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Women’s cyclical work in men’s linear world

As Norvik Press publishes its new collector’s editions of Kerstin Ekman’s ‘Women and the City’ quartet, Sarah Death considers the clashing versions of time that structure the third book in the series, The Angel House.

In one chapter of The Angel House, the author describes how the lottor, the women’s defence service volunteers, are called on to cook and serve up vast amounts of food at the railway station for soldiers in transit overnight. One of them, Hilda, reveals when chatting to an apparently friendly officer on the platform that she has worked out the times and destinations of the trains, despite precautions designed to maintain secrecy. The man turns out to be a security officer and Hilda receives a severe reprimand and is demoted to kitchen duties so she poses no further risk.

Later we find a scene in which another lotta, Jenny, one of the novel’s central characters, is also affected by the timetables of war. Wartime production of anti-aircraft guns means her husband Fredrik is constantly obliged to work overtime, but Jenny hates the war, even if it brings employment in neutral Sweden. Tired after her long night shifts at the railway station, she drags herself out of bed before six, makes Fredrik his breakfast and waves him off, but inside she feels an incoherent anger: ‘Suddenly she wanted to shout after him, open the window and shout so that everyone could hear. Good God – it’s Sunday! That’s something special, a holiday when people wear better clothes, eat different food. They can’t do this to time!’

These two episodes also have a deeper significance. They are not isolated incidents, but part of a pattern which underpins the whole novel, and indeed the whole ‘Women and the City’ series about the people and the industrialisation of a Swedish provincial town. This quartet, written between 1974 and 1983, stands out from other epics of social realism in twentieth-century Swedish literature for its sustained identification with the women’s perspective. With industrialisation seen here as essentially the men’s preserve, there is a conflict throughout between the female and male strands of the narrative. In the two episodes described above, Kerstin Ekman is showing women co-opted by, and falling foul of, Men’s Time, and conflicts of this sort erupt repeatedly.

For men, time in the world depicted by Ekman appears largely as a linear project of departure, progression and arrival, whereas women’s time is more organic and cyclical. The latter’s strands of the narrative are more likely to be expressed in seasonal or gestational time, or in the loose rhythms of domestic tasks, than in rigid clock time. Time is elastic for the women in this novel, ranging from long periods of enforced waiting to interludes of frenzied activity. Male time in The Angel House, on the other hand, is ‘tempo’, a hectic, artificial, externally imposed time which attempts to structure life and order society. It is the time of factory hooters, referees’ whistles and military exercises. Above all it is train-timetable time, the railway representing the march of progress and the triumph of technocratic solutions.

The narrative deliberately alternates between male and female episodes. Thus, for example, a chapter highlighting young Ingrid’s feelings about pregnancy and impending motherhood is followed by a history of the Carlsborg, a building in which the – male – town councillors manoeuvre for ever greater influence in smoke-filled rooms. And on Jenny and Fredrik’s summer cycling holiday, Jenny’s enjoyment of the open air and sense of identification with Stone Age female pot makers are followed by a day spent, at Fredrik’s request, touring the Bofors armaments factory.

Ekman’s individual male characters are far from caricatures, they are three-dimensional human beings, with all their failings and strengths. But when she depicts male collectives and men’s time, the tone is nearly always ironic, even comic. The tone when she writes about women and the passing of their time is quite different. She does not hesitate to reveal their weaknesses, but she charts their lives and labour (in all senses of the word) with tenderness and empathy. As Ekman writes of them elsewhere, ‘You want to fly to heaven in the company of spiritual gentlemen. But yours is a fate that is pure biology. And yours is a bloody awful story.’

Much of The Angel House is set during the Second World War and, as we have seen, wartime exigencies polarise male and female timetables still further. But running through the whole novel, in peacetime and in wartime, a vivid reminder of the two different approaches to time is provided by the contrasting pair gator/gårdar (streets/gardens) and the very different pace of life in those worlds, one public and one private, as the year passes. In one of them, there are tax officials, town councillors, property deeds changing hands and budgets recommended for child allowances and pensions. In the other, tucked away in the backyards, there are rows of privies, knotty old trees and raspberry thickets, rain on the spring vegetables, a swing, and holes in the hedges for cats and children and people who need to borrow a cup of milk.

This is a newly revised and shortened version of an essay first published in A Century of Swedish Narrative, eds. Sarah Death and Helena Forsås-Scott (Norvik Press, 1994).

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Reading and re-reading Kerstin Ekman on a century of women’s lives

To mark the publication of our new editions of the Women and the City series, translator Linda Schenck offers her enthusiastic and personal perspective on the power of Ekman’s writing.

