The latest addition to my website is Sara Lidman‘s Tjärdalen [The Tar Still]. This is Lidman’s first novel, telling the story of a remote Swedish village. Nils has spent a long time building a tar still, from which he hopes to make some money. However, just before he is to light it, he finds it destroyed. The culprit, Jonas, is lying in the ruins, badly injured. Jonas had worked for Nils and they had had a run-in and this is Jonas’ revenge. The villagers reluctantly look after Jonas but Nils has something of a breakdown. Petrus, a good but flawed man, tries to comfort Nils but Nils has a fit. Blom, the evangelical, says it is the work of the devil, Petrus says it is an epileptic fit. The second part of the novel is about the struggle for soul of the village between Petrus and the evangelical Blom. Lidman writes a fine novel, not getting carried away, but making her point.
The latest addition to my website is Johannes Anyuru‘s De kommer att drunkna i sina mödrars tårar (They Will Drown in Their Mothers’ Tears). Anyuru is Swedish but with a Ugandan father. He converted to Islam in 2007. We start with a terrorist attack on a bookshop in Gothenburg, where an author, Göran Loberg, who has caricaturised the Prophet Mohammed, is signing books. Two men and a woman carry out the attack. The woman claims she does not know her real name but is known as Nour. Only later do we learn the results of the attack, as we jump two years forward, where she is in an asylum for the criminally insane. She claims that she comes from an alternative future, where Muslims are brutally repressed, primarily because of the bookshop attack and murder of Loberg and others. In the real world, she came back from the future and prevented the murder of Loberg and others. But who is she? A famous Muslim author investigates. There are no easy answers, only that Sweden, in both the real and alternative world, is a racist country.
The latest addition to my website is Sara Stridsberg‘s Drömfakulteten (UK: Faculty of Dreams; US: Valerie) . The US title – Valerie – gives a much better idea of the subject than the UK one (a literal translation of the Swedish original), as the novel is about Valerie Solanas, who is known for two things: the SCUM manifesto (SCUM stand for the Society for Cutting Up Men) and for shooting (but not killing) Andy Warhol. In her introduction, Stridsberg says All characters in the novel should therefore be regarded as fictional, including Valerie Solanas herself.. While Solanas is real, many of the other characters are not and much of what we are told about Solanas is imaginary. We follow her early life, her sexual abuse by her father, her successful college career and then Scum and Warhol, leading to a mental hospital, followed by prostitution and, finally, death in a seedy San Francisco hotel. We do not learn why she shot Warhol, but we do learn about a woman who could have been a success but who ended up dying a miserable death. Stridsberg gives us a superb, feminist novel about the underbelly of fame and success in the US.
The latest addition to my website is Sara Stridsberg‘s Ode till min familj (Gravity of Love). This is Sara Stridsberg’s first novel translated into English (another one will be published in 2017). Not surprisingly, her work is available in nine other languages. This one is set primarily in the Beckomberga psychiatric hospital, an actual hospital just outside Stockholm, which was closed in 1995. It is narrated by Jackie, daughter of Jim, a serial alcoholic, philanderer and would-be suicide. After his wife, Jackie’s mother, Lone, leaves him, he attempts suicide one more time and is sent to Beckomberga. Jackie, who is a teenager, visits him regularly but he eventually rejects her, refusing to see her unless Lone comes as well. Lone refuses and is hell-bent on travelling around the world to see the various trouble spots. Three of the characters do commit suicide and Jim continues to try and threaten to do so, even long after he has been released from the hospital and remarried (and redivorced). Jackie struggles with her life as a single mother, unable to have a satisfactory relationship with others. This is a fairly bleak book about mental illness and those who live with those who have mental illness, with Stridsberg effectively showing the struggles that those involved go through.
I have just returned from a trip to Sweden and Lithuania. In Sweden, I stayed in the small town of Växjö (small but with a large university in its outskirts). Despite its size, it is the birthplace of several writers, including Jonas Jonasson, author of Hundraåringen som klev ut genom fönstret och försvann (The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared), Pär Lagerkvist, author of Dvärgen (The Dwarf) and Barabbas, Peder Sjögren, only one of whose books has been translated into English, Kärlekens bröd (Bread of Love), and, from nearby, Carl Linnaeus, who was educated in Växjö. However, as for current literature, Växjö is going the way of the rest of us – online and ebooks. There are two bookshops in town, both part of the Akademibokhandeln chain (link in Swedish only). See photo above, left, for the largest of the two.
And here is what they are reading or, at least what Akademibokhandeln is selling (all links to English-language sites, unless otherwise indicated). Sara Stridsberg has not been translated into English but has been translated into other languages. I have a copy of her Drömfakulteten [The Faculty of Dreams] in French. Her latest novel Beckomberga is doing well. It is subtitled Ode to My Family but is about and set in the famous Beckomberga mental institution.
