WIT Month: Some Excellent Books from Scandinavia & The Baltics

August is Women in Translation (WIT) Month, and last week I wrote a post on some of my favourite reads from Japan, Korea & China. In today’s piece, I will focus on Scandinavia and The Baltics.

A CHANGE OF TIME by Ida Jessen (tr. Martin Aitken)

Set in a rural Danish village in the early 20th century, A Change of Time is a beautiful, quiet and reflective novel told through the diary entries of a schoolteacher called Frau Bagge. The novel begins when her husband, Vigand Bagge, a mocking and cruel man, and who is also a respected village doctor, passes away. Subsequently, the novel charts her response to his death and her attempts to build herself a new life, find herself a new place and identity and discover meaning in life again. An exquisitely written novel.

THE TROUBLE WITH HAPPINESS & OTHER STORIES by Tove Ditlevsen (tr. Michael Favala Goldman)

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.

In “My Wife Doesn’t Dance”, an innocuous comment made by the protagonist’s husband opens the floodgates for a host of her insecurities to spill out. In “Queen of the Night” we get a glimpse of a toxic marriage through the eyes of a young girl, while “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.

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 her. While in the titular story, “The Trouble with Happiness”, which has echoes of Ditlevsen’s terrific memoir 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. 

THE ANTARCTICA OF LOVE by Sara Stridsberg (tr. Deborah Bragan-Turner)

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. We follow her story or certain critical portions of it right from her childhood to her afterlife.

Thus, 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. 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 – prose that is haunting, suffused with tenderness, compassion and beauty.

THE SUMMER BOOK by Tove Jansson (tr. Thomas Teal)

A lovely, beguiling novel that in twenty-two crystalline vignettes distills the essence of summer and captures the unshakeable bond between a 6-year old girl and her grandmother, two unusual but fascinating characters. Like the brilliance of cut diamonds, The Summer Book sparkles with wisdom and humour from every angle, and is life affirming in many ways.

LOVE by Hanne Orstavik (tr. Martin Aitken)

Love is an unsettling novella set over the course of a single evening and night in a remote village in Norway during winter. Vibeke and her son Jon have just moved into this small village a few months ago. We are told in the opening pages that tomorrow is Jon’s birthday and he will turn 9 years old.

From the outset, it becomes apparent that there is some kind of disconnect between mother and son. Jon is pretty sure that Vibeke is going to bake a cake for his birthday tomorrow and decides to give her all the space she needs to do so. Vibeke, meanwhile, has forgotten her son’s birthday – something that is clear to the reader, but not to Jon. On that particular night, Vibeke and Jon are out of the house, but on their own with no inkling of what the other is upto.

Ørstavik infuses enough tension in her writing so that at the end of the chapters you are left wondering whether it will all turn out well for both mother and son. That the story is set in the depths of winter in a country close to the Arctic, serves as an atmospheric and stark contrast to the protagonists’ search for warmth and a sense of belonging.

THE LOOKING-GLASS SISTERS by Gohril Gabrielsen (tr. John Irons)

I read The Looking Glass Sisters before I started my blog, so I haven’t written a full length review of it. As far as the basic plot goes, here’s the blurb:

“Far out on the plains of northern Norway stands a house. It belongs to two middle-aged sisters. They seldom venture out and nobody visits. The younger needs nursing and the older keeps house. Then, one day, a man arrives…”

The novel is a dark, deeply unsettling tale of a tenuous sibling relationship, loneliness, isolation and the challenges of caregiving. It’s a first person narrative from the point of view of the unnamed handicapped sister, and it gradually becomes apparent that she could well be unreliable. For instance, we are shown instances of how her sister Ragna is cruel to her, but as readers we realize that the responsibility of looking after her sister coupled with her continuous demands has taken its toll on Ragna too. It begs the question – Who is really cruel to whom? I read The Looking Glass Sisters as soon as it was published (in 2015), and even all those years later, there are aspects of it that have stayed with me even today. It remains one of my favourite Peirene titles.

SOVIET MILK by Nora Ikstena (tr. Margita Gailitis)

The first in Peirene’s excellent ‘Home in Exile’ series, Soviet Milk is a poignant tale of a mother and her daughter and the difficult life they are forced to live in Latvia, which is under Soviet occupation. It explores the notion of motherhood, oppression, the freedom to choose one’s calling in life and the frustration of living in exile.

The novel is set over a period of time – from 1944 to the fall of the Berlin Wall – and is narrated in the first person and alternates between the central character (the mother) and her daughter. The characters are not named and to us they are referred to as the mother, the daughter and the grandmother.

Despite her mother’s moods and descent into depression, the daughter is more positive and pragmatic as she goes about her life. She also finds relief in the strong attachment she shares with her grandmother and step grandfather. Yet, her beliefs in the State are tested when under the tutelage of a brilliant teacher, her eyes are opened to a whole new world of knowledge and ideas.

