My Life as a Penguin by Katarina Mazetti (2008) Not available in English French title: Ma vie de pingouin. Translated from the Swedish by Lena Grumbach.
After finishing A Cool Million by Nathanael West, I was so upset that I needed a fluffy book. Katarina Mazetti is one of my go-to writers when I want nice feel-good novels. I’ve already read The Guy Next Grave or Benny & Shrimp for English readers and its follow-up Family Grave. I’ve even seen the theatre adaptation of Benny & Shrimp. I also indulged in the Linnea Trilogy (Between God and Me, it’s Over; Between the Little Red Riding Hood and the Wolf, It’s Over and The End is Only the Beginning) which I didn’t like as much as Benny & Shrimp.
So, after the very depressing Cool Million, My Life as a Penguin seemed a good reading choice, and it was.
My Life as a Penguin starts in the Roissy Charles de Gaulle airport where about fifty Swedish passengers are embarking on a flight to Santiago in Chile where they are to embark on a cruise in Antarctica. Wilma has never really left Sweden and she’s struggling to get to the right gate at the airport. Honestly, anyone who’s ever flown out of this Parisian airport feels her pain. Tomas is already there, brooding but willing to help Wilma. Alba is in her seventies, she’s already travelled a lot and she loves observing humans and animals. Wilma, Tomas and Alba will be our main narrator during the cruise.
All the travelers have a goal with this trip. You’d think the first aim would be to see the world and enjoy nature but no. Wilma sees it as a challenge and we discover why later in the book. Tomas decided for a trip to Antarctica to commit suicide. Alba wants to observe the flora but also the fauna of her fellow travelers. A couple of women are there to catch men. A few men are birdwatchers and really intend to see the local birds in their natural habitat.
You’ll find what you’d expect in a book where people who don’t know each other have to live in close quarters. They observe each other, gossip, interact. Friendships blossom, couples get together. Wilma’s voice is warm and I wanted to find out why she embarked on such a cruise, what her story was. Tomas is depressed because his wife left him and moved out to California with her new husband. With her living so far away with their children, Tomas doesn’t get to see them as much as before and he feels like he has lost his children too. Wilma always sees the glass half full and Tomas always sees it half empty. Their opposite vision of life fuels their interactions. Here’s Tomas thinking about Wilma’s attitude:
|Et puis elle a une attitude tellement positive devant tout, c’est merveilleux et risible à la fois! Si Wilma se retrouvait en enfer, elle déclarerait tout de suite qu’elle adore les feux de camp et demanderait au diable s’il n’a pas quelques saucisses à griller.||And she has such a positive attitude towards everything; it’s wonderful and at the same time ludicrous. If Wilma ended up in hell, she’d immediately declare that she loves camp fires and would ask the devil if he didn’t have sausages for a barbeque.|
Alba is a quirky character; she’s never without her beloved notebook where she gathers her observations of human nature and writes a comparison between people and animals.
I also enjoyed reading about their excursions in Antarctica. The weather was fierce and far from the usual sunny cruise. I liked that Katarina Mazetti didn’t choose a setting in the Caribbean or more plausible for European travelers, a cruise on the Mediterranean Sea. It is a way to avoid clichés and it was welcome.
Katarina Mazetti writes in a light mode, always on a fine line between serious and humorous. Her tone suggests that even if life is tough sometimes, difficulties are better handled with a bit of courage and a healthy sense of humor. Even if it’s not an immortal piece of literature, I was curious about this group’s journey and was looking forward to discovering how the trip would end for all of them. Would it be a life-changing experience or just another holiday?
