Friday, 27 March 2009

Inger Edelfeldt - "For Marie-Claire"


Inger Edelfeldt is many-sided in her creative endeavours. She not only writes novels and short-stories for adults and young people, but also illustrates her own books, designs the covers, and has produced books of comic strips. She began writing in the 1980s with longer prose until, in 1984, came a book of short-stories I fiskens mage. From then onwards her reputation grew and she has now published around a dozen novels and story collections.

Her heroines and heroes are often outsiders, who do not quite fit in. Some are fay, some a little nervous, some childlike, some wilful. Small girls feature, as do pubescent ones.

Inger Edelfeldt has been translated in at least two issues of Swedish Book Review, 2004:2 and 2008:1. In the former issue, she is introduced to English readers perhaps for the first time by Sarah Death, who also translated an excerpt from her then latest novel Skuggorna i spegeln (The Shadows in the Mirror). In 2008, Sarah Death again translated some of Edelfeldt's work where the author herself on the illustrations to her own fairy-tale.

In 2003, one of Edelfeldt's stories Zilver appeared in Dutch translation, published in Groningen, Netherlands. In 2006, a selection of 13 of Inger Edelfeldt's stories (including the one below) was published in the same Wilde Aardbeien series that has recently featured collections of contemporary Icelandic and Faroese poetry.

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Below is my own translation, dating back originally to 1995, of Inger Edelfeldt's story For Marie-Claire, from the collection "Rit", a translation which has never been published before. To avoid spoiling this tragi-comic story, I shall leave the readers to find out for themselves what is going on. The "sentimental song" referred to was sung by Peter Sarstedt, hence the title.


FOR MARIE-CLAIRE

by Inger Edelfeldt

I left the cake till last, as I had seen that there was a cake shop not far from the flat. I stumbled in with all my carrier bags. I was nervous, even though I had decided not to be. My left eyelid kept quivering, it had been doing so all day. I had seen my reflection in several shop windows, several mirrors: unshaven, pale and staring manically. Me who had thought that I would sail high on the waves of defiance, that grand defiance you can feel at times; a pride which is a protest against all pride. I had already felt it while planning all this. I had been acting the silly coward all day; each time I went in somewhere to buy something I needed, I had taken a deep breath, as if about to dive. But shop assistants are a blasé breed, or perhaps simply diplomatic. Everything had gone smoothly, no need to justify myself. Just friendliness or indifference on their part, while my eyelid was stubbornly, but invisibly I hoped, signalling danger. "You can wrap them all up" was what I said, and so they did. And inside my head there was a voice which kept on saying: It's a free country, it's a free country. Me, who can usually put on such an act. That's what they're always telling me: "You're so damned funny. You could be just about anything you wanted".

It was, in fact, easier when I used to steal the stuff. Easier than buying it. I stole quite a lot from Anneli when we were together. She always told me she was so careless, kept losing things. But she liked to go out and buy new ones. That's what I wanted this time, too. That everything would be newly bought. Clean and bright.

The first thing I saw when I entered the cake shop was a huge wedding cake. I stared at it while I was waiting for someone to serve me. Right on top, there was a little bridal couple made of plastic, standing perfectly straight as if suffering from vertigo. Him in black, her in white. Immediately, a film sequence ran through my head: the bridal couple, life-size now, but still made of plastic, striding across the threshold of their home, turning their expressionless plastic faces towards one another, peeling off their clothes with jerky movements and grabbing at one another: click, scrape, moan, like two tortoises mating.

"It's made of plaster of Paris" said the girl behind the counter, all of a sudden. "But we do real ones to order".

She was a sweet girl and her voice was sort of ironically mature for her years as it is in people who understand more than they are letting on. I liked her immediately. I began to mutter something about how convenient it was that there was such a good cake shop just round the corner from the flat I had just moved into. She flirted with me and that gave me a kick. I kept on babbling. My eyelid was quivering incessantly, but she didn't appear to believe she was standing in front of a lunatic. I bought a cream cake and then I stayed on and drank a cup of coffee, even though I didn't really have time to. There were hardly any customers and we had a little chat. She had also worked in a hospital. Though what did that matter. Sometimes nothing matters apart from Marie-Claire. What you are working with, what's happening out there in the world, whether there's any food in the fridge. All the bloody same. But now, it seemed as if I were afraid, afraid to go up to the flat and carry out my plan. So I sat on. I was in a cold sweat. The girl was sweet, as I mentioned, and seemed level-headed enough, but after a while the only thing I saw was the colour of her lipstick. And it was getting very late. They were coming at seven, and I knew how long preparations would take.

