A Layercake of Fiction

The other day I started seeing a film called "Sleuth" with Michael Caine and Jude Law. I thought the premise (two men meet in the older man´s grand home, and it´s about a woman, of course) reminded me a lot of a novel I read years ago, when we were in Budapest, "Embers" by Sándor Márai. And, in one of the first minutes, the older man asks the younger if his name is Hungarian, by any chance. No, says the younger man, it´s not. Really? says the older, I could have sworn it was Hungarian. Or something like that. I think they mentioned Hungarian three times, so one would not miss it. A wink to Mr Márai, I imagine, or anyone who is aquainted with him, more like. It made me feel very clever. I didn´t watch "Sleuth" to the end. Where Márai´s novel was subtle, spooky and understated, this film was violent and kind of screamy. I didn´t much care for it.

I have heard somewhere that there really are only about seven ideas for stories, and the rest are variations on them. I can well believe it. I think most novels are written by someone thinking "I can tell that story better" or "I know something more about this". In that sense I think literature is a slow conversation between writers, who are, in essence, readers who wish to respond.

I´m not sure why this leads up to the latest of my reads. I was recommended Håkan Nesser´s "Himmel över London" (= sky over London). He is not someone I would read, as I have not liked his crime novels about van Veeteren (these are translated to English) much. Or at all. However, I started it, and really, I find the story fascinating.

The sky over London.
 Nesser invents an author who is a bit like himself, an author who is beginning to believe that his creation exists in reality, that the people he has invented are real people. He convinces himself this is true. It takes a while to understand which parts of the novel are "real" (relatively speaking) and which ones are the novel (within the novel). And when that is clear, Nesser pokes another hole in his fiction/reality construct and pushes his author into another layer of fiction, under a new layer of (fictional) reality. It´s like a play with mirror images in mirror images.

It reminded me of a funny film I saw, "Stranger than fiction" where Emma Thompson plays a depressed writer trying to find a good way to kill her main character. He finds out what she is doing and tries to stop her. What is real? What is not? I think most serious readers would find this interesting.

I also can´t help thinking what another writer than Nesser could have done with this idea. I know it´s unfair to compare every novelist to Tunström, Coetzee or Kundera, but I can´t help myself. There is something about the way Nesser writes that makes me feel that he is too much in a hurry, that he does not take the time to really, really write well. Not as well as he should, with his experience, anyway. But perhaps it´s just a matter of taste. Bottom line: I heartily recommend it.


Memories & Memoirs

I proudly present a new author: Anna Bergh. My mother-in-law. This is her long awaited, by the nearest and dearest anyway, memoir, that she has been working on since the late 90´s. She calls it "Som jag minns det" (= as I remember it). It´s all about the way she grew up in the middle of Swedish Lapland in the 20´s and 30´s, how she started a family and moved south in the 40´s, came to Luleå in the 60´s and all about what she has done, people she has known, things that have stuck in her mind for different reasons.

Anna has lived a very long life, at 92 she is still in possession of all her wits (more than enough of it!) even though her strength isn´t what it once was. She has makular degeneration, and because of her inability to write, she has used a tape recorder and I have transcribed all her texts (being an old secretary and rather fast at the keyboard, it has not been too hard work). After ten years of turning out one story after another, we finally sat down and read through it all and did some editing. And it´s a real book, all right. Almost 300 pages of it. There are also some great pictures, since her much older brother owned a camera and he took photos not only of his family standing in front of the house in their Sunday best, but there are images of horses plowing fields, snow shoveling, picking berries in the forrest, Anna´s father making a boat, and things like that.

The family harvesting turnips, circa 1932.

I really like the idea of making sure the stories survive for the next generations. She has 11 great-grandchildren (so far) that will never truly get to know her, and this way they can still get a sense of who she is and where the family comes from. The thing about using tape recorders is that the voice of the writer really stays intact, the text really comes alive. And she has, in a way, lived the life of two generations of women. First, she had kids in the 40´s, was (more or less) a stay-at-home-mom, as women were back then. Then she had a new baby in the 60´s (my husband), got an education, burned her bra (no, just kidding), started working as a teacher and was all into politics in the 70´s. She has always been, and is still, interested in what is going on at all levels of society and uses what influence she has, whenever she feels it appropriate. This is really a woman with a voice of her own.

As you can tell, she is a great influence on me, a great inspiration, and we have always got along swimmingly. Not least, being a fully trained seamstress, who once had her own studio, she has influenced whatever style I have. She really is the perfect companion on a shopping trip.

