More Than Cool Reason: A Field Guide to Poetic Metaphor

While I was on my last library errand of 2023, I happened upon this one in the shelf alongside Språkets myller. Since I’m an incurable fan of George Lakoff and his work on metaphor I figured “why not?” and threw it on the pile. I finally finished it last week and here’s to hoping this will uncork the backlog of reading I have for the year. I accept my long-term 600+ book TBR as something like a calculus limit, to be approached but never quite reached, but the acute TBR has hit critical mass where I now have an inner urgency to do something. The current acute TBR: the English translation of Frère d’âme, Homeboy (borrowed from a bookish friend), Händelsehorisonten and Singulariteten (ahead of another bookish acquaintance’s panel moderation with author Balsam Karam in May), and a pair of niche but mercifully brief Swedish reference books before a test in October (and ideally before a third English reference book arrives sometime next month). Until last Friday, More Than Cool Reason was also on the list. One down, five to go.

More Than Cool Reason is a much briefer work than the highly specialized Philosophy in the Flesh (what book isn’t briefer than that one) and also slightly shorter than the general interest Metaphors We Live By. This time Lakoff and cowriter Turner…turn…their attention to metaphor as it is deployed in poetry. Here their stated audience is undergrad-level literature students, so the book functions as an introduction to Lakoff’s theory of metaphor, with poetry specifically as a test case. They begin by dissecting a few short poems (or selections from longer ones), mixing familiar classics like Shakespeare sonnets and Dickinson with some translations from outside the classic English language canon, and note how the conventional metaphors we have for understanding everyday concepts make for effective poetry (“People are plants,” “Death is a journey,” “A lifetime is a day,” “A lifetime is a year,” etc.). There’s also discussion of what makes metaphors effective versus nonsense and some philosophical discussion of Lakoff’s theory, criticisms of it, and Lakoff’s response to the criticism. The book ends with a close reading of William Carlos’ Williams “To A Solitary Disciple” as well as some Chinese proverbs.

The other reason I picked up More Than Cool Reason was because I don’t get poetry. At the end of the day I’m just too literal minded to really be receptive to most of it, I think, so I thought that this kind of nuts and bolts approach to poetry would help me be a better reader. Did it? Unsure. I don’t know that I’m a better reader of poetry now, having finished the book—I would have to go out and actually read poetry with this insight fresh in my brain—but the approach Lakoff and Turner take in this kind of literary analysis is so thoroughly grounded in the text and in the concrete that I at least feel like I’m a better reader of the poems they dissected in the book.

I would rank Metaphors We Live By as the better general interest introduction to the topic. Not everyone is interested in becoming a more informed reader of poetry, but I think most of us are vaguely interested in becoming better communicators and in better understanding how other people think. I also wish that More Than Cool Reason had been course literature for my poetry class in undergrad (no shade on Fussell’s Poetic Meter and Poetic Form). For all I know, it would have helped demystify poetry for me twenty years earlier.

Empty Mansions

According to my arbitrary rules for the blog, I’m cheating with this pick since I haven’t finished reading Bill Dedman’s Empty Mansions yet. It’s a biography, though; there’s no shocking twist or reveal to be had in here that might cause me to revise the opinion I’ve formed so far. It’s fair game to have an opinion now, even if I’m only a third of the way in.

Back in January I got lost down an Internet rabbit hole that I am now utterly unable to recreate and ended up listening to some author talks from the Amagansett Free Library released as podcast episodes over on The Internet Archive. The episode I found was a double header with Pam Belluck and Bill Dedman, each promoting their own new (at the time) book.

Back in 2009, looking at real estate in New England prompted Bill Dedman to investigate the mystery of a very empty and very expensive mansion in New Canaan, Connecticut. Who owned it? Why were they selling it? Why was it empty? These questions led him to stupendously wealthy heiress Huguette Clark (now deceased, though still alive in 2009) and Empty Mansions is Dedman’s attempt to trace not only Clark’s life story but the historical context that shaped it.

To the extent that there is a mystery or hook in the book, Dedman resolves it fairly early on: Clark maintained the New Canaan mansion, and several other properties, as a place for the hired help to retreat to in case of unimaginable emergency. (The original mansion that sent Dedman on his quest had been purchased during the height of Cold War “Duck and Cover” paranoia, to give some context to her thinking.) I appreciate that level of honesty with readers: “I sold you this book based on a mystery but gave away the answer right away. If that’s what you wanted, you can put it down now. But I think the story behind the answer is a really fascinating one, so I hope you’ll let me tell it to you.” My words, not Dedman’s.

