The Danish Girl
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On 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 bustledelectric 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 Einarbut 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 goneher 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.
Identitythe 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.
David 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.
How 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 righttoo 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 paragraphit mentioned that Wegener was a painter and that his wife had helped him in his transformationmade 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 Girl was 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 livedCopenhagen, 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 identitylook 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 factsespecially with the ending?
ASome of the basic events of Einar's transformation are based on factthe 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 marriagethis 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 pastall 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 wantsand 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 lovea 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.
- What 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 birthHenrik, Anna, Carlilse, Hans, Gretawhy doesn't she include Einar?