - Paris, 1929CHAPTER ThirteenCHAPTER FourteenCHAPTER FifteenCHAPTER SixteenCHAPTER SeventeenCHAPTER Eighteen Part Three - Dresden, 1930CHAPTER NineteenCHAPTER TwentyCHAPTER Twenty-oneCHAPTER Twenty-twoCHAPTER Twenty-three Part Four - Copenhagen, 1931CHAPTER Twenty-fourCHAPTER Twenty-fiveCHAPTER Twenty-sixCHAPTER Twenty-sevenCHAPTER Twenty-eightCHAPTER Twenty-nine Author’s NoteAcknowledgmentsPart OneCopenhagen, 1925CHAPTER OneHis wife knew first. “Do me a small favor?” Greta called from the bedroom that first afternoon. “Just help me with something for a little bit?”“Of course,” Einar said, his eyes on the canvas. “Anything at all.”The day was cool, the chill blowing in from the Baltic. They were in their apartment in the Widow House, Einar, small and not yet thirty-five, painting from memory a winter scene of the Kattegat Sea. The black water was white-capped and cruel, the grave of hundreds of fishermen returning to Copenhagen with their salted catch. The neighbor below was a sailor, a man with a bullet-shaped head who cursed his wife. When Einar painted the gray curl of each wave, he imagined the sailor drowning, a desperate hand raised, his potato-vodka voice still calling his wife a port whore. It was how Einar knew just how dark to mix his paints: gray enough to swallow a man like that, to fold over like batter his sinking growl.“I’ll be out in a minute,” said Greta, younger than her husband and handsome with a wide flat face. “Then we can start.”In this way as well Einar was different from his wife. He painted the land and the sea—small rectangles lit by June’s angled light, or dimmed by the dull January sun. Greta painted portraits, often to full scale, of mildly important people with pink lips and shine in the grain of their hair. Herr I. Glückstadt, the financier behind the Copenhagen Free Harbor. Christian Dahlgaard, furrier to the king. Ivar Knudsen, member of the shipbuilding firm Burmeister and Wain. Today was to have been Anna Fonsmark, mezzo-soprano from the Royal Danish Opera. Managing directors and industry titans commissioned Greta to paint portraits that hung in offices, above a filing cabinet, or along a corridor nicked by a worker’s cart.Greta appeared in the door frame. “You sure you won’t mind stopping for a bit to help me out?” she said, her hair pulled back. “I wouldn’t have asked if it weren’t important. It’s just that Anna’s canceled again. So would you mind trying on her stockings?” Greta asked. “And her shoes?”The April sun was behind Greta, filtering through the silk hanging limply in her hand. Through the window, Einar could see the tower of the Rundetårn, like an enormous brick chimney, and above it the Deutscher Aero-Lloyd puttering out on its daily return to Berlin.“Greta?” Einar said. “What do you mean?” An oily bead of paint dropped from his brush to his boot. Edvard IV began to bark, his white head turning from Einar to Greta and back.“Anna’s canceled again,” Greta said. “She has an extra rehearsal of Carmen. I need a pair of legs to finish her portrait, or I’ll never get it done. And then I thought to myself, yours might do.”Greta moved toward him, the shoes in her other hand sennep-yellow with pewter buckles. She was wearing her button-front smock with the patch pockets where she tucked things she didn’t want Einar to see.“But I can’t wear Anna’s shoes,” Einar said. Looking at them, Einar imagined that the shoes might in fact fit his feet, which were small and arched and padded softly on the heel. His toes were slender, with a few fine black hairs. He imagined the wrinkled roll of the stocking gliding over the white bone of his ankle. Over the small cushion of his calf. Clicking into the hook of a garter. Einar had to shut his eyes.The shoes were like the ones they had seen the previous week in the window of Fonnesbech’s department store, displayed on a mannequin in a midnight-blue dress. Einar and Greta had stopped to admire the window, which was trimmed with a garland of jonquils. Greta said, “Pretty, yes?” When he didn’t respond, his reflection wide-eyed in the plate glass, Greta had to pull him away from Fonnesbech’s window. She tugged him down the street, past the pipe shop, saying, “Einar, are you all right?”The front room of the apartment served as their studio. Its ceiling was ribbed with thin beams and vaulted like an upside-down dory. Sea mist had warped the dormer windows, and the floor tilted imperceptibly to the west. In the afternoon, when the sun beat against the Widow House, a faint smell of herring would seep from its walls. In winter the skylights would leak, a cold drizzle bubbling the paint on the wall. Einar and Greta stood their easels beneath the twin skylights, next to the boxes of oil paint ordered from Herr Salathoff in Munich, and the racks of blank canvases. When Einar and Greta weren’t painting, they protected everything beneath green tarps the sailor below had abandoned on the landing.“Why do you want me to wear her shoes?” Einar asked. He sat in the rope-bottom chair that had come from the backshed of his grandmother’s farm. Edvard IV jumped into his lap; the dog was trembling from the yelling of the sailor below.“For my painting of Anna,” Greta said. And then, “I’d do it for you.” On the point of her cheek was a single shallow chicken-pox scar. Her finger was brushing it gently, something she did, Einar knew, when she was anxious.Greta knelt to unlace Einar’s boots. Her hair was long and yellow, more Danish in color than his; she would push it behind her ears whenever she wanted to get busy on something new. Now it was slipping over her face as she picked at the knot in Einar’s laces. She smelled of orange oil, which her mother shipped over once a year in a case of brown bottles labeled PURE PASADENA EXTRACT. Her mother thought Greta was baking tea cakes with the oil, but instead Greta used it to dab behind her ears.Greta began to wash Einar’s feet in the basin. She was gentle but efficient, quickly pulling the sea sponge between his toes. Einar rolled up his trousers even further. His calves looked, he suddenly thought, shapely. He delicately pointed his foot, and Edvard IV moved to lick the water from his little toe, the one that was hammer-headed and born without a nail.“We’ll keep this our secret, Greta?” Einar whispered. “You won’t tell anyone, will you?” He was both frightened and excited, and the child ’s fist of his heart was beating in his throat.“Who would I tell?”“Anna.”“Anna doesn’t need to know,” Greta said. Even so, Anna was an opera singer, Einar thought. She was used to men dressing in women’s clothes. And women in men’s, the Hosenrolle. It was the oldest deceit in the world. And on the opera stage it meant nothing at all—nothing but confusion. A confusion that was always resolved in the final act.“Nobody needs to know anything,” Greta said, and Einar, who felt as if a white stage light were on him, began to relax and work the stocking up his calf.“You’re putting it on backwards,” Greta said, righting the seam. “Pull gently.”The second stocking ripped. “Do you have another?” Einar asked.Greta’s face froze, as if she was just realizing something; then she went to a drawer in the pickled-ash wardrobe. The wardrobe had a closet on top with an oval mirror in its door, and three drawers with brass-hoop handles; the top one Greta locked with a little key.“These are heavier,” Greta said, handing Einar a second pair. Folded neatly into a square, the stockings looked to Einar like a patch of flesh—a patch of Greta’s skin, brown from a summer holiday in Menton. “Please be careful,” she said. “I was going to wear them tomorrow.”The part through Greta’s hair revealed a strip of silvery-white flesh, and Einar began to wonder what she was thinking beneath it. With her eyes slanted up and her mouth pinched, she seemed intent on something. Einar felt incapable of asking; he nearly felt bound, with an old paint rag tied across his mouth. And so he wondered about his wife silently, with a touch of resentment ripening beneath his face, which was pale and smooth and quite like the skin of a white peach. “Aren’t you a pretty man,” she had said, years ago, when they were first alone.Greta must have noticed his discomfort, because she reached out and held Einar’s cheeks and said, “It means nothing.” And then, “When will you stop worrying about what other people think?”Einar loved it when Greta made such declarations—the way she’d swat her hands through the air and claim her beliefs as the faith of the rest of the world. He thought it her most American trait, that and her taste for silver jewelry.