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In the Shadow of Welfare

Written by: Lena Malmberg |

All-encompassing hunger is the theme of Heidi von Born’s novels about Ella, Hungerbarnen (1981; Hunger Children), Kungariket Atlas (1984; The Kingdom of Atlas), Den vita öknen (1986; The White Desert), Tiden är en tjuv (1989; Time is a Thief), and Ropa stenarna tillbaka (1991; The Stones Cry Back). The first novel depicts hunger as a bodily need for food and warmth, but the object of Ella’s hunger shifts as her story moves forward through time. The hunger for food is replaced by a hunger for fellowship, normality, education, belonging, and identity. This hunger lends a possibly utopian dimension to Ella’s life, since it drives her to act; but often her desire to acknowledge her hunger is contrasted with the insight, acquired at an early age, that whoever gives in will be consumed.

“My vulnerability made me hungry and wide-eyed”, Heidi von Born writes in an essay about Hagar Olsson. It is precisely this vulnerability that is the source of Ella’s hunger, even if she is forced to replace her wide-eyedness with the caution of the Jante Law.

Heidi von Born (born 1936) uses bodily and spatial metaphors to reveal the chaos that exists beneath ordered existence and to convey Ella’s terror of losing control. The novel’s setting in the Atlas quarter of Stockholm is also significant. Atlas is reached through underground passages, and for Ella the neighbourhood becomes a geographical stigma that it is impossible to get away from: “A neighbourhood is like a birthmark. You’re born with it; it can’t be surgically removed without deep-set changes to the skin. The street enters your body, controls the rhythm of your blood. / […] / You cannot climb out of that chain, the trap fastens metal teeth around your ankle! This is where you were born; this is where you make your mark. It is also where you struggle, it is where you end.”

Although the novels about Ella on one level look like a classic Bildungsroman, Heidi von Born breaks the built-in genre convention that promotes progress. When Ella gets the opportunity to graduate from high school, she never finishes. When she gets a short story about her brother’s experiences as a mink farmer published in Såningsmannen (The Sower), she does not really continue to write, despite the joy it gives her.

On one level, however, Ella becomes creative: when it comes to her own story. Following the death of her brother, she seeks to recreate him by visiting his former workplace, reading the books he read, and thinking the thoughts he thought.

In her books about Ella, Heidi von Born depicts Atlas and the Vasastaden neighbourhood of Stockholm. Another Stockholm location to play a large part in the novels is the Centralbadet public baths, which becomes one of the few bright spots in Ella’s life. This is where Äpplet (the apple) works, the superintendent who befriends Ella and eventually becomes a substitute grandmother to her children. Ella’s memories of the time when she worked at Centralbadet is as bright as those of her time at holiday camp.

In spite of having a clear limit that she cannot go beyond, Ella is doing better by the end of the narrative. She lives alone with her son in the apartment in Atlas, now with patched-up walls and a chequered kitchen lamp. She works, feels a certain fellowship with her colleagues, and has her good friend Äpplet. She has nightmares, of course, but she is not constantly afraid and she has things to look forward to, often related to Äpplet and Centralbadet.

Ella’s story is told strictly in the subjective. It is Ella’s reality that is portrayed, and through her eyes that her world is created. Heidi von Born does not plan or question Ella’s thoughts, which means that the part of her life’s story made up by Ella merges with the part taking place on the narrative’s reality plane.

Heidi von Born made her debut in 1956 and has added a large oeuvre to her name, with a novel published every, or every other, year. Already in the early novels from the 1960s, she shows the consequences of being outcast and betrayed, for instance in Martinas dagar (1962; Martina’s Days): a novel about two sisters who grow up in the shadow of their father’s suicide. Often, the characters she depicts are isolated from society and afraid of human contact and intimacy. In Aldrig mer tillbaka (1975; Never Return), the female protagonist and her husband are driven by compulsive acts that become more and more destructive. In Det japanska skriket (1979; The Japanese Scream), twelve-year old Anna-Karin Sadolin defends herself from angst by fasting, training hard, and developing her Japanese scream. In Om solen vill (1993; If the Sun Wills It), the teenager Stefan has acquired an extreme discipline. He believes he can read minds and intentions if only he concentrates sufficiently.

In the title story of the short story collection Pelargonerna ska skäras om hösten (1982; Pelargonia must be Pruned in the Autumn), Margareta Ekarv demonstrates the impossibility of dialogue between mother and daughter when two different generations, and thereby two sets of norms, meet. The daughter is proud of her home furnished in a modern style, but the mother has emptied her savings account to enable the daughter to buy a proper sofa.