In the course of his research, Dedman was contacted by one of Clark’s extended family members, Paul Clark Newell, Jr., the co-writer listed on the cover (now also deceased). Newell was in frequent telephone contact with Clark in the 90s and until her death in 2011, and the book includes several excerpts from these conversations in punchy little asides: Clark recalling a particular dinner party, or a family trip to Hawaii, those sorts of things.

I’m reading an ebook copy from one of my US libraries, and the short sections make it an excellent choice for phone reading on a commute. Empty Mansions is very easy to dip in and out at a moment’s notice, the same as with The Big Balloon. That’s probably the reason that it’s the book I’ve been reading the most at the moment, to be honest. I was originally fairly ambivalent about checking it out. I felt like I had a good enough sense about what it was and who it was about just from the podcast episode. Reading the whole book—when I have over 600 books on my TBR! oof—felt like…a bit of a waste of time? Or not a waste as such, but more like a book-length treatment of the concept was unnecessary. Thanks to the podcast episode, I now knew who Huguette Clark was, so I had already gotten to the end, so to speak. I don’t know, it’s hard to explain. At any rate, every checkout is a win for your local library’s circulation numbers and therefore its funding, so in the end I figured it was at least worth it in that sense!

But Dedman also provides an account of Clark’s father, W. A. Clark, which makes for an interesting if breakneck tour of US history from the frontier days up to nearly the present day. Clark was born in 1906, when W. A. Clark was already in his sixties: he had been of age to serve in the American Civil War (though dodged the conflict by heading west to prospect).

Empty Mansions is thoroughly researched, and Dedman makes a point at the beginning to not put words in the mouth of a dead woman he had never met himself (she had passed away before the book’s publication). In that respect, it’s a stark and noteworthy contrast to A Lenape Among the Quakers, though Dedman had the incalculable advantage of abundant primary resources. That said, there’s nothing particularly earth-shattering or enlightening in here, either. Dedman doesn’t break new historical ground or propose any revolutionary new theories, and while several of the family photographs had never before been published, they’re not necessarily of historical import. At the end of the day, Empty Mansions is more entertaining than educational, but that’s what makes it such a great commute read.

Frère d’âme

I added David Diop’s Frère d’âme to my TBR by way of a review in the Karavan literary magazine, and to be honest I was a bit leery of it going in. The review was positive, but it gave the impression that the book was a gritty, grim, hyper-realistic portrayal of war, which is not a thing I’m usually into. I approached the book the same way I might approach eating a strange new vegetable: accepting that it might not be an enjoyable experience, but that it would at least be good for my (reading) health.

Frère d’âme is a wartime bildungsroman centered on the young Alfa Ndiaye, a Senegalese soldier in the French trenches of WWI. The book opens with the gruesome death of his best friend, adoptive brother, and “plus que frère” Modemba Diop in the battlefield, and from there on we follow Ndiaye through grief, trauma and regret.

That’s an incredibly pretentious way to describe the story but it’s the best I can do, I suppose.

Let’s get the content warning stuff out of the way first: there is plenty of frank description of gruesome wartime (and otherwise) acts. People are disemboweled, heads are blown off, and as a narrator Ndiaye doesn’t hesitate to describe all of this in detail, often repeating or lingering on the images.

But somehow the book is more dreamlike (if sometimes nightmarish) than gritty realism. The first-person narration keeps the reader in Ndiaye’s head rather than out in the action, and Ndiaye himself is so apparently unbothered by it that his descriptions of violence and gore become more surreal than anything else. Ndiaye’s language is also highly repetitive, not in a way to suggest that he lacks ideas or words but rather in a way that creates rhythm, like all of those iterations of “rosy-fingered Dawn” in The Odyssey. That rhythm also made it easy for me and my mediocre French to immediately get lost in Diop’s writing. There’s a certain musicality to it that draws you in. I bet the audiobook is a work of art.

I say “apparently” unbothered because the subtext is of course that Ndiaye is deeply traumatized by the death of his friend and by the brutality of war in general. The conversant tone in his language, along with the repetition and verbal tics (“je sais, j’ai compris” and variations thereof; “par la vérité de Dieu”), create speech patterns you might expect from someone talking to themselves; the deliberate attempt to shift the mind’s focus away from something painful.

