Therese Bohman: The Scandi Houllebecq

Therese Bohman: The Scandi Houllebecq

I read Bohman’s The Other Woman while being plied with pina coladas and strawberry margaritas on the azure beaches of Mayan Riviera. It was just the venue for such a literary pick. A doozie. A Candace Bushnell of the Nordics. Wrong. What was framed as “an intense affair” of a hospital dishwasher and a gallant, silver-haired, and married (naturally) doctor has turned out to be a somber lamentation on the figure of a Western Woman as she stands, weighted down by her own intellect and sexual freedom, at the agate-hued precipice, looking down with a mixture of masochistic excitement, guilt, fear, and submission. The main character, inhabiting, in a kind of a callous career experiment, the lowest ranks of hospital staff, is, essentially, “red-pilled” to the ruse of modernity, yet she seems to levitate far above it all, above the monotony of university cafe conversations and the delicate feminist boys and the independent ambitious girls and their tiresome, moralizing, self-aggrandizing tirades. Our unnamed heroine, armed with superb intellect and having read Dostoyevsky and Baudelaire, is pursuing an affair with a married superior, almost out of spite, almost as challenge to that last feminist taboo. After all, she argues with her more conventional friend, “I am a failure as a feminist woman. I am a failure as a perfectly ordinary woman as well, I am too clever. I have always felt like a traitor. I am a traitor in every camp because I don’t really need other people. That is the greatest betrayal of the sisterhoood, an awareness that you have no need for it.” Our girl breaks through the oppressive, suffocating comfort blanket of The Sisterhood. She does it with a piercing awareness of the inherent despair seeded within the human condition, so there is no silliness in her pursuits. No bubblegum romanticism. None of that. Only refreshingly deep thoughts, heavy like droplets of liquid mercury, delivered to the reader against the grey landscape of a remote Scandinavian town. Does she find happiness? Or meaning? Doubtful. Even in moments of peace there is a palpable sense of that agate-hued precipice, just over there, just a step or three forward. And that brings me to Houllebecq.

Houllebecq is the renowned (or “controversial,” to use Guardian-speak) French author of Submission, Atomized, and many other books featuring a depressed middle aged man grappling with sad realization of his own insignificance and bitter loneliness against the backdrop of the disgraceful decline of his once great civilization. Houllebecq’s characters find a reasonable amount of professional success, traditionally accompanied by excess of meaningless sex. There are solid attempts to find meaning in academia, in romantic love, even in religion, but to no avail. Houllebecq’s French men stare into the precipice of their own, nearing it with each cigarette smoker breath they take, submitting dejectedly, almost sheepishly, to their live’s sunsets. I read his works as a piercing allegory to the decline of Europe, and every time I visit Europe it feels like visiting a beautiful marble tombstone. A sarcophagus. Perhaps such lamentations are premature from a political, social or economic standpoint, but art, since the time of Greece, is best at the time of a civilization’s decline.

That last point (about art and Greece, not about the decline of Europe) is made in Bohman’s other book I read. This time it was on loan from the library, and swallowed by me over the course of one day. Eventide features characteristically reserved Stockholm landscape, an academic circle with all the correct political and cultural opinions, and an art professor dealing with a fresh divorce, professional competition, loneliness, and an apocalyptic dream-nightmare of Finnish ferries crashing into the city, bringing about the end to all presence that things are normal in society. The protagonist Karolina, much like any of Houllebecq’s men, is a woman in physiological decline living in a country also in decline, albeit hidden beneath the inspiring facade of social democracy and its assorted projects. Karolina has mastered the art of solitude, boosting its quality with homemade tomato sauce, ample social media use, and intense sexual encounters. But of course, she is deeply unhappy, navigating the world which hasn’t yet figured out what to do with 40-year old divorced women, pulling them out from one folder and into another, giving them hope one moment, and then smashing it to the ground the next. Karolina’s life is intertwined with that of an underrated Swedish artist of the early 20th century and that of an unknown Russian woman, the mysterious G., a willing womb donor in a fabled Soviet experiment to create a human-ape hybrid back in 1920s. All three of these narratives fail, fruitless, unsuccessful, and a grey dawn follows. Hollow and sorrowful, but a dawn nevertheless. And with dawn comes hope, however frail, however faint, however pale.

Bohman’s heroines traverse oceans of despair and meaninglessness, but they hold their ground with intellect and cool head. They show decent chances of survival, unlike Houllebecq’s men who are sentenced to very inglorious final acts, an embarrassing jig of loneliness, booze, sex, and failing organs. All of these delightfully melancholy books are, to me, very potent tokens of memento mori, the Christian practice of reflecting on mortality. It’s the veneration of all those skulls and bones in Western art with humble hope of serving as a somber reminder to look beyond the horizon, at least occasionally. Bohman and Houllebecq are dutifully putting up flaming beacons for precisely this sort of a reminder: when staring at the precipice let your eye swerve a wee bit over and beyond, if only for a whisper.

Image: Egon Schiele, The Sunset.

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