The Linnea trilogy (my term) is composed of the following books by Katarina Mazetti:
- Det är slut mellan Gud och mej (God and I broke up, available in English) 1995
- Det är slut mellan Rödluvan och vargen (The Red Riding Hood and the Wolf Broke Up. Not translated into English) 1998
- Slutet är bara början (The End Is Only the Beginning. Not translated into English) 2002
I’ve already read two books by Katarina Mazetti (Benny and Shrimp, the English title is silly because the original means The Guy Next Grave) and Family Grave) and I thought they were good light books. You know, the kind of books that aren’t too difficult to read but are still well written? The ones I put in the Beach and Public Transport category? They’re relaxing. When I was struggling with Berlin Alexanderplatz, I read God and I Broke Up. When I was drowning in Flan O’Brien’s prose, I read The Red Riding Hood and the Wolf Broke Up. And I closed the trilogy with The End Is Only the Beginning. I’m a bit in a rush to finish writing about the 2014 books I’ve read before the year ends, so I’m writing one billet about the three novellas.
In the first volume, we meet with Linnea. She’s sixteen and her best friend Pia has just died. She’s grieving while trying to live her adolescence.
|On n’a pas de statut quand on a perdu un ami! Si ton mari meurt, tu deviens veuve, une veuve vêtue de noir et les gens baissent la voix en ta présence pendant des années.Si c’est ton meilleur ami qui meurt, les gens te demandent après quelque temps pourquoi tu broies encore du noir.||You have no status when you lose a friend! If your husband dies, you become a widow dressed in black and people talk to you in a low voice for years. If your best friend dies, after a while, people ask you why you’re still feeling down.|
The novella is a first person narrative; we’re in Linnea’s head and the style reflects perfectly the mix of cockiness and insecurity of adolescence. Losing Pia makes Linnea feel isolated even if in appearances, she’s well adjusted. She has rather good grades, socialises with her classmates and takes part in family life. God and I Broke Up is not the portrait of a depressed teenager. It’s the portrait of an adolescent who lost her confident, the person she could loosen up with. Linnea used Pia as a sounding board for her ideas and vice versa. She’s grieving this precious intimacy. God and I Broke Up is the story of a banal adolescent. She lives in a small Swedish town where there’s not much to do, she goes to school and has the usual crushes, stories about classes and lunch breaks. Her mother is divorced and remarried with Ingo, an inspiring artist. He builds artwork with wood and lets his wife be the bread winner. They have a son together, Knotte who’s very close to Linnea. She’s a middle-class Swedish girl.
The salt of the novella is in the characters, their quirky ways and Linnea’s voice. It addresses the typical questions of adolescence: what about God?, what about love?, what about my future? and who am I? And Linnea tells you…
|Il ne faut pas gaspiller sa vie en courant entre les manèges et les stands comme à une fête foraine. Restez là où vous vous sentez vraiment bien. Il vaut mieux se décider en conscience que de laisser tout au hasard. Car il faut se décider. On ne peut pas conduire une moto et écouter le chant des oiseaux en même temps. On ne peut pas être à la fois cascadeuse et heureuse mère de sept enfants.||You shoudn’t waste your life running from one attraction to the other like you would in a funfair. Stay where you feel very good. It’s better to make the decision than let chance decided. Because you have to make a decision. You can’t ride a motorbike and at the same time listen to the birds singing. You cannot be a stuntman and the happy mother of seven children.|
I liked the second volume, The Red Riding Hood and the Wolf Broke Up, less than the first one. I don’t know if it’s the same in English or in Swedish –the French title is the exact translation of the original Swedish title, I checked— but in French, Elle a vu le loup (literally, She saw the wolf) means She lost her virginity. So in this second opus of the series, Linnea runs away to Los Angeles and loses her virginity on the way there. I was less keen on this one because I found it a bit unrealistic. What is interesting though is the depiction of Los Angeles. It demystifies the American dream that most European adolescents have. Linnea doesn’t end up in shiny Rodeo Drive. She ends up in the side of Malibu where people speak Spanish better than English and have two or three crappy jobs to survive. That’s a good wake-up call for us who see from the US mostly what the sunny TV series show us.
