Category Archives: Peter Holm Jensen

At home he’s a tourist

Steve Mitchelmore of This Space weighs in on The Moment:

At home he’s a tourist: The Moment by Peter Holm Jensen

Such a modest, self-effacing title, barely relieved by the blanched map on the cover. In everyday speech, a word or two is usually added to supplement the weedy noun: people say “At this moment in time”, which is when I ask: can a moment be in anything else; a moment in lampposts perhaps? Their absence here suggests a wish to let the word’s delicacy remain unsupported, even at the risk of becoming its own camouflage in the literary landscape, a suggestion reaffirmed by its form as a journal of life in the marshy flatlands of rural Norfolk, with names reduced to initials. The form draws back from headlong narrative to pay attention to what passes without pause. Such a concern is not without precedent. 

 
For Peter Holm Jensen’s fellow Dane, Søren Kierkegaard, what comes into existence comes from the eternal, from outside of time and so, we can say, apart from narrative, concurring with Plato’s Parmenides which calls the moment “this strange entity” between one state and another that is “in no time at all”. St Paul’s epistle to the Corinthians says the state of being dead will become one of eternal life “In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye” with the second coming of Christ, while Meister Eckhart in his turn counselled “the traditional schools of knowledge” to remain silent and recognise themselves as unknowing before God’s light, which would arrive like “a powerful flash”. Again for Kierkegaard, whose journal was also written for publication and whose Works of Love is alluded to in this one, it is His incarnation that gives the moment access to eternity, but the eternal is not present in the moment because that remains in the future. Christ Himself is the moment of transition from past to future, from actuality to possibility, but Kierkegaard qualifies possibility as a duality offering “the possibility of advance or of retrogression, of rising or falling, of good or of evil”. So which will it be for our writer?

The answer is important for P. (there is good reason for following the book’s propriety and using the initial) as he admits to having spent years sunk in the sense of life’s pointlessness, aware without knowledge of “something neutral and indifferent that hovered over things and levelled all the events of life”. He wondered how those around him continued to endure tedious days in the office without ending it all in the evening. He would lie in bed thinking of ways to die, which may be read as a wish to submit to the neutral and indifferent, to what is outside of time. P. says he mistrusts writing because as he writes, he becomes his own double, watching on as the words remove themselves from the undifferentiated connection he desires. In seeking a way back, he finds “a strange hope” outside of writing when, sitting in a church as light streams through a stained-glass window, he senses “an overfacing power…something wholly other”. A strange hope manifest in the hesitant, open form of The Moment.

It is appropriate then that the novel begins in Spring, when flowers are blooming and animals give birth to new life. P.’s girlfriend S. asks the neighbouring farmer T. to wait while she picks the wildflowers before he can mow them down, and then to hand over the feral kittens he intends to drown. It’s even more appropriate because Spring is also the time of Easter, when what dies is resurrected: flowers in a vase, kittens from a bucket, and P. himself, resurrected in writing. His mistrust of writing then becomes entirely in keeping with exposure to the overfacing presence. How, he asks, can we live in the face of the impersonal? The strange hope takes form with that strange word, overfacing, uncommon in everyday English, which is ideal in suggesting the incommensurability of P.’s experience.

The same applies to his observations of the bucolic landscape and the people and wildlife in it. This should not appeal to the audience for nature writing, which tends towards coffee-table kitsch. Standing before the “dark cold coast” at Southwold – notable of course for featuring in WG Sebald’s generically compromised novel The Rings of Saturn – P. resists any antropomorphic projection and regards it as “neither hostile nor benign”.

If writing takes one closer only to one’s impersonal doppelgänger and nature places the observer at an irreducible distance, it explains the publisher’s definition of The Moment as a novel when otherwise it is P.’s straightforward private journal and commonplace book. If he’s not at home in writing, as a Dane raised in Canada, he’s also not at home in his England, in Norfolk, in his cottage, or even, because he works as a translator, in language, and so too not at home in this book. This reminds me of how Gabriel Josipovici responded when someone expressed surprise at how much he reveals about himself in writing: “I can ‘reveal’ precisely because it does not seem to be part of me, it seems to belong to someone else.” 

