Sunday, 26 September 2010

Bending the knee

At Absinthe Minded blog, Rita Dahl considers the Finnish case involving the Mohammed cartoons [excerpt]:
The cultural magazine Kaltio, based in Oulu, was the first magazine to republish the Mohammed cartoons in Finland. The 6-page-long comic appeared on the internet in September 2006 and was drawn by the Finnish comic artist, Ville Ranta. The prophet Mohammed was presented in the comic as a very furious, fundamentalist figure, who was wearing a mask and criticizing the Western world for the bad deeds it had done in the past to Arab countries and at the same time imposing the demand for freedom of speech in Arab countries. At the end of the comic the Finnish prime minister, Matti Vanhanen, and president, Tarja Halonen, burn the Danish flag in the hope that the Islamists would not get angry with them. (This burning of a flag refers to the apologies already made by Vanhanen and Halonen in February 2006, after the Finnish magazine, Suomen Sisu, had published the Mohammed cartoons for the first time in Finland.)

We call this heritage of bending the knee to other countries Finlandization. I will shortly explain what this way of reacting (still common among Finnish politicians) means. Finland has a long history of being suppressed, first by Sweden, then by the Soviet Union, until our independence in 1917. Even after that our political leaders continued to bend the knee to Russia whenever it was considered to be politically wise. Our country became famous for its unique foreign policy-- Kekkonen´s and Paasikivi´s line. That meant precisely that--bending the knee. Finlandization became another term for that foreign policy.

In my opinion, Ranta criticizes in his comic both Western and Islamist countries for their own kind of fundamentalisms. His starting point is that it is never good in the long term for anything--be it religion or politics—to be presented and heard only by its most fundamentalist representatives. His argument is that it is especially not good for anything--be it a religion like Islam, or western politics—to be represented by its most fundamental figures, be they fundamentalist Islamists, or Finnish politicians, who in their fear of losing good relations with other neighbouring countries, bend in every possible direction.

Read it all.


News that Gösta and Anna-Lisa have moved from the country environment of Skogslund to Vasa City. The following is my translation of Gösta's poem Orfeus' återkomst (The Return of Orpheus):

No poet can endure
being dead, a sojourn without
rhyme or reason. He needs
order and rhythm. His poems
are really laws. He
always turns back
from the underworld, which resembles
the everyday.

The darkness hides the screams
around him, when
the walking begins. The sun is
only black heraldry, only
a cavern in the sky
of stone, and he sees
it, without being blinded.

Then he goes, through the walking's
immobile, invisible lattice
from horizon to horizon.
An occasional tornado
of consciousness moves
through the journey, which is
what will remain.

The figures he meets
are shadows remembering
all that could have been.
Broken illusions are the name of
the only space in which we
are always free, can
always breathe, but those who
do not give up for lost what they have lost
will never attain it. He passes
a gateway, and continues in its
long, invisible arm. A gateway
never ends; it waits.
The darkness expands until it is
obscurity, no longer threat but
depth for all. Orpheus is like
a lonely child in a poem.
He is afraid. Perhaps there are
no dangers. But then there is
no protection against them

But then there is only

That is why he is not afraid
when the smiles begin to gleam
in the darkness, a swarm of knives,
slowly approaching. He knows
that he must go towards them
in order to escape from them. In that
way we flee from all
that we cannot flee from:
by seeking it out.

In vain do we ask for names.
Only the myth can answer.
The particular is too
general. Orpheus runs
through the crowd of indistinct
demons, created by that
reality whose innermost,
subatomic particle's name
a scientist's trembling hand
will one day write: Emptiness.

Now he is threatened by the total
consciousness which exists
in the darkness in his body.
They strike him as
hatefully as though they
were striking themselves, his image
within them. He flees
by enduring. For
he must write his
poems. Only thus can he
silence them. When he
at last lies alone
by the roadside in the underworld
he rises up once and for all,
as though he were abandoning
the figure lying there,
and continues, continues
the journey.