The last volume relates Linnea’s last year of high school…
|Nous voilà au début du premier trimestre de terminale, les professeurs se promènent en levant l’index d’un geste menaçant qui a l’art de plomber l’ambiance : « Ce sera peut-être l’année la plus importante de votre vie, vous comprenez, c’est maintenant que vous décidez de votre avenir !!! »||Here we are at the beginning of the first period of senior year. The teachers walk around with their index finger raised in a threatening manner and are masters at spoiling the fun: “This may be the most important year of your life, you understand. This is when you decide on your future!!!”|
…—it does ring a bell, doesn’t it? — and it’s about Linnea’s first love relationship with Per, Pia’s older brother. I thought this volume was as good as the first one. It doesn’t go for corny but for funny and real, like here when Linnea describes her attraction to Per:
|La pilosité dans le visage des garçons a quelque chose d’attirant, j’avais l’impression que ses sourcils lançaient des décharges de phéromones, et, pour être franche, je ne peux pas y résister. Une tablette de chocolat sur le ventre ne me fait aucun effet—mais donnez-moi un visage poilu et je craque sur le champ. Parfois je me dis que c’est parce que je n’ai jamais eu de chien quand j’étais petite…||Hair on a boy’s face is attracting. It was as if his eyebrows were shooting pheromones discharges and to be honest, I can’t resist it. Six-pack abs do nothing to me but give me a hairy face and I melt on the spot. Sometimes I think it’s because I never had a dog as a child.|
Er, I suppose the first part of this quote is rather comforting for hairy boys. Please note that in French a six-pack is tablette de chocolat (bars of chocolate). Back to the book. While Linnea contemplates and comments the effects of love on her mind and body, life goes on around her. Her friend Malin is in a tough spot, her grand-mother has a stroke and questions about university linger. Her relationship with Per stems from their connection to Pia and not from common interests so it fizzles over different visions of life. Per is in the military and Linnea’s background is rather alternative. Katarina Mazetti is a feminist and Linnea is a quiet feminist as well. She holds her ground and won’t let Per control her and that’s a valuable message to adolescent girls.
The Linnea trilogy is a light, fun and spot-on read. If you have teenagers around you, I recommend it because it’s the kind of book that leaves you relieved as in “Good, I’m not the only one who feels that way”. And I think it’s a very comforting thought. Plus, it’s easy to read and it may be a way to lure some into reading books!
Familjegraven by Katarina Mazetti 2005. French title: Le caveau de famille. Not available in English.
Family Grave is the sequel of Benny and Shrimp, a book I read almost two years ago. I wouldn’t have bought the sequel as these are usually disappointing unless the initial literary project was to write something in several volumes. Otherwise, once the pleasure of discovering a new set of characters and a new environment is gone, the sequel lacks the freshness of first impressions. In this case, my in-law lent me the book and I read it in two settings. It’s short, entertaining and does not really engage a lot of brain cells. Just look at the categories I chose; this is not a criticism, just a statement.
Mazetti’s characters are Benny, a farmer who struggles to keep his farm afloat by himself and Dérirée, who is a librarian and a city girl. They meet in the cemetery since Benny’s mother’s grave is beside Dérirée’s husband’s grave. They have nothing in common but still fall in love. In the sequel, we follow their improbable love story as they become parents. In this kind of book, with that kind of blurb, it can be anything from extremely corny to extremely funny and witty. Only the skills of the writer can make a difference. Perhaps it is, in a way, more difficult to write excellent fluffy books following well-battered paths than it is to write a book about yourself and your relationship with your mother.
But back to Benny and Désirée. Things weren’t easy between them in the first volume, they don’t improve in the second. It’s still written in the same light and funny tone as Benny and Shrimp and the details are rather realistic. Katarina Mazetti describes with a rather good accuracy the life of parents who both work and have several children under four years old. You live on a binary mode: Parent-Employee-Parent-Employee…Sometimes the man or the woman in you pops up provided that you haven’t fallen asleep before it can even happen. So it’s full of details that non-parents may have a hard time believing but that are still true. The huge piles of laundry, the illness that always occur at the worst moment, the desperate need to find someone to watch them when they’re ill and you need to work, the holidays that aren’t unwinding, the relief when it’s time for their nap or the constant run against to clock to get everything done and respect their need for meals and naps at fixed hours. Don’t get me wrong. There are wonderful moments with small children when you help them acquire new skills and cuddle them. These moments get enough advertising; it’s nice to have someone showing the other side of parenthood.
