Tuesday, 12 July 2011

The dark waters of Kerstin Ekman's Blackwater

Hello all!

Only three weeks too late, I thought I'd note down a few of the main points discussed at our last meeting, on 21st June 2011. We'd been reading Blackwater, by Kerstin Ekman. A dark, complex tale of death, and intricate deceit in Northern Sweden (well, central Sweden, technically, but once you get above Uppsala it's all 'northern'...)

The readers' reactions to the book were varied: some loved it, some were skeptical. All were struck by its bleakness, and Ekman's portrayal of nature's power, in an area of the world where the inhabitants are truly in sway to it.

In summary, the book revolves around teacher and mother, Annie Raft, and the eponymous (in the Swedish title) "Events by water". The novel is retrospectively set in the 70s, and focuses on events surrounding, and following a double murder by the Blackwater lake in Jämtland, Northern(-ish) Sweden. The many central characters in the book (a part Sami boy, Johan; the region's only doctor, Birger; the members of a goat-farming mountainside commune; and Annie's daughter, Mia) weave a web of intrigue that is only unravelled very late in the novel, long after the community itself has dissolved.

The victims of the murder are two tourists, visiting Northern Sweden to explore its forested wilderness, captured by the strange beauty of cold lakes and high mountains. They are discovered by Annie Raft, herself new to the region, as she and her young daughter Mia scrabble through the forest in the twilight of Midsummer's Eve, searching for the commune where they are to start anew away from the turmoil of their lives in Southern Sweden.

But the physical darkness of the forest, and the metaphorical darkness of those living in its shadow quickly take their toll. Miscommunication, or perhaps, rather, the total lack of communication, become increasingly central, as the murder case remains unsolved. Johan is whisked away to the residence of a mysterious cult in Norway, Birger's relationship with his wife crumbles, the commune gradually disperse from their perch on Star Mountain's frozen slopes, and Annie realises her beautiful lover is not all he seems.

Ekman tensely describes the claustrophobia of the forest, intertwining the names of flowers and birds unfamiliar to an English reader among the branches of birch trees and the babblings of crystal clear brooks. She renders the imposing progress of the forest clearing machines, changing the landscape, and its inhabitants' lives for ever, with far-reaching consequences for community and ecosystem.

This is a powerful book, one that deals with humans' impact on the environment, on themselves, and on each other. For me, and a number of the readers, the overall effect was one of estrangement. Most people said they found it difficult to relate to a single one of the characters. Indeed, this seems to be Ekman's intention, only adding to the importance of the overpowering presence of nature, surrounding and shutting off each character, until not even the reader can reach them.

Feel free to add any comments below, especially if you think I've missed out something we discussed, or if anything ese has occured to you since we met!

Wednesday, 18 May 2011

Emma Gittens on Hash (no pun intended)

Emma sent me her response to Hash. Read it below (it's detailed and very insightful):

I found Hash an enjoyable if at times disorienting read. As I am a reader who likes, if not a perfectly linear narrative, for all the threads to be neatly tied up at the end I found myself a few times reading back on myself, for example so as not to confuse the 'real' and 'fictitious' Avaback and Avaberg in the perhaps vain hope that being aware of the difference would help my understanding of the narrative.

I don't know how the carnivores found it but as a vegetarian it took a huge leap of imagination to imagine the assorted hashes as delicious (even given their historical / cultural context), especially as the recipes seemed to become more gruesome as the story progressed! But then some folks love eating nose-to-tail... I'm intrigued as to whether any members of the group were tempted to seek out or make their own hash? Maybe there's a new TV show for Heston Blumenthal in there somewhere...

