Read Salinger's Letters Online

Authors: Nils Schou

Salinger's Letters (10 page)


A Fairy Tale in the Botanical Gardens


We all knew Puk knew Frederik Dessau. When Puk said, ‘Frederik told me', we knew it wasn't just any old Frederik, it was Frederik Dessau.

There was no need to brief us on him (b 1927; Sweden, during the war: alone at school in Lund. Currently a ubiquitous member of the Danish literary scene: author, journalist, director, own radio program, etc.)

Puk gave us to understand that Frederik knew everyone worth knowing.

According to Puk, Danish cultural life is composed of five circles. Within the confines of these five worlds, these five universes, all the right people are to be found. If you belong to one circle you have a minimum of professional contact with members of any of the other circles, and no private contact whatsoever.

According to Puk Frederik Dessau was one of the few individuals who moved freely among all the circles. He had his own circle, of course, but no social sanctions were ever imposed if he ventured out of it.

When Puk quoted Frederik, the rest of us listened. When Puk quoted Frederik on friendship I was particularly attentive. Needless to say Puk was quoting Frederik here: ‘Frederik says that friendships are lifelong and unconditional. They're not up for discussion. If they are, then they're not friendships.'

Boris' comment was: ‘Then I have no friends and never have. Hasn't Frederik ever given a friend a good kick in the ass? Hasn't he ever been green with envy over a friend's success?'

‘I asked him that,' Puk responded. ‘The answer is no. You want only the best for your friends.'

Boris nodded. ‘Can I get to meet him?'

Puk shook her head. ‘He refuses to meet you three. He says all three of you are cannibals. You'd chew him up and eat him alive and put him in one of your stories using his real name. He thinks you'd do better to use your poetic imagination inventing fictional characters.'

A few months later I happened to be walking behind Puk and Frederik on Blegdamsvej in Osterbro late one afternoon. We were aware they met regularly and went for a walk. I was shamelessly envious of both of them. I felt left out. I was dying to hear a word-for-word account of what they were saying. Vindictively I muttered, ‘I'm going to get you, Frederik. Moller the Cannibal is going to turn you into the character in a novel under your own name. And there's nothing you can do about it, no matter how much you protest.'

‘Frederik Dessau was walking down Blegdamsvej in Osterbro one afternoon in October. . It was drizzling.'

Regardless of his wishes Frederik Dessau became a character in a novel.

To the rest of us Frederik came to symbolise all the people Puk knew and insisted on keeping to herself.

Nora began to speak of ‘a Frederik'. She felt the best novel of the year should be awarded a small statue of Frederik Dessau. ‘Who's going to get this year's Frederik, I wonder?' she asked.

Let others have their Nobels, their Oscars, their Bodils. At the Factory we dreamed solely of winning a Frederik.

We all knew that the real life Frederik was friends with Leif Panduro, the writer.

All writers have their dreams and fantasies. One of mine was that the telephone would ring one day and a voice would say: ‘Hi Dan, this is Leif Panduro. I'd love to get to know you. When can we meet?'

Leif Panduro was far and away Denmark's most popular author. His novels were read avidly, his television plays were national events. Whenever a new television play by Leif Panduro was on, the streets were empty.

His life was well known. It was the story of the dentist who became a novelist. It was the story of the wildly successful novel,
Rend mig i traditionerne
, ‘Kick me in the Traditions'. He was called the conscience of Denmark, the mirror of his times.

I was often asked if I knew him, if I'd met him, the original writing dentist. Sadly, the answer was always no.

Then one evening there was a telephone call, or rather two telephone calls. At that time there was a huge ad plastered on the sides of all the Copenhagen buses saying LEIF LOVES ESTHER. It was an ad for a weekly magazine in which Lise Norgaard interviewed Leif Panduro about his views on love. Everyone knew Esther was Leif Panduro's wife, also a dentist.

The first phone call was from Frederik Dessau. He was sorry to bother me, he said, he was calling for a good friend of his, Leif Panduro. Panduro was too nervous to call himself. He wanted to know if he could meet me as we were both dentists. Panduro had a few things he wanted to talk to me about. If I gave Frederik the green light he'd call Panduro, who would then call me.