The only detail I had difficulties to swallow is that Désirée keeps on getting pregnant by accident. Don’t they have coils in Sweden? This is the 21st century and I have a hard time imagining it can happen to such an educated woman as Désirée.
The most interesting aspect of the book is about Benny and his farm. Katarina Mazetti’s husband is a farmer, so she knows how it works. Benny works all the time, doesn’t earn enough to support a family, struggles with EU paperwork and Désirée isn’t very optimistic about the future of agriculture in Sweden. Money is tight and farms disappear. Benny is the last one milking cows in his neighbourhood. His character, although a bit of a caricature, still rings true. I’m not saying that all farmers act like Benny but more that they encounter the same kind of troubles in their work.
This novel doesn’t pretend to be a masterpiece; it isn’t but it’s a good light read if you need one. It came as a nice distraction to Marcel’s claustrophic behaviour to Albertine.
A word about the covers. The French one is rather corny and the red heart is a link to the cover of the first volume. I think that the Italian one is awful and the book doesn’t deserve such a pink syrupy cover. Again, it’s a book marketed for women and we can’t escape pink. And those ridiculous butterflies! It has nothing to do with the book…
The Red Room by August Strindberg 1879 French title: Le cabinet rouge (Out of print)
Rules always have exceptions or perhaps it’s my being French, we don’t have a grammar rule without an exception to it. So it’s ingrained. One of my rules is that I don’t read books in English translation; if it’s translated, it has to be in French. Unfortunately, I wanted to read The Red Room by August Strindberg and I couldn’t put my hands on a French copy whereas there’s a free kindle version in English. So I read it in English.
The Red Room is a picture of the Stockholm society in the 1870s. It opens on a scene between Arvid Falk and Mr Struve, in a park in Stockholm. Falk has decided to change of career path:
“I mentioned a little while ago,” Falk resumed, “that I’ve broken to-day with my past life and thrown up my career as a government employé. I’ll only add that I intend taking up literature.” “Literature? Good Heavens! Why? Oh, but that is a pity!” “It isn’t; but I want you to tell me how to set about finding work.” “H’m! That’s really difficult to say. The profession is crowded with so many people of all sorts. But you mustn’t think of it. It really is a pity to spoil your career; the literary profession is a bad one.”
That sets the context: Arvid Falk quits his job as a civil servant to become a writer and we’ll follow him in this important change. Arvid isn’t a rich man; he lived upon his salary and is quickly penniless. He starts mingling with the artists’ crowd who cheaply lives in gardens in the surroundings of Stockholm and gathers in The Red Room, a special room in a café that serves cheap meals. This group of artists (and I couldn’t help thinking of L’hommage à Delacroix by Fantin-Latour) is composed of a philosopher (Yberg), a writer (Arvid Falk), two painters (Séllen and Lundell), an actor (Rehnhjellen) and Óllen (artist-to-be).
Falk has a brother, Nicholas who is throwing himself in the business world in a ruthless manner. He recently married and his wife wants to climb the social ladder through a feminist society and charities.
According to Wikipedia, in 1866 Sweden became a constitutional monarchy with a bicameral parliament, with the First Chamber indirectly elected by local governments, and the Second Chamber directly elected in national elections every four years. It was considered as a liberal reform and The Red Room relates how the society had difficulties to accept the change and turned back to conservatism. The text is full of acerbic remarks about Sweden and Strindberg shows a picture that doesn’t add up with the image I had of this country.
