Hundraåringen som klev ut genom fönstret och försvann

Jonas Jonasson’s novels are hard to miss in Sweden, with their striking and consistent titles and cover designs. Yet at the same time they’re nearly invisible, fading into the background, precisely because they’re everywhere: the books that everyone’s read, to the point where it feels not at all urgent because at this point you’ll pick it up via cultural osmosis. So I never gave much thought to Hundraåringen beyond rescuing it from the junk pile at a friend’s apartment just to have it around—just in case—but promptly forgot about it, except to periodically confuse it with A Man Called Ove. What finally got me to pick it up was 1) a personal recommendation from a friend and 2) its appearance as Sweden’s entry in the EuroVision book contest.

“Finally, we’re releasing more than Nordic noir into the world,” I thought.

An SFI classmate years ago described Hundraåringen to me as “a Swedish Forrest Gump” and that just about covers it: 100-year-old Allan, as the title suggests, climbs out the window of his room at the senior home on the morning of his birthday because he’s just utterly fed up with living there. (If I’m reading later subtext correctly, it’s more an act of depression than adventure.) Things start happening as soon as he encounters a young man with a suitcase at the nearest bus station, and the adventure afterwards is interspersed with his life story, which is filled with some of the most significant events and people of the twentieth century. There Allan is in the margins of the Spanish civil war, the development of the atomic bomb, the downfall of the Soviet Union, and on and on it goes. Throughout all of this, Allan is phlegmatic and unflappable, escaping from political prisons and dispatching would-be criminals with fatalistic indifference.

Jonasson is careful—or thorough, maybe, is the better word?—to make use of every detail so that simple gags become essential plot elements. These moments would fall flat in a more serious or melodramatic story, and feel like deus ex machina, but because the whole story is farcical from beginning to end it instead becomes just a more elaborate joke, elevated from physical comedy to long-form setup and payoff.

From a translation perspective there are a couple words and jokes that I’m curious to see handled in English, so of course now I have to read it again in English. But by all accounts it seems to land well with English speaking readers.

Den högsta kasten

This was the second book for the local library’s newly established book circle. (The first being Educated.)

It was also the first time I found myself formulating my responses to a book in Swedish rather than in English, which I think is because Den högsta kasten is such a niche Swedish (and Stockholm) interest. I vented a lot of spleen about it in Swedish but trying to talk about the book in English just leaves me feeling indifferent. Maybe because an English review is the most pointless thing I can imagine. Is there anyone who would simultaneously be interested in Sweden’s culture and arts figures of the mid-90s and unable to read a word of Swedish? Not likely.

Yet onward shall I soldier!

Den högsta kasten is the story of a dissipated year (or less, maybe just a few months) in Carina Rydberg’s life. The book is officially categorized as a novel, as fiction, but all of the people in it are real people and the discussion around Rydberg and the book has always been based on the understanding that it’s not aspiring to be fiction or even a roman à clef, but actually true events. Maybe publishing it as a novel was a way for the publisher to dodge legal liability. Who knows!

My first problem with the book is that its marketing and reputation are entirely misleading. I went in expecting a Dorothy Parker style takedown of rich snobs. Instead, the book pulled a bait-and-switch and made me spend half of the page length with Rydberg in India, which I wouldn’t have minded if she were a gifted travel writer instead of another white European who’s constantly explaining how she’s not like the other tourists, she gets India. When she’s not doing that, she’s locked in a really toxic and unpleasant dynamic with two of her fellow travelers or padding out the lack of content with random childhood memories about beauty and exclusion.

I thought things would improve in the second part, but no. Back in Stockholm and hanging out at PA&Co in Östermalm, Rydberg does not have a particularly keen eye or insightful understanding when it comes to her fellow bar patrons. Instead she latches on to another man, has a few months of some kind of ambiguous connection to him, and then finally declares him a jerk when he refuses to lend her a fair chunk of money. The book ends with Rydberg deciding to turn the whole debacle into a book.

