The Condition of Secrecy is a poignant collection of essays by Inger Christensen, widely regarded as one of the most influential Scandinavian writers of the twentieth century. As the New York Times proclaimed, “Despite the rigorous structure that undergirds her work—or more likely, because of it—Ms. Christensen’s style was lyrical, even playful.” The same could be said of Christensen’s essays. Here, she formulates with electric clarity the basis of her approach to writing, and provides insights into how she composed her poetry. Some essays are autobiographical (with memories of Christensen’s school years during the Nazi occupation of Denmark), and others are political, touching on the Cold War and Chernobyl. The Condition of Secrecy also covers the Ars Poetica of Lu Chi (261–303 CE), William Blake and Isaac Newton, and such topics as randomness as a universal force and the role of the writer as an agent of social change. The Condition of Secrecy confirms that Inger Christensen is “a true singer of the syllables” (C. D. Wright), as well as a “a formalist who makes her own rules, then turns the game around with another rule” (Eliot Weinberger).
She whispers to me in my own writing, a brilliant, fierce literary mother whom I will read and reread again and again.
Christensen is at her most intriguing when posing questions, as when she wonders, ‘Does art originate from the same necessity that gives rise to beehives, the songs of larks, and the dances of cranes?’ These profoundly imaginative questions make for a thought-provoking reading experience.
Christensen’s probing, questioning, hopeful voice was an important one and is missed, but we can still hear it in this provocative book.
Like all Christensen’s writing, The Condition of Secrecy aims to be a history of no less than everything: the origins of the stars and our souls, the beauty of fractals and of third-century Chinese poetry. It is a book about eating strawberries, witch-burning and the challenge that the soft, scumbled sides of clouds pose to geometry. It’s about standing in the garden and watching yellow slugs ‘moving like slow flames’ in sunlight. It’s a hectic kind of erudition that could easily seem showy, but in these essays we experience it as a kind of abundance, an outpouring of love for the world. Nied’s clean, musical translation helps. There is nothing knotty, nothing strained. The arguments radiate outward with the measured rhythm of ripples in water.
—Parul Seghal, The New York Times
Inger Christensen manages to make wit, passion and questioning, and astonishing design serve each other’s ends as one, and she does it in a way that is utterly her own.