*

Mine is a one-room flat; first a long corridor, then a large bathroom, then the asymmetrical room, making the kitchenette smaller than the bathroom. On that occasion, the whole flat had the suffocating smell of paint, because Leffe and Maria had helped me to do some decorating only a couple of days previously. The room still had a spartan look: an IKEA bed, an IKEA bookcase, a 1950s table and a couple of old chairs which my parents had parted with during the rush to move. A newly acquired antique wall mirror which Leffe and Maria had teased me about on a number of occasions. We did, after all, have our code of honour: style is something you should ignore. Be "yourself". (Whoever that may be.)

I knew I wouldn't be able to cope without Leffe and Maria. Our nightly conversations, our manic defiance, our in-jokes, our stratagems. But then there are all those things you cannot share; then there's Marie-Claire, damnable, wonderful Marie-Claire, who puts everyone else in the shade. I can lie there in the dark and imagine a voice saying to me – the voice of a judge, I am in some kind of court – a voice saying to me: What is it you're up to? And then I answer: I don't know, and in those words lies great relish, I don't mean "randiness", even though there's some of that present, too; no, it's something grander, like inviting someone to crush me to death, and still being able to smile about it. God knows if it isn't some kind of court-martial. God knows if they're not thinking of shooting me. And I shine, shine like some great big, stupid, happy, beautiful, mysterious butterfly, the second before the shot rings out.

Sometimes, I look at photographs of myself. I look long and intently, partly because of the fact that I am an egocentric person but also because I want to catch a glimpse of something, some sign, in that little boy in the pram, the sandbox, out there in the fields, on the football pitch, at school. And sure enough, there is something odd about his looks, his features. As if some chord were sounding deep inside, all the time. There is something deep inside him; a sweet parasite, languid and lovely.

I am mesmerised, obsessed. I don't know whether obsession is interesting to others, can be explained to them. Instead, I ought to achieve something there in the outside world, conquer something, alter something, become something. But Marie-Claire commands my undivided attention; what I do out there, I do no more than half-heartedly.

Anneli often asked me where I would go off to. She could see my eyes suddenly grow vacant and distant, as if I were on drugs. She wanted to get me back to reality at any price. Sometimes I was just about to tell her where I had gone, but I just couldn't bring myself to do so. Suddenly, there was a large pebble in my mouth. And with that pebble in my mouth, all I could say was: "Give me the muesli" or "Let's play Monopoly". And I felt so bloody tragic. But in a way, I enjoy that as well. Hang me high, I shall flutter like a banner in the breeze.

I was twelve, perhaps only eleven, at the time. It was autumn, the air as keen as a knife, but hot as a summer's day. That was when it all began. It must have been a Saturday or Sunday, as I was home in the middle of the day. I took the transistor, a bag of salted licorice and a bundle of comics out into the garden and read some Spiderman story or other, but I felt drowsy and preferred to let my eyes fall shut and listen to the radio.

And that's when I first heard the song, and from the very first bar, I knew it was magical, intended for me, in a way I did not understand. It was quite a sentimental song, an old hit from the sixties or seventies. I didn't really understand all the lyrics, what did go in were the words: Look into my eyes Marie-Claire, and tell me just who you are. Much later, I finally gathered that the song was about a poor girl who had made it in life, knew all the right people of the jet set or the like, and the singer is reminding her of her humble origins. Now, she is perhaps an exclusive call-girl, or a film star, I really don't know. Anyway, I didn't understand all of that at the time.

What happened was, that I was filled with a strange sensation, like the flavour of an unusually succulent sweet, a flavour which spread throughout my body. It was as if the whole of my body were tasting the flavour of that divine sweet with hundreds of thousands more taste buds than I ever knew I had. That sensation coincided with a picture in my head: I knew exactly what the Marie-Claire of the song looked like. She was dressed in white, in a kind of wedding dress made of a soft white material. She was truly ladylike, with glistening lips and heavy eyelashes and those type of earrings which glitter. Her scents were perfumes so expensive that my mother would not have dared use them. She wore red nail varnish. She did nothing, was someone people simply gazed at. Marie-Claire lounged in a hammock in the Indian summer staring up into the azure of the heavens. She was languid and beautiful and enveloped in a kind of aura of ease, as when you lie in a bubble bath. I was panting as if I had been running. I didn't understand a thing, I swear: someone had aimed a magic pistol from another planet at me, so there was no point in trying to grasp anything. I was a young boy with a comic and a packet of fish-shaped salted licorice lying on my chest, and yet at the same time I was a voluptuous woman in a white dress. Everything was charged, the heavens, the trees, the earth, everything shimmered. The wind was blowing, coming from a foreign country. I wanted to laugh, or cry, but I could raise neither laughter nor tears: this was something else, and I simply didn't know what.

Then I remember standing in front of the mirror in my mother's room, that same day, or some other. I couldn't make myself up, but I had a go. And the taste of that divine sweet returned.