It’s also rich for a book to claim that the “unwanted” would ever be among the regulars at a posh bar in the swank neighborhood of Östermalm alongside all the media moves and shakers, which is exactly how the back text markets itself. It occurs to me that maybe that was an attempt to paint Rydberg as the “unwanted” one, but I highly doubt it.

And finally, the scandal surrounding the book itself seems to have missed the mark when it comes to the content. It seems (based on my cursory reading) that people were clutching their pearls because Rydberg was talking a lot of trash about Important People, how rude, but the only people who really come off as dirtbags here are her lover in India (director Kaizad Gustad) and the lawyer she meets at PA&Co, known only as Rolf or Roffe. Maybe spilling the tea about Rolf’s affair with Harry Byrne’s wife was bad form, but for all I know that was public knowledge before the book came out.

Far more off-putting to me is Rydberg’s complete lack of self-awareness throughout the whole thing. Men treat her like garbage, or at least not like how she wants them to treat her, but she continues to follow after them like a puppy. Are we supposed to understand that there’s a connection between her embarrassments in childhood and her behavior now? Maybe, but in a book that’s otherwise hellbent on interpreting itself for the reader, she refuses to signpost that connection at all. Other times it’s obvious that Rydberg is inferring a whole lot about people’s motivations, mixing it with a heaping helping of wishful thinking and presenting it all as Objective Fact when there’s no way she can know one way or the other. “He was talking so loudly at the bar because he wanted me to hear him, even though we weren’t talking to each other anymore, I just know it.” Rydberg comes off as the most clueless person on earth.

My second problem with Den högsta kasten was that it’s a structurally incoherent book. The two parts have nothing to do with each other. In the second part, Rydberg tries to draw connections between what happened to her in India and the people around her now in Stockholm, but it always feels like either a very naked attempt to foist cohesion on a book that has none or to bully the reader into liking the first part. On more than one occasion she tells us that after hearing about her trip to India, so-and-so tells her, “Wow, what a great story, you should turn it into a novel.”

I wonder how often Rydberg failed to detect the note of sarcasm in people’s voices.

My third problem is with the content itself. In addition to not living up to its reputation, Den högsta kasten reads to me like a book that could be written by the people in my life who later turned out to be, to put it bluntly, stalkers. Specifically, I’m thinking of two people I knew who, beyond being obsessed with a crush, invented entire relationships out of whole cloth and then villainized the other party for not returning their feelings when faced with undeniable reality. Talking trash about movie directors or broadcasting a couple’s marital troubles for all the world to hear is one thing; ruminating in a thought pattern that could well lead to violence or other drastic consequences is another, and that’s probably what made Den högsta kasten so unappealing for me.


Another book club book, this time for the local book club whose April meeting I may or may not have the schedule and mental fortitude to attend. (Not because of the club. Everyone is lovely. Rather, because work is busy.) I don’t keep too much track of assorted literary prizes, but I knew enough to know that De kommer att drunkna i sina mödrars tårar won the August Prize a couple of years ago, so when Johannes Anyuru’s Ixelles was tapped as our next pick I decided to read it. The premise was interesting, and I always prioritize book club picks that are Swedish originals instead of the English best-sellers I already hear too much about.

I still can’t decide if the problem was with the book or with me.

The problem could have been with me because I already spend most of my waking life* reading, writing, dealing with language, processing Swedish; there comes a point where, when I’m reading Swedish fiction, my brain doesn’t know what to do with words anymore. At that point the language triggers a near-synesthetic experience where my nose detects the faintest whiff of brackish water and I feel a salty taste at the back of my tongue, and it’s not anything fun or embodied or anything like being immersed in the language. It’s rather that point in the meal where you’ve had too much and the food no longer tastes good because your body is smashing all kinds of physiological buttons to get you to stop eating.

*I say “waking life” because despite everything, I still dream exclusively in English.

I had those moments a lot during Ixelles. In the book’s defense (since this is a me problem), I don’t think I would have had them if I had been reading the book during the off season. I also don’t think I would have had them if I had slowed down, taken my time, instead of trying to bulldozer my way through the library copy to get it returned in a timely manner.

