On the art of friendship

What happened to my project of reading the classics coached by Harold Bloom? New books, that´s what, and suggestions that come my way like pixies luring wanderers into watery swamps (this image comes from something I´m reading now, see next post). Being a great believer in synchronicity, I am easily led astray.

I have just finished a superhot-from-the-presses compilation of Olof Lagercrantz´s diary, "Vid sidan av" (= on the side), a gossip-fest for anyone interested in Swedish literature. All the greats from the 20th Century are here: Karin Boye, Lars Forsell, Eyvind Johnson, Pär Lagerkvist, Artur Lundkvist, and more. Lagercrantz was perhaps the most influential literary critic and a powerful editor at Dagens Nyheter, the biggest morning paper in Sweden, during the mid-decades. I have read him before, a fine little book called "Om konsten att läsa och skriva" (= on the art of reading and writing), that I often re-read.

Reading Lagercrantz diary, with personal portraits of his friends, who were also the people who´s work it was his job to criticize, you get the image of a very small community of people, feeding on each other. It was, of course. Sweden is a small country and was even smaller in the 50´s and 60´s. They seem as normal as any circle of friends, sometimes they agree on everything, sometimes they irritate the hell out of each other, there is even a knife drawn at one point. Sometimes he seems closest to the ones that are the most difficult to be with and for sure, Lagercrantz didn´t have it easy (and no doubt he could be difficult, too). The longest chapter is about Erik Lindegren and it must have been a very passionate and complicated friendship. The way Lagercrantz is always noting Lindegren´s beauty, the shape of his body, his eyes, the way he is with him every day for long periods, particularly at the end (Lindegren died only 58 years old, from hard living I imagine), kissing his hand - it is very moving and it seems like there´s an attraction that goes a bit beyond the regular "bromance". I had to google Lindegren, to see what he looked like, and indeed, he seems to have been a very attractive guy.

The book makes me curious about other things by Lagercrantz, he wrote a few books about authors like Nelly Sachs, Proust and Ekelöf, and he was a poet, too. But what I really take with me is the afterword by his son Richard Lagercrantz, who describes himself as the family´s archivist. He also used to be, like his father, a keen diarist. Three years ago his house burned to the ground, and the archive with it. Luckily, Olof Lagercrantz´s diary had already been digitalized, but his own was completely lost. As a diarist myself, I find the thought of loosing all my notes a bit worrying, but he writes (in my own translation):

Olof´s journaling was a way of living. It´s funny that it became that for me, too. I have written all my life. Not that I have been bad at living, but the diary has been there as an anchor. Now that I have no notes left I have not only lost my urge to write. I also feel strangely freed, almost cleansed. It´s like the wind no longer blows at me - but right through me.

I don´t know how many times I have tried to stop writing, for different reasons. A few days later I´m always at it again. I´m not sure why. Anchor? I don´t know, I think it has more to do with setting boundries between myself and the world, by making my thoughts solid, by turning them into words. It´s a sort of book keeping: this is mine, this is yours, this is his and hers and this is what I can do and what I can´t. I am, I think, writing myself out of being responsible for everything. I imagine most diarists have similar reasons.


A god-awful weekend

It´s a rare thing to find a truly original novel, but this one is, I think. Janet Frame´s "Towards Another Summer" was published posthumously in 2007, three years after her death. The only thing I knew about her was that she was from New Zeeland, that she was nearly lobotomized in her youth, and that she was rumoured for the Nobel Prize about ten years ago.

This novel is set in the late 50´s, early 60´s. Thirty-something author Grace Cleave lives and works in London and accepts an invitation to spend a weekend with a writer colleague and his family. It becomes a rather painful experience, as she has recently spent a few weeks in a psychiatric hospital and is almost completely unable to connect with others. The narrative goes back and forth between her struggles to decipher the social codes and find normal things to say, and flashbacks into memories of her childhood in New Zeeland. She feels the expectation from her hosts to deliver interesting conversation, being the clever and gifted author that she is, and while she indeed has a lot of interesting, fascinating thoughts, they are also rather disturbing. She has enough self-control to know that if she actually says what she thinks, they will think her completely mad.

