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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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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).