Category: Scandinavian

Karl Ove Knausgaard’s Autumn: turning the everyday into metaphysical exercise

Karl Ove Knausgaard’s Autumn: turning the everyday into metaphysical exercise

Experiencing Autumn is a bit like newbie meditation. Wholesome intentions at the start, then excruciating boredom, and just then, when you, high-strung and anxious in all of your hyper-jacked always-on digital modernity, are ready to capitulate, just then you are (maybe) rewarded with It. That high-density particle of insight you’ve been sweating your saggy bits for. Momentarily relieved and perhaps even elated, you drag yourself back into supplication, back into that downward dog, back into the unassuming text whose cavalcades of wee chapters put you to difficult work again. That, or you call it drivel, and throw it behind the couch, a lifelong sentence of collecting cobwebs and lost buttons.

Only a well-established author of comfortably broad renown (and Knausgaard, that Scandinavian Proust, has earned his accolades through the widely popular My Struggle) can get away with a book as richly self-indulgent as this. Through the measured andante of the narrator, a salt-and-pepper-haired paterfamilias, we are invited to examine the intense materiality of this world. Apples. Badgers. Chimneys. Mouth. Churches. Piss. Forgiveness. Thermos. Vomit. Beds. Loneliness. Infants. Labia. Flaubert.

This is reality without makeup, as it appears in autumn within the bowels of a palpably hygge home to a “white middle-aged man with a frozen inner self, who walks stiffly and slightly stooped, and who never plays, never dances, never ventures into the wild, uninhibited darkness.” He makes coffee, writes, cooks breakfast, cleans, puts children to bed, and catalogs it all into his cabinet of banalities for the make benefit of his unborn daughter.  Perhaps one day, when she reaches the age at which adult children suddenly start enjoying spending time with their parents, she will thank him for these metaphysical lab notes, like the one about how pleasant it is to have a fever. Or how oddly satisfying it is to eat the entire apple, seeds and all. Or how war unleashes rational forces latent in humans. Or how sewing on buttons connects you with the spirit of your Norwegian grandmother. Or how  a thermos is “a kind of a family totem [that] discreetly embodies all that bound us together back then and which has now been broken.” 

Perhaps the most frustrating thing about Autumn is its perfect stillness. There is no ebbing conflict to resolve in glorious crescendo. Instead, there is a near-perpetual but ever so irritating tension, like electricity static. An existential cul de sac. There is no untying this knot, there is no solving this mathematical equation, because it is life itself. It cannot be squared. It cannot be compartmentalized. It can only be endured or, better yet, accepted. A kind of Scandinavian stoicism, standing strong like a solitary autumnal leaf, grasping on while all his brothers have long tumbled into that early November frost.


Karen Blixen’s Babette’s Feast: deceptively simple Scandinavian wisdom

Karen Blixen’s Babette’s Feast: deceptively simple Scandinavian wisdom

Karen Christenze von Blixen-Finecke had a complicated  but colourful life. Reared in a conservative monarchist family in a stately manor house on the outskirts of Copenhagen, she fell in love with some kind of a dashing equestrian, but, rejected, married his rogue twin brother instead. Then, fate threw her to a coffee farm in Africa, where she experienced financial ruin, infidelity, illness, death of her second big love, and a disgraced return to the native shores. And then there was war, and another war, and a sprinkling of successful books under various pseudonyms like Tania Blixen (for Anglophone audiences) and Isak Dinesen (for German-speakers). At the zenith of her literary fame, Blixen journeyed to the United States where, as a bona fide aristocrat, she subsisted on oysters, grapes, and champagne while giggling up a storm with the likes of Marilyn Monroe…

But before all those accolades there was the mysterious French Babette, a culinary therapist, a dark-eyed saviour of prudish Norwegian spinsters, and overall a much-beloved character of Blixen’s Babette’s Feast, immortalized on screen in an 1987 Academy Award laureate.

At forty pages of literary minimalism, Babette’s Feast is not to be underestimated, for it takes a mightier writing muscle to craft something meaningful laconically than it does through flowery diarrhea of verbosity. And so, in a simple story of a French refugee thanking her pious Norwegian hosts, the reader learns that 1) excess asceticism is not necessarily the truest path to righteousness and God and 2) when spiritual and corporeal realms are well-nurtured one gets the purest Nirvana.

