Tag Archives: Swedish Literature

Review: The Parable Book by Per Olov Enquist

My Review:
The Parable BookThis is the story of an author who is looking back and assessing his life through a series of lesson, or parables, he has learned which have particularly shaped his spiritual life.  The author’s name is Perola and his life appears to have an uncanny resemblance to that of Enquist’s himself.  When the book begins Perola is lamenting the speech he delivered at his mother’s funeral and decides he wants to write a better one to hand out to his relatives.  He reminisces about his childhood with his mother who was his only parent for most of his life.

One of the few possessions Perola has left of his father is a notebook full of poetry and personal reflections.  But the notebook was half-burned because his mother threw it into the fire and decided to save it at the last minute.   This notebook is also missing nine pages which his mother tore out.  The author spends a great part of the book comtemplating why his other decided to save the notebook at the last minute and what might have been contained in those missing nine pages.

Perola is brought up in a very religious environment and he is even on track to study religion and become a reverend.  Since Perola is now an old man who is sick with a bad stomach and heart, he contemplates the parables he learned that changed the course of his life.  One of his earliest memories is of a sickly Aunt Valborg who is asked by an uncle why she doesn’t pray or go to church anymore.  Aunt Valborg’s answer is simple yet has a profound effect on Perola’s life and is something he remembers until his dying days.  She says, ” I know for certain there is nothing there.”  Aunt Valborg had prayed to The Saviour and her only answer was a resounding silence and at that point she no longer regarded herself a believer.  This simple statement that he overhears his aunt say is the first crack in the surface a foundation of religion that Perola’s mother tried to establish.  It shocks him because he never realized that not to believe was even an option.

The pivotal point of the book during which time Perola knows that a devout, religions life is not the correct path for him is when he has his first sexual encounter with a much older woman.  Perola is fifteen and he visits a fifty-one year old woman who is renting a cottage in the village.  Perola is at first nervous to be around her but he is put at ease when they discuss books and have lemonade.  And she very slowly and tenderly introduces him to the world of sexual intimacy.

This scene in the book is not salacious or inappropriate; the woman and Perola both serve a need for each other and this experience further shapes his non-religious awakening.  Perola describes this sexual experience in religious terms during which he has a epiphany.  But this moment of clarity actually turns him away from religion instead of driving him toward it.  According to the beliefs he is taught, he should feel guilty about what has happened between himself and the woman on the knot free pine floor.  But instead he feels like his experience has invited him to step inside what he calls “the innermost room” and begin to experience the meaning of life.

This is a truly literary book that reads like philosophy, meditation, autobiography and parable.  Sometimes we are given a very specific story from the author’s life, other times we are given an unclear stream-of-consciousness narrative, and still at other times we encounter a list of questions that the author poses on an entire page of the book.  Enquist gives us the totality of a life that includes pivotal childhood memories, a bout of alcoholism that nearly destroys him, and the reflection of his elderly days during which he is waiting by the river to be taken to the other side.

For anyone who enjoys serious literary fiction this book is a must-read.  So far the English translation has only been published in the U.K.  I am hoping it will also be available here in the U.S. This is a book that I look forward to reading multiple times.

About the Author:
P EnquistPer Olov Enquist, better known as P. O. Enquist is one of Sweden’s internationally best known authors. He has worked as a journalist, playwright, and novelist. In the nineties, he gained international recognition with his novel The Visit of The Royal Physician.

After a degree in History of literature at Uppsala University he worked as a newspaper columnist and TV debate moderator from 1965 to 1976. Because of his work he soon became an influential figure on the Swedish literary scene. From 1970 to 1971 Enquist lived in Berlin on a grant from the German Academic Exchange Service and in 1973 he was a visiting professor at the University of California, Los Angeles. He has been working as an independent writer since 1977.

Enquist’s works are characterized by a chronic pessimistic view of the world. They always describe the restrictions imposed by the pietistical way of living, especially in March of the Musicians (1978) and Lewi’s Journey (2001). He gained international recognition with his novel The Visit of The Royal Physician (1999) where he tells the story of Struensee, the personal physician of the Danish King Christian VII. Many of Enquist’s works have been translated into English by Tiina Nunnally.



Filed under Literature in Translation, Literature/Fiction, Scandanavian Literature

Review: Clinch by Martin Holmén

I received an advanced review copy of this title from Pushkin Press.  This was published in 2015 in the original Swedish and this English version has been translated by Henning Koch.

My Review:
ClinchHarry Kvist is an former boxer who lives in the decrepit, dirty and seedy city of Stockholm in the 1930’s.  The city is full of tramps, prostitutes, and bootleggers as well as poor and destitute citizens who have been affected by the economic collapse of this decade.  Kvist himself leads a hard life by serving as a collector of debts to those who have defaulted on payments.  His specialty is repossessing bicycles which is easy money for him.  When the novel begins Kvist is collecting on a debt from a man named Zetterberg who owes a few thousand kronor.  Kvist scares Zetterberg by giving him a good beating that is not enough to kill him, but enough to leave him with a few scars as a “reminder” to pay the money he owes.  When Zetterberg is found dead the next day, Kvist is the prime suspect and he is immediately picked up by the police.

Kvist spends a few rough nights in a disgusting jail cell covered in urine and lice.  He is given a working over by the detectives and after they don’t get any information out of him he is released.  He spends the next few days hunting downs leads about Zetterberg’s murder and trying to find a prostitute named Sonja who is the only person who can provide him with an alibi for the time of the murder.  Kvist’s detective work takes him to bars, gangster hideouts, slums and brothels.  The best part of the book is the author’s ability to fully capture the squalid, dingy and oftentimes dangerous city.  The streets are an interesting mix of pre-industrial Europe and the slow progress towards modernization.  Horse carts still plow the streets and deliver coal, but cars are also driven through the crowded and dirty city.

The plot about the murder is slow to advance throughout the course of the book.  However, Kvist’s contact with the seedy underbelly of the city make for some thrilling scenes.  His always has a desire to use his boxing skills and he gets into several fist fights with other gritty characters.  He is also shot at and chased after and there is rarely a dull moment in Kvist’s life.  But even though there is an undercurrent of violence throughout the book, Kvist is not a murderer or a psychopath.  He can be sensitive to the needs of others, especially women who are in a tough spot or emotionally distraught.  He is even nice to animals and feeds the starving strays on the streets of Stockholm.  All of these details give us a multi-dimensional character with whom, even when he is violent, we can sympathize.

Kvist’s sexuality and his experimentation with both males and females gives the book an added layer of interest and sophistication.  Kvist has several encounters with different men at the beginning of the book which is very dangerous for him since any type of homosexual act is illegal at the time.  But Kvist’s sexual preferences are not an “either, or” choice.  He also hints at the fact that he has a daughter and makes comments about the type of woman that attracts him.  He spends quite a bit of time in the second part of the book sleeping with an actress who was trying to contract him for his collection serves.  The exploration of his sexuality, which is not usually done in Noir fiction,  adds another brilliant dimension to his character.

I am excited that this is supposed to be the first book in a trilogy about Harry Kvist and I am eager to read the next two installments which are coming out in the next year.  This is noir writing as its best and you won’t want to give this book a miss if you are a fan of this genre.

About the Author:
M HolmenMartin Holmén is a Swedish writer based in Stockholm. He was orn in 1974. He teaches History, Swedish and History of Culture and Ideas at an upper secondary school in Stockholm two days a week. He is the author of the Harry Kvist trilogy.




Filed under Historical Fiction, Literature in Translation, Mystery/Thriller, Scandanavian Literature, Summer Reading

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