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A sisterhood of necessity

Members of the Lotta Svärd organization, Finland’s equivalent of the Swedish lottor, prepare food for Finnish volunteers on a clearance camp shortly before the Continuation War (1941). Credit: Uusi Suomi.

As part of our celebration of Women in Translation Month, Sarah Death introduces an extract from The Angel House, the third part of Norvik’s recently republished Katrineholm series. 

Kerstin Ekman’s central project in this quartet of novels was to depict the lives of women in a world run by men, the ‘town within the town’. The four books have become known collectively as Kvinnorna och staden, generally translated as ‘Women and the City’, and are a portrait of the town of Katrineholm in periods both before and after it gained its official city status in 1917.  It is barely more than a collection of fields and hamlets as the first novel opens and as the series unfolds we see it develop into a bustling town and thriving railway hub.

Women are not only the beating heart of Kerstin Ekman’s quartet, they are also the community’s backbone, a vital component of its workforce. We often see them labouring away on their own, as in our extract about Ingeborg Ek (see Linda Schenck’s recent post: ‘Round and round we go’). That dust keeps collecting on the furniture, those berries keep ripening and are crying out to be preserved for the winter, those nappies need an urgent wash. Individual women even labour in the night, be it nursing a new baby, setting dough and baking bread, making sweets to sell at your market stall, or hemming a frock to meet a dressmaking deadline.   Sometimes they are worn out, numb, at the end of their tether, sometimes desperately lonely, and sometimes they are relieved to be left in peace.

But there are also many scenes in the books of women working together, living in what we might call a sisterhood of necessity. This can be at an everyday level, sharing the privies and backyards, looking after the children, watering the communal gardens, feeding the cats, keeping an eye on each other’s washing and slipping through the hedge or across the stairwell to borrow a cup of sugar.  It can be at the level of individual friendships, many of which we see flourishing, like the one between Ingrid and Maud who enjoy their nights out dancing even though there is a war on. It can be in small clusters, like the group of elderly ladies, Tora, Ebba and a few other good friends who come together for a weekly whist evening and a comforting chat over beer, coffee and sandwiches as they try to come to terms with old age.

And it can be on a larger scale, the most notable example being the lottor, the Women’s Defence Volunteers, roped in from diverse walks of life to perform the heroic feat of feeding and watering the troops whose trains pull up at the station platform at any time of day or night. Dog-tired, possibly after a day’s work in their regular jobs, they drag themselves through their shifts and – rather to their own surprise – forge a precarious kind of solidarity that becomes increasingly precious to them, a bulwark against war, loneliness and all the other trials of life.

Click on the book cover below to read the extract.

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Round and round we go…

Delicious drottningsylt. Credit: Ove Lindfors.

As part of our celebration of Women in Translation Month, Linda Schenck introduces an extract from The Spring, the second part of Norvik’s recently republished Katrineholm series. 

The years have their cycles, and we our rituals. Never have they become more distinct than during the course of the ongoing 2020–21 pandemic. Kerstin Ekman’s writing also has its cycles, and with Norvik Press having republished the Women and the City tetralogy they, too, have become increasingly distinct. The echoes of previous books in the later ones, the return of places, names and rituals. So I find myself writing this little introduction to a section smack in the middle of The Spring, book two of Women and the City, at the same time as I am reading and rereading her forthcoming novel, Löpa varg (roughly ‘Wolf Run’), set for publication in September 2021. I hope this brief text may serve both as a look back, and a bit of a forward teaser, no spoilers.

The extract below features Ingeborg Ek, foster mother to Ingrid. Ingrid comes from a household where there is just barely enough money to pay the rent and put porridge on the table (often for breakfast and dinner), so we partly imagine her moving into the home of ‘one of the most industrious, most thorough people on earth’ who ‘never made a hollandaise sauce with fewer than ten yolks’ and whose life is regimented by seasons, rituals and their demands (with no mention of their pleasures), and partly see her through the narrator’s eyes. Ingeborg ‘regularly wore herself out at Christmas time’, baked the seasonal cakes for every holiday, spent the summer making jams and jellies, and before she knew it the next Christmas was over, leaving ‘candle wax on the runners, pine needles on the carpet, cigar ash on the sofa and rings on the tabletop from glasses’.

