The guy next grave

Grabben i graven bredvid by Katarina Mazetti. French title : Le mec de la tombe d’à côté. 1998. 254 pages. English title : Benny & Shrimp. (I don’t speak Swedish but I guess that the French title is the exact translation of the Swedish.)

Katarina Mazetti is a Swedish writer born in 1944. Le mec de la tombe d’à côté – I’ll keep the French title since it’s the right one – was published in 1998 in Sweden and its French translation was published in paperback in 2009. She sold 400 000 copies in France, it was made into a theatre play and should be made into a French film. A huge success. I picked it by chance, during one of my visits to a bookstore.  

Desiree is in her thirties and her husband Örjan died five months ago from a stupid bike accident. “I feel let down that Örjan went and died. (…) Örjan should be feeling let down, too. All that tai chi, organic potato and polyunsaturated fat. What good did it do him?”  Several times a week, she spends her lunch break on his grave, thinking. Benny does the same on his mother’s grave, next to Örjan’s.

Örjan’s grave is a simple stone with his name and Benny’s parents grave is the kitschest (does that word exist?) grave Desiree’s ever seen. They observe each other with sided glances and don’t like what they see. Here’s Desiree seeing Benny for the first time:

A few weeks ago I saw the bereaved by monstrosity for the first time. He was a man of about my age, in a loud, quilted jacket and a padded cap with earflaps. Its peak went up at the front, American-style, and had a logo saying FOREST OWNERS’ ALLIANCE. (…) He had a funny smell and only three fingers on his left hand. 

And Benny’s exasperation at finding Desiree there, on the bench near the grave:

And then she’s there.

Faded, like some old colour photo that’s been on display for years. Dried-out blonde hair, a pale face, white eyebrows and lashes, wishy-washy pastel clothes, always something vaguely blue or beige. A beige person.  

Things change on a misinterpretation of a smile on both sides and they start a relationship. We progressively discover their life and their past as they struggle through their affair.

The problems are Cultural Difference and Education Difference. Desiree is a librarian. She likes classical music, reading (obviously), going to the opera, discussing books and philosophy. Benny is a dairy farmer. He likes pop songs, TV, popular films and reads The Farmer. There’s something between them they can’t explain (Desiree says her ovaries loop the loop) 

Written like this, it sounds corny. But it isn’t. Desiree is repressed and her marriage with Örjan was peaceful, egalitarian and intellectually interesting. It lacked passion and fun though. To me, being married to Örjan seemed as funny as being married to a golden fish. Desiree’s parents are alive but her mother is ill and doesn’t recognise her any more and her father doesn’t care for her. She’s alone and lonely. She hardly lets herself feel anything.

Benny’s parents were loving and more openly affectionate. His background is louder, more traditional too. He isn’t stupid; he had good grades in school. But he dropped out of school when his father died to take over the farm. Benny could sound misogynistic but he didn’t to me. Katarina Mazetti captured very well the life of a dairy farmer and the difficulty to meet someone who’s willing to live this life. It’s close to slavery because the cows must be milked twice a day. And they can’t wait. You need to be at home for them whatever happens in your personal life. And you need to be thorough because the milk is tested and the whole tank is wasted if the results are bad. You can’t afford to waste a whole tank, money is tight. You’re alone and you must face calving cows, out-of-order farming machines and all kinds of problems. Benny works A LOT, like dairy farmers do. So when he says he expects his wife to take care of the house, it’s more because he doesn’t have time to do it than because it’s a woman’s task. He’s very frustrated that his city girl-friend can’t cook meat balls. (Thanks to IKEA, the whole world knows that Swedish like meat balls) He’s looking for a partner, someone who shares his problems and helps him in case of emergency. It sounds sensible as a basis for a long-term relationship. The difficulty is that his emergencies are hard to handle for a city woman. They involve mud, dirty green overalls and wake-up calls in the middle of the night. Desiree thinks: “I tried to imagine myself in his life. But no picture came to my mind”   

When Desiree tries to have him into her life, he gets bored or falls asleep, exhausted. She’s frustrated too. They need to hire two videos on Saturday nights, one for him and she does something else during the film and one for her and he usually bores himself to sleep. It’s the symbol of their couple. 

