2011-12-20

Jingle, Jingle

I have had several false starts lately. I began with two books, Nicole Krauss´ "Great House" and the new August winner Tomas Bannerhed´s "Korparna" (= the ravens). I kept going between them, driven by, dare I say it, boredom. And after about 30 pages of each I just gave up. Perhaps they are prizeworthy both of them, I know they are both well written, but hey, I got nowhere. It was the same with Bengt Ohlsson´s "Gregorius" the other year, also an August prize winner and me, I got nowhere. After about five pages I closed it. Perhaps unfairly, perhaps I should have stuck with it. But I didn´t.

I just today got a link to a page I didn´t know about: http://nanoismer.se/. Of course it all started in the US of A: http://nanoism.net/, and it seems easy: a story in less than 140 characters. Like a haiku, almost. I need to explore this.

To get through Christmas I have borrowed a few "real" books from the library, to encourage my husband to read Leif GW Persson´s excellent memoir on my Story. I am totally engulfed already in WG Sebald´s "The Rings of Saturn". Now here´s a book for me! What´s it about? No clue. Is it fiction? No, I think not. Is it fact? Questionable, after what I hear. Is it inspiring? Plenty! Odd little pictures, too. This is the perfect book for my Christmas mood. A bit off, you know.

I am also reading Eckhart Tolle, simultaneously, and attempting to drop my negativity. I don´t know what it is about Christmas that brings it out in me, but it has something to do with tradition (it´s ok, but too often, though, don´t you think? Every year?), with Christmas decorations, Christmas songs, Christmas shopping, Christmas food (that ham is not as good as everyone makes it out to be), and if you´re not happy and grateful you´re kinda spoiling it for everyone else. I know. I do love to see everybody, though. But can´t we get together and have a Blue Hawaii-party? Umbrella drinks and sun lamps and sand on the floor? Recliner chairs and old Elvis movies? We need more light at this time of year, not more candles, I think.

And everyone who knows me just thought "well, here she goes again". As I said, I´m attempting to drop my negativity, accept what is and become transparent to it. Or something. Back to Tolle...

And to all my friends (and anyone else reading this) who are so stressed out you are becoming accident prone: slow down! Take it easy. Let it be. Let it go. Take a break. Have an egg-nog. With plenty of whisky. Let it all pass through you. Play "Summertime" on the stereo/iPod. It will all pass. And return. Next year.

From Rome. The divine Trinity: Jupiter in the sky, The Cross of Christ and shining over both: The Light of Technology.



2011-12-01

Memories of a life

Leif GW Persson is Sweden´s most well-known criminologist, professor and advisor to the government, with a television program that has made him "a national treasure" (as the British tend to call people like Stephen Fry, the Swedish word would be folkkär, something like "people-loved") and even a string of successful crime novels behind him. He has recently published his memoar, "Gustavs grabb" (= Gustav´s kid), and I had a really good time reading it. Persson is one of those people who tell it like it is, or at least as they see it, calls a spade a spade and so on, and this memoar is no different. However, Persson is very frank about his memories being not entirely trustworthy. Like the very detailed story of how his best friend lost his school cap down the bear pit at the zoo. His friend claims this never happened. Persson chooses to make this his life´s story, though, with reservations about the truthfulness of it in every direction. And the result is excellent, a man´s personal mythology; this is what it´s like to be Leif GW Persson, in this world.

Persson has a few scores to settle, a few clarifications to make. He is also very funny, not just a little bit cynical, and humble about his own short-comings, especially with the social and emotional bits. He seems honestly surprised and grateful that none of all his children have lashed back with a vengeance at him for being a crap dad. He is certainly pretty hateful towards his own mother. I think about the reasons for this and the only answer I can come up with, from the pages of this book, is that being a good parent is about respect and trust. He writes very candidly about his mother´s betrayals and controlling behaviour and I guess that even a distant father can be ok as long as you can trust him completely.

He is also a social climber with a chip on his shoulder, but at the same time with well-nigh gargantuan self-confidence. His soft spot is his father, Gustav, who was, one understands, the foundation on which Persson built his life. I see a lot of parallells with Kerstin Ekman´s novel about her life in regard to class. This is an experience shared by so many people in the Western World who were born somewhere between 1940 and 1970, when the working classes become the middle/consumer classes.

I find myself thinking a lot about people´s need to make their lives into stories. It think some are just born with it. Ekman says somewhere in her novel that there are no stories in real life, it just goes on and on. And certainly, I know plenty of people who live like that and will share their facts of life with you, but who are no story-tellers. But story-telling, the narrative gene, is a survival gene, I think. When life as you know it is taken from you, when what gives your life meaning is ripped away, whether it is a person, a job or something else, story-telling is the way we cope and find new direction. That´s what therapy is all about: telling it. In some cultures, when someone has died everybody asks: How did it happen? And the grieving person has to tell it, over and over, as part of the process. In our culture, I fear we are much too afraid to ask, too afraid to increase the pain.

I enjoyed this book a lot and I think I can recommend it to just about everyone, it´s the perfect Christmas read. It´s interesting, entertaining, and makes you think about your own story, why do I tell my own life the way I do? And how would it change me if I changed the narrative?

2011-11-27

Life in Art

I have just finished Kerstin Ekman´s latest novel "Grand final i skojarbranschen" (= grand final in the swindling business, not easy to translate that one...). It´s in the genre of autofiction, a fictionalized autobiography, where Ekman separates her two selves (as she seems to percieve them): the Author and the Writer.

The Author is Lillemor Troj (this is a play with Kerstin Ekman´s own name, she was born Kerstin Lillemor Hjorth, and it´s a bit of a bonus that Troj makes you think of a trojan horse, isn´t it?), a beautiful, blond, blue-eyed, photogenic, well-dressed young woman, who gets engaged to be the front figure for Writer Barbro/Babba Andersson, a woman only described as being "shapeless". She writes herself a body of words, she says somewhere in the book. And the body that the audience sees is Lillemor Troj´s. But Lillemor isn´t all passive in the writing of the books. She often provides the material for the stories and she types and corrects the language, and structures the stories. She is the Good Girl, the one with the good grades at school, the one who knows how everything should be, the disciplined and hard working one. She understands about the world and lives in it, while Babba is only interested in escaping the world and writing her stories, an almost entirely intuitive and physical process that does not seem to require much thought.

The twosome make a prolific partnership, but not without it´s crises. At different times they both try to get away from the other. How it all develops I shall not give away, it would spoil your pleasure. 

This is brilliantly written, and I have read reviews where she is very favourably compared to other authors in the autofiction genre. Someone wrote that she makes Knausgård (the genre´s meteor star of the last year in Scandinavian literature) look like an amateur. I can´t tell if that is right, I haven´t read Knausgård. Or any other autofiction, as far as I know. Ekman´s novel is full of clever metafores about the art of writing, and about the creative process in general, I think. And I imagine that it´s a rather frank autobiography. Life serving art, though, not the other way around.

Any English readers wanting to make Kerstin Ekman´s acquaintance should try "Blackwater". Highly recommendable.

2011-11-20

Reflections on Horace

I have been reading Horace Engdahl. His latest book "Cigaretten efteråt" (= the cigarette afterwards) has been very favourably reviewed and I got curious. While I was at it (on elib.se) I also downloaded an older book of his, "Meteorer" (= meteors).

Horace Engdahl has a bit of a reputation, even internationally. He is a member of the Swedish Academy (who select the Nobel Prize Laureate for literature every year) and for ten years he was the Permanent Secretary. He is a literature historian and has written books about the romantic period and about the author´s voice.