“It’s a good thing you don’t have much hair on your legs,” Greta said, as if noticing it for the first time. She was mixing her oil paints in the little ceramic Knabstrup bowls. Greta had finished the upper half of Anna’s body, which years of digesting buttered salmon had buried in a fine layer of fat. Einar was impressed with the way Greta had painted Anna’s hands holding a bouquet of day lilies. The fingers were carefully rendered, the knuckles puckered, the nails clear but opaque. The lilies were a pretty moon-white, stained with rusty pollen. Greta was an inconsistent painter, but Einar never told her so. Instead, he praised as much as he could, perhaps too much. But he helped her wherever possible, and would try to teach her techniques he thought she didn’t know, especially about light and distance. If Greta ever found the right subject, Einar had no doubt, she would become a fine painter. Outside the Widow House a cloud shifted, and sunlight fell on the half-portrait of Anna.The model’s platform Greta used was a lacquer trunk bought from the Cantonese laundress who would make a pickup every other day, announcing herself not with a call from the street but with the ping! of the gold cymbals strapped to her fingers.Standing on the trunk, Einar began to feel dizzy and warm. He looked down at his shins, the silk smooth except for a few hairs bursting through like the tiny hard fuzz on a bean. The yellow shoes looked too dainty to support him, but his feet felt natural arched up, as if he was stretching a long-unused muscle. Something began to run through Einar’s head, and it made him think of a fox chasing a fieldmouse: the thin red nose of the fox digging for the mouse through the folds of a pulse field.“Stand still,” Greta said. Einar looked out the window and saw the fluted dome of the Royal Theatre, where he sometimes painted sets for the opera company. Right now, inside, Anna was rehearsing Carmen, her soft arms raised defiantly in front of the scrim he’d painted of the Seville bullring. Sometimes when Einar was at the theatre painting, Anna’s voice would rise in the hall like a chute of copper. It would make him tremble so much that his brush would smudge the backdrop, and he would rub his fists against his eyes. Anna’s wasn’t a beautiful voice—rough-edged and sorrowful, a bit used, somehow male and female at once. Yet it had more vibrancy than most Danish voices, which were often thin and white and too pretty to trigger a shiver. Anna’s voice had the heat of the South; it warmed Einar, as if her throat were red with coals. He would climb down from his ladder backstage and move to the theatre ’s wings: he’d watch Anna, in her white lamb’s-wool tunic, open her square mouth as she rehearsed with Conductor Dyvik. She would lean forward when she sang; Anna always said there was a musical gravity pulling her chin toward the orchestra pit. “I think of a thin silver chain connected to the tip of the conductor’s baton and fastened right here,” she would say, pointing to the mole that sat on her chin like a crumb. “Without that little chain, I almost feel I wouldn’t know what to do. I wouldn’t know how to be me.”When Greta painted, she ’d pull her hair back with a tortoiseshell comb; it made her face look larger, as if Einar were looking at it through a bowl of water. Greta was probably the tallest woman he ’d ever known, her head high enough to glance over the half-lace curtains ground-floor residents hung in their street windows. Next to her Einar felt small, as if he were her son, looking up beyond her chin to her eyes, reaching for a hanging hand. Her patch-pocket smock was a special order from the white-bunned seamstress around the corner, who measured Greta’s chest and arms with a yellow tape and with admiration and disbelief that such a large, healthy woman wasn’t a Dane.Greta painted with a flexible concentration that Einar admired. She was able to dab at the gleam in a left eye and then answer the door and accept the delivery from the Busk Milk Supply Company and return effortlessly to the slightly duller glare in the right. She’d sing what she called campfire songs while she painted. She’d tell the person she was painting about her girlhood in California, where peacocks nested in her father’s orange groves; she’d tell her female subjects—as Einar once overheard upon returning to the apartment ’s door at the top of the dark stairs—about their longer and longer intervals between intimacy: “He takes it so very personally. But I never blame him,” she’d say, and Einar would imagine her pushing her hair behind her ears.“They’re drooping,” Greta said, pointing her paintbrush at his stockings. “Pull them up.”“Is this really necessary?”The sailor below slammed a door, and then it was silent except for his giggling wife.“Oh, Einar,” Greta said. “Will you ever relax?” Her smile sank and disappeared into her face. Edvard IV trotted into the bedroom, and began to dig through the bedclothes; then came a fed baby’s sigh. He was an old dog, from the farm in Jutland, born in a bog; his mother and the rest of the litter had drowned in the damp peat.The apartment was in the attic of a building the government opened in the previous century for the widows of fishermen. It had windows facing north, south, and west and, unlike most of the townhouses in Copenhagen, could give Einar and Greta enough room and light to paint. They had almost moved into one of the burgher houses in Christianshavn on the other side of the Inderhavn, where artists were settling in with the prostitutes and the gambling drunks, alongside the cement-mixing firms and the importers. Greta said she could live anywhere, that nothing was too seedy for her; but Einar, who had slept under a thatch roof the first fifteen years of his life, decided against it, and found the space in the Widow House.The facade was painted red, and the house sat one block from Nyhavns Kanal. The dormer windows stuck out of the steep, clay-tile roof, which was black with moss, and the skylights were cut high in the pitch. The other buildings on the street were whitewashed, with eight-paneled doors painted the color of kelp. Across the way lived a doctor named Møller who received emergency calls from women giving birth in the night. But few motorcars sputtered down the street, which dead-ended at the Inderhavn, making it quiet enough to hear the echo of a shy girl’s cry.“I need to get back to my own work,” Einar finally said, tired of standing in the shoes, the pewter buckles pressing sharply.“Does that mean you don’t want to try on her dress?”When she said the word “dress” his stomach filled with heat, followed by a clot of shame rising in his chest. “No, I don’t think so,” Einar said.“Not even for a few minutes?” she asked. “I need to paint the hem against her knees.” Greta was sitting on the rope-bottom chair beside him, stroking Einar’s calf through the silk. Her hand was hypnotic, its touch telling him to close his eyes. He could hear nothing but the little rough scratch of her fingernail against the silk.But then Greta stopped. “No, I’m sorry,” she said. “I shouldn’t have asked.”Now Einar saw that the door to the pickled-ash wardrobe was open, and hanging inside was Anna’s dress. It was white, with drop beads along the knee-hem and the cuff. A window was cracked, and the dress was swaying gently on the hanger. There was something about the dress—about the dull sheen of its silk, about the bib of lace in the bodice, about the hook-buttons on the cuffs, unlatched and split apart like little mouths—that made Einar want to touch it.“Do you like it?” Greta asked.He thought about saying no, but that would have been a lie. He liked the dress, and he could nearly feel the flesh beneath his skin ripening.“Then just slip it on for a few minutes.” Greta brought it to Einar and held it to his chest.“Greta,” he said, “what if I—”“Just take off your shirt,” she said.And he did.“What if I—”“Just close your eyes,” she said.And he did.Even with his eyes closed, standing shirtless in front of his wife felt obscene. It felt as if she’d caught him doing something he had promised he would avoid—not like adultery, but more like resuming a bad habit he’d given his word he would quit, like drinking aquavit in the canal bars of Christianshavn or eating frikadeller in bed or shuffling through the deck of suede-backed girlie cards he once bought on a lonely afternoon.