“This woman is now turning a dinner at the Cafe Anglais into a kind of love-affair of the noble and romantic category in which one no longer distinguishes between bodily and spiritual appetite or satiety.”

Karen Blixen, Babette’s Feast

Babette, fleeing from the bloodbath of French Revolution, finds safety in the kind of place where split cod and ale-and-bread soup are the height of culinary sophistication. She is taken in by devout ecclesiastics who renounce the pleasures of this world, “for earth and all that it held to them was but a kind of illusion, and the true reality was the New Jerusalem towards which they were longing.” There is kindness here, true, but a lot of reservation. Open affection is scant, but regret is bountiful, and the scales ever more tip in its favour as wrinkles and grey hair make their inevitable advances.

Babette unwittingly throws a flaming Molotov cocktail right at the heart of this stoic philosophy by spending her entire fortune of a very lavish and very French feast for her benefactors and their uptight friends. There’s the fabled turtle soup with Amontillado sherry, Blinis Demidoff with Veuve Cliquot champagne, quail in puff pastry with foie gras and truffle sauce, and numerous other luxuries to impress even the toughest critic, let alone Babette’s unsophisticated guests. With each spoonful, with each glass of effervescent refreshment, their eyes glow brighter, their hearts beat louder, and all those putrid lumps of guilt, shame, submission, and denial melt away. They eat their way to God and emerge, with the last sip of their digestif, innocent like children.

There are clearly common themes between Blixen’s Babette and a 90s novel by Joanne Harris Chocolat (and its successful same-name film adaptation with the immaculate Juliette Binoche). Other adorably saccharine genre buddies such as Ratatouille or Julie and Julia also hammer home the same universally palatable thought – there is something patently magical about food, some artistry that leads to redemption, salvation, or at the very least self-actualization to be found at the tip of that brimming ladle.

Image: A still from Babette’s Feast film adaptation (1987).

A Man Called Ove: an ode to curmudgeons and a handbook to love

A Man Called Ove: an ode to curmudgeons and a handbook to love

The first sentence in Fredrik Backman’s A Man Called Ove is “Ove is fifty-nine.” The last sentence is “Saab.” That laconically epitomizes this Scandinavian superhit tearjerker, as saccharine a novel as can be. That’s a compliment, by the way. From the first page to the last, I read it with the widest grin on my face, so wide that even the comatose fellow train commuters kept noticing, half-awake in their uncomfortable slumber, naughtily peeking over my shoulder to catch a glimpse of the page that elicited grins too inappropriately happy for a 7 am commuter train.

Anyway, presenting our chess pieces:

There’s Ove, a textbook Grumpy Old Man, complete with his love of hard work, dedication, loyalty, insert every imaginable virtue here, and visceral hate of foreign cars (hence the importance of Saab, a sturdy, made-in-Sweden symbol of all these virtues, popping up with somewhat mathematical consistency across the book).

There’s also Parvaneh, a vivacious and pregnant Iranian neighbour of Ove’s. A fiery concoction of maternal wisdom and daughterly naïveté, Parvaneh comes along with a lanky IT consultant-husband who’s rubbish at house repairs, cars, and all things requiring manual labour, and two obviously adorable daughters.

Other characters, primarily neighbours of a fairly cookie cutter suburb, complete the chessboard: an app developer with weight issues, a gay barista, two Audi-driving D.I.N.K.s, an elderly couple headed by Ove’s former arch-nemesis/best friend, and, finally, a very dog-like feline christened Cat Annoyance.

The board is set, and now we play, peeling off the complex layers of Ove one by one, unveiling this adorable cabbage of a personality, so representative of his Baby Boomer generation, and yet so preciously unique in his own humanity. Ove the builder, Ove the train machinist, Ove the husband, Ove the menace of his homeowner’s association, Ove the orphan…

Granted, the plot is fairly predicable in numerous instances, but that in no way diminishes the oodles of love that envelop the reader, like a thick blanket on a wintry night. That’s what this book is all about: finding love in unlikeliest of places, finding meaning and even happiness in simple, everyday acts of kindness, finding friendship and loyalty among complete strangers who share naught but a frozen driveway.