These two small books are collections of reflections, aphorisms and notes. On life, literature, fame, anything that Engdahl has had a reason to give some thought to. I suppose it is a form of autobiography, but not of Engdahl´s life and the trivialities of it, but of his inner life, of his life as an intellectual. Clearly, he is a man who likes to sit in cafés, preferably in Paris, with a notebook and in deep thought. Romantic, you say? A bit of a poser, you might suspect? Beware of casting stones, remember we all have our romantic ideas about what life should be all about. I just last week sat with a group of strangers at table who talked about the necessity to renovate kitchens into a standard that sounds like sci-fi to me. Have a summerhouse by a lake with an outdoor toilet? A walk-in closet? A Harley Davidson? Engdahl has his Parisian cafés and he thinks clever enough thoughts there to publish very enjoyable books. Enjoyable for readers, that is, people who are into literature.

So what kinds of things does he write? Things like this (my own translation):
"Perhaps the most attractive voice in a literary text is the one that sounds like all the others. We are most strongly affected by the voice that nestle up against our own inner voice, yes, that could be our own."
or
"With "trend" or "intellectual fashion" you usually means a kind of thinking that came to town after you yourself became tired of thinking."
or
"Success and failure are really equally repugnant. They disturb the wonderful balance and clarity that depends on forgetting one´s own person."

I don´t always understand what he writes about. But this is the kind of book you can read through quite fast. About every five or ten pages there is something you can relate to, and it´s amusing enough to be worth the trouble. And five or ten years from now, you return to it and suddenly other parts of the book light up and have become understandable. It´s the kind of thing you mature into. Or not. It depends on how close Engdahl´s voice nestle up to you own, doesn´t it?

2011-11-18

A Read to Forget

I just finished Mia Ajvide´s "Mannen som föll i glömska" (= the man who was forgotten). I was attracted to it by the unusual story, which is given away by the title. It´s about a man, Jack, who is forgotten by everyone within a few days. His wife, his mother, all his collegues and friends, they all forget about him, they destroy all traces of him, whereafter they forget that he has ever existed. By experiment he realizes that people can only remember him for as long as they sense his presence, either by looking at him or hearing him or by touching him. If he looses contact with them, only for a second, they totally forget about him.

Jack is soon found by other Forgotten, and he gets to know a whole community of them, lead by a woman named Hanna, who is a Link, a normal person who remembers the Forgotten and can help them to survive. At the same time as he struggles with his strange metamorphosis and his relationship to the Forgotten, he is also researching an old mystery that will prove to have a strange connection to his situation.

This is a ghost story, really. I have never read Ajvide´s husband´s novels about undead and such, but I imagine there are similarities. I had hoped for something interesting, but I found parts of this book rather boring. Like Franzen, Ajvide writes with great attention to detail, but it never seems quite as relevant to the story. Where Franzen´s many words makes his story dense and strong, Ajvide´s many words dilute and weakens. If she had managed to reduce the 300+ pages to 200+, I think it would have improved greatly. But I don´t think it would have saved it from being rather flat and one-dimensional. The story is what happens to Jack. The End. I can´t find any interesting shifts of perspective, ideas, suggestions, anything. It´s all show, no tell. It´s like a stew without any spices at all. Not much veg, either.

It´s an entertaining read in a way, you will want to know how it ends, but then what? I can´t find anything to digest, anything to entertain my mind, anything to keep. Too bad.

2011-11-15

Freedom

The other day I saw an interview with Jonathan Franzen, taped when he visited the Book Fair in Gothenberg earlier this year. It wasn´t his best moment, an "author-moment", he said himself. He began by complaining about the Swedish mineral water, that he said made his mouth more dry the more he drank. I agree, the mineralwater preferred by Swedes is a bit salty, but it wasn´t really a good start. He tried to improve by saying something like "it´s great to be here" and it looked like he was expecting applauds for it, and perhaps that works in the US, but not with an audience of Swedish librarians...

Whatever you think of Jonathan Franzen´s social skills, as a novelist he is damned brilliant. "Freedom", like his earlier novel "The Corrections", is a long, dense thing of a book, and I read it a bit like I watch episodes of "Fawlty Towers". I want to scream at the characters not to say that, not to do that, not to, not to, because it´s going to end badly. And it does. The characters are driven through hell by their own ambitions to not be like their parents, to do good, to be better than everybody else, and what have you.

Patty is a basketball star who hurts her knee, is jilted by sexy rocker Richard and instead marries her admirer, square Walter Berglund and decides to be a perfect mother (unlike her own). When she fails (of course) she falls into deep depression. Walter is an idealist who becomes corrupted by the illusion that he can use dirty money to do good and save bits of the world. Richard becomes a  celebrity who can´t handle his fame or his relationship with the Berglunds. And the Berglund´s son Joey wants to be free from his parents and tries to fly way from the nest sooner than he is ready for it.

It´s like a classic coming-of-age novel, except there are four characters that go through that journey. None of them are particularly sympathetic, but Franzen is still loyal to them all, and I want them all to be happy. They all reach rock bottom, and like a good moralist, Franzen is merciful and gives the repentful a second chance. Perhaps not they way I wanted them to end up, but what the hell, they are who they are and they cannot entirely transform into some other folk, can they?

Franzen´s style is fast, if I can describe it like that. It feels like he writes fast and one get´s a bit out of breath reading him. I find myself taking unusually long breaks from the book, to get some rest. There is plenty of detail, but none of it seems superfluous. He really nails the spirit of the time (from the late 70´s until now, mostly now, or very recently) and I imagine that books that he mentions, like "War and Peace" and "Atonement" holds clues to the story that I don´t get because I haven´t read them. I have a feeling that there are depths in here that hardly any reader will entirely grasp.

In creative writing classes one is often taught to show, not tell. Franzen isn´t afraid to tell, and show, and tell and show at the same time. He does it very elegantly and he really is a master of his craft. He manages to communicate at several levels at the same time and show the mechanisms of manipulation and connect the scenes to the very distant past (generations ago) and the future, sometimes in one elegant sentence. If I hadn´t read the Swedish translation I would have bored you with quotes. As it is, you´ll have to find out for yourself. 

The word freedom comes back all the time in the story, but the one expression that gets stuck in my mind is a Swedish one: "to take freedom with". It means to use something or someone that isn´t legally or morally yours, it means that you expand your freedom of action on someone elses expense. I know that Franzen doesn´t speak Swedish (even though his ancestors were from here), but perhaps he has some intuitive understanding of the expression, because that is what this book is very much about. On every level - personal, economical, political. Everyone is trying to screw everyone else. And it causes resentment and hate. And rage. He could have called the book "Rage".

This is a bona fide, proper, old-fashioned novel. This is what a novel should be to be a great novel. If Franzen can write a couple more of these, he should make the shortlist for the Nobel Prize. I´m sure I´m not the only one who thinks so. 


Freedom, Swedish Style: a Man, a Fire, Sausages, in a Forrest.


2011-10-30

A Monster of Mendacity

I found this book at the e-book library, "Får man vara lite tilltalande i det här samhället" (=is it permitted to be a bit attractive in this society) by Marianne Höök. It´s a collection of her best work, three books, and a number of articles and columns, even extracts from diaries and letters.