Of course I gave the green light. I waited by the phone. Shortly afterwards I heard a voice I already knew so well from countless television programs. ‘Dan Moller? Please forgive me for bothering you like this. It was just a sudden idea, understand? But Frederik said it was ok.'

We arranged to meet the next day at noon in the Botanical Gardens.

My first reaction was the wild desire to call the three others immediately and tell them what had happened.

My second reaction was imagining how in a few days I would casually mention, ‘Oh, Leif told me.'

‘Leif who?' one of the others would ask.

‘Oh, Leif Panduro.'

‘You know Leif Panduro?' ‘Why didn't you say so?'

‘I thought I had.'

‘Do you know him

‘We speak.'

‘About what? Where? Do tell!'

The next day I was at the appointed place in the Botanical Gardens when I heard footsteps behind me. He must have been waiting for me behind a tree.

There he was, the celebrated Panduro; I knew just about everything about him, I believed. It was autumn Fall and the air was chilly. We could see our breath. He was wearing a green coat and a brown chequered scarf. He was slightly shorter than I had imagined. He was wearing glasses and had shaved off his moustache. Otherwise he was exactly as I had imagined.

We shook hands and exchanged courtesies.

I had read so much about his neuroses and phobias that I had a pretty good idea what he must be feeling. He didn't know me, I was a generation younger. It wasn't an ideal situation for him.

I suggested we take a walk around the Botanical Gardens. That way we could keep warm and take the edge off our nervousness.

We were suddenly in Panduro's world, two characters out of a television play by Leif Panduro. Two members of the bourgeoisie, the dying beast of prey, as he called it.

We talked about dentists. He had known my father-in-law. He had studied corrective jaw surgery with him. He had known him during the war and also knew he suffered from depression and had committed suicide.

He knew all about the Factory, too. What happened next is what usually happens whenever I meet other writers: they want to hear about the Factory, and particularly Puk Bonnesen.

However, Panduro wasn't merely curious. There was something troubling him.

‘Whenever I have a television play going, Puk Bonnesen reviews it in
She's always very positive, but every single time she says my view on women is outdated.'

Was that why Panduro wanted to meet me? To get to Puk? To find out what Puk really thought about his view on women? Yes, indeed.

‘It's really getting to me,' he said. ‘Everything seems to revolve now around my outdated view on women.'

We walked on in silence. I had no opinion about Leif Panduro's view on women, and he had definitely not come to hear mine. Apart from the fact that I had no view on women.

We spoke of women. He told me about Esther and I told him about Beate.

He said, ‘I hope you don't mind but I've picked up all kinds of information about you, to take the edge off my nervousness.'

‘I have no secrets. You can ask me anything.'

‘I've read some of what you've written. They say it's very autobiographical.'

‘Well, it's what comes out of my head anyway.'

‘May I call you Dan?'

‘Of course, that's my name.'

‘Puk Bonnesen always calls you Moller.'

‘Oh, so you know that too?'

‘Puk Bonnesen is one scary lady. I would never have the guts to meet her in person.'

‘Panduro, you have no greater admirer than Puk.'

‘Yes, that's what upsets me so much! Why does she think my view on women is outdated?'

‘Maybe to make herself interesting. To attract your attention in the midst of all those glowing reviews?'

‘Why should she want my attention?'

‘I think she's in love with you. She thinks you're a sexy writer.'

sexy? Are you having me on? I'm a sexual disaster. I'm about as sexy as a piece of soap.'

‘Puk is extremely hygienic. I really don't think she finds soap unsexy.'

‘Dan, you're sending on a wavelength I'm not picking up. You make me feel old. Just like my view on women. Ready for the grave.'

‘Panduro, I'm really sorry. I'm your greatest fan. Even though I don't know you and have no wish to be intrusive I feel something like devotion towards you.'

‘But you don't know me at all!'

‘No, but that's just how it is.'

‘Why don't you call me Leif?'

‘There's nothing I'd like better.'

A woman was walking towards us on the path. She stopped.