She thinks she is a bird, for exemple. A migrating bird. Not a human at all. She seriously thinks this. She also sometimes mistakes her hosts for her parents and when she hears a phrase, a tone of voice, she expects a whole chain of events that never comes. In her mind, one person merges with another and the past and the present connects. There are a lot of hints to trauma from her childhood, I get the sense that she has fled New Zeeland, that she is in England to find solitude more than anything. And she thinks a lot about words. This may sound very serious and tragic, but there is actually plenty of humour in it.

According to the back cover this book was written in 1963, but Frame considered it so private that she decided to have it published after her death. And a quick google confirms that the story is autobiographical. There seem to have been a bit of speculation about what was really wrong with her. She was diagnosed with schizophrenia when she was young, but this was later dismissed. Someone has speculated that she had some form of autism, but I don´t know - it seems to me that she might just have been introvert, sensitive and traumatized. Or what about this, I read the article only yesterday. There are similarities to what Grace experiences in the novel.

The story is all about how she experiences this weekend, what goes on inside her. If her hosts had written an account of it, she may have come across as both interesting and as normal as one would expect from an author-genius. I think a lot of readers, like myself, can identify with feeling alien some of the time, in some company. Not that I think anyone notices, as long as one doesn´t start to crow like a bird or something. Even Grace Cleave manages not to crow. And when she eventually escapes, a day sooner than arranged, I am relieved for her.

This is a definite re-read. I may even have to buy this one.


Unexpectedly, I hear music

A week ago I went with a friend to see Eva Dahlgren´s one-woman-show, "Ingen är som jag" ("No one is like me"). It´s not something I would have thought of doing myself, Eva Dahlgren´s (one of Sweden´s most loved singer-songwriters) music has never really touched me. Her voice makes my mind drift. But this was a monologue, this time she had something to say, and I was curious. And I was looking forward to seeing my friend.

The show was not bad. Most of the audience were women my own age, forty-plus, and after the show, as we were waiting for our coats, I heard a lot of them saying it was "nice". A nice show. The review in the paper the next day quoted one woman as saying "she laughed until she cried", and no doubt she did, but no one I heard or talked to did. The all smiled, however. It was a really nice evening. It´s hard to dislike Eva Dahlgren. She is beautiful but not annoyingly so. She is not trying to be cleverer than her audience. She is not making a big display out of being a lesbian and married to the most celebrated jewellery designer (former fashion model, former singer) in the country. She makes a cute dance on stage dressed in a tutu, and it does not make her look ridiculous. What she says makes sense and we like her for it, even though we have all thought it ourselves. "That´s right", we think. "That´s just how it is." Even for Eva Dahlgren.

When I got home I googled her and found out she has written a book called "Hur man närmar sig ett träd" ("How to approach a tree"). The tree is a metafor for the creative process and this book is a diary, from 2003 to 2005, two years when she was working on a new album and on her monologue, the one she is touring with now. I read it pretty much back to back, stopping only to eat, sleep and work. Again, the word "nice" comes to mind. And dare I say it, it´s a bit like reading my own diaries. A lot of complaining about things not getting done, about things turning out wrong, or turning out right but not the way one planned, about people being annoying, about pains and aches, about being tired and hungry and feeling fat. As much as I wish that Dahlgren (or any other woman) would never ever feel fat, I still am greatly comforted by it.

And, as I get near the end, the album is recorded, she is planning a few concerts, a tour, I get this urge to listen to all these songs that I have read all about, that I have almost taken part in the creation of. And thanks to Spotify, I can. And unexpectedly, the songs on the album "Snö" ("Snow") open up to me and I realize Eva Dahlgren´s genius. I am swept away by her voice and the lyrics and I have to put the book away even though there are just a few pages left and I repeat some of the songs, dim the lights, take off my glasses and just listen. I haven´t listened to music like that in a long time.


