Tag Archives: Wilful Disregard

Acts of Infidelity by Lena Andersson (transl. Saskia Vogel): Balancing the emotional books

Cover imageI 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.

Wilful Disregard by Lena Andersson (transl. by Sarah Death): None so blind as those who will not see

Cover imageI 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.

Paperbacks to Look Out For in January 2016: Part 1

Cover imageJanuary gets off to a stonking start with enough paperbacks to keep you oblivious to the dismal British winter. Pride of place has to go to Kate Atkinson’s fabulous A God in Ruins. By now, anyone who’s interested knows that this is the story of Teddy, brother of Ursula Todd whose many lives were lived in Life After Life. In her author’s note Atkinson says she likes ‘to think of it as a “companion” piece rather than a sequel’ and indeed that’s how it reads. I can’t speak highly enough of this novel. Just as with Life after Life, it’s an absolute mystery to me as to why Atkinson hasn’t swept the literary prize board with these two strikingly original books.

Another novel I would have liked to see at least longlisted for the Baileys, if nothing else, is Lucy Wood’s debut, Weathering. Ada and six-year-old Pepper are renovating her estranged mother’s cottage after she drowned. As Ada sets about putting distance between herself and the rest of the village Pepper becomes fascinated by her grandmother and her new surroundings. Put like that, Weathering sounds like a fairly prosaic tale but what singles it out is the vivid word pictures Wood sketches, often poetic but sometimes pithy and very funny. One of my favourite books of 2015.

One book that did make it on to a shortlist is Sean Michael’s Us Conductors which was already up for the Giller Prize when it was published here in the UK. It’s about, Leon Theremin, a Russian inventor born in 1896, and if that name seems familiar you may have come across the musical instrument he devised. Once heard its strange haunting sound is hard to forget. The bare bones of the novel are based on Theremin’s life but as Michaels is careful to point out at the very beginning ‘This book is mostly inventions’, a nice little pun on Leon’s activities which gives you a flavour of Michaels’ writing. Those inventions are spun out into an absorbing story, beautifully told.Cover image

I’m particularly eager to read the first of the three novels I haven’t reviewed: Lena Andersson’s Wilful Disregard. It’s about a coup de foudre that strikes Ester Nilsson when she meets artist Hugo Rask. She turns her back on her settled life, heedless of what anyone else says or thinks about her uncharacteristic behaviour. ‘A story of the heart written with bracing intellectual vigour’ says Alice Sebold. That title sounds particularly promising, I think.

Elyria in Catherine Lacey’s Nobody is Ever Missing seems to show a similar disregard when she abruptly leaves Manhattan on a one-way flight to New Zealand abandoning her career and loving husband. Elyria hitchhikes her way around the country, regardless of the risk.  ‘Full of mordant humour and uncanny insights, Nobody Is Ever Missing is a startling tale of love, loss, and the dangers encountered in the search for self-knowledge’ say the publishers. Sounds well worth investigating.

Cover imageThis first selection ends with Noah Hawley’s The Punch. Scott spends his time in seedy San Francisco joints when not at his dull job while David is a successful salesman with two families, one on each coast. These two are brought together when their father dies and their mother lets out a long-held secret as they travel across the country to New York. I like the idea of an American road trip and deep dark secrets are always a winner if well-handled. We’ll see.

That’s it for the first batch. If you’d like a fuller synopsis a click on a link will take you to my reviews for the first three titles and to Waterstones website for the others. And if you’d like to catch up with January hardbacks, they’re here and here. More shortly.