Tuesday, 31 August 2010


Reading on into the second volume of Peter Weiss's vast and strange novel The Aesthetics of Resistance, my principal impression so far is of how loose and episodic the construction of the work appears to be. The forbidding slabs of text and the absence of paragraph breaks are not alleviated by the way in which memory, reflection, dream and commentary are interchanged within the narrative, so that the reader has to steer through the flow of words as if it were a tide, picking up the interconnected strands of association and taking navigational bearings from the rising blocks of thematic emphasis which dominate the horizon in shifting succession.

So far in Volume Two I've crossed three of these blocks: the first was the long introductory sequence devoted to an analysis of Géricault’s painting The Raft of the Medusa (1818-1819), in which the narrator seems to be draw an analogy between the situation of the people on the raft and the oppressed working class of 19th century Europe, but then begins to analyse the scene in terms of a personal shipwreck, a disillusionment and abandonment of hope. This shift is discussed by W.G. Sebald in his essay on Weiss as a "transfer" - I would even go so far as to use the psychoanalytical term "transference", as it does not seem out of place here. The reflections and musings on Géricault’s aesthetic intentions melt almost imperceptibly into a second block of narration centered on the narrator's political exile with Max Hodann in Paris. There are Walter Benjamin-like street scenes of the city during the years immediately before the outbreak of the Second World War, and then gradually we enter a third block, which gives a vivid account of the narrator's mother's political exile in Sweden and her efforts to evade the clutches of the German secret police.

The writing is at times inspired, with a particularly memorable description of Stockholm during a blizzard:
Durch die schwebenden Flocken gingen sie die enge Straße entlang. Ab und zu erschallten Rufe von den Dächern, ein Posten hielt die Fußgänger auf, heruntergeschaufelter Schnee fiel in die Haufen am Gassenrand. Zwischen Schneewällen gingen sie hindurch, auf den Hafenkai zu, im milchigen Gestöber waren Kräne und die Rümpfe einiger großer Schiffe zu erkennen. Weit wird die Aussicht nicht reichen, sagte die Schwester, sie fuhren aber trotzdem im Fahrstuhl hinauf, das Verkehrsrondell an der Schleuse sank zurück, die Querbalken des Eisenturms glitten vorbei, zuerst waren unten noch Straßenbahnen, Automobile, Omnibusse, auf hohem Sockel ein Reiter mit vorgestreckter Hand zu sehn, dan verschoben such im Flimmern nur noch formlose Schatten. (p. 550)
Yet one has the sense that the narrative is constantly being eaten away by Weiss's need to engage in didactic pedagogy, with homilies drawn from contemporary Communist Party texts (mostly Swedish, one gathers) which follow the Soviet line of the time, casting Nazism as a result and product of Western capitalist greed and intrigue, and the Soviet Union as the only hope for the future not only of the working class but of the whole of mankind.

Somehow these political sections, with often stretch for pages, have a curiously desperate ring, and suggest that Weiss himself is not convinced by their content and message. This tension, which was already noticeable in the first volume of the novel, is becoming harder and harder to ignore as I continue to read.

Monday, 30 August 2010

Peter Weiss - 4

As I pointed out in an earlier post, unlike the main body of the text, the extensive footnotes in Jan Christer Bengtsson's examination of the films of Peter Weiss often contain rather controversial material. A further example of this is provided by the long note that accompanies a consideration of the negative reception by Swedish critics of Weiss's full-length feature film Hägringen (The Mirage, 1959). Here the focus is directed on an aspect of Weiss's personality which seems to derive from an inner masochism. The conclusions Bengtsson draws from this are, at first glance, surprising - yet I believe that they are worthy of serious consideration.