Marianne Höök was a Swedish journalist and columnist who was also the most glamourous woman in Stockholm, in Sweden even, during the 50´s and 60´s. She was named the best dressed woman in 1970 and graced the cover of Veckojournalen (= the weekly journal), just a few weeks before she killed herself by means of pills and alcohol, only 51 years old.

I was surprised to see that the texts were so modern, and I suppose that is why they have been republished. Some of the things that were written as late as the 1940´s in Swedish are so old-fashioned language-wise, that young people find it hard to understand. I have even heard suggestions that old Swedish classics should be "translated" inte modern language, to make them accessible to a younger audience. Would the English ever consider modernizing Austen or Shakespeare? I hope not!

I became curious about Marianne Höök and started to parallell-read "Jag var självlockig, moderlös, gripande och ett monster av förljugenhet" (= I was naturally curly, motherless, pathetic and a monster of mendacity) by Anette Kullenberg, a journalist who became friend of Höök´s in the 60´s. She was shocked by the suicide, she writes, and now, more than 35 years later, she embarks on a kind of journey, to find out why she did it. Not that she finds the answer she wants, I suppose life just isn´t that rational and logical. But it´s really exciting to hear all the voices of collegues, friends, lovers, the children, and her own memories and speculations. I find myself arguing with Kullenberg, I listen to the voices and I hear, well, not exactly the same things she does. At times I´m filled with a feeling as if I´m watching something foul, something rotten.

What was it about Marianne Höök? Was it incest, as Kullenberg speculates? I doubt it. Was it "just" mental illness, would she have been helped by a simple medicine if she had been here today? Well, that´s a bit too easy as well. I have a feeling she was caught in circumstances (as many creative and highly gifted women were before the invention of contraceptives, before... well, still are, I guess) that didn´t allow her to do what she was meant to do. I think she self-destructed as a failure to be what she knew she had to be to "earn her keep", so to speak. She may have been deluded, but still, I think that´s what she felt, deep down. Many testify that it was painful for her to age, but I think that pain was deeper than just sorrow over her dwindling beauty. But what do I know, what do Kullenberg know? All we can do is listen and reflect, and learn.

2011-10-19

Knowing what to think

I have been a lazy blogger. Or, actually, I read "Ett gott liv" (=a good life) by Ann Heberlein while it was so fresh the reviews hadn´t come out yet and I just didn´t know if it was fair to think what I thought about it. Then Tranströmer happened to us - cultural bliss in medialand - and when the reviews finally came I was kinda out of wind.

Ann Heberlein is a Swedish scholar in the field of theology, her particular speciality is ethics and more specifically she has written books about responsibility and evil. 2008 she published a book titled "Jag vill inte dö, jag vill bara inte leva" (=I don´t want to die, I just don´t want to live), where she "came out" as a sufferer of bipolar disorder. I didn´t read it at the time, but it was a major media happening and hard to miss.

The reason I picked "Ett gott liv" was, more or less, that it was available as an e-book at the library and it was on the first page when I was looking for something new to read. Coincidence, really. I quickly became hooked. And realized that this book is a kind of corrective to the other one, that she describes somewhere as her "suicide note". She writes that the book came out while she was still deeply depressed and suicidal and she thinks the publisher she then used never should have allowed her to go through with it. She claims to want to discuss how the publishing world "uses" people who are weak or ill and lacking in awareness of the consequences of baring it all, just to make a buck. Now, Heberlein writes well and seems very much on top of everything, so of course I became curious to see how she writes when she is ill and cannot be held accountable for her own actions, so I downloaded "Jag vill inte dö, jag vill bara inte leva".

Well, she sounded pretty much like someone who knew what she was doing at the time. Not much difference between the books in that respect, it´s very much the same Heberlein that the reader meets on the pages. I don´t know what kind of person one would have to be to have understood at the time that Heberlein should not have been allowed to publish the book. I also find, while I read both of them, that I´m arguing with her. I don´t agree entirely about the way she describes the world. I think she sometimes makes sloppy generalizations about culture and society and what people think and what people want and so on.

I also increasingly, as I read, get the feeling that she is trying to play me, that I´m being manipulated into thinking, well, I´m not sure what I´m supposed to be thinking. That she is sane, perhaps. She is quite honest about the first book being an attempt to get away from responsibility (one of her pet projects, that). I have seen that in a few people I have known over the years: they are eager to bare it all, to confess and lay all their shortcomings before you, so that they will not have to say NO to anything. They want you to do it for them. Pull the brake when they can´t do it themselves, for whatever reason. (Heberlein has now, when she is supposedly sane, made a pact with her husband. Next time she is ill, he is allowed to stop her. If he can.)

I imagine being bipolar is not easy. It must hurt to try and patch up ones lost esteem, self- and professional, after an episode and repair a damaged reputation (if indeed it is). Heberlein is well worth reading, probably has one of the best intellects in this country and I´m curious about her other books, including a novel that she is allegedly writing with her husband. Read this as a peek into a mind that sometimes runs away with itself and that is trying to regain control. Treat it as a field trip. You might not be able to put it to words exactly, but you will learn something if you listen to Ann Heberlein.

2011-10-04

First Class Rome

I can´t remember if I have blogged before about what I consider to be the best travel guide in the world: Eyewitness Travel Guides. (Swedish: "Första klass reseguider"). I discovered them more than ten years ago, when we were planning a week in Prague. I bought one and it so informed our stay there, it just became one of my best vacations ever.

Thing is, what I need from a vacation is to be stimulated. I need that much more than rest, probably because I make sure I get enough of that during the year. Burning both ends of the candle never seemed a very attractive option to me, perhaps because what I love to do requires a rested and alert mind. It forces you to take responsibility for your health if you don´t want to find yourself in a state where reading just becomes impossible, let alone thinking a complicated thought. I have been there, I have no desire to go back.

Anyway, these guides are gold struck for anyone who wants a historical background, an overview, detail, suggested walks, a few tips about tipping, hotels, customs, what to eat, what to drink, where to shop. The books are heavy, of course, being so packed with information, but I have a solution to that. I read it, find the pages that are interesting, photograph them (the camera is a fabulous notebook, haven´t you noticed?), make a few lists in a small notebook/diary, and leave the heavy book at home. Or return it to the library, as I´m about to do with this one.


So what am I looking for in Rome? Well, if the weather gods are with us (November is apparently the rainiest month of the year in Italy) we will see the city from the outside. Walk, walk, walk. Forum Romanum, the Vesta Temple, the Colosseum, all those (hundreds of?) churches, the Pantheon, the Tiber. If it rains, there are a few museums on my list. But with only two days, one must realize it´s impossible to see it all.

And then there´s the food: the spaghetti, the cheese, the cookies (who knew they had world famous cookies?), the bread, the porchetta. What I will try to avoid is what the call "the fifth fourth", which is the intestines. Something of a specialty that, tripe and such. Not so interested in that.

Only a month until we go!

2011-10-03

Scary people

I found this book through a newspaper article about the author, Sigvard Lingh. I think it was his birthday or something, and it mentioned this book he has recently written, "Psykopater och Sociopater - ett spektrum" (= psychopaths and sociopaths - a spectrum). Lucky for me, the local library bought it on my suggestion. It´s a large book, A4-format and almost 470 densely written pages. However, that does not mean that it´s difficult to read. On the contrary. The tone is the one you´d find on a very interesting and entertaining lecture. You can hear Lingh´s voice very clearly, speaking directly to you.

