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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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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!