2014-12-12

Kallocain

Have I whined yet about the new order of the e-book library? Because of the expense of it - the libraries and the publishers seem unable to reach a sensible decision about this - the libraries have had to severely limit the number of e-books one is allowed to borrow, and the new limit is, unbelievably, two books per month! It used to be five or seven a week, more than one could read, really, but this is ridiculous! My reading friend and I lamented this but decided that perhaps it was time to turn towards the classics. The Swedish Academy has a good, open library with literature they consider part of the Swedish cultural heritage, Litteraturbanken (= the literature bank). I had been considering Karin Boye´s "Kallocain" for years, and my friend was up for it.

From Wikipedia.
Karin Boye was born in 1900, and is mostly known for her poetry, but also wrote novels and worked as a journalist. She also painted, and you can see some of her watercolours here, at the website of the Karin Boye Society. Several of them have been exhibited at Waldemarsudde, the art museum founded by Prince Eugen, who was not just a royal, but one of Sweden´s most prominent painters. After her death, by suicide in 1941, her friends published a book in remembrance of her, and for it Hjalmar Gullberg (who wrote the poem "God in Disguise") wrote a poem called "Död amazon" (= dead amazon), which is still quite well known: "for the Thermopyle of our hearts, some must still give their lives" (my translation).

"Kallocain", from 1940, is probably her best known work internationally, and can be viewed as a precursor to Orwell´s "1984", which was published about a decade later. The narrator of the novel is Leo Kall, inventor of the truth-drug Kallocain. He is a citizen of the World-state, lives in Chemistry City Number 4, which is more or less an underground factory, with his wife Linda and their two youngest children. Their oldest, at eight years old, has already been moved into a reformatory of sorts, where all children go to be shaped into good "fellow-soldiers". The World-state is a severely supervised society, where every home has an "eye" and an "ear" on the wall, behind which supervisors may at any time look in on family life (such as it is: most of their spare time, family members are assigned some kind of policing/supervising duty), and informing on anyone, even family members, not seemingly devoted to the state, is a proud duty, not a dirty secret.

Leo Kall is a fanatic, but about to crack. His supervisor is Edo Rissen, an introverted, thoughtful man and Kall projects all his insecurities on him; he even imagines that Rissen has an affair with Linda. As they start to test the Kallocain drug, Rissen sceptically says that every man over 40 has a guilty conscience, which Kall takes as admission of crimes against the state. The confessions they get from their volunteers are not about crimes as such, but rather "emotional infidelity" to the state, a disturbing longing for human affection and trust, a natural faith in one´s fellow. The police authorities order Kall and Rissen to start training Kallocain interrogators, but it turns out that now, anyone can be convicted. As is Rissen, when Kall finally turns him in. He also steals some of the drug and uses it on his wife, with surprising results.

I found it a captivating read, and fast, at only 130 or so pages. I got quite spooked for a while, as I think anyone with some degree of maturity - as Rissen says, with reasons for a guilty conscience - will recognize that state of awakening from truths earlier taken for granted. I think most teenagers feel what Kall does, as they realize that all families and societies are not alikel, but that there are several ways of doing things and looking at the world, not necessarily on a scale from good to bad, just different. I suspect being a lesbian at the beginning of the century, coming from a middle-class family, would have given Boye a profound insight into being at odds with ideas of what is normal and natural.

You can read "Kallocain" for free on-line, at the University of Wisconsin digital collections, but it is also available through amazon, as is her "Complete Poems". Her most famous poem goes "Javisst gör det ont när knoppar brister, varför skulle annars våren tveka?" (= of course it hurts when buds burst, otherwise, why would spring hesitate? the entire poem can be read in English here) and I think most Swedes with an interest in literature recognize it, even if they are not poetry readers; references abound. The Karin Boye Society even have short recordings of her voice, reading her own poems. (Although, for them to work I had to download them first, could be my browser acting funnily.) She has that very clear enounciation they had in those days.

