Literature Begets Literature
May 2, 2014 by The Work of Kerstin Ekman | Selected and Introduced by Dorthe Nors
All through my twenties I sat immersed in Kerstin Ekman’s novels. I believe she taught me to write. Now I have traveled to Stockholm to meet her. It feels like going back in time.
We have arranged to meet at Clas på Hörnet on Surbrunnsgatan, one of the city’s oldest restaurants (legend has it that the likes of King Gustav III and Sweden’s great eighteenth-century troubadour Carl Michael Bellman regularly let their hair down here). When I arrive Kerstin Ekman is waiting on a chair in the lobby. Famous people look like they do in pictures: her hair is white and neat, her deep-set eyes keen and kind, but with an air of authority too. The same authority with which she resigned from the Swedish Academy in 1989 because of what she saw as the laxity of its stance on Salman Rushdie’s fatwa. I sense that walking out like that wouldn’t have bothered her in the slightest. More likely it suited her fine to pull on a pair of walking boots and stride off into the Swedish wilds. Her literature is like that too.
Kerstin Ekman was born in 1933 in Katrineholm, a small, industrial town in the middle of Sweden. After studying German at university, she published several crime novels, but in the 1960s her writing changed aspect as she expanded the genre novel with grand, existential prose; and in the 1970s, with Women and the City, a series of trailblazing historical novels, she established her reputation as one of Sweden’s sharpest social critics and an important figure in a generation that radically changed the destinies of women, including women writers.
When I read Ekman’s books as a young woman I was very absorbed with the things she wrote about the importance of memory, not only to us as individuals but also for a narrative. The process of remembering is a big part of the narrative—that is life—and without acknowledging it we lose track. Reading her work again now, at the age of forty-three, I discover how much the plight of women stands at the center of the ouevre. I also realize that what she—and other Swedish artists—taught me was to stay in the painful process of creation. To be courageous. To stick to it.
At lunch Ekman is polite and discerning, though when she notices a dog outside the window, a golden retriever rolling in the snow, she welcomes the distraction. (Ekman loves dogs. Not only do they appear in all her books, but one of her novels, The Dog, even has one as its main character.) “Hello, there,” she says, tapping her finger against the pane. The dog looks at her gleefully.
“I prefer to sit at home reading and writing,” Ekman confesses when I ask her how she relates to the world abroad. Our fish is served and we crunch conspicuously on our toasted bread. “I haven’t traveled overseas that much to promote my books. I don’t consider I have the time. I’m an introvert. But I have traveled extensively in the Nordic countries, and some years ago I was in Germany, though I really hadn’t the inclination. There was a school reunion in Katrineholm to which I was invited and didn’t want to go, and then came this invitation from Germany that I could use as an excuse. It was because my old high-school sweetheart, whom I was so very much in love with at the time, was going to be there at the reunion. I couldn’t bear the thought of seeing him as a fat old man. I wanted to remember him as he was then, and so I went to Germany instead. It was hell, going from one bookstore to the next to do readings and then stand there toasting with champagne in the company of mayors. And when I returned home I was sent a photograph from the reunion—and there he was in the picture, so handsome. How fortunate I hadn’t taken part! Imagine what could have happened!
“So no, I haven’t traveled much with my books. I find it so much nicer being at home—I know that I have to write in my own way, and if I sit in a corner of the world and offer resistance, then that’s my way of doing things. One has to believe that someone will discover the things one writes. The valuable work always survives. Books have their readers, and from that moment things can take a turn, things of a literary or political nature, or something else entirely. I believe that. If I didn’t, to keep on writing wouldn’t be much fun at all.”
After lunch, I ask if I can take her photograph. Like a doting mother (Ekman’s middle name is Lillemor, little mother, and we become what we are called) she beckons me to sit down next to her. We exchange books. She writes a dedication to me in her own, and I do likewise. It’s a happy conclusion, our lunch is over, and then the idol of my youth is gone, departed into Stockholm’s winter.
In this talk from a writers’ conference in 1995 at the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, Ekman sketches the fundamental themes of her work and what has inspired her over the years—women’s ambivalent relationship to the construction of society.
“It’s natural for me to depict society and to write about politics and technology—in that respect, as A Question for My Father makes clear, my father is there in the background. He was an incorrigible optimist when it came to science and progress, which he believed would save the world. Imagine if he had been around to see how far we’ve come! His world was in stark contrast to that of my mother. My mother was a born storyteller. She wasn’t an active proponent of the women’s cause, but she always took a female aspect on things. Gradually I began to realize there is a need to combat male construction of history. Which is not the same as saying that I don’t love my father and can’t see that he was dependent upon the beliefs he possessed. But after all, I am a woman and I see things from the woman’s viewpoint.”
This is the first volume in Women and the City, a series of four novels set in and around Katrineholm—the small, industrial town where Ekman grew up—as it grows from a village to a provincial city over the course of the twentieth century.
“I had read a lot of books that took place in important places. I was about seventeen, I suppose, and would go to the Stadsbibliotek at home in Katrineholm. When I reached the age when I began to really ingest literature, I devoured the books that came in volumes. The Forsythe Saga, for instance. Les Thibault by Roger Martin du Gard. That sort of thing. You might wonder how much a high-school student from Katrineholm got out of reading about the Catholic environment portrayed in a work like that. But I think it attracted me because the small town in which I grew up was rather dull. And so it came as something of a shock to me to read Eyvind Johnson’s Minnas because it was set in a town just like that. I thought: Aha, so you don’t have to write about Paris.”