Observing that in Weiss's response to his critics it is possible to discern a form of pre-emptive self-harm, Bengtsson notes that the response is typical of avant garde artists, and that it comprises the three distinct elements of sacrifice, struggle and exemplariness:
For the present is he who is the victim that is being sacrificed. The exemplariness consists in an apparent David-and-Goliath struggle, the result of which is an unspecified dreamed-of victory. The latter is attained through faith - faith in an artistic achievement that is placed above the ordinary. And this will later appear in a faith in certain specific political solutions.
Än så länge är det han som är den utsatte och som offras. Det förebildliga ligger i en skenbar David-Goliat-kamp och resultatet i en drömd odefinierbar seger. Det sista uppnås genom tro ― tron på en konstutövning stadd ovanför det vanliga. Och detta skulle längre fram dyka upp i en tro på vissa särskilda politiska lösningar.
Bengtsson now turns to a passage in a 2002 monograph by the literary critic Arnd Beise (who is chairman of the International Peter Weiss Society), and in a summary of Beise's intepretation of what he perceives to be the aesthetic and moral rationale underlying much of Weiss's work, quotes the following, pointing to
a poetics which provides a reply to one of the still open questions of the Marquis de Sade and Trotsky. Is it worthwhile to subordinate individual needs such as love, friendship or family to the demands of the struggle for a better society? Yes, because [...] there is a poetry of memory, which preserves the sacrifices and efforts of those who [...] fought or still fight the oppression, even if this struggle was or is in vain. Again and again the memory of this struggle [...] will eventually bring forth a revolution that puts an end to all coercive orders. This also explains why Marat, Trotsky and Hölderlin are increasingly to be seen as martyrs.
eine Poetik, die auf eine der offen gebliebenen Fragen des Marquis de Sade und Trotzkis eine Antwort gibt. Lohnt es sich, individuelle Bedürfnisse wie Liebe, Freundschaft oder Familie den Forderungen des Kampfs für eine bessere Gesellschaft unterzuordnen? Ja, weil [...] es eine Poesie der Erinnerung gibt, die die Opfer und Mühen derjenigen aufbewahrt, die die Unterdrückung [...] bekämpften oder noch bekämpfen, selbst wenn dieser Kampf vergeblich war oder ist. An diesen Kampf zu erinnern, immer wieder [...] werde irgendwann doch eine Revolution hervorbringen, die alle Zwangsordnungen beendet. Das erklärt auch, warum Marat, Trotzki und Hölderlin in steigendem Maß als Märtyrer zu verstehen sind.
Some 30 pages further on in this book, in an analysis of Weiss's play Viet Nam Diskurs (1968), Beise quotes a remark by a contemporary Communist Party member, referring to this person as "Parteigenosse des Viet Cong". As Bengtsson points out, the use of the word "Parteigenosse" was strictly confined to a single historical and semantic context - the Lingua Tertii Imperii (LTI) designates it as being used solely within the German Nazi Party (NSDAP) to refer to its members, usually in the abbreviated form "Pg."

Bengtsson says that he assumes that this somewhat ambiguous use of the term - an ambiguity that in Beise's text is clearly deliberate, and according to Bengtsson not disclaimed by Beise himself  -  is intended to suggest  that
Weiss, in the political positions he took throughout his life, wandered from the one big ideology of struggle to the other, and that Beise, well aware of this and of what can and should be said today regarding Weiss, has expressed this fact in a somewhat cryptic manner.

Weiss i sina politiska ställningstaganden under livets gång vandrat från den ena stora kampideologin till den andra och att Beise väl medveten om detta förhållande och vad som kan och bör sägas idag rörande Weiss på ett något kryptiskt sätt uttryckt detta förhållande.
If we recall the life and work of Karin Boye (who features as a character in the last volume of the Aesthetics), her single moment of overt and personal fascination with Nazism, and her sustained attack on it and on herself in her dystopian novel Kallocain (1940), this passage of Bengtsson's ceases to be so surprising, and one begins to see Weiss's later left-wing radicalism in a new light, as an outgrowth of his political development during the 1930s. In a future post, I hope to examine this question further.

Sunday, 29 August 2010


Pia Tafdrup's recently-published collection Trækfuglens kompas (Gyldendal) is part of a Danish government-sponsored project which aims to provide a series of artworks along the route of the so-called "Hærvejen" - the old Military Road that links Southern Jutland with Northern Germany. The project is primarily intended to boost tourism in the district, and the participants also include well-known Danish painters, composers, sculptors and others working in the field of the arts.

Although the theme of Trækfuglens kompas is that of travel, and most of the poems relate to this in one way or another, the book's real focus is on discovery - both of oneself and of the world, with a view to confirmation and affirmation. While the subjects of the poems range far and wide - from the experience of international airports to a "global spring-cleaning day" in Sierra Leone and Gaza, and from the poet's experience of losing personal possessions while traveling to that of her parents in flight from the Nazis in wartime Denmark - the emphasis is always on the return, the homecoming. The following poem is perhaps characteristic of the whole collection (my tr.):


My body has landed,
it has set a period to the journey.
And the nervous system
which had adapted 
to other latitudes,
is accustoming itself to the usual again.
My body has landed,
the luggage is there,
               but the soul
is apparently doing fine in New Delhi
among birds and reflected light,
   it has not returned.
It sees dogs playing in the dust, sees
women in colorful saris and sandals
go swaying
with pyramids of fruit
in baskets on their heads.
It listens to young women chirping
like birds in a bush, it listens
and understands immediately
  without knowing the words.
My body has arrived
at its own home,
has jockeyed the suitcase up the stairs
and unlocked the front door.
It had no problem
finding its way back
to the cold moonlit nights
                    but the soul
still sits under a tree watching
a little girl fan away the flies,
while she plays with her chair in the grass
in a park
where it’s warm and quiet
   and the sun is low.
I return
with wide-awake eyes to see
my own world again, 
  soon the soul will be here, too.