Isolation and impotence are also the themes of Margareta Ekarv’s (born 1936) works. Her novels often deal with the historical context that comprises the formation of modern Sweden. In her first novel, Leran (1984; Clay), the setting is the Uppland plain and the time is the turn of the twentieth century. At the centre of the novel are two young people who during the story meet and fall in love. One of these two is Erik, a junior farmhand who at the beginning of the story is proud and happy to be allowed to plough with horses at harvest time. The cold and a bullying joke render him sick unto death, but he is saved by the American preacher Charles Lee, and is himself given the gift of preaching. The other of the two is Maria, whose tragedy is that she, the firstborn daughter of a farmer, is not a son. But the events of the story are not particularly important. Margareta Ekarv instead stresses the development of the townspeople following the arrival of the preacher. His presence becomes a catalyst, and many in the village for a while undergo an awakening from their everyday inertia.

In Tinnar och gyllene torn (1993; Spires and Gilded Towers), Margareta Ekarv discusses the problem of seeking to tell the outsider’s story. The novel is about Lim-Johan (Glue-John), a naive, self-taught artist who frightens the villagers by seeing reality differently, and who spends eight years in hospital. His dream was to build a house with spires and gilded towers that would turn like a windmill and allow whoever lived in it to continually choose a different view.

The novel follows a present day author who tries to recreate Lim-Johan’s life for a stage-play. The narrator searches for memories, real as well as invented. Some in the village remember him, others do not, but they all have different perspectives on who Lim-Johan really was: perspectives that reveal more about those remembering them than about Lim-Johan himself. From these gleanings the narrator dreams up an image of Lim-Johan that in the novel sometimes takes over and speaks for itself.

Just like Marya in Joyce Carol Oates’ novel of that name, published in 1987, Senja in Heidi von Born’s Månens vita blod (1988; The White Blood of the Moon) realises that a human being carrying a weakness becomes the victim of persecution by others. But whereas Heidi von Born’s novels become increasingly hopeful, Joyce Carol Oates’s works seem to only get darker.

Isolation in the Midst of Welfare

Ikse Bergman, Sandra (born 1945): Mor og barn foran højhus, II, 1975. Gobelin. Photographer: Edgar Eriksson. Private collection

The people of Heidi von Born’s and Margareta Ekarv’s novels want to join society, but keep ending up outside it. Gun-Britt Sundström (born 1945) writes about people who live in present-day welfare society, but who strive not to conform to it. They are socially successful and have opportunities both to speak and to make themselves heard. Sundström’s works orbit their battle against established truths and conventions.

Gun-Britt Sundström made her debut in 1966 with Student -64 (Graduate 1964), and published other novels and scrap books in the 1970s, but then entirely dedicated herself to working on the Bible Committee’s retranslation of the Old and New Testaments.

Three of her novels are about youth rebellion. Oppositionspartiet (1967; The Opposition Party) follows some girls in a high school during the first half of the 1960s. Student -64 (1966; Graduate 1964) is about one of the girls at university. Nu kan det sägas! (1970; Now it Can Be Said!) is an angry reckoning with the author’s time at journalism school. It is 1968-1969, and the students rebel against the school’s authoritative teaching methods.

För Lydia (1973; For Lydia) is a paraphrase of Hjalmar Söderberg’s Den allvarsamma leken (1912; Eng. tr. The Serious Game), but with the action moved forward to the 1960s and 1970s, and with a female protagonist. The novel’s basic theme is Lydia’s wish for a free life without conventional shackles and her gradual insight into the un-permissible nature of this wish for a woman, even though she lives in modern-day Stockholm and not at the turn of the twentieth century.

In Maken (1976; The Husband), Sundström lets this insight come to both Martina and Gustav, the novel’s lovers, who meet in Stockholm in the 1960s. “If you marry, you will regret it; if you don’t marry, you will also regret it […].”

Upon its publication, Gun-Britt Sundström’s Maken (1976; The Husband) became popular with readers, and was soon hailed as being the great novel of the generation. It has seen ten editions to date, and has been sold in more than 100,000 copies. Gun-Britt Sundström has attempted to explain the popularity of the book partly by making reference to its portrayal of “chewing gum love”, that is, everyday love relations, instead of painting a romantic and high-flown picture of love, and partly by pointing out that the novel lets the main character be the one who is loved, not the one who loves.

Thus begins the quote from Kierkegaard that is one of the novel’s mottos. Before the novel proper begins, Sundström points out the impossibility of the traditional relationship, and when the novel ends, Martina bitterly realises that she has really managed to place herself outside the social framework she fought against in her youth.

