Maj

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Photo: Bokbloggen

With all due respect for non-fiction, I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s better for me to read fiction. I’ve always loved a good story, it somehow gives more to one’s soul to immerse oneself in an author’s world than to further educate oneself on the snow lepards in Kirgizistan. But that’s just me, maybe you’re super fascinated with snow lepards.

Currently, I’ve started reading ”The Secret History” by Donna Tartt because after the ”Goldfinch” I felt I need to read everything Tartt ever wrote. Which is, actually, just two more books. Unfortunately, ”The Secret History” is a little creepier than it’s bird-centered sucessor (or maybe I just have a way too lively imagination) so at night, I first cannot stop reading and then I am so spooked, I have to take up the book I recently finished reading and re-read it to calm down. This book has zero creep-risk while at the same time being absolutely masterful. I feel I need to tell the world about this outstanding accomplishment in contemporary Swedish literature. Enter MAJ.

The trilogy about the Northern Swedish housewife Maj begins shortly before World War II and ends thirty years later. “Giving birth”, “Care for one’ own” and “Life at any cost” – the entire book series is all about what Maj should cook for dinner and when she should clean the windows. How, on earth, can 1500 pages on domestic chores spellbind the reader?

It’s because between the worries about infant care and fika baking, the drama of our grandmothers unfolds. This book lends its voice to a marginalized majority; without probably even wanting to, this book is a fierce advocator of feminism – because it is through the life of Maj the reader sees that women did not get to choose 70, 60, 50 years ago. Not their husbands, not their education, not the number of children they want to have. Not even what they would serve when hosting a dinner because society’s expectations were very clear even on that.

 This generation raised today’s people, and those who follow behind need to read Sandberg if they want to understand why Maj’s home is still such  a loaded political and feminist scene. Dagens Nyheter

The three books about Maj became a real page-turner for me, the words have „an immediate flow which the reader is sucked into without resistance“, as the critics wrote. Sandberg’s narrative is complex but not complicated, and somewhat hypnotizing.

The book combines Maj’s perception with her husband’s thoughts and the author even talks to her protagonist, „– am I writing correctly about you now?“, she wonders in the middle of a sentence, embodying the ambiguity of the story, the character, the times.

 This is a highly elegant novel, so linguistically driven, so heavy with rage, at the same time personally and politically indignant. Göteborgsposten 

What is particularily impressive is how the author did not choose to make Maj a heroine that you just simply must love and identify with. Instead, she is contradictory, sometimes very chicken-hearted, well-meaning and confined by her own inner conflicts. A real person, so to speak. When reading the three books, you smell the food from her kitchen and you see her going through town, she is so very real that I would not have been surprised if she’d sat in my living room one day.

 And the angst  is so heavy that the lines almost give way. Fokus  

With her, I marched through the history of the 20th century, from food ration coupons to newly established housewife gymastics classes. Not in Stockholm, but in Örnsköldsvik, observing the all too often overlooked North of Sweden. The story is so well-researched that it becomes hard to believe ist author is only in her forties. You think she personally was around to witness the kitchen proceedings – no, to cook these meals herself, to have these conversations during the war, to decorate her home in 1950s style.

 What impresses the most is the ability to build excitement around a life that on the surface appears to  be fairly uneventful . […] That kind of novel that occupies the reader, with characters who creep close and stubbornly linger in the mind after you have (reluctantly) closed the book . Svenska Dagbladet

Despite her tendency to irritate the reader, Maj wins a place in one’s heart, she is trying to do her best, after all, and it is heart-breaking to witness how contact with her own family reduces with every year that goes, how her few friends die, and how she and her husband have no way of reaching out to each other.

Kristina Sandberg who authored this skillful story was awarded the most prestigious Swedish literature prize, Augustpriset, in 2014 for her work. The jury motivated its choice as follows: „Some life journeys remain invisible. With her epos about housewife Maj, Kristina Sandberg shows that a whole odyssey can be contained within the walls of a flat in Örnsköldsvik. A fragile and wounded family life in the wellfare state is depicted with distance and empathy.“

When you close the book and Maj slips from your grasp, you wonder: Are you going to be okay now, Maj?

And while it feels as if Maj loses something when being translated, I still sincerely hope that these books will published abroad, too. We need them, also – or even more – in Germany.