Saturday, 28 August 2010

Peter Weiss - 3

While reading Jan Christer Bengtsson's study of the films of Peter Weiss I was struck by the amount of  hostility and opprobrium Weiss appears to have attracted during his varied career as a creative artist. While the main text of Bengtsson's dissertation is largely neutral on issues relating to Weiss's intentions and orientation as a creator, the footnotes to the text often contain comments that from time to time call into question Weiss's good faith and integrity. In particular, the lengthy and minutely documented examination of the history of  the 1960 Swedish feature film Svenska flickor i Paris (known under several English titles, but mainly as The Flamboyant Sex), which Weiss co-directed together with Barbro Boman, seems to be aimed at demonstrating that, far from being upset and angry about the way in which the film developed (though it contained little material that could be considered overtly pornographic, it was ultimately marketed as a porno flick), Weiss acquiesced in the film's more doubtful episodes, and only later, during the long period of his career as a left-wing radical, attempted to dissociate himself from his part in its production.

There are also digs at Weiss's profile in general, both as an artist and as a human being. Bengtsson quotes the left-wing Swedish author and poet, who in 1966 (in a book called En orättvis betraktelse) wrote of Peter Weiss and others of his ilk that they were
känsloparasiter, äventyrare, hysteriker, små sökare efter stora ämnen, folkhemsflyktingar, kvantitetsromantiker, sökare efter tillräckligt starka skäl till oproportionerligt starka aggressioner, tomgångsexperimentatorer som griper efter ett engagerat halmstrå, förnyelseegoister, kontaktvägrare som ser en chans att älska på avstånd, Belsenpornografer, godhetsexhibitionister och vanliga kvalterrorister. Därför tycks rätt sakliga litteraturkonventioner av nöden, och sådana bryter också allt starkare fram i Europa. Expressionistiska indignationspjäser ger plats för featurepjäser av typ Rannsakningen.

[emotional parasites, adventurers, hysterics, small seekers of big topics, welfare state refugees, quantity-romantics, seekers of sufficiently strong reasons for disproportionately harsh aggression, experimenters with idleness grasping for a straw of commitment, renewal-egoists, contact-deniers who who see a chance to love from afar, Belsen-pornographers, goodness-exhibitionists and ordinary pain-terrorists. So really factual literary conventions seem to be required, and they are breaking through in Europe with increasing intensity.  Expressionistic indignation-drama is giving way to feature plays like The Investigation.]
Although it's quite possible to see what Palm is talking about, and to sympathize with some of the characterizations in this portrayal (which Palm himself apparently considered somewhat exaggerated), one also wonders if there was not an element of literary (and ordinary) politics involved in such polemics - a cloud of Vietnam-dust that makes it hard for us now to see what was really going on in the Europe of Weiss's time, with its extreme tension  between a posturing, theatrical international political radicalism on the one hand, and a self-satisfied, philistine social and political conservatism on the other.

From a reading of the available biographical sources it seems hard to deny that Peter Weiss did engage in a  fairly advanced degree of creative and political opportunism, often tailoring his writing, painting and films to the intellectual fashions and preoccupations of his era - and with a degree of single-minded, humorless obduracy that led at least one contemporary observer to describe him as a "steamroller". Yet, if one can make the right allowances, realizing now that the literary and spiritual gargantuanism that characterizes a work like The Aesthetics of Resistance proceeds not only from the author's personal need (admitted in the course of his own psychoanalysis) to affirm himself as the producer of something "great" and "classical", but also from the intolerable pressures exerted by the political establishments of both West Germany and the DDR, I believe that in some ways it's possible to see Peter Weiss as a victim of his time who nevertheless succeeded in creating work of a high aesthetic quality, work that deserves to be studied and re-examined in the light of more recent history. That there is currently no shortage of such studies is evident from the increasing though little-publicized flow of writing about him. It's to be hoped that the second and third volumes of the Aesthetics will be translated into English and published before long, to complement Joachim Neugroschel's fine translation of volume 1 - this will, I daresay, achieve a great deal more than the website of the International Peter Weiss Society is currently doing.

Friday, 27 August 2010

Peter Weiss - 2

A recently-published dissertation by the Swedish filmographer Jan Christer Bengtsson gives a fascinating inside view of the creative personality of Peter Weiss. Focused on Weiss's work for the cinema, the dissertation examines Weiss's career in chronological sequence, but is not limited solely to the films: Weiss's literary work and painting are also considered in detail in the course of this extensive treatment, and numerous interviews are cited and quoted.