SHADOWS ON THE TUNDRA by Dalia Grinkeviciute (tr. Delija Valiukenas)

In those horrific days of the Second World War, Dalia and her family (mother and brother), along with a host of fellow Lithuanians were deported to Siberia to work in labour camps there. In a harsh and tough environment, where blizzards recurred often, the weather was bitingly cold, and where the living conditions were ghastly, Dalia survived that period on true grit, hope, and sheer willpower.

She wrote her memories on scraps of paper and buried them in the garden, fearing they might be discovered by the KGB. They were not found until 1991, four years after her death. Shadows on the Tundra is the story that Dalia buried, and is the second book in Peirene’s excellent ‘Home in Exile’ series.

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The Ice Palace – Tarjei Vesaas (tr. Elizabeth Rokkan)

Norway is a country of gorgeous scenery. When I visited it a couple of years ago, I was stunned by the beauty of its fjords and the charm of its small towns. It was also where I was treated to a fabulous display of the Northern Lights!

But besides nature, Norway also has a strong literary heritage as I am beginning to discover. Two months in and I have already savoured the novels of two Norwegian authors. One was the existential Novel 11, Book 18 by Dag Solstad, which I had reviewed on my blog earlier. The other is the one I will be reviewing now – The Ice Palace by Tarjei Vesaas.

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Peter Owen Cased Classics Edition

The Ice Palace is a haunting tale of two 11-year old girls Siss and Unn. When the novel opens, it is a cold winter’s evening and Siss is one her way to Unn’s house.

Siss thought about many things as she walked, bundled up against the frost. She was on her way to Unn, a girl she scarcely knew, for the first time; on her way to something unfamiliar, which was why it was exciting.

Those lines are intriguing and we get a whiff of an intense friendship about to develop between them.

We then learn that Unn lost her unwed mother last spring. Having never met her father, she now comes to live in the village with her only relative – Auntie.

From the beginning it is clear that Unn is shy, likes to be alone and does not participate in the activities of the other children.

Siss, on the other hand, is a lively girl, always at the centre of her friends circle and tries her best to persuade Unn to join them.

And yet, despite their different personalities, they are drawn to each other, finally culminating in Unn asking Siss to come to her house one evening.

This is where it gets intense, sensual even and the meeting between the two girls is so electric, it crackles.

Four eyes full of gleams and radiance beneath their lashes, filling the looking glass. Questions shooting out and then hiding again. I don’t know; gleams and radiance, gleaming from you to me, from me to you, and from me to you alone – into the mirror and out again, and never an answer about what this is, never an explanation. Those pouting red lips of yours, no, they’re mine, how alike! Hair done in the same way, and gleams and radiance. It’s ourselves!

These are the tentative beginnings of a deep friendship as both the girls are trying to figure each other out.

We get to a pivotal moment in their conversation, an exchange (and what it implies) that Siss will have difficulty in conveying to adults later on in the novel.

After a long silence Unn said, ‘Siss.’

The start!

‘Yes?’

‘There’s something I want – ‘ said Unn, flushing.

Siss was already embarrassed. ‘Oh?’

‘Did you see anything on me just now?’ asked Unn quickly but looking Siss straight in the eyes.

Siss became even more embarrassed. ‘No!’

‘There’s something I want to tell you,’ began Unn again, her voice unrecognizable.

Siss held her breath.

Unn did not continue. But then she said, ‘I’ve never said it to anyone.’

Siss stammered, ‘Would you have said it to your mother?’

‘No!’

Silence.

Siss saw that Unn’s eyes were full of anxiety. Was she not going to tell her? Siss asked, almost in a whisper, ‘Will you say it now?’

Unn drew herself up. ‘No.’

‘All right.’

And we also get a feeling that while Siss is the extroverted of the two, she is also warier. She wants to know more about Unn and yet she is afraid.

By this time, we are barely 30 pages into the novel, and there is still so much yet to take place. But as far as the plot line goes, I will not reveal more.

While the entire novel is from Siss’ point of view, there is one chapter in the early part of the novel – and the only one – which is told from Unn’s point of view.

But it is a chapter that I read with a growing sense of dread and foreboding – and also with a sense of wonderment, of the kind Unn felt too. It is also the chapter where we are first introduced to the Ice Palace (of the novel) in the Norwegian fjords.

Unn looked down into an enchanted world of small pinnacles, gables, frosted domes, soft curves and confused tracery.

A little further on…

The enormous ice palace proved to be seven times bigger and more extravagant from this angle. From here the ice walls seemed to touch the sky, they grew as she thought about them. She was intoxicated. The place was full of wings and turrets, how many it was impossible to say. The water had made it swell in all directions, and the main waterfall plunged down in the middle, keeping a space clear for itself.

