Settling Scores

In recent years, there has been quite a number of books on the Swedish literary scene that belong to what one might call the mommy dearest-genre. One poor celebrity economist had both his sons write books, one about his childhood (absent and egocentric father) and the other about his leaving the corporate world (under daddy´s wing?) for a successful career in the American gay porn business. What goes around comes around? Perhaps. What is pretty certain is that some of these (if not all) would not have gotten published if it hadn´t been for the connection to the famous parent.

I have read one of the latests offers, "Om man håller sig i solen" (Eng: If one stays in the sun) by Johanna Ekström, who´s parents are both famous Swedish authors. Her father, Pär Wästberg, even has a chair in the Swedish Academy. She is herself an accomplished, already established poet and artist, and the book has recieved quite a bit of praise for it´s literary qualities. When a friend suggested a joint effort, I jumped in. It was a short read, only about 180 pages.

My first impression was oh my god it´s poetry, which you know I´m rather weary of. However, I got in to it after a while and finished it in two days, partly because it´s much of a collage, and swallowing it almost whole gave me some sense of the whole thing. My second thought was that this book might be like a fragmentation bomb, where every little scene, every paragraph, is aimed at a specific anecdote of her parent´s.

A bombed holy place - a fitting illustration. (Coventry cathedral)
She paints a picture of a family that uses words and staged beauty to conceal truth, if not to lie outright. Where aesthetics is content. Where everything and everyone must be beautiful, because as long as it is beautiful it must also be happy and healthy. But there is an underbelly to this glossy, pretty animal, exhibited in celebrity magazines and exploited in literary projects. Exposing that underlying ugliness is betrayal. And of course the child protests, first through anorexia. When that is ignored (yes, really), she starts to drink and be sexually adventurous and destructive. Her mother can´t even say drunk and instead asks her if she was kind yesterday, perhaps a bit too kind? There is a paragraph in the book where Ekström states that she is so enraged writing this, but her words cannot express that anger. And they can´t. It´s like she is impotent.

Bottom line: as long as the language is beautiful, as long as it is celebrated, it is untouchable, whatever the content. And the point is hammered down in the publication and the context of the media and her father´s reaction to the book. He is, simultaneously, publishing a string of memoirs, and of course it´s interesting to see what the critics think of it. He is portayed in the book as being a rather nice, but shallow and aloof person, someone completely oblivious to the pain of those nearest to him. So, what does he say? He is hurt, but not by his daughter (or so he claims) but by some critics, who have called him what Ekström does not directly want (or is able) to say. He can´t, however, be too indignant, as he himself has written about this period and even published the letters from Ekström´s mother (who has been silenced by a stroke many years ago).

It´s a good book, with literary qualities, but it would still not be relevant without the connection to those famous parents. The subject of the book is fame, in a way. And I´m sure it wouldn´t have made such an impression on me if I hadn´t also had access to some of her father´s work and this whole situation in the press. In a television interview earlier this week, Ekström comes across as an ice princess, very controlled, very measured, like she is wearing a carapace of beautiful words - and she is beautiful herself, too, she has that clean, severe kind of beauty that is almost nun-like.

There are so many layers and aspects of this reading experience that transcends the reading itself (I could write about it endlessly), and I think this is both a strength and a problem with this genre. It´s exclusive - I certainly could never write a book like that! - and it´s very much stuck in it´s own time, very much dependent on the context of publication, an appendix to someone elses work. Though in this case, it will probably find itself into Swedish literary history, unignorable by scholars writing about either of the famous parents. At the same time, she has written them into her own official story as well. She has eternalized herself as a child, built a monument of her private pain. I bet that´s a double-edged sword for someone who is trying to make her own way in art. I hope she does not regret it.

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