But maybe the problem was with the book. I skimmed or even skipped substantial portions without losing the thread of the story, which I consider a flaw rather than a strength in a novel. The summary alludes to a tight, dramatic thriller (maybe that’s how we have to market books here in the birthplace of Nordic noir?) but what you end up with is a lot of plodding around: waxing poetic (hah) about the reality of voices, of fictional characters, and a lot of dialogue that doesn’t sound like how people actually talk but like scrapped lines from mildly interesting poetry. Occasionally some plot happens.

Ruth is a single teen mom. Or she was originally a teen mom, but now she’s well into adulthood. Her son, Em, is huge into a tabletop roleplaying game that I assume is Dungeons & Dragons but hey, we could pretend it’s Pathfinder since Anyuru never actually names it. (Would Wizards of the Coast raise a stink all the way in the US? Actually, knowing Wizards of the Coast, I wouldn’t be surprised.) Em’s father, Mio, was murdered before Em was born.

Ruth has a mysterious and cynical PR style job that is essentially a troll and astroturf factory on steroids. The first assignment we see her take, for example, is from an understated luxury men’s fashion line that has unwittingly become associated with a Belgian gang. This is obviously not the branding they’re looking for and so Ruth manages to create an artificial online brouhaha accusing the brand of being racist, which neatly solves the gang association.

The story really gets started when Ruth takes a job on behalf of the local government: her old neighborhood, the projects where she grew up and met Em’s father, is slated to be demolished so a highway can be put in. Residents are obviously not happy about this decision and Ruth has been contracted to kneecap the burgeoning protest. The job brings her back to her old neighborhood and she gets tangled up in a minor bit of intrigue, as the rumor mill informs her that Mio isn’t really dead. Rummaging through the contents of an unconscious boy’s backpack she finds a CD with a recording of someone claiming to be Mio, talking about his life in “the nothing department.” The CDs (because there are several, dozens, hundreds maybe, turning up in backpacks and lockers everywhere) have become something of an underground hit here in the projects and all of the youths are talking about them.

Of course none of this has to play out straightforward and so we get a lot of flashbacks that don’t do anything; the characters are all pretty bland, like even Anyuru himself doesn’t care for them, so the departures from the main story seem pointless. Even Ruth has a distant, uninteresting quality to her that perhaps comes from Anyuru’s decision, as a man in his 40s, to make the protagonist a single mom in her 20s. He has no inner lived experience of that kind and so is unable to imbue her with anything concrete and grounding in that regard.

On the other hand, we get a lot about Ruth at work on her troll job, which seems like it could potentially be pretty interesting. The conceit is like something out of a William Gibson novel (a bit like the inverse of Cayce Pollard out of Pattern Recognition), but in execution it’s not nearly as snappy. She’s decided to create a writer “character” for this assignment and so (sometimes) writes, but mostly banters with her boss about what kind of person this character should be in dialogue that I think Anyuru finds very witty and on the nose but that I thought was just self-indulgent and insufferable. All in all, Ruth’s job is a bit of a snooze fest that keeps us away from the one point of intrigue in the story: the mysterious CDs.

The one notable overlap between author and protagonist is poetry. Ruth is a gifted poet, or supposed to be, and her poetry gets her noticed by the mysterious agency that now employs her. Yet somehow the whole thing feels like a combination of bizarre metaphor (artistry of some kind being a form of acceptance and success for marginalized people in mainstream society) and wishful thinking/self aggrandizing (poetry is such a gift, it points to something unbelievably special about a person, and here is a universe where it is given its proper due). A lot of hay is made about how Ruth’s gift for language and creating characters is what makes her good at her job, which is a funny thing to read in a novel where the characters are all dull and bland.

To get back to the story: the mystery of Mio’s death (and the proliferation of CDs purporting to be recorded by him) is solved for the reader, so to the extent that it’s a murder mystery or thriller, Ixelles delivers on that front. You find out whodunnit and why. I won’t spoil that part of the story here, since it’s a bit of a spoiler-y plot twist, but I will say that I found the resolution banal and deflating.