The wordless autumn wind
puts people's grief
into words. They themselves cannot
do it, for it is existence
that grieves, a nothingness
inside us all that compels us
to torment, and be tormented,
and thus exist so
intensely that being
drowns out the grief. Orpheus
sees the enemy, one
who is helpless, and strikes him
in order to be freed from the blows
he himself has had to accept.
It was thus he became
their prisoner.

To walk through the north wind is
like pushing one's way forward
between the ice­cold atoms
in a knife blade. What is it called,
the helpless voice that shouts
in the cold without doing so?
Love? No, love is never
helpless. It is an immense
bath­sponge that sucks into itself
everything, and thus, imperceptibly, becomes
everything. The one who holds fast
to his name cannot
accept life in any
other way than by
hating it. Orpheus is
helpless, but he is
Orpheus, and while

the sun thunders against the rockface
he meets Christ, here
and now a beggar
whose task is to
save people from
their insight that nothing
can save them. The kindness
his misery compels them to
shows that something else is
possible, if only
as the void in which it
does not exist. Thus may a haze
of mercy be wrapped
over facts. The ragged
figure walks slowly
onwards, total as a blind
judge. But Orpheus knows
that kindness is only part
of suffering, and they pass
each other without a word
while the sun burns
above the centuries.

His footsteps echo in the silence,
a monotonous leitmotif that
has got stuck. To
continue demands weakness.
His heart beats without resistance,
but Orpheus himself is strong.
He stops, he
turns round.

Who is she who is dimly seen
and vanishes inside
his gloom?

Now he knows: She is
a legend which no
narrator will tame. The
form he loves
he has himself sculpted.
Only if she becomes
real can he become
free. When one has waited long
the meeting
is a farewell.

The night closes society
and opens the stars.
Even in the underworld,
whose starless night
surrounds Orpheus' brain,
fatigue can grow
into grace. That is why the
sparse crowd of people
he meets is peaceful
as a landscape,
but stubbornly, mechanically
as a series of copies
of himself, Orpheus
walks in the opposite

The gateway's vault of clouds
and pillars of pines are
invisible. One sees only clouds
and pines. He walks out
into the unproven theory
that is called reality,
into the village where the faces
turn towards him like
lanterns in the gloom. He
thinks of a poem about what
he is thinking of: these
people who move
through the village, dragging long,
impassive shadows. Now
once again they know the result
of today's work: tomorrow's
work awaits. To endure
is a way to get strength
to endure. So

he thinks, and that is why
he does not shout that the one
who has walked long through
the underworld can only reject
everything, even this
meaningless gesture of
rejecting everything.

Instead the poem ends
like this: He comes home.

The air is motionless in the cottage.
Slowly, with movement after
movement, mother peels potatoes.
Is it poverty and illness
that stand still in here?

No, but she is choked
by an unsung song
of sorrow, our chance
to live.

That song aches like a child
without words. It is so hard
because sorrow demands love,
that immense hand
in our breast which no one
can reduce to fate.

The evening's black, swaying
trees are the horns of slowly moving
herds. Inexorably
everything journeys.

Orpheus sings
of sorrow.

translated from Finland-Swedish by David McDuff

Monday, 20 September 2010

The art of aphorism

Over the past 25 years Finnish poet and scholar Markku Envall (b. 1944) has pubished seven collections of aphorisms, a literary genre particularly favoured in Finland, where it has a long tradition stretching back to the nineteenth century. Envall's seventh collection has just been published by WSOY, but these are a few examples I've translated, drawn from earlier collections, courtesy of Aforistiblogi:
He loved Bach as the music of the future. Bach was the only sure thing he knew about it.
Break out of prison, at every moment.
          Life a dream? If a nightmare, it has a happy ending. Awakening.
You think you are using the machine. The machine is using you. 
          It is frowned upon to eat so much at the table that the other goes without. Not so
          in the world at large.
The trees will  be there when you are gone. When the trees are gone you will not be there. 

