Beyond the Preening (Yet Another Angle on Edmund Ek)

My recent post on Edmund Ek has, as ever, attracted an abnormal level of attention. Several readers (two, for accuracy’s sake) have expressed concern at my ‘cynical acceptance’ of the theory that the ‘trouser theft incident’ was staged by the man himself.

‘Yet more fuel poured over the cruel and baseless rumour that Ek is, in your words, a “preening young writer”,’ observes one of them. She goes on: ‘when will you critics stop kicking chunks out of the poor fellow? Just because he is good-looking (an admittedly rare affliction for a writer) you insist on knocking down a peg or four. But ask yourselves this question: why would a mildly successful author willingly humiliate himself at a serious dinner party at a well-known East Coast university? The idea that Ek was seizing the opportunity to show off his astoundingly well-formed and handsome legs, is nothing short of ridiculous. This was an attack on Ek’s dignity, nothing less. Don’t try to pretend otherwise.’

Meanwhile, the other reader notes that Ek’s ‘so-called accomplice remains a complex and shadowy figure. One day he steps in at short notice to impersonate the writer, with unfortunate results; the next day he slips into a private dinner, hides under a table, and removes the guest of honour’s trousers. Who is this chap, and what’s in it for him?’

Both readers raise interesting points. As I have no doubt mentioned before, critics have always been guilty of prejudice in the face of Ek’s, well, face. His rugged good looks – tied as they are to natural talent of a high order – are certainly a sore point within the international literary community, thus the long-standing suggestion that he isn’t, after all, as talented as we thought he was; that he simply ‘got lucky’ when he penned The Incredible Expletive Shock! (to quote one critic: ‘he wrote it despite himself’). All this I accept. It is wholly undeniable.

On the other hand, the evidence does point, overwhelmingly, towards the fact that Ek enjoys (or has, in the past, shown a distinct fondess for) a good prank. This is not to say, of course, that his recent move to the countryside is one of those pranks; no, I uphold a man’s right to overturn his predilection for casual japes. When looking at Ek’s earlier career, however, one cannot ignore the frequency with which the Norwegian novelist sort to play games with his public. Trust me, a doppelganger and a case of missing trousers are the least of it.

As for the shadowy accomplice, I have nothing more to add. Rest assured I can think of many who would be happy to fulfill such a role. Writers will have their cronies.

[Further to the above, I think I promised readers an update on Ek’s current whereabouts. According to my Scandinavian sources (also known as Mildrid and Hans) he has ‘taken to the hills’. No word, as yet, as to what hills these are; whether he is still writing a graphic history of Buddhism; or whether his pet cat, Heidi, will be in attendance.]

[Further to the ‘further to the above’, this will probably be the last post on Edmund Ek for a while. One gets caught up in his ‘story’ every once in a while, without ever quite knowing why. For someone about whom we know little that is substantial, he remains a hugely compelling figure].

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The Inglorious Trouser Theft

I’m still waiting for my Scandinavian contacts to get back to me regarding the current whereabouts of Edmund ‘the Honest’ Ek (aka ‘Blumin Ek’). In the meantime you might be interested to know that the so-called ‘trouser incident’ (which I alluded to here) also took place during the Ek’s American lecture tour (which I mentioned here).

The official story goes like so: Ek’s trousers were stolen whilst he was taking part in a ceremonial dinner hosted by the master of a college that shall remain nameless. During the first course of said meal his trousers were intact: belt in place, legs amply enclosed. By the middle of the second, they were gone: bare legs evident! Thus when the unfortunate writer rose to go to the restroom (‘toilet’, for my English readers) he found himself stripped down to his underwear. How exceedingly embarrassing! The trouser thief had, by all accounts, stolen under the table and removed the trousers with such care that the writer had noticed nothing. Admittedly, he was by this stage somewhat inebriated, if not tired out by the ceaseless rounds of socialising thrust upon him by the college and wider university community. Nevertheless, this strikes me as an impressive stunt, by anyone’s standards.

Or was it? The truth, it seems, is that the whole thing (like Ek’s reading) was yet another ‘set-up’. The person who removed Ek’s trousers was, it appears, the same person who impersonated him during the reading. The situation was planned, by Ek himself, to create a stir (and, no doubt, to subvert the rather serious atmosphere of the evening). It is, in fact, well-known that Ek was – and still is – especially attached to his legs. Or, to put it another way, he has rarely missed an opportunity to air them in public. Indeed, he is the person least likely to be embarrassed by the unexpected disappearance of his trousers.

