The Trouble with Happiness & Other Stories – Tove Ditlevsen (tr. Michael Favala Goldman)

Tove Ditlevsen first came to my attention three years ago with the publication of her remarkable The Copenhagen Trilogy, the three memoirs – Childhood, Youth and Dependency – released in slim, individual volumes by Penguin Classics. I loved that trilogy, some of the best books I read in 2019. Another book called The Faces, a lived experience of mental illness, was also pretty good. And now we have the latest offering, her short story collection, The Trouble with Happiness, another superb book that in terms of content and style pretty much mirrors the trilogy.

The Trouble with Happiness are terrific stories of fear, anxiety, guilt, loneliness, told by Ditlevsen in her customary frank, lucid, absorbing style. The book is an amalgamation of two collections – “The Umbrella” and “The Trouble with Happiness” with around ten to eleven stories under each. Just like the previous collections I have reviewed, I won’t focus on all of them but more on those stories that really stood out for me.

In the first story, “The Umbrella”, we are introduced to Helga who “had always – unreasonably – expected more from life than it could deliver.” Helga is presented to us as on ordinary woman having never demonstrated a special talent of any kind.” She is hardworking, accommodating, and quiet and like her girlfriends interested in dancing and men, although she never displays the kind of desperation her friends sometimes do.

Over time, many small infatuations rippled the surface of her mind, like the spring breeze that makes new leaves tremble without changing their life’s course. 

But then Egon comes along, falling hard for Helga and they get engaged. Egon is a mechanic, interested in sports, and not culturally inclined, and yet during their days of courtship he reads poetry, using modes of expression very unlike him. Egon is happy with the fact that he is engaged to a chaste woman. But her first experience of physical intimacy leaves her confused with the sinking feeling that there was nothing very extraordinary about it.  For her parents though, it’s a perfect match, but Helga is beset by uneasiness, the source of which she can’t put a name to.

When she was half asleep, a strange desire came drifting into her consciousness: If only I had an umbrella, she thought. It occurred to her suddenly that this item, which for certain people was just a natural necessity, was something she had dreamed of her whole life. As a child, she had filled her Christmas wish lists with sensible, affordable things: a doll, a pair of red mittens, roller skates. And then, when the gifts were lying under the tree on Christmas Eve, she’d been gripped by an ecstasy of expectation. She’d looked at her boxes as if they held the meaning of life itself, and her hands had shaken as she opened them. Afterward, she’d sat crying over the doll, the mittens, and the roller skates she had asked for. “You ungrateful child,” her mother had hissed. “You always ruin it for us.” 

The umbrella, in many ways, symbolizes a secret desire, a want, and an alternate world that Helga keeps longing for and thinking about, because the reality has turned out to be a disappointment. While her life has all the hallmarks of respectability – a home, husband and child – Helga increasingly becomes indifferent, lost in her inner world. But then, a day dawns when she converts her desire for an umbrella to a reality that has dramatic consequences.

In “My Wife Doesn’t Dance”, an innocuous comment made by the protagonist’s husband opens the floodgates for a host of insecurities to spill out (“A hollow melancholy enveloped her with an unmerciful darkness she could not escape”). Our unnamed woman hears her husband answer the telephone, and tell the person at the other end who is advertising dance classes that his wife doesn’t dance. Nothing wrong with that statement when taken at face value, but for the protagonist it reveals many hidden meanings. We learn that she suffers from a limp that is quite conspicuous when she walks but it soon becomes apparent that this is a childhood torment that she hasn’t completely left behind, ready to resurface at the slightest hint. She is an accomplished woman capable of eloquently speaking on a variety of topics such as art, literature, politics and is married to a man who loves and desires her. So why is she on tenterhooks?

Did he think about it when they were out together? All the time? Had she lulled herself into a false sense of security here, inside the walls of the home they had created together?

In “Queen of the Night” we get a glimpse of a toxic marriage through the eyes of a young girl. When the story opens, Grete is kneeling on a chair observing her mother put on make-up for a carnival she’s about to attend, a spectacle that completely absorbs the young girls’ attention.  Grete’s father is nearby, seemingly fast asleep, after having worked a night shift, and the mother is anxious about not waking him up. Grete loves her mother’s costume called Queen of the Night that “made a nice crinkling sound when she moved”, the nicest and the most expensive dress in the catalogue. This costume becomes a symbol of how mismatched the couple is, money as always remains a bone of contention.

The cloth for that one had only cost two kroner, but her father, as usual, still had to calculate how many bags of oatmeal or pounds of carrots could have been bought with the money. What nonsense. They had oatmeal and carrots to eat anyway, and her mother didn’t get many chances to enjoy herself, and it wasn’t her fault he was unemployed half the year, so she had to go out and clean for other people.