The clothes, the small phials of perfume, a pair of white lace gloves.

But I was the kind of child who wanted explanations for everything. I liked to think of myself as Newton under the apple tree, I knew all the theories as to why dinosaurs had become extinct, and I tried to work out my own explanations for such phenomena as ghosts, God, reincarnation, flying saucers and the like. I was what my mother would call "a little chatterbox". It goes without saying that I began to wonder about Marie-Claire. I realised that she had long been a part of me, a number of things I had done and felt were, so to speak, small pebbles leading all the way into her boudoir. So when she exploded like sun at the centre of a firework display that Indian summer's day, she had been on her way for a good while. But where had she come from? I looked everywhere for explanations, even in the Problem Pages of my mum's weeklies. I had eyes like a hawk. Gradually, I gathered that Marie-Claire's sisters, just like flying saucers and elves, appeared here and there and had become the objects of both ridicule and rigorous scientific research. But no one could fathom the mystery; no one could fence in rapture.

And she has followed me through the years. Me, who am I? An insufferable charmer, as Anneli once claimed. A troublemaker on occasions, someone pretty clever. Vacillating about my future. What no one sees is the shadow side, my double nature, the creature within me which I myself can sense, even in everyday matters in a gesture, an intonation I suddenly recognise as hers. I often look at my own face in the mirror.

It was not until I met Anneli that I began to wish that Marie-Claire would hop it. She stood between me and Anneli, I knew right away that I wouldn't be able to tell her anything. When we moved in together I tried to show her the door; Marie-Claire, that is. But she kept on coming back when I was on my own, and would seize hold of me like a fit of the shivers. Anneli travelled away, and with the curtains drawn I would spend days with M-C. She liked Edith Piaf, she thought it s-o-o-o w-o-o-onderful to smoke cigarettes in long holders. She adored pretending to be dumb, and had dreams and desires which made me want to say: stop it now!

Such a limitless person, Marie-Claire. Drop her out of an aeroplane and she'd sail down like an angel in white skirts. Now, she's on her way off to the fountain and turns round with a laugh before stepping into the water. And all the rest she does, and I hardly dare think about. But I'm not trying to be ironic about her, though I do wonder what I'm going to do with her. Now she's gone and made the decision that I'm going to go through with today's plans; or is it me who've decided? Anyway, here I am with my two carrier bags, the table laid for three. My eyelid is still quivering, since I didn't sleep a wink last night, and everything's kind of quivering inside me too, invisibly, in my muscles.

I know that I'm not ridiculous, that I'm not vulgar. I know how I'm dressed and that I'm not overdoing it. One day, I shall drive off with Marie-Claire to a little pension in some godforsaken hole in the country where no one cares a damn what I do, and then she'll be able to sunbathe. I shall be able to sunbathe. At Anneli's place there was a little balcony, and I/she lay there a couple of times on a blanket drinking Campari. But I didn't dare sit up, since the balcony wasn't shielded from the neighbours. I didn't even dare to sit up!

I know exactly how to make up my face to give it her expression. She looks less innocent now than she did at first. I don't know what she'll look like as I grow older. That's something I'd rather not think about. Those big eyes, they almost frighten me. The red hunger of the mouth, the smooth skin. If I want to keep her at bay, I let my stubble grow.

This time, I'm even shaving my armpits. This time, I want to do everything properly; the underwear, the stockings, the black flowing dress, the cutaway.

Then I loosen the pony tail and pin it up my hair with the combs. I used to do waves, but they look rather frumpish. Marie-Claire is no frump. No one is allowed to regard her as such.

And while I am doing all this, and squeezing her feet into her shoes, straightening the neck band and can feel the cool weight of the necklace against the skin, the sharp nip of the clips on the ear lobes, all the while I stand in front of the mirror and look helplessly into those big dark eyes, and when I put the salmon paté on the table and light the candles, I feel my anxiety growing.

She's afraid now; she who is so brave – or should I say foolhardy? Who wants to hitch lifts on strange roads, tempting fate. In fact, she's standing here in a small flat with its IKEA furniture and is growing more and more afraid. She drinks a glass of wine, slumps down into an armchair. Looks at the clock. At the mirror, once more.

Now there are footsteps on the stairs, and now a rustling sound can be heard outside (flowers?), now there is a ring at the door. And in my head everything short-circuits totally. For three leaden seconds I am completely and utterly paralysed. Then I breathe in. I rip off those tight shoes and sneak down the corridor and have a peep through the spy hole in the door. There they stand, Marie and Leffe, looking quite ordinary as always, holding a bunch of tulips. It appears they have heard me approaching, or sense that I am standing there.