I think all retirees with too much time on their hands and memories and reflections of the past, should write something about their lives. It´s not difficult, it doesn´t have to be perfect. And it doesn´t have to be a "real" book either. Just save your text to a pdf-file and anyone can read it on their computer, on their e-book reader or surf pad or smartphone or whatever. It´s the easiest way to publish, a pdf on a blog, I bet you can post it on Facebook or mail it to friends and family. Just do it, it is more valued than you think. And will become more and more of a treasure when you are not there anymore, even though we don´t like to think too much about that, no no.

A Reading & Writing Adventure

Before Christmas I saw a television programme about Marguerite Yourcenar, and I thought, wow! must read something by her. I got her most famous novel, "Memoirs of Hadrian" and I got through the first chapter. I will not blame the anachronisms, but I did get a little bit hung up on them. Mostly, it was intelligent, dense, deep, and... boring. Not my thing. It´s all me, I´m sure.

Instead, I picked this one up, and I can´t think what I was thinking at the library, can´t remember even grabbing it. I imagine it was the title. It´s "Hallucinating Foucault" by Patricia Duncker. I remember Foucault from school, I read a couple of his and enjoyed them much, he was more accessible I think than a lot of other philosophers. Or should I call him a social scientist? Wikipedia seems to do both.

Anyway, the novel is about a 22-year old guy who is in Cambridge working on a thesis about a novelist called Paul Michel (which happen to be Foucault´s first names), a writer who was very inspired by Foucault. The young protagonist starts a relationship with a slightly dominant Germanist (working on Schiller), who pushes him to go in search of Paul Michel, who has been locked up in an asylum since Foucault´s death in 1984. He is reluctant at first, he says he is more interested in the work than in the man, but he soon becomes obsessed with Michel. Or absorbed by him, perhaps. If I say anything more about the plot I will give too much away.

It´s a horror story, of sorts. There is a riddle in here, and not what you think. It´s also one of those coming of age stories, almost like an old-fashioned fairy tale about a young boy being sent on a mission by a fair princess, you know. And Michel is both the dragon of the dungeon and the maiden in the tower. And the Germanist is both princess and sage. There are plenty of meta in this book, and I bet most of it is over my head, but I get enough to feel a bit clever. And at heart, it´s a book about reading and writing, readers and writers, and how the two are related. I think it´s a book that would be perfect for a discussion group. Plenty of enigmatic metaphors and analogies, if you wish.

I loved this book, I have to say. She has had one more novel translated to Swedish and I think I must read it. Soon. Excellent.


Master Art Collector

One of the books in my Christmas pile was this one. It´s "Från kart till fallfrukt" (= from unripe to windfalls), a memoir from the Swedish art collector, curator, art professor, art critic, jazz musician, member of the Swedish Academy, etc, Ulf Linde.

I got to know a little about him in a documentary made by Swedish television a few years back and I hoped I had saved the programme, but apparently I had not. Too bad, because I really wanted to see it again after reading this book.

It´s a very unpretentious little thing, he tells it as he remembers it, and in a short afterword he confesses that some things he remembers wrong. (Or perhaps it´s the others who remembers wrong, who knows.) However, he hasn´t changed the texts, because, still, it is as he remembers it. Just like Leif GW Persson, whose memoir I read before Christmas. Linde hasn´t actually written this book, he has recorded it on tape and had it transcribed by a secretary and corrected by his wife. Linde is going on 83 and is bound to a wheelchair. I suppose that his strength is not what it once was.

I suppose that unless you know something about the Swedish cultural scene during the 20th Century, you might not find this very interesting. It´s the gossip that´s fun. Linde gives some flesh to the bones of those long gone artists and bohemians and legendary personalities. And, no one can talk about art like Linde. I think I might have to read some of his old essays.


Meanderings of a Mind

So, I have finished WG Sebald´s "The Rings of Saturn". Gosh, what to say about it? Hm. It´s not really what it seems. It seems to be about a walk through parts of Norfolk, but it´s really not. It´s more about what Sebald was thinking about as he was walking. Sometimes he thinks about other walks he has made and what he was thinking while making them. He really walks in his head, mostly.

Some of the stuff he thinks about: Thomas Browne´s skull (he was a doctor in Norwich 400 years ago), the bombing of German cities, gardens, the lifestyles of kings, the fishing of herring, human demographics, sea battles, war camps, Joseph Conrad´s life, slavery, colonialism, the hunger for power, English excentrics, love, silk worms. And more. It all seems to have nothing to do with anything, but after a while you see that all these things are connected in a number of ways. And isn´t that often how our minds work: we move from one interesting thing to another, but because we make the choices, there will eventually be a red thread there somewhere. I think our questions lead us fairly clearly and surely in the directions we need to go, it might just not always be obvious to us at the time. It is usually easier to see in hindsight.