The Ice Palace then is a haunting, mesmerizing novel of friendship, of loss, of redemption and recovery, of the forces of nature, of people and their lives in a village.

Vesaas’ writing (wonderfully translated by Elizabeth Rokkan) is superb. The prose is lean, spare and poetic. He is great at getting into the minds of children and conveying the world one sees through their eyes. Throughout the novel, things are implied, never explicitly stated.

He is also particularly good at expressing mood and atmosphere and describing nature.

A loud noise had interrupted her thoughts, her expectancy; a noise like a long-drawn-out crack, moving further and further off, while the sound died away. It was from the ice on the big lake down below. And it was nothing dangerous, in fact it was good news: the noise meant that the ice was a little bit stronger. It thundered like gunshot, blasting long fissures, narrow as a knife-blade, from the surface down into the depths – yet the ice was stronger and safer each morning. There had been an unusually long period of severe frost this autumn.

Clearly, Vesaas writing’ was influenced by his origins. Here’s his profile from the book:

Tarjei Vesaas was born on a farm in Vinje, Telemark, an isolated mountainous district of southern Norway, in 1897 and, having little taste for travel and an abiding love of his native countryside, died there in 1970 aged seventy-two.

I simply loved The Ice Palace. It had me captivated throughout, and I will be exploring more of this author’s backlist.

The Ice Palace
Penguin Modern Classics Edition (Eau-de-nil)

Novel 11, Book 18 – Dag Solstad (tr. Sverre Lyngstad)

The only existential novel I remember having read many years back is Albert Camus’ The Stranger/The Outsider – a novel that famously opens with the lines “Maman died today. Or maybe, yesterday; I can’t be sure.”

It’s a book that stayed in my mind, and I made a note of exploring more ‘existential-themed’ novels in the future, should I come across a good one.

And then I stumbled upon this Norwegian classic when it was translated into English around 7-8 years back. It’s a book I had never heard of, although it garnered critical acclaim in Norway when it was first published there. What more, the author Dag Solstad was also a completely new name to me, but obviously quite well known in his own country.

As my history of book buying suggests, I don’t always read a book as soon as I buy it. And this one was nicely shelved somewhere in the house. Then I came across it when scanning the bookshelves for my next read.

In some sense, it was kind of a rediscovery, and I wasted no time in going through the first few pages, feverishly making my way towards the end.

Novel 11 Book 18
Harvill Secker Hardback Edition

The rather mysteriously titled ‘Novel 11 Book 18’ is the story of a man who realizes that actual life does not really meet his expectations. And so he decides to drastically bring his expectations in line.

Bjorn Hansen is a married man with a two-year old son living in Oslo with a comfortable job as a civil servant in one of the ministries in the big city. One day he abandons his wife and child to live with the wonderfully named Turid Lammers in a smaller Norwegian town of Kongsberg.

That relationship doesn’t end too well later either as is evinced in the opening lines of the book:

When this story begins, Bjorn Hansen has just turned fifty and is waiting for someone at the Kongsberg Railway Station. It has now been four years since he separated from Turid Lammers, with whom he had lived for fourteen years, from the very moment when he arrived at Kongsberg, which before that time barely existed on the map for him. When he arrived at Kongsberg eighteen years ago, he had only a few personal belongings, such as clothes and shoes, plus crates and crates of books. When he moved out of the Lammers villa, he also took away with him only personal possessions, such as clothes and shoes, besides crates and crates of books.

But let’s rewind.

Hansen’s decision to leave his wife and move in with Turid Lammers is not necessarily well thought out. Hansen “knew that the most desirable happiness on earth was a brief happiness.” And he believes that he has found this kind of happiness with Turid. This is how he dwells on the subject in a matter-of-fact way:

He had to go to Kongsberg, to her (Turid), otherwise he would come to regret it for the rest of his life. Indeed, the absolute certainty that he would have regrets made returning to Tina and their son, to continue as before but now without a secret love, impossible. And so he disclosed his secret to his wife and cut loose from his marriage.

Bjorn Hansen, in the meanwhile, settles down gradually in his new life. He accepts the job of the town’s treasurer, for which he is overqualified, and has to endure the wrath of his colleagues who were passed on for this post.

And, he also decides to be part of the town’s theatrical society; persuaded to do so by Turid, who is the centre of attention of Kongsberg’s drama circle.

Initially, Bjorn Hansen begins to enjoy being part of the theatre group, helping on the productions (light operas, if you will) from the sidelines and yet not directly involved in the acting as such. But then he is gripped by this feeling that the theatre needs to put up plays that are more serious and substantial. He becomes fixated by the idea that they need to showcase a play by ‘Henrik Ibsen’ – Norway’s famous playwright.