Grete loves her mother and resents her father taunting her all the time (“Grete was completely convinced that they would be better off if her father wasn’t around”), and the reader observes a brief moment of bonding between father and daughter but that spell is quickly broken.

“One Morning in a Residential Neighbourhood” is a heartbreaking tale of a breakup of a marriage and family life and its shattering impact on the various parties involved. On one particularly cold morning, a young girl is wearing her new brown winter coat for the first time, in anticipation of a journey she is about to embark on with her father. Her nanny Miss Hansen is inconsolable, and wakes up the girl that morning unable to stop crying. The girl’s mother is also dazed, trying to brace herself for this difficult moment, vaguely aware that she is being judged and secretly admonished by everyone around her. The father is obviously coming to take the young girl away, as previously arranged with his wife, but the girl is unaware of the real circumstances of this ‘so-called trip’ she’s about to take with her father (“Children are so willing to be tricked to avoid the truth they don’t want to hear”).

In “Depression”, another excellent piece, a woman married to her depressed husband, comes pretty close to a nervous breakdown herself. The story opens with Lulu, washing stacked plates at the sink, dead tired after playing the perfect hostess at a house party. The festivities aren’t entirely over yet, her husband Kai, who has smoked and drank copiously, is still regaling his guests, but by this time Lulu could not be bothered. We learn that Kai is suffering from depression, the first bout having lasted five months…

Of course, it was unfortunate, but to her mind it wasn’t the end of the world. And certainly not for him. In the end, she was the one who had to do the heavy lifting.

Lulu is seemingly content and well-adjusted to Kai and his unemployment is not a nagging source of worry because they are supported by his parents financially. But a sense of discontent is gradually looming large within Lulu. Kai is visiting a psychoanalyst but it doesn’t seem to be helping, while the costs of those visits keep mounting. During periods when he manages to cast away the shackles of his mental illness, Kai becomes a transformed person, happy, carefree and eager to socialize. Those moments gladden Lulu but it feels fragile, as if a bomb is ticking, because the next bout of depression could just be around the corner ready once again to drown Kai. Meanwhile, Kai seems to be taking Lulu’s good health for granted, because Lulu often wonders “how he would take it if one day she ‘gave up’!” Until one day, she does come close to breaking point.

Bullying fathers and passive-aggressive behaviour forms the backbone of “The Knife”, another superb story and the first in the second collection. The father in this tale is an overtly cold, rational man who abhors affection and sentimentality.

One of the duties he adopted, for some obscure reason, was to show his family a cool and slightly accusatory tone, which was supposed to express his general attitude toward life, and reinforce his own estimation of himself as a rational person who disdained sentimentality.

He is married to a woman called Esther and they have a young son, although the father is ambivalent towards them, sometimes struck with the thought – “My life would have evolved quite differently if they weren’t around.”

Meanwhile, the father has gifted his son a very special knife, a relic that has passed hands through the generations. And the boy has been warned not to lose it and look after it well. Every Christmas, it becomes a tradition for the son to display the knife to his parents, but one Christmas, the son in a fit of extreme fear and panic is forced to confess that he has lost the knife. The mother senses the fear and immediately takes her son’s side, nonchalantly declaring that the knife is probably just misplaced and bound to turn up soon. The father, however, is livid. But is the father genuinely upset that a family relic has been lost or is he secretly happy at the chance of asserting his authority over his son?

“Anxiety” is an excellent but nerve-wracking tale of a claustrophobic marriage, of a woman distressed by her husband’s tyrannical behaviour only to find her world slowly shrinking. Married to a man who is a light sleeper, our protagonist’s life is defined by the tone of the creaking noises made by the bed on which her husband sleeps or tries to sleep. Gripped by the fear of rousing him and incurring his wrath, the woman is compelled to move around on tiptoe in her own home. Stressed by the momentous effort required to remain quiet, she often longs to just head out and spend time with her sister Henny. Until one day she does. At Henny’s welcoming home, bristling with warmth, noise and children, our protagonist experiences that rare pocket of joy where her doleful existence seems like a surreal dream. But soon it is time to head back home and to the suspense of wondering whether her husband noticed her absence or not…

In the “Two Women”, a woman looking to be luxuriously pampered in a salon so that she can leave her growing anxieties on the backbench for a while, comes out feeling more rattled than ever; while in “The Little Shoes”, an ageing woman laments her middle-age exacerbated by her lovely, spirited daughter and the possibility that her second husband is infatuated with his step-daughter. While in the titular story, “The Trouble with Happiness”, which has echoes of Childhood, a young woman decides to take charge of her own life by leaving behind her despondent family home so that she can harness her ambition of being a writer.