I won’t spoil the ending, except to say that I’m of two minds about it. I’m not thrilled with the choice Diop made for the actual events, but I deeply appreciate the ambiguity he allows the reader for interpreting them. Are we watching Ndiaye have a mental breakdown, or is he genuinely possessed by the spirit of his dead friend? Why can’t it be both?

As with most of the French books I read, once I finished Frère d’âme I immediately picked up the Swedish translation (Om natten är allt blod svart). So far I’ve been pretty well satisfied with them, but this time around less so. Om natten isn’t a hatchet job on par with Stick or anything, but the rhythm is still…different. Here are the first three sentences:

“…je sais, j’ai compris, je n’aurais pas dû. Moi, Alfa Ndiaye, fils du très vieil homme, j’ai compris, je n’aurais pas dû. Par la vérité de Dieu, maintenant je sais.”

“…jag vet, jag förstår att jag inte borde ha gjort det. Jag, Alfa Ndiaye, son till den gamle, gamle mannen, förstår att jag inte borde ha gjort det. Vid Guds sanning vet jag det nu.”

I have my own opinions about how I would translate the French into Swedish, but I’m not about to pop off here and potentially make a fool of myself. I couldn’t grab a hold of the English translation before sitting down to write this post, so I have no idea how that fared, either (except to note that it won the International Booker Prize). Hopefully at some point an ebook version will appear in one of my US library apps.

Overall, Frère d’âme is a great example of why I think the checklist approach of my reading goals is at least a good start. It’s not a book I would have encountered if I weren’t making a deliberate effort to seek out different things, and my bookish life is that much richer for having read it.

Språkets myller

I went on a small library binge at the end of 2023 to stock up on holiday reading. With my goals for 2024 already in mind, I walked out with one book off of my TBR pile and two books in French (plus one spontaneous selection).

More accurately, I picked a book adjacent to my TBR pile. The title I was after was Margareta Westman’s Språkets lustgård och djungel, which the Stockholm library website assured me was available at Stadsbiblioteket. Alas, it was nowhere to be found, but another book by Margareta Westman was readily at hand, so I took that one instead. Språkets lustgård originally ended up on the TBR after it was referenced in another Swedish essay collection on translation that I read, though if I had any other thoughts besides “Hm, that sounds interesting” they’re lost to me now. We’re talking six, maybe even seven years ago at this point. And since Språkets myller is, unsurprisingly, on the same topic of linguistics, I’m willing to count it as a win for my TBR goal.

Westman was a (popular?)* professional language nerd and, among other achievements, head of the Language Council of Sweden. She wrote a lot about the Swedish language, and after her death the Council decided to collect several of her essays into one place: Språkets myller.

It’s hard to get too excited about a collection where the average age of the  content is older than me (collected and published in 2000, but original publication dates ranging from the 1960s to the 1990s), especially when it focuses on a topic that evolves as quickly as language does. Westman’s ideas are interesting and expressed with lucid prose, but any of the chapters about how young people express themselves “these days” are now historical relics rather than au courant observations. Other topics are a bit more timeless, like thoughts on the purpose of writing instruction in the classroom and how to structure it, or reflections on shifts in attitudes towards linguistic norms and mistakes.

Overall, trying to review, summarize, or even just discuss Språkets myller in English was a lot like trying to do the same with Den högsta kasten: it’s simply too Swedish. What’s the point? But at least with Westman I learned a thing or two along the way—and I crossed a book off my TBR—which is a lot more than I can say for Rydberg!

*Since I’m not Swedish I have no idea how Westman’s reputation lands in the general popular culture: was she a popular and accessible language authority akin to Susie Dent in the UK? Or…I’m not sure who in the US, actually. Or is she a name for nerds? I queried a very unscientific sampling of Swedes around my age who are all to greater or lesser degrees interested in language. The first answer I got (from someone who had studied linguistics at the university level) about whether they were familiar with Westman was “no, not at all.” The same pattern emerged as responses rolled in from others.

A Lenape Among the Quakers: The Life of Hannah Freeman

One of the things about living abroad is that you end up feeling more like you’re from a particular place than you did when you lived at home. Maybe it has something to do with the desire to distinguish yourself from other people from the US, maybe it’s homesickness, maybe it’s a lot of things.

