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I am Nobody, Yet I Exist

Written by: Birgitta Ney |

In the 1960s change came to the Swedish countryside. “Flyttlasspolitiken” (the work-force mobility policy) forced many farmers to sell their farms and move to the cities, since the industrial sector was where the jobs were. A life away from the major cities therefore no longer meant life as a farmer. The countryside teemed with farms where the soil lay untilled and the stables were empty of animals. Living conditions in the countryside changed dramatically, and the writers who wanted to depict the lives of farm workers had to either look to history or search elsewhere.

These changes are suggested as early as in Ing-Marie Eriksson’s (born 1932) novel Märit (1965). Eriksson depicts people in a village in Jämtland during the Second World War with such strong documentary elements that some felt exposed, and she was accused of defamation. The trial lasted for years, and Ing-Marie Eriksson was eventually convicted. She appealed, of course, and got a reduced sentence – but her novel, depicting a young woman who is treated like an animal by her family, was apparently considered criminal.

Bo Strömstedt in the Swedish newspaper Expressen 9 April 1967, about the defeat of literature in connection with the conviction of Ing-Marie Eriksson:

“The innermost meaning of poetry is truth. It wants to broaden our knowledge, our sensitivity, our ability to experience; it wants to show us something, teach us something, about ourselves and others; Ing-Marie Eriksson’s narrative about a sick girl in Jämtland is a fine example. Justice is blind. The sentence of Stockholm’s city courts will also make poetry blind.”

It may be added that no one saw that Ing-Marie Eriksson added a distinctly female vision and experience to the art of the novel.

The novel’s Märit is portrayed from the child’s point of view, as if the author remembers her from her own childhood. Ing-Marie Eriksson describes how two sisters look at the woman considered to be crazy, how they are warned about her and drawn to her. The children’s games function as therapy for Märit and they reach her in her silence, break it, and get her to open up. Her tentative attempts to re-enter life and society become catastrophic for her, and result in her destruction.

Märit is about hiding that which is too different from the surrounding world, but also about processing guilt. Märit was never allowed to be human, but was kept like a disgrace within the family. She lives on as a weak sensation of guilt in the memory of those who saw what was done to her and did nothing.

Another Time – Another Language

In Ann-Charlotte Alverfors’ (born 1947) suite about Gertrud, or Sparrow Eye as she is called in the three novels, the setting is the 1950s and 1960s, and no one farms any more. But Sparrow Eye’s family lives on in a group community that resembles and recalls former times, with many generations living on the same farm.

Sparrow Eye is a child who demands knowledge. She questions all the time, if not with words then with her large eyes. And she is answered. The adults meet her, they hear her questions. In many ways her childhood circumstances are piteous, but in other ways they form a very loving environment.

In these novels, those who are normally described as inarticulate have a rich and strong language. The grandfather names the people around him in a manner reminiscent of antiquity’s tradition of assigning people epithets according to their character. The child with the large eyes becomes Sparrow Eye, while the mother who works so hard and steadily is called Ironfist. Alverfors shows that people without traditional education have a language that is as expressive as that of the educated classes, in fact even more alive. But it is another language, not literary in the ordinary sense of the word, but a language existing outside of rules, which is seen most clearly in the carnivalesque depiction of the grandmother and her friends.

Although the books seem to depict a grandfather’s girl in Sparvöga (1975; Sparrow Eye), and a father’s girl in Hjärteblodet (1976; Heart’s Blood), and almost a man’s woman in Snabelros (1977; Trunk Rose), it is a world in which mothers are of vital importance. It is Sparrow Eye’s, Gertrud’s, mother who holds together the family with all its side branches. The maternal grandfather is the only man to bring an income to the home. The father, lung-sick, wants to be a writer, but he is most comfortable at the sanatorium or when he can fantasise about what he might have become. And the paternal grandfather, who used to have money, which he inherited, now sits fat, ugly, and terrified, thirsty and unhappy, in a hutch by his pump, which is no petrol station but a pump at a shed.

At first the women are not very distinct, but are nevertheless depicted in a manner that leaves no doubt that they are the ones keeping life together. The maternal grandmother is partly eclipsed by the honest maternal grandfather’s capability, but Gertrud’s mother toils like a beast, while taking correspondence courses to gain a job in an office. She struggles to get away from physical work and finally gets another job. She no longer has to work at the factory, but the difference is paper-thin, and at home her husband lies about on the couch fantasising when he is not at the sanatorium. In Snabelros Gertud gives birth to a boy, who is nick-named for the delicate little rosebud on the tip of his willy. In her teens Gertrud becomes pregnant by a boy who has been sent to the country because he has messed up his life in the city. He is the only new person around, and Ann-Charlotte Alverfors’s description of how Gertrud is lured by and attracted to him is strong: he is what is on offer, and in that misery she becomes a woman. Through her child, Gertrud becomes a woman, though still a child herself.

Eriksson, Naemi (born 1899): <em>Yttregården på Källstäde</em>, 1972. Oil painting.

Eriksson, Naemi (born 1899): Yttregården på Källstäde, 1972. Oil painting. In: Kerstin Ostwald: Naemi Eriksson. Flickan i blomman

Hjärteblodet contains a portrait of the great-grandmother, and through her it becomes obvious that the novel suite, in spite of all these fathers of various kinds, is a story about women. The great-grandmother is like a knotty, gnarly fir tree – low, tough, and steady. The story of her life’s pain and death is not sentimental, but could be considered melodramatic – as could life. Ann-Charlotte Alverfors does not merely depict the working class from an unusual angle: with the great-grandmother, she continues women writers’ re-evaluation of Ivar Lo-Johansson’s and Vilhelm Moberg’s farmer women. In Gertrud’s family story the women are the reason why.

