A novel idea

A while back, I read a book by Daniel Kehlmann, "Measuring the World". As I didn´t exactly fall in love with it, I didn´t expect to pick up something else by him anytime soon. But then I stumbled on this at the library. It´s called "Fame: A Novel in Nine Episodes" (sw. "Berömmelse, roman i nio historier") and I couldn´t resist.

The first thing this novel reminded me of was a film, Robert Altman´s "Short Cuts", where characters walk in and out of each other´s stories. This happens here as well, except characters walk in and out of each other´s fictions, rather. This is a novel interested in fiction itself and Kehlmann is poking, bending and breaking the boundries between fiction and the illusion of reality that, well... 99,99...% of all writers of fiction want to achieve.

For example, a character of one novel is an author in another novel, one character starts talking to her author and real people want to get into novels, find themselves stuck in novels, authors make visits to their novels, all kinds of weird things are going on. The big important theme here is the question of identity in a world were people live much of their lives on the world wide web and our identities have become fictionalized in a way that´s completely new.

What do we become, when we have tools that allow us to recreate our lives? When the harsh realities IRL are no longer strong enough to stabilize our identity? Can one person summon enough strength to keep himself together when multiple "usernames" become necessary? When we use all our energy to manage ourselves, can we manage anything else? Kehlmann does not think so. His characters fail, or if the succeed, it´s just by chance and it doesn´t look like success at all.

If you read this book (or if you don´t), why not also read free on-line magazine Five Dials, Number 9, the Fiction Issue? Not only does it contain another short story by Daniel Kehlmann about what is perhaps his key character in this novel, there are also a lot of other interesting texts. David Shields, for example, make a case against fiction. He writes: "Non-fiction is a framing device to foreground contemplation. Fiction is 'Once upon a time'. Essay is 'I have an idea'."

Well. Daniel Kehlmann, as it happens, is a novelist with an idea. His heart is in the idea, not with the characters. And that was my big disappointment with "Measuring the World", that the characters never really came to life for me. They were always a bit cartoonish. In this novel, however, the idea is the main character. And the characters are just play-things, means to make a point. And he makes it well. And I feel like I have found the heart of Daniel Kehlmann.


Gave me a bit of a scare at first

on a rooftop in Oxford
Antony Gormley, of course!
Not as heroic-looking as Constantine, of course, whom I will always love more.


Finds in our backyard

Ever since I moved to this town, almost 20 years ago, I have heard rumours about an antiquarean bookshop. A couple of times I have gone looking for it, like some ten years ago, but all I found was what looked like a closed cellar full of books. Perhaps I came on a wrong day.

However, a friend suggested the other week that we go, and of course I was curious to see if it actually existed. I am, after all, a bookworm and this town isn´t that large, I should know what´s going on. Bookwise. I do not pretend to be up to date on anything else...

And there it was! Open and all. Homemade, pretty little sign on the street. Not a main street location, you really have to go looking for it, but then again, I don´t expect the turnover is astronomic.

Of course I bought something. Somerset Maugham´s "Cake and Ale, or the Skeleton in the Cupboard". Just for the title. (I´m saving it for a trip, it looks like light reading and because it´s in EngIish I can leave it behind me.) I was a bit low on cash that time, so I returned a week later, and found some more lovely things I will blogg about later, when I have read them.

However, this buying of book has made me think about the state of my shelves. I do not have enough room. I suppose I could buy more shelves, but I´m not really a hoarder, and a hoard is what it´s beginning to look like. Just passing a few books to the welfare shop once in a while isn´t really enough. And I keep bringing in more and more books. It has to stop. I´m maturing to a decision, I think. Pretty soon.


When the rest of the world has gone to sleep

Yes, I should have been sleeping - instead I stayed up half the night reading David Almond´s "My name is Mina", cover-to-cover. Remember I read a book called "Skellig" not long ago? This is the prequel, the fictional diary of Michael´s new friend Mina, who lives on his street.

Mina is a really interesting girl. She makes up new words, she visits the Underworld in an attempt to bring her dad back from the dead (this does seem to be a theme this week), and she obsesses over birds. She is a poet, and an explorer. It´s in her blood: her mum´s a writer (she writes articles for magazines) and her grandfather was a sailor who sailed around the world many times.