“And your trousers,” Greta said. Her hand reached out, and she politely turned her head. The bedroom window was open, and the brisk fishy air was pimpling his skin.Einar quickly pulled the dress over his head, adjusting the lap. He was sweating in the pits of his arms, in the small of his back. The heat was making him wish he could close his eyes and return to the days when he was a boy and what dangled between his legs was as small and useless as a white radish.Greta only said, “Good.” Then she lifted her brush to the canvas. Her blue eyes narrowed, as if examining something on the point of her nose.A strange watery feeling was filling Einar as he stood on the lacquer trunk, the sunlight moving across him, the scent of herring in the air. The dress was loose everywhere except in the sleeves, and he felt warm and submerged, as if dipping into a summer sea. The fox was chasing the mouse, and there was a distant voice in his head: the soft cry of a scared little girl.It became difficult for Einar to keep his eyes open, to continue watching Greta’s fast, fishlike movements as her hand darted at the canvas, then pulled away, her silver bracelets and rings turning like a school of chub. It became difficult for him to continue thinking about Anna singing over at the Royal Theatre, her chin leaning toward the conductor’s baton. Einar could concentrate only on the silk dressing his skin, as if it were a bandage. Yes, that was how it felt the first time: the silk was so fine and airy that it felt like a gauze—a balm-soaked gauze lying delicately on healing skin. Even the embarrassment of standing before his wife began to no longer matter, for she was busy painting with a foreign intensity in her face. Einar was beginning to enter a shadowy world of dreams where Anna’s dress could belong to anyone, even to him.And just as his eyelids were becoming heavy and the studio was beginning to dim, just as he sighed and let his shoulders fall, and Edvard IV was snoring in the bedroom, just at this moment Anna’s coppery voice sang out, “Take a look at Einar!”His eyes opened. Greta and Anna were pointing, their faces bright, their lips peeled apart. Edvard IV began to bark in front of Einar. And Einar Wegener couldn’t move.Greta took from Anna her bouquet of day lilies, a gift from a stage-door fan, and pressed them into Einar’s arms. With his head lifted like a little trumpet player, Edvard IV began to run protective circles around Einar. While the two women laughed some more, Einar’s eyes began to roll back into his head, filling with tears. He was stung by their laughter, along with the perfume of the white lilies, whose rusty pistils were leaving dusty prints in the lap of the dress, against the garish lump in his groin, on the stockings, all over his open wet hands.“You’re a whore,” the sailor below called tenderly. “You’re one hell of a beautiful whore.”From downstairs, the silence implied a forgiving kiss. Then there was even louder laughter from Greta and Anna, and just as Einar was about to beg them to leave the studio, to let him change out of the dress in peace, Greta said, her voice soft and careful and unfamiliar, “Why don’t we call you Lili?”CHAPTER TwoGreta Wegener was twenty-nine, a painter. She was a Californian. She was a Waud, her grandfather, Apsley Haven Waud, rich from land grants, her father, Apsley Jr., richer from orange groves. Before she moved to Denmark when she was ten, the farthest she had ever ventured from Pasadena was San Francisco, where one day she was playing roller hoop in front of her aunt Lizzie’s house on Nob Hill when she accidentally nudged her twin brother into the path of a buggy. Carlisle survived, a long shiny dent permanently sunk into his shin; some people said he was never the same. When she was older, Greta would say that Carlisle had never had what she called a Western spine. “Some Wauds are born with it,” she observed when she was ten and tall and practicing Danish phrases on the teak deck on the voyage over, “and some are not.” The Danes certainly didn’t have Western spines; and yet why should they? So Greta forgave them—at least most of the time. She especially forgave Einar, her first art professor and her second husband. By the spring of 1925 they had been married for more than six years: on certain mornings it felt to Greta like six weeks; on others, six well-lived lives.Einar and Greta first met at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts on the first of September, 1914, only weeks after the Kaiser rumbled across the hillocks of Luxembourg and Belgium. Greta was seventeen. Einar was in his twenties, already a lecturer in painting, already shy and easily embarrassed around teenagers, a bachelor. Even then she was broad-shouldered, with the posture of an early childhood spent on horseback. She let her hair grow to the small of her back, which seemed a bit provocative on Copenhagen’s few remaining gas-flickering streets. The Danes excused her because she was from California, a place nearly none of them had seen but where they imagined people like Greta lived in open houses shaded by date palms, where stones of gold pushed their way through the black soil in the garden.One day Greta plucked her eyebrows, and they never grew back, which she saw as more of a convenience than anything else. Each morning she drew them in place with the waxy pencils she bought in the windowless room on the third floor of Magasin du Nord, where women with situations de beauté discreetly shopped. Greta had an irrepressible habit of picking at the pores in her nose anytime she opened a book, and this had already left a few pencil-tip scars in her skin, about which she remained concerned. She thought of herself as the tallest girl in Copenhagen, which probably wasn’t true, what with Grethe Janssen, a lithe beauty and also the mayor’s mistress, dashing in and out of the shops in the lobby of the Hôtel d ’Angleterre in crystal-beaded gowns, even in the middle of the day.In any case, Greta also thought of herself as the least likely to marry. When a young man—a pan-faced Dane of a declining aristocratic clan or the son of an American steel magnate touring Europe for the year—asked her to the ballet or for a sail through the canals of Christianshavn, her first thought was always: You won’t catch me. All she wanted to be was a bluestocking: a perpetually young woman who was free to paint daily in the light of the window and whose only social company occurred at midnight when a group of eight would meet in Sebastian’s, her favorite public house, for two quick snifters of cherry-flavored Peter Heering before the long-faced police would turn up at one o’clock to shut down the house for the night.But even Greta knew that not only was this silly, it was also impossible. Why, young Miss Greta Waud would never be permitted to live like that at all.When she was a little girl, she used to write over and over in her penmanship notebook, “Greta Greta Greta,” deliberately leaving off the “Waud” as if to test what it would be like to be plain old Greta—something no one ever called her. She didn’t want anyone to know who her family was. Even as an adolescent, she never wanted to coast on any sort of connections. She despised anyone who relied excessively on antecedents. What was the point?She had come to Denmark as a girl when her father, a long-armed man with a lamb-chop beard, took his post at the embassy. “Why would you want to do that?” Greta had said when he first told her of his new assignment. “Now, Greta,” her mother replied, “be nice. He’s your father.” What Greta was forgetting was that his mother, her very own grandmother, Gerda Carlsen, for whom Greta had been named, was a Dane, with blond hair the color of beechwood. Raised on Bornholm, Gerda was known for the blood-red poppies she wore behind her ears—and for being the first girl in the family to leave the Baltic island, sailing not for Copenhagen, like most curious youngsters intent on leaving their family behind, but for southern California, which in those days was like telling your family you were emigrating to the moon. A few years of horsework on the right ranch brought her to the attention of Apsley Waud, Sr., and soon enough the tall girl from Bornholm who wore her hair to her hips and pinned with poppies was a California matriarch. When Greta’s father told her he was taking the family back to Denmark, it was a bit insensitive of her—even Greta had to admit—to fail to make the connection, not to realize that this was her father’s way of making restitution to his mother, to blue-eyed Gerda Carlsen Waud, who lost her life when her son, Apsley Jr., then just a young man, led her to the lip of Pasadena’s Arroyo Seco to take her photograph in front of the vista and then watched in horror as the ant-gnawed soil crumbled away and flung his mother into the canyon below, down into the deadly Y-branch of a knotty sycamore.At the Royal Academy in the autumn of 1914, Greta assumed that most people, particularly the administrators, gossiped about two things: the war and her. She always caused a stir, no matter where she went, what with her train of blond hair like a wake behind her. Especially in southern California. Why, it was only last year, when she returned to Pasadena for a summer of tennis and horseback lessons, when one day the boy who drove the butcher wagon caught her eye. His hair was black and curly and his hot hand pulled her up to the front plank-seat and together they rode down to Wilshire Boulevard and back. She watched him manipulate the iron tongs as he unloaded the rib roasts and the racks of lamb at the houses in Hancock Park. On the ride home, not once did the boy try to kiss her, which disappointed Greta, who for the first time had doubts about the length of her yellow hair. At the end of the ride, the boy said only, “So long.” And so Greta shrugged and went to her room. But the next morning, at the breakfast table, her mother, who was thin in the lip, said, “Greta, my dear. Would you please explain this?” Her mother unfolded a piece of stationery from