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Optimism Lost

Written by: Lisbeth Larsson |

“I write in order to attempt to restore the dignity of man that I find is continually violated,” says the cover of Anna Westberg’s (born 1946) second novel, Gyllene röda äpplen (1979; Gilded Red Apples). That might also have been Agneta Pleijel’s (born 1940) credo as an author.

During the 1970s, Agneta Pleijel was one of the leaders of the generation of critics that stood up for a new literature that was to be better adapted to society. Like Anna Westberg, she takes her starting point in the aesthetics and ethical ideals that were prevalent in the 1970s. But where the ethical ideals were maintained through the oeuvres of both Pleijel and Westberg, an almost immediate distancing from the predominant realistic aesthetics took place. In the beginning of the 1980s their style became far more tentative and fragmentary. They abandoned objectivity and surrendered instead to a more lofty tone and deeper resonance in their works, which were initially light and optimistic about development and now gradually darken.

“We stand between two cultures. Middle class morals demand everything of the loved one: but the morals of the proletariat demand everything for the collective. Thus love is transformed […]”, Agneta Pleijel quotes Alexandra Kollontai in her play about her. Like so many women in Pleijel’s later works, her Alexandra Kollontai is a loving woman in the midst of the maelstrom of society. A strong but divided woman who is compelled to sacrifice the very thing she fights for.

With Paradisets döttrar (1978; Daughters of Paradise) and Gyllene röda äpplen, Anna Westberg writes stories about the transformational process of the post-war period. The books have the friends Ines and Salmi, both born during the 1940s, as protagonists, and can on one level be read as Bildungsromans. In long passages, they induce an almost ethnological fascination in the reader. The paraphernalia and attributes of the 1950s and 1960s are depicted with great care. Ines grows up in a detached house, has Tony Curtis posters on the wall, reads magazines, backcombs her hair, and dresses in Terylene dresses. Consistent with this, she becomes pregnant in the back seat of a Volvo.

The novels depict how a new Sweden emerges from poverty, leaving behind tuberculosis, outside lavatories, and fetching water from the pump. It is an unglamorous history, but we must not forget it, according to Anna Westberg: “Never forget where you come from Ines”, she lets Ines’ father cry with great feeling to his daughter. He is drunk and has sought her out at the posh restaurant where she works. On his death bed he repeats the words and Ines adds to them: “because then you won’t know where you are heading.”

Hedqvist, Ebba (1909-2001): Snäckan, 1988. Gouache. Private collection

Anna Westberg’s first two novels depict a dark reality, but they focus on what is good and possible in spite of all obstacles and personal limitations, and the depiction of the friendship between Ines and Salmi works as a light trail throughout the narration. Her next novel, Walters hus (1980; Walter’s House), is more an examination of the failings and pangs of life. Walter’s green house, where he lives with his old mother, is an image of himself: shuttered and enclosed, with beautiful but useless furniture and adornments from the nineteenth century. He only lives fully through music. And although he had the talent to become a world famous cellist, he has come to dedicate himself to joinery and to practising his art in the local musical society.

Walters hus is a passion drama set in the countryside, a tightly knit and well-composed narrative, in which the prose sounds in voices and counter-voices, and dissonances are shot through by lovely notes of longing and beautiful hymns of love. Walter lives in a half-hearted relationship with the town’s fashionable milliner, Thea, and dreams of the great passion. When he meets it, finally, he is ruthless in giving way to it, but still decides not to fight for it. Just like the music that plays such an important part in the novel, the feeling of being in love erupts out of the prison consisting of the human body and society, out of the fragility and bigotry of society, and briefly triumphs over reason as well as human cowardice.

In her next two novels, Sandros resa (1986; Sandro’s Journey) and Maria Moder (1991; Maria the Mother), Anna Westberg leaves the Swedish small town environment and heads off into Europe. The social criticism that had lain just beneath the surface of her works fades away, and the problems become purely existential. Even stylistically, the writings change. The restrained and fastidious style of writing that had been Anna Westberg’s, even if very elaborate in Walters hus, is broken apart and reshaped into an over-flowing, lofty, and almost excessive stream of words. If Walters hus had its sounding-board in the cello concert by Schumann that Walter performs in the novel, then the musical inter-texts of the novels about Sandro and his mother Maria are more of an “opera lirica” that one of the women on Sandro’s path sings to him in a strong but ruptured voice. This would also be a fitting way to characterise the novels, which cover a lot of ground, geographically as well as existentially. Sandro and Maria do not just journey through most of Europe, they also live through all the instances of sweetness and degradation found in life. There are numerous allusions to Dante’s Divina Commedia (Eng. tr. The Divine Comedy) in Sandros resa, and just like Dante, Westberg’s characters live through all the circles of Hell in their search for Paradise, but in contrast to the Divine Comedy, they do so only to eventually find paradise profaned, soiled, and desecrated.

