On the Art of Aging

This is Merete Mazzarella´s brand new book, "Det enda som egentligen händer oss - ett år i livet" (= the only thing that really happens to us - a year in a life). I have a weakness for books of this kind, a cross between the diary and the essay, where clever people reflect on their lives. Our lives. My life.

Mazzarella is a retired professor of literature at Helsinki University (I know I have heard her lecture IRL, I just can´t for the life of me remember when and where), and it´s not the first book of this kind she has written. In the book, she chronicles how she travels and talks about another book she recently published about how to become a pensioner. She feels like a professional pensioner, she writes, and this book also deals a lot with aging and how to remain active and hold on to some kind of vitality when one´s body starts to protest about simple tasks like getting out of cars. She fears dementia and so she writes about memory, she fears becoming dependent on other people and so she writes about people who say they like to "work with people", about giving service to others. She writes about the poverty that will face many pensioners in the future.

Mazzarella keeps returning to one thing, only partly revealed, throughout the book, and that is her guilt about leaving her aging husband for a new love. In the process she has also lost her best friend, which clearly hurts just as much. She is trying hard not to justify her actions, nor will she allow herself any display of flagellation or humiliation. No doubt the little she gives away is enough to hurt some feelings of those involved.

She reflects and reads about what others have to say about the nature of the self. Do we have an authentic core or are we just the sum of our relationships and the roles we play? What is identity? What does a carer do when a demented vegetarian wants meat? When the personality disintegrates, should the carers care for the personality, defend it against the body´s urges? Are we our personalities or are we what our bodies make us? A complex weave of neurons, changing, growing or falling apart?

The idea with a book like this is that what happens to Mazzarella, what is important to her, is important to us all. I would say that´s right, and it´s very much a book that is present tense. It should be read now, when it´s fresh and current. Reading her is like listening to a friend who is very clever, not wise perhaps, but vigorous, still very much alive and kicking and growing. If you worry at all about the future, if you are at that age when the grey hairs are starting to bother you, or are making the transition into retirement, I heartily recommend Mazzarella. She is easy to read without being easy (if that makes sense), full of interesting suggestions on how to see things from a different perspective. She often tries several, and does not make her mind up about which one is the right one. And I can´t think of a better way to stay young than to think.

Am thinking. Don´t disturb.


Swedish Championships of Yukigassen (snowball-fighting) and Fireworks 2012 at the Luleå University Campus

It was a clear, starry night. That´s Jupiter, Venus, and the new moon.

The Yukigassen battlefield.

How the audience kept warm. Or they popped into STUK for a pint.

The Vice Chancellor´s speach. The Yukigassen mascot.

Our team getting ready.

No 7 Berg and No 5 Ek, in good form.

No 6 Höglund being taken down just before the enemy seizes the flag.

Consolation prize: four great big fireworks!

Oh, and the winners of Yukigassen were the students of team I&Company. The best fireworks were by the Chalmer´s team from Gothenburg. We actually went home after the second firework display - it was minus 15 degrees Celsius and tea&semla in the sofa was a pretty good way to round things off!


Being in love, in love of Being

I had come almost half way into my last read, "Immortality" by Milan Kundera, when it occurred to me that this really is the book he should have called "The Unbearable Lightness of Being". And guess what, about 50 or so pages later, he says it too (being a character himself in this novel)! The theme is really image. Can we separate our own being from our image, that is the question? Again, he returns to explore the kitsch mensch, calling her Homo Sentimentalis this time. She is the person who lives through her own image, who is constantly on stage with at least one faithful in the audience - herself. And trying to catch the attention of others, striving for that kind of immortality that consists of memory replayed again and again in peoples minds, in some cases with literature as a vehicle.