All in all, a good read. I am quite keen on reading more of her in the future.

2014-12-08

A Retro Crime Series

A few weeks ago, I saw the first episode of a new detective series on television (available on amazon as "Crimes of Passion"), based on a book series (three novels available in English on Kindle) by Maria Lang (pen name for Dagmar Lange) that was first published in 1949 and that she kept writing until 1990, which featured her rural Swedish version of Lord Peter Wimsey (or so the Wikipedia article on her claims - I find the comparison preposterous), Christer Wijk. I didn´t really know what to expect, I hadn´t read the books, but I was surprised how well made it was (though not perfect, for sure). It has a funny kind of noir vibe to it, as well as a 50´s retro milieu, with a slightly anachronistic adaptation to suit modern (feminist) sensibilities (which I know now, since having read three of the novels). And, of course, excellent actors, some of whom can say some pretty corny dialogue without making the audience too embarassed, particularly Tuva Novotny, who is perhaps the best Swedish actress of her generation.

Borrowed from tv4. Wahlgren, Novotny, and Rapace.
Actually, my first thought, about five minutes into the first episode, was how much the male body has changed over the last decades. One hears all the time how fashions have changed for the female body, from the 20´s gamine to the 50´s bosomy glamour girl, the 70´s fresh-faced "Charlie" girl to the heroin chic Kate Moss of the 90´s. But think how the male body has changed since body building started to become mainstream in the late 80´s, early 90´s. You know, when I started going to the gym in 1992 or thereabouts, I still had friends who refused to lift a single dumbbell, as they thought it would make them instantly look like Arnold Schwarzenegger, even though they were girls. The pumped up bodies of Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone were controversial in those days, I remember a lot of heated discussions for or against that kind of training.

Borrowed from Finnish television.
Now, there are very few actors who doesn´t look like that, to some extent. (And even a fair amount of regular people, at least here, where winter outdoors training for the desk bound male is grim, and the gym a cozy option. I just have to look over at the husband and remember that he comes from a stock of wiry lumber jacks!) But they didn´t look like that in the 50´s (and they ate differently) which is why this first episode felt a bit off to me. Yes, the male actors Ola Rapace (ex-husband of more internationally known Noomi) and Linus Wahlgren do look very dishy in their suits, hats, topcoats, bowties and slipovers. And sleeve garters! Remember those? My dad used to wear them all the time, and I had a pair myself (I nicked some of his old 60´s suits and wore all through the 80´s). Now they accent the fact that both Rapace (particularly Rapace) and Wahlgren have very sexy upper arms. Novotny is made out more like a tomboy, but the other women in the series are gorgeously made out in colourful gowns, pinched waists and high hair.

(a short peak from tv4 on youtube)

Maria Lang wasn´t anything we read, in my generation. My mother didn´t read her either (at least I think not). The characters have been much changed. The narrator and our hero, Puck, is not a perky little 50´s academic young wife who stumble over corpses left and right, but rather a serious, introverted career-woman with a taste for analysis and writing crime fiction. Her husband Eje has been changed from what Puck has now become (in the books he is the crime writer), into a bumbling, slightly naiv teacher who goes back and forth between being proud of his wife and jealous of her attachment to his oldest friend and the real hero: police investigator Christer Wijk, who in the books is a skinny, tall, jovial, pipe-smoking man with a taste for checked tweed (even in summer), a father-figure for Puck. In the films, he is a sexy womanizer, a real contender to Eje, at the end of most episodes making due with a widow or other woman left-over from their latest investigation when Puck has turned away from his advances (yeah, his best friend´s wife, but he can´t help himself because of the passion, you see...).

Maria Lang would not have approved, I´m sure, though she was no stranger, even in the 40´s, to writing quite candidly about sex. Still, the films are entertaining, and so are the books, as long as you take them for what they are. I like. Oddly, I like quite a lot, both the books and the films.