The female characters I felt were rather underwritten, shown mostly cooking for, conversing with or caring for the male characters, without much in the way of backstory, inner thoughts or character development. Their worth seemed to be defined by their ability to cook, as shown by the evocative scene in which Eva laboriously spends a whole day preparing capercaillie in a vain attempt to distract Lars from his hash mission, which she rightly fears will take him away from her. She is jealous when he goes to sample Rachel's hash and resigned to defeat when he states his intention to try Ellen's hash, as if eating another woman's, ahem, meat were a somewhat crude metaphor for infidelity. I also noticed that whilst much is made of Ellen's grotesque appearance (illustrating the intoxicating power of her hash when Lars falls for her after one taste) nothing is mentioned of Eva's. Lars and Bertil are said to be young, Robert is middle-aged with a 'somewhat spongy body' but (unless I missed a crucial line in the text) Eva's physical appearance, and even her age, remains a mystery (were she the same age as her husband - if indeed the narrator and Manfred were one and the same - was at the beginning of the book she would be in her 50's). I would be interested to know how other people imagined her; in my head I made her young and attractive but that's probably because that's how love-interest characters are conventionally presented. In their first meeting Lars describes her hash as 'excellent', proclaiming to have 'never enjoyed anything so much in my life'. Is this a factor in their subsequent relationship and a comment on the women's desirability being closely related to the quality of the hash they cook?

It seemed like each of the relationships provided the characters with something they needed: Eva gave Lars and Robert sustenance in the form of shelter and delicious local food, Lars and Robert gave each other friendship based on their shared interests and outsiders' fascination with hash, Lars gave Eva the physical intimacy she had been missing since the hospitalisation of her husband and also an imagined immunity from tuberculosis, and they all gave Bertil subjects to observe (though they don't 'mix' with him, he is always on the sidelines, as the characters themselves sometimes remind him).

Bertil, being a physical mirror-image of himself, also acts as a mirror to the behaviour of the other characters, telling them quite straight what he thinks of their actions and motivations. He seems to pride himself on what I would describe as his omniscience, though when I looked up the word I found it described as both 'all-knowing' and 'all-seeing' - in Bertil's case he can only 'know' what he can actually see (a mirror cannot reflect objects that are not in its gaze) which drives him crazy when he is unable to see what Robert is watching. He attacks Robert, whose only response is 'Has justice caught up with me at last?', suggesting that Robert suspected Bertil knew of his true identity, though Bertil's response 'What justice?' suggests he didn't, maybe as he can only know what he himself has observed, not past events from Nazi Germany.

I saw parallels with the description of Ellen and that of the cow that the young Lars drank milk from - both were clearly diseased but Lars' hunger was so great he overlooked this to consume their respective tuberculosis-riddled hash / milk. Maybe with Ellen he was subconsciously looking to repeat the experience with the cow, as having tuberculosis and being in the sanatorium had been a happy time in his life? Or maybe he wanted to 'upgrade', repeating his relationship with Eva with Ellen, exchanging his immunity for her (superior) hash? This is quite a subversive suggestion as conventionally the less physically attractive a woman is, the less attractive she will be to men. What is for sure is that the stronger the taint of tuberculosis, the more delicious the hash.

I was completely perplexed at the appearance in his own book of Torgny Lindgren as a young boy - did anyone come away with more than just a big hanging question mark about that?

The beginning of the book reads, 'Without writing, time simply flows by. If anyone had asked him what he had been doing all these years... he would have answered that he didn't know.' Writing gave him a purpose, it made him get out of bed, dress up in a smart bow-tie and work for hours on end. When the council forbade him from writing, it seemed they were trying to get rid of this pesky old man by removing the one thing that was keeping him going in life. The removal of Linda I saw as deliberate, as her friendship and interest in his work was giving him something to live for. The shaving of his head and the subsequent exchange between him and Niklas, 'Does it really have to be like this?' / 'Yes, and that's how it's going to be from now on.' I saw as dehumanising and quite sad. The removal of his brandy and snuff too, his life's little pleasures. Whilst I was happy to suspend my disbelief for the rest of the story, the final chapter I felt was him retreating completely into his imagination to deal with his now miserable and lonely existence, the loose tooth a symbol of his renewed decay and perhaps imminent death. In this last passage, Linda returns, assures him repeatedly that she isn't abandoning him, and in an outlandish twist, even by this book's standards, it turns out she has discovered a mountain made entirely of gold, that they are rich beyond their wildest dreams, and that she has come back for him to 'give [him] back [his] freedom and life and creativity' before she swaps his pyjamas for a smart suit and they leave the care home forever in a chauffeur-driven limousine. I believed all the rest of the story, but not this, and finished the book feeling unexpectedly sad. Looking again at the ending though, I can also totally see it as it being the 'closing chapter' of his life, with Linda (dressed in white) appearing like an angel to escort him to a place where, 'he would be able to drink and above eat just what his heart most yearned for'. No prizes for guessing what that would be...