Death and art

This is an odd little book. The painter/photographer/writer Édouard Levé has written a text titled "Autoportrait" in the original French version. ("Självporträtt" in Swedish, I can´t find an English version for sale at amazon, at least.) It´s not a story, but a series of statements, facts that you wouldn´t really share with anyone, that would rarely come up in conversation. If they are true or not is hard to say, but I suppose one should assume that they are. I can´t really quote, but if I had written a similar text myself, it would have read something like this:

I wash my hair once a week. When I was thirteen, I saw The Empire Strikes Back twice, then thought obsessively about it for a period of twenty-five years, after which I never thought about it again. I prefer the way my feet look in striped socks. I love Maryland Cookies. I sleep for six hours every night. I read for at least two hours every day. I walk for excercise. I never have a bad hair day. I never wear bracelets. The thought of meeting people I admire make me feel uncomfortable. I eat mackerel directly from the tin at least twice a week. I don´t use toothpaste. The thought of selling things make me feel embarrassed. 

Imagine going on like that for 101 pages! What strikes me about it is something to do with story. Rather, there is a lack of story here and Levé states a few times that he is no story-teller, that his mind is like one of those disco balls, like a mosaic of mirrors. At the same time, there is a story there, after all. But it´s a hidden story, and I feel compelled to look at Levés entire work and life for clues.

Levé started out as an abstract painter. After a few years he turned to photography, with a special interest in the iconography of porn and celebrity. In 2002 he wrote his first book, where he lists over 500 project ideas that he never realized. His last book came in 2007, titled "Suicide". Only days after it was finished he killed himself. He writes about his earlier suicide attempts in "Autoportrait" and his friend´s suicide. Was suicide part of the plan, part of his artistic vision?

I think the human ability to tell stories has evolved as a kind of anti-dote to intelligence. Intelligence leads to self-consciousness. Self-consciousness is unbearable without meaning. And meaning is created through story-telling. Levé says in his "Autoportrait" that he can do without everything except photography and literature. Is he looking for, or trying to create, a story for himself?

Levé, being dead already, will always be a mystery. He has left no other clues to his death than his art. Or is his death a clue to his art? Kristoffer Leandoer, the translator, writes in his afterword that this is a frightening book. I´m not sure I would put it like that. There is something not entirely healthy about it, perhaps, but I don´t find death in itself frightening, even under these circumstances. I just wonder if it´s worth killing oneself for the sake of art, if that´s what he did. But perhaps that was the story of his life, the story that gave it meaning? I´m not sure if that´s a comforting thought, or not.


Magical writing

I have just finished, sort of (I didn´t read them all), a collection of articles by journalist and novelist Joan Didion, a Swedish compilation called "Att lära sig själv att leva" ("Teaching oneself how to live"). The earliest one was written for Vogue in 1961 and the latest for The New York Review of Books in 2005. They concern such different subjects as literature (Ernest Hemingway), self-esteem, violence against women, 9-11 and the Reagans in office. Didion´s most known work in Sweden is "The Year of Magical Thinking" ("Ett år av magiskt tänkande"), a great book about grief that she wrote after being widowed in 2003.

One could assume that articles are perishable, with a sell-by date that would be long since passed at least for stuff written in the 70´s or 80´s. But these articles have a quality about them that make them interesting still. Joan Didion has ear, a talent for hearing, seeing and depicting some fundamental humanity in all her chosen subjects (or subjects assigned to her) that make the texts as interesting and timeless as a short story or novel.

There is one text in here that I read as a key to the others, a text about how she uses her notebooks. She writes that she has an urge to write things down, an urge that she´s had ever since she was five years old and her mother gave her a writing pad, where she could write her thoughts instead of being so whiny. She writes that her notebooks rarely describes how things actually are, but how it feels for her. And I think that´s a quality that is there in all her articles, she expresses a feeling about her subjects that makes her texts so much more informative than they would have been had she just been interested in the facts. She manages to put the spirit of the time into words. She captures atmosphere.