the American Weekly. On it was a cryptic note that simply said, “Does young Miss Greta Waud plan a career in butchery?” For weeks the threat of a society-page exposure shadowed the mansion. Each morning the fingers-in-mouth whistle of the newspaper boy caused the household to freeze in its step. The story never ran, but of course the gossip eventually leaked. For two days the telephone in the upstairs hall rang and rang and rang. Greta’s father could no longer take his lunch at the California Club downtown, and her mother had a devil of a time securing a second source of meat. Soon her parents canceled the summer in California, and Greta returned to Copenhagen in time for the August aurora borealis and the fireworks bursting over Tivoli.That September at the end of her youth, when war could be heard in the thunderclouds, Greta enrolled at the Royal Academy. On the first day of classes, it surprised Greta when Einar, standing in front of a blackboard dusty with the ghost of a previous lesson, asked her, “And, Miss? Your name?”When Greta answered the question, Einar—or Professor Wegener, as she thought of him then—marked his class log and moved on. His eyes, which were as brown and wide as a doll’s, returned to her and then jumped away. Judging by his skittishness, Greta began to think he ’d never met an American in his life. She flipped the panel of her hair over her shoulder, as if waving a flag.Then, early in the school year, someone must have whispered to Einar about her father and the embassy and maybe even the butcher-wagon story—yes, gossip hopped the Atlantic, even then—because Einar became even more awkward around her. It disappointed her that he was proving to be one of those men who found it impossible to be comfortable around a rich girl. This nearly burned her up alive, because she’d never asked to be rich; not that she minded it all the time, but even so. Einar was unable to recommend which paintings to view in Kunstudstill ingen, and incapable of describing the best route to the art supply shop near Kommunehospitalet. She invited him to a reception at the American embassy for a shipbuilder visiting from Connecticut, but he refused. He declined her request for an escort to the opera. He would hardly look at her when they spoke. But she looked at him, both when they met and from far away, through a window as he crossed the academy’s courtyard, his steps short and fast. He was small in the chest, with a round face, skin pale and eyes so dark that Greta had no idea what lay behind them. Simply by speaking to him, Greta could force a flush through Einar’s face from throat to temple. He was childlike, and this fascinated Greta, in part because she had always been so overgrown and outspoken that people had treated her, even when she was little, more or less like an adult. She once asked him, “Are you married, Professor?” and this caused his eyelids to flutter uncontrollably. His lips pushed together as he attempted to say the seemingly unfamiliar word “No.”The other students whispered about Professor Wegener. “From a family of gnomes,” one girl said. “Was blind until he was fifteen,” said another girl. “Born in a bog,” said a boy who was trying to get Greta’s attention. The boy painted pictures of Greek statues, and Greta couldn’t think of anything more boring, or anyone. When he asked to take her to ride the Ferris wheel in Tivoli she simply rolled her eyes. “Well, Professor Wegener isn’t going to take you, if that’s what you’re waiting for,” the boy replied, kicking his boot against the trunk of an elm.At home, her mother, ever mindful of the butcher-wagon incident, studied Greta cautiously whenever she returned for the evening, the light of the fireplace revealing nothing in Greta’s eyes. One evening her mother said, “Greta, my dear, if you don’t arrange an escort for your birthday party, then I’m going to have to ask someone for you.” She was needlepointing at the parlor’s hearth, and Greta could hear Carlisle upstairs in his room bouncing a tennis ball. “I’m sure Countess von der Recke ’s son would like to go with you,” Mrs. Waud was saying. “Of course he doesn’t dance, but he ’s a handsome enough boy, as long as you ignore that awful hump, wouldn’t you agree? Greta?” Greta’s mother lifted her pointy face. The fire in the hearth was weak and red, and the tap-tap-tap of Carlisle’s ball filled the room, causing the chandelier to tremble. “When will he stop that?” Mrs. Waud snapped. “Silly tennis ball.” She folded up her needlepoint and stood, her body taking a rigid stance, as if she were an accusatory arrow pointed in the direction of Carlisle’s room. “I suppose there ’s always Carlisle,” she said with a sigh. And then, as if the flames in the fireplace had suddenly leapt higher and brightened the parlor, Mrs. Waud said, “Well, yes, that’s right. There’s always Carlisle. Why not go with Carlisle? He hasn’t found a girl to take, either. You two could go together, the birthday couple.” But Greta, who remained in the parlor’s door frame, protested with her hands and said, “Carlisle? I can’t go with Carlisle! That wouldn’t be any fun. Besides, I’m quite capable of finding my own escort.” Her mother’s eyebrows, which were gray as pigeon feathers, arched up. She said, “Oh, really? Who?”Greta could feel her nails pressing into the palms of her hands as she said, “You just wait and see. I’ll bring who I want. I’m not going to go with my own brother.” She was playing with her hair, and staring at her mother, and upstairs was the tap-tap-tap of the tennis ball. “Just wait and see,” Greta said. “After all, I’m going to be eighteen.”The next week Greta caught Einar on the stairs in the Royal Academy. He was holding the white balustrade when she placed her hand on his wrist and said, “May I talk to you?”It was late and no one else was around and the stairwell was quiet. Professor Wegener was wearing a brown suit with a white collar tinged brown. He was carrying a small blank canvas the size of a book. “We ’re having a supper to celebrate my birthday,” Greta said. “I’m going to be eighteen. My twin brother and me.” And then, “I was wondering if you’d want to come along?”Einar looked as if he’d eaten something rotten, the color seeping from his face. “Miss, please,” he finally said. “Maybe you ought to enroll in another seminar? It might be best.” He touched his throat, as if something delicate and cherished were dangling there.It was then that Greta realized that Professor Wegener was in some ways even younger than she. His face was a boy’s, with a small mouth and perpetually red ears. His pale brown hair was hanging impishly over his forehead. Just then something told Greta to cup Einar’s face in her hands. He jumped slightly as her fingers fell on his cheeks, but then he was still. She held her professor’s narrow head, his warm temples between her palms. Greta continued to hold Einar, and he let her. Then she kissed him, the small canvas tucked between them. It was then that Greta knew Einar Wegener was not only the man she wanted to escort her to her eighteenth birthday party but also the man she would marry. “Aren’t you a pretty man,” she said.“May I go?” Einar asked, pulling away.“You mean to the party?”“Well, that’s not—”“Of course you can go to the party. That’s why I asked you.”Then, to both their surprise, Einar turned his face to Greta’s for a second kiss.But before the party, before Greta turned eighteen, Greta’s father decided Europe was no longer safe. Not long after Germany struck out for France, Greta’s father sent his family home from Denmark. “If the Kaiser will roll through Belgium, what’s to stop him from detouring up here?” he asked at the blond-wood table in the dining room. “Good point,” Greta’s mother replied, floating around the room with bundles of shipping straw. Greta, who felt like a fleeing refugee, boarded the Princess Dagmar with nothing in her pocket but a short note from Einar that said only: “Please forget me. It’s probably for the best.”  Now, more than ten years later, in the damp spring of 1925, Greta felt as if she were holding a secret about her husband. The first few weeks after the session with Anna’s dress, Greta and Einar said nothing about it. They stayed busy at their easels, carefully stepping out of each other’s way. The portrait of Anna was complete, and now Greta was looking for another commission. On one or two occasions, at dinner or while they both were reading late at night, something would make Greta think of the dress, and she would nearly call him Lili. But she managed to stop herself. Only once did she respond to a question of his by saying, “What was that, Lili?” Immediately she apologized. They both laughed and she kissed his forehead. She didn’t think of it again, and it was as if Lili were nothing more than a character in a play they had seen at the Folketeatret.Then, one evening, Greta was reading about the Social Liberals in Politiken, the lamp shedding a cone of light around her chair. Einar moved toward her and sat at her feet, placing his head in her lap. Its warm heaviness rested against her thighs as she read the newspaper. She stroked his hair, her hand lifting every minute or so to turn the page. When she finished, she folded it up to begin the crossword puzzle, pulling a pencil from the patch pocket of her smock.