The Trouble with Happiness, then, is a biting, scalpel-sharp, devastating depiction of love, marriage and family; succinct, intense tales that make for compelling reading. These stories offer readers slices of domestic life in Copenhagen; gloomy, gut-wrenching situations which see her characters teetering on the edge. The women particularly are in a perpetual state of anxiety, paralyzed by an unnamable fear – unhappy in love, gripped by feelings of doom, grappling with stressed financial circumstances and unnerved by insecurities that sometimes threaten to overwhelm them. These haunting, unsettling vignettes, simmering with undercurrents of desire and violence, are made all the more arresting by Ditlevsen’s clear-eyed vision and an honest, lucid writing style that conveys multitudes in a few paragraphs.

It’s a rich, layered collection sizzling with a gamut of themes – mental illness, impact of broken marriages on children, bullying fathers, deteriorating relationships, a longing for happiness that is forever on the fringes seemingly an illusion. The subject matter, reminiscent of The Copenhagen Trilogy, is doled out to us in short, measured doses this time, but the brevity matches the brilliance of those memoirs. Highly recommended!

Letters to Gwen John – Celia Paul

I love books on art and creativity as well as hybrid narratives where the boundaries between genres are blurred – recent case in point being Nathalie Leger’s superb Suite for Barbara Loden. Celia Paul’s gorgeous work Letters to Gwen John, therefore, ticked all the right boxes for me.

Letters to Gwen John is a stunning meditation on the creative process, women making art, the pleasures of solitude, living life on your own terms, aging and loneliness.

It’s an imagined conversation between two artists – Gwen John and Celia Paul – born in different eras, and yet sharing striking similarities in terms of relationships and their approach to art. A wonderful blend of artistic biography, memoir and the epistolary form, Celia Paul addresses her letters to Gwen John giving readers insight into various facets of their personalities. For Celia Paul these letters are homage to an artist with whom she feels a kinship and a spiritual connection, a guiding light particularly during some challenging moments.

THE SIMILARITIES – A SMORGASBORD OF ASSOCIATIONS

Celia begins her narrative by highlighting the four postcards of paintings that are her personal favourites; one of them being the work titled The Convalescent by Gwen John (“Just one look at this reproduction of Gwen John’s painting and my breathing becomes easier”), and which also caught my attention because it graces the cover of my Virago edition of Dorothy Richardson’s Pilgrimage.  

We learn that both Gwen and Celia were students at the prestigious Slade School of Art. Gwen, particularly, came from an artistically inclined family. Her mother Augusta, an artist, named her younger brother who she loved dearly Augustus, and later there would be Auguste Rodin in Gwen’s life. Augustus was the first to gain entry into this prestigious art school, and Gwen subsequently followed.

The two men in Celia Paul’s life (first Lucian Freud and then her husband Steven Kupfer) had girlfriends called Kate before they met Celia, and Celia has a younger sister Kate who she is closest to, while Steven’s mother was called Kathe. And then Lucian was named after his mother Lucie because “she sensed a special bond with him at first sight.”

LOVE, BURNING PASSION AND YEARNING

Celia Paul then goes on to elaborate how both women fell deeply in love with and were profoundly influenced by men – the sculptor Auguste Rodin for Gwen and the artist Lucian Freud for Celia.

Gwen’s passion for Rodin is all consuming and claustrophobic. Initially posing as a model for him, that professional relationship quickly transforms into an affair. The passion that Gwen feels for Rodin is so intense, that when he is not around, the pining and yearning for him destabilizes her to the detriment of her art.

Celia experiences something similar. She meets Lucian while still studying at the Slade and a passionate affair soon develops. His absences keep her on tenterhooks; the debilitating longing for him affects her art. Disillusioned by the painting techniques taught at the Slade, Celia draws inspiration from Lucian in many aspects while attempting her paintings. And yet it’s a relationship fraught with awkwardness. Celia outlines the contrasting attitudes of the two women while posing as models for their paramours; Gwen is uninhibited while sitting for Rodin and posing comes naturally to her. But for Celia it is sometimes a momentous effort, partly because she is disconcerted by Lucian’s objective, piercing gaze.

There are differences also in how these relationships play out. Gwen’s intense feelings for Rodin finds an outlet in a frenzy of letters she sends to him where she unabashedly writes about how his lengthening spells of absences torment her. The single-minded nature of her emotions alarm Rodin to the point that he is concerned for her, but is also gradually driven away. Celia’s relationship with Lucian goes one step further; she has a son with him named Frank. But this is a romance that also peters out, a development that Celia gratefully welcomes with a sense of relief as time rolls on.

A ROOM OF ONE’S OWN

Letters to Gwen John is a book about women artists establishing their own identity in a field often dominated by men. Although encouraged in her art by her brother Augustus, Gwen often feels smothered by his proximity and influence and longs to get away so that she can blossom on her own and evolve independently as the artist she wants to be.