Wednesday, 15 September 2010

Reading matters

The interesting blog of Swedish military historian and defence analyst Lars Gyllenhaal continues to provide thought-provoking insights into aspects of Nordic and European security, past and present. with references to little-known and little-publicized historical, literary and other documentary sources. Among recent posts to the blog are:

  • a review of a book called If Germany Had Won --  53 Alternative Scenarios, with a chapter containing speculations on questions such as what might have happened if Sweden had been drawn into the Winter War of 1939-40, or had said no to Hitler in 1941.
  • a dissection and general Fisking of the 9/11 “Truth Movement”, with some unexpected words from Noam Chomsky.
  • an examination of Russia’s new defence policy in the light of a recent BBC report, and a look at one puzzling recent development.

Tuesday, 14 September 2010

Work poems

Lev Hrytsyuk and Linn Hansén have drawn my attention to another poetry collection that deals, among other things, with the experience of work in a care home. According to the publisher's blurb, Swedish poet Johan Jönson's 800-page Efter arbetschema (2008), his twelfth volume of verse,  focuses on the reality of work: "dels försörjningsarbetet i vården eller i den tunga industrin, dels ett arbete med att förstå och besvärja 'världsfabriken'."

Although work in a care home is one of its subjects, Jönson's massive book appears to cover a much wider field of concerns than the remarkable first collection by Timo Harju, recently published in Finland, and partly available in English translation on this blog and elsewhere. But it's interesting to see that the subject of work is one that engages the attention of some Nordic poets - it's certainly a topic that's encountered less frequently in contemporary English and American poetry.

Sunday, 12 September 2010

A private story

I've now finished the third volume of the German-Swedish author Peter Weiss's long novel The Aesthetics of Resistance, and so have now read all 1787 pages of the 2005 Suhrkamp edition. It's a varied reading experience - something akin to a blend of fiction, documentary report, ideological tract, historical treatise and autobiographical reminiscence - and it's possible to see why if it were to be translated in its entirety, the book would probably have a limited readership, placing its author firmly in the category of a 1000 copy guy. Although the voice of the narrative is not directly Weiss's own, but that of the novel's youthful narrator, it's hard to swallow the illusion that the teenage chronicler and historian would in real life be capable of disgorging this stupendous volume of earnest, didactic oration.

On the other hand, the book does offer some unique insights into the history and psychology of the Germany of the immediate post World War 2 era. The sections in volume 3 that deal with the problem of why a country that was able during the eighteenth, nineteenth and early twentieth centuries to produce one of the most highly-evolved aesthetic cultures of Europe, and indeed of the world as a whole, proved at the same time to be an almost total failure in the art of state building and political endeavour, and ended by nearly destroying not only itself but much of the rest of the world as a well. Weiss appears to pin the blame on what he perceives to be an innate Germanic (not only German, for Sweden also comes in for a large dose of criticism) yearning for an ideal realm, a longing unaccompanied by any substantial practical ability that might have brought about its realization. The link between aesthetics and politics which forms the novel's principal thesis is only an abstract one - in practice, the link did not exist, and most of the writers, artists, filmmakers and composers who began by espousing the cause of a New Jerusalem built from Marxist revolutionism ultimately found themselves cast adrift in a murky sea of violence, war, totalitarianism and genocide.

Weiss extends his judgment to condemn not only Germany, but also most of Europe and America. The Soviet Union is seen as a deceptive friend and foe, which during the 1920s and 30s encouraged the aspirations and actions of radical idealists only to betray them, delivering them into the hands of their tormentors and destroyers. The parts of the novel which deal with this - such as the long passages of analysis and recrimination that precede the gory accounts of executions in the Nazi jails - are probably unlike anything else in postwar German literature, possessing the kind of clarity and frankness sought by W.G. Sebald in his book of essays On the Natural History of Destruction, but not found by him there.

