Category: 2022 European Reading Challenge

Finishing Off Scandinavia & Murder With Maud

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Have any of you yet met Maud?  Such a sweet old lady and perfectly safe . . . most of the time . . .

As my post’s heading indicates, I’m covering two topics today:  a brief recap of my Nordic reads for January (I did read a few other things but didn’t bother posting about them) and a series of murderously entertaining short stories featuring Maud, a most unusual protagonist.  I’ll be covering these in reverse order, so if you’re interested in one but not the other, you may want to skip.

As #NordicFinds month draws to a close, I find that I can’t quite leave Scandinavia without saying a word or two about Maud, an octogenarian resident of Gothenburg, Sweden.  If you like twisty tales laced with black humor and mayhem, well, she’s definitely worth checking out.  Because I actually read these books last fall (Up To No Good was a re-read to refresh my memory before indulging in Must Not be Crossed)  they aren’t eligible for my Reading Europe Challenge.  They do, however, fit nicely into the #NordicFinds and #ReadIndies months.  Although I read them last year, I couldn’t resist including them on the final lap of this year’s Scandi-journey, particularly as I haven’t previously reviewed them and they provide such a perfect finish for my idiosyncratic little survey of contemporary Scandinavian fiction.  Aside from their content, which provided me with some very happy reading hours, you can see that both books are handsome little volumes, with interesting artwork.  One has a brief but interesting afterword by the author, the other two recipes, one naughty and one nice, for gingerbread cookies.  A word to the wise — if you’re allergic to nuts, don’t eat any of Maud’s baked goods!

Both these little volumes (Marlaine Delargy tr.) are short story collections by the Swedish crime writer Helene Tursten, perhaps best known for her franchise detective Irene Huss, a detective inspector in Gothenburg’s Special Crimes Unit.  If you’re a fan of Irene Huss or Embla Nyström (the protagonist in another Tursten series) you’ll be pleased to learn that both make most entertaining appearances in a few of these stories (first and most notably in “The Antique Dealer’s Death” from Up To No Good).

The collection of stories featuring Maud was born when Tursten, facing a deadline for a Christmas story for one of Sweden’s largest publications, began to panic.  As she explains in her afterword to Up To No Good:

then, she came to me:  Maud.  She was 88 years old and looked like most old grannies.  But inside she was quite special.  Her age was a perfect disguise for a criminal!  Even . . . a murderer.  I wrote the first story, “An Elderly Lady Seeks Peace at Christmas,” in just three hours, and I enjoyed every minute of her company.  But let’s just say I would not like to have her for a neighbor or a relative!”

Although Tursten knows Maud best, I think she’s a little hard on her creation.  I’d feel perfectly safe living next door as long as I minded my own business, didn’t make too much noise (particularly at Christmas) and kept my animals under control.

Although the books are independent of each other and the stories are still quite enjoyable if you skip around (my usual method for reading a collection), you’ll get the most out of them by beginning with Up To No Good and reading the stories in the given order, as Tursten discloses Maud’s character and background in bits and pieces as the stories proceed.  This slow reveal is in fact a very clever and effective way of tying the collections together.  Maud’s habits are another connecting thread.  She loves to travel & has been “virtually all over the world” (Up To No Good, page 44); is an avid surfer of the net (she considers her laptop, which she ripped off from a Silver Surfers IT course, “indispensable”) and really, really likes to be left alone.  When Maud was eighteen her father died of a sudden heart attack and her once wealthy family discovered the money was gone.  Although Maud’s widowed mother was forced to sell the apartment building that was the sole remaining asset, a clause in the contract gave her and her two daughters the right to live rent free in the nicest set of rooms as long as they wished.  Seventy years later mother and sister are dead, the building is now an ultra fashionable address and Maud, to the frustration of the housing board (its lawsuit to dislodge her was unsuccessful), continues to enjoy her rent free life style.

Maud’s unusual living arrangement is at the center of the plot in  “An Elderly Lady Has Accommodations Problems,” the first of Up To No Good’s five stories.  Life has been peaceful for Maud until the advent of Jasmine Schimmerhof, celebrity child of famous parents (the subjects of Jasmine’s tell-all bestseller), a would-be sculptor and the latest new tenant in Maud’s building.  As Jasmine explains in her blog, Me, Jasmine:

I despise sovereignty and the patriarchy.  I have grown up under that kind of oppression, and I know how terrible it is.  I want to give the finger to all oppressors and tell them to go to hell.  In October, I will be putting on an exhibition at the Hell Gallery.  At the moment I am working on Phallus, Hanging.  It’s going to be a kick in the balls for all those bastard men!

When Jasmine begins a sustained campaign to woo Maud and win the seemingly senile old lady’s good will, Maud becomes suspicious and turns to the internet to discover that Jasmine is rather unwisely hinting on her blog that she may soon be moving into a much larger apartment that currently belongs to an elderly neighbor.  What’s that elderly lady to do, except protect her home?  I won’t say anything more, except to note that Maud helps the patriarchy to strike back in a most unusual way.  The book’s other four stories, in which Maud deals most efficiently with noisy neighbors, a thieving antique dealer and a gold-digging soft porn actress with designs on Maud’s former finance (Maud retains fond memories despite being jilted when her family went broke) are equally entertaining.  Who could imagine that murder could be so funny?

