Albert Bonniers förlag, 2011. ISBN: 9789100126858
Reviewed by Carl Otto Werkelid in SBR 2012:1
Translation by Anna Paterson
Few Swedish novelists write prose like Kerstin Ekman. Reading a few sentences is enough to convince and captivate; the more experienced reader’s pleasure is sharpened by the thrill of observing the professional at work, skilfully infusing the text with life and structure, moving on from a to b to z but never letting the reader do anything but, indeed, read. Ekman knows her craft and, more than that, she is dramaturge-in-chief of contemporary Swedish prose. One might plausibly assume that the young graduate picked up valuable skills, such as creating lively dialogue, when she worked for a Stockholm film company in the late 1950s. Indisputably, constructing effective, coherent storylines mattered when she moved on to write crime fiction.
These are points worth making, but another quality casts more light on why Ekman’s leading position is so secure: many other Swedish writers know how to tell a good story, but her language is unique. Beautiful, rich in tone and meaning, playful as well as knowledgeable and utterly free of carelessness and dubiety, it offers the verbally deprived an enticing source of sustenance.
Significantly, the ‘Ekmanian’ style is not confined to text. In talks and interviews, her spoken language is always crisp, concise, charged with meaning and articulated in contextually fruitful ways. Known for a long time as a scholarly and engaged nature lover, she feels close to forests and its animals, relationships which on her part are based on deep respect. Had Kerstin Ekman cared to, she could easily have settled down to be a sharp-eyed critic of civilisation as we currently know it. So far, she has made several devastating attacks, but she is too thoughtful and too ready to turn to philosophy – even moral philosophy – to become a full-time polemicist. Aware that writing is her strength, she has expressed her concern for nature, environment and wildlife primarily in essays.
In 2011, Ekman launched not only Grand final i skojarbranschen , but also Se blomman (See the Flower), a volume of learned botanical essays, co-written with a professor of cultural history. Herrarna i skogen (Masters of the Forest, 2007) is a larger collection of essays on nature. This summary indicates to readers unfamiliar with her work not only her place in Swedish writing, but also how widely her mind ranges. The short story Hunden (The Dog) deserves special mention; in it, Ekman fuses the art of vivid fiction with deep insights into the nature of animals and the wilderness. It is a masterly book – a minor classic.
What has been said in praise of Kerstin Ekman is true of her latest novel. I had to exert iron self-discipline not to keep reading. The blurb speaks of ‘a hilarious play on the idea of autofiction’ – and so it is. The genre is up to date, has much entertainment potential and, here, does entertain even as it cheats its readers. The story about the famous writer Lillemor Troj is closely based on Kerstin Lillemor Ekman’s own literary career: a 1959 crime fiction breakthrough leads on to a life as a leading writer, with its prizes, awards and fellowships. Troj’s growing success depends on the complex companionship between Lillemor and her student friend Barbro, a reluctant acquaintance and unsolicited ghostwriter. Intense, ugly Barbro grafts at writing, while charming Lillemor thrives on public acclaim – they share the proceeds.
How to read all this? The author would probably reply: ‘Suit yourself.’ Are Lillemor and Barbro two asides of a split personality? Has reality itself split apart? Is one of them distancing herself from aspects of her own persona? Are we observing a penitent in disguise? Is this a book-length discussion of the effects of public exposure on private life? All of the above, with a few extras thrown in?
In any case, we are told a story that pokes fun not only at its author – whoever she might be – but also at Sweden’s literary establishment. Named or easily enough recognisable figures, quite a few of them now dead, are treated with casual contempt and sardonic wit, sometimes tempered by affection.
Kerstin Ekman wrote her Grand final with humorous gusto, but more than that; the narrative emerges from a deep seriousness and was probably intended to say more than the text can quite sustain. Autofiction can and does cheat the reader at such moments – the mind is left hanging, as if in empty space. But how readable it is: oh yes! And such fun, for as long as it lasted.