[To this I should add that Ek was not the only fan of his legs. I have been led to believe, by certain women, that these particular limbs had already garnered a lot of attention, inside and outside the literary world (it is now defunct, but for a long while the website ekslegs.com was, I am told, a palpable hit). This suggests, then, that he was, by arranging the theft of his own trousers, giving a little something back to his female fans.]

Back to the Ek

Waking this morning at six o’clock a thin thought, about the length and width of an adolescent slow worm, winded its way through my sleep-deprived mind. What in heaven’s dear name has happened to Edmund Ek? It has been more than three years since I last reported on his self-imposed exile to a lake-side cabin in Northern Norway. Immediately following his move to the middle-of-nowhere stories of his strange behaviour dominated Scandanavian literary magazines. Every sighting of him, or his cat, fueled new rumours. He was writing a Buddhist manga, said one.  He had changed his name to ‘Edmund the Honest’ said another. Others claimed that he had stopped writing altogether. He was drawing, mostly. Or he was writing a series of erotic sonnets, such as the world has never seen. Then again, maybe he was re-writing his second novel in the first person (or was it his first novel in the third?). Or was he, perhaps, adapting Shakespeare for the banjo?

For the last few months, however, there has been no news of Ek whatsoever. Not a solitary, lonely little bean. I know not whether he is still in the wilderness, or whether he has wound his wilful way back to Oslo.

What I do know, though, is this. About ten years ago Ek came to give a talk at a certain university on the East Coast of America; the same one, as it happens, where I am currently residing. It was early days in his career, and he was still basking in the glow of The Incredible Expletive Shock, for which he had been branded ‘the Norwegian Salinger’. His talk (which took place in the same auditorium my wife is expected to fill in a few months) attracted huge numbers of devoted fans, many of them women. What no one realised at the time, however, was that the man who gave the talk was not Ek at all, but an actor impersonating Ek. The writer himself was seated in the audience, in the fourth row. This arrangement had not been planned, but was sprung upon the hapless organisers only minutes before the event took place. Did Ek have stage fright? No, not at all. He simply loved messing with people.

As it was, he couldn’t bear to be upstaged by his impersonator. During the talk he kept up a running commentary from his seat, frequently shouting out words such as ‘rubbish!’, ‘nonsense!’ and ‘wrong again!’ When it was time for questions he dominated the floor, hauling the poor actor across the coals, and bemusing almost everyone else. At one point he launched a vicious attack on his own book, describing it as a ‘pitiful, poorly written, cry for help, which should never have been published in any language, let alone fourteen’. The more it went on, the more embarrassing it got. Who was this impertinent man in the fourth row, thought the other attendees? And why doesn’t anyone throw him out? The truth, of course, was that the organisers knew exactly who it was, and hadn’t the confidence to throw the writer out of his own event.

Exactly what Ek was trying to prove – if he was trying to prove anything, remains a mystery. Suffice it to say that this will go down as one of those events that annoyed everyone at the time, only to be remembered fondly. As one organiser admitted to me: ‘on the night I wished I’d been someplace else. In retrospect I couldn’t be gladder that I was there’. I, for one, am grateful that I wasn’t.  These young, preening writers are more than I can manage.

The Shape of Things

Patagonian priests pray by it, Chilean miners cherish it, and Brazilian beach-bums beat drums in its honour. They mull over it in Mexico, praise it in Peru and argue for it artfully in Argentina.

I am talking, of course, about the octagonal novel: the most exciting thing to hit the South-American literary world since Lupez Lupez wrote a novel on a football and kicked it through a publisher’s window.

Why the octagon? I know not. All I do know is that the shape seems to have its followers. ‘Novels will never be the same again,’ wrote one Bolivian critic. ‘Forget the four-sided book,’ sneered another: ‘any self-respecting story these days is safely printed on eight-sided paper’.

Over in Venezuala that may well be the case. But here in Europe we entertain different ideas. Eight-sided novels have yet to take off – but that isn’t to say we aren’t experimenting shape-wise. Circular novels have been doing the rounds for some decades now. Remember Benjamin Yodek’s Mulberries and Mudcakes? That has to stand as one of the most headache-inducing novels of the last hundred years (speaking as one who has a penchant for difficult forms). And what about Boris Bash-Benver’s triangular novel Tripulation? I say triangular – and yet, of course, the book revolved around three circles in a triangular formation. It was, in that sense, multi-shaped.

