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Harald Voetmann: Alt under månen (Sublunar)

Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe is said to be the last famous astronomer before the invention of the telescope. In this book Voetmann gives us what might best be described as a very imaginative and inventive account of part of his life.

We start with his twin brother who was still born, though his spirit lives on. The unnamed twin talks of his brother and Tyge (the name by which Tycho was baptised, after his grandfather) will talk to him more than once during the course of the book.

The Brahes were an aristocratic family, and fairly well off, allowing Tyge, as an adult, to carry on his work in astronomy and mapping the heavens. This is a straightforward account in one respect, namely we follow the observations and workings of Brahe and his assistants, as well as life in the household. However, the whole scene is imbued with darkness, cold, strange spirits and odd goings-on, that makes it very much seem strange to us.

The book is essentially narrated by one of his assistants though Tyge himself does some narration. Life is hard, It seems to be bitterly cold much of the time – one of the peasants is found dead early on in the book, having been caught short when he went out at night to defecate – and Brahe has a roaring fire going. Even when it is not cold, it is not pleasant: The two mists weave closely around us. Brine and loamy earth pervade our every breath, and though the joint effluvia of both elements can be contained in the air they have reached no clear agreement; the air is quarrelsome and This infernal land is nothing but shoreline. It is shrouded in fog, in haze and mist and marshy vapours. And adding insult to injury the island is covered in heavy, grey clouds. No other place on Earth has such poor visibility.

Life is not just harsh because of the weather. We see the children viciously beaten for minor infractions by someone called the Disciplinarian whose main job seems to be to beat them. We also see criminals hanged and their bodies devoured by wild animals.

In addition to Brahe and his assistants, there are others staying there, whom Brahe seems to accept and tolerate despite their views, which we would consider very much outdated. Erik Lange is an alchemist and is determined. that he can make gold. Brahe seems to accept this. We will follow his get-rich-quick adventures throughout the book. He seems to be us to be more or less the equivalent of a modern day scammer selling crypto or some other dubious products. Though it does not happen in the book, in real life he ends up marrying Brahe’s sister Sophia.

There is Falk Goye who is writing about the Apocalypse and is confident that there will be a blaze, which will burn the Earth on Judgement Day, will not devour Earth but transform it. He comments I have perused the sky and seen a light presaging blood and flames. Brahe reads his work and his comments are not favourable.

There is also Brahe’s sister Sophia, who spends the day strolling the garden or studying her nativity book. She prunes the roses and draws horoscopes for the servants. Finally there is a dwarf, kept for entertainment, who is violent and likes to expose himself, and a vervet monkey.

While we do see Brahe and his assistants studying and cataloguing the heavens, and the difficulties they face because of the weather and keeping warm at night, we also follow the narrator’s rather messy life. He is attracted to a twelve-year old girl and pursues her, initially with some success. He will later get another woman pregnant. He is not the only one to indulge, as sex is clearly seen as one of the main forms of entertainment, with little sense of privacy.

One of the concerns is Brahe’s nose. Historically (though it its not explained in this book,) he lost part of it in a duel with his third cousin when he was twenty. A wax prosthetic did not work . He has been named the most illustrious noseless man of our time. There are attempts to deal with the issue, described in this book.

Finally, hovering in the background, there is a plague which is affecting other parts of Europe and we hear occasional accounts of people who have caught the plague and died.

While the focus is, to a certain degree, on Brahe and his work, we do not learn many details of his work, only that much time is spent charting the heavens. What makes this book is how an enlightened man is struggling to move science forward in a still fairly unenlightened age and in a fairly inhospitable area surrounded by people who, while to some degree, at least, help him, are for the most part are still living more or less in the Middle Ages.

First published in 2014 by Gyldendal
First published in English in 2023 by New Directions
Translated by Johanne Sorgenfri Ottosen