Albert Bonniers förlag, 2010. ISBN: 9789100124915
Reviewed by Carl Otto Werkelid in SBR 2011:1
The Swedish literary world was in a febrile, ill-tempered state when the first volume of Agnes von Krusenstjerna’s Fattigadel (Distressed Gentlefolk) series came out in November 1935. Krusenstjerna had herself contributed a great deal to the rise in temperature; during the early 30s, the publication, in seven parts, of her great fictional structure Fröknarna von Pahlen (The Misses von Pahlen) had been stoking the fires of the public debate on ‘morality and literature’, which later became known as the ‘Krusenstjerna controversy’. The main issue was the permissible degree of individual freedom, given the ethical norms of society, but more specifically the liberties taken by Krusenstjerna in passages dealing with female sexuality, where, it was widely felt, she had overstepped the boundaries of propriety with a vengeance. When she shamelessly added a homosexual element to the already volatile mix, it triggered a flame in the dry tinder that made up so much of Swedish public opinion in the 30s: the arguments came mainly from one or the other of two distinct camps, championing respectively a vision of literary freedom of expression and a morally based sense of obligation, which was regarded as the foundation of society. By the autumn of 1934, when Krusenstjerna’s husband David Sprengel mentions for the first time in a letter to her publishers that she is working on long, new novel about a family, he had every reason to reassure Bonniers that this book was indeed ‘a perfectly proper work’. Krusenstjerna herself describes it in a letter as ‘my new, “morally sound” novel’. Without speculating on whether the readership at large desired a high moral tone or would prefer still more openness, the demand for Krusenstjerna’s writings was actually so avid that, within a month of publication, and neatly in time for Christmas, Fattigadel came out in a second edition. It is both a great surprise and a great joy to see that Bonniers have now republished Fattigadel – and as an elegant boxed set, too. This story of the life and adventures of minor nobility during the early decades of the 20th century is so far from being a sure-fire public success, that the enterprise of the publishers is all the more admirable. With the ‘Krusenstjerna controversy’ lost in a distant past, her readers are now free to form a more balanced judgement about the qualities that ensured her literary survival as the author of this well-known sequence of novels – the four parts of which add up to almost 2,000 pages. She truly is a survivor; the reader, fascinated and awed, is drawn deep into the recreation of a period in Swedish social history which offers quite a few explanations of, and keys to, the conformity and somewhat petty petit bourgeois ideals which can not infrequently be uncovered immediately below the smart surface layer of Swedish modernity. Krusenstjerna writes vividly and incredibly well; back in 1935, one of her admirers among the literary critics wrote in his review of the first volume that ‘Our current literary echelons can produce no name worthy of being mentioned alongside [Krusenstjerna’s]’, an appreciation which is, from several points of view, still valid. As so much of what Agnes von Krusenstjerna wrote, Fattigadel has many unmistakably autobiographical elements. Her protagonist, Viveka von Lagercrona, follows a path from girl to young womanhood, which in several respects reminds us of the author’s own; even if the narrative perspective varies slightly from time to time, it is through Viveka’s uninterrupted presence that we are offered a line of plot development to follow. We read her testimony, her critical observations, reflections and sharply witty second-hand accounts of events which are ostensibly fairly insignificant or ordinary, but are driven by hidden, powerful and fateful forces. Just like Agnes von Krusenstjerna herself, Viveka is the daughter of an officer belonging to minor aristocracy. His position in the Swedish army determines every aspect of his family’s life. That von Lagercrona had married the daughter of a count of the highest rank, just like von Krusenstjerna, Agnes’s father, does of course leave a distinctive imprint on a way of life which to an astonishingly great extent turns out to have depended on an awareness of self and of others that was ultimately dictated by notions of rank. During Viveka’s earliest conscious years, the family home is in Visby on the island of Gotland. Then, their shared journey takes them to the mainland and the port city of Gävle, because von Lagercrona has been promoted to commanding officer of the local regiment; all as in real life for the Krusenstjerna family, with the difference that in Fattigadel Gävle was to be called Ramstaden – for no better reason than that the author simply thought Gävle excessively dull. It is in Ramstaden then that the main part of the plot unfolds; from the very beginning, Krusenstjerna emphasises Viveka as an outsider, whose ironic watchfulness – sharing the writer’s perspective, perhaps – is illustrated by her comments about her younger brother whom she has suspected, throughout their childhood, of character flaws: ‘... by now he’s been married for years to a self-important, wealthy little goose and already they’ve got two silly, opinionated goslings waddling along after them, just as self-important as their mother ...’ Overall, it is striking how fresh and courageous Krusenstjerna seems in this quite devastatingly critical account of her own social class and of her own narrow circle of hardup nobility, at the same time determinedly genteel and painfully ill at ease. The tetralogy can be read as a provincial Swedish version of the Londonbased Upstairs Downstairs, in which recognition of an immutable social order, and a constant urge to demonstrate understanding of its finer points, constitute simultaneously the engine of existence and the brake on any change. What Krusenstjerna describes is a dying world, a social system declining into oblivion; her stylistic precision and exquisite sense of balance between understanding and scornful amusement makes this superbly contained family chronicle widen out into a psychologically and socially insightful story charting the downfall of an entire class. Krusenstjerna had only two more years left to live when the fourth volume of Fattigadel was published; she left outlines of a fifth and sixth novel, which could not be completed before a brain tumour ended her life at the age of 46.
Translated by Anna Paterson