Bengtsson places Weiss within the context of postwar European - specifically Swedish and German - cinema, He proceeds from an analysis of Weiss's early short films of the 1950s (many of them utilizing surrealist techniques), through the documentaries and officially commissioned work all the way to the less well-known full-length film projects of Weiss's later years, including Hölderlin and the collaboration with Francisco Javier Uriz involving the latter's screen version of the Spanish Civil War section of the first volume of The Aesthetics of Resistance.

Of particular interest are the links to a 1961 German television interview (Berlin stellt vor, in which Weiss is interviewed by the literary critic Walter Höllerer (the links are here and here), and Bengtsson's own consideration of The Studio of Doctor Faust (1956), which as Weiss's English-language Wikipedia entry states, "shows a persisting link of the emigrant Weiss to a German cultural background."

Thursday, 26 August 2010

Thought's winged horse

By Pia Tafdrup

Thoughts find their way 
forward in steady flow 
   in leap, in zigzag. 
Not exhaustion, 
just more fermenting,
while the mind circulates around them. 
Thoughts provoke 
new thoughts 
   ordered, chaotic. 
No grille obstructs, 
   no halo. 
Thought’s winged horse rises, 
   flies up 
from the brain’s infinity,
   throws light 
in the cerebral gray 
the physical body in a steep glide.


Tanker finder vej
fremad i lige strøm,
i spring, i zigzag.
Ikke rovdrift,
blot fortsat ynglen,
mens sindet kredser om dem.
Tanker provokerer
nye tanker,
Intet gitter spaerrer,
  ingen glorie.
Tankens vingede hest letter,
  flyver op
fra hjernens uendelighed,
 kaster lys -
i det cerebrale grå,
den fysiske krop i et stejlt svæv.

translated from Danish by David McDuff

Wednesday, 25 August 2010

The Best

By Karin Boye

The best that we possess,
we cannot give away.
we cannot write it either.
and neither can we say.

The best that is in your mind
no one can make unclean.
It shines there deep inside
for you and God alone.

It is the glory of our wealth
that no one else can gain it.
It is the torment of our poverty
that no one else can attain it.

Det bästa

Det bästa som vi äga,
det kan man inte giva,
det kan man inte säga
och inte heller skriva.

Det bästa i ditt sinne
kan intet förorena.
Det lyser djupt där inne
för dig och Gud allena.

Det är vår rikdoms råga
att ingen ann kan nå det.
Det är vårt armods plåga
att ingen ann kan få det.

translation from Swedish by David McDuff

Johansson: Israel “contemptible country”

The Jerusalem Post reports that the head of Finland’s branch of Amnesty International stands by his comment that Israel is a “contemptible country” (nilkkimaa).
In a post now deleted from his Iltalehti blog, but still available in Google’s cache, Frank Johansson writes:
Ystäväni, joka työskentelee Israelissa, oli käymässä ja puita vajaan kasatessa päästiin hänen lempiaiheeseensa. Usean vuoden pyhässä maassa oleskelun jälkeen, hän on tullut siihen tulokseen, että ”Israel on nilkkimaa”. Omien vierailujeni perusteella, jotka ajoittuvat 1970-luvulle ja 1990-luvun loppuvuosille olen aika samaa mieltä.
“A friend of mine, who works in Israel, was visiting and while we were stacking firewood in the woodshed we got onto his favourite subject. After a few years of living in the Holy Land, he had come to the conclusion that “Israel is a contemptible country”.  On the basis of my own visits, which took place during the 1970s and late 1990s,  I am quite of the same opinion.”
The word nilkkimaa, which I’ve translated here as “contemptible country”, as it derives from the Finnish word nilkki, is actually more derogatory than that – the Jerusalem Post translates it as “scum state”, and that is not too far off, as the expression is stronger than "rogue state".

One wonders why a regional head of Amnesty would make such a statement about an entire country and its people, yet apparently feel no shame about it. He claims to be “breaking the silence”, but is surely breaking a lot of other things as well.

Update: in the Jerusalem Post interview, Johansson appears to acquiesce in the "scum state" translation of the word he used.

In an e-mail to the Post on Wednesday, Johansson wrote, “I decided to take down my blog because I appreciate that my comments were ill-judged and appear all the more so when taken out of context, and have obviously caused offence to many people although it was not my intention, at all, to cause such offence.”
He added “I am especially conscious, and regret that my ill-judged action may be detrimental to Amnesty International’s work on Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories and the valiant human rights work being undertaken by my colleagues working for Amnesty International in Israel.”