Both women strive for personal space, a physical domain they can truly call their own, a stamp of their monk-like personality. More importantly, it is free from the influence of their lovers, Auguste and Lucian, who can enter this private world as mere visitors and nothing more, the sharing of space strictly forbidden.

This desire is born out of the need for freedom to pursue their art (“We can be free if we are unseen. We are like nocturnal animals”), as well as a way to connect with their inner world (“Your aim has, always, was to lead a more and more interior life. We remain remote”).

SOLITIDE OR COMPANY?

Celia Paul has very eloquently painted a picture of the conflict that rages inside her – the aching need for solitude to practice her craft…

The peace is profound and it enters your soul to the extent that, even when you step outside, all sounds seem to be at a remove. The silence of the great ancient yew trees surrounding the tower seems to be at one with your own inner silence.

…which battles with the craving for company to ward off loneliness and old age.

I often think of those old women whom I have painted, my mother included, and I wonder at their quiet patience, and what inner reserves of strength they must draw on to keep up their courage and power to endue, riven as they all must be by memories and fear of the approaching dark.

ART & MOTHERHOOD – A DELICATE BALANCING ACT

One of my favourite books some years ago was Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation, a fragmentary novella that dwells on the loss of identity and the mundaneness of new motherhood, where the protagonist laments that “she wanted to be an art monster.” Celia Paul experiences something of that as well. She wants to be a mother, Lucian encouraged it as well (although his relationship with their son Frank remained awkward and distant), and when the baby is born, Celia realizes that the demands of motherhood often clash with the discipline and quiet required for her art. And she struggles with this knowledge.

As a single parent of an angry adolescent son, I was in the spotlight, out of the shadows. Everything about me was exposed and judged. This exposure, and the world’s judgement that came with the exposure, is what prevented me from working truthfully. I was judged by Lucian, by my son, by my mother, by Bella. I lost confidence. There was no way, in the world’s eyes, that I could be a good mother – and I wanted to be a good mother now – while at the same time being a painter wholly committed to her art.

AN ODE TO THE CREATIVE PROCESS

I also loved the sections of the book that emphasized on the intricacies of the art-making process – the mixing of exotically named paints (Burnt Sienna, Cadmium Blue and so on), the challenges of the finished painting aligning with the artist’s vision, that ‘a-ha’ moment when you know that it has shaped up the way you had visualized it.

Painting is different from writing. A notebook or a laptop is a compact space for creativity. In order to paint you need paraphernalia: a palette, brushes, canvases, easel, and a room to yourself where it’s possible to be uninhibited – you need to be unconcerned about drips of paint landing on the carpet or staining the walls. We use words all the time. But painting is an acquired language that you need to practice every day, like playing an instrument: if you don’t, you lose your gift.

Akin to an image that quickly emerges from the deft strokes of a brush, these nuances of the artistic process are revealed to us in the later letters which focus on two of her paintings – “Copper Beech, Hampstead Heath” and “Weeping Willow”. Celia expertly illustrates the trials of completing these paintings, sometimes working on one painting only to move on to the other one and the unwavering focus required bringing it to fruition. And how the nature of the painting itself changes along the way.

BEAUTIFUL BOOK, WONDERFUL WRITING

Interspersed with sublime paintings by both artists, Letters to Gwen John is an exquisitely produced book and a pleasure to read. Through her frank, unadorned, graceful narrative style, Celia Paul draws us into her solitary world where the sea that “gently washes and laps like milk tilted from side to side in a bowl”, and the incoming waves that “obediently follow each other, like sheep brought home to the fold”, has as much of a calming effect on the reader as it does on Paul. A fabulous fusion of biography and memoir, the book is an illuminating depiction of two female artists, their ascetic personalities, the desire to assert their independence while making art, and how their art becomes a steadying force and pillar of strength while navigating personal difficulties and turbulence in their lives. The scope is wide-ranging and there is both a historical and contemporary feel to the narrative – from Gwen’s life at the turn of the 20th century to the global Covid pandemic and lockdown.

In a nutshell, the rich palette of themes, the quiet confessional tone of Celia Paul’s letters and the melancholic beauty of the artworks meld into a unique form that is a work of art by itself; the stillness and peace captured becomes a joy to truly savour.

The Antarctica of Love – Sara Stridsberg (tr. Deborah Bragan-Turner)

Sara Stridsberg first came to my attention when her earlier book The Faculty of Dreams was shortlisted for the 2019 International Booker Prize. I’ve yet to read that one, but on the strength of The Antarctica of Love, she is definitely a writer to watch out.

The Antarctica of Love is a brutal but beautiful tale of chronic drug abuse, fragile familial relationships, isolation, death and loss.

The first thing that strikes you about the novel is the unique and distinct voice – Inni is our narrator but she is speaking to the reader from beyond the grave, after she has been violently murdered.