An Elderly Lady Must Not Be Crossed follows a similar format but is not quite more of the same.  Deciding that it’s best to clear out of Gothenburg for a bit after the antique dealer, Maud embarks on a luxury safari to South Africa, financed by the sale of a family heirloom or two.  Tursten skillfully uses the exotic setting to broaden the stories, and to deepen and soften Maud’s character as we learn more of her backstory.  Although I enjoyed Must Not Be Crossed and would definitely recommend it for an enjoyable afternoon of reading, I preferred Up To No Good.  I suspect it doesn’t speak well for my character that I prefer my murders undiluted by humanitarian impulses.

Midnight approaches here in Gulf Coast Florida and that’s enough of Maud.  As I noted above, these books are part of my Scandinavian journey, undertaken as part of Annabel’s #NordicFinds month.  They are also eligible for Lizzy & Kaggsy’s #ReadIndies month, as they are published by Soho Press, an independent publisher located in Manhattan.  Soho Crime specializes in atmospheric international fiction and has an impressive backlist of authors.

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Proceeding to the second part of my post, I’d like to do a wrap-up of the books I read for #NordicFinds.

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The four additional books I completed for #NordicFinds, one each from Denmark, Norway, Finland and Iceland.

In participating in the read-along, I tried very hard to push my boundaries by reading books that were, to varying degrees, outside my comfort zone either because of genre (memoirs, for example), style or subject.  As a result, I think my journey through Scandinavia was enlivened by books that were quite different from each other.  I also chose books written by authors from the countries where the books were set, rather than books by English speakers about the various countries, if that makes any sense.  By a happy coincidence, #NordicFinds overlapped with the beginning of the Reading Europe Challenge and #ReadIndies, so most of my books were twofers and a couple, oh happy day, qualified for all three events.  In addition to Tursten’s Elderly Lady collections, my choices included:

Tove Ditlevsen’s Copenhagen Trilogy, a beautifully written and intense set of memoirs by the noted Danish writer;

Dag Solstad’s Novel 11, Book 18, a piece of avant-garde fiction from Norway in which a very ordinary man experiences an existential crisis and decides that he, rather than chance, will control his fate;

Antti Tuomainen’s Dark As My Heart, where the king of Helsinki Noir tells the dark story of a decades long search for justice;

Oddny Eir’s Land of Love and Ruins, a genre-defying, autobiographical novel set in Iceland and mixing philosophy, eroticism, history, archaeology and bird watching.

And then, of course, there’s the one that got (temporarily) away:

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After reading a few pages, I decided to postpone reading Smirnoff’s novel, set in Sweden, until later in the year. Not to worry! It’s part of my Reading Europe Challenge; I’ll finish when I’m next in a noirish mood!

So that’s it for Scandinavia, folks!  Now on to the next adventure:

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Percy wants to depart the frozen north for warmer climates  . . . .

Oddny Eir’s Land of Love and Ruins: personal & national transitions

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My only previous experience with Icelandic writing was Auour Ava Ólafsdóttir’s Miss Iceland, which I read last year and absolutely loved.  For #NordicFinds, however, I resisted the urge to return to the same writer because I wanted to try someone new.  Do I regret my decision?  Well, you’ll have to read my review to find out!

For the last leg of my Nordic journey I’m again reading slightly outside my comfort zone, having just finished Land of Love and Ruins (tr. Philip Roughton) by the Icelandic author and activist Oddny Eir.  I’ve always been a bit fascinated by Iceland (I lived on a treeless, arctic island myself for a brief period, albeit one on the other side of the world), drawn at first by its history and culture, and later by its great natural wonders.  For Annabel’s #NordicFinds month, which gave me the perfect opportunity to indulge my interest, I wanted to read a contemporary work addressing current issues, so no Halldór Laxness!  Because I had just read a Scandi-Noir by the Finnish writer Antti Tuomainen (and have another lined up for my stopover in Sweden) I also decided to avoid mysteries and thrillers.  Land of Love and Ruins seemed to fit the bill perfectly.  Eir’s debut novel, written in the form of journal or diary entries, has won both the Icelandic Women’s Literature Prize (2012) and the EU Prize for Literature  (2014).  It is the only one of her works to date that has been translated into English

Before launching into more details about my very interesting selection, I should note that I read Love and Ruins (LAR) not only for Annabel’s #NordicFinds Month but also for the European Reading Challenge sponsored by Rose City Reader.  You can imagine my delight when I realized LAR also tied into the #ReadIndies Month sponsored by Kaggsy and Lizzy, as it’s published by Restless Books, “an independent, nonprofit publisher” (quote taken from publisher’s website).  After years of being totally hopeless at choosing books that meet the criteria for multiple challenges and events, I have now managed to do so for the second time in a month.  Gentle readers, I am on a streak!  Recommendations for lottery numbers, anyone?