This is on one hand a compendium of all the research that has been made about psychopathy, the footnotes are extensive and it´s easy to go from Lingh to any other author that you´d like to dive more deeply into. On the other hand, it´s a very personal account and reflection about the psychopath in general and psychopaths that the author has met, both in his profession as a psychologist and as a lecturer and teacher. I reminds me a bit about my own binders from the courses I took at university. You get the feeling Lingh wants to share a lifetime of collected knowledge and a huge fascination for these people.

Surprisingly, I find that I´m pretty well read on the subject. I have already encountered most of the authors he mentions, one way or another. Why does one get this fascination for people that are "mad, bad and dangerous to know"? I suppose it´s like being really into World War II documentaries or horror flicks. You´re attracted to what scares you the most. Perhaps the instinct is that knowledge will make it less scary, like trolls that go "poof!" when you look directly at them. I´m not sure it works, though. Which is probably why literature is, has always been, and always will be totally preoccupied with war and scary people.

If you are as fascinated by the subject as I am, I do recommend it. You´ll get through it rather quickly, because it´s a bit of a pageturner. At least, it was for me.


2011-09-23

Adventures in post-war Paris

I don´t know if it´s this wretched weather (rain, rain, rain), but my pipes are not what they should be after a cold I had a month ago. Bound paper isn´t doing my health any favors, so I´m limiting my reading selection to electronic material. The library´s selection is limited, but on the other hand, I´m reading stuff I never would have found anywhere else.

My latest find is "Existentiell resa" (= existential journey) by Thomas Wahlberg. It´s not a novel, but a publication of letters, mostly written by his mother Britta, married at the time (1947) to Swedish artist Bertil Wahlberg, from Paris and Menton on the French Riviera, during an eight month long trip, when Bertil was supposed to work and study other artists. And he did, according to the son, who claims the 40´s (Bertil and Britta were only 24 years old) may have been his father´s greatest years as an artist, before he succumbed to the financial pressures (he eventually had five children by two wives) and painted more "sellable" things. (A quick look around internet auctions shows that his work now goes for prices well below 2000 kr, or 200 British Pounds, or 280 USD.)

This book is published by the author himself (I can not find any reviews of it online, at least) and the tone sometimes leans a bit toward the private. Between the letters he explains the background, sometimes ventures into the future and at times digresses into issues unexpected, sometimes interesting, sometimes not so much. A stern editor wouldn´t have gone amiss here. That said, I am charmed. Wahlberg has a very interesting story to tell and I read it all greedily.

One gets a real sense of the zeitgeist, both from the letters and the pictures, some of the adventurers themselves, some of the family back home, and some of the paintings that were made during the trip. The Wahlbergs married young, as people often did at the time. Sons Thomas and Jockum was born in 1943 and 1946 respectively. When the parents went to Paris, the children were left with Bertil´s mother Berta, and seem not to have been much missed. Clearly, there was a lack of responsiblity, both financial and parental. Bertil hardly wrote home at all, except to give his parents instructions about money matters, but when he did, his descriptions of Paris and France are very charming and hints at a literary talent. Some of his poetry (and other writings?) has been published by the son Thomas and I intend to have a look at it.

There were anecdotes I found pretty amusing. For example, in one of the first letters, from Bertil to his young wife, he advises her to try what was considered the next most reliable way to provoke a miscarriage (next to the infamous and dangerous knitting needle method), which was to walk excessively and drink lots of tepid beer. Apparently, she tried this with both pregnancies and I imagine the excercise and vitamine B only made her and the foetuses stronger. If it had worked, the British Isles would be scarcely populated, indeed...

I don´t entirely understand the title of the book. There isn´t much existentialism in here, although the young couple do visit the famous club Tabou and Bertil may have been more influenced by the movement than the text actually shows. It´s more about bickering with some Swedish friends that they share lodgings with, gambling, drinking and dancing. And one also gets a good insight into the horrid conditions in France and all of Europe after the war, where everyone was trying to survive and didn´t loose any sleep over ripping off and outright stealing from a young, naive, and seemingly wealthy couple from Sweden.

The author does not try to hide that there has been quite a bit of animosity from the children over being abandoned for such a long time at such young ages, but he claims now to be reconciled with it. And one belives him. The book is a rather loving account of the young adventurers his parents were and the tone in the book is tender. And I can´t decide whether this is the book´s greatest strength or its greatest fault.


2011-09-22

Looking forward to Rome

The first weekend i November, we are going to Rome for the first time ever. We´ve been talking about it for years, and now it´s going to happen! Rome is one of those odd places that I feel I almost know, because I have read so much about it, but now I realize that the Rome I think I know anything about is classic Rome, the Rome of the Ceasars. It´s been two thousand years...

To close the gap I grabbed this book: Kristina Kappelin´s (Swedish journalist extraordinaire, reports from Italy about absolutely everything, and does it super well) "Rom - maten, människorna, livet" (=Rome - the food, the people, life). Turns out, it was a very good choice.

It´s like being guided through the city by a good friend, someone who is really enthusiastic about where she lives. The pictures, taken by another Swedish woman living in Rome, Charlotta Smeds, are über-wonderful, you can almost feel the smell of the food, hear the noise from the streets and it just makes me think I can´t wait to go there and how am I ever going to see all those places in just two days? At the same time, she is telling me that Rome is not all those things that tourists have on their checklist, but the streets, the small shops, the small osterias, the crappy wine, the good food, the Romans, the atmosphere. And she makes me relax. And hope for good weather. So that I can walk those streets all day long.

2011-09-21

The Psychology of Art

I had a half hour to spare and spent it in front of the psychology-section at the local library. There is plenty for those who seek help and support, mostly about separations, depressions and sleeping disorders. Surprisingly many books about sleeping. I came home with two volumes by Rollo May, one of the classics in the field of existential psychology.

I´m pretty sure I´ve read him before, in the 80´s, probably "Freedom and Destiny" ("Frihet och öde" in Swedish) but I can´t remember much about it. Or maybe I´m wrong, perhaps it´s just that everyone refers to him that makes me think I have read him. However that may be, the one that really resonated with me this time was "The Courage to Create" (="Modet att skapa") which is a thin volume, densely written, about the psychology of the artist and the role he has to play in society.

It really has made me think differently about art, both literature and visual arts. He writes about how the artist channels the zeitgeist and expresses the undercurrents of politics and culture in his work and it really inspires me to study history - a subject that I´m already very interested in - from another point of view.

Excellent book. "Freedom and Destiny" didn´t grab me as much this time around. Perhaps I will have reason to return to it later. But for anyone interested in the mechanics of creativity and art, I really recommend Rollo May´s "The Courage to Create".

2011-09-08

The Demands of the Genius

Another memoir about a creative woman: Käbi Laretei. She is now perhaps most known for having been married to Ingmar Bergman for ten years, but she was also a very successful concert pianist in her day, who collaborated with Stravinskij and Paul Hindesmith, to mention only two. In this small book "Toner och passioner" (= notes and passions), she writes about her working life, about the pianist Laretei. Her two husbands are only present in a couple of anecdotes that are of importance to the story of her career. Much more important is her own "housewife", Bärbel, who was her nanny/housekeeper/secretary. In the end, when she asks the question why her career as a pianist cooled off and she started doing other things, one of her answers is that Bärbel left her. (It rings a bell: Åsa Moberg writes in her memoir that one of the most thrilling things about her lover, Harry Schein, was that he lived with a housekeeper.)