Hash, 10 May 2011

Hello everyone,

Emma sent me a wonderfully thoughtful reaction to our last book, Torgny Lindgren's Hash. I will be posting it here, but before I read it all the way through and get overwhelmed, I thought I'd put up a (very) brief summary of last Tuesday's discussion. I welcome corrections and comments!

Where do you begin with a book like Hash? I think we all agreed that it's as ambiguous as the people, places and events described in it. Responses to the book were positive, surprised and enchanted, with a hint of bemused frustration, or maybe just puzzlement among some. One reader suggested that this was, essentially, the point - a confusion of truth and memory and what it might mean to a text.

In bullet points, then, a selection of what we discussed:
  • Characters: Bertil seemed to have aroused the most interest (suspicion?). Who was Robert Maser? Even the characters within the framing story of the aging journalist were ambiguous.
  • Illness - delirium, intoxication, immunity and contagion affecting the characters and narrative in kind.
  • Geographical aspects - how fictional was the landscape described by the journalist? Would have liked to have seen the journalist's hand-drawn map printed in the book.
  • 'Fact files'-style news items inserted into the text, what did these really add? Not taken far enough to really be of significance.
  • 'Writing' as theme: (compare Tove Jansson's Fair Play, April's book).
  • Ambiguity of the (non-)narrative reflecting the experience of living in a remote location. Harshness/susceptibility to nature/disease/poverty - does this influence communication? Could Hash's abstraction relate to that?
  • It was interesting to learn that the geographic isolation of the characters reflected a reality that was not only exotic to a (London-based) UK readership, but also to a Swede from further south in the country!
As you can perhaps tell, the discussion generated as many questions as it answered - as one reader suggested, this is a book that calls for repeated reading.

Thanks, as always, to Fika Swedish Grill and Cafe, for being kind enough to host us, providing a mysigt environment, and delicious brain food in the form of coffee and tunnbrödsrullar.

See you on the 21st June,

Saturday, 7 May 2011

Memory gain


In preparation for our next book club meeting (next Tuesday, 10th May, 6pm), I thought I'd write a blog post with my initial thoughts on our current book Hash, by Torgny Lindgren. Please leave any comments and points for discussion in the comments field at the bottom of the post!

I hope you all enjoyed the book as much as I did. I hope you were all as surprised and bemused and disoriented by it as I was. And I hope you all have as many contradictory, exhilarating thoughts about it as I have.

What most interested me about this book was its fascination with memory and how personality and imagination can add new dimensions to it. To me it seems that one of the major ideas explored in Hash is the way in which one adds to one's memories to make them one's own. The embellishments with which imagination turns memories from dry events and facts into stories, personalities and visions.

The 'journalist's' imagination creates imagined memories that are inseparable from reality. As he says in his letter to the newspaper editor at the beginning of the book: "You contrast imagination with truth as if the two were incompatible, as if they were mutually exclusive, as if imagination itself were not a product of reality." Our guide's imagination takes us on a journey through personal memories of Västerbotten, in Northern Sweden. His path takes in its cultures, through food, illness and friendship, and its through its landscapes, on an imagined motorcycle.

Through the imagined truth of Lars' and Robert's search for the perfect Swedish Hash, we explore the characters' fascination with food, as well as the community's memory of it (think of Ellen's hash, which everyone swears is the finest in the area, although no one has actually been brave enough to try). Their surety of its greatness is a product of hearsay, and of its heavenly smell. To consume it (as Lars finds out), is to allow oneself to be consumed. Imagining how it might taste is the only lasting truth.