“I’ve been thinking about her,” Einar said.“Who’s that?”“Little Lili.”“Then why don’t we see her again?” Greta said, her face barely lifting from the puzzle, her finger smudged with newsprint brushing at the chicken-pox scar.Greta could say things without really meaning them, her urge to contradict, to be radical, perpetually bubbling up inside. Throughout their marriage she had made equally absurd proposals: Why don’t we move back to Pasadena to harvest oranges? Why don’t we start a little clinic in our apartment for the prostitutes of Istedgade? Why don’t we move someplace neutral, like Nevada, where no one will ever know who we are? Things are said in the great cave of wedlock, and thankfully most just hover, small and black and harmlessly upside down like a sleeping bat. At least that ’s how Greta thought of it; what Einar thought, she couldn’t say.She once tried to paint a sleeping bat—the black double membrane of skin draped over the mouse body—but she failed. She lacked the technical skill for the elongated fingers and the small, clawed thumb; for the gray translucence in the stretched wings. She had not trained to paint the haunch of animals. Over the years Einar, who occasionally painted a sow or a sparrow or even Edvard IV into his landscapes, had promised he would teach her. But whenever they would sit down to a lesson, something would happen: a cable would arrive from California, the laundress would ping! her finger cymbals from the street, the telephone would ring with a call from one of Einar’s patrons, who were often silver-haired and titled and lived behind narrow green shutters that remained latched with a little hook.A few days later, Greta was returning to the Widow House from a meeting with a gallery owner who eventually would reject her paintings. The dealer, a handsome man with a freckle like a chocolate stain on his throat, hadn’t actually turned Greta away; but the way he tapped his fingers against his chin told Greta he wasn’t impressed. “All portraits?” he had asked. The man knew, as did all of Copenhagen, that she was married to Einar Wegener. Greta felt that because of this the dealer expected quaint landscapes from her. “Do you ever think your pictures are perhaps too”—he struggled for the right word—“rapturous?” This just about boiled up Greta, and she felt the heat catching inside her dress, the one with the tuxedo lapels. Too rapturous? How could anything be too rapturous? She snatched her portfolio from the dealer’s hand and turned on her heel. She was still warm and damp in the face by the time she arrived at the top of the stairs of the Widow House.When she opened the door, she found a girl sitting in the rope-bottom chair, and at first Greta couldn’t think who she was. The girl was facing the window, a book in her hands and Edvard IV in her lap. She was wearing a blue dress with a detachable white collar, and lying across the bone at the top of her spine was one of Greta’s gold chains. The girl—did Greta know her?—smelled of mint and milk.The sailor below was yelling at his wife, and each time the word “whore” came through the floorboards, the girl’s neck would blush. And then it would fade. “Luder,” the man yelled over and over, and so rose and fell the flush in the girl’s throat.“Lili?” Greta finally said.“It’s a wonderful book.” Lili lifted the history of California that Greta’s father had shipped over in a crate with tins of sugared lemons, the supply of Pure Pasadena Extract, and a gunnysack of eucalyptus bells for steaming her face.“I don’t want to disturb you,” Greta said.Lili made a feathery murmur. Edvard IV growled lazily, his ears lifting. The door to the apartment was still open, and Greta hadn’t removed her coat. Lili returned to her book, and Greta looked at Lili’s pale neck rising out of the petals of her collar. Greta wasn’t sure what her husband wanted her to do next. She told herself that this was important to Einar, that she should follow his lead—not a natural impulse for Greta. She stood in the entry of the apartment, one hand behind her holding the knob of the door, while Lili sat quietly in the chair, in a pane of sunlight. She ignored Greta, who was hoping Lili would rise and take Greta’s hands in hers. But that didn’t happen, and eventually Greta realized she should leave Lili alone, and so she closed the door to the apartment behind her and headed down the dark stairs and into the street, where she met the Cantonese laundress and sent her away.Later, when Greta returned to the Widow House, Einar was painting. He was wearing his checked-tweed pants and vest, his shirtsleeves rolled to the elbow. His head looked small in his collar and above the lumpy knot of his tie. His face was full and pink in the cheek, his little pouty mouth sucking on the end of his filbert brush. “It’s coming along,” he said cheerfully. “I finally mixed the right colors for the snow on the heath. Have a look?”Einar painted scenes so small you could balance the canvases in your hands. This particular painting was dark, a bog in a winter dusk; a thin line of dingy snow was the only distinction between the spongy soil and the sky. “It’s the bog in Bluetooth?” Greta said. Recently she had tired of Einar’s landscapes. She never understood how he could paint them over and over. He would finish off this heath tonight and begin another in the morning.On the table was a loaf of rye bread. Einar had done the marketing, which wasn’t like him. There was also a tub of shrimp on ice, and a dish of shredded beef. And a bowl of pickled pearl onions, which reminded Greta of the beads she and Carlisle had strung when they were little and he was still too lame to play outside. “Was Lili here?” She felt the need to mention it, for Greta knew that Einar would leave it unsaid.“For an hour. Maybe less. Can’t you smell her? Her perfume?” He was rinsing his brushes in a jar, the water a pale white like the thin milk Greta had had to buy when she first returned to Denmark after the war.Greta didn’t know what to say; she didn’t know what her husband wanted her to say. “Is she coming back?”“Only if you want her to,” Einar said, his back to her.His shoulders were no wider than a boy’s. So slight a man he was that Greta sometimes felt she could wrap her arms twice around him. She watched his right shoulder shake as he rinsed the brushes, and something in her told her to stand behind him and take hold of his arms, to whisper to him to stand still. All she wanted to do was to allow him his desires, but at the same time she had the irrepressible urge to hold him in her arms and tell him what to do about Lili. And there they were, in the apartment in the attic of the Widow House, with dusk filling the windows, and Greta holding Einar tightly, his arms stiff at his side. Eventually she said—but only as it occurred to her—“It ’s up to Lili. It ’s whatever she wants to do.”  In June the city was throwing the Artists Ball at Rådhuset. For a week Greta kept the invitation in her pocket, wondering what to do about it. Einar had recently said he didn’t want to go to any more balls. But Greta had another idea; she had come to see in Einar’s eyes a longing he wasn’t prepared to admit.One night at the theatre, she gently asked, “Would you like to go as Lili?” She asked because she guessed it was what Einar wanted. He would never confess such a desire; he rarely confessed anything to her, unless she prodded, in which case his true feelings would pour out, and she would listen patiently, sinking her chin into her fist.They were at the Royal Theatre, up in the gallery. The red velvet on the armrests was worn bald, and over the proscenium was inscribed the legend EJ BLOT TIL LYST. The black oak floors had been waxed that afternoon, and a sweet medicinal odor hung in the air, making Greta think of the smell of the apartment after Einar had cleaned and mopped.Einar’s hands were trembling, his throat turning pink. Greta and Einar were nearly as high up as the electric chandelier, with its great smoked-glass balls. The light was revealing the down on Einar’s cheek just beneath his ears, where most men wore sideburns. His beard was so light that he shaved just once a week; there were so few whiskers on his upper lip that Greta could count them if she liked. In his cheek there was a color, like a tea rose, which Greta sometimes envied out of the corner of her eye.The orchestra was tuning up, preparing for its long descent into Tris tan und Isolde. The couple next to Einar and Greta were discreetly removing their evening slippers. “I thought we said we weren’t going to the ball this year,” Einar finally said.