‘Aren't you Panduro? Leif Panduro?'

He smiled and tried to walk around her. ‘Yes, I'm Panduro.'

The woman walked straight up to him. For a minute it looked as though she was going to embrace him, but Panduro managed to dodge the embrace by taking a quick step backwards.

‘I love you, Panduro!' she exclaimed.

‘Thank you,' he said, and looked as though he'd been punched in the face.

‘Your television play saved my life.'

‘Oh, surely a slight exaggeration.'

‘Your view of humanity, your human understanding. Your humanity makes me proud to be a Dane.'

‘Does it?' asked Panduro, and looked as though he was about to cry.

‘Shall I tell you what I said to my husband last night. About
, Leif Panduro, about

I stepped in between Panduro and the woman and said, ‘Please excuse us, madam, Leif Panduro has a dentist's appointment in a few minutes. He's suffering from a violent toothache. Unfortunately we must cut short this extremely interesting conversation.'

I led Panduro off down the path. He smiled apologetically to the woman, deeply regretting that he couldn't speak.

She called after us: ‘The dentist has to go to the dentist! That's funny! It's just like a short story by Panduro!'

Panduro turned around and smiled weakly.

The woman followed us but stopped when she saw the expression on my face. I was making signs that Panduro was in great pain.

We hurried off. The next time someone crossed our path Panduro held his arm in front of his face to make sure he wasn't recognised.

‘I've committed suicide,' he said. ‘I no longer exist. I've become a tree in the Botanical Gardens that anyone can piss on.'

‘Leif, I won't pretend to be stupider than I really am. I believe I completely understand what you're saying.'

‘I know. That's why I came to you.'

‘What do you want to know?'

‘I know you are in correspondence with J.D. Salinger and you're working on formulating a theory called the Salinger Syndrome.'

‘Who told you that?'

‘Dan, you know in our milieu everyone talks to and about everyone else. That's how we make a living.'

‘Tell me what you heard and who you heard it from.'

‘I can't reveal my source, you know that. Otherwise it would dry up. The well would dry out.'

‘What does your source say?'

‘That you're working on a treatment for the Salinger Syndrome.'

‘That's true, I am.'

‘That you find most of your material in Kierkegaard.'

‘That's true, too.'

‘That you call it the Kierkegaard Cure.'

‘Yes, that's pretty much it.'

‘Is it a secret?'

‘I've never really thought about it.'

‘Is it a secret you suffer from depressions just like your father-in-law?'

‘Leif, it simply never occurred to me anyone else could be interested.'

‘You're a writer, Dan. You write about what interests you, about what's going on inside you. That's where your material comes from.'

‘Yes, of course. Leif, I have no secrets from you. Your own work is an open book that anyone is free to read.'

‘Can you help me Dan?'

‘Is that why you're here?'

‘Yes, I came to find out if you've found anything in the Kierkegaard Cure that could help me.'

‘Are you depressed?'

‘No, confused, terrified, appalled. I wanted success and it's boomeranged on me. I can't figure out how to tackle it. Leif, the private individual, has ceased to exist. I've committed suicide. And at the same time fame is a kind of drug, I need my daily fix. If I open the paper two days in a row and there's nothing about me I'm miserable. But at the same time all I want is for the writer Leif Panduro to disappear from the face of the earth so I no longer need to subject myself to people staring at me in the street. You know the worst part? It's when people write me and tell me their problems. They ask
for advice. Me. I don't even know how to keep from ruining my own life and my family's.'

‘Welcome to the Salinger Syndrome,' I said.

‘Can you help me?'

‘I don't know. Give me a little time. A couple of minutes. Let's keep quiet and enjoy the plants and flowers.'

‘My lips are sealed for the duration,' sighed Leif Panduro.

We looked at plants and flowers and bushes and trees. All the while I was thinking, ‘There goes Dan Moller taking a walk in the Botanical Gardens with Leif Panduro. Dan and Leif. Leif and Dan. Tomorrow I'll be able to talk about him and everything we discussed.' This was apparently what I wanted more than anything else. To be able to say, ‘Leif and I discussed this.'

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