The many layers of memory, real and imagined, create a rich web that is not easy to untangle. Linda's search for Avaberg succeeds only through an imagined map, and though she finally finds the rich seam of gold, it is contingent on the journalist's modest admission that "Imagination is my memory". It is difficult to understand where in the novel Linda's prospecting begins - I might be misremembering it, but it seems to have little pretext in the earlier part of the book. Still, I found this quite exhilarating. The book is almost like a related dream. Stories dissolve into stories, which themselves double back and turn into other stories. Defining a clear sequence of events is far too tough a task for the newly-awakened narrator.

The underlying discussion of life in an old people's home added another aspect to the narrative. For many, he path of aging passes through memory loss to oblivion, a process that institutions try to impede with drugs and therapies. For the journalist, the memory gains he makes through writing his imagined memories are themselves impeded by the authorities that supervise his care.

At every turn, this novel seems to be spinning a web of lessons to learn, and ideas to unravel. My reading of it was confused and perhaps a little superficial, if intrigued and delighted. I wonder how others interpreted it - leave discussion points below as comments, and we can explore them when we meet on Tuesday! Also, for those of you who are unable to make it on Tuesday (I know Tom, Emma -who are in Vietnam- and Agnes -who's recovering from major surgery- are all unable to come), please put down your thoughts, and we can make this a transcontinental conversation!

Thursday, 7 April 2011

A few words about Tove

As promised, here's some info about Tove, provided by Agnes Broome, my partner in (Scandinavian) crime.

Tove Jansson (pictured right - source http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Tove_Jansson_1956.jpg) was born on 9th August in Helsinki, right after the outbreak of the First World War, during which Finland declared its independence from Russia. Her parents were both artists; her mother, Signe Hammarsten-Jansson, was a Swedish artist and illustrator and her father, Victor Jansson, a Finnish sculptor. Jansson and her two younger brothers all grew up to follow in their parents’ footsteps; Tove and Lars became painters and illustrators and Jan Olov a photographer.

Tove Jansson, whose artistic abilities were recognised early by her parents, wanted to become a painter from a very young age. In 1929, aged only 15, she moved to Stockholm to study at Konstfack, Sweden’s most respected art college. This was followed by several journeys through Europe and training at several prestigious art schools in France and Finland. Jansson published her first drawing at 15 as well, in the Finnish satirical magazine Garm, for which she continued working as a cartoonist for 25 years. Garm was one of the very few Finnish publications to distance itself from Finland’s foreign policy at the time, explicitly advocating liberal values and criticising fascism and Finland’s involvement with the German National Socialism. Jansson herself drew cartoons lampooning Hitler. During the 1930s and ‘40s Jansson also presented her artwork at several exhibitions, including solo exhibitions, to great critical acclaim. She was soon considered one of Finland’s most promising young artists. During these years she also began publishing illustrated children’s books, for which she used the penname Vera Haij. Her success as a cartoonist for Garm also led to work for other European publications such as the London Evening News.

Jansson shot to international fame following the Second World War with the publication of her first Moomin books, which were soon translated to a number of languages, including English. She eventually, in 1959, officially retired as a cartoonist to focus more on her writing. At first this was limited to children’s fiction and an autobiographical work (Sculptor’s Daughter) but after her mother’s death in 1970, Jansson decided to start writing for adults, even though she never fully abandoned work on the beloved Moomins.

Her long writing career, which encompasses nearly every genre, has been awarded with practically every Finnish and Swedish award available, save for the Nobel Prize. Since 2002, the year after her death, her own prize, the Tove Jansson Award, is every year given to a children’s writer. Throughout her life, however, Jansson never ceased to view herself primarily as an artist and Helsinki is dotted with examples of her public works.

Fair Play, published in 1989, was Jansson’s last novel, followed only by two collections of short stories and an autobiographical work. Tove Jansson died in 2001 after a period of illness.

You can find out more about Tove at the following sites:
http://www.bbc.co.uk/radio4/womanshour/02/2007_24_wed.shtml (radio programme)

Wednesday, 6 April 2011

Endings never-ending

Here's my tuppence worth on Tove Jansson's Fair Play (Rent spel - see left). Whether you loved or hated it, please add your initial thoughts and points for discussion in the comments section!