The book begins with Inni’s gruesome murder in a stark, bleak area, on the outskirts of civilization, close to a lake, the water as smooth as a sheet of metal. It’s a remote place with not a soul in sight. A slurry pit like a quivering marshland lends the area an eerie, ominous air (“When the engine stopped we sat in silence, surveying the lake’s silvery sheen; a solitary black bird, soaring and dipping over the inky surface, the world’s last bird”). This is the spot where the unnamed murdered has captured and brought Inni, the final hours before her imminent death.

It was the blue hour, the hour when the sun and the moon met and the first tremulous night-time light and vestiges of daylight merged like magical waters and swathed the world in a quivering violet phosphorescence, when everything grew soft and nebulous and all the outlines and shadows melted away.

Inni is not scared though. She is resigned to her fate and possibly even welcomes the prospect of her life being extinguished. A chronic drug addict, she has reached the end of her tether with nowhere to go and no one she can turn to. Death seems like a release.

The murderer does not waste time. He strangles Inni, and cuts her body into pieces. The head is thrown into the slurry pit where it steadily sinks (“mine disappears into the slurry pit with the pink surface, sinking slowly to the bottom; and as it descends, my hair opens out like a little parachute over my head“). The rest of the body is dumped in two white suitcases and left close to the road where they will be eventually discovered.

Perhaps the reason I was already at the end, too soon, far too soon, on this muddy road at the edge of an unknown forest, was because I had no words for who I was and what I had come from. Inside me was voiceless silence, above me only a bare, defenceless sky and beneath ne the earth’s unrelenting gravity, pulling me down.

In The Antarctica of Love, then, Inni is sort of an omniscient narrator because we follow her story or certain critical portions of it right from her childhood to her afterlife. The narrative arc swings back and forth between three time periods – Inni’s troubled past with her family; the present which records the hours before her death when she is captured by the murderer; and the future, or to be more precise, the days and years after Inni’s death, where we are shown snapshots of how her family is getting on without her.

The story of Inni’s life is a tale soaked in sadness, a life filled with trauma and tragedy that leaves her vulnerable and shaken, sowing the seeds of chronic drug abuse. Just minutes before her death, when fragments of her past flash before her, the readers are also given a window into her world. At first, we are thrown headlong into a recitation of names the details of which remain hazy. We hear of Raksha and Ivan. We learn of Eskil, drowned many years ago. Shane is mentioned as is Valle and Solveig. These names are meaningless at the beginning, a clearer picture emerges as the tale unfolds, but we immediately get a sense that these are people integral to Inni in the way they shaped up her short life. In other words these are her closest family members whose destinies are very much entwined with hers.

Inni’s parents are Raksha and Ivan, a couple bound in a mercurial relationship. Inni adores Raksha, but her mother’s world is dominated by her passion for Ivan and for drugs. An early tragedy pushes Inni to the edge, a traumatic event that pretty much lays the foundation for how the rest of her life pans out. She and her younger brother Eskil are playing by the river; Raksha and Ivan are somewhere nearby. At a crucial moment, when the three are not looking, Eskil drowns. Attempts to revive him in the hospital are in vain, and Eskil is declared dead.

Everyone weeps apart from me, but something inside me has frozen. It isn’t just the tears, it is something else. A disillusionment so deep, so penetrating, the freezing point of blood, the ultimate Antarctica of love.

Eskil’s death not only affects Raksha and Inni badly, it increases the gulf between them. Inni still craves for Raksha’s love but Raksha remains distant and remote as ever. It’s also around that time that Inni develops an addiction for heroin; the heady rush of the drug coursing through her blood becomes a vehicle to escape a pitiless reality and get lost in a dream world. That steady descent into drugs will blemish her life forever – Inni does experience the joys of falling in love and of motherhood, but those new bonds are fragile; with her inability to remain clean, she is treading on eggshells, paving the way for more tragedy.

The Antarctica of Love, then, is an evocative, unflinching tale of a woman driven to the edge of an abyss from which there is no hope of redemption (“I had sunk deeper into the mire and slime that existed beneath the city, below the earth and asphalt where the filth gathered, in the underground sewers and metro bunkers where people lived like ghosts”).

What’s remarkable about the novel is Inni’s vulnerability – It would be easy to dismiss her as a woman who deserved what was coming to her because of the bad choices she made, but the emotional depth and beauty of Stridsberg’s writing refuses to let the reader judge her so harshly. There are moments when some sections seem repetitive and one wonders whether this is deliberate, given that we are inside the mind of a damaged woman who is plumbing the depths of her memories in recounting her tale…indeed, there’s a part somewhere in the middle of the book where Inni tells us something she’s already told us before and immediately follows up with the line – “but I already told you that, didn’t I?”