Tuesday, 24 August 2010

Peter Weiss

I've been reading Joachim Neugroschel's translation of vol. 1 of Peter Weiss's enormous novel Die Ästhetik des Widerstands, and while reading Fredric Jameson's introductory essay was struck by the numerous influences of Swedish literature on Weiss's work. The second and third volumes of the novel, which I hope to read soon in the German original, actually feature the personality as well as the work of Karin Boye, whose poetry I've translated into English. In the 1940s Weiss wrote two volumes of poetry in Swedish: the prose poems of Från ö till ö, and De besegrade. Although Weiss appears not to have been too happy about writing in Swedish, and soon returned to German - in Understanding Peter Weiss Robert Cohen says that "The two texts... did not lay to rest the doubts about his new language" - this early work with its expressionism and psychoanalytic explorations provides a unique way into Weiss's oeuvre. Cohen writes that "his lack of interest in ideology and attempts at explaining fascism rationally... fit into the conservative and restorative tendencies of the time..."

Weiss's contacts with the fyrtiotalister, the literary modernists who were grouped around the magazine 40-tal, seem to have been fairly extensive. Cohen again:
There was a basic kinship to this group of artists: for the painter and emerging filmmaker Weiss had just discovered surreaiism for himself, and his interest in psychoanalysis had been stirred by the exiled physician and psychiatrist Max Hodann. Especially with Ekelöf and Dagerman, Weiss seems to have entertained close relationships.
Hodann, of course, is one of the central characters in Die Ästhetik des Widerstands, and in conjunction with Karin Boye he provides a lead into Weiss's relation to Ekelöf and other fyrtiotalister.

I'll write about my reading of Weiss from time to time - among many other things, he seems an interesting and neglected link between German and Swedish modernism and their political and existential meaning, one that deserves wider and deeper investigation.

Friday, 20 August 2010

Dreams and fears

In Books from Finland magazine, Pia Ingström introduces some of my translations of Timo Harju's poetry, most of which have not appeared in this blog. 
These are the terms – those of ordinary crime journalism –  in which our recent public discussion of long-stay care of the elderly here in Finland was conducted. The discussion was followed by the usual misery of cuts, unchanged diapers, dehydration, over-medication, poor wages for hard work… No wonder that the concept of  ‘healthcare wills’ and ‘living wills’, in which people are supposed to say how they want to be cared for in the last stage of their lives – is acquiring a disturbing undertone of ‘better jump before you’re pushed.’

Tuesday, 17 August 2010

Chitambo - 4


I understand nothing of what is really going on, don’t see the connections, don’t grasp the extent of the revolution that is underway, now silent and concealed, now with shouts and banners and hallelujahs, and least of all do I perceive that labour is the kernel of this as of all other revolutions, the sacred freedom of labour. But I do grasp something, at least, there is something that I sense instinctively like a call, an exhortation, a fanfare. I recognize the spirit that speaks in Nora’s lines, recognize it as my own, the fighting spirit. This unites me with all those of whom I know nothing, my sisters, my scattered and faltering legionnaires the world over.

Ida Aalberg was honoured like a queen that evening. In those days she was such a great star that her arrival at our National Theatre was merely a guest performance, in between her triumphs in St Petersburg and on the continent. The people were packed in crowds on the square outside the theatre, formed a human chain to the hotel where she was staying, cheered, wept, lifted her in their arms. I was one of those who pushed their way to the front! The tears ran down my cheeks, I shouted and cheered with all the might of my lungs. In spite of the biting winter chill, my coat fell open, and it never occurred to me to cover my bare head as I stood before this lofty, tragic figure, this first woman I had ever seen who could hold her head high. What good fortune that I at least had a leather cap to press passionately to my chest!

As I stood there like this I presented a thoroughly odd spectacle, and it was not surprising that the great diva noticed me as she passed. Perhaps she also felt touched by such naive and obviously youthful enthusiasm. She stopped right in front of me, took a rose from her bosom, handed it to me with a radiant smile and said: Thank you for coming, dear child!

I stood rooted to the spot holding the rose, the sacred rose of the elect. The people talked and babbled around me, they pushed and shoved me in the crush, trod on my toes. I stood still and looked at my rose. I no longer shouted, cheered, wept, or swam in a sea of bliss. The great solemnity of what had happened to me filled me with a pure, lofty, stern emotion, a responsibility, a demanding certainty that required me to muster all my inner strength. In my eyes it was not the celebrated actress who had given me the rose and marked me out from everyone else. It was Nora, the Nora my passionate heart had summoned forth and experienced with the last drop of its red blood, it was she who had given me the rose and said to me: Don’t give in, Vega! Revealed to me, by a gesture of fate, in a glittering second of inner perception were the secret direction of my conflicting sensations and experiences and the jealously hidden goal of my proud, indomitable dreams.