“We don’t have to go. I just thought—”The lights dimmed, and the conductor made his way to the head of the pit. For the next five hours Einar sat rigid, his legs pressed together, his program tight in his fist. Greta knew he was thinking of Lili, as if she were a younger sister away for a very long time but now due home. Tonight Anna was singing Brangäne, Isolde ’s maidservant. Her voice made Greta think of coals in a stove, and although it wasn’t pretty like a soprano’s, it was warm at the edges and correct; how else should a maidservant sound? “Some of the most interesting women I know aren’t especially beautiful,” she would later comment to Einar, when they were in bed, when Greta’s hand was beneath the heat of his hip, when she was on the steep cliff of sleep and she couldn’t properly think of where she was, Copenhagen or California.The next day, when Greta returned from a meeting with another gallery owner, a man who was too mousy and insignificant even to pique Greta with his rejection, she went to kiss Einar. There, on his cheek and in his hair, was the ghost of Lili, the lingering scent of mint and milk.“Was Lili here again?”“The whole afternoon.”“What did she do?”“She went over to Fonnesbech’s and bought herself a few things.”“All alone?” Greta said.Einar nodded. He had finished painting for the day and was in the walnut-armed reading chair, Politiken spread in his hands and Edvard IV curled at his feet. “She said to tell you she wants to go to the ball.”Greta didn’t say anything. She felt as if someone were explaining the rules of a new parlor game: she was listening and nodding but actually thinking to herself, I hope I understand this better once the game begins.“You want her to go, don’t you?” Einar asked. “It ’s okay with you if she goes instead of me?”Greta, who was twisting the tips of her hair into a knot that would later snarl, said, “I don’t mind at all.”At night Greta would lie in bed, her arm over Einar’s chest. When they married, Einar’s grandmother had given them a beechwood sleigh bed. It was a bit small, like everyone in the Wegener family except Einar’s father. Over the years Greta grew used to sleeping at a diagonal, her legs stacked across Einar’s. Sometimes, when she doubted this life she had created for herself in Denmark, she would feel as if she were a little girl, and Einar, with his china-doll face and his pretty feet, her most beloved toy. When he slept, his lips would pout and glisten. His hair would hang like a wreath around his face. Greta couldn’t count the nights she had stayed up watching his long lashes fluttering while he was dreaming.Deep in the night their bedroom was silent except for the horn of the ferry leaving for Bornholm, the Baltic island where her grandmother had first come from. More and more, Greta would lie awake thinking about Lili, about her rural face with the tremblingly bold upper lip and her eyes so brown and watery that Greta couldn’t tell whether or not they were on the verge of tears. About Lili’s fleshy little nose, which somehow made her look like a girl still growing into a woman’s body.Lili turned out to be even shyer than Einar. Or at least at first. Her head would dip when she spoke, and sometimes she would become too nervous to say anything at all. When asked a question as simple as “Did you hear about the terrible fire on the Royal Greenland Trading Company’s docks?” she would stare at Greta or Anna and then turn away. Lili preferred to write notes and prop them around the apartment, leaving postcards bought from the blind woman outside Tivoli’s iron gates on the pickled-ash wardrobe or on the little ledge of Greta’s easel.But I won’t know anyone at the ball. Do you really think I should go? Is it fair to leave Einar behind? Won’t he mind?And once:I don’t think I’m pretty enough. Please advise.Greta returned the notes, standing them against a bowl of pears just before leaving the apartment:It’s too late. I’ve already told everyone you’re coming. Please don’t worry, everyone thinks Lili is Einar’s cousin from Bluetooth. A few have asked if you would need an escort, but I said it wasn’t necessary. You don’t mind, do you? I didn’t think you were—is this the right word?—ready.In the evenings Einar and Greta would dine with friends at their favorite café along Nyhavns Kanal. Sometimes he ’d become a little drunk on aquavit and boast childishly of the success of one of his exhibitions. “All the paintings sold!” he’d say, reminding Greta of Carlisle, who would endlessly boast of a good grade in geometry, or a handsome new friend.But Einar’s talk would embarrass Greta, who tried not to listen whenever money was discussed; after all, what was there to say? Couldn’t they pretend it didn’t matter to either of them? She would glare at Einar across the table, salmon bones bare and oily on the platter. She’d never told Einar about the trust her father had sent her off to Denmark with, to say nothing of the income wired into an account at Landmandsbanken at the end of each orange season—not out of selfishness, but because she was too concerned that all that money would transform her into someone else, someone whose company she herself wouldn’t enjoy. One regrettable day she bought the whole apartment building, the Widow House, but she could never bring herself to tell Einar, who each month delivered the rent check to a clerk at Landmandsbanken with a bit of a grudge in his step. Even Greta knew this had been a mistake, but how could she fix it now?When Einar became excited he’d knock his fists against the table, his hair falling around his face; the collar of his shirt would split open, revealing his smooth pink chest. He was without any fat on his body, except for his soft breasts, which were as small as dumplings. Greta would pat his wrist, trying to urge him to slow down on the aquavit—the way her mother had done when Greta was a girl drinking Tennis Specials at the Valley Hunt Club. But Einar never seemed to understand her signals, and instead he’d bring the slim glass to his lips and smile around the table, as if seeking approval.Physically, Einar was an unusual man; this Greta knew. She would think this when his shirt would split open further, and everyone at the table could get a peek of his chest, which was as obscene as the breast of a girl a few days into puberty. With his pretty hair and his chin smooth as a teacup, he could be a confusing sight. He was so beautiful that sometimes old women in Kongens Have would break the law and offer him tulips picked from a public bed. His lips were pinker than any of the sticks of color Greta could buy on the third floor of Magasin du Nord.“Tell them why you won’t be at the ball,” Greta said one night at dinner. It was warm, and they were eating at a table outside in the light of a torch. Earlier, two boats in the canal had collided, and the night smelled of kerosene and split wood.“The ball?” Einar asked, tilting his head.“Greta says your cousin is coming from Jutland,” said Helene Albeck, a secretary at the Royal Greenland Trading Company. She was compact in her little green dress with the low-hanging waist; once, when she was drunk, she took Einar’s hand and pressed it against her lap. Einar resisted instantly, which pleased Greta, who had witnessed the incident through a slat in the kitchen door.“My cousin?” Einar said, sounding confused. His upper lip became dewy, and he said nothing, as if he’d forgotten how to speak.This happened more than once. Greta would mention Lili to a friend, even to Anna, and Einar’s face would pinch up, as if he had no idea who Lili was. He and Greta never spoke about it afterwards, about his childlike miscomprehension: Lili who? Oh, yes, Lili. My cousin? Yes, my cousin, Lili. The next day the same thing would occur again. It was as if their little secret were really just Greta’s little secret, as if she were plotting behind Einar’s back. She considered discussing it with him directly but decided against it. Perhaps she feared she would crush him. Or that he would resent her intrusion. Or maybe her greatest fear was that Lili would disappear forever, the detachable white collar fluttering as she fled, leaving Greta alone in the Widow House.CHAPTER ThreeEinar’s father was a failed cereal farmer, an expelled member of the Society for Cultivating the Heath. The first night he ever left his mother’s farmhouse in Bluetooth was when he rode up to Skagen, the fingertip of Denmark, to fetch his bride from a shop that sewed fishing nets. He slept in a bay-inn with a seaweed roof and woke at dawn to marry. The second and last night away from Bluetooth he returned to Skagen with his wife’s body and baby Einar wrapped in a plaid blanket. Because the ground around Skagen was too hard with hoarfrost for gravedigging, they wrapped Einar’s mother in a fishing net picked clean of gills and laid her like an anchor into the icy sea. The week before, a gray wave had washed the bay-inn with the seawood roof into the Kattegat, and so this time Einar’s father slept in the net shop, among the rusted hook-needles and the cord and the faint smell of primrose for which Einar’s mother was known.