 

Nine reasons to read The Goldfinch

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The Persians say, a good book is like a garden you carry in your pocket. I just finished a book like that, a book that has been so highly acclaimed that I started reading it sceptically. Whenever something has been talked up, I expect it to not bear up to the enormous expectations created. But “The Goldfinch”, the book that took Donna Tartt ten years to write, did not disappoint.(After finishing it, I am not at all surprised it took a decade to write.)

It is her unique combination of details (which make everything seem more real), in depth research (she must have spent months or years with art historians and antiquity experts) and unerring linguistic mastery to describe feelings and situations. While reading the book, I frequently stopped to jot down the way she had formulated things, something that happens very rarely with me.

Ten reasons that should convince you to spend reading time with “The Goldfinch”

  1. Donna Tartt describes adaquaetly what it is like to start noticing that you miss a deeper connection with some people.

But those sparkling blue shallows – so enticing at first glance – had not yet graded into depths, so that sometimes I got the disconcerting sensation of wading around in knee-high waters hoping to step into a drop-off, a place deep enough to swim.

2. She envisions what comes after death in the most beautful way.

But maybe that’s what’s waiting for us at the end of the journey, a majesty unimaginable until the very moment we find ourselves walking through the doors of it, what we find ourselves gazing at in astonishment when God finally takes His hand off our eyes and says: Look!

3. She elegantly phrases the fugacity of superficial beauty.

[He said] The pursuit of pure beauty is a trap, a fast track to bitterness and sorrow, that beauty had to be wedded to something more meaninful.

4. Even the quotes she picks from others to open her chapters are eye-opening true.

We are so accustomed to disguise ourselves to others that in the end, we become disguised to ourselves. (F. de la Roucefoucauld)

5. She touches the reader with her relatable protagonist and expresses his deepest pain gracefully.

When I lost her, I lost sight of any landmark that might have led me someplace happier, to some more populated or congengial life.

For in the deepest, most unshakeable part of myself, reason was useless. She was the missing kingdom,the unbruised part of myself I’d lost with my mother.

6. She provides you with excellent compliments to use for the next person you like.

Everything about her was a snowstorm of fascination.

7. She portrays her heros in a way that you see them right before your inner eye because you know someone who is just that person.

Everything came alive in her company; she cast a charmed theatrical light about her so that to see anything through her eyes was to see it in brighter colors than ordinary.

My standoffish dad had hated this about her – her tendency to engage in conversation with waitresses, doormen, the wheezy old gus at the dry cleaner’s.

8. She gives you orientation for life.

That maybe even if we’re not always so glad to be here, it’s our task to immerse ourselves anyway; wade straight through it, right through the cesspool, while keeping eyes and hearts open.

9. She has the awareness for history worked out and she knows how to convey it to you.

It is a glory and a privilege to love what Death doesn’t touch. […] And I add my own love to the history of people who have loved beautiful things, and looked out for them, and pulled them from the fire and sought them when they were lost and tried to preserve them and save them while passing them along literally from hand to hand, singing out brilliantly from the wreck of time to the next generation of lovers, and the next.

Do yourself a favor and read “The Goldfinch”!

 

Sweden’s best book

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One of the most pressing socio-political problems of our time must be the migration and refugee movements. Who would have thought that a Swedish book could – in my humble opinion – contribute anything to the question?

A couple of years ago when I took a Swedish course in Göttingen, our teacher made us watch a movie where everything happened in what felt like real-time. I did not fully appreciate the movie but one scene was etched in my memory and the name “Utvandrarna” (“The Emigrants”) stuck with me.

When I came to Uppsala, my friends Michelle and Malin must have brought up the story and introduced me to the musical whose name I had heard before but as it is not the same as the film/book, I had never connected it to the story. To me, it was a musical about something on the Swedish countryside and despite the fact that ABBA’s Björn and Benny wrote it, it never succeeded to catch my full attention. When my favorite magazine published an article on the new, elaborate –redesign of the book covers in 2012, I decided that I would give the story a try. That’s where my story with Kristina, Karl Oskar and Robert finally began.