Witches’ Rings, The Spring, The Angel House and City of Light – my heart still quickens at the sight of this tetralogy by Kerstin Ekman on my bookshelf. What is it about them?

I was in my late twenties and early thirties when I read these books as they were being published (between 1974 and 1983, translations between 1997 and 2003), waiting with bated breath for the next volume. Very early on, I also knew that I aspired to translate them (I was just beginning to find my feet as a translator, a profession I have come to love and appreciate not least for the closeness it gives me to texts). Initially, I had a contract with a small press in the US to translate Witches’ Rings. This was in the years before computers were the tool of the trade. I typed my manuscript in duplicate, using carbon paper. At some point in the mid-1980s after I submitted my translation to the press and before there were proofs, the press went bottom up, taking my hopes of translation with it. For many years the carbon copy remained in my desk drawer, until Norvik Press agreed to publish first Witches’ Rings, and eventually the entire tetralogy. Sarah Death kindly agreed to translate The Angel House so the project could be expedited rather than dragged out over two or three additional years. And so by 2003 the entire tetralogy was finally available to English-language readers, two decades after its publication in Swedish.

A full adult lifetime (and translation career) later, this tetralogy still stands out to me as the greatest writing by a contemporary author it has been my privilege to make available in English. When people ask me what I would choose to translate, given a free hand, I answer without hesitation: the two volumes of Ekman’s later trilogy, known as the Wolfskin Trilogy: Sista rompan (The Last String) and Skraplotter (Scratchcards), which have not yet found a home in the world of English publications. (The first volume of the trilogy, God’s Mercy, is available in the European Women in Translation series published by the University of Nebraska Press: https://www.nebraskapress.unl.edu/bison-books/9780803224582/. The series was published in Swedish between 1999 and 2003.)

What makes these Women and the City books so unputdownable? What makes Ekman such an outstanding novelist? What makes these four books so universal, in spite of their extreme specificity of place? I had planned to leaf through them (for the first time in twenty years) in order to write this blogpost. I found myself unable to leaf, caught up once again in the narrative. Ekman has, quite simply, that amazing gift that only the greatest writers possess: an ability to combine structure, character depiction, theme and depth into stories that bite and burn, but also with wonderful humorous twists.

The four novels span an entire century, beginning in the early 1870s, a hundred-year period marked by the arrival of the railroad at one end and the chaotic advent of the global village at the other, all from the point of view of women and their work. As a reader, my heart goes out to each woman. Let me simply introduce some of them with a few words, and a quotation from the books. The first is Sara Sabina Lans, “gray as a rat, poor as a louse, pouchy and lean as a vixen in summer” and Witches’ Rings mainly follows her reasonably long life, then the very short life of her daughter Edla – “The innkeeper took Edla into service, not officially as a proper housemaid, of course, since she was only thirteen and a half years old…” – and then focuses on Edla’s daughter Tora: “Tora Lans was fifteen years old when she went to Meadowlands. She was strong and built for work, as her grandmother had said”. Edla died giving birth to Tora before she was fourteen. Tora was raised by her grandmother, Sara Sabina Lans. When The Spring opens, Tora is a widow at twenty-seven, with two toddlers and an earlier son given up for adoption. By the middle of The Spring (which encompasses World War I) she is in her mid-fifties, still laboring to make ends meet, and by the end of The Angel House she is dying and World War II has come and gone (“It seemed…that the illness and death casting a shadow over her short, windswept autumnal days made her doubly eager to teach them the art of survival”). She and her neighbor and close friend Frida, thirteen years Tora’s senior, have moved up in the world, to the extent that Tora now owns one of the local tea rooms and Frida has employment at the local laundry rather than going to people’s homes to do their washing. (“Frida was born in 1863. That was the year the number of out-of-wedlock children in the parish doubled, the year after the western branch of the railway was completed… That was nearly sixty years back. Occasionally she was tempted to say to Tora, ‘Your mother and I were classmates. We were the same age and would have done our catechism together’. But Tora’s mother didn’t live to be confirmed”). Their children are adults now, with the exception of Ingrid, Frida’s “accident” from the period of the great strike of 1909, whose life has mainly been spent fostered out into care, but for whom Tora has always played a decisive role. Ingrid gradually becomes a main figure of The Angel House, a working woman with a child of her own. (“What are these attacks of exhaustion and crying and abandonment and hysteria? Will I ever understand? This feeling that life’s got too hard and the demands have multiplied and there’s work, nothing but work, poking its grey snout up wherever I look…”). Towards the end we are introduced to Ann-Marie (“She wasn’t Fredrik and Jenny’s little girl, but the daughter of an inventor Fredrik had got to know… Ann-Marie had no mother”).