It was then that I resolved to become the knight of the proud, free woman! With the rose in my hand I gave a holy vow that I would never betray this cause. Never in my life would I marry, never submit to a man’s enticements! Free, untouched and pure I would lead women on to victory. Again with glorious flames within me burned activity long subdued and repressed, and the fighting spirit in my being, the dissension in my name claimed their due. Within my inner self, Atahualpa’s avenger rose up from his humiliation, swords clattered, armies prepared for battle. What music to my ears! What beatitude to my breast! I would show them all, show Mr Dreary and Fridolf and all who called me woman and tried to exclude me from a life of freedom and danger what a woman could achieve in this world. To think that no one had perceived this before! That was something I could not grasp. I was convinced that I was going to create a worldwide movement. For surely women could not voluntarily allow themselves to be shut in like this, like Nora, for example, become dependent and be dandled like children all their lives? A woman only needed to be brave and get to the top, and then all the others would follow. And the brave woman was I, Vega Maria Dreary!


translated from Finland-Swedish by David McDuff

Letter from US Senator on Norway

On August 3, United States Senator Sam Brownback wrote a letter to the Ambassador of Norway in Washington DC. The text of the letter, and the attachment, are reproduced below (click the images to magnify the text).

Monday, 16 August 2010

Chitambo - 3


One evening I went to the theatre, to all appearances the same old spinster Dreary, confused by a thousand contradictory impulses that bubbled up from the restlessness of my blood and spirit, and I emerged from there like one who knew her mission in life, a hero, a liberator, a young Napoleon.

I had made a great decision.

I had gone like everyone else to see the great Ida Aalberg in the role of Ibsen’s Nora – I tried as best I could to keep up with the more noteworthy events in cultural life. But what I saw was a revelation! My own rebellious longing embodied in a dazzling female revelation. I was hardly able to sit still, so dreadfully did I suffer as I watched them tighten the noose around her neck. My eyes were glued to her as though my life were at stake. All the way up to the gallery where I sat one could feel how horrible that home was, detestable, narrow, poisoned. I shook with indignation, I could not understand her indecision. Was she really unable to see through that man, how selfish and foolish he was, utterly unworthy of a woman such as she? And the children were the same, of course! I clenched my fists in impotent rage, I dug my fingernails into the velvet of the barrier in front of me and in a state of passion and overexcitement whispered proud words to my heroine.

And look, a miracle has happened! There she comes in her simple attire – serious, reserved and firm as a fortress. That is what a woman ought to look like!

“I must stand quite alone, if I am to understand myself and everything about me. It is for that reason that I cannot remain with you any longer.”

My heart beats with violent joy, my eyes flash with lightning. The infamous scoundrel of a man speaks of course of her most sacred duties, of husband and child and what people will say.

“I have other duties just as sacred... Duties to myself.”

My heart laughs with delight. How wonderful it is that she can say this! Myself! She just says it, calmly, majestically, as such things ought to be said. Who can harm her when she is able to talk like that? But does anyone believe that this parrot will fall silent as a result? One might think he would have had about as much as he could take, but no! He just starts going on about her being a wife and mother. Before all else, a wife and mother, has one ever heard the like? I half get up from my seat, mutter my protests, hear hisses behind me, but in uncontrollable ecstasy lean far over the balcony as if I could catch from the air the passionately longed-for words:

“I don't believe that any longer. I believe that before all else I am a reasonable human being...”

Did you all hear that? Before all else a human being! I must reflect on all these things and find out what they mean. Do you realise their significance? If no one else does, Vega Dreary does. At that very moment I hear the sound of the door shutting after Nora, the door through which she breaks out of her home, I sense the curtain going up on a mighty drama in which I myself have been chosen to take part.

I am ignorant and conceited, I know nothing of real life, but even so I am seized by the same inspiration which in those years passes through the entire female world, which drives the suffragettes to battle, induces high-born women to hurl stones through shop windows and pour acid through letter-boxes, climb into ministerial cars in order to shout their “Women’s suffrage, Mr. Asquith!” in the face of the terrified statesman. I have no idea that such things take place, perhaps I don’t even know that, in advance of the women of every other country, the women of my own been granted that right to vote. I have never even heard of the existence of a venerable institution like the Finnish Women’s Union, and have given even less thought to its mission of elevating women in the intellectual sphere and improving their economic and civil status. The little sewing circles in Limingo, Suojärvi, Kangasala, Finby, Pargas, in the most remote parishes and in the largest cities across the land, perform their work entirely without my knowledge, sewing and darning and organizing on a small scale in order to help impoverished mothers and children, provide work for indigent women, support orphanages, workhouses, weaving schools, libraries. If I knew anything about them I would despise them from the bottom of my heart, the sewing circles. I know nothing of the women in my own country who work in quarries, copper mines, brickworks, in match factories, sawmills, pulp mills, paper mills, in cotton mills, bakeries, flour mills, tobacco factories, who earn their living by cooking, lace-making, needlework, washing, ironing, copying, book binding, stevedoring. Even if I knew of them and had seen their bended backs, their tired and worn hands, I would have no idea that it is these women, the most disempowered and despised of all, who with their hard, underpaid labour, their double service in community and home, have laid the foundations of women’s freedom and have made it possible for every Nora to open the door of her home and say: Before all else I am a human being!