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Given the strongly autobiographical tilt of her work, knowing a little about Eir’s life is a bit more helpful than usual.  Something of a renaissance woman, Eir was born in Iceland in 1972, and educated there and at the Sorbonne, where she received an advanced degree in political philosophy.  In addition to writing poetry, essays and four novels (including Love and Ruins), Eir is known for her environmental activism and has also worked at various times as a museum lecturer, a promoter of art events and a gallerist (according to Wiki, she and her archaeologist brother currently run a publishing company).  Prominently mentioned in all of Eir’s biographical information is her work as a lyricist for the pop star Bjórk on two of the latter’s albums; the keen-eyed among you may have noticed in the photo beginning my post that the front cover of Love and Ruins displays Björk’s endorsement.

Love and Ruins (LAR), as I previously mentioned, is the journal of an ostensibly unnamed young woman returning to Iceland after some time abroad.  Although its publisher refers to LAR as an “autobiographical novel” rather than a memoir, it was hard for me to shake the impression that I was reading an actual journal rather than even a lightly fictionalized account; for this reason and for sheer convenience, I’m going to refer to the first person narrator simply as Eir.  The journal begins on notes of personal and national uncertainty — returning home, Eir is tentatively beginning a new romantic relationship against the backdrop of Iceland’s economic crisis created by the collapse of its banking system in 2008.  In the course of this quasi-novel, Eir spends time with her birth family, especially her archaeologist brother (nickname “Owlie”); details her developing relationship with her new lover, an ornithologist she refers to as “Birdy;” and travels.  And travels some more.  From one apartment or house in Reykjavik to another; from Reykjavik to outlying villages, towns and historic spots around Iceland; to and around England (primarily the Lake District but also London, Manchester & Worsley); and to Basel, Strasbourg and Paris.  The numerous house moves and journeys, which are largely undetailed, are merely triggers for Eir’s personal memories or the framework on which she hangs her thoughts on questions large and small.  These range, for example, from questioning the nature of family structures, to proposing sustainable ways to adapt old traditions to a changing environment, to wondering whether the neighbor she observes shopping at the same time every day is buying all that popcorn for herself “or for everyone else back at her retirement home.”  (page 98)

I faced a number of barriers in reading this novel, some due to my own idiosyncrasies and some to Eir’s.  Just as I’ve never been a big reader of memoirs and autobiographies (not to mention letter collections), I’ve also largely avoided diaries or journals.  Given my prejudice towards the format, it’s obvious that a work of fiction written in the form of a journal was going to be challenging for me.  In keeping with its journalistic structure, LAR moved rapidly from thought to thought, incident to incident, place to place, with few transitions or explanations, leaving me a little behind at times or at least wishing for a few notes beyond the scant four-page glossary provided at the end of the book.  Eir is obviously a poet and writes with a poet’s sensibility; this can be very beautiful but also a little confusing at times, especially when combined with her penchant for assigning nicknames of animal or ornithological origin to practically everyone in her account (in London, for example, Eir (page 166) goes “to say hello to a porcupine, sharpening its snout in doubts” before visiting the bookshops).  Because Eir is interested in how Icelandic traditions can provide a model for a new, environmentally sustainable life she delves into the history of her own family, particularly her grandmother’s; while a pilgrimage to the areas in which they lived and the land they had farmed provided a lovely structure for raising questions about Iceland’s transition from an agrarian culture to a tourist playground, I became lost at times in the welter of Eir’s family relationships.  Eir begins each short section of her novel with a heading that is some combination of the Old Icelandic and Church Calendars, a geographic location or indication of the section’s content; for example (page 105):

Hveragerdi,
Woman-Of-The-House Day,
Start of Góa or is it Skerpla?

Being mildly obsessive-compulsive, I experienced a certain amount of stress trying to determine the exact dates of particular “journal” entries and with trying to impose a chronological structure on Eir’s observations and memories.

Between one thing and another, I seriously considered abandoning Love and Ruins somewhere between pages forty and fifty.  But then, gentle readers, I just — relaxed.  I began to enjoy the humor, whimsy and sometimes history in the chapter headings; and realized it didn’t matter very much if I confused her friends Eyowl & the squirrel or got the grandmothers mixed up.  In short, I simply started to listen to what Eir had to say and to appreciate the frequently beautiful way in which she said it.  It’s hard to select one example from among the many contained in the novel, but I found the following (page 52) to be profoundly moving, although I’m not at all conventionally religious:

I think that in the housing of the future, there needs to be a little healing nook where you can lie down as if under the grass or down in the ground and let the earth restore you.  Then rise up.  Christianity is perhaps first and foremost an admonition to ground yourself so well that the light can play around you without burning you up, an admonition to connect with nature, turn to the dust each day and rise up from the dust, transcend the laws of nature with help from the laws of nature.  You mustn’t bury yourself alive, forget to rise up, or bind yourself to the dust in melancholy surrender.