When City of Light opens, Ann-Marie is a middle-aged woman who has returned from Portugal, where she lives, to sell her alcoholic father’s house after his death. She hopes to make quick work of the whole affair, but her return to Sweden coupled with the disappearance of her teenage daughter provokes a deep depression and a soul-searching journey. So, from the 1870s, when Sara Sabina Lans’ lot was a life of mainly physical labor, the reader has moved forward a century, to the 1970s and a mainly psychological focus. In City of Light the exploration uses myth, religion and philosophy, all hallmarks of the late twentieth century, to continue posing the core question of the tetralogy: what is the life of a woman? (As the narrator tells us: “We all drag a cloud of causes behind us”).

Maria Schottenius, a Swedish writer and Ekman scholar, concludes her foreword to the 2003 translation of City of Light with a short paragraph that to me perfectly sums up the entire experience of reading the Women and the City tetralogy: “This is no innocent work of literature. It has a powerful story to tell. And a unique way of telling it”.

I deeply hope that twenty-first century readers will be tempted to delve into these stories. In my view they offer an incomparable overview of both personal and community life from the 1860s through to nearly the end of the twentieth century. Sadly, as I write this, in 2021, a year into the pandemic with no end in sight and vaccines being hoarded by the wealthy western world with no concern for the rest of the world, Ekman’s indication of where the world was heading seems nothing less than prophetic.

A concluding anecdote: the cover of the first edition of Witches’ Rings was quite upsetting to me, as it so poorly reflected the content of novel, which highlights the wonders of the railroad and much of the modernization that came to budding urban areas in its wake. It was a photo of an extremely dilapidated railroad station. The book received an excellent fine review in Kirkus Reviews (November 15, 1997): “…a fine novel that honors, as it emulates, the tradition of village fiction created by such earlier Scandinavian masters as Selma Lagerlöf and Knut Hamsun. It’s wonderful stuff.”  And so I finally broached the subject of the cover with Kerstin Ekman herself. Her reply reflected her usual aplomb: “Indeed, the child we share seems to have gone out into the world in tatters, but in fact she is doing fine out there.” My relief was enormous. And I find the new 2021 cover both extremely attractive and eminently suitable!

Linda Schenck, May 2021

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Jens Bjørneboe

‘… it struck me again that we inhabit an earth which is filled with a beauty beyond all understanding – and that we’ve turned this paradise into a slaughterhouse and a criminal asylum – into an all-embracing La Morgue, stinking of benzol and chloroform – instead of making water on finance ministers (as the hospital cat does) and singing, drinking wine, praising the solar system, frolicking, mating with each other, writing plays, and praying to the stars.’

This quotation from Powderhouse encapsulates the central concerns of the trilogy by Norwegian writer Jens Bjørneboe (1920–76) in the 1960s and 70s: Moment of Freedom (Frihetens øyeblikk, 1966); Powderhouse (Kruttårnet, 1969); and The Silence (Stillheten, 1973). Throughout his writing career Bjørneboe had been preoccupied with investigating injustice and cruelty, from the inhumanity of the World War II concentration camps to the brutalizing prison system and the regimented education system, stamping those who are different as ‘sub-normal’. In this trilogy he attempts through different narrators to address the fundamental issue of the problem of evil: why, when we have been presented with this beautiful earth, have we set out to destroy it and one another?

These three books – he calls them ‘manuscripts’ or ‘protocols’ rather than novels – range over a large amount of historical material, from witch-burning to public executions, from Verdun and Dachau to Cortez’ destruction of the Aztec empire and Pisarro’s destruction of the Inca empire. The investigations are conducted by a narrator who is variously a court official arranging trials, the caretaker of a lunatic asylum and an unidentified observer. Dark as his journey is, it is relieved by moments of intense awareness of the coolness of the night air, the taste of fine wine or the warmth of a lover’s body; and the trilogy culminates in the realisation that even if our capacity for evil is overwhelming, so is our capacity for good. He has researched the case for the prosecution, but there is also a case for the defence, ‘of man the incomprehensible – endlessly evil, endlessly good – all-renewing, all-destroying’.

 It was largely thanks to the Herculean efforts of Bjørneboe’s American translator, Esther Greenleaf Mürer, that Norvik Press was able to publish this trilogy in 1999-2000. The rather stunning covers of the first edition of the books were taken from works by one of Norway’s most important twentieth-century painters, Frans Widerberg.