When Laretei writes about the struggle of the travelling performer: lost luggage, time to practice, a place to practice, inferior instruments (there´s a lot about Steinways and Pleyels and such in here), noisy hotelrooms, demanding impressarios, demanding conductors, demanding composers, the difficulty to sleep, taking care of one´s hands, the importance of a certain kind of earplug, irritating children on planes - well, you think it can´t have been an easy life.

The whole memoir is centered around one special relationship she had to an American couple, that acted as her impressarios in the US for ten years. It´s interesting to read how they courted her, did everything for her, but in the end also demanded quite a bit from her. There are no free lunches, as they say. Unconditional love is a rare thing, indeed.

And there is also the doubt, the constant striving for a better performance. Laretei is never satisfied and in this passage, she is talking about it with her first husband, Gunnar (in my own, quick translation):

After a concert in Helsingfors I cried on the phone and lamented my total failure with my Beethoven concert. A few years later I heard the same concert on the radio, a fantastic recording. "That´s exactly how I want it to sound! Why can´t I play it like that, that´s how I want it!" Gunnar said calmly: "That´s you playing."

I bet that felt like a rather pleasant slap in the face, haha.

After my read, as I google Laretei and think about the demands of the creative person and how impossible it must be for that kind of genius to thrive in Swedish society today, with its demands for equality and how no one is expected to have to give up anything (career, a good night´s sleep, whatever) for a child or a spouse, I come across mention of her son with Bergman, Daniel. I remember him also becoming a film director but I haven´t heard anything of him for years. Turns out, he doesn´t seem to have done anything in the film industry since 2000. According to Wikipedia, he works as a nurse. I don´t know if it´s true, but if it is, there is a sense of balance to it, I think. Or irony, if you will. Perhaps the cult of equality and sameness, agreeable though it may be, has cost us quite a few original thinkers and performers.

2011-09-07

On the Subject of Idolatry

I rarely read feministic literature. Writers who try to say something about the general female experience never fail to make me feel a bit queer. Perhaps it´s that I´m not a mother, and that I´m not the least bit career driven. Apparently, Simone de Beauvoir felt the same. She didn´t think she was a feminist until very late in life. This didn´t stop her, however, from writing "The Second Sex", which became a kind of feminist bible.

Åsa Moberg, a Swedish feminist writer and nuclear opponent, has translated "The Second Sex" in its entirety and is considered one of this country´s leading Beauvoir experts. She has written a personal memoir, "Simone och jag" (= Simone and I) about the way she has been able to mirror herself in Beauvoir´s texts ever since she first read "The Mandarins". I picked it up more because it was about the art of reading, and how we use famous people as idols, archetypes really, to help us get along with our lives. I have said this before, that it seems to me like some authors are more interesting and perhaps have become classics, not so much because of what they wrote, but because of how they lived. I mean, how many people really enjoy reading Virginia Woolf´s or Beauvoir´s novels? Not as many, I bet, as those who get absorbed in biographies about these ladies, and others like them.

In the end I found more nutrition in this book than I had thought I would. She (and Simone) has some really profound things to say about the way women are brought up and how that affects the creative process, things I can really relate to and that might help me to get on in my own development. And I could identify more than I though, since both Beauvoir and Moberg are women who have, more or less, chosen to remain childless. And perhaps they were not as career driven as they wanted to seem, they both had a man behind them pulling the strings. That is something I don´t have. But seeing what function a man like that has in a woman´s life, also made me realize a few things about my own processes.

I like these personal biographies, where the writer engages in a kind of dialogue with his or her subject. I think all conscious readers do this, and it´s very enlightening to follow another´s process. Unfortunately, a quick look at what amazon has to offer indicates that Moberg is not translated to English. There is, however, this: "Åsa Moberg und ihre Spiegelung in Simone de Beauvoir: Beleuchtung, Analyse und Interpretation" by Elisabeth Prudic. If it´s of any interest, I don´t know, and I don´t intend to find out. 

2011-08-31

That war, every war

The cover image is a detail of this painting.
It´s a few days before Christmas, it´s snowing and the King is dead, shot in the head while on a campaign in Norway. Probably by one of his own, desperate soldiers. As a courier passes through the town (Uddevalla, but neither that name nor the year 1718 nor Karl/Charles XII is mentioned in the story - it could be any war, really) with the news, war veteran and apothecary Jakob Hård tells his wife the terrible news and in response she hurls a kitchen knife into his arm. Why? Only in the very last pages will we know. It´s not a who-done-it, but a why´d-she-do-it. And more. On the following dense couple of hundred pages, we get to know Jakob Hård and his neighbours, and we, as they, become aware of what kind of war their dead King has led them into, as surviving soldiers begin to pour into town. Not beaten by the enemy, but by the cold winter that they have not been prepared for, dressed only in summer uniforms. Is it possible that the King had so little regard for his men? Is it possible to grieve under any circumstances? How far can loyalty go?

Jakob Hård is a kind man, and he is naive. Not stupid, but he is not a thinker. Our perspective throughout is his, and through him we get to know the poorest homeless children, we get to drink with the Mayor, and we get to help the King´s personal physician embalm the royal body. Hård relates to others emotionally rather than intellectually and not until he understands the deep emotions that fuels his wife´s behavior can he reach out to her and forgive everything. He is almost Jesus-like in his acceptance and mercy. One can, and I like the idea, see him as a personification of Mother Sweden, who blindly loves her son/the King, but who wakes up to the bleak consequences of his hubris.

I had never heard of Ellen Mattson when she got the Selma Lagerlöf Award this spring. I put this book, "Snö" (=snow) from 2001, on my reading list mainly because it was set in the 18th Century and that seemed really interesting. I am impressed, this is a great, great novel. It´s intriguing, exciting, moving (I cried like I haven´t done since the little matchstick girl) and profound. There are so many levels to this story. I just googled her and I was surprised to find that she is only four years older than I. For some reason, I had thought she was older. Probably the maturity of her writing. I wouldn´t mind knowing a bit more about how she came up with the idea for this. I´m so impressed I´m staggering, really.

Only a couple of times did the illusion break for me. Just a couple of words that seemed out of place in a story from 1718, like "automatic". Not a word I would have chosen for a novel set 150 years before the Industrial Revolution got near us. But that´s nitpicking.

The one novel this reminded me of is Coetzee´s "Waiting for the Barbarians". But, dammit, this is better. 

I wonder how this novel would do in translation. Surely it´s worth a wider audience? A bit more aggressive marketing? Or am I the only reader who´s missed her? I wish I could recommend her to the whole world!


2011-08-30

Stories of growth

A few years ago, I took part in a study group devoted to archetypes and how the psyche narrates our own lives. You know, life is just another story. I remember we had some very rewarding discussions, and a couple of the books that we used stood out as sources of a profoundly new way of looking at our own development as human beings. They were "Goddesses in Everywoman: A New Psychology of Women" and "Gods in Everyman: A New Psychology of Men's Lives and Loves", by Jean Shinoda Bolen, a psychiatrist with a jungian perspective.

These books are a crash course in how archetypal psychology works, and when you know it, you begin to see archetypes everywhere in classic stories. Recently there was a discussion on the Guardian website about how many adaptions to film we need of Jane Austen and Brontë novels. The reason we never tire of these stories are, of course, that characters like Heathcliff, Cathy, Jane Eyre, Elisabeth Bennett and all her family, Mr Darcy, and all the rest of them, are modern archetypes. We may not naturally relate to the gods and godesses of the old Greek mythology, but there will always be inventions of more up-to-date versions of the same archetypes. That´s what we need literature for, among other things.