(to be continued)

translated from Finland-Swedish by David McDuff

Friday, 13 August 2010

Chitambo - 2


Mr Dreary could probably have thought of many other names to replace the unfortunate Fram, had he been given a little more time and not been ambushed by the priest during the ceremony itself. There were several wonderful names to choose from among ships that had steered out upon uncharted seas. Think of the proud squadron with which Fernando de Magallanes embarked on his perilous voyage. Trinidad! Concepcion! Victoria! What radiance surrounded these names! I would willingly have possessed one of them. How easily they have evaporated, those names my schoolteachers tried to imprint on my memory – but the names which Mr Dreary taught me in the happy truancy of the imagination will never be effaced. Their symbolic splendour has only grown more beautiful with the years, like the splendour of old gold.

I can still distinctly feel the thrill of delight that crept down my spine as I sat on my stool at Mr Dreary’s feet, endlessly listening to his stories from seafaring history. Only the loftiest heroism was capable of satisfying me, and stories that lacked elements of defiance in the face of death left me quite unmoved. Mr Dreary himself derived indescribable enjoyment from moments of this kind. When the critical situation was upon the desperate, starving crew and they were threatening to mutiny, he would fall suddenly silent and give me a meaningful look. I would quiver with excitement and my little heart beat violently, but I did not move and uttered not a word, just fixed my gaze on his lips. Then he would get up and strike a cocky pose, as one does on deck in an extreme situation, with death before one’s eyes, and hurl out some incredibly heroic words by the leader of the expedition:

‘Though I am forced to eat the leather on the ships’ mast yards, I shall not perish until I have completed my work.’

We both had a passionate love for lines of this kind. They formed the longed-for climax of every story, and when it was finally reached we fell into each other’s arms, gripped by an inexplicable emotion which neither of us was able to control. We heard the wind singing in the ships’ rigging and saw that it was still the same wind singing the same intoxicating song: glory calls us, calls us... Such was the wind that filled your sails, my childhood’s Trinidad, Concepcion, Victoria!

If anyone had seen me only at home or at school they might well have thought that I was the virtuous daughter my mother wanted, a veritable Virgin Mary. In this world I lived asleep. A heaviness rested on my soul and my body, I felt tormented by my clothes, my pigtails, my duties. This profound discomfort made me apathetic, something I suppose to be the precondition for virtuous conduct in childhood. My mother did all she could to foster the domestic virtues in me, the only virtues a girl in our circles was thought to need. She placed special emphasis on dusting.

That repugnant ceremony was performed each morning with minute exactitude, under my mother’s implacable gaze, with the result that I came to hate every piece of furniture and every room in our home. I loathed all those objects so profoundly that I would probably have kicked them and broken them apart, had not fear held me back and compelled me to assume an air of submission and go around dusting and polishing in a manner that was idiotic and absurd. Lord knows, if only there had been an interval of a few days since the last dusting, some dust might have actually gathered, making one feel some purpose in what one was doing. But no, the whole point of womanly labour is that it must be so refined that it cannot be seen! This total absurdity is typical of all such work that is considered to belong to woman by nature.

It was the same with the work which is so tellingly called “handwork” – as though women would ever be allowed to do anything with their brains! Patching and darning was all right. Not because it was enjoyable, not that either, slow and tricky and petty like everything else in our home, but at least it was a task worthy of a human being compared to all those silly tablecloths and monograms and embroideries on which one was supposed to spend one’s time. Cross stitch and stem stitch, fore stitch and back stitch and pothooks of every conceivable kind, devilishly devised in order to give the absurdity a semblance of meaning. When the hole was darned and the torn cloth patched one did at least have the satisfaction of having done something sensible. But all those unneeded tablecloths, piles of which lay in the chest-of-drawers and were taken out once a year to be aired – they were the real handwork. Into their strange patterns Mrs Dreary and her friends poured all their womanly ambition. These patterns they showed off to one another every time they met, and woe to anyone who had “forgotten her handwork” and without this covering mantle simply sat down at the coffee table to hear gossip and drink coffee. The others would purse their lips and say that it could happen to anyone and not everyone always had a suitable piece of handwork ready, but their tone and looks said all too clearly that this woman was a sloven. They knew the sort of thing that women like her got up to. In fact, the handwork was much more than it professed to be, it was one of the great symbols of decorum, a sign of its possessor’s social status, a testimonial of respectability, conscientiousness and virtue.