Highly recommended. So why haven´t I read them all? Perhaps I will. What I definately will do, right now, is put one of her novels on my to-read-list.


No sparks

Some writers I have every intention to like, but can´t. Joyce Carol Oates is one of them. I have read a few of her books, "Blonde", of course, "Middle Age: A romance", and long ago, "Solstice". While I didn´t exactly dislike them, there are scenes I still remember quite well about the first ones, their contours seem rather, well, loose in my memory. I also read her essay "On boxing" and perhaps that´s the one I liked best, because I read it twice, although it´s been too long ago for me to remember why just now. Perhaps I should put it on my list of things to re-read.

Now, I have a collection of essays called "The faith of a writer: Life, craft, art" in my hands. I find the process of art interesting, and I will much rather read books about, say, Kafka or Virginia Woolf, than actually reading them. Some artists just interest me more in that sense, as works of art in themselves, in the way they lived and worked. And Stephen King and Elisabeth George has written some excellent books on writing that I learned a lot from. Still, they are not among my favourites of authors.

Oates, however, can´t seem to say anything about her art that interests me. She recalls her childhood, her first influences, like Lewis Carroll and Robert Frost. She goes on to give advice to young authors (she is, after all, a teacher) and I suppose it is fine advice, but I just can´t find anything really interesting. Perhaps she isn´t personal enough. Or perhaps her person just doesn´t grab me. It just doesn´t happen with her. Perhaps it´s just chemistry.

I can only call this a failed read. Oh well. It happens. Move on.


A Puzzle of Mary´s

The last book I read about Mary Russell ended with an engagement. One is curious to know, what kind of husband is Sherlock Holmes? I think Laurie R King was curious too, as she set out to write "A Letter of Mary". I think this novel is engineered towards an exploration of their relationship and the kind of people they have become, two years into their marriage. We find them at their home in Sussex, she working on her academic career and deeply buried in a theological dissertation, he making stinky experiments in his laboratory and being excessively bored.

A fine twist to their relationship´s dynamic is that there is a lot of projection going on, probably from both sides, but of course we only get Mary´s version of it. This started already in the second book, when Holmes first claimed that it was Mary who was thinking about marriage, when it was in fact he who... but in the end, she confessed to having had thoughts about it. Same now. Mary notices that Holmes is bored, after which he immediately expresses a worry that she is being bored. Are they both bored to begin with or are Holmes´ feelings and needs transfered to her and does she take responsibility for them? In every good, close relationship I think that is a kind of tango being danced this way sometimes and that way other times. King writes this dance of Russel and Holmes very well, very entertainingly.

There is, of course, a proper mystery in this novel, a case, as Holmes would say. An old acquaintance, a woman archeologist, comes for a visit and gives to Mary an old papyrus, a letter supposedly written by an apostle of Jesus, Mary of Magdala. A few days later they find out that she is dead and, indeed, murdered. They find two suspects and each go under cover to investigate.

Russell has, at 23, become a woman. She does not dress up as a boy any more, but rather uses her sexuality to lure her pray, a misogynist colonel, and actually quite falls for him in the process. Holmes, on the other hand, is pushing sixty and feels the weight of his years. While he is still as agile and strong as ever, he does not recover as quickly as he used to, and lengthy stake-outs take their toll. His favourite cover, the horse-cab driver, has become obsolete, and in spite of his dislike of cars, he has learned to pose convincingly as a car mechanic and even learned to drive (and park). (Privately however, Russell is still always at the steering-wheel.) More alarmingly, perhaps, he has begun to loose faith in the superiority of the logical and rational mind. 

King manages to create a strong sexual tension and emotional bond between the main characters with means of restraint. A story of Holmes´ hands becomes both a clue to solve the case, and a means to express sexuality. The only thing we find them doing in bed is talk of the case. Like here, when Russell has asked Holmes about his day:
- I have been reading my bible.
- I beg your pardon?
- Sorry, was my arm over your ear?
Very cute, isn´t it?