Ekman’s female characters often must subordinate themselves to their gender. In this scene, which takes places in the early 1900s, thirteen year old Edla, a scullery maid at the local railway hotel, eavesdrops behind doors and is initiated into the biblical tale of the virgin birth, while biology is already at work to determine her fate.
“In the nineteenth century, woman was biologicalized completely. Our gray matter was insufficient for us to think, our brains weighed too little and Darwin saw woman as a midway stage between child and man. But the fact is that we do possess a biological destiny and it entails that we become pregnant and give birth—not forgetting the power of comfort and caring. We carry a very considerable heritage on our shoulders, not only historically, politically, and socially, but also biologically. It is a heritage with which we are saddled. And if we refuse to carry it, we lose much of our reality.”
The biological destiny of women is a theme to which Ekman has returned often in her work. The Knife-Thrower’s Woman, her only published volume of poetry, is an intensely personal account of a young woman’s ectopic pregnancy, miscarriage, and subsequent hysterectomy. Suffering from depression after the operation, she descends in a mythic journey into the darkest recesses of herself in order to regain her life.
“Moa Martinson wrote about this subject in Sweden—the female body, she wrote, is as scarred as a runestone by pregnancy and childbirth. I remember an illustrious critic by the name of Anders Österling, whom I knew from my time in the Swedish Academy, reviewing one of her books and concluding: the perspective of the womb prevails here. The perspective of the womb! I had no idea he was capable of such an opinion. I was very fond of Österling but when I read that, it was as though something exploded in my mind. I immediately went upstairs to my study and dug out a manuscript I had decided never to publish. It became The Knife Thrower’s Woman, and I can assure you it is a book in which the perspective of the womb prevails! But to think: I had put it away in a cupboard, and I had put it there precisely because in that manuscript the perspective of the womb prevailed. Astonishing, don’t you think?”
I love Ekman’s description of compassion as that which is divine in the relationship between people: “How wondrous it is that some want to get up early / drink instant coffee, take the bus and soothe / or try to soothe the pain, to heal.”
“I believe very strongly that literature begets literature. That’s how it works."
Although this novel—in which a group of women meet regularly for conversation in Stockholm during the 1990s—can be read independently, it is very much in conversation with Eyvind Johnson’s Krilon Suite trilogy. Written during World War II and fiercely critical of National Socialism, Johnson’s trilogy portrays the character of Johannes Krilon and the work carried out by his resistance cell.
“It was after I left the Academy. We had bought an apartment here in Stockholm and one evening we had friends round, a professor of literature and his wife. We got talking about Eyvind Johnson’s Krilon Suite, and the morning after I went out for a walk with the dog. I walked towards Bellevue with her. Silva was her name. The idea suddenly came to me as we were walking along. I wanted to write a book in which women make up a kind of resistance movement, just like the men of Johnson’s Krilon Suite. I couldn’t stop thinking about it and didn’t dare go home again. It was just welling up in me there and we kept on walking. Eventually the dog tired, although she was a hunting hound, but I felt no sense of fatigue at all. When we got home I sat down and filled eleven small notebooks. Afterwards, I was so exhausted I could have fainted.”
You also see another one of Ekman’s central themes—the significance of memory, for us as individuals and for the narrative—in this novel, the title of which refers obliquely to the “remember me” aria in Dido and Aeneas.
“I was thinking of remember as re-member or bring me back to life. It is a bit of falsified etymology, for I think that remember and member as in limb actually have different origins. Yet memory is indeed that which assembles a person’s limbs into a living gestalt. I find the thought fascinating—and besides, I’m getting closer and closer to the age of Oda. Actually I may have reached her age now.”
This novel, set in the early twentieth century, depicts the motivations of a cynic with precision and, like Bring Me Back to Life, is also in conversation with another book—in this case, Hjalmar Söderberg’s novel Doctor Glas. Pontus Revinge, a young physician who earns his living from examining prostitutes for sexually transmitted diseases, he poisons his part-time employer, Dr. Johannes Harms, marries his widow, and takes over his victim’s practice and life. (He also nurtures an infatuation with their daughter).
“Although this chapter doesn’t exactly showcase its most attractive characters, it’s an entertaining book. I enjoyed writing it, but it also made my gorge rise. You see, I wanted to show where misogyny comes from.”
In this scene, Revinge who has recently murdered Harms, finds out that his widow plans to sell him the practice.
This is the third volume in Ekman’s Wolfskin trilogy. Elis (aka Elias) Elv, who was a very young man when the trilogy opened, is now an elderly man, with many secrets. In the first excerpt below, we follow one of his many “crimes.” The essence of Scratchcards is how the past always catches up with us. In the second excerpt Risten, the Sami narrator of all three books, tells how her son Klemens killed a wolf. In the northernmost part of Sweden, the Samis are attempting in vain to preserve their traditional way of life as the laws of contemporary civilization are imposed on them. Klemens is trapped between tradition and modernity and marginalized, as are the Sami generally. The wolf, a pervasive symbol, begins and ends this trilogy, which spans the twentieth century.
In her latest novel, Ekman describes the intertwined fates of two women: Lillemor Troj appears to be a well-known contemporary author who has won may literary prizes. Her friend Barbro (Babba) Andersson, however, turns out to be the real writer, but is convinced that she cannot live up to her status because of an unattractive exterior and an antisocial bent. Together, the two women enjoy a long, successful literary collaboration until Babba decides to come out of hiding. Lillemor has been a sort of mask for her, a position she now attacks by writing in secret and submitting to “their” publisher a manuscript revealing the truth.