Love and Ruins is a physically small book containing big themes, reflected upon by an original mind and expressed in intuitive and poetic language.  What constitutes a family?  Is it possible to be in a loving relationship while maintaining one’s personal autonomy?  If so, how can it be structured?  What happens when a country no longer can sustain growth or the earth support the burdens we humans place on it?  How do we honor our history while moving to the future?  Although Eir raises these questions in the context of an Iceland in transition, they apply universally.  If you are a reader who needs a conventional plot and/or character development, or demands clear and unambiguous answers to profound questions, then you should look elsewhere, Love and Ruins is not the book for you.  But if you’re willing to bend a little bit with the details and go where the current carries you, it has much to offer.

Before departing, I should say a bit about the publisher, since I also read Love and Ruins in conjunction with #ReadIndies month.  Restless Books is a U.S. independent publisher physically located in Gowanus, Brooklyn (a borough of New York City).   Beginning in 2013 as a digital only publisher of international literature, by 2014 Restless Books had expanded into print by partnering with Simon & Schuster for international distribution.  Dedicated to publishing work that speaks across “linguistic and cultural borders,” its publications include practically every genre from an equally wide array of countries.  Although I wasn’t consciously aware of Restless Books before this year, I was a little surprised to discover I actually have a couple of their other publications among my towering stack of unread books.

2022’s Back to The Classics Challenge: Will the Fourth Time Be The Charm?

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Here’s the stack of my tentative choices for this year’s Back to the Classics Challenge. My little soldier figurine perfectly expresses my apprehension as I begin my FOURTH attempt to complete the  Challenge . . . .

I was absolutely delighted that Back to the Classics, one of my very favorite challenges, has returned for another year (thank you very much for hosting, Karen!).  Although my completion rate is beyond dismal (this is my fourth year to participate and I’ve yet to read and review even a fraction of my twelve Challenge books) I always have a lot of fun picking my categories and reading at least some of my selections.  Last year, in fact, I did quite well in the reading portion of the Challenge, finishing ten of my twelve selections.  And what about the reviewing?  Well . . . .  not so good.  My reviews were . . . non existent!  Nada! zilch! zero!  What can I say, except that 2021 was not a good writing year for me?  Circumstances change, however; new houses become not-so-new; boxes get unpacked; dusting tchotckes gets forgotten about (these days I just throw them in the closet and call it a done deal) and a new year appears, bringing with it new opportunities and great new books!  So I’m back to the Challenges, adding the Classics Challenge to my 2022 European Reading Tour.  Never say, dear readers, that I don’t set my goals high.

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Despite my abysmal completion rate, the Back to the Classics Challenge is one of my favorite bookish events.  Undeterred by experience, I’m participating for the fourth year in a row  . . . .

Since Karen has explained her Challenge much better than I’m able to, I won’t repeat the details.  Essentially, participants select classic works that fit into a series of defined categories; for 20th century works the selection must be at least fifty years old (i.e., published before 1972).  Initial selections are thankfully non-binding, an important point for fickle old me, as I’m pretty quick to move along from a book that isn’t right for me at a particular time.  To compete in the Challenge, a participant must read and review his/her selections between the beginning and end of 2022.

In making my selections, I’ve added a few of my own, idiosyncratic requirements.  In the last few years I’ve engaged in massive, massive book acquisition binges, partly from pandemic stress and partly because y’all, fellow bloggers, write such great book reviews that I’m always discovering another novel or novella I simply must read!  Because my TBR is now one of the largest piles of books on earth, I’ve largely limited my selections to what’s already on my shelves.  In addition to selecting books that I already own, I’ve also tilted my selections towards the British end of the scale because I’ve already planned to read so much translated literature this year and I read U.S. works as a matter of course (I don’t need a challenge for them)  Since my neglected mountain of Persephone books has now been joined by  several very interesting publications from the wonderful British Library Women Writers series, I’ve also tried to select books from these publishers as much as possible.  Finally, although I adore re-reading, as much as possible for the most part I’ve avoided selecting books I’ve already read.  Each reader has her own goals in participating in a Challenge; for me, it’s to read new things, or discover new writers whenever I can.

Without more blathering, here are my choice for this year’s categories:

1.  19TH CENTURY CLASSIC (i.e., published from 1800-1899):

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This is a book that I’d buy just for the cover, which features a detail from my favorite painting by Frédéric Bazille, one of the early Impressionists.  The painting (“Family Gathering,” c. 1867) normally lives at the Musée d’Orsay, which I’ve never visited.  I was lucky enough, however, to see it a few years ago at a Bazille exhibition held by Washington, D.C.’s National Gallery

I know, I know, I’m only at the first category and already I’m veering away from my “Read British” year.  Zola just seemed so perfect for this category, however, I couldn’t resist!  I love Trollope and Henry James, but I’ve read a great deal of their works; Edith Wharton (another favorite) published mostly in the early 1900s and, well, I’ve just been intending for years to read something by Zola.  The big uncertainty that has kept me from doing so, however, has been just where do you start with such a prolific novelist?  Luckily for me, this issue was resolved last summer when I stumbled across Bookertalk’s excellent Zola reviews. While I don’t aspire to read the complete Rougon-Macquart Cycle, I do hope at least to become acquainted with the families.