The famous Inkling meeting place.
We also see glimpses of a social life. Apparently the Holmes´ aren´t always living the quiet life in Sussex, because they are well known at London´s fancier restaurants and among the more intellectually inclined gentry. Russell also has time for a trip to Oxford, where she has a pint and a pie at The Eagle and Child in the company of a new acquaintance, a fellow by name of Tolkien. I am pleased to say that I have done exactly that myself last summer, sans Tolkien, of course.

All in all, a great read. Entertainment with plus value, since King writes so cleverly!


A Good Stew

In my opinion, there are too many cookery books out there. I suspect it´s a bit like porn, for the frustrated. I used to fast regularly, and three days into a fast I would always hit the cookery books, hard. These days I´m rarely tempted to reach for anything fancier than the Swedish standard classic "Vår kokbok" ("Our cookbook"), that´s been around since 1951, in continously updated versions. But this one, "Långkok" ("A dish that requires slow cooking" - according to my dictionary) by Jens Linder from 2007 is a real, inspirational gem.

I find most cookery books have unnecessarily complicated recipies. I like simple dishes. I make a large pot of goulash with knödel at least once a month, and it´s the easiest and fastest thing in the world to make. Ok, it has to cook for three or four hours, but while it´s doing that I can do other things. Like reading this cookery book. And I always think I´ll put some of it in the freezer for later, but I end up eating goulash every day for a whole week. Because I LOVE it. I can´t imagine anything more comforting for the body or the soul.

After having read this one, I am tempted to try cooking larger chunks of meat, like a classic tafelspitz or an English roast beef with Yorkshire pudding. There are more exotic things in this book as well, like Zilzil alecha from Ethiopia or Vindaloo, but that´s not for me. Our neighbourhood restaurant Harnet serves excellent Eritrean slow cooked meals with traditional injera. No point in making at home what I can get better and cheaper from someone else. And I´m not too crazy about Indian food, but if I had been, we have a good Indian restaurant in town as well.

This evening´s dinner
Not all the very artful pictures in the book excite my appetite. I never saw the point in boiling very fatty parts of meat, as boiled fat is just about the most disgusting thing ever. I prefer the leaner bits in my pot. But, to each his own.

And perhaps carrots in goulash is not entirely kosher, but it works for me. If you like old-fashioned cooking this is an excellent book.


Fucking It

I found these two books in my bookshelf yesterday. I bought them about a year ago, only for the titles really, "Fuck It - The Ultimate Spiritual Way" and "The Way Of Fuck It". They are written by Brit John C Parkin and came out in 2007 and 2009.

The first book is both a parody of all those spiritual self-help books that you find 13 to the dozen out there, and a sincere text about how you could think in order to be more happy in your life. Parkin follows the standard form for these books and starts with a testimonial, a story of his own crisis and the search for healing. He then goes on to "essential Fuck It techniques" and "the effects of saying Fuck It". Happiness, of course. Or, no. Because we should really say fuck it to happiness. And just go on with our lives. And be happy. I know, it´s a bit confusing, because the idea is that you should stop wanting what you want, and then you´ll get it. And if you don´t, well, why should you care? It´s a fail-proof philosophy.

In essence, it´s the old Buddhist core: to disengage from everything that you have been taught is important. Modern life is too full of meaning, according to the author. Less meaning, less stress, more happiness.

The second book is inspirational. Inside, it looks like this:

From "The Way of Fuck It" by John C Parkin

Which is good advice. So is this:

From "The Way of Fuck It" by John C Parkin

And that´s what I´m doing, giving these away. I enjoyed them, but for me, it was hardly news. It could be for someone else. And, fuck it, if you want them, write your adress in a comment (I won´t publish it) and I´ll send them to you.

To get on with it

I have had Mavis Gallant´s "From The Fifteenth District" ("Från det femtonde distriktet") on a short loan (14 days) from the library. This is a brand new translation and many are in line to read it, evidently. An attractive book it is, too. The author is pictured on the back cover, very chic indeed.