In Ekman’s 2021 novel, the female protagonist, Inga, lives in rural Hälsingland and makes an orange marmalade that takes three days, prompting her husband to comment: ‘You can only find the kind of time you need to make marmalade like that up here.’ But she does her chores out of love, and even recruits her husband, a thought that would never have occurred to Ingeborg Ek. He tells the reader: ‘In the spring light everything was suddenly visible: greasy fingerprints on cupboard doors, limescale stains in the bathroom, cobwebs by the ceiling cornices. Inga swished through the whole house at a mad pace but quite cheerfully, armed with cleaning agents, mops, rags and scrubby sponges. She assigned me to deal with the bookcases.’

Hence, what goes around comes around, in the calendar, in Ekman’s texts, and in our lives. I’m heading out into the woods now. If there are ripe blueberries, I will be able to make raspberry and blueberry jam tonight, the kind the Swedes call the queen of jams, drottningsylt.

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Nonprofit publishing: an interview with Ian Giles

Credit: Canva

Ian Giles lives in Edinburgh and is a commercial and literary translator of the Scandinavian languages. He is the current Chair of the Swedish-English Literary Translators’ Association (SELTA) and a frequent contributor to Swedish Book Review. Ian’s PhD focused on who published and read translated Scandinavian fiction in the UK during the 20th and early 21st centuries, and the roles of the various agents involved in this process continue to engage him. Ian is also Treasurer of the Scottish Society for Northern Studies, itself a small, charitable publisher.

The following interview took place between Ian Giles (IG) and Cath Jenkins, representing Norvik Press (CJ), over Zoom during July 2021. It has been condensed and edited for clarity.

CJ: Norvik describes itself as a nonprofit publisher. What is the difference between nonprofit and not-for-profit?

IG: Well, I suppose the easy way to distinguish between the two is that nonprofit Norvik Press would very much like to make a profit – and doesn’t! Therein lies the rub: a not-for-profit doesn’t actually need to make a profit, whether it’s because of deep-pocketed benefactors, or because it’s a charitable endeavour. Whereas nonprofit Norvik is operating on a shoestring, with the aim of at least being cost-neutral. It costs money to publish each new thing, so you sort of drip-feed your publications out. Whereas something like Dalkey Archive Press, there’s a regular explosion of titles.

Norvik Press has a longevity to it, which means that you want to ensure that decisions that you make are decisions that you can live with in the long run. When you’ve got smaller, newer publishers, for instance, whether they’re nonprofit or not-for-profit, when they’re in startup mode (and we all have a startup mode at some point, when I started as a translator I was more like a startup than I am now!), they can do what they want, they don’t know whether they’ll still be doing this in thirty years’ time. And so the decisions they make now aren’t made with an eye towards the long-term, and I think that’s a problem.

I went to an interesting conference earlier this year, about translating minority literatures, at the University of Nottingham. The keynote was Ondřej Vimr, and he did a very interesting lecture about how these days in publishing – as in all areas of work life, but especially in publishing – everything happens quicker. We know that everything happens quicker, ask Norvik Press how long it took to publish a book in 1988…! Where people would have taken a risk before, because they had time to figure out whether they could take the risk, now they just turn it down, because you can’t afford to take a risk. And so I think the Norvik ‘grown-up’ approach is nice. There can come a maturity, with the limitation of means, that can lead to probably better-than-average decisions, because you have your binding principles of ‘can’t go bust’. And indeed, in a way, it helps that Norvik has, and has had, a paid assistant for a long time in one shape or another because it often focuses minds, that there’s a need to pay someone’s salary, however modest that is. Whereas if you or I were just our own imprint, digging into our own pocket, ultimately we can be like ‘Well, I can eat nothing but cereal for six months!’, or ‘What does it matter if I stick it all on a credit card!’ And it does make a difference.

Norvik Press has a longevity to it, which means that you want to ensure that decisions that you make are decisions that you can live with in the long run

CJ: In terms of the general direction of nonprofit publishing, do you see focusing the mind as something that might help us prepare for the future?