Mina cannot follow rules that she thinks makes no sense, and her schoolmates think she is strange. She does not fit in regular school, she does not fit in a school for special children, she want´s to be home-schooled. And her mum is happy to do it. She says Mina needs to be on her own right now, but eventually will have to go back out into the world and make friends. Actually, Mina´s mother is not like many other mums I know. I suspect she is rather like Mina herself. A bit too clever, a bit introverted.

At times I think the tone in this book is not quite right. Mina´s voice is just too grown up, too wise and clever. On the other hand, does a character always have to be realistic? I think not. And I remind myself that it´s written for kids, for 12-year-olds, perhaps. Not 44-year-old ladies. That said, when I closed the book I had a piece of paper full of notes, ideas of things I wanted to do with my writing. Good work, David Almond, inspiring me like that.

The story ends exactly where Mina enters "Skellig", when she comes up to Michael and says "Are you the new boy here? My name is Mina!". Almond takes 300 pages to tell Mina´s story, and only 170 to tell the story of Skellig. And I think he is more ambitious, he wants to say more with "My name is Mina". Like what it feels like to be an artist and an outsider. And something about the creative process. And in a way that´s where he looses the authenticity of the 12-year-old. It´s all that wisdom. On the other hand, if I had read this book as a 12-year-old, perhaps it would have been exactly right.

All in all: a good read. And the book also has a beautiful cover. And the librarians bought it just for me (no, not exactly, but on my suggestion). Splendid.


A poet´s needs

This is a very, very short read. I can´t really call it a novel, it´s a short story of 45 pages. Unusually, that´s all there is in this volume by Claudio Magris, "You Will Finally Understand" (sw. "Som ni säkert förstår").

Again, I can´t remember what attracted me to this book, but no doubt I read about it somewhere in a newspaper. It´s a take on the myth of Orfeus and Eurydike, this being a rarely (probably never before) heard version: Eurydikes explanation to the lord of the Underworld, how it happens that she is still there, when he´s given this special and unique permission for her to leave and all. It´s also a muse talking about her artist, her poet. I imagine Magris wants to say something about the way of the artist, and what drives him.

If you think of the ill-fated couple as two youngsters in love, like in the painting on the cover (by C G Kratzenstein-Stub, it hangs at Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek in Copenhagen), eager to be together once again, this version will present it quite differently. And it makes sense, doesn´t it, that the poet would have romanticised the story? And the painter in his turn?

I like Magris Eurydike, she is also a woman in a traditional role in a traditional marriage. In a way, to a loving wife, aren´t all men poets? And aren´t many men as dependent on their wives as the poet is dependent on his muse? I think any woman who´s lived in a long relationship can relate to Eurydike´s tale.

The ending is a bit of a surprise, which I will not give away. In case you like to read it. I bet it´s at a library near you.


Getting lost in the fictional woods

I´m not sure how I got the scent on this one, but since Umberto Eco is a favourite (I loved "Foucault's Pendulum" to bits), a series of talks by him on the subject of the relationship between the reader and the author was not something I could resist. Therefore, I ordered "Six walks in the fictional woods" at the library.

I have this sense of déjà vu about it. I may have attempted it before. It came in 1994, so I imagine it´s quite likely. I hope I will remember this time, because well, I had to give up. It´s just all way over my head. Too deep. Or too technical for my taste. I kinda got through the first three chapters, but it didn´t make much sense to me, didn´t leave me with anything. To tell the truth, I was bored. And today I thought I´d take the last three. Instead I baked cookies, wrote some emails I didn´t really have to write, saw a really crappy movie and wasted a perfectly good afternoon.

I´m not saying this is not brilliant. It is, I´m sure. But it´s just not for me. However, I really feel like re-reading "Foucault's Pendulum".


Dead white men

The first time I saw journalist Johan Hakelius was in a book by Camilla Thulin about men with style. He was presented as a kind of Anglophile dandy, a man with a passionate love for tweed and colorful cords. Indeed he is very stylish, in a way that would be considered excentric in Britain as well, I think. Apparently he is quite a television personality, but I clearly don´t watch when he is on.

Hakelius has recently published a book called "Ladies" (same title in Swedish), about excentric Englishwomen, a follow-up to "Dead white men" (Sw. "Döda vita män") from 2009. Being a bit of an Anglophile myself, I immediately set out to find these books, and the first one that fell into my lap was "Dead white men".