In 2017 we reissued the three books in a new format and with a different cover design by Essi Viitanen:

One year after The Silence, Bjørneboe published his final novel, The Sharks (Haiene, 1974). This is a more traditional novel than the trilogy, and full of action and suspense; it is a thrilling story of mutiny and shipwreck, stranding on a desert island and survival against the odds. But at the same time it resounds with the urgency of all of Bjørneboe’s work, here addressing the problem of how a small community might construct a fair and equal society. It is Bjørneboe’s vision of an anarchist Utopia, of power shared by all and of commitment to another human being which provides a reason for hope of a better future.

This novel too was translated by Esther Greenleaf Mürer and first published by Norvik Press in 1992. Our first edition sold out, and we republished the book in 2016.

It is now just over a hundred years since Jens Bjørneboe was born, forty-five years since he took his own life, and memories of his hugely controversial life and writings have faded somewhat. But the questions he asked, uncomfortable as they were, are questions we need to go on asking. Indeed, it might be said that in the present context, his concerns about the future of Planet Earth are more pressing than ever.

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Penwoman Redux

The enduring appeal of Elin Wägner’s suffragist classic

‘For the Hard Labour Gang, it was a summer like no other.’ This is a book about sisterhood and struggle that has won the hearts of many Swedish readers over the years. And that is why, when bulk orders from Norway and the US sent my translation of Penwoman out of stock, the team at Norvik Press pulled out all the stops to make a new, digitised edition and ensure this great novel remained available. Serendipitously, this also means we are able to bring you a sleek new cover design by Essi Viitanen, incorporating a photograph of the author taken around 1917. Wägner’s enigmatic but knowing look makes this a definite favourite of mine among images of her.

Originally published in 1910, Penwoman is the classic novel of the Swedish women’s suffrage movement. Its vividly and wittily portrayed gallery of diverse female campaigners comes together to form a collective that throws itself into tireless campaigning. They find male allies but also clash with irate conservative opponents (of both sexes) and risk both limb and reputation to advance their struggle for the vote. The protagonist is a young female journalist named Barbro, universally known as Penwoman. She is unconventional, feisty and fearless, but finds that the complications of love and friendship can take their emotional toll and be serious distractions from the task in hand.

As a pioneering female journalist over a century before the #metoo movement, Penwoman faces insults, innuendo and a very real threat of physical violence, be it at her boarding house, in her campaigning, or when going about her journalistic duties on the streets of the capital, sometimes after dark. Her experience and humanity drive her to be moved by the plight of women from every background, from the abused prostitute Klara to the lonely princess arriving with her family and retinue at the main railway station. Penwoman, sent to cover the royal visit and ‘be sure to note what she is wearing’, is deeply moved by a scribbled note tossed to her by the young woman:

Penwoman had been watching the Princess with mounting astonishment, and now gave her a direct stare, as if to ask if she had understood correctly, before picking up this unexpected message from a higher world.

“I wish I were a reporter.” Written in English. Ah, so that was what she was thinking!

The Princess was still standing there, even though the official welcomes had already begun; it was as if she were waiting desperately for an answer.

“She is like a rare, royal flower, condemned to wither young” – the phrase ran for a moment through Penwoman’s trained columnist’s brain – “her eyes looking out on the world, wide and uncertain, shifting between grey and violet like the blue fox fur round her neck…”

But she realised very well that the Princess needed comforting swiftly and unambiguously, before her archdukely aunt got hold of her, and with a quick, sad gesture containing the eloquence of a whole world, she reached out both her hands in their threadbare gloves, with a hole in every fingertip.

This multi-dimensional tale of pioneering female lives also has its moving and poetic moments. Here is one of my own favourites: in one of her confrontations with an alpha male politician whose cooperation is vital to the cause, Penwoman persuades him to make a bet. He will grant a concession if she can find a particular species of spring flowers blooming in the grounds of his home:

The Baron’s flowers, she thought suddenly, the wager! She turned off the path and began hunting among the clusters of overwintered leaves that protruded from the moss. Nor did it take long before she had found a whole clump of hepatica, which she carefully loosened with her penknife. Then she picked up the clump of flowers tenderly in both hands and turned to walk back.

    They looked like a group of little women, she thought, huddled together, bending into the wind in their downy grey clothing, modest but bold, with whole flocks of little beginners down at the hems of their skirts, and only one of them had as yet had the courage to turn her calm, blue gaze to the sky.

    Just like our own pioneers, she thought, and it was as if they only now came alive and could be taken to her heart, all those who had dared to make a start, when the frost was still biting, and the snowdrifts lay hard-packed in the forest. To her own surprise, tears came to her eyes; they were all dead, and they would never know how much we now understood, remembered and revered them.