Whatever the reason, I’ve found that living in Stockholm has made me interested in filling in the gaps of my local history. The biggest gap is probably where the Lenape are concerned, so my reading started there. A reference to Hannah Freeman, or “Indian Hannah,” came up along the way and that’s how A Lenape Among the Quakers: The Life of Hannah Freeman ended up on my TBR.

The title (A Lenape Among the Quakers) and the subtitle (The Life of Hannah Freeman) pretty aptly describe the two parts and goals of the book. Author Dawn G. Marsh sketches out the events of Hannah Freeman’s life, interweaving it with the evolving (or maybe more accurately, deteriorating) relationship between Pennsylvania and the Lenape. Marsh is a professor of history at Purdue University, but the book is popular history written for a lay audience rather than a scholarly text. Still, it includes footnotes, a bibliography, and a small appendix with relevant historical documents, so there are avenues there for curious readers.

The framing device of Freeman’s life is a great way to examine standard fare Pennsylvania history from another perspective and level some well-deserved criticism. In terms of A Lenape Among the Quakers, the book is pretty solid. The benevolence and moral authority of Pennsylvania’s Quaker settlers compared to some of the other colonies is part of the commonwealth’s identity and mythos; pointing out that they weren’t cutting fair deals with their Lenape neighbors, even when William Penn was still alive, is a bitter and necessary pill to swallow.

When it comes to The Life of Hannah Freeman, however, the book deflates. In the absence of a robust historical record, Marsh hypothesizes about what life might have looked like for Freeman and speculates on how she might have thought or felt about particular events. While these suppositions are always clearly marked as such, and based in fairly reasonable historical assessment, it still feels like a stretch. On the one hand it’s important to be reminded of the human face of history, but in the absence of anything like journal accounts or other primary sources it’s pretty slim pickings. Black Tudors, which is a similar project in structure with even scantier primary sources, nonetheless engaged in far fewer creative exercises. However, Kaufmann had the advantage of ten biographies to include in the book rather than just one; there was enough material for a book without too much creative license.

And while Marsh is justified in criticizing the myth-making of Hannah Freeman by Chester County residents and Pennsylvania historians, it’s not clear that what Marsh is doing in this book is necessarily anything different. The last chapter focuses on Hannah Freeman’s memorial in Chester County and the public pomp and circumstance surrounding it in two different ceremonies (the first one in the early 1900s and the second one around a hundred years later). The memorial boulder, Marsh points out, isn’t even where Freeman is (most likely) buried. And the dedication events both times around were, let’s say, clunky.  The original ceremony had a lot of romanticizing of “the Indian,” with poetry and dramatic reenactments based on the “noble savage” stereotype; the re-dedication ceremony in 2009 included a smudging ceremony carried out by a member of the Cherokee, rather than Lenape, nation. (I don’t know enough to know whether smudging is even part of Lenape spiritual or religious practice.) Marsh criticizes both of these as events that miss the point and that flatten Hannah Freeman into a symbol to serve a myth-making narrative instead of treating her as a complex human being.

Yet Marsh herself has spent all of the rest of the book “[moving] Native American women’s history away from a narrative of loss and victimization toward a framework of resistance and adaptation.” It’s one thing to invite readers to reflect on what this moment may have meant or felt like for a human fellow traveler—it might not have value as reportage of historical fact, but it does have value in reaffirming the complex humanity of historical figures to readers who usually just think of them as names and maybe a handful of pertinent facts. It’s also one thing to recognize the biases inherent in the available historical record and seek to correct them or at least adjust for them in your interpretations. But it’s another thing to set out on a project with the goal of elevating a historical figure to a symbol of resilience and entrepreneurship. It still reads like the same symbol- and myth-making Marsh comes to condemn in the memorial dedication ceremonies.

It’s a fine line to tow, in the end. If you want to write a biography of someone like Hannah Freeman, you know from the beginning that much of the scraps of primary sources you have will be biased against your subject, maybe even outright hostile to them. On one level because of their gender, and then an additional level because of their race. As a result, these firsthand accounts need to be taken with a grain of salt. But it seems like Marsh set out to write the The Life of Hannah Freeman portion of the book to justify her own opinion rather than chronicle a life.

En japansk näktergal

My sambo has tremendous thrift shop karma, which is how I came to be in possession of this lovely hardback book, a Swedish translation of an English melodrama/romance by Winnifred Eaton writing under the pen name Onoto Watanna*: A Japanese Nightingale.