IG: I mean it’s always that. Sometimes I’m very cynical about this. I think if you’re at the rock-face of the industry, all the words blend into one and sometimes I go, ‘Why do we translate anything?!’ In a world of infinite possibilities, the likelihood is that something you translate from Language A into English has probably been written in English already, or someone is having the idea right now, nothing’s ever original. And so, to move beyond that, you have to be less cynical, but you also need to identify what is worthwhile, about the thing you’re translating. Publishing is an incredibly subjective, taste-based industry. Often, as a thought exercise, I try to think ‘What other industries are there in which this is the case?’, possibly restaurants and food, but you know, the role of an acquiring editor is incredibly important and ultimately we’re not saying that acquiring editors are somehow much, much smarter or somehow much, much more erudite than your average citizen. We’re really saying that through circumstances, they’re a taste-maker. With small publishers, what you can end up with is strokes of genius because on the one hand, they might read something and they might have great taste and they might go ‘This is the book that we must have’. But just as love can feel like love, but sometimes it is not love, I think equally you can go ‘This is the book, we must have this book!’, and then it just takes a second person to say, ‘It’s okay…’ and the purse-strings are not loosened. I think stuff coming out at the end good, is more important than it just coming out.

CJ: Yes, I agree it needs to be that mixture of passion and prudence.

IG: This is where publishing is weird again, isn’t it. Because everybody believes in the power of literature. Even if you find the book for you but you go ‘No, our list is full for the year’, or you check the piggybank and there is no chance, well then you’re not too upset. If another publisher comes along and goes, ‘Well, I’ll do that. It looks great’, you say, ‘Well, isn’t that nice that it all worked out’.

CJ: Yes! And adding to the weirdness: Brexit. Do you have any thoughts on the way that post-Brexit funding for publishing is going?

IG: It’s difficult. I was just having a look before we spoke at the article I wrote on small presses and funding in general [State Dependence: How ARE Britain’s Small Presses Translating Norwegian Literature Anyway?]. On the domestic front, it’s not a great time to be looking for money for the written word, especially if the written word has got something to do with abroad! The pandemic hasn’t helped, on the basis that money in the arts needs to be diverted elsewhere to more pressing things. Publishing has, on balance, got off pretty lightly really. In the context of what we do in Norway, interacting with the Nordics, things could be worse, because ultimately English is an important bridge language. But the ties between the Nordic countries and the UK are very strong, and not everyone is in the EU in the Nordics of course.

More generally, there’s a lot of stuff disappearing through the cracks in the funding world and the problem is that if you’re a small publisher that needs to apply for money to do everything, now the money isn’t there. Anybody who works in any industry where you rely on grant funding, always knows in the back of their mind that this is not a long-term guaranteed source of income and could go away at any time. But normally you hope that there will be a whisper of when that’s coming. I think Brexit has been, on the admin front, actually worse than people imagined, and the pandemic has added to that, because there’s a lot of personal lobbying that goes on in the publishing world that simply hasn’t been able to happen for the last eighteen months.

CJ: Yes, indeed, personal relationships are so important in small press publishing – relationships with embassies, in-person meetings, in-person conferences. As a nonprofit publisher, we’ve really missed these the past year. Particularly going to bookshops and handing out our catalogue, meeting booksellers face-to-face who are so supportive of presses like us… you can still build relationships over social media – we’ve been trying to do that – but nothing really replaces in-person recommendations and conversations.

IG: I think you’re right, I think it’s people. People do/say/buy things because their friends tell them to, I mean peer pressure is real, and one of the interesting realisations from my research is the discovery that in the world of publishing in particular, people mostly do things because their friends tell them to. Because if you were to examine most things that happen in publishing books, and to say ‘What’s the business case for this?’, well, there isn’t one. You tend to do what your friends tell you to do slightly more if they tell you in-person, and it feels like a genuine interaction with a friend, than you do online.

Since March last year I have been attempting to pitch a couple of books that I’ve got ready to go, and I don’t want to cold-pitch to people with a lecture on a slide deck; I want to slide into someone’s DMs in real life, with a glass of wine, and say ‘I was reading this really great book that I actually have translated, I’m not saying you should publish it, but I liked it. Why don’t you read it’. It’s the same with your relationship with booksellers, you don’t turn up and say ‘I need you to take twenty-five copies of Chitambo or I’m leaving’, what you say is ‘It might not be easy to sell this to everybody, but actually it’s really good. Try it’.