2.  20TH CENTURY CLASSIC (any book first published from 1900 to 1972):

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In the last few years, I’ve became an enormous fan of Elizabeth Taylor’s novels. Since this is the last one that I haven’t read (I’m afraid I’ve avoided it for fear that it might be just a little too depressing), the selection for this category was a no-brainer!  In the unlikely event that it doesn’t work out, I’ll probably read Jean Rhys’ Quartet or perhaps an early novel by Molly Keane.

3.  CLASSIC BY A WOMAN AUTHOR

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Stella Gibbons seems to be experiencing a bit of a Renaissance these days, so I thought I’d expand my horizon beyond her comic masterpiece Cold Comfort Farm.  If this doesn’t work out, I may try Gibbons’ Enbury Heath or finally get around to reading something by Pamela Hansford Johnson.

4.  A CLASSIC IN TRANSLATION

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Last summer I read, but didn’t review, Keun’s Child of All Nations.  Although I liked it very much, I didn’t feel it was a fully representative work of this very interesting writer . . . .  2022 will be the year to find out whether my hunch is accurate!

5. A CLASSIC BY A BIPOC AUTHOR

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I came across Sam Selvon’s work some time ago but never managed to really read any of it.  Although there are some wonderful U.S. writers whose work falls in this category, I’ve picked Selvon’s The Housing Lark as it’s so perfectly in keeping with my 2022 “Read British” theme!  Alternates are Eileen Chang’s Little Reunions and/or Dorothy West’s The Living is Easy.

6.  MYSTERY/DETECTIVE/CRIME CLASSIC (includes True Crime) Continue reading “2022’s Back to The Classics Challenge: Will the Fourth Time Be The Charm?”

Antti Tuomainen’s Dark As My Heart: Helsinki Noir

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For a tale as dark as this Finnish mystery, I thought my gargoyle was a suitable accoutrement, n’est-ce pas?

At this point in my bookish journey through Scandinavia, I decided to read a piece of crime fiction.  Aside from the sheer pleasure of it, there’s good reason for including something a bit more on the popular side than my two previous selections (i.e., a trilogy of literary memoirs and a short but challenging piece of avant-garde fiction).  After all, since it emerged in the 1990s, Nordi noir has been a dominant presence in both film and crime fiction.  Although I did read some of the early authors (a fair amount of Henning Mankell’s Wallander series and a Jo Nesbø or two), I drifted away and never quite drifted back.  There’s been a lot of bodies left in the snow since that time, so to speak, and the emergence of a correspondingly large number of new and exciting writers to tell their tales.  So you can imagine how I jumped at the chance to explore this unfamiliar territory by adding a noir or two to my lists for Annabel’s #NordicFinds month and the European Reading Challenge.

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After all, how can you take a literary journey through Scandinavia without including at least one tale of a brooding, angst-ridden protagonist who threads his/her way through murder and mayhem whilst musing dark existential thoughts?  Do you, dear readers, have any favorites from this genre?  If so, please share, as my TBR list always has room for more entries!

For my stopover in Finland, I chose Dark As My Heart, an early work by Antti Tuomainen, one of his country’s leading crime writers (Lola Rogers did the translation).  The story begins in 1993, where in a few brief pages we experience the murder of Sonja Kivi, alone in a car with her killer on a rainy October night.  Sonja is young (early thirties), attractive and, except for her thirteen-year-old son Aleksi, alone in the world.  As we subsequently learn as the story develops, she was employed by one of the many companies owned by Henrik Saarinen, a ruthless and wealthy Helsinki businessman with an eye for the ladies.  Because Sonja’s body is never found, the police regard hers as “a missing person” case.  The mystery of her disappearance is never solved and Aleksi goes into foster care.

In the years that follow, Aleksi structures his life around one thing, and one thing only — solving the mystery of his mother’s disappearance.  He ages out of foster care (unlike the U.S. system, the Finnish version seems relatively benevolent), declines college in favor of becoming a skilled carpenter and, all the time, he’s seeking the answer to his mother’s fate.  Aleksi keeps his human contacts to a minimum, ultimately sacrificing even his relationship with a woman he genuinely loves to his quest for justice for his dead mother.  Aleksi is the very epitome of a noir anti-hero; we see the story through his first-person narrative and we learn the facts as he learns them.  In 2003, ten years after his mother’s disappearance, a second woman who bears a strong physical resemblance to Sonja is found murdered.  She, too, was an employee of Henrik Saarinen.  Her killer is never found and the police refuse to listen to Aleksi’s claim that the murder is linked to his mother’s disappearance.