What of the future? I have heard vague rumblings that Oa Aayorta (Andorran master of strange forms) has abandoned his plans for a ‘twitter-novel’ (praise each and every lord) and is turning his attention to the trapezium (or ‘trapezoid’ as the Americans call it). Over in Norway, meanwhile, Edmund Ek has (apparently) been musing over pentagons. His ex-wife Heidi Kohlenberg claims to have received a long-winded letter from the former firebrand in which he recounts a dream wherein ‘a man flew down from the sky upon a plate of burning food, and said to me: “put the words within the pentagon”‘. Some would take this to have some relation to the headquarters of US defence; Ek has clearly taken it to refer to a pentagon-shaped book. Good on him.

That leaves us with various options. Am I the only one rooting for the heptagon? I can’t think of many books that wouldn’t benefit from being printed on seven-sided paper. Don’t ask me why. Call me a prophet if you will, but part of me can’t help perceiving that this, truly, is the shape of things to come.

Award-winning

His [Edmund Ek’s] name dripped off so many tongues it might have qualified as saliva. I dare say that a few people put up his picture on their walls in order to admire his noble Norwegian nose all day (and night) long. His novel received similar attention. The award-winning cover sat on the display shelves of every obscure European bookshop, whilst the memorable title was used to pepper as many conversations as pepper was to pepper cabbage soup. Readers of the literary magazine Groping for Allusions voted it the ‘Best Book Title of the Late Twentieth Century’ whilst many a writer kicked themselves for not having thought of it first…

Seeing as we’re on the subject of Edmund Ek (see below), I have taken the trouble to re-publish Heidi Kohlenberg’s excellent review of his debut novel, The Incredible Expletive Shock. You can see the award-winning cover below.

There is, of course, much more to be said about Edmund Ek (most of which you may find here).

Bloomers Ek

Jonathan Franzen’s eventful UK visit for his rapturously received new novel, ‘Freedom’, took a fresh twist last night, at his launch party at the Serpentine Gallery in London’s Hyde Park. An assailant snatched the novelist’s glasses from his face and ran off – leaving behind a ransom note asking for $100,000 for their safe return… (The Guardian)

Ah, yes: here we go again. The history of literature is simply littered with spectacle theft. I can hardly think of a writer who hasn’t, at one point or another, had his/her glasses whipped off. Ik Nunn, Koira Jupczek, Paavo Laami, Viktor Kesserman: the list could go on. Sometimes the glasses are the least of it. In 1996 Edmund Ek had his trousers stolen at a launch party. They were later bought for eight thousand krone by a female admirer.

These days, of course, Ek has ditched trousers altogether; opting instead for ‘rough brown robes’. Whatever keeps you writing, Edmund…

Stats from the Wilderness

I seem to recall promising myself, my wife and the world that there would be no more harping on about Edmund Ek for a while. Nevertheless I can’t help directing readers’ attentions to an article in this week’s Majfisk (a Swedish literature and fishing magazine, for those who don’t know) written by one Marianne Vingerbäd.

Entitled Wilderness: The Statistics, the piece in question employs Ek as the primary case study in what purports to be a ‘comprehensive study of what happens when young writers go into the wilderness’. It is, of course, anything but comprehensive, as you’d expect from a two-page magazine article (one page of which is taken up by a large photo of Ek himself, in prime ‘dandy’ mode) but this doesn’t mean that it isn’t, in its way, perfectly readable.

Vingerbäd has noticed a trend that was, let’s be honest, obvious to all: that of young writers creating a book or two, garnering some success, suffering a spiritual/emotional crisis and promptly rushing off into the ‘wilderness’ to write a pseudo-philosophical poem on the nature of being. Obvious to all, maybe, but let us give the lady credit for getting down to the business of actually writing about this ‘trend’ of hers. Though she invests her project with no more than a sprinkling of originality (Jesus, she kindly informs us, is the true model for our modern-day literary adventurers) she does present a refreshingly scientific approach to the subject. One question alone lingers over her study: What is the success rate? All these young scribblers scurrying off to the middle-of-nowhere to pen a magnum opus – but what is the end result? Everybody loves the idea of Ek in his Norwegian nowhere-land – but what are the chances of us loving the work he produces?

The statistics she comes up with suggest, perhaps surprisingly, that Ek’s chances aren’t half bad. He may even create something vaguely worthy. In short, all my fears of an anticlimax may have been in vain.

Then again…