The Liar

Martin A. Hansen
Introduction by Morten Høi Jensen
Translated by Paul Larkin
New York Review Books ($16.95)


by Poul Houe

In his introduction to the newest English translation of The Liar, Morten Høi Jensen notes that Martin A. Hansen’s short novel, originally published in 1950, was “routinely ranked as one of the greatest Danish novels of the twentieth century,” and that “regrettably, it was also the last novel Hansen lived to publish” before “he died in 1955 from chronic kidney failure at the age of just forty-six.” To these factual epithets let me add a more subjective one: It is a book that will lead readers to marvel at how intricate storytelling and human life can be, and how subtly their intricacies can be linked.

The novel is composed of notes by Johannes Lye, a schoolteacher and parish clerk—and also, as his name suggests, the narrative’s Liar—who interacts with Nathan, an honest Biblical Nathanael. By the introduction’s account, Johannes is a torn character who “lives at a distance from other people and just as much from himself,” and who responds to life’s constant battle between conflicting forces by “telling tall tales and blurring truth and fiction” while not “getting too close to anyone, thereby failing to live.” Sort of a nihilist, he considers death a relief and homelessness his home.

Minor characters and the harsh environment play roles too: The ice breaking up around Sand Island compels Harry, Annemari’s new lover, to leave and Olaf, her son’s father, to return. Spring troubles are in the air and minds are mixed-up. Isolated from all but his dog Pigro and “forgotten by all he once knew,” Johannes, the itinerant incarnate, questions his own identity, his gift for tall tales, and the nature of humanity. Yet life’s secrets are “sometimes hidden until wonder is aroused.” Immune to fame and fortune, Johannes remains vain, he confesses to Nathan, while admitting that Harry’s secular religiosity is “stealing into him.” While Johannes is practicing the next day’s hymns in a cold and damp church, Pigro makes him sob “heavily . . . without shame.”

Although a non-believer, Johannes believes in a kind of uncompromising youth that demands “purity and truth.” Part of his duplicity involves indulgence in “passionate certainties,” while also being “death’s great confidant,” “flung from deeply enriching, coruscating moments to dark meaninglessness and despair. Only to be flung back again.” Conversely, an older person is “blind to life’s greatest contradictions,” full of “small deceits and minor untruths,” yet of “good conscience because he has become blind to the fact he’s a liar.” Embracing the role of street performer, Johannes faces a congregation of doubters and believers to whom he is a stranger; as this community gathers, he senses himself as “nothing,” “a divided self,” “a double”—all the while trolling his “ghostly pale specters” to lure them into his traps. Feigning to serve the Divine, he instead helps The Devil bewitch the faithful.

Later, he truthfully tells Nathan that his performance was but one aspect of tackling old-world values—another being his controlled scheme of ambushing himself, either because he was less detached from his deceit than he thought, or because the faith he tried to deceive was not entirely outside him but rather a part of his makeup that he could only realize after seeking to undercut it. 

Going back and forth, Johannes needs Nathan’s help. Rarely is his duplicity more obvious than when he hesitantly decides to attend a ball with “many trolls, dwarves, elves, and fairies assembled.” Facing both the self-deprecating hostess Rigmor and her antagonist Annemari, he admits to being a liar, while later telling Annemari of his wish to elope with her. Realizing it’s a lost cause, he gives her a necklace as a “parting gift” instead, with this verbal kiss of death: “Hang it around your neck, Annemari.”

When Rigmor, who feels Johannes might alleviate her despair, suspects he was never “really serious” about love, she is puzzled by what became of the uplifting experience he once aroused in her. He now says it was a “cooked up . . . theory” about how to live life with a troubled heart, or “a fool’s folly,” suited “to cause wrack and ruin”; he further opines that “life is one huge battleground in which two powers are locked in eternal combat. No-man’s-land doesn’t exist.” Only by taking ownership of one’s life does it come to fruition, and since a fruitful life rests on nature, Johannes begs Rigmor join him outdoors to observe and reflect—and to share the experience of meaning and community they both hoped for, or at least a less troubling world than often imagined.

By “mid-April,” Pigro is no longer. Actually, his ‘departure’ was a year earlier, but like the rest of this narrative’s notes, the event was recorded “only very recently” to stress the Liar’s truth-telling. On their walk the day after Rigmor’s ball, Johannes discovers a “sacrificial stone” that puts his existential experiences in context. As an outsider, “words, events, and feelings have a liberating effect” upon him. Strangers don’t conquer or pass their legacy by default, for their part of human history and memory is but a speck against endless island time. As loneliness engulfs him “like some latter-day Job,” Johannes recalls the day he and Rigmor parted ways. Remembering her potentials while acknowledging his own failures, our Liar embraces his wounded self, ready to resign but also to move on: “And now we won’t speak of that anymore, Nathan.” 

Far from timeless, less so from timely, The Liar puts a late, rather than light, twist on the traditional Bildungsroman. Paul Larkin’s translation, though slightly overwrought and not always factually correct, reads well, making this new edition of a Danish classic a welcome publication overall.

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