Following these characters serves Strindberg’s goal to draw a dark picture of the Stockholm society. The criticism is harsh: the civil servants are lazy, the dice of politics are loaded (“But you mislead public opinion.” “The public does not want to have an opinion, it wants to satisfy its passions), the newspapers only tell what suits the power and create artists through fake critics, the businessmen have no ethics, the women do charity to show off their generosity in newspapers, the unionists are uneducated people who take advantage of their position and the clergymen have a not-so-Christian tendency to brag. (“You know,” he continued, “that I’m a popular preacher; I may say that without boasting, for all the world knows it. You know, that I’m very popular; I can’t help that–it is so! I should be a hypocrite if I pretended not to know what all the world knows!)
Arvid Falks wanders into the Swedish society, accepting low paid jobs at a publisher, becoming a journalist himself, which gives him the opportunity to attend political events, trials, the general assembly of companies and all kinds of events.
Strindberg depicts MPs totally disconnected from their country, unable to listen to the sensible speeches of people’s representatives. The particularities were a bit lost to me, I don’t know enough about the history of Sweden to get all the details and references to real events. (There were most probably some)
Business caught my attention. At this time – and it was the same in France – Sweden was investing in industries and fortunes were building in finance, insurance and industrial fields. These investments require large funding and companies with limited liabilities increased in number. But as you can also read it in Zola or Maupassant, business was a war zone, there wasn’t much regulation. And shrewd investors took advantage of that new kind of company, as Strindberg shows in this conversation:
“But if–but if–matters should go wrong….” “One goes into liquidation!” “Liquidation?” “Declares oneself insolvent! That’s the proper term. And what does it matter if the society becomes insolvent? It isn’t you, or I, or he! But one can also increase the number of shares, or issue debentures which the Government may buy up in hard times at a good price.” “There’s no risk then?” “Not the slightest! Besides what have you got to lose?”
In The Red Room, members of the high society put their credit in an insurance company along with other adventurous self-made-men. The scene of the general assembly of the insurance company is incredible. The company had to face important reimbursement of claims and makes a loss but the shareholders don’t care, they want a dividend! When you know what Solvency II EU regulations have in store of today’s insurance companies, this sounds surrealist. It also shows the beginning of modern corporate world and I find it fascinating.
Strindberg is also extremely hard on journalists, another profession whose ethics had yet to improve. Here is a newspaper looking for a new chief editor:
There only remained the necessity of finding a new chief editor. In accordance with the new programme of the syndicate, he would have to possess the following qualifications: he must be known as a perfectly trustworthy citizen; must belong to the official class; must possess a title, usurped or won, which could be elaborated if necessity arose. In addition to this he must be of good appearance, so that one could show him off at festivals and on other public occasions; he must be dependent; a little stupid, because true stupidity always goes hand in hand with Conservative leanings; he must be endowed with a certain amount of shrewdness, which would enable him to know intuitively the wishes of his chiefs and never let him forget that public and private welfare are, rightly understood, one and the same thing. At the same time he must not be too young, because an older man is more easily managed; and finally, he must be married, for the syndicate, which consisted of business men, knew perfectly well that married slaves are more amenable than unmarried ones.
Hard task, isn’t it? No the kind of man to turn his newspaper into a fourth power. And indeed newspapers change of side if needed, turning from liberal to conservative if it sells more copies. Strindberg describes how they praise books they haven’t read to please friends and not to promote real talent. They are extremely conservative when it comes to paintings. I saw in Séllen a sort of Manet when he scandalized the good society with Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe or Olympia. Lundell is more an official artist, accepting jobs for a living (portraits, religious scenes for churches). They create reputations not based on talent but on favoritism.
I suppose The Red Room is a coming-of-age novel but I’m not good at labeling things. Perhaps Arvid Falk has something to do with Strindberg as a young man. Arvid starts his life as a writer full of illusions about life, society and progress. He hurts himself against the glass of conservatism and is knocked out. Will he find a way to be a member of this society without giving up his principles?