Cover of the Swedish edition of "A Japanese Nightingale" by Onoto Watanna

As a hardback book from 1907 with several full color illustrations, it seems like it should be kind of rare and expensive, yet the going price for this book on Bokbursen wasn’t anything more expensive than your standard new paperback release and there were several listings for it. I guess it just goes to show how much I don’t know about actual book collecting.

Full color illustration from "A Japanese Nightingale."
There were maybe half a dozen of these full page, full color illustrations throughout.
Pages from the Swedish translation of "A Japanese Nightingale" featuring pastel green illustrations behind the text.
My photography wasn’t the best here, but those green splotches are illustrations. Left: three figures singing or playing musical instruments in a tea house. Right: flowers in a landscape.

All-American wealthy playboy Jack Bigelow is in Japan for unclear reasons. While he is waiting for his mixed-race friend Taro to come join him, Bigelow marries Yuki, a charming and mysterious mixed-race geisha. Even as Bigelow reflects on Taro’s contempt for foreigners who take temporary Japanese wives, he lets himself be talked into just such a marriage. Still, their relationship is a happy one, except Yuki’s mood swings and constant requests for money. Bigelow acquiesces, though not without misgivings and suspicions.

Taro finally arrives and—here’s a shocker—Yuki is his sister! Taro is shocked and appalled, both at Bigelow’s actions and at Yuki’s condition. It turns out that Taro and Yuki are from a noble family that conveniently ran out of money while Taro was at university in the US with Bigelow, and rather than reveal the change in their fortunes Yuki began earning money to support her brother by performing in teahouses. When that proved insufficient, she agreed to be married off by a nakoda.

Taro and Yuki are stunned to see each other. Yuki runs away, distraught at her brother’s perceived disappointment in her. For plot-related reasons, neither Bigelow nor Taro immediately follow her, so she is allowed to slip away and disappear. In her absence, Taro falls ill and dies. Bigelow promises the dying Taro that he will spare no expense in tracking down Yuki. He wanders all over Japan, Yuki wanders all over Asia, but eventually they have a heartfelt reunion at their old house in Tokyo and swear to never leave each other again.

The end!

On its own, A Japanese Nightingale is very dated reading. Is it an improvement over Madame Butterfly, which it is theorized to be a response to? I…don’t know? How are we defining “improvement” here, anyway? The happier ending with a reunited Bigelow and Yuki seems to imagine better prospects for interpersonal relationships between white Westerners and Asians (or just Japanese) than Madame Butterfly, which makes sense given Canada-born Eaton’s English father and Cantonese mother.

But much of the book feels predicated on Orientalism and appealing to Western fascination with Japan, which I guess still happens today but not in the same way as in the years immediately following the Perry Expedition. There are didactic little asides about Japanese culture and beliefs and customs, but judging from her biography Eaton never visited Japan. She was also “rebuked” by maybe the only Japanese person she actually knew, the poet Yone Noguchi, for her “masquerade” (to use the language of that linked timeline), but I don’t have the Google-fu to dig that referenced article up.

All of that said, I think it’s ridiculous to go into a book like this with the expectations and standards we have for books today. And I don’t just mean expectations about race and Strong Female Characters TM and gender relations—I mean even just the construction of the narrative itself. Authors in 1907 were writing to meet different expectations than they would be today. One of the more obvious examples of this might be the shift in narrative distance that’s come to be regarded as acceptable in third-person narration, but also things like suspension of disbelief, the role of luck and coincidence in a plot, characterization, etc. etc.

The clues about Taro and Yuki’s relationship are there for readers to pick up on, but the suspension of disbelief required to accept that plot twist is a big ask. Taro’s death makes no sense on a surface level reading (he faints and hits his head  and then…wastes away from a mysterious illness?) and is equally baffling from a plot perspective, since there’s no action or realization it prompts within Bigelow. Nor would Taro’s survival have impeded Bigelow in any way in his quest to find Yuki. The whole episode feels like nothing more than a melodramatic flourish to no purpose. Omatsu, Taro and Yuki’s mother, appears for a while during Taro’s lingering Mystery Illness, and Bigelow swears to look after her like she was his own mother, but then she gets shunted off to her own parents and never appears again.

To a modern reader, all those aspects and more are enough to make A Japanese Nightingale stylistically passé, never mind how completely unappealing a character and hero Jack Bigelow is in the Year of Our Lord 2023 or whether or not the depiction of Japan and Japanese characters is ProblematicTM and if so to what extent. Even though the book was by all accounts at least moderately popular in its time (it was turned into a stage play, and then a movie), it’s so “of its time” that the appeal today is one of historical curiosity rather than rip-roaring good yarn.

