I reviewed Lena Andersson’s sharply observed, witty novella Wilful Disregard here a couple of years ago. It’s a study in obsession that has you squirming in your seat. Acts of Infidelity sees its main protagonist, Ester Nillson, once again in the grips of monomania, this time for Olof who is performing in her play, Threesome, about a man trapped in an unhappy marriage who becomes involved with another woman. Given the novel’s title, it doesn’t take much to work out how things will play between Ester and Olof.
Ester meets Olof at the first read-through of her play, experiencing a familiar tingling of attraction towards him. She’s a highly accomplished writer: a poet, playwright and intellectual. Intensely cerebral, she’s given to analysing the tiniest detail of their affair, balancing one interpretation against another yet choosing the one which fits her delusion no matter how outlandish or detrimental to herself. Olof is initially quiet about his marriage, blowing hot and cold with Ester, insisting that he and she are not in a relationship long after they have slept together. This is their particular dance: he breaks things off then one of them – often Ester – contacts the other and Olof carries on as if nothing has happened while Ester remains steadfast in her belief that he is on the brink of leaving his wife despite his frequent insistence that this will never happen. As the years roll past – three and a half of them – Ester’s friends become increasingly frantic in their advice, then weary, until one day she takes a decision.
While infused with a sly humour, Acts of Infidelity is altogether more sombre than Wilful Disregard. There’s the odd passing reference to Hugo Rask, the previous object of Ester’s obsession, but it’s clear she’s learned nothing from that experience. Andersson shows no mercy in skewering Ester’s self-deluded conviction that Olof is as besotted with her as she is with him while ‘Let’s get out of here’, Olof said, and proceeded to take a seat in an armchair neatly sums up Olof’s exasperatingly contradictory behaviour throughout their affair. The ‘girlfriend chorus’ listens as patiently as they did in Wilful Disregard, becoming less so as time wears on. This may sound like a rerun, then, but the difference is that sombre tone which makes Act of Infidelity sadly credible. Most of us have known friends in this kind of predicament, although perhaps not quite so extreme as Ester’s. The ending is a relief. Andersson refuses to put the blame squarely on the mistress’ shoulders as society so often does, offering instead – as you’d expect from Ester – a more complicated, nuanced interpretation.
Acclaimed poet Tom Malmquist’s book comes labelled by the publisher as a piece of ‘auto-fiction’ – a novel based on the author’s life rather than a memoir. Already garlanded with prizes in the author’s native Sweden, it’s the story of Tom whose partner Karin dies a few weeks after the premature birth of their daughter, beginning with Karin’s emergency hospital admission and ending with their daughter’s first day at pre-school.
Struggling for breath, Karin is rushed to the intensive care unit of a Stockholm hospital, six weeks before she’s due to give birth. At first it seems she may have pneumonia but several tests later she’s diagnosed with a case of acute leukemia. Her baby is healthy but needs to be delivered before Karin deteriorates beyond saving. Tom finds himself in a frantic daze of shock, desperately trying to grasp the situation, attempting to master it by gleaning every detail he can from Karin’s medical team and spreading the news to family and friends with whose shock and horror he must cope as well as his own. What feels like a few hours after Karin was admitted, their daughter Livia is thrust into his arms then taken quickly to the neonatal ward. For the next few weeks, Tom travels from one ward to the other, impotently watching his partner’s decline while his daughter begins to thrive. Soon he must take Livia home alone, then a bureaucratic nightmare is unleashed. Tom and Karin weren’t married: he has to prove he is Livia’s father to keep her. Stunned by grief and exhausted by lack of sleep, Tom devotes himself to Livia. Four months after her birth his father is admitted into palliative care. Malmquist’s heart-wrenching novel plumbs the depths of Tom’s grief through which shine flashes of joy as he learns how to take care of his beloved daughter.
This is an intensely immersive book. The choice to write it as fiction rather than autobiography allows Malmquist to play with form and language making it much more immediate. There are five sections but no chapters within them, only the occasional break. The first section is taken up with Tom’s experiences in the hospital; its breathless tone conveys the confusion, shock and panic of the situation much more powerfully than a tidy linear account. It’s a strange disorienting time when trivial concerns such as Tom’s worries about whether the hob has been left on at home and the whereabouts of a puffer jacket throw up a screen as if to shield him from the horror of what is happening. In the following section, vivid memories of Tom’s relationship with Karin punctuate his new life spent wrestling with Social Services, arranging Karin’s funeral and anxiously learning how to be a parent. Poignant details leap out from the often matter-of-fact narrative – Tom’s repeated calls to Karin’s phone to hear her voice, his singing of Here Comes the Sun to Livia. It’s an extraordinarily powerful book, impossible not to be moved by it. I hope Malmquist found some sort of catharsis in writing his novel.
I already had Lena Andersson’s Wilful Disregard in my sights but when Charlotte Collins, translator of the excellent A Whole Life, left a comment praising it to the skies on my January paperback preview it zoomed up my list. She called it ‘the cleverest dissection of misguided obsession that I’ve ever read’, a spot on assessment, I’d say. It’s short, but not sweet. Easily read in a few hours but be prepared to squirm.
Ester Nilsson is an intensely cerebral writer, dedicated to forensic enquiry and expression in her work. She’s lived with Per for many years in an agreeable if slightly dull relationship. When she’s commissioned to give a lecture on Hugo Rash, an artist lauded for the ‘moral fervour’ characterising his work, she spends a week researching her subject, becoming captivated by him even before they meet. He’s delighted with what she delivers, taking her out for a celebratory meal at which they discuss a multitude of issues, or rather she puts forward well thought out arguments while he replies with a rather disappointingly clichéd set of aphorisms. You’d think that would be the end of this mismatch but Ester is seized by a passion the like of which she’s never known, throwing over poor Per and embarking on a relationship based on midnight texts and long meals spent talking, all of which Ester sees as leading to an inevitable conclusion: a full-blown romantic relationship. There’s also a lot of hanging around outside Hugo’s studio, engineering meetings on the street and parties where his face falls with increasing regularity as he spots her.