I always feel, when reading Kundera, that he lives in exactly the same world as I do. I read "The Unbearable Lightness of Being" when I was about twenty, and it was the first novel that I underlined whole paragraphs in and wrote in the margin of. I then gave my copy to a man that meant something to me, but I have a fresh copy on my shelf that I have been meaning to re-read anytime now. Soon. "Slowness" is another of his books that made a big impression on me. I haven´t read them all, I tend to want to save some of the good stuff for later.

As always, I find that the books I´m reading at the moment all have something in common that is somehow connected to what I´m struggling with at the moment. Being would be a good word for it. I´m really trying to get out of the idea that I´m somehow always performing in one way or another, that I´m always part of a narrative. Even when I´m alone. A friend once said that it was as if what happened to her didn´t count unless she had first told all her sisters about it. I know what she meant, for me it was all about writing it in my diary.

The goal is to reach a new level of comfort, I suppose, and get to a place where I can forget myself and just get on with doing. I really want to do more.

I think everyone should read Kundera. He really is a man with a message, someone who has a mission. I think he wants to free us from our own illusions about ourselves, and that must be a good thing. Only he who has nothing to loose is really free, I suppose. He also writes wonderful stories, excellent prose, the reader is never bored. Or at least not this reader. Perhaps I´m wrong, maybe he is not for everyone. I don´t know. I just know I love him. Really love him.

Imagine being an oak tree. How unbearable is that?


Skeletons and Scandals

I have not been reading much lately. If you live in Europe, you know it´s damn cold everywhere, and our barometer is nearly through the roof. The atmospheric pressure has gone from 976 to 1055 (1070 on our meter) this last month and I have been experiencing headaces of a most stubborn sort. It´s like someone is sitting on my sinuses.

However, last night I took a pill and went to bed with Somerset Maugham´s "Cakes and ale: or, the Skeleton in the Cupboard".  I have been recommended to read his "Of human bondage" but never really felt inspired to do so. But when I saw this one, the title intrigued me. It sounds like a farce, one of those where there are lots of running through doors and hiding in cupboards and under beds. And to some extent, it is. It´s a very funny book. Maugham is a sharp satirist when it comes to the quirks of English snobbery and class awareness. And while that is a good enough reason to read any sort of book, it´s far from all that this novel is.

According to Wikipedia (the source of all knowledge, haha) it´s considered to be a roman à clef about Thomas Hardy/Edward Driffield and his first marriage, and Hugh Walpole/Alroy Kear trying to write a biography about him. The narrator of the story, William Ashenden, is clearly Maugham himself. I don´t know enough about either of them to say whether there is anything in it or not. Maugham himself denies it in his introduction, and really, it doesn´t matter. This novel is, not unlike Kerstin Ekman´s latest, a story about literature. On the one hand, what it takes to write a great novel. On the other hand, what it takes to become a great novelist. It´s the introvert versus the extrovert. The content man versus the social climber. The absorbed artist versus the manipulating ass-licker.

It´s also a story about great tragedy, and great love. And about every person being a bit of an island, a mystery even to those closest to them. The narrator sympathises with both Kear and Driffield, and I imagine Maugham could have identified with both. A huge role in this drama is played by Driffield´s first wife, Rosie, also his muse. What is it that inspires an artist to do his best? Rosie doesn´t really do anything, she just is. Totally mindful, to use a modern concept. She is loving and inspires love in others. Even when she behaves badly (according to the moral of the times) she is wonderful. And when Driffield looses her, he has his best work behind him.

And anyway: what kind of cake goes with ale?
I read somewhere that "Cakes and ale" was Maugham´s favourite work. I can see why. There are so many layers to this story, and it´s a bit of a declaration of what he wants his art to be about, what he aspires to. You could say that it´s a writer´s skeletons in the cupboard that becomes his cake and ale. It´s the shady parts of his experience that he can turn into literary gold if he can look at them straight, with an empathic eye, and tell it like he sees it without the opportunistic judgement that may please his critics but makes literature obsolete within a generation.

I love love love this book. It´s complex and serious and funny. Great stuff. I suppose I have to read "Of human bondage" next.