Oh! This was a translation, after all. Is there anything interesting I can share about Hilda Löwenhielm?

Not really. She was a teacher and a translator and died in 1927. Never married, no children. Well, cool.

The story itself may be underwhelming, but it at least it was delivered in a singularly attractive package that can serve a much more aesthetically pleasing purpose as an objet d’art.

*Onoto Watanna, what a wonderful phrase! Onoto Watanna, it ain’t no passing craze! It means no worries for the rest of your days. It’s our problem-free philosophy: Onoto Watanna!

La maladie de la mort

In addition to an arbitrary percentage of Swedish reading, my annual reading goal also includes four books in French, lest those hours spent in French class go totally to waste. And just to drive home the point that I actually do have chill, this year was the first time since I introduced the goal that I actually met it.

By the skin of my teeth, with a Marguerite Duras novella at the buzzer, but nonetheless I met it! Merry Christmas to me.

La maladie de la mort (The Malady of Death, English translation available at the Internet Archive, also a worthy cause to donate to!) describes the brief relationship between an unnamed man (told in second person, so always just “vous”) and an unnamed woman he pays for sex-and-also-more. The man wants to experience love for once in his life, and the conditions of this transaction suggest what he thinks love is, or ought to be:

You say she mustn’t speak, like the women of her ancestors, must yield completely to you and your will, be entirely submissive like peasant women in the barns after the harvest when they’re exhausted and let the men come to them while they’re asleep. So that you may gradually get used to that shape moulding itself to yours, at your mercy as nuns are at God’s.

The woman denies being a prostitute, but still agrees to the deal, and over the course of their seaside hotel tryst she reads him for filth. Or, not filth exactly, but she’s able to name the character flaw within him that he’s never quite able to define. Whence the title of the work derives: she tells him that he is touched by the malady of death.

A lot about this situation is reminiscent of a chapter out of Jamie Bartlett’s The Dark Net, a book that is somehow nearly a decade old? Imagine a pre-Trump examination of 4chan. A simpler time. (As an aside, I was disappointed in The Dark Net because I thought it would be an examination of the actual Dark Net, meaning the stuff that happens online beyond the crawlable purview of search engines. It was actually about all of the antisocial but still highly Googlable behavior I was already aware of because I had a misspent, Terminally Online youth: pro-ana/pro-mia, suicide clubs, relentless online bullying campaigns, etc.)

One of the few things in The Dark Net that was actually of interest to me was the chapter on cam girls, maybe because I have limited (read as: zero) experience in that arena. The overwhelming consensus from the interviews that Bartlett conducted was that the best paying and most loyal customers for a cam girl often wanted, more than whatever explicit sexual experience, something that feminist theory would call “emotional labor” and that the cam girls called “the girlfriend experience.” This particular class of customer just wanted a space with another human being to give vent to their anxieties, blow off steam, maybe exhibit a level of vulnerability, and just overall to be seen—this on greater or equal footing than just sexual gratification.

The same dynamic seems to play out in La maladie de la mort. The man believes that what he’s missing is sex, he sets out terms and conditions that are built on that assumption, and as the relationship progresses (over a few days? weeks? the timeline is a bit muddy) the woman engages in a bit of psychological judo and by the end the man seems to realize…love wasn’t what he thought it was? He is inherently unloveable?

All you remember of the whole affair are certain words she said in her sleep, the ones that tell you what’s wrong with you: the malady of death.

Soon you give up, don’t look for her anymore, either in the town or at night or in the daytime.

Even so you have managed to live that love in the only way possible for you. Losing it before it happened.

Or he’s gay? (I missed the gay subtext in French and in English alike. Sometimes I’m not gifted at close reading.) Which then makes the extreme violence of the man’s initial terms for the relationship something on par with, say, Phil’s emotional abuse and psychological torture of Rose Gordon in The Power of the Dog. How aware either of these men are about their natural proclivities, or how they feel about them, is up for discussion.

Duras wrote in a variety of mediums, no stranger to film or stage, so it’s not surprising that her afterword on this very short piece is a reflection on how she would stage it as a play. Nor is it surprising that people have done exactly that!

