I received an Advanced Review Copy of this title from Other Press. The original book was published in Swedish in 2013 and this English version has been translated by Sarah Death.
One of my favorite poems from the Roman elegiac poet Catullus is his shortest, which contains two very powerful and vivid lines:
“Odi et amo. quare id faciam, fortasse requiris? nescio, sed fieri sentio et excrucior.”
(I hate and I love. Perhaps you may ask why I do this? I don’t know, but I feel that it is so and I am tortured) -Catullus, poem 85
At the time of composing this poem Catullus had been in the throws of an illicit affair with a woman twenty years his senior. In the beginning the affair is intense and all-consuming; but the woman slowly grows tired of poor Catullus and the agony he experiences as a result of what turns out to be a one-sided love affair is aptly expressed in this poem. When love is not reciprocal, and expectations are higher for one person and not the other, feelings of torment and torture are the result.
Lena Andersson, in her latest novel, also employs a brevity of powerful words to express a woman’s disappointment and torment when an affair becomes one-sided. When the book opens, the main character, Ester, is a strong, independent, hardworking, artistic woman who has a successful career writing articles for art magazines and journals. She is hired to give a lecture about one of Sweden’s most prominent modern artists, Hugo Rask; what ensues is a year’s worth of frustration, torment and false hope for this woman who was once strong and independent. Even as she researches Hugo to give her lecture he becomes a larger than life, heroic artist and her interest in him borders on obsession. When she meets Hugo in person she is immediately attracted to him and wants to be around him all of the time. She breaks up with her live-in boyfriend, a kind man named Per, because she wants nothing more than to have a relationship with Hugo.
Ester begins her tentative interactions with Hugo through dinners and long conversations. There is an interesting subtext that is cleverly at work in the novel as well since many of Ester and Hugo’s conversations deal with fascism, totalitarianism, freedom and independence. The exact details of the conversations are not always given since the book mainly deals with Ester’s inner dialogue. Ester tells us that the conversations with Hugo are erotic and emotionally charged and she fully expects that they will become lovers. She appears desperate to be in the full throws of a relationship with this artist whom she idolizes and she becomes very impatient when the relationship does not advance as quickly as she expects.
The author’s foreshadowing in this book is brilliant. At the beginning, when Ester begins to talk about Hugo and her interactions with him she oftentimes describes them as causing her torment and pain, much like the torture that Catullus feels in the above mentioned poem. There are quite a few things that neither we, the readers, nor Ester know about Hugo. He mysteriously disappears every other weekend to another city in Sweden. Ester assumes that he might have a relationship with another woman with whom he is spending so much time on the weekends, but she doesn’t really know. And she never asks him directly! Hugo also puts her off from showing her his apartment and only ever meets her at his work studio. Ester chalks all of this up to Hugo’s mysterious nature as an artist, but the astute reader understands that this secretive nature of his doesn’t bode well for their relationship or any chance of them having a future together.
When Ester and Hugo finally end up in bed her feelings intensify and she becomes even more obsessed with the progression of their relationship. She analyses and over analyzes every text message and e-mail from him. She waits impatiently for him to return her phone calls. She can’t stand it when days go by without seeing him. I found myself wanting to scream at her while reading, “He’s not worth it.” “Run the other way and never look back before this ridiculous farce of a relationship destroys you!” Her friends, which she describes as the “girlfriend chorus” do give her this wise advice but she cannot tear herself away from the emotional attachment she feels towards Hugo. We are left wondering page after page when poor Ester will finally come to her senses and regain her independence and free herself from these destructive feelings.
This author truly has a gift for philosophical writing; the description of hope and the negative effects in has on the lover at the very end of the book are nothing short of brilliant. Andersson compares hope to a parasite that” has to be starved to death if it is not to beguile and dazzle its host. Hope can only be killed by the brutality of clarity. Hope is cruel because it binds and entraps.”
I always tell my students that it is no wonder that hope was in Pandora’s box of evils. If you have ever been in the throws of love and have been tortured by hope because of a futile love then you should read this book.
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