Reviewed by Sarah Death in SBR 2014:1
Review Section: Fiction, Light-Hearted and More Serious
In Marc Blitzstein’s popular translation of Pirate Jenny: ‘And the ship, the black freighter, disappears out to sea. And on it is me’.
Malmsten has made herself into something of a brand after relocating to Brittany and starting to write about her life there. Alongside her other titles, she has published a series of ‘logbooks’ of which Och ett skepp… is the fifth and final volume. These diary-like collections, beautifully packaged by Modernista, are distilled versions of her long-running blog (over 2600 entries to date) and, like the blog, they are illustrated, mainly with her own often quirky and slightly blurred photographs.
The author is now back in Stockholm, installed in a second-floor flat looking out over a school, some trees and a nice bit of sky. There is no lift but the exercise will help her live longer, she declares, only to be dismayed when a broken foot leaves her on crutches for weeks. Like many returning exiles, she sees home with a fresh, critical eye, complaining about everything from the demise of manned ticket barriers on the underground to the deviousness of city redevelopers. Environmental concerns also loom large, and the book is dedicated to ‘those who are not yet born’.
Malmsten does not waste much time on regrets, yet the book has an unmistakably elegiac feel, old age encroaches and ‘the great inconceivable’ hovers on the horizon. She plans extravagant balcony planting to rival her cherished French garden but never gets started, and the death of a loved one deals her a huge blow. Her greatest fear is a dotage spent staring into space, but though her health seems shaky, she is still a force to be reckoned with and a person people recognise. She is rendered temporarily speechless by two smart young men who spot her at the shops and tell her she is ‘cool’.
All the logbooks have literary quotations for titles and Och ett skepp… comes from Brecht’s Threepenny Opera. Pirate Jenny’s thoughts of revolution (‘Kill them now or later?’) echo Malmsten’s own sense of impotence and injustice, but she also links the quotation explicitly to a chambermaid encountered in a classy hotel on a trip to cover a New York literary festival. Social inequality and loneliness are recurring themes in the logbook: Malmsten feels for the unemployed and the Rumanian immigrants, for the silent ‘She of No Fixed Abode’, wheeling her belongings in a supermarket trolley, and for the solitary old man scoring goals at the football pitch.
The scrapbook-like format is ideal for a blog, but there are so many dripfeed literary blogs to follow, whereas the book serves up a satisfying portion of this forthright author in her older incarnation. Despite the confessional tone the author is doubtless creating a persona for herself even here, but it is a very human one, ready to admit its insecurities and anxieties. The tone is angry and uncompromising, opinionated and unapologetic, melancholy, tragic and comic by turns. Malmsten is always eminently readable.