This book I have read now, is Bolen´s "Goddesses in Older Women: Archetypes in Women over Fifty". Ok, I didn´t read it very thoroughly. I leafed throught in one evening. Not that it´s not a good book, but it felt like I had read most of it before. And perhaps I´m not old enough to identify with crones, I don´t know... Yet.

I can warmly recommend Jean Shinoda Bolen to anyone who feels an urge to understand their own psyche a bit better. In times of confusion, transition, or both, she can be a great companion to someone who has inclinations towards psychology and storytelling and a wish for a more informed and controlled personal growth.


2011-08-27

2011-08-26

Mary Russell saves the world from Men in Black

Long time no blogging. Yeah, it´s been a bit busy for a while, with a close relative in and out of hospital and needing a bit of support in the day to day chores, like making dinner and such. I have been focused on needs other than my own and that´s probably a good thing once in a while. If nothing else, I´m glad I´m relatively healthy! However, it slows my reading.

Another thing that has slowed my pace (of blogging, at least) is my decision to re-read "The Language of Bees" by Laurie R King, a book that I have already read and written about. (And, I can see now, I misspelled my heroin´s name all through the post. Oh well, bygones.) Of course, I had a different experience reading it now, when I know Mary Russell, her Holmes, where they came from and how they got to where they are now. And a year on, really one does not remember all the sides to a detective story plot. Not even one by Laurie R King.

I then proceeded with "The God of the Hive". Which continues directly where "The Language of Bees" ended. Russell and Holmes have split up after successfully stopping a mad Reverend carrying out his plan for world domination. They are still wanted by the police and have a few other concerns that I really can´t give away. Holmes ends up abroad due to circumstances beyond his control, and Russell finds herself deeply embedded in a forrest in the Lake District with a motley crew of companions. They both find themselves hunted down and almost caught by "men in black". Is the mad Reverend still alive and kicking? And how powerful is he? Or is someone much more powerful behind him, someone with much greater, and much more realistic ambitions for world domination? And what is happening to Mycroft Holmes?

At the Sherlock Holmes Museum in London.

There were bits about this novel that I loved. Russell has the opportunity to get more acquainted with the ways of airtravel and I find these parts quite interesting. I also love some of the new characters and I hope very much to see more of them in books yet unwritten. One of them should really have a series of her own, I think she is made for adventure (look away if you don´t want to know - it´s Holmes´ granddaughter Estelle, a half-chinese infant prodigy with perfect pitch). There are also bits I´m a bit disappointed with. You don´t really get who the villain in this drama is. There is at least one thread in the storyline that leads nowhere, perhaps it´s there to give us a scare, I don´t know. And a conflict between two of the main characters seems a bit contrived. Perhaps it´s just me.

All in all, it starts like a Russell&Holmes case, and ends like a James Bond adventure. And why not. King has been looking for inspiration in all kinds of literary places, with great results.

I now have one book left in the series to read, and that is "The Pirate King". I shall save it for Christmas, I think. I need a break from Mary Russell just now, I feel. Moderation in all things is best.


2011-08-01

Up In the Air

I´d like to share one of our adventures from our trip to Cornwall. We wanted to see the Isles of Scilly very much, but with only one day to spare and a journey by boat being 2 hours and 40 minutes long, we opted for a morning flight and an afternoon cruise. The flight only took 15 minutes and none of us had ever sat in such a small aircraft before.

The very small aircraft that took us to Scilly.

Checking in.
If I look somewhat bereaved it´s because my handbag has just been taken from me, and I have no pockets for anything, not even a handkerchief or my pocketbook. After taking our bags, they weighed us, to make sure the plane would be properly balanced.

Entering the plane.

We were eight passengers and one pilot. A few of the ladies were a bit nervous, and perhaps some of the men too. There were lots of giggles and holding hands...

The landing strip was grass.

It felt a bit crowded.

Crossing paths with a barge.

Almost there.

Some other craft at the Scilly airfield, and Hughtown in the background.

(All the photos above were taken by my husband.)

A Little Vacation Reading

I started with a Swedish, fresh novel come out this year, and after about page ten I was sooo bored. So I gave it up. I shall mention no names. Instead, I reached for my debit card and logged onto ebooks.com and downloaded the next two Mary Russell-mysteries. Actually, I have already read one, "The Language of Bees", it was the first one in the series I read, almost exactly one year ago. However, I want to read it again since it´s part one in a two-part mystery continuing with "The God of the Hive".

Not that I have come anywhere near either of them yet, it´s vacation after all and the weather is fine and we have other things to do (things that make pretty pictures, like the one below).

Pite River by Grundvattnet


What I have had time to read, though, is Laurie R King´s little e-novella, "Beekeeping for Beginners". It´s a quick, satisfying read, Holmes´s take on his and Russell´s first meeting and what followed. After "Looked Rooms", I had gotten used to Holmes´s point of view and it didn´t feel at all weird. And that´s all I can say, I think, without spoiling it for you.

Of course, without an e-book-reader, or a computer (but reading books on a hot and noisy computer sucks, in my opinion), this book will not be available to you. I suppose short stories must be much more economical to publish electronically. I wish all authors would publish electronically, but sadly, many still chose not to. And I have met some readers who are opposed (???) to e-books. Not that they have ever actually read one... I´m often asked if "the feeling" is the same. I really don´t get the question. Novels aren´t words on paper or screen, they are Worlds that come to nest inside my head.

2011-07-22

Sherlock the dreamcatcher

The minute I got home, I buried myself in my sofa with my latest Russell&Holmes-mystery, "Locked Rooms" by Laurie R King. This time, by way of India ("The Game"), Japan and Hawaii, our couple arrives in San Francisco, Russell´s childhood home.

After her family´s death in an automobile accident that she barely survived, Russell still owns a couple of houses and has business interests in San Francisco, but she has been reluctant to return. Already on the boat she stops eating and becomes ridden by nightmares and Holmes feels that she is no longer herself. Clearly, this is a great trauma in Russell´s life and she dreads her home-coming.

While she submerges herself in grief and stumbles about in the debris of her past, Holmes starts an investigation into Russell´s dreams by himself, concealing this from Russell. He finds himself a couple of Irregulars, among them the future writer of detective stories, Dashiell Hammett. Now, I have only seen "The Maltese Falcon" and "The Thin Man" on screen, but that´s enough to realize that this book is probably littered with references to Hammett´s work.

Anyway, as per usual, I will not spoil anyone´s fun by telling you what happens, but it´s suspense all the way through. And for the first time in the series, King divides the narrative into the two perspectives of Russell and Holmes, something that didn´t feel entirely comfortable at first (to me, at least) but it´s made necessary by the story, really. And it works.

From the Sherlock Holmes Museum, visited a week ago, haha!

2011-07-21

Best holiday ever

Not much reading done lately, I have been on holiday with my husband, to beautiful Cornwall. Of course I brought my entire electronic library, in case of bad weather, but we were incredibly lucky and during our two week stay, it only rained on us once. Once to make us wet, that is. There were a few more drops, and a bit cloudy and windy, but that is perfect weather for excursions. Umbrellas are worthless in Cornwall, I learned, and I had to emergency-buy a rainjacket (found a good one on sale for 9 pounds!). This jacket was also great to have on top of the open double-decker bus, the Cornwall Explorer 300 (yes, it sounds like a high tech gadget, doesn´t it?) that took us around to the places we wanted to see.