I think there’s just something with novels by poets that makes me lose my patience. An ear for language is important in a novel, yes, but so is understanding characterization, pacing, and plot, and you don’t get good at those just from writing poetry. The book progresses through weird pointless interludes of excerpts from the mysterious CDs, Em and Ruth playing Dungeons & Dragons (or Pathfinder!), flashbacks with Ruth that don’t establish anything we couldn’t already infer (she was in love with Mio? you don’t say!) or dream sequences from secondary characters. One thread of the flashbacks is with Mio, and that’s the only thread that actually contributes to the story itself.

I also don’t understand the appeal of setting novels in completely foreign countries, which wow when I phrase it like that sounds narrow and small-minded. To be more specific: characters traveling to places, or living as expats or outsiders in foreign places, is a literary well that will never run dry. That’s not what I mean by setting a story in a foreign country.

Anyuru is Swedish and is writing in Swedish; all of the characters in Ixelles are Belgian, whether immigrant or first generation or otherwise. I don’t know that there was anything in the story being better served by being set in Belgium than in Sweden, and a cursory Google search does not indicate that Anyuru has any particular history with or connection to Brussels specifically or Belgium generally. If he was trying to make a sly point about EU politics (Brussels as a stand-in for Europe as a whole, EU parliament, etc.), then it was lost on me. I have a tiny brain. A tiny brain that is overwhelmed by unfamiliar Flemish names.

The comparison that came up for me while I read was Samlade Verk, and on reflection it’s not surprising as both books kind of have a lot in common. The August Prize is perhaps the most obvious and banal of those commonalities, followed by their relative long length. But both books feature single parents with legendary disappeared partners; the authors even cross age and gender lines to write their complete opposite (Sandgren writing an older father and Anyuru writing a younger mother). There are plenty of offhand cultural references, and the stories both hinge on fictional writers (Sandgren creates one for her protagonist to be obsessed with; Ruth creates one as part of her astroturfing assignment in the projects). Both books cast sidelong glances at colonialism (the disappeared mother in Samlade Verk wrote her thesis on the topic; several of the African diaspora characters voice opinions on the topic in Ixelles). Both books jump around in chronology and rely heavily on flashback, or at least a jumbled timeline.

So why did I love Samlade Verk but turn up my nose at Ixelles?

Sandgren got a lot of guff from the neighborhood book club members for being young—or rather, trying too hard (in their opinion) to establish sections of the book as being The Eighties to compensate for not actually having experienced The Eighties. I can’t know how that part of the book hits for readers who remember the 80s, since I’m only a year older than Sandgren myself. But I absolutely recognized a lot of the characters she was putting on page because I’d either been them or I’d gone to school with them. Sandgren writes about the frustrations of studying philosophy in the way only a fellow philosophy student can really manage, which gave her characters depth and had me invested in the story, even when they were flawed and crappy people.

Not so in Ixelles, and here again the problem might be with me because I didn’t grow up in the projects of Brussels (or Araby in Växjö, for that matter). I didn’t have a wealth of experience I could use to project on to characters and fill in the blanks, which I’m sure I did with Samlade Verk. But I’d argue that in Ixelles there is still a lack of interiority based in lived experience; the best we get is other people telling us how we should feel about characters or what their primary traits are. Ruth’s boss explains to us that Ruth a gifted poet and that’s why he offered her a job. A stranger on the bus tells Em that Mio bought everyone on the block PlayStations for Christmas one year. Mio tells us—through Ruth’s recollections—that Ruth’s best friend Harsha is a busybody but also the beloved neighborhood big sister. But Ruth herself never agonizes over her writing, Mio’s generosity stays off the page even in flashbacks, and in all of her interactions with Ruth, Harsha is kind of cold and distant and awkward.