Love thrives in this book like a plant that’s been cared for by a nurturing hand. It shows that even after the greatest loss, even when one has already compiled a well-researched morbid catalogue of the many ways to leave the mortal coil, it’s still rather surprisingly feasible to keep on shoveling the snow and feeding the cat and giving someone driving lessons, fully submitting your tired, wounded soul to the humble beauty of routines. And then, sometime after the most densely inpenetrable darkness, it’s also feasible to suddenly find yourself surprised at not being in a terrible hurry to leave this world anymore… And later still, in the midst of all the hapless neighbours that need you to run errands for them and to secretly love them in the way their absent parents never will, then, in that serene moment at a kids’ birthday party, you suddenly forget that you were even planning to ever leave. And so you go on living, you go on staying…

Just don’t ever forget that Saab is the best car in the entire world.

Image by the talented Norwegian illustrator Lisa Aisato. 

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.

Notable children’s authors unbeknownst to the Anglosphere: Part 1.

Notable children’s authors unbeknownst to the Anglosphere: Part 1.

It has always outraged me how readers in the English-speaking world are wickedly deprived of easy access to international literature, especially the works being translated from other languages. What a crying shame, and what injustice! The “Rest of the World” more often than not enjoys a far more comfortable literary vantage point, its reading menu deliciously diverse, while the audience in the Anglosphere is scandalously deprived (although they don’t know it so they’re not typically pissed off). Well, I know it (thank you, Eastern European upbringing!) and I am pissed off, so here is my modest David to the book industry’s behemoth of a Goliath. First, I’ll tackle the young’uns. And so, without further ado, here’s the list of some notable children’s books authors and their most dear works, which I wholeheartedly believe deserve an honourable spot in those budding minds and hearts via systematic inclusion of these literary gems into our sterile, uninspiring, colossal-waste-of-time scholastic curriculum.

1. Astrid Lindgren.

Where do I even start… Astrid Lindgren, that beloved daughter of Sweden, has given us so much more than Pippi Longstocking. I particularly recommend:

Karlsson-on-the-Roof. Karlsson is a middle-aged, potbellied, and boastful little man who lives somewhere in the vicinity of a chimney in the perfectly ordinary apartment building in Stockholm. Forgot to mention: he has a little propeller on his back which enables this Pillsbury poster boy-lookalike to fly, navigating the Scandinavian city landscape and its stucco roofs and the occasional pointy gothic cathedral. Karlsson, for all his lovably curmudgeonly ways, befriends a kiddo, a boy named Svante, a child a lot less self-confident than his pudgy new friend. The pair’s adventures, antics, and mutual Bildung ensue, as at the grand finale both emerge the kinder, stronger, more mature versions of themselves.

Mio My Son. Bo, a boy distinctly unloved by his adoptive parents, one day discovers that he is, in fact, a son of a kind and benevolent king of a magical land far, far away. In his rediscovered motherland Bo, now called Mio, has a remarkably loving and charismatic father, a beautiful white horse, a new best friend, and wonderfully hospitable subjects who treat him to snacks, hugs, and entertainment. Alas, the boy must become a man by battling the evil knight Kato who kidnaps and imprisons the kingdom’s children in his ghastly castle of fire and ice. This is a story filled to the brim with love and the inescapable necessity of sacrifice on the path to a fulfilling and meaningful existence.