This is 400 pages of fun facts about 14 British excentrics, probably men to whom the author feels some kind of affinity. Some of them I have taken an interest in myself, like Alec Guinness. He is perhaps the least excentric of them all, he only seemed odd, I think, because he was a pretty conventional and normal bloke in a profession (acting) where the normal thing was to be odd. I had also heard about Alan Clarke, Oswald Mosley and Evelyn Waugh. But Sir Iain Moncreiffe of that Ilk? Just the name is spectacularly excentric!

The book is a compliation of interesting bits from the author´s bookshelves, a piece of armchair journalism. And it´s a fun, entertaining read, that will deepen and broaden the general knowledge of British 20th Century culture, if that is your special interest. Or maybe you just like to read about outrageous people. What the book is lacking, and I think this is a big fault for an entertainment read of the lighter variety, is pictures. I find myself reaching for my computer and Google about every ten pages, just to get a face to these men.

On the whole, I have had a pleasurable weekend in Mr Hakelius company.


Heritage (totally un-book-related)

I have had three dirndl-dresses in my childhood. This is part of my heritage. I may have been born and raised in Sweden, my mother is Swedish, but my father is Austrian and I was an Austrian citizen until I was seven. Being mixed, genetically and culturally, has always been a big part of who I am, for better and for worse.

On the down-side, being very much like my father´s relatives (apparently I look and behave very much like an aunt that died during the war), I have not had older relatives that I could really relate to. On the up-side, it has given me an outsider´s perspective on the culture I have grown up in, which I think might have been beneficial for my character. Everyone was "them" when I grew up, the Austrians, the Germans, the Swedes. Everyone. No one was "us". Not even in our family. My parents had the Swedish-looking kids (that really didn´t look very typically Swedish at all) and the Austrian/Polish-looking kids. Two of each. It was like a national divide straight through our family.

Anyway, I loved those dresses. I wore them happily. And as an adult, I have often said to my husband that I wish I had one, that I should buy one the next time we go to Vienna. We don´t often do. My mother-in-law has often offered me to borrow her folklore-dress, from Norrbotten (Swedish Lapland, really), but it´s just not me. And it´s made of allergenic wool.

So, imagine my surprise yesterday, when I passed the Red Cross charity shop. In the window, on a mannequine, was a dirndl-dress! I took a closer look, and it looked the right size, too. I immediately made one of the kind ladies strip the doll, and the dress fit perfectly! 100 SEK for the whole thing! God, that´s almost nothing! It´s made of cotton, can be washed in 60 degrees in the machine, and the sleeves are the perfect length for me.

I have decided to wear this dress on the Swedish National Day next year, to honor my mixed cultural heritage. This seems especially relevant now that the Swedish Democrats, an immigration-unfriendly party, has been voted into the Swedish Parliament. I shall wear it on Midsummer´s Day, too. And perhaps I shall hum something by African-Carribean-German pop group Boney M.



"A Writer´s Space" by Eric Maisel

I have, over the years, read loads of books about writing. In the beginning it was mostly books on the craft of writing, but after a few courses in Creative Writing at the university, I have been mostly in need of books on the lifestyle of the writer. As anyone knows who have tried, trying to write a novel is not an easy thing. It takes persistence, passion, muscle, and a good portion of bloody-mindedness.

I suppose I have learned a lot from these books, things that I have incorporated. The other day I leafed through some of my old books on the how-to, and it was a bit like looking through old high-school-books. It felt basic, like kid´s stuff. Like I have actually evolved.

I don´t really know how I found this latest addition to my collection, that arrived in my mailbox the other day. But Eric Maisel knows exactly what it´s about. He has made me think a bit differently about some of the things I struggle with, and I have made a few changes to the way I organize myself and the space around and inside me. And he knows what motivates a writer. This is a quote from the very last page:

"You might need to learn how to cook your meals in a toaster oven, because you might be very poor. You might need to learn how to barter for movie tickets, sing for you supper, live on air. Still, what life was better?

You could spend time in libraries. You could travel the whole world just by dreaming. You could create fine scrapes and get you characters out of them. You could say deep things about the human condition. Then, after a few hours of that, you could go for a walk and get an ice cream."

Guess what? That is exactly what it´s like to be a writer. Even just an aspiring novelist. Being a published one probably won´t be much different, not in essentials. Eric Maisel is the man to remind you why you do what you do when you´re down. Actually, I manage well to do exactly that myself, but it´s always nice to know you are understood by at least one creature out there. And that is why I love books.