Friday, 16 October 2009

Life is short

by Michel Ekman

I imagine a place of permanent, unspecific existence, a time without time, a limbo, a death without death’s finality and sharpness of definition, where the souls are stored away in an incomplete state of being that has no aim or meaning. It may be a veranda, but outside the windows no lilac bushes are visible, just an unbroken grey darkness.

And what do they do there, the souls? Well, they do crosswords, they play patience, they read detective novels. The boxes are constantly filled with words, the cards finally end up in four piles of equal size, the detective concludes by revealing to the surprised and slightly disappointed reader that it was actually the person who was murdered who committed the murder, even though everyone went on thinking the opposite for as long as possible.

Life is short and full of suffering, our bodies weigh us down to the earth, our routines clog our senses. The pull to escape from it all is almost irresistible. The crosswords, the games of patience and detective novels are of course very blameless and old-fashioned ways of doing so.

They stand vividly before me, a middle-aged man, because I remember an older generation which doggedly waited for death while occupied with these pastimes. But in them dwells the seed which – via the infinite number of television channels, computer games and the commercial music industry – has, in the wake of increased leisure time, turned the whole of life into a waiting for death. We have come many steps closer to what Elmer Diktonius put into words in one of  his aphorisms: “If the purpose of art were to anaesthetize, to make us forget life, then a hammer-blow to the skull would be the simplest art, and the best” – though perhaps not quite in the way that Diktonius meant.

But why do I dwell on detective novels in particular? Perhaps because texts are such a large part of my life, literary scholar that I am. Ever since I developed grown-up reading habits some thirty years ago, I have been sceptical about the plot, that two-stroke engine that will helpfully chop any mass of text at all into little pieces. True, there are also books that make even me turn the pages nervously and skip to the end. Joseph Skvorecky’s The Engineer of Human Souls was one such book, for example.

But on the whole it seems to me as though the plot, when it isn’t in the hands of the greatest masters, is a way of leading the reader past the text’s weaknesses, past the thin, in human terms uninteresting, linguistically mediocre by holding out the prospect of something more, something that will come later as long as one follows the sequence of events without stopping to think about that it is one’s reading right now. Rarely, rarely are those promises fulfilled – and even if they were to be fulfilled it would not be worth picking one’s way through the stereotyped masses of text just in order to be finally rewarded with a stereotyped surprise: the novel’s dénouement .

And what literary genre is more slavishly bound by the compulsion of plot than the detective story and the thriller? And as a result, more stereotyped in its particulars and its structure. The opera, of course – and one can only imagine the joy of seeing Tosca without music.

translated from Finland-Swedish by David McDuff

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