He began to throw out hints that perhaps they should try for something big. All this enthusiasm, all this experience of how to conduct oneself on the stage, all this delight in precision and in displaying one’s abilities – couldn’t it be used for something more than performing operettas, which while capable of kindling a gaiety of spirit both in the actors and, not least, in the public, could nevertheless make one feel rather dejected, or outright weary, with all their intellectual vacuity, everything considered, after the lights came up in the hall, the public had gone home, and they sat in the dressing-room removing their make-up? What if they rose to a level where one could feel the blast of real life? What if they had a shot at Ibsen?

Since the idea was Hansen’s and Turid helps him bring it to fruition, Bjorn Hansen assumes the title role in the play with Turid as his wife. But the production flops badly. And it highlights the tragedy of Bjorn Hansen’s life – he has some ambition, but lacks ability.

They couldn’t do it. It was all too clear that this was something for which they lacked every qualification. Bjorn Hansen had insufficient radiance to enable him to make Hjalmar Ekdal’s (the protagonist in the play) painful gestures. That was the bitter truth. He had not enough acting technique, and hence no radiance.

Meanwhile, we are told that Bjorn Hansen has one friend, Herman Busk. They like discussing books – Bjorn Hansen in particular likes books “that showed life to be impossible and contained a bitter black humour”. But he is now bored with those and wants “a novel that showed life to be impossible, but without a trace of humour, black or otherwise.” 

And then, close to about halfway through the book, we come across a ‘twist’, prompted by Bjorn Hansen’s realization:

Just imagine, to live an entire life, my own life at that, without having found the path to where my deepest needs can be seen and heard!

He hatches an incredulous plan and decides to put it into action.

It was a plan whereby Bjorn Hansen would actualize his great No, his great Negation, as he had begun to call it, through an action that would be irrevocable.

I will not reveal what happens.

And while by itself, the plan might seem farfetched, in the context of the narrative, it doesn’t really seem so.

Which brings me to the narrative itself.

The prose in the book is deliberately plain, mechanical and sometimes repetitive. While that may put off some readers, I thought the book was compelling and interesting precisely because of it. Something about the matter-of-fact tone of the story-telling made it quite seductive, luring you into the tale, wanting you to keep the pages turning.

There is a certain detachment in the author Solstad’s storytelling and this also manifests when talking about the characters – they are always referred to by their full names, and not by either just their first names or surnames.

But there are moments of black humour in the tale, as seen from this quote:

The two years that went by before he managed to tear himself away from [Turid] were a total nightmare, which here will be passed over in silence.

This can easily be summed up as an existential novel – a man suffering a mid-life crisis. And while all of this might appear bleak, it isn’t really so. And this is where the author excels – it’s the prose, which is clinical and unemotional, and yet takes the novel to a completely different level.

Translation credits go to Sverre Lyngstad.

The Best of 2016

It’s been a great year of travel, and armchair travel!

Here are my top ten reads for 2016. Unique voices, innovative and sharp writing, and strong themes make them stand out.

Relationships dominate the list but they are not always romantic. ‘The Blue Room’ and ‘Hot Milk’ explore the complex relationship between mother and daughter as the daughters struggle to gain individuality. ‘Hot Milk’, particularly, was shortlisted for the Goldsmiths Prize during the year.

‘Her Father’s Daughter’ beautifully captures the growing love a young French girl feels for her father who has just returned from war and who she is seeing for the first time.

Can two sisters, in a remote northernmost part of Norway, live harmoniously together? Or is each one deliberately trying to wreck the life of the other? ‘The Looking Glass Sisters’, a much darker work, had me riveted.

In ‘Attachment’, a French student reminisces on her romantic relationship with her professor and how it was received by her family. ‘Paulina & Fran’ throws light on bohemian life in art colleges and how the reality, once you graduate, can be different.

However, human contact is not something one craves all the time. ‘Pond’ is a captivating tale of the pleasures of a life in solitude told by an unnamed young woman in a series of vignettes.

‘Manual for Cleaning Women’ has been a real find. Berlin led an eventful life. Brought up in the remote mining camps of the Midwest, she was a lonely child in wartime Texas, a rich and privileged young woman in Santiago, and a bohemian hipster in 50s New York. She held jobs as an ER nurse and cleaning woman while raising four boys all one her own. All of her experiences are captured in this rich collection of short stories in prose that is simply luminous.

And no one writes about California and LA as brilliantly as Joan Didion does in Play It As It Lays. The novel brutally dissects 1960s American culture.

The Faulkner is of course a classic and very rightly so.

That rounds up a truly wonderful reading year!

And oh, I just noticed that Faulkner is the only male author on the list:)

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