One of the themes explored in The Antarctica of Love is the debilitating consequences of parental neglect. Raksha is a self-absorbed mother, with Inni and Eskil for the most part left to their own devices. Inni yearns for her mother’s love, to be the centre of her world…Indeed, even minutes before death, despite Inni having accepted her fate, we witness brief moments of resistance with Inni calling out for Raksha. But the bitter reality of being denied her mother’s care manifests itself deep into Inni’s psyche with the result that this legacy of neglect is something that Inni passes on to her children as well.

It is strange that I fantasise so much about Solveig. I don’t know her and I never have. All I have is those two hours on the maternity ward when she was a tiny bundle of warmth in my arms. But it is easier to think about her than to think about Valle, because I never did her any harm. I kept her safe by making sure she would never need to be with me. For Solveig I did the only thing I could have done, even if Shane could never forgive me for it.

The novel is also a heartrending meditation on fragile familial bonds, loss, death and the momentous effort of pushing forward. The latter is particularly exemplified in how Inni’s parents and her children (her son Valle and her daughter Solveig) try to patch together the tattered fragments of their lives and attempt to move on, however, imperfect or arduous the journey. After years of separation, we see Ivan and Raksha reunite in their grief, and Raksha after having adapted to an independent existence, faces the prospect of being dependent on a man again. We also see the children Solveig and Valle, the latter in particular, try to adapt to their respective foster homes, and build a new life for themselves as they grow into adults.

Death is a potent force in the book, always lurking in the corner – Eskil’s death is the starting point of Inni’s lifelong downward spiral culminating in her own death at the hands of a random man. It’s also a tale seeped in loss and isolation – with death taking away her two children, Raksha is now utterly alone in her old age, while Inni’s unfathomable dependence on drugs isolates her from the world even further. Unable to drastically alter her circumstances, she also experiences the anguish of losing her children, but she harbours hope that they will go on to lead better lives with her not around.

Familial bonds are as frail as bone china, ready to crack at the slightest signal of danger. Raksha and Ivan’s passionate, volatile relationship threatens to engulf them…Inni and Shane love each other deeply but as addicts theirs is a relationship always in peril, of not being able to withstand the pressures that life throws at them.

At its core, The Antarctica of Love is a pretty disturbing book given its dark subject matter, but what elevates it to the next level is the richness of the writing. The prose is simply gorgeous and haunting, suffused with tenderness, compassion and beauty, with that aching melancholic feel to it but also punctuated with glimmers of hope.

The book is lush with a strong sense of place, stark, surreal and even dystopian at times; whether it’s the desolate lake area where Inni meets her end (“The world seemed to be heavy with rain, a world of rain in which the green appeared in sharper focus, a world immersed in water”), or the murky underbelly of a metropolis like Stockholm.

It is an archaic landscape swept by cold, harsh winds; it looks modern but it is ancient. A cluster of islands surrounded by motionless seawater beneath a naked sky. A patchwork of faded facades in yellow and pink with modern buildings made of black steel and glass. Bank headquarters, shopping malls and multi-storey car parks have a futuristic look, but age-old thoughts fill people’s minds, ponderous, inalterable; there are victims, there are perpetrators, there are witnesses, and they all peer down at the ground. The well-heeled live in the centre, as they always have. And the lifeblood of this city circulates around Herkulesgatan and from there to the banks, the money moves in and out of the state, and the architecture framing all of this is raw and cold. Some are doomed to failure, others destined to advance, a certain few will rise above the rest; and you can see the early signs, children defined from the start.

As a victim of parental neglect, trauma, debilitating drug abuse, and eventually murder, Inni’s fate mirrors that of people who live on the margins and sink without a trace; lives that hardly cause a ripple on the surface of the broader world. But Inni does not face that ignominy, through the sheer poetry of Stridsberg’s writing, her life becomes alive and vivid…she transforms into an unforgettable narrator whose heartbreaking, poignant tale will leave a deep impression on our minds.

Real Estate – Deborah Levy

Whether it’s her fiction or her memoirs, Deborah Levy’s prose is like no other. I am certainly a fan. The second book of her ‘Living Autobiography’ memoirs – The Cost of Living – had made it to my Best of 2018 list. Not surprisingly, I see Real Estate finding a place on my year end list too.

Real Estate is another stunningly written book by Deborah Levy, the third and final volume of her triumphant “Living Autobiography’ series, a book that explores the idea of having a home, a place of our own that defines our personality.

In her second book – The Cost of Living – Levy had to grapple with a dramatic change in her personal life. She was nearly fifty, had recently divorced her husband and had two teenaged daughters to support on her own. It was a tough and challenging time, but she embraced this change with aplomb, navigating this turbulent period with characteristic wit and wisdom.