I suppose that is part of Sebald´s mission, to explore the ways of the mind. Of memory. I have, of course, read some of the reviews and writings about Sebald on the net, and my impression is pretty much everyone´s. I think Sebald might be one for the re-reading-list, I find it a book to rest in, to lounge in, while thinking about thinking. And about writing. What is a story? What is an essay? What is genre? Words and pictures? Does it matter? Shall one discipline one´s thoughts to fit the mould, one of the moulds, or should one just make a mould out of the shape of one´s thoughts?

Sebald is attracted to excentrics. People who, seemingly, have the freedom to choose a life suited to them, who shapes their circumstances to fit them. I imagine that was his dream. He was a German who could not come to term with what had happened in Germany during the war. He made a new life for himself in England, but he struggled, of course, and the books he wrote was part of that. Perhaps that was his ideal: to be able to shape a life that fit him, like he shaped his books.

WG Sebald died young, only 57. He had a heart attack while driving and died in the crash. Luckily, his daughter, who was with him, survived. In one of his last interviews, he showed the journalist Maya Jaggi (for the Guardian), a photograph:
he showed me a sepia photograph of a young boy from his mother's Bavarian clan, who was destined to return mentally disturbed from the first world war. "This is before he knew," Sebald marvelled at the innocent countenance. "I find that frightful - the incapacity to know what's round the corner.

Practical Psychology

Those days between Christmas and New Year´s, when I was too tired in my head to read Sebald, I bought some scary women´s magazines, something I rarely do nowadays. I really enjoy fashion, even though I´m not a fashionable person, just like I enjoy art. I just have to take care not to actually read them, as this can cause unnecessary stress. (No, anonymous fashion journalist, Pandora´s box was not a chest full of wonderful bling! Idiot...)

There was also a magazine called Må Bra (= Feel Good), that I buy even more rarely, but I picked it up because enclosed with it was a book called "Lycka nu - en praktisk guide i mindfulness" (= happiness now - a practical guide to mindfulness) by Titti Holmer, and one of my projects for this year (not a resolution, mind you) is to be more mindful. I suppose that´s she on the cover.

Already on the first page I began to argue with her about the definition of happiness. I was tempted to throw it away, but then I thought she was probably right and I wrong, she is after all a practicing psychologist (and sooo pretty) and I´m, well, not. And she has quite a few good points. She writes well. She is very much focusing on what to do, how to make it work. 

I came away from Holmer with a few tips I´m going to try. And from the magazine, a tempting recipe for salmon rolls with avocado (I intend to eat more fish, but that´s not a resolution either). I think I got value for my money.


Creative in the kitchen

I´m totally anti-resolution this new year. However, as I´m always trying to better myself and get rid of those three kilos that keep coming back be more healthy, I have read Mats-Eric Nilsson´s "Smakernas återkomst" (= the return to taste), a kind of inspirational cooking book.

Nilsson is a journalist and his mission is to inform the public about all the crap that´s being added to our food, particularly the ready-made stuff that we buy. And he has inspired changes, both to our own household, as I have been baking all our own bread since I read one of his books two years ago, and in the industry, from which one could not buy a decent meatball a few years ago. This year, for Christmas Eve, the holy day devoted to (as we all know) worshipping the meatball and pickled herring, we actually ate Dafgård´s "Farfars köttbullar" (= grandpa´s meatballs) and dare I say it, it tasted just like home-made. Almost. Near enough.

Nilsson thinks we should ditch the customary tomato, that honestly tastes like crap even in season these days, and learn to appreciate the vegetables that are easy to store and transport, or that grow in our neighbourhoods in season, like black salsify, parsnip, Jerusalem artichoke, fennel, plums (when I last ate one I honestly can´t remember), gooseberry, and dandelion (yes! I know! for free, everywhere!). Nilsson is, I think, very inspired by the Italian kitchen, everything seems to be best just slightly cooked and then taken to a quick session in the frying pan with olive oil and garlic, and lemon, salt, and pepper. I´m not arguing with that.

I had some baby spinach left from Christmas that was starting to sag (I normally use it for sallads), and inspired by Nilsson I made a real quick stew with sour cream and freshly ground pepper and it was heavenly. I also scoured the shelf with spices and found two sad old vanilla pods. Hard as rusty nails. I put a pint of vodka over them in a preserving jar and now the sweetest smell is coming from that jar. I intend to add some syrup later and make it into a liqueur for spicing up old sponge cake for desserts. Not that Nilsson literally suggests doing this, it was just what I became inspired to do, instead of throwing it away. I like being thrifty, I feel totally bettered as a person by it, and wasn´t that where I started with this post?

And isn´t the cover of this book just lovely? What can be more beautiful than red cabbage? Seriously?