Amalie Smith’s exciting new novel, Marble, sensuously intertwines the story and discoveries of its titular heroine with those of pioneering sculptor Anne Marie Carl-Nielsen, who lived and worked 110 years earlier. In this preview, Marble reflects on Carl-Nielsen’s time in Athens and the new material reality open to her when separated from her lover.
Recently unearthed from the ground, Marble leaves her new lover in Copenhagen and travels to Athens. The city is overflowing with colour, steam and fragrance, cats cry like babies at night, the economic crisis is raging. In this volatile landscape, Marble grasps the world by exploring its immediate surfaces. Capturing specks of colour on ancient sculptures in the Acropolis Museum with an infrared camera, she simultaneously traces the pioneering sculptor Anne Marie Carl-Nielsen, who spent several months in the same place 110 years earlier. Far away from her husband and children, Carl-Nielsen showed that Archaic sculptures were originally painted in bright colours – a feat which meant defying Victorian gender roles and jeopardising her marriage.
Amalie Smith ignites everyday encounters into sites of revelation and metamorphosis. Sensuous and electric, yet admirably forensic in its approach to mineral life, Marble is a galvanizing novel about the materials life is made of, about korai and sponge diving, about looking and looking again, written in a spare and pellucid style.
Translated by Jennifer Russell, Marble is the latest novel by award-winning Danish author Amalie Smith to be published by Lolli editions.
ANNE MARIE BRODERSEN AND Carl Nielsen meet each other in Paris in the spring of 1891. On the 1st of March, Carl writes in his journal:
Slept well, but awoke with an odd, indeterminable feeling towards morning. Marie Brodersen!
And a few days later:
Cannot recall what I did today apart from this evening, when I saw the woman for whom I have always felt an entire scale of emotions. We shall live our lives together and be happy, and nothing will ever make me doubt it again.
The feeling is mutual. Even though Marie’s parents order her to come home right away, she and Carl celebrate their engagement in Paris on the 10th of April before eloping to Italy, where they marry in Florence one month later. She adopts his name like a piece of jewellery, a two-part bronze cast with a sprue in the middle: Carl-Nielsen.
Marie writes in her memoirs:
My parents did not believe that a poor artist could support a wife, and indeed, after we returned from our travels, daily life was not too merry. My husband earned 95 kroner per month as a musician in the Royal Orchestra and that was difficult for us to live on. We lived in an attic and were too poor to buy a pram, for instance, when we had children – which we soon did. When the children required fresh air and sunlight, my husband and I would have to carry them through the streets in our arms.
Irmelin was born already in December 1891, Søs in 1893 and Hans Børge in 1895. Ten years pass with children and work. Carl is a violinist at the Royal Danish Theatre and composes on the side, while Marie is a member of The Free Exhibition and shows her work there.
But in the spring of 1903 the children are put into care, paid for with an advance from Carl’s music publisher. Carl takes a leave of absence from the theatre and visits Marie in Athens, both of them subsisting on her grant. It’s a second honeymoon.
They take the train to Kifissia and hike up Mount Pentelicus to the marble quarry north of the city. There they find a big, beautiful tortoise and bring it with them back to town.
There is an audacity to Marie when it comes to her work. As a young woman, she puts on a red nightgown and rolls around in front of a bull to get it into position. Now the tortoise trots around in the sun on the balcony at the Hotel Achilleion. A few years later she makes a bronze bust with eyes of gold, silver and tortoiseshell.
But perhaps the tortoise is Carl’s idea. He is equal parts impetuous and industrious. He grows a moustache and composes a piece about the southern sun, the Helios Overture. When he goes for a hike in the mountains and wants to smoke but has forgotten his matches, he asks his friend to light the cigarette with his pistol. Carl holds the cigarette between his lips and inhales while his friend fires at the tip. After 6 shots we succeeded, he writes to his friends in Copenhagen, and, naturally, the tobacco tasted excellent.
Marie cannot stand idleness. I long for work, she writes in her journal already in January. In March she is granted permission to copy the three-headed monster Typhon. Each morning she goes to the museum when it opens. She transfers its form to the clay, recreates its surfaces and fractures. Soon she is the person who has looked at the Typhon the longest and hardest since it was unearthed. It is this intimate knowledge of its shape and surfaces that enables her to see that the archaeologists have made a mistake when assembling the sculpture.
There are no points of contact between the fractured surfaces that the archaeologists could use to guide them. In a letter to a friend, Marie explains that it was the course of the outer surface that revealed to her that the Typhon’s third head had been incorrectly positioned.
With the museum’s blessing, she repositions the head. She turns it and the surfaces fall into place.
DANIEL’S FACE ON THE iPad is life-size and speaks to Marble without delay. The fluid crystals turn their coloured faces in every direction.
He’s an image that she can move behind the glass. She can drag him around, enlarge and shrink him.
Are the images located right behind the glass? Or deeper within, like in a shop window? Do our fingers touch the glass the same way our eyes touch the words we read?
‘Daniel, did you find me when you searched for images of the Acropolis?’