When Real Estate begins, Levy once again finds herself at crossroads – she is approaching sixty, her youngest daughter has just turned eighteen about to leave home and begin a new chapter in her life. With her children having flown the nest, Levy is now yearning for a house, a place she can truly call her own.

A quest that fires up her imagination, her real estate fantasies come in various striking avatars. Maybe a grand old house with an egg shaped fireplace and a pomegranate tree in the garden. At times, she dreams that this property is well endowed with fountains, wells and majestic stairways, at other times she longs for it to be close to either a river or the sea.

The hunt for this property or ‘unreal estate’ as she puts it becomes the prism through which Levy examines various facets of her life, friends and family who form an integral part of it, her career and ambitions, and what the concept of a home means to her.

I imagined a house in which I could live and work and think at my own pace, but even in my imagination, this home was blurred, undefined, not real, or not realistic, or lacked realism.

The wish for this home was intense, yet I could not place it geographically, nor did I know how to achieve such a spectacular house with my precarious income.

The odd thing was every time I tried to see myself inside this imagined house, I felt sad. It was as if the search for home was the point, and now that I had acquired it and the chase was over, there were no more branches to put in the fire. It seemed that acquiring a house was not the same as acquiring a home.

While solitude is crucial for her writing career to blossom, Levy also loves being surrounded by people. As she contemplates various real estate possibilities in her mind, even considering a quiet, rural existence, some of her friends can’t envisage her doing that. They know Levy is cosmopolitan, loves attending parties, loves entertaining and a house in the wilderness is hardly going to deliver on that front. But if she does buy her dream home, would she be content staying alone, or is she ready for a new life partner? Levy’s life is rich and varied filled with the warm company of friends and a zest for meeting new people, but she resists the idea of starting a romantic relationship when prodded to consider it by a male best friend.

The hectic life of a renowned writer takes Levy across continents – the book’s sections are named after the cities Levy travels to. The task of clearing her deceased American stepmother’s apartment takes her to New York; the trip to Mumbai is prompted by an invitation to a literary festival, a city where she savours the spicy, mouth-watering bhel puri and devours the most divine guava ice-cream planting in her mind the idea of buying an ice-cream machine; Paris becomes her new temporary residence when she is offered a fellowship; and a dear friend’s birthday sees her making her way to Berlin, the city that inspired her terrific novel The Man Who Saw Everything.

Pretty similar to The Cost of Living, Levy also explores the themes of womanhood and writing in Real Estate, sometimes drawing our attention to writings by other women in this endeavour. For instance, she dwells on the diaries of Susan Sontag which show “the experimental thoughts of a woman preparing to put her foot in the stirrups and get on to her high horse.” Louisa May Alcott wrote Little Women while living alone in Boston – “I am in my little room, spending busy, happy days, because I have quiet, freedom, work enough, and strength to do it.”

Levy also highlights how independent, resourceful women are often perceived as a threat to men.

There are many resourceful and imaginative modern women who are heads of their households. Often described as ‘single mothers’, they experience the full weight of patriarchy’s hostility to their holding dominant power in the family. His final last grasp at crushing her imagination and capabilities is to accuse her of causing his impotence. After all, if she can create another sort of household, she can create another sort of world order.

Meanwhile, Levy acknowledges that many people her age are already pretty well off financially and possess their perfect beautiful homes, while she is not in same boat because she does not have the means yet, even if the desire is prominent. In fact, it is quite possible that she may never find her ideal home. But it doesn’t in any way mean that her life is missing anything vital. Levy’s life is vivid fuelled by travel, interesting people, fascinating conversations and an undaunted sense of adventure – a whole gamut of meaningful, valuable experiences that are no less powerful because they can’t be measured.

A wandering meditation on relationships, friendships, womanhood, art and writing, Deborah Levy is uniquely perceptive with a flair for digressions that can take you down unexpected paths.  This trait is visible from the very first page where the purchase of a small banana tree from a flower stall leads to thoughts on Georgia O’ Keeffe and her exquisite depiction of flowers in paintings, and then on to her sprawling home to New Mexico culminating in Levy’s own intense desire to possess a similarly exotic home. Her distinctive worldview, always searching and philosophical, explored through a slew of cultural references make Real Estate endlessly fascinating and tremendously quotable. The writing style brims with verve and chutzpah that is hers alone.

Intelligent, intimate, and deeply personal, Real Estate, then, is an astonishing piece of work, a fitting end to her ‘Living Autobiography’ trilogy.

Saturday Lunch with the Brownings – Penelope Mortimer

I was greatly impressed with Penelope Mortimer’s The Pumpkin Eater when I read it a couple of years ago – a novel about a woman on the verge of a breakdown feeling trapped by motherhood and having to contend with an insensitive husband. Despite the subject matter, it didn’t come across as bleak and credit goes to Mortimer’s wonderful writing style and her penchant for wit. A lot of these themes are also prevalent in Saturday Lunch with the Brownings, her short stories offering, which I thought was brilliant.