Despite its heft, Samlade Verk had a red thread running through it, a sharp focus and with clearly delineated branches: the mother who just left, and the husband and children she left behind. The fact that it runs for 600? 700? pages speaks more to the depth that Sandgren explores in her characters rather than the breadth of topics, and a lot of that is due to exactly that interiority. Ixelles, on the other hand, eschews character depth for a breadth of “I think this is an important topic” or “I think this is a cool idea.” Instead of being one cohesive book, Ixelles becomes two or three or five, all glued together into a clunky whole that is a disservice to all of the potential books it could have been.

The Dwarf (and Alexandra Dick)

Revisited a book from last year in translation, purely for the fact that a work friend brought it up in conversation on two different occasions.

“It’s like…amazing. That translator found solutions that weren’t even there to be found.”

Dvärgen came out in 1944, and appeared in English in 1945 in a translation by Alexandra Dick. A year is not a long time to translate a whole novel, especially before the era of word processors and CAT tools and the Internet. Even more astonishing, then, that the translation is good. Or maybe not so astonishing? I suppose I don’t have the ideal frame of reference to make that call. Over seventy years later and this seems to be the only English translation in town. Why mess with perfection?

What struck my coworker was that Dick didn’t really have any other substantial translation career he could uncover beyond that one really good translation, leading him to wonder if it was “some genius on drugs.”

Fortunately, Steve Holland at Bear Alley Books did some fantastic detective work so I don’t have to! Turns out that Dick wasn’t entirely a flash in the pan. (I’d argue she was some kind of genius, and who knows about the drugs.) Her translation career was, indeed, fairly limited, with just Dvärgen and Birger Dahlerus’s autobiography, Sista försöket, to her name (the combination of which invites speculation on her personal anxieties about war and Nazism). Her literary career, on the other hand, was prolific. She put out some two dozen novels from 1937 to 1964—including three in 1944 and one in 1945, coinciding with when she would have presumably been working on Dvärgen. Then, for whatever reason, her writing career ended in 1964, maybe because she was living in Florence and why would you stay shut up indoors to write all day when you live in Florence?

Any review of this, like with the original, is superfluous. Good book, good translation, have at.

Axplock ur idéhistorien II

I guess the theme so far in 2023 is “reading other people’s books.” I closed out 2022 with The Power of the Dog and then ended up reading Stick (twice! for translation’s sake!) straightaway in 2023, both at the recommendation of a friend. In between those, Axplock ur idéhistorien II arrived on my doorstep—a book I’d promised to babysit for a digital nomad friend who wanted to order it off Adlibris but had no Swedish address to ship to.

And one does not ask me to babysit a book without expecting me to read it.

It’s a tidy little collection spanning just about two hundred years of Western thought, with a focus on the major social ideas that continue to leave their mark on politics today. (This is a polite way to say that a few of the selections are nothing less than noxious.) The selections are abridged when necessary, with context for each selection as well as a short biography of each author:

  • Kant, “Answer to the Question: What is Enlightenment?”
  • Hegel, “Reason in History”
  • Feuerbach, The Essence of Christianity
  • Kierkegaard, The Concept of Anxiety
  • Marx & Engels, “The Communist Manifesto”
  • Gobineau, “An Essay on the Inequality of Human Races”
  • Bremer, Hertha
  • Darwin, On the Origin of Species
  • Mill, “The Subjection of Women”
  • Spencer, The Man Versus the State
  • Nietzsche, On the Geneaology of Morality
  • Freud, Introduction to Psychoanalysis
  • “Program of the NSDAP”
  • Mussolini, “The Doctrine of Fascism”
  • Beauvoir, The Second Sex
  • Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth
  • Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition

If you took the above table of contents as a reading list it would probably keep you busy for a year, so collections like these with just The Hits and the central theses are great to have on hand and are much cheaper than, say, a first-year philosophy survey course textbook. (Did I keep mine because I knew I would want to revisit it later? Yes. Have I done so? Actually, also yes.)  I might buy my own copies of both volumes just to have around for reference, who knows.