2014-11-27

Obsessive Passions

I thought for sure I had blogged about Lena Andersson´s novel "Egenmäktigt förfarande - en roman om kärlek" (being translated to English as we speak: "Wilful Disregard: a novel about love" will be released next summer, according to British amazon) but I can´t find the post, so probably I read it while I was on blogging hiatus, in the spring. Well, now I have read her second book about Ester Nilsson, her passionate and not just slightly disturbed heroine, a novel called "Utan personligt ansvar" (= without personal responsibility). I read both in tandem with my reading friend, but I probably wouldn´t have considered it - a novel about love sounded a bit tiresome - if the husband, of all people, hadn´t heard it being read on the radio on his way home from work (he has a 40 minute commute, one-way, most days) and became so engrossed with it that he was quoting from it for weeks! He is not normally a reader of fiction, so of course I had to see what the fuss was about, and my friend jumped aboard.

It makes sense to write about both novels in one single post, as they have a similar topic. Ester Nilsson is a middle-aged academic, poet, student of the world through language, forever searching for the exact words, which to her equals the truth; she is uncompromising in her rock-hard integrity, but also blinded by her passions and able to decieve herself in considerable measures. Her command of language and logic and her ability to convince herself as well as others leads her so far astray that she crosses the line into severe self-delusion and madness not just once, but over and over again. She falls in love.

The first object of her affection is artist Hugo Rask. He is much older than she, he is flattered, both by her youth and the applauding articles she writes about his art. He is single, sort of (there is a woman in another town that he seems to have some kind of long-standing relationship to, but sexually he seems free to stray), he surrounds himself with a team of young artists in his studio, and Ester´s life very soon focuses entirely on how far she can push herself into his circle. She dumps her old boyfriend without a second thought or any feeling of regret, and becomes what can only be described as Hugo Rask´s stalker. He does go to bed with her once or twice, but they are never in a "relationship" (though Ester tries to convince herself that they are); most of the time, he seems unaware of her. She is like an ant in his elephant´s life.

The whole story focuses on what goes on inside Ester, her feelings, her thoughts, her efforts to come closer, to break it off (after having epiphanies of clarity that are muddle every time Rask is kind or just polite to her). It is cringe-making, to say the least. However, it´s not a long novel, and the pain is over fairly soon. I think Andersson has measured out the size of dose of Ester Nilsson one can take fairly accurately.

In the second novel, Ester Nilsson is at it again. This time, she falls for Olof Sten, another older, this time married, man, actor in a play she has written (and later director of other plays she writes). I feel more sorry for her this time, as she is clearly falling into the claws of someone a lot more vicious than Hugo Rask. She buys a car so that she can drive her lover from playhouse to playhouse, from town to town, all the while battling him for the truth of what is going on. It sounds something like this:
Ester: I want to live with you. I will not be your lover. (But of course, she jumps into bed with him every time.)
Olof: We are not in a relationship. I will not leave my wife or be unfaithful to her. (See brackets above.)

It´s very, very tiring. Ester´s girlfriends thinks so too, and after a few years of obsessively discussing Olof Sten with everyone, some of them begin to withdraw from her. If the book had been any longer (220 pages, slightly longer than the first), the reader might have given up as well, but as before, Andersson knows when to quit.

The first of the novels was awarded the prestigious Swedish August Prize last year, and Ester Nilsson has been discussed by everyone. Really, when people like the husband, who normally don´t have time to pick up a novel, throw themselves over the next chapter in the saga of Ester Nilsson, you know that this is something special. It is probably Andersson´s tone of voice: the exact, dissecting manner in which she slices Ester and her lovers open for us to see; this is the opposite of "show-don´t-tell"-writing. And, as tiresome as we find her, we have all been there, to some extent: hopefully self-delusional. Not that everyone interprets the novel the same way. Many seem to find Hugo Rask a predatory a***ole, but I don´t agree. Probably Roy Andersson doesn´t either, as he declared himself to be the real Hugo Rask some weeks ago, only to be ridiculed on the cultural pages of the papers (not that I think he cares in the least). Andersson insists that what she writes is fiction, but the debates have kept up the interest, and perhaps Andersson has written herself into the Swedish literary canon. Time will tell.

