The Danish Girl, by David Ebershoff. Viking, ISBN 0-670-88808-7 (hardcover).
First published in Triple Echo v. 2 no. 3, 2000
Although it is encouraging to see so many trans authors finally telling our stories, most of the books they have written are non-fiction. The trans fiction that does exist, aside from Kate Bornstein’s plays and, perhaps, Leslie Feinberg’s Stone Butch Blues, is primarily fantasy literature. Psychologist Robert Stoller argued that this type of fiction was actually “pornography” in that its primary purpose was to incite lust, and while I am loathe to agree with anything Robert Stoller says, for a change I think he’s probably right.
Trans fiction of a more literary bent has so far been the venue of non-trans authors and some of them have done a fine job of it. H. E. Bates’ The Triple Echo and Two Strand River by Keith Maillard are two examples of thoughtful books with trans themes. And now, David Ebershoff has written another fine book, the fictionalized account of the true story of Danish painter Einar Wegenar’s conversion in 1930 from man to woman, and more importantly perhaps, Einar’s relationship with his wife Gerda (Greta in the novel). In the author’s note at the end of the novel, Ebershoff says he “wrote the novel in order to explore the intimate space that defined their unusual marriage, and that space could only come to life through conjecture and speculation and the running of imagination. Some important facts about Einar ‘s actual transformation lie in these pages, but the story, as recounted here with its details of place and time and language and interior life, is an invention of my imagination.”
The Danish Girl is, in its exploration of this “intimate space”, primarily a love story. It starts out in a most trans fiction type way when Greta asks Einar to put on some feminine clothes so that she can finish a portrait of a woman that she is painting. Einar is suitably flustered but can’t resist the suggestion anyway. Thus Lili, the name Einar eventually adopts, is born. Despite the beginning, which is largely based on fact, Greta is hardly another version of the willing female accomplice found in most trans fantasy literature. She is, in fact, the central character of the book, more interesting than Lili herself, who often seems insubstantial in comparison. What Greta recognizes early on is that Einar really is Lili and she does so without bitterness or righteousness, only a kind of sadness that escalates as she becomes aware of the inevitable changes that are occurring in her life.
The love story also extends beyond Greta to Greta’s and Einar’s circle of friends, all of whom at some point support Lili in her journey. Their nonjudgmental, understanding attitude may strike some trans readers as being unrealistic, but the more unpleasant realities of trans life are represented, appropriately enough, by the medical profession who misdiagnose and pathologize Lili at every turn:
“Do you think it would work on someone like me?”
“I’m sure of it,” Dr. Buson said. “It’s called a lobotomy.”
“What is that?” Einar asked..
“It’s a simple surgical procedure for cutting nerve pathways in the front of the brain.”
“Yes, but it isn’t complicated. I don’t have to cut open the cranium. No, that’s the beauty of it. All I have to do is drill a few holes in your forehead, right about here and here.” Dr. Buson touched Einar’s head, at his temples, and then at a spot just above his nose. “Once I’ve put the holes in your head then I can go in and sever some of the nerve fibers, those that control your personality.”
The beauty of The Danish Girl is in Ebershoff’s ability to transform Greta’s particular loss into a broader meditation on the inevitability and the sadness of change.
Part of Greta was numbing over with shock. Her husband was no longer alive. It, the tingling shock of it, felt like his soul passing through her… But she wouldn’t have to bury Einar. She had settled him into a felt-paneled compartment on a train bound for Germany, and now he was gone – as his train had simply charged ahead into the icy January fog and disappeared forever. She imagined that if she were to call his name it would echo, again and again, for the rest of her life.
Transsexualism is not used to titillate the reader, and is in fact portrayed as a somewhat normal development for Einar. Ebershoff simply uses Einar’s story to develop themes that resonate with all people, trans and non trans alike.
In an interview with Lambda Book Report, Ebershoff says it was sad and almost implausible that the real Lili and Gerda drifted apart after all they had done for each other. And yet his own book reveals in slowly unfolding detail how people slip through our lives and how helpless we often are at stopping them. In its portrayal of the complexity of human nature, The Danish Girl demonstrates that well executed fiction with a trans story can be relevant to all readers.
I hope some of our good trans writers will try their hand at fiction someday soon. Fiction has fewer boundaries and allows us to tell our stories in different ways. It frees us of the tedium of gender theory and has the potential to uncover those elusive places in our lives that non-fiction struggles to illuminate.