Do I have a similar English recommendation? Not really. Passion of the Western Mind has a similar, if broader scope, but it’s entirely a secondary source. I had Ten Great Works of Philosophy in my library for years and kind of wish I still had it.

Handels: Maktelitens skola

I have no end of studying to do for Kammarkollegiets Auktorisation exam, which means now was the perfect time to dig into a completely unrelated 500-page sociological tome on the Stockholm School of Economics (hereafter just “Handels”). Trust me, that’s actually 5D space chess levels of expert studying strategy. It has nothing to do with the fact that the cover caught my eye when I was in the library to pick up Kammarkollegiet study material.

The best kind of nonfiction books answer a question you would have normally never asked, and answer it so thoroughly that you’re left wondering why you would have never asked it to begin with. With Handels that question is, “Why do business schools exist?”

If you’d asked me that question a month ago I would have said something like, well I guess they’re just kind of a natural outgrowth of an already-established scholastic tradition. We add new fields of study all the time in other disciplines, after all. And then they spin off and form their own highly specialized institutions for any number of reasons, and that’s how we have Handels.

Mikael Holmqvist goes on a deep dive into the history of Handels, from the original motivations behind its establishment through the administrative decisions made throughout the century up to how it operates today. The short version of the argument that Holmqvist makes is that Handels, like other business schools at the time, was founded to lend an air of academic authority and social prestige to the growing business class in society and to the field of economics generally. This particular task now a fait accompli, Handels occupies a normative role in our neoliberal society: creating an “employable” pool of people for a specific industry by imbuing them with specific ideologies and personality traits that are compatible with neoliberal market values. News to me, but not to anyone who makes a career out of studying this sort of thing, I suppose. Similar arguments have been published by anglophone academics, including several books cited by Holmqvist (most notably Debra J. Schleef’s Managing Elites: Socialization in Law and Business Schools). I don’t know that there’s an English translation in the works for Handels; I don’t really know what the point would be? But on the other hand it appears that there’s an English version of Holmqvist’s previous work on the neighborhood of Djursholm so maybe there is some kind of niche demand for this kind of thing in English.

My tone sounds a bit “damned by faint praise,” though, and that’s not my intention. This was one of those books where I had to stop three or four times per chapter to send a quote to a friend, along with my own comments, in order to pick their own brain on the topic. (Deep appreciation to those friends for indulging me and my not-always-well-lit photos of walls of text.) Likewise, I found myself wishing there already was an English version that I could share with my policy nerd friends who can’t speak Swedish. (“Aren’t you a translator? Surely it wouldn’t be hard to toss off your own translation of a couple paragraphs?” The cobbler’s children has no shoes, my friend.)

If you can read Swedish, Handels is absolutely worth your time. If it comes out in English I’ll certainly be recommending it to a very particular subset of nerdy policy people that I hang out with. Until then there’s a very thorough works cited I can dig through to find the best and most interesting English equivalent.

Pappan och havet

My TBR keeps growing at an astonishing rate, and yet I keep getting distracted and reading just about anything else. Oops.

Pappan och havet came up in a conversation I was having last week about, among other things, re-reading books. I’m not much of a re-reader, but the person I was talking to mentioned that he liked to re-read Pappan och havet in the fall because it has a very autumnal vibe. “Dyster tillfredställande,” to be exact in the quote he cited from the book itself. Gloomy satisfaction. Such a strong reaction to a book will always pique my curiosity, and I hadn’t ever read a Moomin book before, anyway, so why not? Not like my TBR is going anywhere.

Once again, another review of a classic that needs no more reviews. It’s interesting, though, to see how children’s literature has evolved over time. Considering my past life as a teacher and private tutor to young people, I’ve stayed slightly more up to date on children’s and middle grade books than I might have otherwise; I think I have at least some authority on which I can make comparisons.

Putting aside the simplest picture books and early readers, the childhood reads that have stayed burned into my memory and part of my library have a certain ponderous quality to them. Of course it makes sense that I would keep, say, The Secret Garden and The Phantom Tollbooth in my library as I got older but eventually give away however many of the Animorphs and Babysitters Club books I’d accumulated. For one, there are practical considerations and limitations when it comes to housing never-ending series as opposed to single stand-alone volumes.