Bookclub Guide

INTRODUCTIONOn a gray April day in Dresden a few years ago, I climbed the forty-one steps to the Brühlsche Terrace to have a look at the view. The river Elbe was running dark and fast, and the city, a ghost of its former self, sat sternly beneath a sky sagging with a late snow. The city bustled—electric trams and sub-compact cars and bicycles with wicker baskets and a police van in a chase with its blue light flashing. Across the river were stucco apartment complexes with washing tubs on the terraces and slab-concrete shopping arcades where garbage blew in a cold wind.A city shaking itself alive after a century of terrible history, it seemed to me that day. From that view it was nearly impossible to imagine the former Dresden, once called the Teutonic Florence, and the terrace where I sat in the chill was known as the Balcony of Europe. "The most beautiful city on the Continent," proclaimed a 1909 English guidebook, Romantic Germany, the sort of book with hand-tinted illustrations of half-timber houses and water wells with little thatched roofs. And now this, a city bombed and burned and then choked for more than fifty years by the grip of the Communist East, startled by its recent freedom and the early green shoots of prosperity. Little remained to remind one of Dresden circa 1930. The view from the terrace only spoke of the air raids of February 1945; of the quartering of the German nation a few months later; of the long haul through the Soviet reign; of the wall a few hours to the north crumbling in November 1989. But I was there to research the beautiful past, the history through which Einar Wegener and Lili Elbe walked.The wind was sharp and I sealed my eyes against its bite, and there, in the half-instant of a blink, lay the old Dresden where Einar arrived one cold day in 1930 to transform himself once and for all into a pretty shy girl named Lili. My job was to imagine the past, to hunt through the remnants that lay in the streets and in the library archives that could suggest a world that once was. I was in Germany alone, and other than the librarians at the Dresden Hygiene Museum and my hired translator who scrolled through the microfiche with me, I spoke to no one during my stay. And it was that day on the Brühlsche Terrace that I came to recognize one of the fundamental tasks of writing a novel such as The Danish Girl.Every novel has its own internal memory, the organic creation that the reader and the writer recall, directly or indirectly, as the story propels itself along. But, as I sorted out the story of Einar and Lili and Greta, I began to wonder whose memory was relevant to my role as novelist. For Lili Elbe, that young Danish woman whom Greta Waud first brought into daylight, had a history and a memory that belonged to Einar—but did it really? On that gray day I began to understand some of the novel's questions: whose memory informs our own; how does the past, seemingly obliterated, infuse our vision of the world at hand, and of ourselves.Dresden was gone, razed by an impressively American combination of firepower and efficiency, and yet the city, all of it, lay at my feet, beneath the terrace where lovers rented paddleboats, in the square outside the Semperoper, in the young grass growing along the banks of the Elbe. 1930 was within my grasp, and so was Lili Elbe conjuring memories of a person gone—her own person gone; but not really. It led me to this: on the day that Professor Bolk performed his surgery on Lili Elbe, Einar Wegener disappeared; yet where did he go? From then who would house his memories? He was dead but unburied, and Lili, who very much believed she was a different soul than Einar, had to live with a history that was and was not her own.I asked myself if this is any different than what humanity shoves upon the rest of us? Each of us is defined by our own past, but also by that of our family and lovers and friends and enemies, as well as our country and civilization. On that April day the wind crossed the terrace with an iciness that stung the eyes, and the novel which I was writing about Einar and Lili, still untitled and far from complete, took shape.Identity—the loss and acquisition of it, the borrowing, the stealing, the rejection, the embrace; we grow up and declare ourselves yet the beautiful and awful past lingers forever. Beneath the rubble and the char, inside the pre-fab concrete and the asbestos tiles, swirling amid the factory belch and the cough of the car, rising in the wind, in the face of a daffodil bending beneath the last snow of the year, history and memory are held aloft by imagination and the sun as bright as a white kite above the river. Nothing is lost, I told myself that day in Dresden. A novel is written so nothing can be lost.ABOUT DAVID EBERSHOFFDavid Ebershoff is the publishing director of the Modern Library, a division of Random House, Inc. He is the author of the international bestseller The Danish Girl and visiting lecturer at Princeton University.A CONVERSATION WITH DAVID EBERSHOFFHow did you discover the story of Einar, Greta, and Lili?A few years ago, a friend who works at a university press mailed me a book about gender theory that his press was publishing. I took it home and casually began to flip through it. Not much of a reader of theory, I didn't expect to like the book. And I was right—too much discussion of literary constructs and not enough of character, story, and plot, the notions that really get a novelist going. But buried in the book, parenthetically in fact, was a short paragraph about Einar Wegener, the first person ever to undergo a successful sex change. I had always thought that Christine Jorgensen, an American GI from Brooklyn, had been the first man to surgically change into a woman. Something in this tangential paragraph—it mentioned that Wegener was a painter and that his wife had helped him in his transformation—made me curious. Why was this man forgotten from history? Who was he? Who was his wife? How did such a change affect their marriage?Curious, I went to the New York Public Library and began to search for references to Einar Wegener. I found none in my first attempt. So I turned to books about gender and sexual identity, and that was where the name Lili Elbe first came up in connection to Einar Wegener. A number of references, short and often contradictory, ultimately led me to Lili Elbe's diaries and correspondence, which were published in 1933, soon after her death. This is where my true research began.How did you research the facts that are left to us?In some ways writing a novel, especially a novel set in the past and about characters who once lived, is about amassing enough details and arranging them properly in order to offer the reader a verisimilitude that satisfies his or her curiosity about the story at hand. And yet all of this must be done in a voice and style that makes the story the novelist's own. The Danish Girlwas written with the assistance of the staffs at five libraries, each of which provided me invaluable sources about the novel's subjects and places: the Royal Danish Library and the library of the Royal Academy of Arts, both in Copenhagen; the library at the Dresden Hygiene Museum; the New York Public Library; and the Pasadena Public Library.Some of the most important references for the novel include the news reports on Wegener's transformation that appeared in the Danish press in 1930 and 1931, especially those in Politiken and Nationaltidende, which I read on microfiche at the Royal Library in Copenhagen. In 1931 Lili Elbe set out to explain her life to the public, cooperating on a series of essays in Politiken. She had a friend who was an editor at the newspaper who allowed her to pen the articles as if they were written by a third person. These essays told the world about Einar's gradual evolution from married man and prominent artist to young woman, and the doctor in Dresden who performed the three surgeries. Months after these essays ran, in a final gesture to Lili Elbe's fantastic story, Politiken published Lili's obituary under the by-line of Fru Loulou, although much suggests that Lili wrote the article herself; hence, Lili, in characteristic fashion, scripted the last words the world would read about herself.Shortly after Lili Elbe died in 1931, a friend of hers, Niels Hoyer, edited her diaries and correspondence and published them in a book under the title Fra Mand Til Kvinde (Man Into Woman). The diary was an invaluable source of information about Einar Wegener and Lili Elbe, especially about the transformation, his stay at the Dresden Municipal Women's Clinic, and the medical procedures and examinations performed on him. The diary also gave me clues of where to look for other information: the Royal Academy of Art and the neighborhood around Nyhavns Kanal, the radium institute in Rungsted, the rural bog-villages of Jutland where Einar grew up, the medical clinics in Paris and Dresden.Why do you think the story of Einar and Greta was forgotten?One could speculate forever why the story was nearly forgotten. Wegener underwent his surgeries in the early 1930s, a time of great anxiety in the world, especially the parts of Western Europe where he lived—Copenhagen, Paris, Dresden. The dark cloud of economic disaster, fascism, and, eventually, Nazism had already rolled over