The group dynamics of the suffrage campaigners are a central feature of this kaleidoscopic novel, and Penwoman’s youthful optimism is a perfect foil for the melancholy of her slightly older colleague Cecilia.  Cecilia’s own personal emotional tragedy lies at the heart of the unforgettable opening pages:

For a person who was once in love with a stationmaster, there are most certainly more pleasurable ways of spending the day than being carried across Sweden at a leisurely pace on a stopping train. In those days, when he was head station clerk and the only man in the world, all those stations through which a person now finds herself passing – Nässjö, Mjölby, Katrineholm – were as many imagined homes, where one knew the price of wood and meat and how to find a little cultured company. Since then, it is true, they have reverted to being sooty little halts of no significance, but a person still does not pass through them with indifference, for she has never loved anyone else. And all the while, as kilometre is added to kilometre, she is chaperoned by the certainty that, as inevitably as growing older, she is being drawn closer to that junction to which he was promoted, where there will be a twenty-minute stop for dinner, or whatever one chooses to call it. A person had at any rate decided a whole week ago not to leave the carriage this time, but did not think it would help much, for she had long since abandoned any expectations of herself. She might turn her back to the carriage window and take out her sandwiches, but one is destined to eat one’s own past sliced and cold, and when the train has stood there for twenty minutes she rises hurriedly to her feet, as if she has forgotten something vital, and hurries out onto the platform to wander up and down and with thumping heart steal a glance or two through the dirty panes of the booking office, until finally the man she would do anything to avoid emerges from a door marked “Entry Prohibited”.

Order your copy now from your favourite bookshop!

There is much more about the fascinating life and times of writer and campaigner Elin Wägner in a lively review of a probing new biography, in the spring 2021 issue of Swedish Book Review: https://swedishbookreview.org/den-besvarliga-elin-wagner-review

Sarah Death, translator of Penwoman

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Amalie Skram: feminist or not?

In many ways, the Norwegian writer Amalie Skram (1846–1905) was an archetypal feminist. Outspoken and daring as a child, she had set out as a teenager for a life of adventure as the wife of a ship’s captain, sailing round the world before she was twenty-five. She later published critical articles in the national papers, and was unafraid to clash swords with public figures such as Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson and Georg Brandes, leaders of the Modern Breakthrough movement. She divorced her first husband despite the fact that such an action was regarded as scandalous, and determined to make her living by her pen, which she duly did.

Amalie Skram

Amalie Skram’s second husband, the Dane Erik Skram, was as unusual a man as she was a woman; a journalist and writer himself, he thoroughly accepted her compulsion to write, and supported her career in any way he could, to the extent of caring for their little daughter while she wrote. Yet writing was for her a continual struggle, and making a living from it always precarious. At a time when most Nordic writers of any distinction were supported by government grants, Amalie Skram was refused a grant by Norway – because she was married to a Dane – and refused a grant by Denmark – because she was originally Norwegian. After her second marriage failed, she spent several years in illness and poverty, before dying at the age of 58.

It was during Amalie Skram’s years in Denmark that the European women’s movements began in earnest, and in 1888 the first meeting of the various Nordic societies for women’s emancipation was held in Copenhagen. The energetic chairman of the Danish society, Matilde Bajer, wrote to Amalie Skram to ask her to participate. Her answer was unequivocal: ‘I cannot be involved as a participant or committee member for the Women’s Congress. Although I have of course great sympathy for and interest in the cause of women’s emancipation, it is my immovable decision to refrain from all practical involvement. There are many ways of working for a cause, and the way I have attempted to do so takes up all my time, all my abilities and all my love.’ (Letter 7/2/1887)

So it is to her novels that Amalie Skram maintained we should look for her feminist commitment – and indeed it is in evidence there. Norvik Press has published three novels by Amalie Skram, all in translations by the indefatigable Katherine Hanson and Judith Messick: Lucie (1888), Fru Inés (1891)and Betrayed (1892). All are stories of women whose hopes of a life of love and fulfilment are dashed by the societies they live in; all are in some way betrayed. Lucie is a fun-loving former dancer, whose besotted lover marries her – but can then never forgive her for being unable to transform herself into a refined middle-class lady and lose her ‘over-familiar’ manners. Fru Inés is a Spanish Levantine living in Constantinople and married to a sadistic older man; she seeks love in an affair with a much younger lover, but finds only disillusion and disappointment. And Aurora in Betrayed is a lively young woman who, like her author, marries a sea captain and sets sail for a life of adventure, only to find that her sheltered upbringing has left her ill prepared for the realities of married life.

Betrayed

Here is an excerpt from the first chapter of Betrayed, where Aurora is talking to her mother on her wedding day:

‘A bride who loves her husband is entering into the greatest joy in life. And you have taken him of your own free will, and for love, haven’t you, Ory?’

