Norstedts, 2008. ISBN: 9789113018936
Reviewed by Ross Shideler in SBR 2009:1
When is an autobiography a novel? The question is relevant because Enquist’s latest book, Ett annat liv just won the major literary award given to Swedish authors, the 2008 August Prize, and the book won in the fiction category. Though the question implies that there is an inherent opposition between the genres of autobiography and novel, Enquist’s novel both confronts and sidesteps the issue. The book narrates important episodes from the story of Enquist’s life, but it is first and foremost a complex, fascinating, and carefully written work. A major figure in Swedish and Scandinavian literature and journalism for over forty years, Per Olov Enquist has been stunningly productive during the last decade. In 1999 he published Livläkarens besök (The Royal Physician’s Visit, 2002), which also won the August Prize, then in 2001 Lewis resa (Levi’s Journey, 2004) and in 2004 Boken omBlanche och Marie (The Book About Blanche and Marie, 2006). Given this burst of creative energy, it seems reasonable that an author might want to look back on his life and career. But this work is no leisurely anecdotal stroll through his past while on the way to fame and fortune. While two thirds of it portrays the growth of an artist, the final third depicts Enquist’s long, arduous decline and then his return to the creativity and energy exhibited throughout his life. The story begins, as it would for an autobiographical text, with the author’s childhood, but for Enquist readers, there is a familiar multiple, metatextual perspective. Narrated in third person, the novel first offers to the reader a series of vivid, almost Joycean scenes from the childhood of this infant growing up with a single parent in a highly religious, sparsely populated village in Northern Sweden. Occasionally commenting on the child’s environment, the author’s contemporary self both presents and looks back upon his school-teacher mother’s piety, the absence of his father, and the local traditions that played such a major role in the boy’s development. Part of this context is the regional dialect spoken by the villagers, which both shapes the young man as he grows up and forces the reader to try to grasp the meaning of the language as well as to accept the outsider identity that such a dialect implies. Within the alien yet warmly embracing social context of Hjoggböle, we get glimpses of the child’s search for an identity as well as images, such as the singing telephone lines, that appear in many of Enquist’s novels and plays. Recognised as a good writer, the boy burdened with his heritage of Pentecostal evangelism faces the decision of whether to become a minister or a teacher like his mother. After a stint in the military, he takes the train to Uppsala and begins his academic career with schoolmates like Lars Gustafsson and Lars Lönnroth, who have themselves become important Swedish literary and cultural figures.The author’s skill as a high jumper leads to his first journey outside of Sweden to the East German city of Greifswald and an affair with a young woman.The combination of his athleticism and his writing lead to further travels and to his first novel. The story concentrates on the development of the author’s writing with limited if touching references to his personal life, such as his marriage and the birth of his children. His career progresses as he becomes a journalist deeply involved in the cultural and political debates of the time. As his contacts expand to such political figures as Olof Palme and Tage Erlander, he sees the connections between his childhood evangelical upbringing and the need for personal responsibility which will become central to his writing. A central theme of the entire novel is the connection that appears in several of his novels in the 60s and 70s between his Norrland religious upbringing and his own attempt to establish a personal and social sense of responsibility. Legionärerna (1968), (The Legionnaires, 1973) typifies this theme and the author revisits his own experience of writing it and the influence it had on others both in Sweden and in the former Soviet Union. The book progresses by expanding on similar major moments in Enquist’s authorial development. Scenes from Germany, which led to the Sekonden (The Second, 1971), and then, a period I am most familiar with, his stay in Los Angeles, the writing of Tribadernas natt (1975) (Night of the Tribades, 1977), and the eventual productions in New York with an opening on Broadway. Enquist succeeds in assembling these patches of history related to his creative life, because he has a fine eye for detail and an author’s sense of suspense and plot. The suspense leads up to the third part of the book, which is anticipated throughout, and which focuses on the years he lived in Denmark and Paris. Titled ‘Into the Darkness’ (‘In i mörkret’), this section begins by referring briefly to his divorce and to his happy second marriage, but even as the narrator shows how the novels and plays written during those years are related to characters and events in his life, he gradually unveils the darkness of alcoholism that has been overtaking him. Covering the years 1978 to 1993, this section presents a subtle and persuasive depiction of the author’s long denial of his condition; he describes the multiple interventions of family and friends and his entrance into and premature departures from various rehabilitation centres. Finally, in February of 1990 he is able to confront his condition and escape from it. From that perspective, Kapten Nemos bibliotek (1991) (Captain Nemo’s Library, 1992) represents a kind of salvation novel. Ett annat liv concludes with an imagined conversation between the narrator and his dead mother who speaks in her Norrland dialect. She asks him what Captain Nemo is about and he answers: resurrection.To this reader, it is clear that the great works that followed Captain Nemo’s Library come out of this resurrection and the sober freedom that the author has found.The life within Ett annat liv is the story of that journey.