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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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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