The third volume stands apart from the other two by containing elements of a more conventional narrative kind. The long account of Charlotte Bischoff's voyage from Stockholm to Nazi-occupied Holland aboard a Swedish merchant vessel could be taken from a 1930s spy thriller, while the section describing the executions of German communists (including two of the novel's principal characters) in Plötzensee Prison have a lurid quality that is possibly at odds with the elevated style of much of the rest of the book. In the end, I found that the unyielding nature of the narrative technique, the unbroken yet breathless hammering of the syntax and diction, made it hard to be swept along by the flow of language and rhetoric as the author undoubtedly intended. By the last 100 pages or so there is a definite sense of exhaustion, with the clauses of the long sentences coming in shorter and shorter bursts - one literally feels that the narrator is almost at his last gasp.

Sebald called this a "genuinely catastrophic novel in which, with a shattering sense of system, Peter Weiss wrecked what he knew was the little life remaining to him", and it is hard not to concur with that judgment. For a work which aims to embrace the aspirations and sufferings of an entire generation, with only a few exceptions this is all too clearly a book of individual self-analysis and self-destruction. Perhaps, given the continued silence about the inner, intellectual reasons for the rise of Nazism in pre-war Germany (a silence that persists not only in Germany itself but also in the rest of Europe), there was no other way in which Peter Weiss could write his fascinating, cataclysmic but ultimately private book.

Thursday, 9 September 2010

A view of The Magic Mountain

Karin Boye, talking to the narrator in volume 3 of Die Ästhetik des Widerstands:
Neunzehnhundert Achtundzwanzig, Neunundzwanzig, sagte sie, habe sie den Zauberberg übersetzt, zuerst sei sie von diesem Buch mit der denkwürdigen Liebesgeschichte ergriffen, dann aber, beim eingehenden Studium der Sätze auf ihren letzten Gehalt, von Abscheu erfüllt vvorden. Wieder werden die Funktionen der Liebe einzig vom Gesichtspunkt des Mannes aus dargestellt, und dazu noch in einem plötzlichen Umschlagen der Zärtlichkeit und des Begehrens zur Herabwürdigung, zur Verächtlichmachung der Frau. Gegen Ende des Romans finden sich der junge und der alte Liebhaber zusammen, in der Verurteilung des Objekts ihrer Liebe, im eignen Versagen ihre mannliche Dominanz dennoch aufrechterhaltend, schreiben sie der Frau zu, was sie gemeinsam ausgebrütet haben, daß sie sich als reaktives Geschöpf, ohne Initiative, eben nur als Objekt empfinde und sich, durch weibliche Bestechlichkeit, der primären Wahl des Mannes überlasse.

Wednesday, 8 September 2010


The third volume of Peter Weiss's The Aesthetics of Resistance opens with a tribute to the narrator's parents, who have succeeded in fleeing to Sweden. The tribute is also one of mourning for his mother - though still alive, she is ill and has withdrawn into a silence from which she cannot be recalled.

Imperceptibly, the image of the mother merges with the image and memory of another female character, that of her friend and colleague, the Swedish poet and novelist Karin Boye, who like other women in the novel is referred to solely by her last name. Boye's suicide, and her own rationale and explanation for it, form the subject of the early part of volume 3.

The novel's sharp focus on the life and work of Boye and the acute attention the narrator devotes to her indicate that for Weiss this author and poet had a more personal significance for Weiss than was the case with Brecht, for example. One wonders if Weiss had met Boye in Sweden - after all, in 1938 his family took up residence in Alingsås, West Gotland, where Boye herself moved in the following year in order to be close to Anita Nathorst. A meeting does not seem improbable.