‘Yes, but now I have to sleep in the same bed with him’— her voice changed to a broken, distressed whisper as she straightened up, walked quickly across the room and faced her mother, her hand clenched on the corner of a chest of drawers. ‘Granny Riber told me that she had brought her mother’s bridal bed down from the attic and that it was going to be my bridal bed too.’ She gasped and looked at her mother as if expecting her to collapse in horror.

‘You knew about this!’ Ory leaned forward. ‘Knew it and didn’t say a word about anything to me. Oh Mama, Mama, how could you do that!’ Ory threw herself down in a chair, writhing as if in pain. 

‘Why should I soil your imagination before it was necessary? Sit up, Ory, you are crushing your dress against the drawers.’

Ory obeyed and looked over at her mother with a pained, questioning expression.

‘You are behaving unnaturally, Ory. And besides, it’s only for one night.’

‘Then why couldn’t I stay home on this one night,’ Ory said despairingly as she prowled around the room, biting her handkerchief. ‘What was the point of all this fuss about staying at Granny Riber’s? To think you would refuse me this, Mama, after all my begging and pleading.’

‘Please, Ory, we could hardly let Riber stay at the hotel on his wedding night.  If only to keep people from talking we couldn’t do that.’ …

‘Well, why didn’t you tell me about this before, Mama? Then I could have saved myself in time.’

‘I really thought you and your girlfriends knew about these things. It was different when I was young, but now in 1869?’

‘I don’t know anything,’ Ory said, trembling with anxiety. ‘Mally told me once that you got babies by being alone with your husband at night, but I thought that sounded like nonsense.’

‘Just be sweet and obedient, Ory, and everything will be fine. It’s really not so bad, believe me.’

‘You said soil,’ Ory wept. ‘You didn’t want to soil my imagination, you said. Oh Mama, Mama, how could you—my own mother—treat me this way?’

‘I just want the best for you, my dearest daughter. Only the best for you. And so it’s my duty to tell you that from now on your husband has complete power and authority over you. You must yield to him and be as obedient as a lamb, otherwise he will be poorly served by his sweet little wife. And otherwise you set yourself against God’s commandments, which is the worst thing of all.’

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On the delight of dual-language editions

Students of languages will attest to the usefulness of dual-language editions, where the source text and the translation are presented on facing pages for ease of comparison – so we’re delighted to have published two such gems!

Dual-language editions enable the reader some insight into the decisions of the translator(s) – whether you’re learning a language, or engaging in literary criticism.

Emily Jeremiah and Fleur Jeremiah’s facing-page translation of a new collection of Pentti Saarikoski’s poetry, A Window Left Open, is perfect for investigating the array of interpretations available. Take this snippet, for example:

no one has time
to think of the right metaphor.
The eyes of the stars
shut down,
the wind falls asleep in the cat basket.

…a plethora of possibilities!

Photo by Wil Stewart on Unsplash

But don’t take just our word for it: in the spirit of dual-language editions, here’s a second voice to add to ours – Jean Boase-Beier, Translations Editor, Arc Publications:

Part of the fascination of dual-language books is that a reader who does not speak the original language can see how words in the originals gradually become recognisable: bird; tree; shadow; poetry. It’s always the words used most often that become familiar, and so the themes of the poems emerge from the comparison of original and translation.

Boase-Beier has some kind words to say about A Window Left Open, too:

The poems are wonderfully detailed and beautifully structured. The translation is excellent: it captures the immediacy of the images and the shape of the poems […] This is definitely one I would have wanted to publish if it had been offered to us and I am very fussy!

You can purchase A Window Left Open at your preferred purveyor of poetry, or here. And if you’re buying one dual-language edition… why not buy two and make a pair? Our second dual-language edition is We Own the Forests by Hans Børli – the lumberjack poet!

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A new selection of poems by Pentti Saarikoski

Herewith I cease the writing of poetry.
   I’m not swearing to it, mind.
Could be a window’s left open again
               by chance and a bird
                                       strays in:
   what helps it out, is a poem.

Pentti Saarikoski was a prolific translator and journalist, and a revered modernist poet central to the Finnish literary scene of the 1960s and 1970s. The inventiveness, warmth and humour of Saarikoski’s voice have made him something of a national treasure in Finland. His writing is at once playful and political, drawing on everyday life and current affairs, as well as Greek antiquity.

A Window Left Open collects poems chosen and translated by Emily Jeremiah and Fleur Jeremiah which chart Saarikoski’s artistic development over the decades from his early Greek period to his politically charged participative poetry, and ultimately his last known poem. This dual-language edition places the original Finnish poems side-by-side with their English translation, inviting readers to explore the elegant craftsmanship of Saarikoski’s use of language.