Kris

My last-minute scramble to read more Swedish before the end of the year led me to revisit Karin Boye’s Kris, a book I first read in 2017. I even wrote about it here! Ah, how embarrassing to keep any kind of public record of one’s life, but oh well. It would be dishonest to pretend otherwise.

In 2017, I felt like I had pretty much conquered Swedish and that the world was my oyster. Yet reading Kris was a struggle. Yes, I was reading several books at the time, but that’s a convenient excuse. The honest truth that I didn’t want to fess up to publicly was that Kris was just really, really hard. If anything, that’s probably why I was reading so many books at once: I needed something to reach for that wasn’t Kris. Each reading session included frequent breaks to count how many pages were left in this chapter, in the whole book. I stubbornly refused to look up new words because there were so many in any given section that any sense of flow would have been ruined. Nor did I have the patience to, for example, note all the words I didn’t know, look them up afterwards, and then read the chapter again. All of this should have clued me in to my immense hubris with respect to my actual functional level of Swedish, but it did not. Instead, I contented myself with declaring the book “difficult literature” and prided myself on having a brain big enough to finish the book at all.

This time around I finished the book in less than a week. Finally, I’m actually a genius at Swedish! (I can’t wait to revisit this blog post in another six years and flinch at the hubris.)

Since the actual reading experience was much easier, I had more brain left over to actually take in everything else in the book: the depression, the anxiety, the theology. Or, more humbly, maybe it wasn’t leveling up in Swedish that made all the difference. Maybe it was also the result of reading such an intense book in the depths of Swedish winter instead during the height of Swedish summer, or fresh war in Europe, or changes in my own personal circumstances. At any rate, it hit different this time around. More personal.

The first (as far as I can tell) English translation of Kris came out after my initial reading attempt in 2017: Crisis. Which means that this post won’t be my last about the book.

Gertrud

I got so much reading done in English while I was in the US that it put me at a disadvantage in terms of my Swedish-to-English book consumption ratio. Time to dig into the backlog to beef up my Swedish reading for the year!

I picked up Gertrud years ago on a visit to Hedengrens. This was in the Before Times, with one of those potential friends where things failed to launch and now you haven’t spoken in years, so there was just a lot of psychic baggage around the book that made me pass over it when browsing my shelves for my next read. Well, nothing like self-imposed reading goals to make you get over your abandonment issues, you weirdo!

(It’s me, I’m the weirdo.)

Gertrud is the first play I’ve read since February last year (Caged). (Not counting the play I attended in October, 2:22 — A Ghost Story. Or maybe that should count?) Didn’t even realize it was a play when I bought it, goes to show how much I was paying attention. The story is reportedly inspired by Söderberg’s own failed relationships (marriage and extramarital affair), but for all that the titular Gertrud is not only the protagonist but eminently sympathetic and relatable. Over the course of the three acts, Gertrud decides to leave her unhappy marriage, has her heart broken by the young composer Jansson, and rejects advances from her old lover Lidman in favor of traveling on her own.

I think it’s worth noting which version I read, also, since Söderberg made revisions and changes as the years went on, as recently as 1936 (29 years after the play’s initial debut), and different versions are available in different anthologies and collections. This one was from Atrium förlag, and according to the afterword, it’s the original manuscript in its entirety but with updated grammatical conventions and orthography.

The first comparison I thought of was A Doll’s House. Both are kind of grim Nordic realism, both involve women leaving their husbands. But while Nora is more or less forced into her situation, Gertrud’s decision to leave her husband is more an independent and positive action than Nora’s reaction. Arguably Gertrud’s feelings for Jansson serve as a catalyst for the decision, but that’s not on the same level as blackmail so I’m not inclined to make that comparison. You also get the impression that Gertrud has been considering this course of action for quite some time, possibly since the death of their son.

Much like The Barbizon, reading Gertrud in 2023 is kind of a personal bummer because it reminds me of the options I have available to me that women a hundred-odd years ago didn’t. Am I taking advantage of them, or am I wasting them? (Answer: mostly wasting them!) Would I have had the sense of purpose and strength of character to carve out an independent life on my own terms in restrictive and limiting times? (Answer: probably not!). The personal reflection prompted by these books is not the rosiest or the most flattering.

Is one hundred years a long time? Is it nothing at all? A century can birth all kinds of technological advances and social upheavals, but it’s also not appreciably longer than one human lifespan. Put another way: I have clear and distinct memories of my great-grandmother. The world that Söderberg was writing in, and about, was the world she was born into. That piece of history is still in living memory for me, in a way. It’s wild.