In her novels, Margareta Ekström (born 1930) shows how much people sacrifice to achieve a sense of belonging, even if this seldom leads to any true fellowship. Her characters are so bent on seeking this normality that anything strange or unplanned for frightens them. The fellowship sought is often based on denial and a lack of freedom. The freedom Martina fights for and the choices she keeps having to make are almost entirely absent in Margareta Ekström’s work. Instead, she often depicts a decisive moment that is not allowed to become significant because the safety of normality appears so alluring. In the short story “Hummern i Dinard” (The Lobster in Dinard), from the omnibus volume Den femte årstiden (1983; The Fifth Season), a young woman delays a meeting with her lover by taking a walk by the sea. In “Frossaren” (The Gourmand) from Den femte årstiden, the protagonist chooses food over the unpredictable woman he has met. He clings to his cooking and his eating to avoid falling. “The grip on the table felt safe like a sea-anchor.”

About her book Människodjuren (1974; Human Animals), Margareta Ekström has said that “whether we think of ourselves as animals or not, whether we call instincts ideas, mating rituals traditions, and territories property lines, the fact remains that we are some kind of animal.”

Margareta Ekström made her debut with Aftnar i S:t Petersburg (1960; Evenings in Saint Petersburg) and has published some twenty books – mostly short-story collections, but also some novels and children’s books. Her short stories are often based on the character sketch, and allow the protagonist to speak for him- or herself. She seldom writes traditional stories that form a complete whole with a final twist in the tale; instead, she gives swift glimpses of existence. A recurring element in her work is melancholy over the inability of the characters to connect and move on. Dreams remain dreams, and only a sense of loss that change never happens remains. In “Cirkusliv” (Circus Life) from Kärlekens utland (1982; The Foreign Country of Love), a young diplomat’s wife gets up from a dinner and flees to a circus troupe sitting around a camp fire. She is accepted by them and everything seems simple. But in reality, she remains courteous and well-bred, sitting at the dinner.

In her works, Margareta Ekström stresses the impossibility of freedom, despite the fact that her characters live in the midst of welfare and seldom face material limitations. She has been compared to Chekhov, and her works express the same sorrow that we dare not exploit the options that are actually available to mankind. The dream of normality and safety means that none of Ekström’s characters reach Moscow, and even if they do, it will be at the cost of freedom and real life. The Moscow that greets them is a prison of artificiality, where all decisions have long ago been made by somebody else.

Eva Mattsson’s (born 1940) characters oscillate between normality and isolation in a rather more violent manner than Margareta Ekström’s. They may be immigrant women who are ostracised from the social community, the delusional and resentful who terrorise their surroundings, apparently ordinary men who are brutally changed by the structure of ownership endemic to marriage, or women who compensate for their own feelings of failure by nagging their kids to death. Nearly all are unable to escape their destructive approach to the rest of the world, and nearly all exert an unbearable pressure on their surroundings.

In her novels, Eva Mattsson depicts human beings balancing between total despair and a sort of existence of bearability. Für Elise, 1980, is a deeply pessimistic novel about a middle aged woman whose life consists of anxiously oppressing her surroundings. During a trip back to her childhood home, she nearly becomes the person she once wished to be – happy, curious, and brave – but as soon as she returns home, she immediately reverts to the old routine. Deep within the novel, one senses a grief and a sense of loss that the protagonist is unable to articulate.

In Jag ska göra natt till dag. Kärleksroman (1982; I Shall Change Night into Day. Romance Novel), the protagonist, Minna, creates a fantasy image of an ordinary, slightly boring librarian, but gradually she realises that he does not exist. In both Für Elise and Jag ska göra natt till dag, the protagonists at some level try out different lives. Elise settles for taking on a former identity during her journey abroad. Minna, on the other hand, creates a male fantasy image and a love story that does not exist, but finally returns to her own existence. In 1993, Mattsson published Passepartout, which can be read both as developing from and breaking with her previous novels. Here, the protagonist does not simply create a new identity for herself, but attempts various narrative strategies throughout the book. She lives through a number of different narratives only to return to herself towards the end of the book.

In spite of telling her story from a number of different perspectives, she never becomes the main character of her own narrative. Circumstances force her to submit to narrative conventions, and when she can finally begin to act as a subject within the story, it turns out that the struggle over the house – a symbol of her identity – begins all over again.

For Gun-Britt Sundström, human choices only lead to regret for the options not chosen. Free life for women seems impossible, as it would entail isolation. Margareta Ekström’s characters so strongly seek the comfort of normality that they renounce the option of leading free lives. Eva Mattsson’s books detail routine existence. The lives of people are ruled by coincidence, and the force of habit makes free choice seem like a theoretic alternative. The key that opens all doors – the passepartout – exists, but the recently opened rooms are as closed off and empty as those left behind.

Translated by Marthe Seiden