‘Yes, I found you; you were reading in a shell hole in the wall.’
‘Yes. I’m stuck.’
‘Won’t you come down here and get me?’
Marble and Daniel don’t look directly into the camera when they speak. They look at each other on the screen and in doing so they look past each other. As though both are preoccupied by something else, which they are.
By the image of each other.
An eye has a shape: a half-sphere in a hollow. A happy little half-sphere.
You can have a conversation so close to someone else’s face that you forget it isn’t your own.
You can look at each other and say: I miss you. There are many kinds of absence and presence.
Marble has seen a film about men who have relationships with life-size female dolls cast in silicone and develop genuine feelings for them. One man says he’s lost the desire to have relationships with ‘organic women’. Another demonstrates how he uses the camera’s self-timer to take pictures with his silicone-cast girlfriend. In the photo, the two of them are equally alive.
Daniel has seen a film about women who have relationships with objects. Who date them. A bow or a bridge. The Berlin Wall or the Eiffel Tower. Who press their warm sex against the Eiffel Tower’s cold steel and rejoice.
MARBLE WAKES UP FEELING as though Daniel has just been there. A deep breath passes through the flat: the sound of two workers on the roof of the building across the street, pouring construction debris bucket by bucket through a chute into a skip on the street.
There’s a flutter in her stomach muscles that comes from dehydration. A taste of naphthalene in her mouth. There’s a dried-out felt-tip pen on her nightstand.
She drinks a glass of water and thinks: So that’s that.
The sky is a harsh shade of cyan blue. It could be artificial, but what is an artificial sky? A piece of coloured paper held in front of a lamp? Imagine taking such care, that someone would stand on the horizon somewhere, adjusting the light.
The sun has no arms, no tongues, nothing but current. Colours are asleep at midday. All surfaces are desaturated. You have to navigate by the contours.
A loud sound, and once you hear this sound you realise that the sounds have been sleeping, too. A sheet of iron is dropped into the skip.
Marble carries bananas home in a peach plastic bag. As long as they’re in the bag, their colour is preserved. The banana’s yellow oilskin peel remembers so well.
She slips on the stairs and comes upon her own nervous system, after the nerves’ inherent delay.
The dried mud beneath her soles is a kind of cast, too.
Milk trickles into the sewer. An electric door to a garage rolls up halfway, a woman ducks under and steps outside, stands in front of it and smokes. On the door is a painted sea. Behind the door, an indoor sky. Fluorescent tubes hidden along the stucco.
The mountains have arranged themselves around the city. A cloud grazes a mountain like a hand. An absent-minded caress.
The three-dimensional terrain on Google Earth is a folded image, the same way you can fold a box out of a magazine. There isn’t necessarily a connection between the folds and the folded object.
The content of any medium is always another medium, reads Marble. The content of Google Earth is flat photographs taken from above. The content of photographs is the sun’s light reflected back from the Earth’s surface. The sun sends little parcels of light to Earth. What do the packages contain? Light. What does light contain? Light. The sun is the medium of all media.
Daniel asked what electricity tastes like.
Sulphur? Water? Sun? Marble didn’t know.
MARIE TRAVELS BACK TO Athens in November of 1904 to complete her work, this time alone and without a grant, with the hope of earning money off her replicas. She travels via Munich, where the archaeologist Furtwängler shows her a book published by another archaeologist, Wiegand. The book contains images of the Typhon’s third head as it was positioned before and as it is positioned now, after she turned it, with no mention of her. She informs Furtwängler that she spent three days repositioning the head, that she paid out of her own pocket for the plasterer who assisted her. That she even has a letter from Wiegand thanking her for the correction.
Das ist ja eine Schändlichkeit und obendrein einer Dame gegenüber, exclaims Furtwängler.
Dame oder nicht Dame, she replies.
She is furious and demands the recognition she deserves.
When she reaches Athens, she works at speed but clashes hard against her surroundings. By the way, the museums would be fools not to want it, she writes to Carl regarding one of her copies.
She pulls out her revolver and puts down a sick kitten in the street. Just like Carl, she carries a weapon, but whereas he is brazen, she is considered insane. A group of incensed Greeks hunts her down. With the help of the Danish consulate, she avoids prison and is instead awarded a certificate of honour from the Humane Society.
If only we for once could lead a peaceful, industrious, progressive life together, writes Carl in a letter that December. But I fear this will never be so. You wish to be a strong man, indeed, preferably to outdo the very strongest of men. Your work and your ambition are so intense, so fervent and beyond all tranquillity or health, and I must say, often I fear that you will break into pieces.
She writes to him that the Typhon’s colours have faded visibly since she last saw it in the summer of 1903, to which he replies: If everything is constantly changing, there is no need for you to painstakingly copy each and every speck. Remember that!
But he’s mistaken. Her work is urgent. The colours are disappearing.
But the mould-making drags on. The museum’s winter opening hours are 10 a.m. to noon and that’s hardly enough time for her work. Marie must ask for permission to spend the afternoons in the museum as well, and with the help of a German archaeologist she’s granted it.
