The stories collected in Milk & Other Stories display the quiet, inconspicuous way in which terrible truths and experiences are intimated: the death of a sailboarder makes a widower see deeper into love and loss; a young poet visits his former teacher only to discover he is literally not who he thought he was; a middle-aged man glimpses the terrible humdrum of his third marriage as his son embarks on a new chapter in his life. These revelations are conveyed to readers without grandeur or pathos, and they demonstrate Fruelund’s gift of subtlety and nuance. Like scenes from a life unfiltered by authorial comment, readers see characters’ stories played out dramatically; in brief but brilliant flashes, readers see lives they may recognize as their own. The 14 stories in this collection range across the wide arc of human experience, from the comic to the tragic, and readers take from their time with the stories a feeling, a mood, which lingers long after they put the book aside. To read Simon Fruelund is to absorb the complex emotions of the human heart. He gives readers the chance to step into his characters’ shoes at a key moment, a turning point, in their lives—and in so doing, quietly articulates not just what it means to be Danish, but also what it means to be human.
“Short but great, these disturbing stories from everyday life stayed with me long after I read them.”
—Rikke Viemose, editor, Litteraturnyt fra USA
Dante’s Avenue is an ordinary residential street in a Copenhagen suburb. There are trees lining the sidewalk. There are speed bumps and cars parked along the curb. There’s a pastor, an undertaker, and a stewardess. There’s a bog. There’s a housing complex where the welfare recipient, the taxi driver, and the refugee family live. There’s a man in a white suit.
Simon Fruelund’s Civil Twilight is a tight, precisely told novella about life in the suburbs and about people’s attitudes towards religion, death, family and sex. It is told in three parts: 1) Dante’s Avenue; 2) History; and 3) Mosehøj.
Civil Twilight is not a typical story—it is filled with many mini-stories—and there is no one narrative line running through the book to create an arc with a beginning, middle, and end. The plot is straightforward, however, moving from one end of Dante’s Avenue to the other, before stepping back one thousand years in time (“History”) and returning to the present on the opposite side of the marsh, in the housing block called Mosehøj. Though it is stylistically much different from Peer Hultberg’s classic Danish novel Byen og Verden, (The City and the World) Civil Twilight is similar in that it depicts the lives of an individual place, one that’s remarkable for its plainness—its anywhereness. We all could be residents of Dante’s Avenue.
Although there is no one individual character whose story forms the kernel of a plot, the interconnectedness of these characters’ lives bubbles to the surface at every stop. In the opening section, “Dante’s Avenue,” a man vanishes somewhere in France, and his disappearance ripples into other lives on the street: a woman fears her own husband might leave her; a television announcer wants to do a story on his disappearance. Elsewhere, a man in white appears again and again, haunting the story and frightening the characters that see him. Slipping from one house to the next, the narration enters into and out of the points of view of multiple characters, and gradually the connections between the sections emerge in ways that seem utterly real: In section two, “History,” the narrative races one thousand years back in time to reveal life on Dante’s Avenue long before it was Dante’s Avenue:
“The flint knife is replaced with one in bronze.
The dead are now cremated.
Longhouses are built with fire pits at each end.”
And incredibly, in crisp, clear prose we zoom forward in time all the way to the present day:
“In the course of a few months, a shopping plaza and five housing blocks appear.”
What follows in part 3 is a narrative that leads us upward into one of those housing blocks, Mosehøj, where among the many who live there we finally meet the man in white. With its gradual development showing connections between characters—or even a lack of connection between characters—Civil Twilight displays Fruelund’s quiet, subtle way of intimating and revealing terrible truths and experiences. It may be a quiet book, but it is one that gets at the heart of what it means to be human, living in our present time.