But there are also simply differences in their content, and I like to think I could sense those differences even at first reading (I was reading all of those books at about the same time, from ages 8 to 10). Don’t get me wrong: I definitely enjoyed every single Animorphs and Babysitters Club book I ever read. I was hardly a snob. But if a book had a ponderous or somewhat grown-up aura to it, I think it stuck with me extra much; I cared about it more. (Putting aside the ones that were like running up against a brick wall because they were perhaps a bit too grown-up for my brain, which also happened. I’ve already talked about how long it took me to really appreciate Ursula K. LeGuin here.)

Skimming through books to decide which ones would be appropriate birthday gifts to students, or to see what my students were excited about, I don’t think I ever found something with that same aura. The sense I got was less ponderous and more about distraction. Entertainment. Action. And this is probably a change that was happening even before I was born, considering that the aforementioned Animorphs and Babysitters Club novels of my youth also have the same distracting entertainment quality to them.

Of course, I’ve heard from more than one librarian that the children’s books that win the Big Serious Awards as decided by Adults are never the ones that are actually popular with children. Maybe a hypothetical lack of ponderous depth in children’s literature doesn’t actually matter and I’m just being grumpy.

All of this is to say that Pappan och havet has the same ponderous quality I would have enjoyed as young reader. I’m sad I missed out on it when I was the “right” age, but I’m glad I got to read it now.


When I did my semester abroad at Stockholm University, I took a course in modern Swedish literature (offered in English, since our Swedish wasn’t much more advanced than “En stor stark, tack!”). It was by far the best literature course of my undergrad career, in large part because of the excellent reading list. The course literature included Barabbas by Pär Lagerkvist, which made such a strong impression on me that I started building a small library of his books as soon as I moved to Sweden.

As I write this, I realize that I have to start almost every review here with some kind of explanation as to either how I came to hear of a book, or why I chose to read it, or both. I guess context is important to me. Here, for example, you can (rightly) infer that I went into this book biased and well-disposed towards Lagerkvist, and now you can (rightly) expect that I liked it. Now I can dispense with the pointless formality and hubris of passing judgment on a well-established classic and just ramble a bit. My point here isn’t to encourage—or discourage—anyone from picking up something relatively new and/or obscure. I just want to remember what I read and, in this case, present worthy Swedish books to my English-speaking friends. Lagerkvist was a huge international hit in his lifetime but he seems to have returned to mere domestic fame; these days Sweden’s entries in world literature appear to be limited to Strindberg and Nordic noir, which I feel is deeply unfair. Fortunately, it’s my understanding that there is an English translation of Dvärgen available and that it is of excellent quality, so you don’t have to miss out on this one.

Anyway! Dvärgen is simply the diary of a court dwarf in Renaissance Italy, spanning maybe six months to a year for the bulk of the action. It includes war, assassinations, intrigue, plague, famine and all the rest through the eyes of said unnamed dwarf, a character that literary criticism has near unanimously described as “evil incarnate.” That’s the interpretation I was thinking about after I finished the book. Is the narrator really meant to be as much?

I don’t ask the question to “woobify” him, as the expression goes—to turn a clearly morally corrupt character into a sympathetic and victimized hero. While his role as as servant means he’s often acting on behalf of others, the dwarf also carries out several actions on his own initiative, motivated by rage and sadism. Nor is there any attempt to make him appealing or “likeable,” like a secret fondness for animals or sensitivity to music. He finds all of the nobler human emotions and pursuits abhorrent or ridiculous; the only things he confesses to enjoying are war, violence, and bloodshed. The extent of the sympathy evoked for him is the absolutely dehumanizing treatment he receives from just about everyone around him. Stepping back, we can also of course point out that we are reading his own diary and account of himself, which is naturally how he wants to be experienced and how he is choosing to present himself, but that is an ambiguous point we can, at best, only infer. I’m sure there’s been more than one thesis already about the role of toxic masculinity and ableism in forming his character.