Some of Weiss's account of Boye's life and of her final months appears to be drawn at least in part from the biography by Margit Abenius (Drabbad av renhet, 1950)- yet there are also some details that may derive from actual contacts with the poet. In particular, Weiss is at pains to analyse Karin Boye's existential, political, artistic, sexual and personal situation in 1941, describing it through the words of the psychoanalytically-trained doctor Max Hodann. Hodann says that in her moment of surrender to Goering at a mass rally in 1932, Boye had made it impossible for her to forgive herself or receive forgiveness, and had consciously and unconsciously abandoned hope. Her novel Kallocain (1940), which depicts the merciless and inhuman conflict in a world that is divided into two opposing blocks, is the testament not only to her own despair but to the despair of a generation. Hodann sees a continuation of Boye's fatal inner and outer dilemma in the inability of the radical German youth of the 1930s and 40s to avoid either a collapse into Nazism or an embrace of Stalinist Communism:
Ich gab Boyes Schilderung wieder, wie sie sich hatte betören lassen dem Mann mit dem bleichen Hysterikergesicht auf der Tribüne in der überfüllten Sporthalle, und wie sie zu spät erst das Ruchlose seiner Reden begriffen habe. Viele von uns, sagte Hodann, immer noch, und oft grade, wenn es um Entscheidendes gehe, wie Kinder, wir ließen uns beherrschen von Hoffnungen, deren Ursprung eingebettet sei in der Erinnrung an das Ertasten der Mutterbrust, im Aufgehn in einer Harmonie, die es für uns nicht mehr gebe. Auch Boye müsse, wie wir alle, nach der Mutter, dem Vater in sich gesucht, und diese, in wachsendem Maß, und durch andre Gestalten ersetzt haben... Ich möchte behaupten, sagte er, daß unsre Generation mehr gezeichnet ist von dem Unheil, das die Sowjetunion ergriff, als von den Verheerungen durch den Faschismus, denn an dem Arbeiterstaat hingen wir mit unserm ganzen kindlichen Glauben, während uns von Anfang an bekannt war, was in Deutschland aufkam.
I'll return to this subject in another post.

Tuesday, 7 September 2010

The Pact and the Poet

I've found the remaining part of volume 2 of Peter Weiss's novel The Aesthetics of Resistance something of a mixed bag, as it deliberately avoids settling down into one main stream of narrative. The sections on Engelbrekt seem a little contrived, as though the author were spinning material to fill out space, especially when one learns that Brecht himself has lost track of the project and the narrator is left alone with his research on the subject. Of more interest are the extensive deliberations on the Nazi-Soviet Pact, which is now providing all sorts of headaches for the various radicals, including Rosner, who continues to try to find some justification for the nefarious agreement, engaging in a Kafkaesque series of arguments in which the Pact becomes the basis for an "understanding" between the working classes of Germany and Russia. Weiss makes it perfectly clear that he regards the situation as patently absurd, and the characters of the novel appear trapped and helpless in the face of a historical conundrum that goes against all they have worked and fought for.

Brecht's preparations to leave for Finland, and the dismantling, disposal and transporting of his vast private library of world literature (the authors and titles are listed over several pages, take up most of the narrative. There is a nice concluding scene in which Brecht leans out as the Swedish secret police depart after searching the contents of the library for "subversive" literature. "You've forgotten the thrillers!" he shouts to them, and then throws his copies of books by Edgar Wallace, Agatha Christie, Conan Doyle, Raymond Chandler, Dorothy Sayers, etc. out of the window down to the garden below.

Monday, 6 September 2010

Soul support

In another recent Hbl feature the paper notes that it's becoming more and more common for Finland's authors to derive all or most of their income from state arts subsidies of various kinds, with such support increasingly being perceived as the measure of a writer's success and the quality of his/her work. According to researcher Elina Jokinen, who is quoted in the article, the subsidies are far from regular or reliable, with grants being made on a one-off basis, and there's a need for a more stable and long-term solution to the problem.

Language talk

The debate about whether Swedish should continue to be a mandatory subject of instruction in Finland's schools, and about the general status of the Swedish language in Finland, continues to occupy the columns of the Finnish press. Ten days ago the magazine Suomen Kuvalehti devoted a readers' discussion to "10 common statements" about the subject, including "Finland is a bilingual country", "Everyone must know Swedish", "Swedish-speakers have too much power", "Civil servants must be able to speak Swedish", and so on. Judging from the majority of the large number of readers' comments, the consensus appeared to be a thumbs-down for Swedish as an obligatory part of Finnish education and society, though few seemed to be eager to ban it from the curriculum altogether. Not to be outdone, Finland's main Swedish-language daily Hufvudstadsbladet has hosted a discussion of its own featuring the same 10 statements. Oddly enough, the consensus among Hufvudstadsbladet's readers is largely the same -- no one has much objection against Swedish as a language, but they don't want it to be forced on them if they don't grow up in a Swedish-speaking household. An interesting feature of Hufvudstadsbladet readers' discussions in general: it appears that comments written in Finnish are not accepted by the editors, and are routinely deleted from the discussion board...