Now, what about the form? Strindberg is mostly known as a playwright and his skills for theatre filter through the text. Sometimes it sounds more like scenes than like a real novel, he doesn’t have the talent of a Maupassant even if I felt it was what he was trying to achieve. However, he has a great sense of humour and a knack to coin funny images:
he could only concentrate his thoughts on one spot inside a not very large circumference, his tailor could have expressed the size of it in inches after measuring him round the stomach.
he looked deadly pale, cold and calm like a corpse which has abandoned all hope of resurrection.
The cigar continued talking.
Arvid tranquilly pocketed the insulting compliment.
But he’s also able to write lovely descriptions of his home town:
He sat down on a seat, listening to the splashing of the waves; a light breeze had sprung up and rustled through the flowering maple trees, and the faint light of the half moon shone on the black water; twenty, thirty boats lay moored on the quay; they tore at their chains for a moment, raised their heads, one after the other, and dived down again, underneath the water; wind and wave seemed to drive them onward; they made little runs towards the bridge like a pack of hounds, but the chain held them in leash and left them kicking and stamping, as if they were eager to break loose.
Beautiful picture of Stockholm’s seaside. Strinberg spent years in France and I noticed he uses a lot of French words in his text. Or is it in the translation? I don’t know. But I wasn’t aware that you could use the words employé, crèche, coup de vent, femme entretenue or coup de théâtre in English.
I found this book extremely interesting but a bit patched up sometimes. The style is uneven, brilliant sometimes and heavy at other times. As I said before, I’m not sure Strindberg has a real talent as a novelist. It’s my first one by him, so I can’t compare. Nevertheless, The Red Room is worth reading for the picture of Sweden it describes.
In The Red Room (one day, I’ll have time, alert and available neurons to write my billet about it), August Strindberg exposes his views on the artist as a character:
“‘I can analyse the much-talked-of artistic instinct because I was endowed with it myself. It rests on a broad base of longing for freedom, freedom from profitable labour; for this reason a German philosopher defined Beauty as the Unprofitable; as soon as a work of art is of practical use, betrays a purpose or a tendency its beauty vanishes. Further-more the instinct rests on pride; man wants to play God in art, not that he wants to create anything new–he can’t do that–but because he wants to improve, to arrange, to recreate. He does not begin by admiring his model, Nature, but by criticizing it. Everything is full of faults and he longs to correct them. “‘This pride, spurring a man on to never-ceasing effort, and the freedom from work–the curse of the fall–beget in the artist the illusion that he is standing above his fellow creatures; to a certain extent this is true, but unless he were constantly recalling this fact he would find himself out, that is to say find the unreal in his activity and the unjustifiable in his escape from the profitable. This constant need of appreciation of his unprofitable work makes him vain, restless, and often deeply unhappy; as soon as he comes to a clear understanding of himself he becomes unproductive and goes under, for only the religious mind can return to slavery after having once tasted freedom. “‘To differentiate between genius and talent, to look upon genius as a separate quality, is nonsense, and argues a faith in special manifestation. The great artist is endowed with a certain amount of ability to acquire some kind of technical skill. Without practice his ability dies. Somebody has said: genius is the infinite capacity for taking pains. This is, like so many other things, a half-truth. If culture be added–a rare thing because knowledge makes all things clear, and the cultured man therefore rarely becomes an artist–and a sound intellect, the result is genius, the natural product of a combination of favourable circumstances.
It seems a bit negative to me although I agree with the vision of art as the Unprofitable. That’s why it’s essential. It’s good the be reminded that everything doesn’t need to be profitable or provide return on investment.
See you soon with the full billet about this interesting Swedish novel.
The Emigrants by Vilhelm Moberg (1898-1973) Published in 1949.
From 1949 to 1959, the Swedish author Vilhelm Moberg wrote the Emigrants series, which counts four volumes.
- The Emigrants (1949)
- Unto a Good Land (1952)
- The Settlers (1956)
- The Last Letter Home (1959)
The series relates the story of a Swedish family from Småland, a rural part of Sweden, who emigrates to Minnesota. Don’t ask me why the French edition has five volumes, the second one relates the crossing of the Atlantic. I suppose it’s included in the first book in the English edition.