Fast forward to 2013 and Aleksi, now in his early thirties, is convinced that Henrik Saarinen is his mother’s killer.  Without disclosing his identity, he goes to work on the Saarinen estate outside Helsinki and sets out to unmask and confront Henrik.  The bulk of the novel occurs in this time period and centers on the elaborate cat-and-mouse game between Aleksi and Henrik, who clearly knows more than Aleksi gives him credit for knowing.  A cast of secondary players support and complicate the plot, most notably Amanda, Saarinen’s beautiful daughter (doesn’t every good noir need a beautiful heiress?) and Ketomaa, the retired policeman who investigated the disappearance of Aleksi’s mother and who has never given up on the case.  Needless to say, digging into the Saarinen family secrets is both difficult and dangerous; as he becomes more involved with the Saarinen family Aleksi’s emotional defenses begin to crumble.

Although I’ve recounted the essentials of the plot in a chronological way, this novel is quite structurally complex, with the action moving back and forth among 1993, 2003 & 2013; Tuomainen uses this device very skillfully to dole out information and maintain suspense.  Despite finding some of the secondary characters a bit two dimensional, Aleksi himself was a believable and compelling narrator.  The novel conveys a good sense of place, both of Helsinki itself and of Kalmela Manor, Henrik Saarinen’s secluded country estate.  The language is terse, as befits a good noir, but with a streak of poetry here and there, as displayed in this passage where Aleksi describes his early impression of the estate:

I closed the door of the manor house and stood on the veranda.  Two plump-breasted crows sat on the roof, utterly still.  Against the grey sky they were like those black silhouettes cut from cardboard that people used to buy at amusement parks and hang on the wall to show others something that they already knew — what the people memorialised looked like in profile.  Autumn wrapped the land in its groping embrace.  I listened to the movement of the gusting wind through the tall spruce trees and the birches that bordered the yard.  The air was thin and fresh, with a hint of sap in it, a sweet smell. 

As much a psychological drama as a straight mystery, Dark As My Heart also raised issues regarding obsession, vengeance and the need sometimes to forget the past and move on with life.  I spent a very enjoyable afternoon or two trying to guess who did it and why; that I couldn’t do so speaks volumes for the writer’s skill!  With a caveat that none of the characters are warm and fuzzy, I’d definitely recommend Dark to readers with a taste for Scandi noir, damaged protagonists and mysteries with an ambiguous edge.

Dag Solstad’s Novel 11, Book 18: Everyman’s Quest For Meaning

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Novel 11 is one of those skinny works that pack a disproportionate wallop.  Skillfully translated into English by Sverre Lyngstad, my copy came from New Directions press, which has also published three other novels with similar themes written by Solstad in the 1990s.

Have you ever finished a novel with a sigh of mingled relief and bafflement (“whatever that was about I’m so very glad that it’s over); puzzled over what you had read for the last day or so; bored your companions enormously by recounting various bits and pieces (well, Mr. J was pretty bored but the cats seemed o.k. with the monologue); found yourself laughing at something you passed over at first and, finally, realized that you’d just finished one of the strangest small masterpieces that was ever likely to come your way?  And all this in less than forty-eight hours?  An odd reaction, to be sure, but then, this is a very odd book, at least for readers like myself who are unfamiliar with Solstad’s work.  If you’ve read any of it, please share your own reactions.  Don’t be shy!  Are you a fan, who’s devoured everything translated into your own language (or — and I’m in awe if this is the case — were you able to read it in the original Norwegian?).  Or were you more in the “one and I’m done” category?

Before going further, I need to point out that I owe my discovery of this very interesting writer to my participation in two fun reading events:  Annabel’s #NordicFinds Reading Month and the 2022 European Reading Challenge.  Although I already had a copy of Novel 11 as part of my subscription to the New Classics series offered by New Directions press, I’m afraid it would have languished in the TBR pile (probably near the bottom) had I not had an incentive to actually read it.  Isn’t self-discipline wonderful?  I’ve always wished I had some!

Continue reading “Dag Solstad’s Novel 11, Book 18: Everyman’s Quest For Meaning”

A Life In Three Acts: Tove Ditlevsen’s Copenhagen Trilogy

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Thanks to Annabel’s #NordicFINDS month and its focus on Scandinavian literature, this wonderful memoir by the Danish writer Tove Ditlevsen actually moved from my TBR to my “Completed in 2022” list.  Described by her fellow Dane Dorthe Nors as “the Billie Holiday of poetry, accessible, complex and simple all at the same time,” Ditlevsen was a skilled and incredibly poetic writer.  Her story of her tumultuous life made for a fascinating week of reading (the Nors quote is taken from the Paris Review’s Dec 9, 2020 article, “Re-Covered: A Danish Genius of Madness). 

