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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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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!

 

 

 

 

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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 >