“Middlesex” by Jeffrey Eugenides (2003) & “The Danish Girl” by David Ebershoff (2000) – nature versus nurture

Fictional Cal/Calliope was “born twice: first as a baby girl, on a remarkably smogless Detroit day in January of 1960; and then again, as a teenage boy, in an emergency room near Petoskey, Michigan, in August 1974”. Lily Elbe was born Einar Wegener, a Danish artist married to an American painter, Gerda Gottlieb, and destined to be of the first real-life recipients of the practically unknown, extremely dangerous and terribly painful sex reassignment surgery in the 1920s/30s.

To all accounts, Eddie Redmayne is primed for yet more well-deserved adulation for his apparently mesmerising portrayal of the gender reassessment pioneer in the film of “The Danish Girl”, which is set to hit the screens as soon as Christmas is behind us, but which we will get a taster of when it is screened at the Venice and other film festivals from September. Have absolutely no doubt that he will do a cracking job and offer up a sensitive and hugely credible performance, particularly as it is Tom Hooper who has taken the directorial reins.

I’ve just finished the book upon which the film is said to be based, though, and am feeling very deflated, not to say flat-chested, indeed. Written back in 2000, it will no doubt reappear on all the shop bookshelves shortly with a newly vamped cover, good to go in time for the film coming out, and every bit as alluring as Eddie/Lily herself. But as a read, I’m feeling decidedly shortchanged.

David Ebershoff writes quite candidly in his Afterword that his story is only “loosely inspired” by the real events, and says that “the reader should not look to this novel for very many autobiographical details of Einar Wagener’s life, and no other character has any relation to an actual person, living or dead”. Why ever not?

I tried all the way through to completely understand and condone this decision to more or less make it up as he went along, and may be in a complete minority for feeling incensed when too much poetic licence is taken with a true story in the retelling of it for the masses : won’t start rabbiting on about Kate in “A Little Chaos” once again, but it is the same feeling of indignation that history is rewritten – if you are going to borrow a story, why not stick to the facts? The shame of it in this soon to be well documented story is that the actual story seems even more interesting than this potted version.

Sorry to be negative, but the book is a very 2D performance, overly poetic and often flowery. There’s too little about the actual hard core stuff, too much fluff. It feels nowhere near as well documented and is far less gripping compared with recent read “The Lady in Gold”.

Where this not very well written (still sorry) work does I think in some ways redeem itself is in the description of the enduring love and understanding between man and wife, as time goes by and Einar feels Lily coming to the fore more and more.

He transmits very credibly the transformation of their relationship, and the feelings that Ebershoff imagines Einar recognising during the course of the joint decision-taking about surgery with Gerda, or Greta as she is renamed for some reason (the photos are of Einar and Lily, by the way).

It’s quite a journey for the two of them, with this physical metamorphosis from man to woman, as well as the literal moves from Copenhagen to Paris to Dresden and back to Denmark again. Couldn’t help but feel that the story was a bit wasted here, though, as in another’s hands I think this would have made for an absolute knock-out read.

The book has left me with so many questions and so much curiosity, which although frustrating, is also I suppose good, as much interest and discussion will undoubtedly be created by the arrival of the cinematic version.

This is going to be one of those rare cases when, poetic licence aside, I suspect the film is going to succeed far, far better than the novel. Just a pity they couldn’t have taken the idea and chosen to include those real life characters who were part of their entourage, and portrayed artist Gerda more authentically…hey ho, Hollywood and co…

Reading “The Danish Girl” brought back memories of zooming breathlessly through “Middlesex” a good few years back. It’s very cheeky to compare the two, but there are certain parallels which kept reminding me of this earlier read. There are no comparisons other than the obvious one, really.

“The Danish Girl” tells an important story, but it is the film which is probably going to be remembered over time, whereas this storming write by Eugenides has to go down as a resonating epic and should be considered one of those infamous GANs – I have a lot of Great American Novels to go, but if the list were ever going to be expanded, surely this one should be a contender to join the ranks??

The protagonist hermaphrodite Cal grapples with a confusing childhood, incest hovering darkly in the background, a convoluted family tree and general adolescence, interlaced with the impact of a mutated gene on three generations of a Greek family. It won the Pulitzer in 2003, and is a must read. Certain passages still resonate with me today, which is pretty amazing, and if this is a book you have always had on a To Get To list, I would highly recommend reading this rather than “The Danish Girl” any day. I think it’s a triumph.

And Mr P thinks quite highly of it too:

“I’ve just finished Mr Eugenides’ book. I liked it a lot: ‘a singular and uncommon record’ of Cal’s difficult upbringing, but also I really savoured the generational and cultural angles – the Greek authenticity of the 1920s gradually assimilating into the American ‘dream’. The narrative style was engaging: conversational, familiar and frequently surprising when time is looped into knots of remembering. The only slight downside was when the narrator started to ramble a bit and some sections, particularly the hermaphroditic self-analysis, became a bit too long. He says, ‘if I keep writing I might be able to catch the rainbow of consciousness in a jar…’ as if in doubt, don’t stop, write some more.

 In fact he sums it up pretty well on p.302: ‘I don’t care if I write a great book anymore, but just one which, whatever its flaws, will leave a record of my impossible life.’ The irony, in the light of the Pulitzer Prize, is piquant.

 The tangled family history and its agonising twists and turns through the last century was truly captivating, and captured my empathy. It was that, the human touch, which kept me going for 529 pages.

“Middlesex” rating : Mr P 9.5/10, Nicola 10/10 – A FAVOURITE BOOK

“The Danish Girl” Nicola rating : 6/10.

Winner of the Pulitzer Prize in 2003

Images taken from here and here, here, here and here.
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12 Responses to “Middlesex” by Jeffrey Eugenides (2003) & “The Danish Girl” by David Ebershoff (2000) – nature versus nurture

  1. Pingback: The Pulitzer Prizes for Fiction | Literary ramblings etc

  2. Dom Nozahic says:

    This has really whet my appetite for Middlesex which has been on my list for a while!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Pingback: Book Group I – Paris Evening Group | Literary ramblings etc

  4. Pingback: “Outline” by Rachel Cusk (2014) – book review | Literary ramblings etc

  5. Kay says:

    How strange – I picked up a copy a copy of Middlesex last week – I will read it now ! Kay

    Liked by 1 person

  6. FictionFan says:

    Well, you’ve already talked me into adding Middlesex to my own GAN quest, so at least my TBR is safe from increasing today – especially since The Danish Girl sounds like a bit of a let-down. If he decided to imagine the life and characters, why on earth not just give the main character a fictional name too? Weird decision…

    Liked by 1 person

  7. I am avidly following your new batch of GANs to see what you read when and how you report back on them.
    Re the fiction / non fiction mix, I wonder cynically if it wasn’t a bit of a ruse to garner interest without having to stick so closely to following the facts? But genuinely do think the film will be very well done – also suspect the erotica and more racy side of things might have decreased mass audience numbers, hmmm… Not on!!!


  8. E.R. would look gorgeous in a monkey suit, as it were…!!

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Denise says:

    I loved Middlesex – it was so empathetic in its portrait. Someone lent me a David Ebershoff book but I didn’t like it. Initially it had a good premise, some kind of culty setting, but it was so long and repetitive in its length that it started to drag very quickly.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. I have “The 19th Wife” in the house but not feeling madly keen to read it just now – might this be the one you are thinking of? I’m glad you liked “Middlesex” too x


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