There is a very nice interview with Lena Andersson, in Swedish, but I guess Google translate can do something with it. I find I like her. I have always liked what she writes in the paper (she is a regular in Dagens Nyheter, on the editorial page), she is always analyzing those phenomenons that we seem to take for granted, turning the perspective around. She is a true intellectual and reading her will expand your horizon; authors like that are thin on the ground.

2014-11-23

Bertila

Some weeks ago, I got an email from Marta, a lover of Barna Hedenhös, of which I blogged - oh my! - exactly one year ago! Must be some kind of benign sign... Anyway, this led to my discovery of a recent publication on the collected works of Barna Hedenhös´ creator, "Boken om Bertila", or Bertil Almqvist as was his full name, by Nisse Larsson. I immediately walked over to the library and got it, and what a revelation!

I was completely unaware that Bertila was the man behind one of the most iconic images in Swedish history: En Svensk Tiger. These words mean two things: A Swedish Tiger, and A Swede Keeps Silent. It was a variation on those many posters the Brits had, like this one. But because of the word play, it was also an affirmation of the strength of both the nation and its individuals during a time when they needed reassurance. A brilliant image, really, and the words that was part of it made it go beyond the visual. It is so ingrained in the nation´s conscience that it has been re-used for other purposes, like selling Swedish milk and Swedish magazines.

 A high ranking military man didn´t like the tiger, he thought it should have been a lion instead,
completely missing the point - a story Bertila enjoyed telling. 


Bertila´s column, with tall Prime Minister
Erlander as the father of the Swedish "folkhem"
(the Swedish Welfare State) with the leader of
the Farmer´s Party, Gunnar Hedlund, as his
supportive wife.
 You can see more columns here.
Bertil Almqvist was born in 1902, to a middle-class family in Stockholm. He got into drawing and writing funny verse already in school, and pretty much continued to do that for the rest of his life. He was perhaps not the most gifted visual artist of his time, but in combination with his word play, his output was unique. For many, many years, he published a weekly drawn and written column that commented on anything that was happening, from politics to sports and culture. It was called "På tapeten", which means literally "on the wallpaper" and means "the topic of the day". He made a sport of drawing the headline differently each week and in accordance with the topic.

He made all kinds of illustrations: theatre posters, children´s books, campaigns. And, of course, he wrote and drew "Barna Hedenhös": the books, the comics, the films. He died in 1972, while working hard on a film for Swedish Television about the Hedenhös children (he wasn´t just overworked, he was fond of his drink and his cigarettes, too, there is hardly a photo of him without a fag between his lips). He had by then been retired - quite forcibly - from his newspaper column, something that had made him so upset he even complained to the Prime Minister of Sweden! Perhaps he had lost touch with the times. When you look at his works they have very much that 50´s positivity, a stout belief in progress.

Mother Svea (Sweden) gives Bertila his uniform.
Word play was part of his game and the Swedish language started to change in the 70´s, as a new political and social awareness developed, as Swedes became more internationally aware, and society was being reshaped by immigration and the developement of modern media. Some of the Hedenhös books are no longer reproduced, considered racist and misogynist - which would have offended Bertila, who was a pacifist and a very outspoken advocate of equality and progress, both social, cultural, and technological. For example, he was a keen driver and fiercely lobbied for right-hand traffic for more than 30 years before it became a reality, in 1967. He also had strong convictions about spelling reforms. He did go into the army during the war, but reluctantly so, as he explained in comic form. He thought he could do more for the nation with his pen, and he did that as well, as you already know.

He also composed, which was a surprise to me. He wrote one of the most loved children´s songs in Swedish history, "Droppen Dripp och Droppen Drapp" (performed below by Alice Babs and her daughter Titti), and even recorded songs and put up a revue in 1934, where he sang his own songs in front of fifteen large drawings.