Are you a reader (avid or otherwise) of memoirs and autobiographies?  I must admit that I seldom choose a book from this category, an omission that’s all the more puzzling because when I have done so it’s turned out to be something remarkable.  My lucky streak continues with Tove Ditlevsen’s The Copenhagen Trilogy, a sometimes brutal, frequently poetic and always beautifully written account of her life from early childhood until roughly the age of thirty-five.  If you love great books (and I doubt you’d be interested in book blogging if you didn’t), then you owe it to yourself to put this one near the top of your TBR pile.

The anglophone world has had a rather troubled relationship with Ditlevsen’s work.  Childhood, Youth and Dependency, the three volumes that make up The Copenhagen Trilogy were initially published separately in Denmark; Childhood and Youth in 1967, followed four years later by Dependency (only a few years before Ditlevsen’s suicide in 1976).  All three, however, were generally unavailable to English readers for many years.  After Tiina Nunnally translated Childhood and Youth for a 1985 U.S. edition  (Seal Press) that subsequently went out of print, it was almost a half-century after its 1971 publication before Dependency was translated by Michael Favala Goldman in 2019.  In one of those “strokes of genius” that sometimes occur (Goldman’s words, not mine), Penguin for the first time published all three memoirs together in one volume as The Copenhagen Trilogy.

This rather convoluted publishing history may account for what I considered a fairly obvious difference in emotional tone between Nunnally’s translations (more poetic) and Goldman’s work (more terse and melodramatic).  This is hardly surprising, with two translators working separately and thirty years apart.  Then again, Nunnally’s work concerned Ditlevsen’s outwardly uneventful childhood and early life while Goldman’s Dependency was focused on her adult years.  These were melodramatic by anyone’s standards, including as they did her marriages (four; number three to a psychotic doctor); children (one the adopted daughter of a husband’s girlfriend & two biological); professional and commercial success (extensive); surreptitious abortions (two); and drug addiction (life-threatening and life-long).  The issue for a reader, of course, is whether this tonal difference between the translators detracts from the volume as a whole, especially when its components are read in quick succession.  For me the answer is “no.”  If any of you have a different impression, however, please do weigh in on this point.

Many of you no doubt know the basics of Ditlevsen’s background.  Born in 1917 to a family that we would now describe as the “working poor,” she spent her childhood and early youth in Vesterbro, a grim and semi-dangerous suburb of Copenhagen.  Ditlevsen’s parents were an ill-assorted pair whose differences made for a stormy domestic atmosphere throughout her childhood.  Her father Ditlev was a frequently unemployed laborer with strongly socialist views; her mother Alfrida, ten years his junior, was a self-absorbed, vain and sometimes cruel woman who was the center of her young daughter’s almost obsessive attention.  The parents’ attention, interest and love were vested in Ditlevsen’s older brother, whom they intended to become a skilled tradesman, the peak of accomplishment for a working-class boy in 1920s Denmark.  The parental goal for Ditlevsen herself was far less lofty:  she was to leave school at age 14, contribute most of her wages to the family’s support, not get pregnant and, oh joy, ultimately marry a stable, hardworking guy with a trade and without a drinking habit.

Although Ditlevsen is an elegantly terse writer, three volumes of memoirs inevitably encompass a lot of details.  In clicking around the internet for background on her life and career, I noticed that reviewers generally seem most drawn to Dependency, the volume in which Ditlevsen describes (among other things) her harrowing descent into opioid addiction (actively encouraged and abetted by her physician husband) and her subsequent stint in a drug rehabilitation center.  And there is no doubt at all that much of this volume makes for a gripping, if at times rather stomach churning, read.

Perhaps it’s a sign of perversity that, for all my love of drama, I preferred Childhood, a quieter, more poetic volume that portrays the beginnings of the traits that formed Ditlevsen’s character, i.e., her emotional aloofness and self-containment, her approach to relationships and her fierce determination to become a writer.  It was passages such as these that reminded me that Ditlevsen was first and foremost a poet (Farrar, Straus, Giroux edition, 1-6):

In the morning there was hope.  It sat like a fleeting gleam of light in my mother’s smooth black hair that I never dared touch; it lay on my tongue with the sugar and the lukewarm oatmeal I was slowly eating while I looked at my mother’s slender, folded hands that lay motionless on the newspaper, on top of the reports of the Spanish flu and the Treaty of Versailles.  My father had left for work and my brother was in school.  So my mother was alone, even though I was there, and if I was absolutely still and didn’t say a word, the remote calm in her inscrutable heart would last until the morning had grown old and she had to go out to do the shopping in Istedgade like ordinary housewives.

* * *

Beautiful, untouchable, lonely, and full of secret thoughts I would never know.  Behind her on the flowered wallpaper, the tatters pasted together by my father with brown tape, hung a picture of a woman staring out the window.  On the floor behind her was a cradle with a little child.  Below the picture it said, ‘Woman awaiting her husband home from the sea.’  Sometimes my mother would suddenly catch sight of me and follow my glance up to the picture I found so tender and sad.  But my mother burst out laughing and it sounded like dozens of paper bags filled with air exploding all at once.  My heart pounded with anguish and sorrow because the silence in the world was now broken, but I laughed with her because my mother expected me to, and because I was seized with the same cruel mirth as she was.

