Posted on

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).

Posted on

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

Posted on

Christmas Reading

We’ve come to that time of the year where the only sensible thing to do is to snuggle up under a blanket in the biggest, comfiest chair you can find, and get yourself something hot to drink and a good book. Well, we don’t do blankets, but we can help with the book part! At Norvik, we’ve put together a seasonal recommended reading list of our treasures fit for winter. These are perfect as stocking fillers for friends and family, or why not treat yourself for a few hours in that comfy chair during what the Swedes call mellandagarna (the days between Christmas and New Year)? Click on the link in each title below to visit our website for more information on the books, and how to buy.

 

Gunnlöth’s Tale

This spirited and at times sinister novel ensnares the reader in a tangled encounter between modern-day Scandinavia and the ancient world of myth. In the 1980s, a hardworking Icelandic businesswoman and her teenage daughter Dís, who has been arrested for apparently committing a strange and senseless robbery, are unwittingly drawn into a ritual-bound world of goddesses, sacrificial priests, golden thrones and kings-in-waiting. It is said that Gunnlöth was seduced by Odin so he could win the ‘mead’ of poetry from her, but is that really true, and why was Dís summoned to their world?

 

Little Lord 

Wilfred – alias Little Lord – is a privileged young man growing up in upper-class society in Kristiania (now Oslo) during the halcyon days before the First World War. Beneath the strikingly well-adjusted surface, however, runs a darker current; he is haunted by the sudden death of his father and driven to escape the stifling care of his mother for risky adventures in Kristiania’s criminal underworld. The two sides of his personality must be kept separate, but the strain of living a double life threatens breakdown and catastrophe. This best-selling novel by Johan Borgen, one of Norway’s most talented twentieth-century writers, is also an evocative study of a vanished age of biplanes, variety shows, and Viennese psychiatry.

 

Bang

29 January 1912. In a train compartment in Ogden, Utah, a Danish author was found unconscious. The 54-year-old Herman Bang was en route from New York to San Francisco as part of a round-the-world reading tour. It was a poignant end for a man whose life had been spent on the move. Having fled his birthplace on the island of Als ahead of the Prussian advance of 1864, he was later hounded out of Copenhagen, Berlin, Vienna and Prague by homophobic laws and hostility to his uncompromising social critique as journalist, novelist, actor and dramaturge. Dorrit Willumsen re-works Bang’s life story in a series of compelling flashbacks that unfold during his last fateful train ride across the USA. Along the way, we are transported to an audience in St Petersburg with the Dowager Empress Maria Feodorovna, to a lovers’ nest in a flea-ridden Prague boarding house, to the newsrooms and variety theatres of fin-de-siècle Copenhagen, and to a Norwegian mountainside, where Claude Monet has come to paint snow and lauds Bang’s writing as literary impressionism.

 

 

Nils Holgersson’s Wonderful Journey through Sweden

A richly-illustrated one-volume hardback edition of Selma Lagerlöf’s classic tale. This novel started out as a commissioned school reader designed to present the geography of Sweden to nine-year-olds, but Lagerlöf’s work quickly won international fame and popularity, which it still enjoys over a century later. It is a fantastic story of a naughty boy who climbs on the back of a gander and is then carried the length of the country, learning both geography and good behaviour as he goes. It is a story of Sweden, where every province has its tale and out of the many fantasies, a diverse country emerges; a country of the great and the grand, majestic nature and lords and ladies, but also a country of farmers and fishers, goose-herds and Sami, miners and loggers, and of animals – rats and eagles and elk, foxes and geese and all the other creatures who are part of the life cycle of the land.

 

A House in Norway  

A House in Norway tells the story of Alma, a divorced textile artist who makes a living from weaving standards for trade unions and marching bands. She lives alone in an old villa, and rents out an apartment in her house to supplement her income. She is overjoyed to be given a more creative assignment, to design a tapestry for an exhibition to celebrate the centenary of women’s suffrage in Norway, but soon finds that it is a much more daunting task than she had anticipated. Meanwhile, a Polish family moves into her apartment, and their activities become a challenge to her unconscious assumptions and her self-image as a good feminist and an open-minded liberal. Is it possible to reconcile the desire to be tolerant and altruistic with the imperative need for creative and personal space?