I only knew him for Barna Hedenhös, but I think now that his most lasting work will be "En svensk tiger" - even though perhaps that work has outgrown the memory of the man who created it.

(on Youtube by Tosukep)

Lyrics:

Droppen Dripp och Droppen Drapp    (the drop Drip and the drop Drap)
satt på varsin isetapp                         (sat each on his own icicle)
ovanför vår förstutrapp                      (above our landing)
Droppen Dripp och Droppen Drapp!   (the drop Drip and the drop Drap)

- Hej, sa Dripp till Droppen Drapp       (- Hi, said Drip to the drop Drap)
trivs du bra uppå din tapp?                 (are you happy on your icicle?)
- Åjavars, sa Droppen Drapp              (- Oh, allright I guess, said the drop Drap)
fast min sittplats är rätt knapp!            (although my seat is rather small.)

- Hördudu, sa Dripp till Drapp,            (- Hey listen, said Drip to Drap)
ska vi hoppa ner ikapp,                       (shall we race each other down,)
ner på våran förstutrapp?                    (on to our landing?)
Så sa Dripp till Droppen Drapp.           (That´s what Drip said to Drap the drop.)

- Hu, så högt! sa Droppen Drapp,         (- My, that´s high! said Drap the drop,)
såge helst jag hoppa slapp.                   (I wish I didn´t have to jump.)
- men det gör väl hipp som happ,          (but I guess it´s neither here nor there,)
låt oss hoppa ner i kapp!                      (let us race each other down.)

Och så hoppa Dripp och Drapp            (And then Drip and Drap jumped)
från sin isetapp ikapp,                          (from their icicles together)
ner på våran förstutrapp                      (down onto our landing)
- och blev platta som en knapp!            (and became flat like a button!)

(my own translation - quick and dirty)

Bertila with his daughter Monne Kristina, to whom he wrote the first Hedenhös book. 


2014-10-23

Drawing Your Life

I have already told you about Danny Gregory´s fabulous book about creativity, "The Artistic Licence". He is also one of the people behind Sketchbook Skool, which looks like a pretty interesting project. I was curious for something more personal by him, and got this, "Everyday Matters", which is a memoir of sorts, a compilation I would assume, of pages from his own personal illustrated diary, with a no doubt heavily edited text to make a coherent story.

It starts when he and his wife Patti are a young, successful couple in New York, he is an advertiser, she a stylist, they have a dog and a new baby, and the terrible thing happens: she falls onto the railway track and is run over by a train. Her spine is crushed and she ends up wheel chair bound.

This book has none of that cheerful entusiasm that "The Artistic Licence" had, as you can imagine. This is personal, this is an account of what it´s like to have life - as you expected it to be - taken away from you. Gregory starts to draw in an attempt to deal with things - the word he keeps using is "slow"; this new life is slower than it used to be, and that is frustrating. Some things he took for granted are suddenly out of reach. Some things he took for granted now seems incredibly valuable. Other things he took for granted means nothing any more.

These aren´t cute drawings of beautiful still lifes. There is no sentimental glow to any of Gregory´s drawings. His surroundings - as he sees it - is what I recognize when I look around my own home, just the stuff of every day. Gregory draws himself into his new life. What Gregory is communicating to me is a lack of self-awareness - a mindfulness - that I find admirable and difficult to obtain. Perhaps only really difficult times can get you there. Or drawing, I hope.




2014-10-18

Re-reading

This post at Austin Kleon´s blog made me smile, as I had just been tossing out a few pages in my diary on how my reading was frustrating me. A prayer-answer, if ever.

I am really into no 14 on his list right now: "I will re-read favorite books the way I watch favorite movies and play favorite records over and over." Actually, I feel a bit like I have gone into some kind of literary fetal position, if that makes any sense. Comfort reading in the extreme, for me anyhow. I am trying to be kind to myself, though, as life is crazy right now, both inside and outside. Things are changing - in a fundamental way - I can feel it and I am eager for it, but it´s not yet ready. It´s like being very, very hungry and having to wait another three hours for the stew to brew. (I don´t suppose stews actually brew, but I like how that rhyme.)

