Albert Bonniers förlag, 2010. ISBN: 9789100124748
Reviewed by Anna Paterson in SBR 2011:1
Rarely has a new novel been received by such a chorus of praise as has En dåre fri, Beate Grimsrud’s story about madness and creativity. Grimsrud is born and bred in Norway, but lives in Sweden, where she works as a successful writer and film maker. Critics in both countries fell in love with her book to such an extent that some of them became worried about our appetite for so-called auto-fictive writing, a literary equivalent of celeb gossip addiction. To insist that En dåre fri is about Grimsrud herself is reasonable even if the protagonist is called Eli Larsen, since Eli’s life-story is so close to Grimsrud’s, down to minor career details. And the self-revelation goes still closer to the bone: the narrative is structured around the history of a mind afflicted, twisted and tormented by schizophrenia. The autobiographical content is undeniable, but so is the superlative skill of the writer. What she has done looks almost too simple: her alter ego describes episodes in her life from small child to middling middle-age (the author is 47) in short sections, at most a couple of pages long and arranged in chronological order. The sequence is occasionally broken by interludes taken from the fitful progress of Eli’s cognitive therapy sessions, intended to help the mature woman to live with her delusions. The treatment, with its element of will-she-or-won’t-sherespond, generates only moderate suspense, given that Eli must have got herself together enough to write the book. But the seeming artlessness of the slow, orderly pace and short, ‘I’dominated sentences masks the highly structured ways in which the narrative, more film script than novel, confidently sets out to enchant and engage. The cohesion between groups of sections turns them into short stories, each with its own nucleus of dramatic tension. The stories are linked by the greater drama of a life as it develops in parallel with the surreal, frightening invasion by psychotic illness. Each story adds new, but internally consistent glimpses of recurring characters and memories, and especially of Eli herself: a vivacious and troubled child, an enterprising, creative, charming and deeply disturbed teenager, and a talented, intriguing woman brought down again and again by relentless bouts of illness, often followed by admissions into asylums for the kind of psychiatric management one wishes wouldn’t have to happen. For those of us fortunate enough not to know schizophrenia ‘from the inside’, Eli’s writing about her relationship with her delusions would have been interesting just as a case history, but once more, the writer’s super-ego has intervened. Instead of mumbling voices, we get four named and fully formed characters, who speak inside her head, take over her mind and make her do absurd things, to the point of self-destruction. Grimsrud’s painstaking capacity for self-revelation has by writer’s magic turned into a moving recreation of a trajectory from instability to madness and, finally, to some kind of inner stability. Healed, if not normalised; freed from lunacy, but not from fantasy, Eli ends her story determined rather than hopeful: I’ll never give up, she tells herself with a conviction that convinces us. Madness has been endlessly speculated about, not just as an extraordinary variant of human behaviour, but also as a central theme in fiction. Writing takes on a special pathos when the writer is afflicted, but although pathos guarantees pity, it is no guarantee of literary worth. However, in En dåre fri, Beate Grimsrud has created a work of literature which is extraordinary in its own right.