Rather, I ask the question because just as much of the evil in the book—if not most of it—is someone else’s doing. The prince decides to go to war entirely of his own volition, without consulting the dwarf at all. Likewise, when war proves fruitless, he decides to lure the enemy into an assassination with promises of peace and free trade. The dwarf might be the one to serve the enemy poisoned wine at the celebratory dinner, but he does so only at the order of the prince. And while the dwarf decides of his own accord to inform the prince of the tryst between the enemy prince’s son and the prince’s own daughter, the prince is the one who, in a fit of impetuous rage, murders the young man in his sleep.

Moreover, if we are to take the dwarf at his word, the fear and distaste that people express when they encounter him is nothing more than fear and distaste for what lurks inside themselves. Is this an observation that the reader is meant to take seriously? Or are we to understand that this is projection or warped thinking on behalf of the narrator, and that his claims of true insight and understanding are just so much bloviating?

Life is ambiguous, art is ambiguous, there are no easy answers. Even the ending is ambivalent: yes, the dwarf is in prison and peace seems to reign in the kingdom, but the connection between those two situations is unclear. Does the dwarf have such a supernaturally evil presence that peace cannot be achieved until he is disposed of? Or is the prince genuinely a changed man after facing political and personal consequences for his ambition, and the dwarf’s imprisonment merely an incidental fact following the death of the prince’s wife? The text supports both; the text chooses neither. The unanswered question.

Reading List: Östersund

By the time you read this, I’ll have been in Östersund for several days. With any luck, I’ll have already finished one of the books on this list. Nothing like a long vacation to really dig into some tricky reading.

  • Rules for Radicals
  • Världen av i går
  • Dvärgen
  • La Gloire de mon père
  • Le Château de ma mère

I also have an issue of Karavan with me for train reading. Even though I randomly stumbled on the magazine several years ago, I only got around to subscribing last week. Goes to show where my head’s been, I suppose.

Gösta Berlings saga

It took several months, but I finally finished Gösta Berlings saga. I read it years ago in English; now it was time for Swedish. The only problem is that when you read dense Swedish for most of your work day, there’s not a lot of brain left over for dense Swedish for fun. As a result it took me much longer than it normally would to finish a book of this length and linguistic heft. (Not to compare the quality of writing in a Selma Lagerlöf novel to that of a financial report!)

It’s Gösta Berlings saga, it’s good, the end. What’s more interesting about the book is how many English translations there are. The English translation I originally read was the 1918 edition put out by the American-Scandinavian Foundation, which is essentially Lillie Tudeer’s translation with supplemental material from Velma Swanston Howard, and I remember it as a bit of a slog. I can’t put my finger on it, except to say that it felt very dull and dead. But there have since been three other translations and I thought it would be fun to look at how they all handle that iconic opening line.

The original:

Äntligen stod prästen på predikstolen.*

Or Äntligen stod prästen i predikstolan, depending on which edition you’ve read. Mine is from 1920, so rather than i.

The Lillie Tudeer translation (1894):

The pastor was mounting the pulpit steps.

This is obviously, at a bare minimum, not particularly faithful to the original.

The Pauline Bancroft Flanch translation (1898):

At last the minister stood in the pulpit.

Already we’re much closer to the original.

The Robert Bly translation (1962):

At last the minister stood in the pulpit.

This translation is not a wholly new work but an edited and revised version of the Flanch translation, so not at all surprising it’s identical to the previous one.

The Paul Norlen translation (2009):

At long last the minister stood in the pulpit.

This translation is an entirely new work, and straightaway we have a little extra flavor in the text.

Since I’m writing this in English, I suppose I should leave off with a recommendation for which translation to pick up. Well, it goes without saying that I’d give a pass on the omnipresent Dover Thrift Edition or any other version of Lillie Tudeer’s translation. I’m the most curious now about Paul Norlen’s translation, though I have an all-or-nothing brain and so will probably burn through all three of the other versions in short order anyway.