Wilful Disregard manages to be both bitingly funny and excruciating discomfiting. It’s clear from the start that this is a hopelessly mismatched couple. Ester is obsessed to the point of derangement, gleaning hope from the barest slivers of encouragement, while Hugo is a man addicted to approbation, not much of a thought in his head in contrast with Ester’s endless over-analysing. Andersson nails this dysfunctional relationship beautifully in a single sentence: ‘Neither of them was really interested in her but they were both interested in him’. The ‘girlfriend chorus’ is wonderfully comic touch with their endless, patient litany of consolation, advice and gentle criticism which Ester never fails to interpret as evidence that she’s on the right track with Hugo. As the book progresses, Ester’s inability to accept the truth becomes more and more painful but it’s compulsive – I had to keep reading to see just how far she’d go and what would finally make her see sense. A smart, funny novella best read if you’re feeling happy in your relationship.
I have to admit to picking this up because it’s Swedish. I read it during what seemed to be a period of deep virtual immersion in Scandiland – watching the first series of The Legacy re-watching Borgen and reading Martin Booth’s excellent The Almost Nearly Perfect People squarely aimed at people like me who have a tendency to think of Scandinavia as a Nordic Nirvana. Håkan Nesser is well-known as a crime writer and I’m not a crime reader however A Summer with Kim Novak is billed as ‘combining coming-of-age and crime’. To my mind, it’s very much more the former than the latter: there is a crime but it’s not the point of the book.
Erik, our narrator, was fourteen years old during 1962 or the summer of The Terrible Thing as he refers to the event that’s frequently foreshadowed in the first part of the novel. His mother is dying and his father decides that Erik should go to the family summer house with his older brother, Henry, and a colleague’s son, Edmund, also coping with a sick mother. A sophisticated sharp dresser – at least to a fourteen-year-old – with an eye for beautiful women, Henry has given up his journalist job to write a book. Once established in Genesaret, it becomes clear that Henry’s fiancée will not be joining them as planned, and soon Ewa Kaludis comes visiting. Erik’s summer term had been brightened by the arrival of Ewa – the spitting image, as you’ve probably guessed, of glamorous film star Kim Novak, and the fiancée of the local handball hero – who rides her smart red Puch around town, charming all, not least her eager pupils. Over the summer Erik and Edmund become close, bonding over their ailing mothers and their burgeoning lust for Ewa. All changes after the night of The Terrible Thing: the two boys will not see each other for many years when it becomes clear that each has taken a very different path.
Given Nesser’s celebrated reputation as a crime writer it’s entirely possible that readers primed for a police procedural might be disappointed in this novel but for me it worked well. Nesser captures the awkwardness of adolescence beautifully. Erik and Edmund’s troubled backgrounds cement an entirely believable bond between them, each taking solace in the other. Despite all that’s happening at home they manage to have what both are agreed is a ‘brilliant summer’: living a life free of adult restraint, rowing on the lake, fantasising about Ewa, forging a friendship which in the normal turn of events would last for life. Nesser is particularly good on the strangulated emotions which surround Erik’s mother – he and his father communicate in clichés, both terrified of what’s happening. I wasn’t entirely convinced by the dénouement, cleverly unfolded though it was, but I’ll leave you to decide about that – for me the path to it in the final section of the book seemed a little improbable. Coming-of-age rather than crime novel, then, and if that’s how you judge it a thoroughly successful one.
This is my second review of a Scandi book this year and we’re only half-way through January. Both prove that it’s not all crime and angst in the chilly north. Jonas Karlsson’s short fable manages to be wacky, funny and thought-provoking all within a very few pages. Set in an open plan Swedish office, it’s about Björn and his conviction that somewhere between the toilets and the recycling bin at his new workplace there’s a small room in which he’s his best self and does his best work. Unfortunately, where he sees a door his new colleagues see a blank wall.
Björn’s two weeks into his job with the shadowy Authority (eliciting the inevitable comparison with Kafka) when he stumbles upon the room. Standing in front of its mirror he notices that he looks considerably smarter, better turned out and somehow more alert. Over the course of the next few weeks he visits it regularly, taking a colleague aside for a confidential chat and even having an erotic encounter in there at the Christmas party. Everyone else insists that he’s spending increasing amounts of time standing next to the wall and they’re not happy. Over the very short course of Karlsson’s novella, Björn goes from office outcast to rising star, but will it last?
Reading Karlsson’s novella will take a couple of hours at most but that feels quite some time to be inside Björn’s head. Arrogant and superior, he’s devoid of all social skills ignoring the friendly overtures of his new colleagues in a manner worthy of The Bridge’s Saga but without the endearing habit of at least trying to understand other people. Despite the menial tasks he’s asked to perform, he’s convinced that his brilliance will be recognised and eventually it is which may well have you grinding your teeth in annoyance along with his colleagues. It’s very funny at times, bringing back cringe-making memories of working in open plan offices with its petty skirmishes about territory and mind-numbing meetings spent crammed in to the senior manager’s goldfish bowl, but it’s also about how those who are different are perceived by the rest of us. Björn’s colleagues are all too keen to have him kicked out for his bizarre behaviour. It’s quite an uncomfortable read at times, but often very amusing one and thought-provoking with it. Quite a feat in a mere 176 pages.