Albert Bonniers förlag, 2012.
Reviewed by Rick McGregor in SBR 2013:1
Review Section: Faction
The enigmatic Greta Garbo continues to fascinate us even now, 20 years after her death and 70 years after her last major film role. Recently, her personal effects fetched 1.6 million dollars at auction. The woman who in her films was forever saying she wanted to be alone, and who in real life wanted to be left alone, has not yet had her wish fulfilled.
Ellen Mattson’s latest novel, Vinterträdet (The Winter Tree), is set in the early 1930s and depicts half a dozen years in the life of Greta Garbo, seen through the eyes of the fictional character Vendela Berg. Vendela is a young Swede on her way from Gothenburg to the USA to keep the books at her uncle’s brewery in Milwaukee and, on board the same ship, the great star returns to Hollywood after a visit home. Garbo, travelling incognito as ‘Miss Brown’, catches Vendela spying on her and decides that the young woman could be useful. She persuades Vendela to accompany her to Los Angeles and become her private secretary and lady companion.
Vendela’s main job, it transpires, is to protect Garbo from prying eyes and unwelcome attention. Her primary qualification for the job is a superficial resemblance to the movie star, sufficient to let her, dressed in Garbo-style outfits, undertake diversions to lead press and public astray and so allow Garbo to avoid detection. Vendela becomes increasingly involved in the external trappings of Garbo’s life, but learns little about the star’s inner feelings. Vendela is downstairs when Garbo and fellow Swedish actor Nils Asther are in the bedroom upstairs, and is left in Stockholm for weeks, while Garbo is on a skiing holiday with a Swedish prince.
In a postscript, Mattson describes her book as a novel but states that it is based on facts. She provides a list of the source materials she has used, including memoirs by some of the people who appear in the book, for example Asther and other contemporary Hollywood personalities like Salka Viertel and Mercedes de Acosta.
One of the themes of the novel is the parallel between Garbo and one of her most significant roles: Queen Christina, the Swedish queen who abdicated in 1654 rather than succumb to the pressure to marry and have heirs. Discussing Christina with Vendela, Garbo says: ‘The Queen wants something else... but when they ask her what it is she can’t answer.’ Later she comments: ‘No one will understand. She wants to be free, they don’t understand that.’ Garbo wants her fellow Swedes to be proud of her for making a film that the whole world admires, and then to let her abdicate from Hollywood stardom.
Another, related theme is the impossibility of knowing another person or telling their story. Vendela says: ‘...you can’t capture a whole person. You have to choose certain parts and make them shine: that way, you tell one sort of story. If you wish to tell another one, you choose different parts.’ Garbo herself comments: ‘They think they know me, that’s what is so unpleasant.’ The Garbo we meet in this novel remains unknowable, even to apparent intimates. ‘In all the years I knew Greta,’ says Vendela, ‘she spoke only when it suited her and answered only a fraction of my questions.’
The relationship between Greta Garbo and Vendela Berg sustains one’s interest in a novel that is fascinating but somewhat frustrating. The narrative of the work on the script of Queen Christina provides forward movement but overall, Vinterträdet describes aspects of a life. And it remains an enigmatic one.