Saturday, 4 September 2010

Resisters - 2

I've now reached the second half of volume 2 of Peter Weiss's The Aesthetics of Resistance, and Bertolt Brecht is now the main focus of attention. In Stockholm the book's young narrator is seeking employment with the great exiled German radical playwright and poet. The personality of Brecht is sketched out fairly clearly - his self-absorption, his freedom to engage in his literary work full-time while many of his assistants, like the narrator, have to work in factories during the daytime, his manner of behaving, his short temper.Weiss characterizes him somewhat ironically as a "factory owner" - the "factory" being Brecht's own numerous projects and productions, which include not only plays for the theatre but also large-scale theoretical works like an Encyclopedia of Nazism and a Problematics of Exile.

The narrator becomes involved in one of these projects, working as a lowly researcher for a new play Brecht wants to write about Engelbrekt, the leader of a 15th century peasant revolt in Sweden. Weiss devotes a large number of pages to giving an exhaustive account of this. In fact, it becomes another of the novel's "set pieces", like Heracles and the Pergamon frieze, or the paintings by Delacroix, Goya, Brueghel, Gericault and others. There is also a long discussion about Swedish politics in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the weakness of Sweden's parliamentary democracy, and the significance of mineral ore for the country's industry, with particular reference to the period of the Second World War.

Interestingly, the Nazi-Soviet Pact of 1939 is discussed in some detail, with the characters, including Brecht, giving their various interpretations of it. Although it's sometimes difficult to extrapolate the author's point of view from that of the narrator and other figures in the book, Weiss appears to take a highly critical view of the Pact, seeing it as a major enigma and obstacle for the European left. At all events, the issue is hardly swept under the carpet, as might have been expected in a work by a less complex radical author. One of the characters, the Comintern official, political journalist and editor Jakob Rosner tries to compose a justification for the agreement, which he plans to circulate in his newspaper Ny Dag to likely subscribers in Stockholm:
He asked me to search the phonebook for Jewish names, and enter them in the register of people who were to be sent sample issues of the paper. He refused to believe that the Jacobssons, Danielssons and Rosengrens were of old-Swedish origin. Jakobsohn, Danielsohn and Rosenzweig, he said, shaking his head with its rumpled hair, and so the Lewins and Blumenbergs are also Christians in this country... (p. 664)
In a bitter conversation with Rosalinde Ossietzky, the narrator questions her "Marxist" argument that the cause of the impending world war is the conflict between the capitalist nations of the world. At the end of November 1939 the signs that an armed confrontation is about to break out between Finland and the Soviet Union leads the Sweden-based radicals (most of whom are in Sweden illegally)  to speculate on the outcome.

Göteborg poets in Ukraine

The final part of Lev Hrytsyuk's major anthology of contemporary Swedish poetry, 18 Poets from Gothenburg, is now online. This volume-by-volume sequence has been published in stages, with the last section, containing Ukrainian translations of poems by Mauritz Tistelö, available on Scribd.

This seems like an enterprising way to go about publicizing a poetry translation title, and one hopes that mainstream poetry publishers - Bloodaxe? - may take note.

Friday, 3 September 2010

1,000 copy guys

Over at Three Percent, E.J. Van Lanen is writing about the FILI editors' trip:
We do different kinds of books here (My favorite story so far is when a publisher was going to tell us about two books: one, a more commercial author, they thought would sell 10,000 copies in the US, and the other, a more literary author, who was wonderful but who they thought would sell 1,000. Chad and I both said at the same time, “Tell us about the 1000 copy guy.”), and because we do a special kind of book, I feel like we have different kinds of meetings with publishers.