2. Selma Lagerlof.

Another Swede, Selma Lagerlof was a suffragette, an anti-fascist, and the first female writer to win the Nobel Prize in Literature, in 1909. Her most well-known and internationally beloved work (it’s so popular in Sweden that the main character is immortalized on a Swedish banknote) is one I heartily recommend below:

Niels and the Wild Geese. This is a tale of adventures, magic, ethics, humility, and the peculiar joys of growing up. Niels is a disobedient young rascal with no respect for his parents and a somewhat sadistic attitude to the animals on the farm where he lives. In the best folk tale traditions, Niels insults a tomte (a Swedish version of a hob, a grumpy house creature that loves to trick or punish silly boys and young maidens). Tomte shrinks him to the size of a thumb. Niels, now reverse-bullied by the suddenly giant farm animals, flees with a flock of migrating geese, and thus a journey ensues, a geographic dance across the wonderfully diverse Sweden, peppered with curious encounters with other animals, talking monuments, sad young men in lonely cities, and the king of Sweden himself. At the end, the geography lesson is learned and the sinner is reformed, while the vivid memories of Niels’ adventures still stay with me, decades later.

3. Gianni Rodari.

An Italian communist and a recipient of the prestigious Hans Christian Andersen Medal for children’s literature, Rodari was a prolific and brilliant author, his writing intelligent, funny, insightful, and filled with love of all things Childhood. I would like to recommend not one, not two, but FOUR of Rodari’s works, starting with…

The Adventures of the Little Onion. Cipollino is said little onion, a fun-loving, quirky boy living an impoverished yet happy life with his assorted vegetable friends and their pompous and cruel upper-class fruit overlords; their town is plagued by oppression, inequality, and other class problems (this book was a massive in the Soviet Union – you can see why). But ideology aside, Cipollino’s adventures teach solidarity and courage against injustice in many heroic acts: there are the hilarious pranks on Count Orange, duchesses Cherries and their assorted sellout brown-nosers, the busting of the vegetable political dissidents out of prison, a bloodless revolution and the penultimate triumph of the callus-stemmed vegetariat. Cipollino is, essentially, Harry Potter, the chosen boy that dethrones a despot and his odious regime of injustice.

The Blue Arrow. What could be better than a toy store? A toy store during Christmas, of course. Alas, its adorable residents think otherwise. They long to end up in the arms of children, but not the whiny, insufferable, spoiled brats who have it all but still twist their parents’ arms for more. No, the toys yearn for the little hands of the poor children whose parents, toiling daily for that proverbial slice of bread and a drink of water, could never afford fancy toys from the city’s preeminent toy store. The solution is glaringly obvious – the toys board the Blue Arrow, an elegant little toy train, burst out of the store on one fateful and opulently snowy winter night, and venture on a peregrination across the city. They encounter kindness, heartkbreeak, loneliness, poverty, danger, and, ultimately, the pure, undistilled joy that comes with bring a miracle during the most miraculous time of the year. Read this story to the children in your life if you want to cultivate compassion, generosity, and humility.

The Cake in the Sky. One morning, ordinary citizens of an ordinary Italian town, chained to their monotonous jobs, traffic, chores and other joyless mediocrities, wake up, scratch their butts and, mid-yawn, realize, to their shock, awe, and outrage, that there’s an unandentified flying object taking up half of their boring old sky. Firefighters, policemen, and scientists are brought in, helicopters and cannons are out. But one little boy and his grandfather conduct their own investigation and are first to discover that the UFO is a delicious cake. Little by little, the grumpy city-dwellers shed their balls, chains, and facades, stripping away the suffocating burden of adulthood. What emerges? The return to innocence, steeped in laughter, hugs, ice cream, chocolate, and fruit syrup. And above all that, the pink apparition of Childhood, for whose warm embrace we all yearn.

Fairy Tales Over The Phone. Imagine yourself, a parent on a business trip, stuck in some hotel with severe-looking curtains and positively depressing wallpaper. Your daughter, far away back home in her adorable pajamas, is expecting a bedtime story which you are tasked with delivering, business trip or no business trip. Mind the fact that this is the 50s so you must do it telephonically, and inter-city calls, put through by cute girls with massive headphones covering their delicate ears are obscenely expensive. You must entertain your daughter effectively in a couple of minutes or less. Go! Gianni Rodari presents us with a precious string of such short stories, each funnier than the previous one, guaranteed to have both the teller and the recipient laugh their toes off (and then dutifully fall asleep, one on her adorable bed, the other in the designer stillness of a business suite).

Part two of my list to follow shortly. 

Image: Still from Karlsson on the Roof film (1974).