To ask again, how can we live in the face of the impersonal?This book is its own answer. If there is no advance or retrogression, no rise or fall, no good or evil here, by paying attention to the silence of its obscure presence, The Moment seeks a modest, self-effacing place within the intersection of time and eternity, between the low-rise marshy landscape overfaced by a giant, apparently empty sky. 

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From The Moment:

I move between the bedroom and bathroom, the study and living room, the cottage and the Co-op, day in, day out. I grow too used to the world again. I make it too familiar, let the moment veil itself in the everyday. I become a burden to myself.

Sometimes the nearest things are the hardest to see. We see them too often to see them fresh, and understandably seek to escape them when they seem to have lost all mystery, all presence. Too much home and home becomes opaque, flat. I’m a body walking through the same rooms and fields and shops. No mountain peaks on this plain, no vantage point. The same, the same. The impulse is to look for a quick escape into the new and exciting, or a slow escape into resignation and resentment.

But doesn’t the commonplace hold its own secrets? Perhaps only our impatience obscures them. If we had the endurance of animals we might be better able to accept the familiar and simply wait, day after undistinguished day, until the day, unmasked, surrendered.

Doesn’t being lurk most mysteriously—nearest and furthest—among the things we move around every day, in the fact of their being here at all? Now on my walks I sometimes stop and look at one thing for as long as I can, a squirrel, say, or a flowering bush, until I see its strangeness again, the essential strangeness of its being, to which I’m somehow linked.

Splice’s description of The Moment:

In the murky aftermath of a breakdown, a man still at odds with himself takes flight to a cottage in rural Norfolk. There he intends to strip his life of everything trivial, everything superfluous, paring it all back to the essential truths, values, and experiences. In doing so, he keeps a fragmentary journal: not a record of progress as such, but sporadic notes on his new surroundings as he attends to minor changes in search of an ideal moment-a moment of unity between body and mind, in which there is no distinction between sensation and thought. For decades he has been hounded by the sense of a split self, as if under observation by a nameless double, and he feels that the opportune moment, if it can be found, will relieve him, just briefly, of this spectral presence.

Peter Holm Jensen’s début novel is a mercurial marvel of contemplative literature that at once adopts and dismantles the diarist’s form of expression. It is not a linear account of ordinary events, but a cyclical and recursive record of noticing the ways of the world. It does not tell the story of its narrator’s life, but opens up for him a quiet space in which to savour the changes of the seasons, the migration habits of birds, his connectedness to his partner, the fluctuations of his ineptitude and capabilities. But it is also not an environmentalist’s lyrical notebook, for its author feels the pains of precarity and indignity under neoliberalism, nor is it an account of stoic persistence in the face of daily adversity and aimlessness. It is, rather, an attempt to come to terms with the indifference of the forces within which we live — time, nature, globalisation — and to extract from this void of meaning something immanent, something true.

The Moment

In the murky aftermath of a breakdown, a man still at odds with himself takes flight to a cottage in rural Norfolk. There he intends to strip his life of everything trivial, everything superfluous, paring it all back to the essential truths, values, and experiences. In doing so, he keeps a fragmentary journal: not a record of progress as such, but sporadic notes on his new surroundings as he attends to minor changes in search of an ideal moment — a moment of unity between body and mind, in which there is no distinction between sensation and thought. For decades he has been hounded by the sense of a split self, as if under observation by a nameless double, and he feels that the opportune moment, if it can be found, will relieve him, just briefly, of this spectral presence.

The Moment

The Moment

Photos of my forthcoming book, published by Splice.

The Moment 1

The Moment 2

The Moment 3

The Moment back cover