In January, the copies of the Typhon have all been cast, but Athens is cold and rainy and the plaster is slow to dry. While she waits, Marie starts copying the bull from the same pediment group. You would not believe what a lovely thing he is, she writes home to Carl, his movement is so splendidly dramatic.
February comes, then March. She copies yet another bull head, a snake and a wing fragment.
Once the plaster is dry, she starts painting her copies. She employs a chemist to help her record and recreate the original colours so she can paint with them. The pigments and methods she uses must correspond to those used in antiquity.
She replicates the traces of colour she can see, meticulously transferring them to the plaster surface.
A few of the copies she paints in vivid colours, as she believes they would have looked when they were made. She does not paint the fractures but leaves them exposed in white plaster.
This is the third head of the Blue-Beard Typhon I have painted, she writes home to her friend Marie Møller. The beard and hair in a brilliant metallic blue. A bright red face, violet lips, black eyebrows and pupils, and eyes of Spanish green. What more could one want to revel in?
THE BRIGHT RED MERCURY sulphide known as cinnabar was extracted in Istria and Andalusia.
Rust red was made of iron oxides found in the earth.
The same goes for ochre.
Yellow and orange pigments were extracted in arsenic mines in Anatolia, in modern-day Turkey.
Green malachite and blue azurite are copper carbonates that were extracted in silver mines, for example in Laurion, near Athens. Over time, blue azurite may weather and turn into green malachite. Many of the green traces found on sculptures in fact indicate the presence of azure paint.
Even the ancient Egyptians were aware of the transience of blue azurite and produced a more durable synthetic pigment known as Egyptian blue: a mixture of lime, quartz sand, copper and natron, which must be heated to 800 degrees Celsius to bond. The Greeks inherited Egyptian blue from the Egyptians.
Tyrian purple was extracted from shells from the Eastern Mediterranean and was worth its own weight in silver.
Black was made of carbon from charred bones and grapevines.
White came from limestone or lead. Women would apply lead to their faces to make themselves paler. White skin was a feminine beauty ideal. Yes, they died of it.
About the author, Amalie Smith
AMALIE SMITH (b. 1985) is a Danish writer and visual artist. A graduate from the Danish Academy of Creative Writing and the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts, Smith has published seven hybrid books. She was awarded the Danish Arts Foundation’s prestigious three-year working grant and the Danish Crown Prince Couple’s Rising Star Award.
About the translator, Jennifer Russell
JENNIFER RUSSELL has published translations of Christel Wiinblad and Peter-Clement Woetmann, and in 2019 she received the Gulf Coast Prize for her translation of Ursula Scavenius’s ‘Birdland’. She holds an MA in Critical Theory & Creative Research from Pacific Northwest College of Art and a BA in Art History & English from the University of St Andrews.
This preview was commissioned for Life in Languages, a series conceived and guest edited by Elodie Rose Barnes
Language is our primary means of communication. By speaking and writing, listening and reading, by using our tongues and our bodies, we are able to communicate our desires, fears, opinions and hopes. We use language to express our views of the world around us. Language has the power to transcend barriers and cross borders; but it also has the power to reinforce those demarcations. Language offers a form of resistance against oppression, yet it can also be used to oppress. Language has the power to harm or to heal.
In these times of shifting boundaries and physical separation, when meaningful connection has become even more important yet seemingly difficult to attain, language has become vital. The words we choose to read, write, and speak can bring us closer as individuals and as a collective. During lockdown, unable to travel, I’ve found myself increasingly drawn to reading works in translation from all over the world – not only for the much longed-for glimpses into different cultures and ways of being that I cannot experience in person (for the time being, at least), but because they offer new words, new viewpoints, new ways of expression. Grief, loss, uncertainty, anger, hope, joy, love: these are universal emotions. Finding my own feelings mirrored in the writing of womxn from all across the world, from different times and different situations, across generations, is a massive comfort. It’s also led me to examine my own relationship to language and languages: what I read, how I write, the roots of my communication, and how that’s changing today.
In this series for Lucy Writers, I’ll share some of my personal reflections on how language has shaped my life and writing, and review some of my favourite works in translation written and/or translated by womxn. Writing on works written and translated by the likes of Natasha Lehrer, Jen Calleja, Saskia Vogel, Leïla Slimani, Sophie Lewis, Deborah Dawkin, Khairani Barokka and many more will feature in Life in Languages.
Elodie Rose Barnes, Guest Editor of Life in Languages
Submissions are now closed for this series. Read all work for Life in Languages here.
Lucy Writers and Elodie Rose Barnes would like to thank Denise Hansen and all at Lolli Editions for kindly allowing us to publish this preview of Amalie Smith’s novel.
Feature image is a photograph of Carl Nielsen and Anne Marie Carl-Nielsen in the Acropolis Museum, Athens, and shows Anne Marie Carl-Nielsen making a copy of Typhon, (1903). Fotografi. Betegnet (fn., pen): Glædelig Jul Kjære Godske Nielsen Deres A.M. og C.N. Carl Nielsen Museet. Uden inventarnummer.