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!


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.


I didn’t intentionally set about to read Caged for Black History Month, but I suppose that’s kind of what happened.

Cover of the play Caged by the New Jersey Prison Theater Cooperative
Image courtesy Haymarket Books

I read it in two sittings over the course of a single weekend. The play is distilled from scenes and dialogue written by 28 members of a literature course at a maximum-security prison in Newark, New Jersey. They then sifted through that material and refined it, working together to bring to the fore the story and struggles of protagonist Omar Moore, trying to protect his little brother Quan and provide for his son Zaire, until he gets put away for 17 years for a crime he didn’t commit.

The thing that comes to mind while organizing my thoughts about this was the small dust-up eight years ago over Cuts Through Bone, an award-winning new detective novel that caused a minor dust-up over the fact that the author, Alaric Hunt, was incarcerated, serving a life sentence for murder—in a bid to distract the police from a jewelry robbery, he set a fire that took the life of a young grad student.

Another thing that comes to mind is Annie Dookhan, the lab tech who falsified untold mountains of evidence in drug cases. The astonishing thing in all of that is the sheer volume of her fraud—how many lives have gone down a similar track as the New Jersey Prison Collective, or Omar, or any of the other characters in Caged, because of her actions?

And the final thing that comes to mind is the absolutely worthless hew and cry being raised over the ludicrous idea that people want to censor Joe Rogan. Here’s the thing: Joe Rogan gets to be a media figure and have a show and be a “voice” in “the conversation.” Even if Spotify took him off their platform he’d turn up somewhere else, like a bad fucking penny, and we’d still be stuck talking about him. He’d get to live his life as a free man (how much weed has he smoked in his life that was up until very recently not legally obtained?) and, I don’t know, write a book or go on speaking tours or whatever else. None of that is censorship.

Contrast that with how we (in the US, anyway) treat and talk about the incarcerated. I’m not trying to imply that there is a conspiracy to keep their voices out of the conversation; my point, rather, is that cultural norms mean there doesn’t have to be a conspiracy. It happens of its own accord. Because most of us operate under a “just world” fallacy and because the lives of middle-class suburban Americans aren’t usually touched by the kinds of crimes, life circumstances, or bad luck that send someone to prison (and when they are, they do their best to hide it), the unexamined belief we carry for most of our lives is “people who commit crimes obviously choose to commit them, so prison is what they deserve, and as a whole they’re a subset of the population that’s not worth thinking about and that doesn’t have anything worth saying.” That’s the most powerful censorship of all—not banning someone’s ideas or burning their books, but structuring society so that everyone else forgets that some 2.2 million Americans even exist.

We’ve always been at war with Oceania.

Caged was a good play. I would love to see it performed because I would love to see the set direction as it’s described in the text. But I think the most important thing about it is how it has found a way around that internalized censor and put the voices of the incarcerated out there for public consumption, to speak directly about their experiences and life in a system that has tried to erase them.