 

Childhood 

Kerstin Ekman’s wonderful poem Childhood is presented here as a dual language English/Swedish publication illustrated with original photographs provided by the author. Kerstin Ekman is primarily known as a novelist, but she has occasionally turned to free verse, especially when the subject is autobiographical. In 1993-1994, Swedish TV 1 conducted a series of talks with prominent writers under the rubric ‘Seven Boys and Seven Girls’. In place of an ordinary interview, Kerstin Ekman read aloud Barndom (Childhood). The prose passages are quotations from Ekman’s 1988 novel Rövarna i Skuleskogen (The Forest of Hours).

 

The Angel House

Also by Kerstin Ekman is the novel The Angel House, in which Ekman provides an alternative, subversive history of the community in which she grew up. It is a story that stretches through a century, told through the perspective of the generation of women living in those times:

A giant had a washbowl which he set down in the forest at the base of a moraine. It was made of granite and deeply indented, and he filled it with clear, amber water which looked like solidified resin when the sun shone on it on a summer’s afternoon.

In winter, the top layer of the water froze into a lid and the entire bowl went very still, just like the forest around it. Then, down at its deepest point, a pattern of stripes and dashes would move. A pike, if there had been one, would have seen that it was not broken lengths of hollow reed swaying there but thousands of his brothers the perch, sluggishly and cautiously changing positions.

Across the top of the lid spun a rope-covered ball and after it, heavy but fast, skated men with clubs in their hands. They were dressed in black knee breeches and grey woollen sweaters. About half of them had black, peaked caps with both earflaps turned up and kept in place with two thin shoelaces knotted on top of their heads.

Half had red knitted hats with tassels. Sometimes one of the ones in peaked caps went whizzing off with long blade strokes, feet inclining inwards, guiding the ball in front of him with his club.           If a tassel-hat got in his way, both of them would go crashing onto the rough ice near the shore, flattening the broken reeds and sending ice and coarse snow spraying round their metal blades.

Round the edge of the Giant’s Washbowl, people stood watching, virtually all men, coming so far out of town. But Ingrid Eriksson was standing there too. She stood there every winter Sunday, whenever there was a match on.

 

For further reading in the New Year, watch out for the brilliant Pobeda, coming very soon.

 

Finally, we’d like to wish all our readers a very Happy Christmas!

 

 

 

 

Posted on

Childhood by Kerstin Ekman

Childhood by Kerstin KemanKestin Ekman’s wonderful poem Childhood, now published by Norvik Press as a dual language English/Swedish publication. Translated from Swedish by Rochelle Wright.

Kerstin Ekman is primarily known as a novelist, but she has occasionally turned to free verse, especially when the subject is autobiographical. In 1993-1994, Swedish TV 1 conducted a series of talks with prominent writers under the rubric ‘Seven Boys and Seven Girls’. In place of an ordinary interview, Kerstin Ekman read aloud Barndom (Childhood). The poem, which was published for the first time in Swedish Book Review in 1995, appears here with original photographs kindly provided by the author. The prose passages are quotations from Ekman’s 1988 novel Rövarna i Skuleskogen (The Forest of Hours, transl. Anna Paterson, Chatto & Windus, 1998).

Childhood has a new foreword by Kerstin Ekman, translated by Linda Schenck. The volume also includes a bibliography of critical literature (largely in English) on the author and her work, plus a full list of Ekman titles available in English translation.

This publication was the initiative of Norvik Press director Helena Forsås-Scott, who sadly lost her life to leukemia before the project came to fruition. The book is dedicated to her. Norvik Press will donate the first year’s profit on sales of the publication to the Marie Curie charity in the UK in memory of Helena, who was cared for at the Marie Curie Hospice in Edinburgh in her final days.

Available to purchase from all good bookstores and online >