I hope everyone enjoyed reading this slight, delicate, subtle book. I certainly enjoyed re-reading it.

There were many things about the stories and characters that struck me, but what really intrigued me were the endings. In fact, they intrigued me so much I've decided to make them the theme for my response.

For me, this is a book of endings:
The vignettes somehow falling over themselves to finish, although they're never in a rush.
The characters so busy caught up in the midst of the story/work, that the ending comes suddenly, and slips by, almost unnoticed until a new beginning arrives.

Jansson's endings always seem to seal the story neatly, but never hermetically.

Like Mari's novels, the stories are never truly finished - there's no beginning-middle-end to speak of - and yet each one does cease before the new one commences.

Often, the ending is just a line that alters the tone of the story - that sets an off-kilter emotion back on track so that Jonna and Mari's quietly constant love affair can continue. Sometimes, there's more to it than that - the last sentence becomes a key that unlocks the story, exposing a new meaning. An example is Viktoria, where the deadpan dead calm that meets the morning, showing Jonna and Mari's fears for the boat to have been unfounded, as of course they were. The storm and the peril of Viktoria at the forefront of this story seem to me to symbolise the odd, disconnected game being played by the two characters. The storm's noise represents the cloak of misunderstanding and disregard for one another's stories. It also creates a game of Chinese whispers, in which each of the narratives gets caught and whisked away before it has had a chance to be finished. The stillness of the ending shows the reader that the Chinese whispers were nothing but a storm in a teacup, the unexpected mini-jibes no more harmful to Jonna and Mari's relationship than the waves and the rain to Viktoria's bows.

So much goes unspoken in these stories - there is so little that needs to be said. And the absence of small talk makes the clarity of the relationship between the two women resonate. Their understanding of one another is neverending - their disagreements agreeable, agreed upon. Their need for space and privacy a welcome change from the clinging passion that is so often presented as the perfect form of love affair.

"Excellent," Mari said. "Wonderful. Endings can be really hard."

Wednesday, 16 March 2011

Other things you might like to know about New Swedish Fiction Book Club

Introductory Meeting - meet other readers, have a chat and a drink.

Come and join us!


**7pm, 24th March**

Fika, Swedish Bar & Grille
161a Brick Lane
E1 6SB


Nicky'll be giving out the first book, Fair Play by Tove Jansson, ready for our first proper book club session on 12th April.
(Image courtesy of Sort Of Books)

~ See you there ~

Thursday, 10 March 2011

All you need to know about New Swedish Fiction Book Club

Välkommen to the New Swedish Fiction Book Club!

A new book club for new Swedish fiction, it's for anyone who's interested in finding out more about Swedish literature; anyone curious about Swedish culture; anyone who likes reading intriguing, beautiful books and talking about them with others who are enthusiastic and critical.

The book club's members will choose the books from shortlists of Swedish (and Finnish-Swedish) fiction in English translations. The focus is on books from the last 10 years, but not that many of these have actually been published, so we can be a bit flexible with this! Some of the texts might be short stories and poems, some novels. The most important thing is that they'll be interesting, imaginative and exciting (we hope).

We eventually see it leading to something bigger, maybe a London, or UK-wide network of book clubs, but we're keeping this one to 10-15 members in order to really get people talking and give everyone a chance to contribute. We intend to develop this blog into a web resource for the group, to continue discussions, post info and generally keep the excitement going. We hope to invite occasional guest speakers, and we might even make some podcasts based on conversations and ideas generated by our discussions.

The project is organised by Nicky Smalley and Agnes Broome, PhD students at UCL's Scandinavian Studies department, and subsidised through AHRC funding from UCL's Public Engagement Unit. This means the books will be cheap, or in some cases free, and there will also be some form of subsidised refreshments available.

It's also part of Nicky's research project - an added bonus. One thing to note is that will make audio recordings of the sessions. Participants will be asked to sign a consent form saying that they are happy to be recorded (the recordings might be used for the podcasts, but more of that later!)