Some places we saw (a selection from the thousands (yes!) of pictures that we have):

Poldhu Cove, where Marconi sent his first radio signals in 1901, to Newfoundland.

Porthcurno, a great beach and...

... the worlds greatest hub of telegraph cables.

St Michael´s Mount, that becomes an island at high tide.

Fabulous Land´s End.

The incredible Minack Theatre, where they rehearsed Hamlet.

The Garrison Walk, on the Island of St Mary, Scilly.

Such a nice tradition with donated benches, and I like that I got the blackbird in the frame.

The scarf is for my sun rashes, and I managed to get burned THROUGH my shirt!

Leaving the Isles of Scilly.
 
The Cornish Alps - tips from the clay mines.

Pretty port of Charlestown, St Austell.

The fabulous Eden Project, St Austell.

The Steamtrain from Paignton to Kingswear, the British Riviera Line.

Kingswear from a boat on the river Dart (which means oak in cornish).

Exeter in the evening light.

A white horse on a mountainside, from the train to London.

We stayed in the most wonderful B&B imaginable, the Elmsdale, operated by our wonderful hosts Richard and Glynis Cliffe. We stayed two nights in London before we went home, at the SAS Radisson Portmann, and I tell you, we had nothing at the Portmann that we didn´t also have at the Elmsdale. And stepping out the front door, London is nothing to Penzance, a great little big town. A bit like Luleå, in some respects, being the entrance gate to a quirky land´s end. A bit eljest (=otherly), as we´d say up here.

And despite of the cloudy weather, I managed to get sun rashes and burns. One couple we shared a breakfast table with in St Austell, didn´t think we looked Swedish: Swedes are supposed to be blonde and very, very tan. We were just too pale.

If you go to England, I can really, wholeheartedly, recommend that you get out of London and go somewhere else. You´ll get more for your money and experience real Englishness, in a way that London just can´t offer. Penzance is one place I will definitely return to. I never did get to see the tin mines...

2011-06-28

It´s alive! Accessible archeology

As someone pointed out, it´s been a while since I posted last. Well, what can I say? It´s summer, lots to do, places to go. Things to prepare. Weather to enjoy. And I haven´t even gotten to polishing all the windows...

However, I have gotten through a couple of really nice volumes on the Bronze and Iron Age in Sweden. First, "Stuga och säte" (=cottage and seat, roughly translated) by Lena Edblom, which is a study of the field archeology and reconstructive archeology that has been done at Gene Old Village near Örnsköldsvik in Sweden. This is the best description of an Iron Age house and farm that I have come across. Would be fun to visit, it looks like this:


Cool, or what? It´s really interesting to read how they have tried to make it work according to the theories, and some of it has really not been very straight forward at all. There is nothing "primitive" about the way these houses work, it´s not done in a day by any dummy come off the street. Experts in all kinds of building techniques come together and scratch their heads. Apparently, it´s fundamentally important where a house is built, as much as how it´s built. And these houses were large. Very large.

My next read was Maja Hagerman´s "Försvunnen värld" (= lost world). She is a science journalist and archeology and Swedish pre-history is her special field, she has written a couple of great books about how Sweden came to be. She compiles the current opinions of the scientific community, translates and communicates to ordinary folk like me what is known about this foggy time in our history. This book is about the largest excavation ever in Sweden, and it came about because a new road was being built north of Uppsala, and acres and acres of land was being literally dug out, and with it all traces of human activity.

It´s a thick volume and Hagerman gets a bit too chatty at times. Or perhaps it´s just that I don´t want to know how much the archeologists didn´t have time to look at, or couldn´t afford to handle. And it seems that it was dug by rivalling teams, which is just soooo dispiriting. I want the scientific community to be one big happy family, all focused on one thing: me becoming better informed. And themselves and every other person who should be interested, which is everybody.

I will not go into detail about what they found out, that would make a very long post indeed, but I´m pleased to find that my own very speculative ideas about what went on in Bronze Age and Roman Iron Age here in Sweden seem to be verified. Haha.

And, for your enjoyment, some bling collected from a headman´s grave. (Not from this particular dig, though.) That´s a roman coin there, from year 290, and the ring with the red stone is roman, too.

I think there is a treasure hunter in every archeologist, deep down, no matter how happy they are about their postholes. Actually, if I hadn´t seen hundreds of episodes of "Time Team", I wouldn´t have been able to follow Hagerman´s story quite so easily. Have I recommended "Time Team"? In Sweden, they are currently showing episodes from 2007 on channel 9. Tune in and enjoy.

2011-06-08

Imagining the children

This, "The Box" (Sw "Lådan") is the first book by Günter Grass I have ever read, even though I usually make some kind of effort with the Nobel Prize Laureates. I saw "The Tin Drum", the film, when I was in high school and I liked it well enough, even though at the time it was not really a film I would have gone to see. My taste in all things has improved, or so I´d like to think.

This is his latest, a novel for sure, but autobiographical. What he has done is to fictionalize his own children (6 biological, 2 aquired by marriage) and let them meet a number of times to discuss different aspects of their childhood. A somewhat fragmented imaged appears, of Günter Grass as Vatti, the father.

The children are actually not in any conflict about what kind of father he was: he was hardly ever there. He had his study in the attic, he didn´t play, he was often away on political crusades, he remarried. He had four children with his first wife, one with his second, one with a passing acquaintance, got two extra when he married his last. Instead, there is a lot of talk about father´s companion, "our Mariechen" (our little Marie), an elderly woman with a camera. Marie is not a real person, she is far too extraordinary for that. Rather, she is what is extraordinary about Günter Grass. She is his imagination. Her pictures show not what the camera has been aimed at, but what is the dream connected to that subject. Her photos of the bombed out houses in Berlin, for example, shows how they were furnished before the war. Her photos of little Nana (the girl who never got to live with her father) shows Nana, her father and mother dancing among the clouds together.

Mariechen takes photos for the children too, like when the boy Taddel misunderstands what he is told about his dad working with the election and thinks he´s gone whale hunting (the word for whale and election is the same in Swedish and, I suspect, German too), Mariechens photos shows Vatti in a boat with a spear in his hand. Or when Lara´s dog Joggi has disappeared, the photos show the dog taking the subway across town, having all kinds of adventures.

When there is chaos in the family, Mariechen comes more seldom. She does not like chaos, and takes no photos of it. This is when Grass divorces his first wife. When the artist can´t work, neither does Mariechen. She works for Grass, and when Mariechen is there, they are all at their happiest. When he moves to northern Germany with his last wife, Mariechen moves with them. But when they move away from there, on his wife´s initiative, Mariechen dies. Vatti is old and it is also the end of childhood. However, the children suspects that Vatti has the camera stashed away somewhere. There is some hope for the artist yet...

I think that what Grass is aiming at is that whatever he has given to his children, is what he has also given to the world, and that is his imagination. Either the result of it or - I think he hopes for his children - the ability to imagine for oneself. He also says something profound about how we remember our childhood - that the sweetest memories are made up. And that is all right. But there is also a deep sense of grief in this story. He lets one of the children mention at the end that the father wanted to gather his children like this when he got the Nobel Prize, but none of them were willing to talk. And now, ten years later, instead the father imagines his children, he imagines them "until they are present and casting shadows" (that´s not a direct quote, but a translation from the text). I can´t help but suspect that his children aren´t much available to speak either to him or to each other. As grown children tend not to be. But then don´t we all tend to think other families are happier than ours. Except Günter Grass, which is why I imagine he has published this book.