Also, no 8: "I will not finish books I don’t like", no 10: "I will throw a book across the room", and no 21: "If I hate a book, I will keep my mouth shut". Actually, even no 22: "I will make liberal use of the phrase, “It wasn’t for me.”". Yeah. It´s painful to realize someone was hurt by a remark you made and you can´t take it back. So, will I only blog books I like? Can´t really blog something I stopped reading and tossed across the room, I guess. (Though I´m sure I have done.)

As you can tell, I am having a bit of a reading crisis and it´s been coming on slowly all year. It´s just a small part of the whole change, though. Since I stopped working on that novel of mine and started doing other things, reading just isn´t the same, and the reasons for picking up a book has changed. Writing anything, even blogging, has changed. Or rather, is changing. I just made a list of things to work towards, with a deadline that is nine months ahead of me, so the fetal analogy isn´t so far off. I am tempted to make changes happen, make declarations of this and that, but it just isn´t the time. I´ll just wait and see.

2014-10-08

Trip to the Mediterranean

As I was doing away with my desk (turning my study into a studio for this winter´s art classes) I found a note to self to go see a librarian about a book. The book in question is "Medelhavsresa" (= trip to the Mediterranean) by Birger Lundquist from 1952. It was published the year he died, only 42 years old.

This is drawings we are talking about, not stories. Birger Lundquist was a famous illustrator (of whom I have written before) at Sweden´s number one daily newspaper, Dagens Nyheter, from the 1930´s. According to the foreword by Georg Svensson, this was his first trip abroad. He set out in the fall of 1937 - to get away from some personal problems (his daughter with colleague and journalist Barbro Alving was born in 1938, so that might have had something to do with it) - and the drawings are from that trip. Some of them were published in the paper at the time, but most not.



Lundquist was a prolific draughtsman, he was never without a pen and a pad according to the legend, which also says that there were some 80.000 drawings among his belongings when he died, and he had given many away, as he was not precious about is art.

He said that he learned how to really draw on this journey, and that he owed much of it to the French artist Jean Launois, whom he met in Oran and Tlemcen. Svensson claims that Launois was an obscure artist no one but Lundquist had heard about, who died from drunkenness in 1948. A quick googling shows he was important enough to have a Wikipedia article, which states that he died in 1942, and there is some of his art on different sites, like this one. He certainly could draw, and I don´t doubt that he taught Lundquist quite a bit, or that they drowned their sorrows together in the strong stuff; there are quite a few drawings in this book from bars.

Most of the drawings - which are only a small selection of what I imagine is a suitcase full, at least - are of people on the streets. Lundquist really knew how to capture a character, sometimes slipping over into caricature, particularly in the drawings he elected to send home to be published. You can really see the fashion of the day in the girls hair and makeup, even if he only uses his reservoir pen - they all look like little Edith Piafs. But he also has some more scenic city views, and it´s amazing to see what he could express with only a pen, and pretty fast too, I think. The energetic, confident line speaks of a restlessness that almost seems manic. Some drawings are watercoloured, but this wasn´t something he did much

I love these drawings, and will forever aspire to be able to work a pen like this. This is urban sketching before the concept existed, and it is just too bad he died so young. I would have loved to see what he could have done as a mature artist.



Throughout, Lundquist makes wonderful sketches of hands,
which is very hard. 

I love this composition: the minaret, the camels, the robe, hat and the expressive hand.
I  bet he did this in seconds. 


I have never been to Athens, but the husband went earlier this year, and I thought I recognized the mountain on the lower half of the page. I bet he stood on pretty much the same place as Lundqvist did when he took this snap, or what do you think? Or perhaps on the hill in the drawings middleground, depending on what kind of lens he had on.