The Emigrants describes the life of peasants in Småland in the early 1850s. As the law on inheritance splits properties equally between children, the heir who wants the estate must buy out their siblings’ part. If the division is done during the parents’ lifetime, they keep an allowance. It has a huge impact on their living conditions.
We follow the Nielsson who are small landowners. The eldest son, Karl Oskar bought the land but their property isn’t vast enough to support his family and pay back the loan they subscribed to buy the part that belonged to Karl Oskar’s siblings. Plus, the soil is poor, full of rocks, with small return. No matter how hard Karl Oskar and his wife Kristina work, they can’t make enough money to make ends meet. As the family grows, they risk starvation and cannot pay their debt any time the weather is foul and endangers the crops. Slowly, the idea of moving in America settles in their minds as they cannot see any future for them in Sweden. Despite their fear, they decide to risk it and settle in the country of gold and honey.
I understood that there were four official conditions for a person in Sweden at the time: clergyman, aristocrat, peasant and other. The Emigrants details the living conditions of small peasants. It shows how they are under the yoke of the Church and of secular power too. Farm workers sign contracts with masters that are close to slavery. They can’t leave the estate, they can be beaten and can go to prison if they escape. (The equivalent of gendarmes chase them and bring them back to their masters)
Moberg also puts forward the power and intolerance of the Lutheran Church. “Heretics” are chased and some emigrants left because they were persecuted and couldn’t live according to their faith. I saw there the roots of obscure American churches that these emigrants brought with them. This is something odd for a French, as these alternative churches aren’t widespread here.
It’s a tough life ; I thought the villagers hardly held together, there seemed to be no dances or joyful gatherings. It’s not very different from what Herbjørg Wassmo described in the Dinah Trilogy. Did the Church forbid dances and fests? It was a rigid life, dedicated to work with little pleasure. However, sometimes Moberg is unintentionally funny, like here:
Le pasteur avait pleinement confiance en Per Persson. Comme celui-ci ne buvait pas plus d’un demi-pichet d’eau-de-vie par jour, c’était un modèle de sobriété pour les autres paroissiens.
The priest fully trusted Per Persson. As he didn’t drink more than half a jug of schnapps per day, he was a model of temperance for the other parishioners.
Humph! If like me, smelling schnapps is almost enough to get you drunk, the idea of half a jug of it makes you shiver and imagine alcoholic coma straight away. And to think that half a pitcher is temperance!
From the literary point of view, the narration is very straightforward, it’s in chronological order, narrated in the third person. The style isn’t literary enough for my taste and I think Moberg could have said as much in less pages. The second volume is the crossing, I wonder why he needed 300 pages to describe the trip, no matter how awful it must have been. The French translator wrote in the foreword that he couldn’t translate the dialect and that the Swedish-English words spoken by the emigrants in America were impossible to give back into French. So, I suppose it’s better to read an English translation than a French one. Perhaps these difficulties retrieved some of the literary effects of the original text.
Notwithstanding, I thought it an interesting read, more for the historical side than for the literary pleasure. Between 1850 and 1914, one million of Swedish emigrants arrived in Ellis Island, which means that 25% of the population left their country. This was a surprise for me, I knew from reading Jim Harrison and Siri Hustdvet that States like Minnesota or Dakota had welcomed Norwegian and Swedish settlers, but I didn’t know that so many families left Sweden for America. To me, massive emigration of that time meant Italian, Jewish and Irish communities. It is a curiosity for a French as we don’t share that history of emigration to America. We had the same problem of land division between heirs and of properties becoming smaller but the French chose to have less children. As a consequence, the low birth rate was a concern for the different governments. Anyway, people didn’t leave, except to settle in the colonies. I wonder what it means about our people: are we less adventurous or does it only mean that we live in such a blessed country that people won’t go away?
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.