Mariechen sometimes takes pictures between her legs.
Grass, who is an artist as well as a writer, has illustrated the book with pictures of Mariechen with her camera, one for every chapter. I think they are charming, an image of the writer´s soul, perhaps. Or at least a splinter of it, an aspect, a recurring dream, perhaps. Maybe she was a real person from his childhood, who became an archetype for his imagination? Who knows? We are his readers, not his analysts.

I think some of the critics I have read have been a bit ungenerous towards this book. Of course, I haven´t read any of his others and can´t compare, but I think this is a very special little book. It says something rather profound about fathers and children, in a way both playful and serious. I´m quite sure that I will never forget it.

2011-06-04

Expansion of the Holmes universe

I threw myself at the next Holmes & Russell adventure by Laurie R King, "The Game". This time she mixes Holmes-mythology with something that I´m not at all familiar with, and that is Rudyard Kipling´s "Kim". I had no idea, really, all I know Kipling for is "The Jungle Book" and that´s just courtesy of Walt Disney. According to Wikipedia, Kipling is most known for children´s books celebrating British imperialism and that had definately gone out of style when I was young, if it ever was very popular in Scandinavia. A quick look at the library database tells me that there are versions of it from 1957, 1984, and 2002, so perhaps I just missed it. It´s a classic. What do you know.

Anyway, guess what? When Holmes was "dead" from having supposedly fallen down Reichenbacher Falls with Moriarty, he spent some time in India, working with Kim! And it´s not King´s idea, she has stolen it from a guy called Jamyang Norbu! If only Conan Doyle could have foreseen it all...

It is now 1924, the Labour Party has won the last election, Lenin is lying on his deathbed, and the British and US establishments are becoming anxious about the Communists.  It´s been 30 years since Holmes worked with Kim, who is still a spy for the British government and has gone missing. Other agents go missing too, and turn up dead. Mycroft Holmes wants to know what´s going on and sends Holmes and Russell to investigate. On the boat to India they encounter an American family on their way to visit a maharaja in the north. The son, a self-proclaimed Marxist, attracts Holmes´attention. Not surprisingly, they meet again.

With the help of British officer Nesbit and street urchin Bindra, a few great disguises, magic, and a bit of blind luck, they discover the fate of Kim and saves the British Empire. For the time being, at least. King is mainly focused on the adventure, but she also manages to nudge the Holmes-Russell relationship along an inch of two. Russell is really coming into her own as a powerful and independent player of the great detective-game and Holmes, though always in control of his end, does not always hold the initiative.

I have already bought the next one, "Locked Rooms" from ebooks.com that may soon be my new favourite webshop... But first I shall take a turn with Günter Grass!

2011-05-24

Holmes and Russel, again

Another adventure with Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes, this time mostly at a huge estate on the English countryside, in "Justice Hall" by Laurie R King. To give you an idea of the atmosphere, think of films like Altman´s "Gosford Park", the recent tv-series "Downton Abbey" or perhaps a Poirot-mystery. As far as I can tell, King has done some fine research on the manners of the upper classes, the fashions and the spirit of the time, just a few years after the Great War.

Russell and Holmes are just come home from Dartmoor, have hardly had time to set their bags down, have a bath, and let mrs Hudson serve them tea and crumpets, when there´s a knock on the door. And back into their lives comes their two Arab brothers Mahmoud and Ali Hazr, from their adventure in "O Jerusalem", and puts a case at their feet that is rather surprising, considering. Can´t tell you more, without spoiling the surprise.

A quick trip to Lyons, an equally fast journey to Canada (by boat and train, no regular airtraffic for the masses at this time!) does not really affect the atmosphere of the Big House, not even flashbacks to the trenches in France and Belgium during the war. Between the investigations Russell is mostly concerned with topics of conversation, the etiquette of fowl hunting and, yes indeed, "Holmes! Whatever shall I do? I haven´t a thing to wear."

King is very good at spicing her 1920´s-brew with small references of things that are so familiar to us now, but were quite new then. Some things are just fads, others stick, and there´s no telling at the time what is which. And some of what was considered eternal before the Great War, disappeared so very quickly, both institutions and ideas. Of course, without the actual use of a time machine there is no way of knowing if she´s got it right, but it feels right. Absolutely right.

Holmes has become, I think, less and less a main character in these stories, and more Russell´s husband. She contributes as much, sometimes more, to the investigations, and, as some people keep pointing out to her, he´s getting on a bit. But he is the apple of her eye, for sure, and for some reason he is constantly getting in and out of a bath, standing in his bare stockings and fiddling with his shirt buttons as he´s getting dressed for dinner. And isn´t this a loving description of a husband: "Holmes slumped down into the hard chair and prepared to listen, fingers steepled over his waistcoat, eyes half closed and glittering in the firelight like those of an observant snake."

Do I need to say I warmly recommend this?

2011-05-19

Looking at Art

When I was lately in Stockholm to see an old friend, we went to a favourite place of mine, the National Art Museum. The collections are spectacular, as one would expect, and they have a great shop. I bought three books, one I have already written about here on the blog, and now I have read the remaining two. They are similar in that they are about how to look at a painting.

The Crucifixion with de Rynck
First, I read "How to read a painting. Decoding, understanding and Enjoying the Old Masters" by Patrick de Rynck. He uses one opening per painting, two pages, and explains the different elements of the ikonography. Of course, this is mostly religious art, it being the old masters, but there are also mythological scenes, pastorals, portraits, landscapes and townscapes. It didn´t take long to get through, but a quick calculation tells me that he actually must deal with 179 paintings in there! Thing is, he does not go particularly deep with each picture. I´m sure there is much, much more to tell. I suppose de Rynck´s intention is to offer an introduction for folks who know absolutely nothing about the ikonography of religion, mythology and literature. And I suppose the book has taught me that I actually do!

The Crucifixion with Barbe-Gall
Feeling not entirely satisfied with having learned very little from de Rynck, I continued with Francoise  Barbe-Gall´s "How to look at a painting" and was immediately rewarded. She has divided her presentation into six chapters with headlines such as "Contemplating the Sublime" and "Getting over the shock of our first impression" and she shows six paintings per chapter. Every painting gets six to eight pages and she writes more, she is more of a narrator, she is like a guide gently talking to her audience so that they can begin to understand such oddities Bacon´s Study of George Dyer in a Mirror or Kandinsky´s With the Black Arch. But she also has a few of the old masters here, like Grünewald´s The Crucifixion (as you can see in the pictures). And some paintings that everybody knows, like that girl with the pearl earring by Vermeer and some water lilies by Monet. Fine by me, but these images feel a bit over-commercialized. A shame, really.

Barbe-Gall engages the reader´s entire brain, she wants you to feel as well as see. I suppose that is why she chooses the word "look" instead of "read" in the book title. And her selection is wider, she prepares you for any kind of art experience, while de Rynck has a very narrow selection and well, he risks loosing the reader at an early stage, simply because he does not have a very personal voice. He just staples facts upon facts. By this I´m not saying I´m sorry to have de Rynck´s book, but I think it will serve more as a kind of dictionary, rather than a book that I go to for inspiration. However, I can be wrong. First impressions aren´t always right and a few years on I might find that de Rynck is a winner in the long run.

If you want an excellent introduction to all kinds of art (and why shouldn´t you?), I would heartily recommend Barbe-Gall. If I may briefly take a stand on the soap box I would like to say that art should be a concern for anyone who aspires to be a Mensch.