Gabriella Håkansson is another Swedish writer not translated into English but translated into other European languages. She writes Gothic, historical novels. Kättarnas tempel [Temple of the Heretics], second part of a trilogy, has just been published.
Lena Andersson is another author who has not been translated into English. Last year her first novel about love – Egenmäktigt förfarande [Arbitrary Decision] – was published and it has now come out in paperback and is selling well. It is about how much we are willing to deceive ourselves in our desire to be loved.
Hanne-Vibeke Holst is a Danish writer whose latest work, Knud, den store [Knud, the Great], about her father the writer, Knud Holst, has just appeared in Swedish. Do I need to tell you that nine of her novels have been translated into German but none into English?
Christian Jungersen‘s Du Forsvinder (You Disappear) has just appeared in Swedish but, amazingly enough, is already available in English.
Majgull Axelsson has had a couple of her books translated into English – Aprilhäxan (April Witch) and Rosario är död (Rosario Is Dead) (the latter is non-fiction). Her latest novel – Jag heter inte Miriam [My Name Is Not Miriam] is just out in Sweden.
As for translated novels, they are reading the Knausgård epic – all are available in Swedish (we are still on the third) and the fifth is massive!- the new Murakami, The Goldfinch, Stoner (I must read it one day), Gone Girl, Philipp Meyer’s The Son and Siri Hustvedt‘s Den lysande världen, which we know as The Blazing World, though they also like the romantic novelist, Jojo Moyes.
Vilnius is a charming little town that claims to have the largest old town in Europe. Lithuania has, like most East European countries, had a turbulent history. It only ever had one king and he lived eight hundred years ago. (They nearly had another but he died just before his coronation.) For most of the time they were a Grand Duchy, more or less, subordinate to Poland though, interestingly enough, the Polish royal family, the Jagiellonians, descended from Lithuanians as much as from Poles. At one time, they were much bigger than they are now, encompassing not only modern-day Lithuania but also parts of what are now Latvia, Poland, Belarus, Russia and Ukraine. It is strange to think that cities like Smolensk and Vitebsk, that we think of as Russian, were once Lithuanian. Vilnius itself also changed hands and, indeed, was part of Poland till the end of World War II when Stalin generously gave it back to Lithuania. The Polish national poet, Adam Mickiewicz, studied and spent some time in Vilnius. The unprepossessing house pictured, right above, is where he lived but there are several other markers in Vilnius of places where he lived and studied. He is best-known for writing Poland’s national epic, Pan Tadeusz, whose opening lines are
Lithuania, my fatherland! You are like health;
How much you must be valued, will only discover
The one who has lost you.
The book is in print in English and readily available.
In Vilnius I visited Eureka! Knygynas. (Russian speakers will recognise the second word as being related to the Russian word for books, книги). I asked them which Lithuanian novelists are still being read and here is what they suggested.
Jurgis Kunčinas was a poet and novelist, who died in 2002. None of his works has, of course, been translated into English but two of his novels are available in German. Kristina Sabaliauskaitė lives in London and writes historical novels, none of which has been translated. Jurga Ivanauskaitė died aged forty-five but is still very much read. She wrote poetry, short stories and novels. A poetry collection has been translated into English. Two of her novels, both of which I have, have been translated into German. Romas Gudaitis is best-known as a politician but he also wrote four novels, none of which has been translated but which are still read in Lithuania.
Romualdas Granauskas is only known in English in the anthology Come into my Time, though a couple of his novels have been translated into German and one into Italian and Spanish. Though in his seventies, he is still publishing and still selling well in Lithuania.
Juozas Erlickas is known for his humorous works, making fun of post-independence Lithuania. He mainly writes plays and poems and has not, of course, been translated into English. Sigitas Parulskis writes mainly poetry and plays. One of his poetry collections has been translated into English. One of his novels has been translated into German.
The latest addition to my website is Gustaf Hellström‘s Snörmakare Lekholm får en idé (Lacemaker Lekholm Has an Idea). This is Hellström’s only book translated into English and a very enjoyable book it is. It is a family saga of the Lekholm family, starting with Pehr Lekholm, a lacemaker who fought in the First Schleswig War, though his continual telling of his bravery has made him more a figure of ridicule than admiration. He tries to improve the status of his family but the debts of his younger brother, Oscar, who is nominally studying medicine but actually just drinking and having fun, and the loss of a lacemaking contract with his former regiment, plunge him into debt and mean the family’s status declines. The story actually starts with the return of his grandson, Kalle, from the United States, where he has lived for the past twenty years with no contact with his family, apparently for a crime he committed, about which we only learn towards the end of the book. We follow the story of Kalle’s son, Carl, who joins the army, Carl’s younger brother, Anders, the musician, who also joins the army but is a drunk as well as being a moderately competent composer, and other family members. Kalle (now known as John Holmes) is worried about the reception he will receive, as the returning prodigal. It is a lively, witty and very enjoyable family saga, which, sadly, is long since out of print.