Wednesday, 1 September 2010


In the second volume of Peter Weiss's long novel - I'm now in the section between pp. 553 and 627 - I notice a sudden change in the narrative technique. For one thing, the sense of "paragraph-lessness" is receding. There are more frequent breaks in the blocks of text, and one is now reading what are almost long but clearly demarcated paragraphs. For another, the specific locale - in this case Sweden and Stockholm - is being described and invoked in a much more concrete and realistic manner than was characteristic of the section devoted to Spain (the second half of volume one). One supposes that a reason for this may be that the author has a greater degree of immediate and long-term familiarity with the places he is describing, The need to insert chunks of art history and Greek mythology into the text seems for the present to have lost its urgency, and the story is developing in a manner that is almost that of traditional nineteenth century fiction - one almost could be reading a story or novel by Tolstoy. The characters converse, they eat and drink, they laugh, they are becoming almost human.

The analogy with Tolstoy also comes to mind in the fact that the characters now being developed and described are historical figures. This is a historical novel, after all. Just as in War and Peace Tolstoy introduces military figures and political leaders into the narrative, Weiss now brings in not only Max Hodann, but a number of other real-life people who worked as political activists in the exiled German Communist anti-Nazi resistance movement. We meet Charlotte Bischoff, who having fled the Third Reich is now in Sweden preparing to return to Germany in order to carry out undergound resistance work there. "Lindner" appears to be the German-Czech resistance worker Hertha Lindner, though from a historical point of view it isn't clear that she was in Sweden during 1939. Weiss now also introduces Rosalinde Ossietzky, daughter of the radical German pacifist Carl von Ossietzky (1889-1938), who in Stockholm tells the narrator and Max Hodann about the torture and murder of her father by the Nazi authorities. She also recalls the actions of some pro-Nazi Norwegian cultural figures, including the novelist Knut Hamsun, who took part in an active campaign to discredit her father and to deny him the award of the Nobel Prize which he received in 1935.

It has to be said that Weiss succeeds in leading these new characters onto the stage quite naturally, without much ideological ballast - they act and talk like real people, and above all one can believe in them. It is only a pity that the author forgot (or perhaps decided not) to include explanatory notes on these figures, who will  probably be unfamiliar to many of his readers, even - or especially - in Germany. There the affinity to Tolstoy breaks down, for Tolstoy's historical characters were all well-known to his readership. However, with the advent of Wikipedia, it's not too hard to keep abreast of the historical and biographical background as one reads - this was hardly the situation of readers of this challenging novel three decades ago.

Although Sweden in 1939 is now a temporary home for many of the political activists being brought to life, most of them are there illegally. Weiss is scathing about the country's Aliens Act of 1938, which in a response to antisemitic protests (among others, by students at Lund and Upsala universities) virtually closed the door to Jewish refugees altogether. As is consistently the case throughout the whole of the Aesthetics, Weiss groups Jewish and Communist refugees together - for him the Holocaust has two elements, a racial one and a political one. Sometimes they overlap, but they are distinct, separate and of equal validity. The reader is left unaided to deal with this debatable historical construct.

Another problem is the account of the international political events of 1939 which led up to the outbreak of war. The account is heavily influenced by Stalinist versions of history, with the Baltic States, for example, being stigmatized as "semi-fascist" and standing in the way of a successful Soviet defence - part of an anti-Soviet conspiracy being cooked up by Great Britain, France and the United States. One feels that, although this Tolstoyan historical digression is put, somewhat unconvincingly, into the mouth of the youthful narrator, who is only in his teens, one can't help feeling that it would have been better if Weiss had left it out, for it leaves an unpleasant taste, even as fiction. The bewilderment of the narrator and his friends as the German-Soviet Credit Agreement of 1939 is signed is well-described, but again there need to be some notes or other signposts for the reader.

I'm now moving on into the closing section of the first part of volume two, in which the narrator visits the island of Lidingö near Stockholm where the Swedish sculptress Ninnan Santesson has put her home at the disposal of the German writer and dramatist Bertolt Brecht and his family.