The Speech of the Lonely

With Gerda Antti’s three novels about Astrid, Ett ögonblick i sänder (1980; One Moment at a Time), Jag reder mig nog (1983; I’ll Get By), and Bara lite roligt … (1984; Just a Little Fun …), a new time and a different life appears in novels about events outside the cities. Astrid’s husband is a modern variation of the former country shopkeeper, owning a small-town grocery store. The married couple live at his family farm without farming it. Instead, his brother has taken over the farmer’s life and now lives with his wife in a newly built house on the property. Astrid and Lennart live a childless existence with grandmother Anna installed on the ground floor of the old house, as was the way in days gone by.

Astrid has no desire to leave the countryside, where she keeps a small flock of sheep and weaves carpets. But she is not satisfied with her existence. She has taken a lover, and so joins her husband in silence and lies. When Lennart dies from a heart attack, life rushes back into her existence. In her mind she deals with her lies, and the shame of not having loved her husband.

Her inner reckoning begins as early as in Ett ögonblick i sänder. She asks herself why she was unable to achieve order and happiness in her life before her husband freed her of the problem by dying. A measure of reconciliation is achieved in the second novel, Jag reder mig nog, but in the third, Bara lite roligt … (1984; Just a Little Fun …), she is forced to return to self-examination when her hairdresser starts to talk about her lover while Astrid is having a perm. She sits there with her hair full of rollers and is compelled listen to confidences she did not invite. “Why is it forbidden to want to have a little fun?” the hairdresser asks. And Astrid, as usual, carries on the conversation in her own head instead of saying what she thinks. There are limits for Astrid, but there is a melancholy about her when she slowly walks into the fellowship of the church’s sewing community with the woman from next door.

Gerda Antti’s novels appear to be simple stories: a woman’s inner monologue. It is as if she lets Astrid tell a fictive sister, and thus the reader – woman to woman – about the most trivial and banal matters of all. In the novels, everyday small talk at the letterboxes by the roadside, or with the men who have brought in the firewood, blends with the thoughts of a lonely woman at her loom or by the window at night.

Astrid sums up her life in a few sentences in Gerda Antti’s novel Jag reder mig nog (1983; I’ll Get By):

“After almost fifty years of life and living, what do I have? A house and a car bought for money drawn from the ashes of a marriage. Some friends who love me like I love them, with gloved hands. An uncertain income, a bad soul, a dog I tell the truth, an inherited cat, a man I think about and ache for. A man I don’t know much about and probably never will learn much about. Not what he does at night, not what he does when he is off work, not how he lives, not what furniture or coffee mugs he has, nothing. Well, if one doesn’t die right away, one can always laugh oneself to death.”

Birgitta Ney

To Travel and to Return

“I am nobody”, Ingela Strandberg (born 1944) writes in her collection of poems Genom brunnarna till havet (1987; Through the Wells to the Sea):

I am nobody,
yet I exist
And I leave
my marks on the world,
write signs
on cracked walls,
invisible to everyone
except the unwanted child.

I am that light steam
that leaves the milk
as it cools
between udder and mouth.

Then I leave,
but return,

In this poem one finds the characteristics of her writings: the ordinary life that yet is not without a certain pride, the rural, everyday imagery, and the circular movement of going away and coming home. In Ingela Strandberg’s works can be detected a simultaneous desire to protect that which has been, and which is rediscovered in the images of old farming Sweden, and to go out and find the new. The tension between these two opposites is important in her texts, but so is the awareness of their similarities.

Ingela Strandberg made her debut in 1973 with the children’s book Tomas får en vän (1973; Tomas Gets a Friend), and since then she has published dozens of books – both prose and poetry. The novel Genom pärleporten (1976; Through the Pearly Gates), about the girl Anjelica’s battle against bigotry and obdurate religiosity, also invokes the theme of escape and return to the home. Anjelica goes away, but is forced to return and to realise that only in the simple life is true freedom possible. It is a freedom built on the insight that life can be sad and horrible, and that you have to be aware of each moment. This freedom also builds on the connection with nature that working the soil grants mankind. The poem “Jordsken” (Earthshine), from the collection Ett rum för natten (1984; A Room for the Night), asserts that even if the self is not particularly free, it can ”– from afar sense the elk’s weight against undulating tufts of bog myrtle […]”. This sense of affinity with nature also means that the speaker in the poem “Brytning” (Rupture) “know[s] that my footprints will be erased by the afternoon rain and that at any moment I can become a drop in the slobbering brook water […]”. But despite the consciousness of freedom in nature and in the little life, there is the constant desire to depart. “I stand on the steps and see the ski trail pass away into darkness and I long for Rio Juruena and the heartbeat of jaguars in the trees”, reads the poem “Elevation” from Ett rum för natten.

The tension between the unchanging countryside and the movement of the journey cannot be bridged. Possibly the changelessness can be found far away. “I leave, I abandon”, Ingela Strandberg writes in the poem “Sjöar” (Lakes) from the collection blues för ett snöigt landskap (1994; blues for a snowscape), which is set in the United States. But the poetic speaker keeps returning to the landscape where it is possible to feel the weight of the elk on the ground. Even from afar.

Lena Malmberg

Translated by Marthe Seiden