A Reader´s Reward

A friend suggested I read Ellen Mattson´s "Resenärerna" (= the travellers), because she had read it and wanted someone to discuss it with. I was game, since I have liked both the Mattson novels I have read, "Snow" and "Vinterträdet". This one is an earlier work, and a bit more challenging, I think.

It took a good fifty pages to warm up to the text. It´s a bit like a film, very physical, very tactile, every little detail is recorded in very poetic language. You never get more information than what the characters are doing, saying, thinking, and feeling right now. Some scenes are repeated from some other character´s point of view. There is no backstory and the only flashbacks - if you can call them that - are memories that sometimes overcome one of the characters, also depicted in the same very physical way. There are clues to where and when, but the trauma that is breaking down the main characters in such a dramatic way is never revealed. I saw the whole drama unfold as an archetypal Ingmar Bergman-film before my inner eye. Bleak, not a single natural dialogue, no small talk. It´s like everyone is speaking their truest truth at every moment. Heavy, indeed.

The plot, in short, is that two travelling men become guests at a house inhabited by a sister, brother, and foster son, after their carriage has broken. They stay for a summer, and during that time all the characters and their relationships change. It´s a tight, claustrofobic drama. I made, inspired by Laurie R King, a moodboard for the novel on Pinterest. It was hard to find images, though. Not hard to find images from the area, but hard to find ones with the degree of decay that I was looking for.

I spent a lot of time trying to figure out what Mattson was really writing about. There are possibilities: the nature of God, the changing times, the possibility of mercy, the fickleness of love, the struggle for power, the destructiveness of mankind, all those things. But then she lets one of the characters say this: don´t keep looking for the hidden meaning, you will only find something you have composed yourself*. It felt just as if she was saying it to me, telling me to just relax and go on with the story.

Most of the characters are queer to me. There is a woman that should have been a man, a man that should have been a woman, an only son that should have had a career and is instead consumed by self-sacrificing love, and a man of wealth and influence who cares for nothing but his own fleeting happiness. They all seem completely doomed by being so ill fitted to society´s expectations (the time is around 1900), it´s like they carry their destructive destinies within them like time-set explosives. Destiny is one of those concepts that I have a hard time with, but this story helped me make more sense of that. If destiny is about not having a choice, then this novel is about the way a certain personal disposition in a certain cultural setting decides what range of choices a person has. Only one character (the foster son) remains at the end of the story, and Mattson lets him think that it doesn´t matter who you are and where you are from, what means something is who you want to be and choose to be*. A sentiment I heartily agree with, but an idea that would have been impossible for the other characters to grasp.

Another important point is this: we are very likely not aware of exactly when our lives and relationships change. It is so easy to push another person that little bit too far, we don´t notice when it happens, and then it´s too late. One character realizes that ... she had not looked properly at the man trying to beg her forgiveness. She hadn´t understood at the time that it was important*. The foundations of our lives can change irrepairable, while we think of other, trivial things. Small neglects, a look in the wrong direction, and everything has changed. Forever. Some things can not be repaired; after a certain point they can not be recreated or reinvented either.

I´m glad I read this book, I think it fundamentally changed my understanding of certain, important things. And that is what good literature does. I wish I could recommend anyone who wants a literary challenge to read it, but it doesn´t seem to be translated. If you don´t read Swedish and would like a taste of Mattson, "Snow" is not a bad choice either.

*All translations from the Swedish text are by me.


  1. sounds like a fascinating read. it is interesting when i look back and see _when_ things changed. sometimes it was so gradual i didn't notice, but sometimes there was a moment that changed everything that i just didn't see at the time.

    1. Yes, that´s exactly what I though. I bet we all have moments like that, looking back.