CJ: Yes, it’s all about genuine interactions for nonprofits! I suppose something that attempts to replicate that for the peri-pandemic era is the subscription model, where a press interacts with readers as supporters – on Patreon, for example – and in return readers receive hand-picked books.

IG: I think that’s the way everyone’s going, you can see the bandwagon, whether you jump on it or not, and it’s quite a good bandwagon, so if I weren’t on it, I would probably jump on. The great thing with say a subscription club, if you’ve got someone taking Norvik’s three titles for the year or whatever it is, if it’s at a pretty reasonable cost and they enjoy the book, then they tell other people about it, they buy copies to give as gifts. So I think it’s where small presses on a shoestring can set themselves apart. The key thing is to maintain some degree of humanity, a human touch. People should feel like they’re interacting with a knowledgeable friend.

CJ: I think the key word for me really is ‘human’. My favourite thing about our new website is that we have our Get to know us section, which we didn’t have before. So now it’s possible for you to go to our website and see our faces. I look awful in my photo! But, you know, these are the faces of the people who make Norvik Press happen, and readers can really get to know us.

IG: Yes, it’s to Norvik Press’s credit there that I think there’s an appeal to the fact that there are real people behind it, with other things on the go, beyond what you do for Norvik.

CJ: I think backstories are so important and fit really well with the whole publishing endeavour – storytelling!

IG: I think so, Norvik’s backstory is always very pleasing. There are books that simply should be available, and Norvik makes that happen, it is quite laudable. The Lagerlöf in English project was worthwhile, it was high time these were retranslated and reintroduced. But similarly publishing something like Vigdis Hjorth’s A House in Norway, it’s completely the opposite end, it’s a contemporary novel by a contemporary Norwegian writer. And that’s what people would use the word ‘curate’ for these days… and that’s what Norvik does, it curates a cool mix. The only comparison I’d make is to Archipelago Books – they also always seem to somehow have their finger on a pulse you didn’t know existed, or that you needed!

that’s what Norvik does, it curates a cool mix

CJ: Thank you so much Ian, this has been such an informative and inspiring conversation – it’s reminded me why we do what we do, really, and why we put up with the challenges of being a nonprofit, because there’s also the rewards – being able to do something that we’re passionate about.

IG: Honestly, I’m really pleased that Swedish Book Review, Norvik Press and Scandinavica all live on. If you had asked me three or four years ago, would all of these things still exist, I would not have been certain. It all boils down to funding and lots of hard work.

CJ: Definitely. Well, we have made it through what a pandemic has thrown at us so far, so hopefully we’ll be able to survive after this!

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Summer reads from Norway

Credit: Jonas Gunnarsson/Westend61 GmbH

If you’re looking for something a bit off the beaten track to tempt you during the summer season, how about a Norwegian novel? Norvik Press has published translations of three of Norway’s most popular contemporary authors, which in their very different ways will transport you to an unfamiliar world.

Book cover A House in Norway

VIGDIS HJORTH: A HOUSE IN NORWAY (2014), translated by Charlotte Barslund.

Alma is a textile artist who receives an exciting commission, to design a tapestry for an exhibition to celebrate the centenary of women’s suffrage in Norway. The research is interesting and the money welcome – like many artists, she has a struggle to make ends meet – but she soon finds that it is not straightforward. An additional complication is that she is living in a large and impractical old house, and to help with the upkeep she rents out a part of it. Her new tenants are a young Polish couple, who at first seem quiet and undemanding; but soon the man disappears in suspicious circumstances, the woman has a baby and there are ongoing problems – their lifestyles are completely different, the woman keeps complaining, the rent is not paid … . Alma becomes increasingly unsettled, torn between her image of herself as an altruistic and open-minded modern feminist and her need for personal and private space in order to create. The conflict builds to a dramatic confrontation, but can there be a satisfactory resolution?

Vigdis Hjorth is an outspoken and controversial author who explores the boundaries between public persona and private trauma. Charlotte Barslund is a prize-winning translator, who was recently awarded the Believer Book Award for her translation of one of Vigdis Hjorth’s novels.

