“A Perpetual Track of Transformation”: David Ebershoff, The Danish Girl


She’d learned to live with him, with his transformation. Yes, it was if Einar were on a perpetual track of transformation, as if these changes — the mysterious blood, the hollow cheeks, the unfulfilled longing — would never case, would lead to no end. And when she thought about it, who wasn’t always changing? Wasn’t everybody always turning into someone new?

In the “Conversation with David Ebershoff” that follows the text of The Danish Girl in my edition, the author explains that one facet of his interest in the story of Einar Wegener and Lili Elbe, the woman he became (or, the woman he already was) is its universality. “We all, in some ways,” he says, “are born into the wrong body”:

We struggle throughout our lives to learn to accept the shell that transports us through this world. I believe everyone has at least once looked in the mirror and thought, “That is not who I am. I was meant to be someone else.” Obviously, most of us do not take such drastic measures to come to terms with who we are, but there is universality to Einar’s question of identity — look not at my body, look at my soul.

This seems right to me as a comment on many, perhaps most, people’s experience (not just mirrors but also photographs and, even worse, videos can certainly be disorienting for me in the way he describes) — but it seems a bit disingenuous as a comment on the specific story he tells in The Danish Girl, which is very deeply and complexly concerned with Einar’s body, which is also Lili’s body. If it was the intangible soul that mattered most, would it in fact be so important for Einar’s body to give way to Lili’s? The Danish Girl immerses us in the physicality of identity, exploring (though not, probably rightly, purporting to explain) the complex interplay between embodied gender and expressed gender roles. Through Einar’s life as Lili (or, as we are really brought to understand it over the course of the novel, Lili’s life as Einar), The Danish Girl rejects simple binaries, giving us a character whose gender identity is fluid, uncertain — almost translucent, like the fabrics and the light in which Einar’s wife Greta so often paints Lili. But at the same time the novel anchors us in Lili’s very tangible reality: she has ovaries, for instance, and her quest is ultimately to correct her body and thus her life — to complete her transformation so that she can be just one of the two people, of the two sexes. Her “soul,” that is, needs to take what feels to her like the right physical form: it’s not enough for Einar to dress or act as Lili without actually being Lili.

Ebershoff’s story is intensely particular: this trajectory is just Einar / Lili’s, and also Greta’s. The Danish Girl is not a didactic or overtly political novel about transgender issues or identities more generally, except, I’d say, insofar as just by its sympathetic attention it insists on incorporating these questions and experiences into our thinking about what it means to be human, to live in society, to be in relationships, to be male or female. But of course that inclusivity is not an uncontroversial position in all circles today, so in that respect it is a quietly confrontational novel even though I don’t think it sets out to be. As much as anything else, it is a novel about marriage — about what Greta calls “that small dark space between two people where a marriage exists.” For a long time, Lili lives in that small dark space: one way of thinking about her emergence as fully her own person is that she outgrows it — though she does so at least partly because she is nurtured and encouraged to by Greta. Though Greta is no saint, her fundamental generosity is extraordinary. “I hope you are comfortable,” she writes to Lili as Einar waits in Dresden for the operation that will end his life and give Lili hers;

That’s what worries me the most. I wish you had let me come with you but I understand. Some things you must do alone. Lili, don’t you just sometimes stop and think about what it will be like when it’s all over? The freedom! That’s how I think of it. Is that how you think of it? I hope so. I hope you think of it that way because that is what it should feel like to you. It does to me, at least.

How many husbands or wives really value their partners’ freedom in this way, especially if it means the end of the very marriage that made it so important? “If you love something, let it go,” say the inspirational posters — but for most people love and possession, love and control, or just love and stasis go together much more easily than love and liberation. In Ebershoff’s telling, though, it’s absolutely Greta who makes Lili’s transformation possible. She’s the one who believes in the reality of Lili: while the medical experts recommend “cures” from repression to a lobotomy, Greta persists in seeking a solution that will help Einar become, rather than deny, the woman he already is.

danish2Ebershoff ties Greta’s journey as a painter to Lili’s emergence: it’s Greta’s invitation to Einar to model for her in women’s stockings that precipitates Lili’s emergence, and it’s her paintings of Lili that propel Greta into prominence as an artist even as Einar, initially the more successful of the two, fades into artistic insigificance. Ebershoff’s prose is beautiful throughout — lyrical but precise, poignant but restrained — but it rises to something like exuberance when he writes about her painting:

When she painted, Greta thought of nothing, or what felt to her like nothing: her brain, her thoughts, felt as light as the paints she mixed into her palette. It reminded her of driving into the sun, as if painting were about pressing on blindly but in good faith. On her best days, ecstasy would fill her as she pivoted from her paint box to the canvas, and it was as if there were a white light blocking out everything but her imagination. When her painting was working, when the brush strokes were capturing the exact curve of Lili’s head, or the depth of her dark eyes, Greta would hear a rustling in her head that reminded her of the bamboo prodder knocking oranges from her father’s orange trees. Painting well was like harvesting fruit: the beautiful dense thud of an orange hitting the California loam.

As Greta’s career expands, Einar’s declines, his small, dark landscapes — once esteemed and popular — becoming just “a constant and sometimes sad reminder of their inverted lives.” By the end of the novel, Lili opts not to take them with her to the new life she is creating:

“It’s not that I don’t want them,” Lili heard herself saying, one of her last in the Widow House, already slipping away into memory. But whose memory? “I just can’t take them with me,” and she shuddered, for suddenly it felt as if everything around her belonged to someone else.

Lili’s dissociation from her old life and identity is a thought-provoking aspect of the story Ebershoff tells (one he is careful to say is fiction, despite being loosely based on the true story of Einar Wegener — “most of the novel,” he says, “is invented”). After Lili’s surgery, Greta actually tries hard to get a death certificate issued for Einar, who, after all, no longer exists. After their long struggle, Greta wants some kind of closure, some finality to the hard-won separation of Lili’s self from Einar’s body. Where does someone go, what is left of someone, after such a transformation? Again, Ebershoff’s story feels particular, rather than prescriptive: in this case, for this woman who once was, but never really was, a man, what’s left is a kind of truth, one Einar had always, inadvertantly, obscured. The remarkable realities of the present don’t obliterate the past Lili (as Einar) shared with Greta, but the continuities now exist only in their memories. I suppose this too is universal — we all look back on our previous selves and wonder what became of the person we once were. For Lili, though, as The Danish Girl ends, the pressing question is not “how did I get here?” but “where will I go now?” It’s a question that, the novel shows us, sometimes takes both extraordinary love and extraordinary courage to ask as well as to answer.

One thought on ““A Perpetual Track of Transformation”: David Ebershoff, The Danish Girl

  1. Neha Sharma February 11, 2022 / 9:01 am

    Dear Rohan
    I really enjoyed reading your review of The Danish Girl. Thank you so much for sharing your ideas. The Danish Girl by Ebershoff is an important part of my PhD research.
    First, I thought you are an Indian because Rohan is a name commonly assigned to males in India, because of its Sanskrit origins. And, Dalhousie is also a town in India, not very far from my hometown.


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