Tag Archives: Lit in Translation

Review: Willful Disregard by Lena Andersson

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.

My Review:
Willful DisregardOne 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.

About the Author:
L AnderssonLena Andersson (born 18 April 1970 in Stockholm) is a Swedish author and journalist. She won the August Prize in 2013 for the novel Wilful Disregard . In the same year, the same book, won her the Literature Prize given by the Swedish newspaper Svenska Dagbladet.


Filed under Art, Literature in Translation

Review: My Mother’s Lover by Urs Widmer

My Review:
My Mother's LoverThis is another gem that I discovered from Seagull Books; I seem to be particularly fond of their German literature in translation offerings.

Clara is young, beautiful and rich in the early years of the 20th century.  Her father, who is from Italy, has shaken off his poor beginnings and after getting an education has become an engineer and has made a very comfortable life for his family.  The story of Clara’s upbringing, family and her relationship with a famous orchestra conductor is told to us by Clara’s son on the very day that Clara’s lover dies.

When Clara is a little girl she is prone to fits of anger that paralyze her.  The fits that the narrator describes appear to actually be epileptic seizures; when Clara has these episodes she can’t move, her fists are clenched and she retreats inside her own head and into a fantasy world.  As Clara gets older these fits subside, but we can’t help but wonder if they have a lingering effect on her mental health.

Clara’s mother dies when she is a teenager and Clara is left to live alone with her stern, regimented and emotionally detached father.  Clara gets up every morning to prepare her father’s breakfast in the exact way in which he demands; she runs the household and follows the same routine day after day.  Her life changes, however,  when she meets a man named Edwin who is a conductor of a Young Orchestra that he has formed on his own.  Edwin’s group of musicians are mostly students and poor, but they participate in the orchestra because of their genuine love of music.  It is also evident to everyone in the music world at this time that Edwin is a talented conductor who will one day be well-known for his musical genius.

Edwin asks Clara to become the secretary for the Young Orchestra and Clara throws herself into this job with the utmost enthusiasm.  Like many of the musicians in the group, Clara idolizes Edwin and does whatever she can to make Edwin’s orchestra a success.  She does her job magnificently and she takes no salary for her hard work.  But when her father dies in 1929 of a sudden heart attack, he leaves her alone and penniless and her entire life and fortune change dramatically.

Clara is lucky enough that, by this time, the Orchestra is starting to make money and she can draw a salary from her job on which to live.  Edwin also offers her his modest apartment which he is moving out of because he can afford a much better place to reside.  It is also at this point in time when Edwin starts having a sexual relationship with Clara.  But the relationship is emotionally one-sided and after he satisfies himself  Edwin leaves Clara feeling alone and empty.  But throughout all of this Clara still holds Edwin on a pedestal and accepts whatever scraps of attention that Edwin throws at her.

Clara’s devotion to Edwin is sad and difficult to understand.  It is the classic situation of a woman being in love with a man who doesn’t deserve her.  Long after Clara and Edwin are both married to other people, Clara still has feelings for him that run very deep.  Clara’s son tells us that his mother is constantly whispering Edwin’s name right up until the very end of her life.  Clara becomes so mentally unstable that she needs to be checked into an institution where she undergoes electro-shock therapy.  Clara also tries to commit suicide several times throughout the years.  Even at the end of her life, when she is in her eighties and living in a nursing home, she cannot let go of her thoughts of Edwin.

My Mother’s Lover is a short but powerful book about love, devotion, and mental health.  I am so glad to discover that Seagull Books has an extensive backlist of fantastic books that I will enjoy making my way through for a long time to come.

About the Author:
Urs Widmer was born in Basel in 1938. He studied German, Romance languages and History in Basel, Montpellier and Paris. In 1966 he completed his doctoral thesis on German postwar prose, and then worked as an editor for Walter Publishing House in Olten, Switzerland, and for Suhrkamp Publishing House in Frankfurt. In Frankfurt he stayed for 17 years, though with Suhrkamp only until 1968. Together with other editors he founded the ›Verlag der Autoren‹. Until his death Urs Widmer lived and worked as a writer in Zurich.


Filed under German Literature, Literary Fiction, Literature in Translation, Seagull Books