Book cover Lobster Life

ERIK FOSNES HANSEN: LOBSTER LIFE (2016), translated by Janet Garton.

Young Sedd, named after a witch by his long-vanished mother, is being brought up by his grandparents, the proprietors of one of Norway’s most resplendent and traditional mountain hotels. In the intervals between his hotel duties, he plays the role of private detective, attempting to discover the secrets of his own past. Yet for all his precocious abilities, he misses the vital clues as to what is happening around him: the family hotel, his inheritance, is on the brink of bankruptcy as its regular guests desert the glories of the Norwegian landscape for the hot beaches of Spain. The novel is full of humour, as Sedd becomes in turn a child of nature escorting German fishermen around the fish-filled mountain lakes, a world-weary sophisticate trying to impress an annoying teenager, or an impeccable waiter serving a party of funeral directors who let their hair down with astonishing abandon. Beneath the surface, however, the personal and financial tensions are slowly increasing, to a point where the secrets of the past and the conflicts of the present trigger an irreversible act of destruction.

Erik Fosnes Hansen’s novels are extremely diverse in form and content, ranging from the wildest of fantasies to the most carefully-researched realism. His early prize-winning novel Psalm at Journey’s End (1996) follows the lives of a group of musicians whose final engagement is on board the Titanic as it sails to its doom.

Book cover Berge

JAN KJÆRSTAD: BERGE (2017), translated by Janet Garton.

On a lovely summer’s day in 2008, the whole of Norway is shocked by the news of a brutal killing: in their peaceful country cabin, the popular Labour politician Arve Storefjeld and several members of his family have had their throats cut as they slept. The mysterious killer has left no trace. As the investigation unfolds, we follow the story through the eyes of three different actors in the drama: Ine Wang, an investigative journalist who stumbles on a vital clue, Peter Malm, the distinguished judge who presides over the trial, and Nicolai Berge, the writer who soon becomes the main suspect. All have their own demons to do battle with; all are in different ways critical of a society which has assumed that such things only happen elsewhere. When they meet at the trial, it is not only the accused who must face a reckoning.

Jan Kjærstad is best known abroad for his trilogy about another fictional representative of modern Norway, Jonas Wergeland, in The Seducer (1993), The Conqueror (1996) and The Discoverer (1999). The novel Berge, says the author, would not have been written without the events of 22 July 2011, when 77 youngsters attending a Labour party summer camp on the island of Utøya were shot dead by one rogue gunman. On that day the myth of Norwegian exceptionalism expired.

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Kerstin’s quartet

Kerstin Ekman. Photograph: Bodil Bergqvist

Paul Binding, the well-known writer and critic of Scandinavian literature, has re-read Kerstin Ekman’s Women and the City quartet and sent the following enthusiastic response.

‘There’s a pattern under the pattern. A town under the town. Or inside this.’

THE ANGEL HOUSE

In The Angel House, the third volume of Kerstin Ekman’s magnificent tetralogy, the old man Konrad says: ‘There’s a pattern under the pattern. A town under the town. Or inside this.’ These resonant words apply to the successive novels themselves, and both to the issues they arise out of and those they give rise to in readers’ minds. First we are presented with people in a rural locality, which, though they may lack awareness of this fact, is eminently propitious for development. A rough collection of households thus becomes year by year transmogrified first into a village, and then into a town, entailing a community with structure, definable aims, and a hierarchy, at first circumstantial, even improvisational, but later, inevitably, codified. The town’s story – one among countless, of course, throughout Europe – is identifiably that of Sweden’s Katrineholm, where Kerstin Ekman grew up, and which owed its growth, status and prosperity to the railway, for which it was ideally situated as a junction. We follow the place’s evolution from the 1870s through to the 1970s, which involves, indeed is often dependant on, named individuals, some remarkable in personality, some far from being so and superficially (but only this!) indistinguishable from their neighbours and kin.     