Pentti Saarikoski (1937–83) was born in Impilahti (today part of Russia) and died in Joensuu. He translated Homer’s Odyssey into Finnish and published his first collection, Runoja (Poems), in 1958. He developed his distinctive participative style in later collections and became a cult figure, partly because of his self-stylization as a Bohemian artist.


Emily Jeremiah is a writer, academic, and translator. She has published two selections of translated poetry, by Eeva-Liisa Manner and Sirkka Turkka, with Waterloo Press. She is also the author of two novellas, Blue Moments (Valley Press, 2020) and An Approach to Black (Reflex Press, forthcoming 2021).


Fleur Jeremiah is a native speaker of Finnish with wide experience in translating from Finnish across genres. She has collaborated with her daughter Emily on translations of modern Finnish poetry and of five novels, one of which, Aki Ollikainen’s White Hunger (Peirene Press), was longlisted for the Man Booker International Prize 2016.

A Window Left Open is available to buy here.

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Behind-the-scenes: cover design for The Year the River Froze Twice

The Year the River Froze Twice, translated from Inga Ābele’s Duna by Christopher Moseley, features a striking cover – a thoroughbred among the #horsesofinstagram herd, we think! Essi Viitanen, our cover designer, shares her creative process…

The cover needed to communicate the historical nature of the novel. Its original title in Latvian, Duna, can be translated as ‘thunder’, as in ‘the thundering of hooves’ – a nod to the significance of horses in the narrative. This is taken up in the cover of the original, published by Dienas Grāmata:

Here the equine theme of the novel is combined with its darkness, as the lowered gaze and muscles undulating beneath the horse’s flesh communicate strength as well as vulnerability.

However, the English-language title The Year the River Froze Twice – chosen in recognition of the Daugava river, which flows throughout the narrative – opened up alternative avenues for the visual style of the Norvik edition. Water, ice and river imagery was explored for inspiration:

The image search yielded a beautiful set of cool palettes and the intricate textures of winter. The practical challenge with many of the photographs was to find enough space in the images to incorporate text. One option was to go for a bold enough font that wouldn’t get lost in the photograph.

The initial idea was to build the six-word title into a graphic element and see if the ice theme could be incorporated to this, but these options proved too difficult to read.

Even with cleaner options with less texture, the vertical text hindered the legibility of the title. We also rather quickly decided that these covers were too general – they didn’t sufficiently reflect the book or capture its poetic delicacy and atmosphere of unease. So, after a design detour to frozen landscapes, we were back to horses! Keeping in mind the cover design of the Latvian-language original, we searched for captivating photographs of these beautiful beasts:

Two images were mocked up into covers, but the clear winner was the horse in profile. It had the regal air and corporeal force of the racing horses described in the book, while its stable-mates had the slightly dishevelled look of horses put out to pasture.

The final tweaks were to change cover fonts from Neue Kabel to Garamond to evoke the content, style and period of the novel, and adjust the colour of the typography to stand out better. And with that, the race was run and we were ready to bet on our cover’s odds in the wild of bookish social media.

Thank you, Essi! To read an extract of this novel, click here. To purchase a copy and support your local bookshop at the same time, click here.

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Interview with the translator: The Year the River Froze Twice

Following the publication of Inga Ābele’s Duna in English as The Year the River Froze Twice, we sat down (remotely!) with the translator, Christopher Moseley, to discuss his experiences of translating this work for a non-Latvian readership.

Norvik Press is known for promoting Scandinavian literature (although there are some notable exceptions, particularly some novels from Estonia, including your own translation of Pobeda 1946. What led to this project to translate a Latvian classic into English?

It’s the first Latvian novel I have translated, although I have worked on short stories before, including the Norvik anthology From Baltic Shores. I gained experience in Latvian during 19 years at BBC Monitoring, as a news translator. This particular project came about when I met the author at a summer school for translators at UEA. While working together on translating one of her short stories, we got to talking and I introduced her to one of the Directors of Norvik Press. At that time, Duna was Inga’s most recently published novel. I completed a sample, got hooked on it, and was lucky enough to get accepted to translate it for Norvik with support from Latvian Literature. These kinds of meetings at UEA and (pre-COVID) at Riga, are important for translators of Latvian fiction into English – there aren’t many of us!

Duna is included in Latvian Literature’s list of 10 Saddest Latvian Books. Did translating the novel take an emotional toll on you?