In this company I had to sit, decently bowed over a piece of handwork, in an unbearably cramped position and also under close surveillance. My hair was drawn back so fiercely that it hurt my scalp, my nose shone from continual washing with soap and water, my undergarments were so thick that I could hardly move, my dress was so tight and my neckband so high that a straitjacket would truly have come as a relief. The old ladies beamed with contentment and said: Your daughter is a great credit to you, dear Agda. In this company I learned to loathe my own sex. From the dull apathy in my inner being this incipient gleam of fighting spirit rose slowly but surely to the surface of my consciousness.

translated from Finland-Swedish by David McDuff

(to be continued)

Thursday, 12 August 2010


Some excerpts from the novel Chitambo (1933), by Hagar Olsson.

I, Vega Maria Eleonora Dreary

I was born in 1893, of course. That, as everyone knows, is the proudest year in the history of Nordic polar research. It was the year in which Fridtjof Nansen began his world-famous voyage to the North Pole aboard the Fram. Mr Dreary viewed this as a personal distinction and a sign that fate had fixed its gaze on him. He at once took it for granted that I was destined for great things, and he also showed much skill in fostering the same foolish idea in me...

My father had decided that in order to commemorate the notable year of my birth and place the seal upon my unique position in life I should receive at my baptism the strange-sounding but all the more meaning-laden name of Fram (forward). My mother was naturally in despair. At first she said nothing and dedicated herself instead to gathering allies for the expected confrontation. In the usual irrational way of women, she ran to the neighbours and complained. They listened, slightly amused and slightly scandalized. The most benevolent of them tried to persuade her that it was merely one of Mr Dreary’s jokes, but the malicious did all they could to egg her on. Mr Dreary smiled contentedly into his beard and thought: let the old women chatter – the girl shall be called Fram! Being able to vex my mother and her pious friends with this was a source of indescribable enjoyment for him. The more scandalized they felt, the more clearly did he feel his superiority in their milieu.

On the same day that the holy rite was due to take place, the storm broke. My mother wept and pleaded and wrung her hands, but to no avail. Mr Dreary was immovable, and remained so.

Weeping, my mother took me to be baptised. She quietly informed the godparents that the girl was to be called Maria Eleonora – a Christian and perfectly respectable name. There was a sense of relief, a conviction that Mr Dreary had backed down. He went about beaming, extending cordial greetings to everyone. But when the priest arrived, Mr Dreary raised his voice and curtly informed him that the girl’s name was to be Fram. In a longer statement, delivered with suitable gravitas, he set out the considerations that had led him, as the girl’s earthly guardian, to make this choice. This speech produced general despondency.

People in difficult situations often have brilliant ideas, and so it was with the priest. Like a flash of lightning out of a clear sky the name Vega suddenly presented itself to his inner vision. As an Arctic exploration vessel, the Vega was as illustrious as the Fram, was it not, and even more so! After all, there was still uncertainty as to how the Fram would fare.

One fine day it might perhaps be learned that the ship had gone down and all its crew perished. That was something Mr Dreary had not thought of. He grew pensive and rather long in the face. No, the Fram was not yet something to raise a cheer for, but Nordenskiöld’s Vega, now – there was a name that would surely fit. With such a name one could calmly sail into life’s storms. And then, too, Nordenskiöld was one of us, a meritorious son of Finland.

The priest did not need to say more. He had touched the most sensitive strings in Mr Dreary’s heart. Moved, Mr Dreary thanked the eloquent priest for drawing his attention to these symbolic circumstances. Then he said:

‘Let the girl be called Vega.’

translated from Finland-Swedish by David McDuff

(to be continued)

Sunday, 1 August 2010

Darkness at noon

In the Observer, Andrew Anthony discusses the case of a retired Swedish police chief, Göran Lindberg, who last week was jailed for rape and assault.

In the course of the article he also interviews some Swedish writers and commentators who have some harsh things to say about their native country. Their views on the apparent agenda of left-wing Swedish crime authors are particularly noteworthy:
"I have always been suspicious and critical about people like Mankell and Larsson," says Lars Linder, "because I'm not a fan of this conspiracy theory. I'm an old leftist too, but I don't like when they pick out the old social democratic Sweden as paradise, and now the bad guys have taken over with all their hidden connections. It's simplistic and nostalgic. The kind of power abuse you see with Lindberg is much more interesting."