This collection of short stories were first published in 1978. It says on the cover that it´s one short novel and eight short stories. I have read them in the order of number of pages, the shortest one first, and the three longest ones I just haven´t had time for. These three are all roughly the same length, about fifty pages, and which one is the short novel, I can´t attempt to say without having read them all. I should borrow it again, at a later time, and try to find out.

Anyway, I started with the title story, "From The Fifteenth District". It´s a ghost story, of sorts. Three complaints, from dead people who are being haunted by the living. It´s a bit absurd, but it doesn´t take much of a think to see what she means. I think. A lot of people have a hard time letting go. Not just of people they love. Perhaps it´s hardest to let go of those we didn´t love, or who didn´t love us the way we had expected? Or the people we failed in some way. What I think she wants to say is not that we should let go, Gallant is no preacher, but how hard it can be to let go. And how much energy is used to chase ghosts.

A lot of the stories are about people who get separated, many as a result of the second world war or the cold war and the divide between eastern and western Europe. In exile and with passing time, memories start to change. The defective son writes to his mother for recipes of dishes she never made for him. She shares stories with other mothers of the loving son he never was. And grown children worry about their aging mother being alone over Christmas, not getting the hints that she has taken in an old lover. Much is about misconceptions, about the way we see each other mirrored in ideas of what a mother, a son, a father, or a lover should be.

She also deals with time and the divide between generations. Just reading her stories, most of which are set in the 1950´s, 60´s and 70´s, where old people are in their 40´s (shudder) and 16-year-olds are accountable adults, reminds me that a lot has changed in the way we think of age. In one story she follows Gabriel and his friend Dieter, two Germans making a living after the war in Paris, playing German soldiers and Jews in tv-films. The first years, the actors perform what they have seen and experienced. They age and younger actors come along, and they are performing what their grandparents saw and experienced. Think about how many actual young parents now weren´t even born when the Berlin wall fell! (Which feels like yesterday to me.) Same thing when I was born in 1966, only 21 years after the war ended. Perspectives all change very fast, and most of the time we don´t even notice.

There is a lot of tension in these stories about what people really are and what those who should be closest to them think they are. One point that she makes over and over is how closed off we are. How inaccessible every person is. There is no real affinity anywhere. But she is never sad. Her characters get over themselves and each other and get on with it. Even after the worst has happened. It´s what people do.

I like Gallant. I will read her again. She reminds me a little of Lorrie Moore and Grace Paley, other short story writers that I really enjoy. Do read more short stories. Most of them are long enough to read through in one sitting and they usually are more focused, thematically, than a novel. They can give a lot of food for thought.


Interior design

I am slowly continuing weeding my bookshelves. Today my attention fell upon this one, Lorrie Mack´s "Compact Living" from 1988 (Swedish translation 1993). I bought it about ten years ago, when I had a brief phase of interest in interior decoration, brought on by a renovation of our house. Suddenly we were asked by the landlord what colour wallpaper we preferred and I was momentarily Lost in Space. But there is always a book out there that will broaden one´s views. This one did it for me.

What then happened was, I wrote the wrong number in a form, and ended up with blue wallpaper instead of yellow in three rooms of five, would have been ALL of them if I hadn´t come by to pick up the mail... I have since gotten over it, and painted over some of it, too. I remember filling in that form at the same time as I was drinking tea with my sister, and while I don´t blame her in the least, it´s a good example of my crappy ability to multi-task.

I have kept this book for one reason, one picture that I love to bits.

From Lorrie Mack´s "Compact Living"

This is my dream room. I have always been fond of small flats, having lived in several minimal flats when I was younger. This looks ideal to me. Light, bright, yellow with red accents, paintings, a nice quilt, just the right amount of furniture, and food on the table. Lovely, as they always say on "An Escape to the Country".

And now that I have this picture in my computer, will make it my desktop image, I can say bye bye to the book. I hope it will give someone else a happy evening.