Is their relationship doomed to failure?  

I really enjoyed this book. It sounds simplistic and déjà-vu but it raises the eternal questions: what are you willing to give up for your lover? How far can you go to adapt to his/her way of life? Does it work on the long run? Do you need to share the same background, have similar tastes? Örjan and Desiree were a modern couple, sharing tasks, common values and but they weren’t that happy. I understand Desiree’s reaction – I couldn’t help in fields or with cows, I’m not build that way – and I also understand what Benny wishes for in a wife. I won’t tell the ending, it surprised me. It’s also a nice portrait of a contemporary dairy farmer, really true to life. I know one, I can tell.

I have to admit that the French cover is mawkish and if it hadn’t been published by Actes Suds, I wouldn’t have picked up the book to read the blurb. Once more, the English title has nothing to do with the original one. Why? For a reference to Frankie & Johnny? Benny & June? Marketing is always stronger than the respect of the artist’s idea. I hope Mazetti agreed to this title.

Something else about the English version. I downloaded a sample on my kindle for the quotes and was surprised to discover that this American version pushed the mawkishness to start Désirée’s chapters with embroidering pattern and Benny’s chapters with a cow pattern, in case you forgot he’s a farmer. I wonder why Désirée doesn’t have a book  pattern since she’s a librarian. Is it too feminist to think she too could have a reference to her job instead of her sex? I suggest that Benny have an axe pattern, isn’t that a man’s job to cut wood?

Katarina Mazetti wrote a sequel translated into French, Caveau de famille (The Family Tomb). As far as I know, it hasn’t been translated into English. Yet. After my terrible experience with the sequel of Love Virtually — My 2011 winner of the stupidest title, so far — I’m going to skip on Caveau de famille.  

  1. May 11, 2011 at 2:02 am

    This one sounds interesting. It’s not the sort of thing I’d pick actually, but your review gave me a sense of its appeal. It sounds as though the book asks some age old questions, but the asking is sincere–not contrived.

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    • May 11, 2011 at 10:02 am

      Katarina Mazetti is on a slippery slope here. With less witt and subtlety, it could have turned into a potato pie book. But she managed it, at least for me. Let’s say it’s not an American romantic comedy.
      I think the English title and the German one (read Caroline’s comment) are harmful to the book.
      I’d be curious to read your review.

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      • May 11, 2011 at 6:28 pm

        Potato Pie…arrggh no, make it stop.

        I’m a subscriber to Max Barry’s website, and I got an e-mail this am saying that a film is going to be made of Syrup. Thought you’d be interested.

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        • May 11, 2011 at 10:44 pm

          I still have to visit Max Barry’s web site, so thanks. I’ll read Syrup later, I want to discover his other books. I don’t understand why they haven’t been translated into French. Who’s going to be the director?

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  2. May 11, 2011 at 5:21 am

    Like you I bought this when I saw it in a bookshop and also in its French translation. I didn’t get to reading it yet but it does sound good, judging from your review, I’m sure I will like it. The sequel reminds me of the Love Virtually sequel. Is it necessary, do you think? I think no sequel is necessary unless you plan it in advance. I did suspect Glattauer to have written the sequel after seing the succes of the first and not because he originally had that in mind.
    Education difference are sometimes even more problematic than cultural differences. This reminds me of Benoîte Groult’s huge success Les vaisseaux du coeur.

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    • May 11, 2011 at 10:13 am

      I don’t think the sequel is necessary. Given the delay between the first and second book, I assume it comes from the success of Le Mec de la tombe d’à côté and not from an initial project of the writer. So I’m not tempted except if someone else whose tastes I trust says it’s good.