Yes, it did – it’s a pretty grim story. I consider myself hard-nosed, cynical, but it moved me to tears at times. It’s centred on a researcher interviewing a man, Andrievs, whose experience of life has taught him that horses are more trustworthy than people. He’s quite cynical himself, having suffered at the hands of the Soviet system – he’s a bit of a recluse, restrained, reserved, he doesn’t give easily of himself, but the researcher gradually gets him to open up. She really has to draw him out – he’s learned that talking too much gets him into trouble – and that’s what’s interesting about the novel, we learn the information alongside the researcher. Andrievs is emblematic of all those others who suffered. It’s a road trip novel too – the researcher takes him back to earlier scenes from his life, along the Daugava River – there’s a map included in the book – and most of these flashbacks are painful. Intriguingly, the researcher remains nameless – it’s very much Andriev’s story.

What challenges did you encounter in translating the novel from Latvian into English?

Big translation challenges! I was constantly asking the author for advice. Latgale – the province in eastern Latvia, bordering on Russia, that the story leads towards and where horses are famously bred – has its own dialect of Latvian: Latgalian. It’s close enough to Latvian to be understandable but tantalisingly different too, so difficult for the translator!

There were two further translation challenges: the terminology of communism, and the terminology of the trotting track. There are lots of communist terms that Latvians of a certain generation would be familiar with (the book is set around 1949, with flashbacks to the Second World War), but which need explaining for younger generations. And I’m not an expert on ‘the track’, so I had to learn fast! Involvement in the trotting track is Andriev’s main occupation and it’s also through this that he is tricked into a situation that is a crime in the eyes of the Communists. The Communists actually attempted to control the betting system on the track – even winning prizes had to be socialised via Moscow. Andrievs is a victim of this. It makes absolutely no sense, he’s arrested for something he doesn’t really understand, but this is part of the interest of the novel: it’s political.

How did you exercise creativity as a translator?

My role in the creative process is to try and capture the voice of the author as closely as I can – the creative part is trying to make the book sound as if it’s not translated, to capture the author’s voice. In this book, footnotes are used to contextualise its events for non-Latvians, which could have a distancing effect but in this case reflects Inga’s voice, how well-researched the book is, by highlighting the extensive knowledge Inga gathered. I’m sure that even native Latvians would learn a lot from this book [Duna was originally commissioned as part of the historic novel series We. Latvia. The 20th Century to celebrate the centenary of Latvian independence]. As just one example, after I’d finished the translation, the author sent me what had been a highly secret protocol that is now being released under the Latvian equivalent of the Official Secrets Act. This document reports on the events of 25 March 1949 – the year the river froze twice! – when there was a mass deportation to Siberia of Latvians who were considered a threat to the system. It’s from the Latvian KGB to Moscow, and it’s written in Latvian – not Russian, as one might have expected. I translated this too and it’s bloodcurdling to read. Inga’s mission is to reveal the truth to a new generation of Latvians before it’s forgotten or erased. I think that’s what’s most important about this book.

A lighter note to end on: what are some of your favourite Latvian words?

I’m so fond of Latvian, my favourite word is usually the last word I saw! But I particularly like the word for ‘history’: vēsture. The word for ‘wet’ is delightful and sounds like exactly how it should sound: slapjš. I teach Latvian and I enjoy telling my students the tongue-twister word for ‘railway’: dzelzceļš.

Many thanks to Christopher Moseley and to Latvian Literature for subsidising the translation. An extract from The Year the River Froze Twice can be read here, and copies can be ordered from bookshop.org.

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Norvik Press launch English translation of Ābele’s Duna

Andrievs Radvilis is a former jockey on the Riga trotting track whose solitary retirement is interrupted when a young journalist comes to interview him about his career. Their meeting leads to a journey of reminiscence across Latvia, never straying far from the mighty Daugava river, which flows through the story as Radvilis recalls his early life. The weeks leading up to the fateful date of 25 March 1949, when Stalin launched his deportation campaign in Soviet Latvia, form the main historical backdrop of this novel. As an independent-minded man who would not engage with Stalinism nor compromise with the truth, Radvilis is imprisoned and blacklisted. Bitter experience of war, love and politics lead him to trust horses more than people.

Inga Ābele was born in Riga in 1972. She studied biology at the University of Latvia, and worked for three years as a trainer on a horse-breeding farm. Her work shows evidence of her rigorous scientific training, balanced with her deep understanding of human motives. Ābele’s prose works are the product of thorough research; she is fascinated by the little-known by-ways of Latvian history and its more unsung heroes.

This translation by Christopher Moseley was supported by Latvian Literature.

You can read an extract of the novel here, and if you’re champing at the bit for the complete novel, you can order it at Bookshop.org or Hive (and support your local bookshop at the same time!).