Saturday Lunch with the Brownings is a collection of twelve, unsettling, edgy, perfectly pitched tales that disrupt the perceived bliss of marriage and motherhood. It’s also an uncanny depiction of the horrors lurking in the banality of everyday life.

The collection opens with a bang – the first story “The Skylight” is a masterclass in suspense and tension highlighting the interplay between the burden of motherhood and a mother’s protective instinct towards her child. Our unnamed woman narrator is travelling in a taxi with her five-year old son Johnny to a farmhouse in the French countryside. Right from the beginning, her discomfort is apparent to us – the blazing heat is too much to bear inducing a state of torpor in both her and Johnny, and she is filled with forebodings on the house she has rented for their stay. Her husband and daughters are to join them later on.

Now it was real. She was inadequate. She was in pain from the heat, and not a little afraid. The child depended on her. I can’t face it, she thought, anticipating the arrival at the strange house, the couple, the necessity of speaking French, the task of getting the child bathed and fed and asleep. Will there be hot water, mosquitoes, do they know how to boil an egg? Her head beat with worry. She looked wildly from side to side of the taxi, searching for some sign of life. The woods had ended, and there was no relief from the sun.

Her worst fears are confirmed when they reach their destination – the house is locked, the owners are nowhere in sight, and she does not have the keys. Amid a creeping sense of dread, the woman struggles to find a way into the house and chances upon the skylight. The problem is that the opening is too narrow for her to wiggle through it, but she surmises Johnny can slide down without a hitch. She lowers Johnny down the skylight into the attic with precise set of instructions of what he has to do once he is inside the house. But as the minutes begin ticking, Johnny fails to appear. This is a brilliant story where Mortimer toys with the reader’s emotions with the result that we end up being as much as a nervous wreck as the mother.

The title story “Saturday Lunch with the Brownings” is another first rate tale that depicts a seemingly innocuous family ritual where tensions simmer beneath an outwardly calm surface. Madge Browning and her husband William find themselves arguing continuously about their children – William’s real daughter Bessie from a previous marriage, and his step-daughters Melissa and Rachel (Madge’s children). Madge wants the Saturday meal to go off smoothly, aiming for the lofty ideal of a perfect family enjoying a meal together, but William is constantly undermining her efforts until it all culminates in a dramatic confrontation.

If we can get through lunch, Madge thought, we shall be all right. She beamed at him (William) encouragingly as he picked up the carving knife and fork. It was at times like this, when they were all together and relatively peaceful, that she almost felt they might make a success of it. She had given William roots, set him at the head of a family table, given him something to work for; she had given her own children a home and a father. The picture was as clear, as static and lifeless as a Victorian bliss of domestic bliss. It was her ideal, doggedly worked for…This is Saturday Lunch with the Brownings.

In “Little Mrs Perkins”, Mortimer once again deftly manages the reader’s perceptions lulling them into a false sense of security only to later pull the rug from beneath their feet. The story takes place in a maternity ward where the narrator has just delivered a baby. She observes the young Mrs Perkins being wheeled into the same room onto an adjacent bed. Mrs Perkins is in a delicate condition, on the brink of a likely miscarriage, and has been advised absolute rest. In the hands of the doctor and her caring husband, Mrs Perkins is put to ease and the narrator (as well as the reader) is led to believe that all is well, until the story takes a nifty turn to reveal Mrs Perkins true intentions or priorities.

“Such A Super Evening” is another stunning piece with a clever viewpoint on the nuances of married life, while children feature prominently in many of her stories with their unique perspectives on the complex world of adults. In both “The King of Kissingdom” and “The White Rabbit”, Mortimer displays an expert grasp on the interior world of children, ridden with guilt and insecurity, who are grappling with the fractured relationship of their parents.

Some of the essential themes running through these stories are – infidelity, marital discord, family life which more often than not becomes a fraught battleground, unwanted pregnancies, a sense of entrapment in motherhood, using children as means to gain an upper hand in arguments with spouses and so on.

Mortimer’s vision is singular and her sharp, shrewd portraits of the minutiae of family life that can unexpectedly erupt into volatile drama make each of these stories utterly compelling. For a lot of the material on display in these rich layered tales, Mortimer drew from her own life experiences. She once quipped, “I mined my life for incidents with a beginning, a middle and an end, finding even the dreariest of days contained nuggets of irony, farce, unpredictable behaviour.”

Saturday Lunch with the Brownings, then, is a marvelous collection – each piece is like a finely chiseled, perfectly honed miniature whose beauty and horror lingers in the mind long after the pages are turned.