* * *

It was my own fault, though, because if I hadn’t looked at the picture, she wouldn’t have noticed me.  Then she would have stayed sitting there with calmly folded hands and harsh, beautiful eyes fixed on the no-man’s-land between us.  And my heart could have still whispered ‘Mother’ for a long time and known that in a mysterious way she heard it.  I would have left her alone for a long time so that without words she would have said my name and know we were connected with each other.  Then something like love would have filled the whole world . . ..

Ultimately Tuve uses words to escape her indifferent mother’s hold on her heart:

When these light waves of words streamed through me, I knew that my mother couldn’t do anything else to me because she had stopped being important to me.  My mother knew it, too, and her eyes would fill with cold hostility.  She never hit me when my soul was moved in this way, but she didn’t talk to me either.  From then on, until the following morning, it was only our bodies that were close to each other.

Childhood ends when fourteen-year-old Tuve finishes middle school (this is the end of Ditlevsen’s formal education) and begins working at a series of menial jobs, with the bulk of her wages going to her family.

Like many second volumes, Youth suffers a bit from being the bridge from the beginning of the story to its dramatic conclusion.  Nevertheless, it is still a gripping read as well as surprisingly funny in spots.  It begins as Ditlevsen describes her brief stints as a highly unskilled maid (she doesn’t know how to use a vacuum cleaner and ultimately sweeps its contents under the living room rug); a worker in a medical supply company (she mostly packs boxes and is fired when she impersonates the prime minister giving a pro union speech); and a bored office worker with nothing much to do except watch her colleagues flirt.  And, all the time, she’s writing, writing, writing and always looking for the opportunity to have her work read and noticed.  By the conclusion of Youth, Ditlevsen holds her first published book of poetry in her hands and is maneuvering to marry the much older editor who’s given the twenty-something poet her big break.  Ditlevsen’s professional trajectory occurs against the backdrop of the darkening political situation in Europe.  Nazi Germany is on the move, Hitler is invading Austria and Denmark’s invasion and occupation are on the horizon.  Ditlevsen’s reaction?  In an endearingly human touch (to me at least), she’s primarily concerned about whether the war will interfere with her book’s publication date and or interupt her maneuvers to ensnare the hapless editor.

In the hope of finishing this post within my lifetime, I’ll try to keep my overview of Dependency brief (remember, however, that in many ways its events are the most dramatic and well-known of Ditlevsen’s life).  It opens with Ditlevsen married to her editor (their union proves highly unsatisfactory) and well on her way to phenomenal literary success.  It ends with Ditlevsen, now on her fourth marriage, struggling to control her addiction after surviving the six-month hell of a drug rehabilitation program.  One of our current self-help gurus would end a comparable story with a charming picture of herself wrapped in serenity and meditating on her hard-won wisdom.  It’s a measure of Ditlevsen’s cool objectivity and self-knowledge that her words as she ends her account of her life are:

I started writing again, and whenever reality got under my skin, I bought a bottle of red wine and shared it with Victor [her fourth husband].  I was rescued from my years of addiction, but ever since the shadow of the old longing still returns faintly if I have to have a blood test, or if I pass a pharmacy window.  It will never disappear completely for as long as I live.

As was evident from my opening words, I was incredibly impressed and emotionally moved by Ditlevsen’s account of her life.  The only thing more amazing than its impact is the fact that it took over a half century for a work of such power to reach an English-speaking audience.  But then, we bloggers know why we dedicate August to acknowledging and celebrating translated work authored by women, don’t we?

In closing, one question and a few odds and ends for the interested.  As with any memoir or autobiography, I think it’s necessary to question the extent to which its facts are “objectively” accurate.  Although I kept this question in mind when reading, my scanty knowledge of Ditlevsen’s life and work prevented me from addressing the issue in this review.  Please don’t be shy about adding anything on this point, or, indeed, any other aspect of my review.  Turning to the wealth of Ditlevsen material suddenly available online, I thought the Paris Review article I cited under my opening photo contained a very good discussion of Ditlevsen’s Copenhagen Trilogy.  The New Yorker has a similarly interesting interview with David Favala Goldman, Dependency’s translator, as well as his translation of a Ditlevsen short story to be published in a collection coming out in March 2022.  (The New Yorker has tightened its pay wall in recent years, but I think a casual reader can still get a few free monthly clicks.)  If you have twenty-five minutes or so to spare and you’re into the visual aspects of things, you can click over to YouTube and view a “Walk Around Tove Ditlevsen’s Vesterbro,” which gives an overview of the author’s life against the physical surroundings of her childhood and youth.

I read The Copenhagen Trilogy as part of Annabel’s #NordicFinds reading month ; as the first stop on my 2022 European Reading Challenge and as a pre-1972 non-fiction work for the 2022 Back to the Classics Challenge (I plan to post my list for this challenge later this week).  In other words, it’s a trifecta!  Don’t you just love it when that happens?

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