Read The Tsar's Dwarf (Hawthorne Books)

Read The Tsar's Dwarf (Hawthorne Books)
"A curious and wonderful work of great human value by a Danish master." Sebastian Barry, Man Booker finalist (Click on the picture to go to the book's Amazon page)

Monday, March 17, 2008

The Secret Confessions of a Moose Lover (Happily Lost in Fairbanks, Alaska)

Let's face it. I'm a moose lover.

But the moose don't want my love. This is the second time I'm in Alaska and the moose never show themselves. I only see them on tacky t-shirts and street signs. After a few days I'm so desperate I buy a pair of moose socks at Fred Meyer, so I don't walk around feeling so cheated.

"Actually, you're as likely to see a moose in the parking lot as you are in the wilderness," a local tells me. "The moose are so huge that they don't give a damn about humans," she continues.

So every morning I get up and look out of my hotel window hoping to see a moose licking a Volvo.

Talking about Volvos, I'm in Fairbanks to attend the annual SASS conference. SASS stands for the Society for the Advancement of Scandinavian Study. It's always a great bunch of people who show up, most of them are scholars worn out by their PhDs, but there are also a few weirdos like me. There's even a Bulgarian grad student who studies Per Olov Enquist and a Romanian from Transylvania who has psychoanalyzed Elling - the famous Norwegian film.

"Norwegian films are preoccupied with the mentally ill," she tells us. All Danes, Swedes, and Finns in the audience nod happily. We're from the sane part of Scandinavia after all - at least that's what we think, which just goes to show how delusional we are.

No don't get me wrong. The SASS conference is pure bliss. We all get along. There's no nasty teasing, just laughter and heavy drinking as you would expect. After all, Scandinavians have a reputation to live up to, especially if you're Finnish or Danish. We eat muffins, too, and have a craving for Northern lights. Actually, the receptionist offers to wake us up if the sky becomes clear.

"Could you also wake me up if you see a moose?" I beg.

The receptionist nods. Moose alerts are included in the price at Princess hotel. So are the fancy ice sculptures in the parking lot that melt when you look at them.

From my room I see a beaver. Or maybe I just want it to be a beaver. It's probably a rat.

On the second day of the conference, we go on an excursion. Two yellow school buses pick us up and we head for the Ice Sculpture Exhibition. It's Fairbank's version of Knots Berry Farm with joy rides made from ice blocks. There's even a phone booth made of the cold stuff - I'm sure the Sami of the group feel right at home. The exhibition also has icy advertisements for ATM and other ridiculous companies.

Then again you shouldn't be surprised. Alaskans are Americans after all, and if Heaven were run by Yankees, there would be advertisement boards there as well: Welcome to Paradise -brought to you by Praise The Lord Sneakers. Now You Too Can Walk on Water.

For Alaskans it's a warm evening, 3 degrees Fahrenheit or about minus 17 Celsius. It's a tricky cold. It creeps up on you like a bag lady. Fist, you actually feel great. "Minus 17 degrees is a piece of cake," you brag. "I'm a fucking Eskimo."

But after fifteen minutes the cold cuts into you like a knife. You start to feel like a walking ice cube. Your face goes numb, your legs start to hurt, your face goes blue quicker than your balls.

I run back to the warm school bus in the parking lot, but it's gone. Thirty ice cold Scandinavians are waiting like impatient toddlers. It isn't a pretty sight, but what a relief when we find ourselves back inside the bus. The fact that there's no leg room doesn't mean a thing. Most of us don't feel our legs, anyway.

Papers, papers, papers. Academics adore papers. That's all they live for. Everybody at SASS is an expert on something useless - that's why it's so much fun being here. In another universe, people would be committed for obsessing about Karen Blixen's syphilis or the gorgeous adverbs in the Icelandic sagas. But at SASS everybody pretends they're normal. We run around with name tags, we flash cards with pretentious titles, we spill coffee on each other. It's all theatre, but you don't have to be Shakespeare to feel that the world is a stage. Just visit SASS and listen to papers like The Boredom Paradox and the Aesthetic Responses to Freudian Slips in the Late 17th Century Scanian Poets of Southern Landskrona. Then you know why we're driven to drink. Fast.

I've been at SASS conferences several times without much of a purpose, but this time I actually have an agenda. I want the Scandinavian-American community to know that a novel of mine is coming out in English. It's my eleventh Danish work The Tsar's Dwarf (Hawthorne Books), beautifully translated by Tiina Nunnally. It's out in the fall and I'm going on a book tour of Seattle, Tacoma, Portland, San Francisco, L.A., Fullerton, Chicago, Madison, Des Moines, New York, West Chester, and a lot of places I don't know yet. The book has blurbs by Sebastian Berry, Irish Man Booker finalist and Joanna Scott, American Pulitzer finalist. Yes, I'm nauseatingly proud of this and will write more about it later.

So I'm here at SASS hoping that the Scandinavian professors will use the book in their classes. As everybody knows, it's a teacher's finest obligation to make their students suffer. Well, come October I'll make that easier for every one.

At SASS I give a paper called The Novelist and His Translations: The Art of Finding the Writer's Voice. It's actually not a paper. It's just me babbling away as usual. Before I came I had grand visions of a full lecture hall - of avid readers hanging on to every word; of beautiful women adoring my insights, but only six people show up. Well, size doesn't count. Isn't that what Linda Lovelace used to say?

At the farewell party I shake my booty with a few scholars. But come 11 I sneak back to bed. I have to get up at 4.30 and catch my plane. Outside it's pitch dark and beavers are looking for food. But there's no doubt: The SASS conference has been a huge success. Everybody has enjoyed themselves immensely, and people are still dancing as if there's no tomorrow. The organizers have done an excellent job and deserve a vacation somewhere warm. Even the weather has behaved and the salmon wasn't as overcooked as in Oregon.

When I take the plane back to civilization (Denmark? Starbuck's?), I only have one complaint: The good people in Fairbanks should have hired some moose to stare into our windows. And produced a few Northern lights. I know they're just gasses, but they're so damn pretty, anyway.

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