the continent. It does not surprise me that this story was lost in the horrible events of the subsequent fifteen years. That is one reason. Yet, of course, another reason is the nature of Wegener's transformation. Even today transgendered people struggle to incorporate themselves into society, without much assistance from most of us. But in the 1930s the story was almost too much to absorb: not only was the world hearing for the first time about a person with a jumbled state of gender, the headlines were also shouting that gender switching was now medically possible. Around the world the newspapers reported Wegener's transformation with a mixture of awe and judgment. It was a big story at the time, but when Lili Elbe died in 1931, even the most sympathetic newspapers in Copenhagen reported it as more of a footnote than as a summary of a remarkable event. But Lili Elbe made her best attempt to keep her head above the closing waters of history with her self-authored obituary in Politiken.What inspired you about this story to make it the subject of your first novel?Marriage fascinates me: how we negotiate its span, how we change within it, how it changes itself, and why some relationships survive themselves and others do not. There isn't a single marriage that couldn't provide enough narrative arc for a novel. As I see it, the heart of the story of Einar, Lili, and Greta lies not in the sex change but in the intimate space that made up their marriage. They were in love, across several years, even when they lived as two women. What kind of relationship can withstand a shift like that? Put simply, it is the question that we perpetually ask ourselves: what is love?Something else I came to understand when I began to read about Einar Wegener and Lili Elbe is that we all, in some ways, are born into the wrong body. We struggle throughout our lives to learn to accept the shell that transports us through this world. I believe everyone has at least once looked in the mirror and thought, "That is not who I am. I was meant to be someone else." Obviously most of us do not take such drastic measures to come to terms with who we are, but there is universality to Einar's question of identity—look not at my body, look at my soul.How much of The Danish Girl is based on fact? Why did you choose at times to stray from the facts—especially with the ending?ASome of the basic events of Einar's transformation are based on fact—the first time he dresses as Lili, the mysterious bleeding, the stay at the Dresden Municipal Clinic, for example. But most of the novel is invented. I wanted to write a love story, the novel about Einar and Greta's marriage. To do so required speculation and imagination of how they lived, how they worked together, how they fought, how they loved each other. In The Danish Girl I changed many parts of their story in order to write a love story with its own logic. Probably one of the greatest changes I made was making Greta (whose real name was Gerda) an American. She is the hero of the novel, in my opinion. In order to convey the depth of her love for her husband, and then for Lili, I felt the need to invent a new character with a history that helps to inform how she approaches her marriage to Einar. The end of the novel is an extension of all this. In my ending I needed to resolve their marriage—this after all is what the novel is about. In reality, Gerda Wegener and Lili Elbe drifted apart, which seemed nearly implausible, and hopelessly sad, after all they had done for each other.What challenges were involved in creating a character that begins as a man and ends a woman?The most interesting part of imagining such a character was thinking about past and present. The past plays a great role in the novel, as it does in most fiction. But what intrigued me was whose past was it. When Einar was living as Lili, whose childhood was remembered, which memories, both physical and emotional belonged to Einar, to Lili, and to both? Einar Wegener entered the Dresden Municipal Women's Clinic in the spring of 1930, and several months later Lili Elbe exited it. What happened to Einar's past—all his fondness and regret and frustrations and remembered dreams? How would I account for that?In reality, Einar Wegener truly felt that he did a full switch from man into woman; that with the blade of a knife he went from male to female as efficiently as you or I turn on or off the light to a room. But I believe this was simplistic of him. My understanding of what happens in the transformation is different. I believe, and this is another reason I wrote this story as fiction, that Einar was both man and woman, not one or the other, and that living his life as either would never have been exactly correct. Physically this was true -- he had physical characteristics of both men and women. But more important, his psyche and his spirit belonged to both genders, perhaps not equally, but even after the operation Einar was not entirely female. How could he have been? He thought he was, but that was not the case. Certainly writing about a person who is both male and female is a challenge, but in the best sense because of the possibilities.What were your literary influences?It is hard to say which writers have influenced me, but some of my favorite contemporary writers are Joyce Carol Oates, Joan Didion, John Updike, Alice Munro, Mavis Gallant, Eudora Welty, Kazuo Ishiguro, and Doris Lessing. I also adore Jane Austen, the Brontes, E. M. Forster, D. H. Lawrence, Thomas Mann, and Thomas Hardy.Greta is a fascinating character. Why does Greta encourage Einar to cross-dress? What motivates her and how does she reconcile these motives with the pain it also causes her?Greta possesses an unusual combination of independence and fidelity. She is self-driven and fiercely individual, yet at the same time she holds a profound sense of dedication to the two men she marries, especially Einar. She will do anything for him. She knows him better than he knows himself and recognizes even before Einar that he responds to dressing as a woman. Greta encourages Einar to live as Lili because she knows it is what Einar wants—and that is always enough of a reason for Greta. Except nothing is ever that simple. Greta's career takes off with her paintings of Lili. She needs Lili as much as Einar. And I believe Greta is never fully honest with herself or her husband about how Lili has changed her life as an artist. Einar could not have become Lili without Greta, but Greta could not have become the artist of her ambitions without Lili. Their motives and actions are snarled and inextricable.How did writing this book affect your views on the choices of the transgendered?Writing the novel gave me a new understanding of courage. And seventy years after Lili Elbe made her historically courageous decision, it still requires nearly super-human courage to decide to proceed with a sex change. This is changing, gradually, slowly. It requires a faith that you can turn your world on its head and yet still emerge with a sense of yourself intact. How many of us are strong enough to do something like that?The Danish Girl is about a lot more than the story of the first transsexual. What do you hope readers will be left with when they read this novel?Whom do we love, and why do we love them, and how do we love them, and what do we do to help and harm that love—a better understanding of all that is, ultimately, what I hope a reader thinks about when the last page has been read. Those questions, and: there once lived a brave man with a beautiful wife and a mysterious Danish girl, and their story, their marriage, their individual and joint transformations, are worthy of our memory.DISCUSSION QUESTIONSWhat is the true nature of Greta and Einar's marriage? Is it, at heart, a love story? Who do you think must cope with the most change? Would Einar have become Lili without Greta's help? Why does he initially agree to try on Anna's dress? Would Greta have done the same for Einar? What role does the city of Copenhagen play in influencing the lives of its characters? Greta loves the men in her life in different ways. Are there any similarities between her love for Teddy and her love for Einar? When Henrik says to Lili "I already know. Don't worry about anything but I already know" (page 60) what does he mean? What role does Einar play in Lili telling Henrik she can't see him anymore? What is happening to Einar when he goes to Mme. Jasmin-Carton's and dances for the man? How does this influence his full metamorphosis into Lili? Why doesn't Lili pack Einar's paintings to take with her to New York? What do the paintings symbolize for Lili? Why doesn't Lili tell Greta about re-meeting Henrik? Should Greta have done more to stop Lili's last operation? Why or why not? How much does the last operation mean to Lili, in terms of becoming a complete woman? Should she have risked it? Of the people Lili feels are responsible for her birth—Henrik, Anna, Carlilse, Hans, Greta—why doesn't she include Einar?

Editorial Reviews

Praise for The Danish Girl

“Heartbreaking and unforgettable . . . a complete triumph.”—The Boston Globe

“An unusual and affecting love story.”—The New York Times

“A sophisticated and searching meditation on the nature of identity.”—Esquire

“It is nearly impossible not to be moved.”—The Baltimore Sun