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.