Döden till mötes

I rescued this book from a “free to take” box along the sidewalk after a run sometime in summer 2020? 2021? What is time? Along with Miss Marples sista fall, because I can never say no to a free book, especially if it’s Agatha Christie.

There’s a Rian Johnson Tweet somewhere about how Christie’s novels are anything but formulaic and how she used the mystery novel as a front for experimenting in all kinds of other genres:

Something I love about Agatha Christie is how she never tread water creatively. I think there’s a misperception that her books use the same formula over and over, but fans know the opposite is true. It wasn’t just settings or murder methods, she was constantly stretching the genre conceptually. Under the umbrella of the whodunnit she wrote spy thrillers, proto-slasher horrors, serial killer hunts, gothic romances, psychological character studies, glam travelogues.

This element of Christie’s writing eluded me in my middle school whodunnit phase, but I think you can forgive a 12-year-old for not considering the finer points of genres like spy thrillers.

This quote came to mind as I was reading Döden till mötes (Appointment With Death), as did the fact that Christie rather famously couldn’t abide her fan-favorite protagonist. Appointment With Death came out in 1938, so there were still other Poirot books and stories to come, but already you can see Christie sidelining the Belgian detective as much as possible in order to tell another story.

Most of the book happens without Poirot present and, as Johnson’s observation above suggests, is a combination of gothic romance (the mysterious and alluring Raymond Boynton trapped by a domineering stepmother and protagonist Sarah King’s determination to rescue him) and glam travelogue (Christie’s eye for character is also turned to the landscapes of Jerusalem and Petra). And as far as that story goes, it’s…fine but dated. Anything set in Jerusalem these days is just going to come across as oof, to use a technical term. Even without the “aged like milk” setting, there’s a lot of surface-level psychoanalysis from the French psychologist Dr. Gerard that is meant to be narratively sound, and maybe even came across as reasonable and plausible in 1938, but today reads like pompous buffoonery.

On the other hand, Christie has a few conversations and observations that are still timely 80-odd years later. I don’t remember her roasting women quite so thoroughly in other books, but it’s been a while since I’ve read any so who can say. We have the tyrannical murder victim, Mrs. Boynton, who is quickly established as a vile and hideous creature through and through (the book never lets us forget that she’s fat!)*; we have the tiresome but accomplished Lady Westholme who is constantly the butt of everyone’s jokes, both for her domineering personality as well as her unattractive looks (powerful Hillary Clinton energy); and scatter-brained Miss Pierce is more or less dismissed by everyone. The golden mean of all three of these seems to be protagonist Sarah King, who can neither abide the airheaded Miss Pierce but who also finds Lady Westholme too much. As a result, King feels like a mouthpiece for Christie’s own opinions about women’s place in the world.

As for the whodunnit itself, it’s clever (to be expected!) but not as satisfying as other Christie novels. Some bits I untangled right away; other asides are dropped in that sound like they’re set up for a big reveal, but ultimately they just fizzle and go nowhere.

The Swedish translation is a job well done, though perhaps it’s easier to convey Agatha Christie in Swedish than Elmore Leonard. Regardless, Einar Thermaenius succeeded where Einar Heckscher failed; while my copy was fairly old, even new Swedish editions of Agatha Christie today are often still Thermaenius’s translation (his translation of The ABC Murders from 1938 saw an eleventh printing in 2015). Even “new translations” of Thermaenius (and others) are more often new edits of old translations rather than entirely new translations. Why mess with perfection?

*And a weird postscript to that. The English book covers all have covers that feature the landscape, elements of the plot, or spooky murder imagery unrelated to the actual story. It took a fair bit of scrolling to find one older example of a cover featuring Mrs. Boynton herself, and then rendered fairly neutrally:

The cover of "Appointment With Death" featuring an illustration of an overweight old woman in a pink dress in profile against a desert backdrop.

It took me zero seconds and zero scrolling to find much less flattering Swedish portrayals of Mrs. Boynton:

Cover of Swedish version of "Appointment With Death" featuring a caricature portrait of an overweight old woman with yellow cat eyes looking directly at the viewer. Another Swedish edition of Appointment With Death. There is once again an illustrated rendition of an overweight old woman sitting on a chair, but it only takes up a fraction of the cover space and she's not immediately menacing.

Are…are you OK, Sweden? Who hurt you?