It is the story of a group of peasants from the South of Sweden who suffer from bad harvests and famine so that they decide to emigrate to America. My friends make fun of me because I read the books so slowly. One reason for that is certainly the advanced linguistics (with dialectal dialogues) but I also find the book series by Vilhelm Moberg to be very emotionally exhaustive. Every word in the thousands of page is carefully arranged, every character is fully thought-through and in every little substory, there’s a whole own drama going on. Moberg succeeds in sucking me into the life of Swedish peasants during 1860s in a way that only a skilled author can. Sometimes, I want to read with a highlighter to mark the passages that remind me of my own very much smaller-scale migration. And many times, I am amazed by the striking parallels between today’s refugees and Kristina’s family. Hundreds of years in between and yet, so much is so similar. This story, a national treasure in Sweden, manages to evoke such empathy for the characters that transcends the place and time and should contribute to changing one’s outlook on the Kristinas that come to Europe these days.

It is certainly true that I have no read all of Swedish literature but I am sufficiently impressed with both the story itself and the masterly way it is told to proclaim this one of the – if not the – best Swedish book. (Astrid Lindgren is, of course, standing outside all competition.)

The books in English and the movie trailer as well as the musical which goes under the name of Kristina från Duvemåla.

Coming up next: The Musical, Kristina från Duvemåla.

"Invandrarna", The Immigrants, part two of the four-part-series on my nightstand

“Invandrarna”, The Immigrants, part two of the four-part-series on my nightstand

Two blondes, a brunette and Schiller

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Yesterday, Ingrid and I were honored by Anna’s first visit to my new apartment. Ingrid came home to find us sitting on my bed reciting Schiller. Isn’t that what you normally do with your 15-year-old friends? Maybe you should! When I asked her what she had been reading on the train, she answered “Kabale und Liebe” (engl.: Intrigue and Love) with a lack of enthusiasm, “it’s for school”. My face lit up and I explained excited that I also had to read it 13 years ago and loved it so much that I wrote my favorite quotes down and pinned them to my book shelf where they remained for ten years. Driven by my heart’s desire to get Anna into Schiller (who, next to Shakespeare, is one of my heroes), I read my favourite parts to her aloud. I was under the impression that she was quite amused, especially by the great Hofmarschall von Kalb, who figures as the jester, and whom my mom and I quote every now and then.

Ingrid came home and being the intellectual lady she is, she did not look too bewildered by the scene but instead asked if she should get my copy from the book shelf so we could read with assigned parts. In the end, we did not but she went to make us pasta with Mediterranean vegetables – vegetarian, healthy and pretty to look at.

After dinner, we entertained ourselves by learning how to pray the rosary (this sounds far weirder than it was. Anna had a bracelet with an integrated rosary and we noticed we don’t really know how to pray the rosary), trying to gain insight into which enneagram types we are and then we got our left-over helium balloons, inhaled the helium and read Schiller to each other again. I suppose you begin to understand why I do not need a TV to pass my evenings?

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MARSHAL. You drive me distracted! Whom did you say? Von Bock? Don’t you know that we are mortal enemies? And don’t you know why?

PRESIDENT. The first word that I ever heard of it!

MARSHAL. My dear count! You shall hear—your hair will stand on end! You must remember the famous court ball—it is now just twenty years ago. It was the first time that English country-dances were introduced—you remember how the hot wax trickled from the great chandelier on Count Meerschaum’s blue and silver domino. Surely, you cannot have forgotten that affair!

PRESIDENT. Who could forget so remarkable a circumstance!

MARSHAL. Well, then, in the heat of the dance Princess Amelia lost her garter. The whole ball, as you may imagine, was instantly thrown into confusion. Von Bock and myself—we were then fellow-pages—crept through the whole saloon in search of the garter. At length I discovered it. Von Bock perceives my good-fortune—rushes forward—tears it from my hands, and, just fancy—presents it to the princess, and so cheated me of the honor I had so fortunately earned. What do you think of that?

PRESIDENT. ‘Twas most insolent!

MARSHAL. I thought I should have fainted upon the spot. A trick so malicious was beyond the powers of mortal endurance. At length I recovered myself; and, approaching the princess, said,—”Von Bock, ’tis true, was fortunate enough to present the garter to your highness; but he who first discovered that treasure finds his reward in silence, and is dumb!”

PRESIDENT. Bravo, marshal! Admirably said! Most admirable!

MARSHAL. And is dumb! But till the day of judgment will I remember his conduct—the mean, sneaking sycophant! And as if that were not aggravation enough, he actually, as we were struggling on the ground for the garter, rubbed all the powder from one side of my peruke with his sleeve, and ruined me for the rest of the evening.