"Open up!" says Maria and giggles. "What ever are you doing?" And I feel, with painful intensity, how much they mean to me, how I love them both, there outside the door in their frayed clothes.

There I stand, dumb as a fish, on my side of the door and I know I cannot open it, not under any circumstances. There they are on the outside, and behind them the stairs to the yard and the streets and the squares and the shops and real life where people are drinking coffee and dunking their biscuits and buying toys for their kids and going to work or demonstrating or acting in street theatre groups, or whatever. And here, on this side of the door is standing Marie-Claire, smelling of Patchouli, understanding nothing and wanting to scream out loud. She has come so far. Right up to a shut door.

Now Leffe has begun to drum rhythmically on the doorframe and the whole door shudders with a sound like thunder. I know it's just a joke, but it's driving me round the bend. I've got to say something now and so, after two attempts, I manage to get the words up out of my throat: "Stop it out there!"

He stops. "Why don't you open up?"

"Can't find the sodding key. It's not in the lock. I must have put
it somewhere."

"Gerraway with you, you're just having us on."

"Honest. I just can't find it!" (For God's sake don't let them look
through the keyhole!)

"Have you looked in the rubbish bin?"

"I'll go and have another look. You can ... go for a walk, or
something."

"You're just no good at living alone, are you", chuckles Leffe, "just can't cope with being a bachelor."

I rush back into the room, tear Marie-Claire's clothes off and hide them right at the back of the wardrobe. Then I rush into the bathroom and lather my whole face till it smarts, my eyes sting like hell; get rid of her. And that damned nail varnish, it takes ages to clean my nails. By this time Leffe and Maria have begun whistling "I Bergkungens sal" out there on the stairs.

The smell of perfume, how shall I get rid of that? I pour on masses of after-shave and hope the smells will cancel one another out. Now she's nearly gone; I roll down the sleeves of my jumper all the way, so they won't see that I've shaved my arms. She's gone, and I am trembling like an aspen leaf in the breeze. I gulp down several mouthfuls of wine and sit down for a minute before getting up to open the door. If this was a film, I think to myself, the whole audience would have been pissing themselves by now. I try to see the funny side of it all. But she is something deadly serious, like a religion. Someone has to love her, or I'll die. When I was seventeen, I went to the school welfare officer and sat there with the most unctuous smile I could muster on my face. She looked friendly but pale, she looked as if she knew exactly in what sized portions everything had to doled out.

"Well, here we are then," I said.

"And what's worrying you?" she said.

"I'm a charmer," I said. "I can wiggle my ears."

"You don't have to for my sake," she said. "You can do that when ever you like."

She had a photo of her husband and children on her notice board. They looked terribly normal as if you could buy them at the Co-op. Next to the photo, there was a pre-printed card on which was written: Love me most when least I deserve it: that is when I need love most. I hate pre-printed cards: the whole world is pre-printed. You have to be pre-printed to be happy. Dear Lord, let me be pre-printed in thy sight, amen.

"Is there a girl?" she said.

I had a fit of the giggles.

So she looks at me and waits a short while, and then says: "Perhaps there's a boy?"

Then I had another fit of the giggles. Whereupon she looked at me even more intensely and said: "If you just keep on laughing at everything I say, then I won't be able to help you, will I?"

"No, no", I said, "I understand that, but it's not actually me it's about." Then she became as silent as the grave and in that silence I burst into tears, and I have never experienced anything so desolately humiliating in all my life as crying in front of that dumb cow. She looked at me as if I were one great big gift-wrapped box of chocolates. "That's very good," she said. That's very good!

And I knew I would never be able to let her into the mysteries of my secret.

Leffe bangs on the door again and yells: "Shall we call a locksmith?"

I cast one last searching glance in the mirror, my face looks naked and tired. Everything is under control, even though my eyelid is still quivering. I walk across the hallway and open the door.

"Hi," is what I say to my two best friends.

Maria hands me the tulips, white tulips. Marie-Claire's white tulips.

"Where was the key, then?" she enquires.

"You're never going to believe this, but it was in the teapot."

They both roar with laughter. They enter the flat and we eat and drink and chat, and I think to myself: thank the good Lord that I've got you two. Leffe really is Leffe and Maria really Maria. It feels secure sitting here with them and it simply doesn't matter what we talk about, the main thing is the sound of their voices and the fact they're here. Like a fire to warm yourself by.

But when I glance in the mirror again, I can still see Marie-Claire there, her eyes and her mouth which is pleading for life to be boundless, one boundless mystery, a rite, a feast, a sacrifice, an offence against the law. She is trapped on the other side of the looking-glass, in her looking-glass world.

And I am so dog-tired, I just want to go to bed and sleep, between them perhaps, Leffe and Maria, just like a little child.

*

Translated from Swedish by Eric Dickens

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