As we confront the early stages of this evolution in Witches’ Rings, we cannot but experience deep relief, indeed, a kind of gratitude, that – if less completely than often conveniently believed – the poverty and the sufferings of marginalised living endemic to so many underdeveloped regions have significantly diminished; we can sense the release of private and societal selves that follows. Indignities – of the body and consequently of the spirit too – are inevitably reduced as a once narrow society broadens both literally and spiritually, becoming more and more open to the outside (and more sophisticated) world. Inevitably a railway brings not just mere visitors, but interested observers, progressives and entrepreneurs. Importantly these changes are most noticeably evident among women, on whom certain impositions are no longer so arbitrarily and inescapably imposed; they are seriously questioned, if not downright jettisoned. (Indeed, Women and the City is the title by which the quartet has usually been known in its almost forty years of Swedish published life!) How can we not think that Tora, the surviving child of a teenage girl’s rape, and brought up by an illiterate and over-worked woman who will eventually be denied a proper place on her soldier husband’s tombstone, doesn’t have at least as rich an emotional and mental life as the members of the society out of which Katrineholm and its like grew? Here then we have the pattern, and a seemingly satisfying one, just as we also have, vividly brought before our eyes and into our senses, the town itself – which preserves names of places from its earlier avatar, with the result that it can still (just about!) be related to its pre-industrialised self.

But as Konrad has reminded us, there is also a pattern beneath this pattern, in the same way that there is the town that grew out of country households beneath the bright modern city we know. And as we contemplate these we appreciate that evolution may not be the simple matter for congratulation that we, alongside many enabling or benefiting from its growth, may have thought. Kinship to nature – such an important matter to Kerstin Ekman both as a woman and as a writer – may well have been gravely impaired, if not in some cases thwarted or submerged. Priorities favouring success, accumulation of wealth, superiority to others on grounds of education or job are by no means the automatically preferable successors to those that gave first place to a hard day’s toil, no matter what it entailed, for the sake of the necessary food and rest, which so many lacked (still lack!).

For the opening of her ambitious enterprise – which is nothing less than an examination of culture as the later twentieth century had come to envisage it, not least in the form of the ‘folkhem’ (the Swedish Welfare State), Kerstin Ekman uses a technique for which I cannot find the like anywhere. The people come before us with no elaborate preparation whatever; it’s as if we have to make them out for ourselves. Then a girl called Edla captures our attention above all the others; she and her lot must therefore be our concern? But not a bit of it. She dies on p. 77, her casual death a literary metaphor for the waste of life all history entails, and never more so than in a society that has consigned numerous organic human beings to the level of unchecked numbers. Edla’s daughter, Tora, will indeed grow up to know many valuable relationships and experiences that can ameliorate this stark concept of existence. But if we lose sight of Edla, so to speak, we deny ourselves an amplitude of awareness, and this loss will in itself vitiate any society we try to build, no matter how much more just and prosperous it is than its predecessors. This is the lesson Ekman – novelist, not pedagogue – has to teach us.

The first three novels can – and maybe should – be read as a unity. City of Light differs not only in its setting in time, the 1970s, but in its first-person narration. A middle-aged woman, Anne-Marie, an exact contemporary of the author’s, returns from Portugal to ‘Katrineholm’ where she too grew up. And here she learns a dark and difficult truth, that affluent, well-run, fundamentally egalitarian-minded Sweden has not been insulated from the multitude of problems experienced elsewhere, and – perhaps paradoxically – the very security of the life it has carefully built up for its citizens can produce its own angst and anomie. We need courage to face this situation. But through honest use of the imagination we can do so – and surely win through.

I would like to conclude by emphasising that Kerstin Ekman is a supremely creative writer. Her tetralogy is surely essential reading for all democrats, all feminists, and (not ‘but’) it abounds in a sense of the complex varieties of human – and indeed natural – life. Her pictures of males are so often superbly moving, sympathetic, non-judgemental, whatever the faults or weaknesses or stale cultural habits revealed. I think especially of F. A. Otter, Tora’s husband and father of two of her sons, in Witches’ Rings.   

Kerstin Ekman’s Women and the City tetralogy, and her Childhood, are available to order from this website – on our Books page, just start typing ‘Kerstin’ into the Filter by Authors search box.

An extract from Ekman’s most recent work, Tullias värld, is available to read in translation by Linda Schenck here; you can also read a review by Sarah Death here. Her new novel, Löpa varg, will be published in August 2021 and is to be reviewed in Swedish Book Review.

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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.’