      I haven’t read that Groult. I should. I loved her four hands diary with her sister. I liked her character. I’ll have a look at Les Vaisseaux du coeur, thanks.
      I think that if educational differences are to be a problem in a couple, it comes to light rather quickly. Cultural differences may not be a problem for a couple but become a problem when a child comes. Then you unconsciously turn back to your past and think about the values, customs, that you want to pass on to the next generation. And you can have major disagreements that had never surfaced before.

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  3. May 11, 2011 at 7:27 am

    I think it is odd that it will be made into a French film when the Swedish movie exists since 2002. I don’t know of all that many French remakes of movies, mostly it is the other way around.
    For your amusement, the German title is “Der Kerl vom Land: Eine Liebesgeschichte”, “The bloke from the countryside: A Love Story”… Very subtle… 🙂

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    • May 11, 2011 at 10:35 am

      I knew about the Swedish film, that’s why I wrote “French film” in the review. Patrick Braoudé bought the rights to make the film. (Is this sentence correct?) So I’m a little afraid of the result. It needs a subtle director or it’s going to be a heavy comedy. It’s easy to turn Benny into a “beauf” (what’s the English for that?)

      I’d like to watch the Swedish film but I have no idea where I could find it.

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  4. May 11, 2011 at 11:27 am

    Yes, the translation is correct but I’m not sure about the translation of beauf. I think cultural differences pose problems from the outside, depnding on what cultures and where you live and whether it is tied to religion and skin color.

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    • May 11, 2011 at 12:20 pm

      “Beauf”, for English-speaking readers who don’t speak French and would read this, is a word to say “archetypal lower-middle-class Frenchman”. It’s very pejorative. (and informal)

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  5. May 12, 2011 at 5:23 pm

    This was supposed to be announced tomorrow, but word leaked out early and Variety reported it, so: they’re making Syrup. It’s what comingsoon.net kindly calls a “smaller production,” starring Shiloh Fernandez and Amber Heard. It’s based on a script I wrote, is to be directed by Aram Rappaport, and will shoot in June in New York City. This would be (will be, will be) the first of my novels to be filmed.

    I am totally flying over there and doing some kind of cameo. I’m looking forward to seeing sets. I don’t know why. But I always imagine locations pretty clearly—more so than the characters, in the physical sense—and I want to see the chair that Scat swivels around in. I know it won’t be just as I imagined. But it will be something in my head made real.

    (copied and pasted from http://www.maxbarry.com)

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  6. May 15, 2011 at 2:45 am

    I enjoyed the post (and the discussion here) more than I think I’d enjoy this book, but I have to say that I’m terrified by any reference to “potato pie” country in a novel–and I’ve never even read THE potato pie novel!

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    • May 15, 2011 at 8:00 pm

      I only know you by your blog and I can’t imagine you reading this. You’re right to be terrified by the potato book: c’est dégoulinant de mièvrerie. Katarina Mazetti avoided that. Thankfully.
      I like books like Le mec de la tombe d’à côté sometimes, especially when I’m reading something difficult at the same time. It’s like watching TV.

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      • May 18, 2011 at 11:27 pm

        Affiche
        I’ve seen the play. It was great and rather faithful to the book. The book was more subtle and the Swedish references have been changed into French references in the play.
        The three persons who saw it with me really enjoyed it too.

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  7. May 26, 2011 at 7:54 pm

    It actually sounds rather good, though the US translation sounds like it’s gone for a horrifically sexist angle on the chapter headings. The title in English is bad too. Clearly it’s being marketed as chicklit/romantic fiction, whereas it sounds cleverer than that.

    With my current reading pile I’ll still probably pass, but there is some real meat in the topic so I can see why it could be much better than the marketing would suggest.

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    • May 26, 2011 at 8:08 pm

      There’s more to it than the chick-lit story. Benny’s voice and life sounds real.

      Actually, the three men who watched the theatre version with me had a lot of fun but also acknowledged that they wouldn’t have come it if they had read the blurb before. (they let me choose the plays.)

      Like

  1. December 15, 2012 at 10:34 pm
  2. February 16, 2013 at 7:08 pm
  3. December 21, 2014 at 12:14 pm
  4. March 18, 2017 at 6:43 pm

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