Klaus Hagerup, Markus + Diana (1997, English translation by Tara Chase, Front Street 2006)
Klaus Hagerup is evidently a well known playwright, screenwriter and writer for children and teenagers in Norway. This book, whose original title translates literally as Markus and Diana and Light from Sirius, was the first of a popular series featuring 13-year-old Markus Simonsen. I don’t remember who recommended it to me, but I’m grateful to them.
The evocation of Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo+Juliet in the English title isn’t completely arbitrary: Shakespeare’s play is mentioned, but it would be a bit of a stretch to call this a tale of star-crossed lovers, or even a love story.
Markus and his friend Sigmund are fringe-dwellers among their peers, Markus because he is timid and awkward and a bully-magnet, Sigmund because he is supremely confident of his own genius and all-round superiority. As readers, we get to be deeply embarrassed by our association with them but – I’m sure Henry James said something about this being the purpose of fiction – we don’t have to suffer the consequences that association would have in real life. Markus writes highly imaginative (that is to say, lying) letters to celebrities cajoling their autographs for his vast collection. The Diana of the title is a glamorous Hollywood soapie star – Markus writes to her pretending to be a millionaire and things get weird when she writes an unexpectedly personal letter in response.
It’s very funny, carried mainly by the dialogue and the series of hilariously implausible letters. Teachers preside obliviously over a scene of mob cruelty; early teenagers struggle to master the arts of adult behaviour, and mostly fail ingloriously; boys on the cusp of puberty are fascinated by a glimpse of nipple in a photograph or through thin cloth. A lot of the time you don’t know whether to laugh at the characters or suffer with them. Mostly I did both, and in the end when – improbably expectedly, and cleverly – things turn out for the best, I wanted to cheer.