Who we think we are

It may look like I´m consciously searching for books that has something to do with diaries. This is not so. But they are queing up, it seems. I have just finished Jan Henrik Swahn´s "Mitt liv som roman" (= my life as a novel) and you may think, as some critics seem to, that here is another memoir with the word "novel" stamped on it to avoid lawsuits from friends and family. However, I can´t really detect any gossip. Colleagues are generally mentioned by first name, and sure, if you are really familiar with the Swedish literary "scene" in the late 80´s, then maybe, but I´m not. No, this is focused on the writer. Most, well, ALL others are little more than shadows in the background.

My first reflection is that this is a very funny book. Swahn reminds me, somehow, of Claes Hylinger. There is something very passive about the lead character (supposedly the author himself) and his passivity puts him in a string of situations where he becomes highly dependent on the kindness of strangers. Seemingly, nothing in his life happens as a result of ambition on his part. Except for the writing, of course. Or, well, hardly even that.

The premise is that the author (now in his early 50´s) has lost his diary, and he is now trying to recapture what memories he still has of his life. It´s an excavation into the memorybanks, not primarily to tell the story of his life, but to see what memories are there, which ones are not there any more, and he is trying to understand why. On the back cover it says that in reality, losing the diary was the ficticious part of the story, but once the book was finished, the police called him and told him all his diaries had been lost in a fire. And while I can well imagine that a lot in this book is not any more true than that fictitious loss, what I do believe is that Swahn is a diarist. He thinks like a diarist, is occupied with the obsessions of a diarist.

He is persuasive, he wants the reader to believe that he is honest (though perhaps not always truthful). When the going gets tough for him and he is saved by a series of outrageously unlikely circumstances, he turns to his audience and says "do you really think I could have made this up? do you really think I would have expected you to believe this? but seriously, this is how life is, this is just how fantastic it can be sometimes". And we believe him. It might be reverse psychology, though. Whatever. It´s a good story.

And he reflects on how the story of one´s life can change in an instant. After a very bad year in Copenhagen, when he has frozen and starved after having been thrown out by his girlfriend, he escapes to a free month in a friend´s house in Provence, with hardly any money in his pocket. He lives hand-to-mouth and manages to get a story on paper. When the publisher hands him the contract he signs it and instantly, his "life of extreme destitution" has turned into "the year when he wrote his second novel". And his hardships become amusing anecdotes from the artist´s life instead of worrying signs of failed ambitions and a life going terribly wrong.

This is not a novel about a life. This is a novel about the idea of storytelling. And not primarily the elevated technicalities of the novelist´s writing or poet´s creations, but the storytelling that we all do when we interact with other people. We all have different versions of our life´s story, depending on our audience, and our stories change over time. The versions we rarely use, we forget. I bet we all have stories we´d happily entertain our friends with over a pint, but wouldn´t mention to dad or mum. It´s all about who we want to be, how we percieve our identity. Who are we? Swahn asks the question all throughout the book, who is he? He, and all his family, have black hair. (They are constantly pulled aside in customs.) Where did they come from? No one really knows, but there are several stories that run in different branches of the family tree. The point is, I think, that that is what matters. Not the truth, but the story.

And why do people become diarist anyway? Is it because they want to keep the memories with them or because they want to be able to let them go? Perhaps it´s a bit of both. It´s like a back up, like an external disc that´s there in case you want to look something up. And why are so many diarists fantasizing about loosing their diaries? Why does the loss of it make them free? Because too much memory weighs us down, restricts our creativity to re-shape our identities. But only if we believe in the fiction, only if we actually believe that what happened to us was the god-honest truth. If we think of our diary as a work of fiction from start to finish, then perhaps it will give us only pleasure. Then perhaps we can flip the pages and say "look, this is who I once thought I was".

"Mitt liv som roman" is the story of Jan Henrik Swahn´s life as he wants to believe that is was. He is now a middle aged author, and it suits him to mythologize that he once was that starving young boy, sad, but brilliant. All autobiographies are a certain kind of fiction, of course, but Swahn is honest about it, and that is what elevates his book from biography to novel. He does not believe his fiction, not entirely anyway.

If I were teaching creative writing, this is the book I would choose for my students. I can just imagine the discussions!

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