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.


2014-10-05

The Bones of Paris

I had finished the third novel in the Lord Peter Wimsey series and felt like I needed a change. Not a big change, but a little one. I decided to stay in the 1920´s and in the genre, and bought the second in what I imagine is becoming a longer series about former US agent Harris Stuyvesant, who was the hero of "Touchstone" by Laurie R King. This one is titled "The Bones of Paris", and Paris is where we find Harris now. It´s been three years since the last story took place, his friend Bennet Grey is back in his cottage at Land´s End, and Bennet´s sister Sarah, who was also Harris´s love interest, has disappeared, badly wounded from the ordeal they went through together and needing time to heal, alone. Harris is hurt, but also understanding and patiently waiting for her to get in touch again. Not that his emotional loyalty to Sarah stops him from having one or two flings...

Laurie R King has a great
moodboard on Pinterest!
After going in circles around Europe, stopping here and there, working both in bars and as a private investigator, Harris is in Berlin when he gets the assignment to locate a missing American heiress, Pip Crosby, with whom he had a short relationship at the south coast of France a few months earlier. He returns to Paris and goes in search of her, expecting to find her in some arts or political commune, doped up by drugs or ideals. He reaquaints himself with the Paris of the artists and American expats, the writers (like Hemingway and Fitzgerald), the visual artists (like Man Ray, Picasso, Matisse, Dali, Buñuel), the models (Kiki, Lee Miller), he sees films like "An Andalusian Dog", and strikes up an awkward friendship with a police officer, Doucet, who is troubled by what he sees as a cult of death in the art community and investigating a disturbingly long list of missing people who were connected to it. As were Pip Crosby.

Pip had also been the mistress of a Parisian count, Dominic Charmentier, the man behind a horror-burlesque type theatre which he claims provides a release to those tormented by the memories and losses of the war. As Harris goes investigating the man and his connections, to his surprise, he finds that the duke´s assistant is his own Sarah Grey. Though she is hardly his any more, but turns out to be engaged to the police officer Doucet!

By now, I did find that the number of coincidences were a bit too remarkable. Or was it that what Stuyvesant was uncovering seemed so disturbing? I try to avoid books with perverse murderers going after women and children, and found myself so eagerly distracted from the reading, that when one of Laurie R King´s newsletters came in my mailbox, I started re-reading old Mary Russell stories instead of going ahead with Harris´s search for Pip.

I realized during this reading how much I like the way King can turn a phrase. I´m not really capable of grading English prose on a scale of beauty, but she is to my taste, that´s for sure. Finally, I pulled myself together and read to the end. Which was happy enough, but pretty hairy just before the finishing line, just as you would expect. And now I am knee-deep in "The Beekeeper´s Apprentice", again...

2014-09-28

On Drawing

This weekend, I finished four books I have been simultaneously reading - or looking in, as is the case with some of them; three of them are about drawing, one has very little text at all, just a preface, not even written by the artist. At first, I thought I might do one post for all of them, but now it seems that it would be unfair to them all, as they are each very good and recommendable.

I´ll start with one by Andrew Marr, the British political journalist. I had no idea that he is also a very good draughtsman, who knows a thing or two about art. Turns out, he has also written a book on the subject, "A Short Book About Drawing". I was curious and got it, and was not disappointed. I am not the kind of bibliophile who gets excited about what a book looks like or anything; I have favoured cheap paperbacks before I easily transitioned into the world of e-books, but with this one, I have to mention that it is a very pretty book to look at. Also, it doesn´t smell or give off cough-inducing fumes, something I am always wary of with books containing many pictures.

The chapters have headlines like "Drawing and happiness", "The eyes - drawing and movement", "The heart - what is drawing about?", and it is very enjoying to read his thoughts on why he (and others) draws, and the role of drawing in education, culture, and art. He isn´t just sitting in his room with this either, being a journalist he goes visiting drawing teachers and talks to artists like David Hockney, who
"goes as far as to say that the age of photography is now coming to and end, that its shallowness is boring us.
He may be ahead of the mass, but it´s certainly true that there is something about the physicality and simplicity of drawing that makes it undefeatable. With strips of charcoal or pens, basic tools in our hands, it has barely moved forward. An iPad app which I use all the time, Brushes, is not essentially different. It is faster, brighter, more flexible, but in the end it is a stylus and a surface, and the drawing is just drawing. Personal, direct, drawing has not "advanced". It stands outside glib ideas of progress."
Andrew Marr: Central Park, New York.
Marr uses only his own drawings to illustrate the book, both because - he says in the preface - they are cheap, and because he thinks that while he doesn´t regard any of them as real works of art, he thinks that most of them will encourage people to try for themselves. And they do. I like Marr´s drawings a lot. Most of all I like that he seems comfortable to go at it with all kinds of tools, from pencil to paint, and - and this is not something I have seen much of until now - the iPad, with which he produces both some flat and some startlingly vibrant drawings.

But do modern artists even draw today? Many art schools don´t teach drawing at all, Marr says.
"Conceptual art is needed in a book on drawing because the status of drawing fell so far after Duchamp´s rewriting of what the word "art" means. Like the aftermath of any explosion, the debris is scattered and awkwardly shaped. Some great traditional artists hang on to their status, like well-decorated rooms exposed to the outside world when half the house has been blown away. Far from the commercial centres of the art world, many thousands of traditional painters and draughtsmen quietly keep going, as if nothing has happened, rather like the late Romans carrying on with their quietly satisfying provincial lives - planting vines, mending tracks - even after Attila´s hordes had sacked the Forum." 
Andrew Marr: Hay-on-Wye. 
And what about using mechanical tools? While reading, I think of two Swedish artists (very successful) I have seen working by tracing a photograph from an overhead projector onto a large piece of paper. Isn´t that cheating? No, says Marr:
"Artists have used mechanical tools and aides of all kinds. They have used light-boxes and lenses of all sorts, squared lattices, spray-guns, and, yes, computers. Artists have also always copied. [...] ...aids are neither here nor there. Nor is the quotation and reworking of somebody else´s picture.
The only question is aliveness. A lame, mechanical copy of another work is a lame, dead thing. Most of us, even, subconsciously, can tell. The drawing must say something about the drawer as well as the thing drawn."
Marr may humbly say that his drawings aren´t art, but some of them reveal quite a bit about him, particularly a night-time drawing on the iPad where you can see his lonely reflection in a New York hotel room. Does it possess aliveness? I would say so. (If you want to see it, you must buy the book, so there!)

This is, without a doubt, one of those books that you can have on your shelf and take down every year, read a chapter or two, or let yourself be drawn in and re-read the whole thing. Or just look at the drawings, be impressed and inspired. I would recommend it for anyone who draws or would like to draw, or even anyone who is the least interested in art and personal expression. Marr has the attitude of the very accomplished amateur. You will understand more after having read him.