Dante’s Divine Comedy is a recurring reference in Anna Westberg’s novels. In Walters hus she uses a passage about the unobtainable dream image for a motto, and in the autobiographical Vargtagen she also refers to Dante’s dream of Paradise. In Sandros resa she points to the parallel between Dante’s and her hero’s journey, his walk through Hell in her naming of the female characters. As in Dante, Sandro finds love in a Francesca and a Beatrice. But the purity found in these characters in Dante has been definitively soiled in Anna Westberg’s narrative. Sandro’s Francesca is a prostitute, and is also his aunt. His Beatrice is very pregnant and abandoned. She carries his brother’s child, and kills herself immediately before giving birth. The dream images are once and for all forfeited.

The tone in Anna Westberg’s works grows darker during the 1980s, and in Vargtagen (1993; Bewolfed) Anna Westberg provides the autobiographical background. The book is set during the years when she wrote the novels about Sandro and Maria. But it is no meta-novel; it does not concern itself with writing, but is about a destructive passion. Vargtagen is a love tragedy written with the same technique of excess that Anna Westberg developed for the novels about Sandro and Maria. It tells a love story consisting only of dramatic high points: right from the first romantic meeting outside a bar during an autumn storm in Paris to the final fights, the man’s berserker rage, and the court proceedings.

“Writing about yourself feels ridiculous, even somewhat pretentious,” Anna Westberg writes in the autobiographical Vargtagen. And she asks herself: “what drives me to expose odd parts from it, then? The need to understand them, perhaps. Difficult experiences I can only melt down in writing. Whoever reads and writes every day understands connections only when they appear in print. I don’t understand a contract until I read it. And I understand how to furnish my home when I have written down where the sofa and the table must be placed. Words are the means to understanding and gaining insight into oneself. Now I leave the odd bits of life in the hands of the readers, who will then know something about me that I myself do not know, and possibly cannot know at all.”

Anna Westberg made her debut on a literary stage that was dominated by women confessors. She chose another point of departure for her authorship, and when she enters the confessional genre fifteen years later, it is from a different angle. The same goes for Agneta Pleijel’s debut novel, Vindspejare (1987; Observer of the Wind). It is both autobiographical and biographical, but without being strictly either. Agneta Pleijel uses fiction to reconstruct – or perhaps rather to construct – a family history that she does not know very much about. “I salvage debris from the past, it can’t be used for much, no one wants it,” she writes. The novel is a part of a search for identity, a project that she knows is doomed to fail, but which must nevertheless be carried out. At times, it is as if she is being chased by the imperative of the 1970s to make the private universal and useful: “I find it hard to connect these memories with those of others. Perhaps I speak of something that isn’t typical,” she writes anxiously, but soon another attitude appears. “On the other hand I have a greater distrust of what is typical. I simply find it hard to believe in its existence.”

Vindspejare is about people driven by a strong but unresolved longing. And that, along with kinship ties, connects them to the narrator. Like eruptions of pain, the first-person narrator’s comments are sprinkled within the undulating and abundantly rich family history of Abel, the son of a marine painter, his parents, his Swedish fiancée and his Javanese wife, his child, his grandchildren, and others. As a woman born at the beginning of the 1940s, a woman in a time of transition, Agneta Pleijel shares the uprootedness and impotence of her characters, and together with her Javanese-born mother, she journeys to Java at the beginning of the narrative to find an origin that is both tangible and volatile. While the rediscovered house in Surabaja turns out to still be owned by Abel – and thus by his daughter Si, Agneta Pleijel’s mother, and thus by Pleijel herself – it also turns out to be impossible to repossess, and the same goes for the entire story. The search for origin and identity is doomed to fail. “I? The word dissolves into smoke, disperses into the room, flows out through the window, escapes qualification, vanishes. But you can’t live in the world as smoke. I squeeze into my outline, it chafes. Within this abrasion we are forced to live. Not just I, all of us. Because others are also different from the coarse strokes with which they are drawn.”

“I have written thousands of articles that are approximations, a sort of fast draft of how-something-could-be-but-is-not”, Agneta Pleijel writes in Vindspejare. “I now write something that is, not in the sense that truth is captured by the words, but as an emotional reality. It cannot be questioned. It exists.”

“I try to invent a childhood for myself,” Agneta Pleijel wrote three years earlier in a poem in the collection Ögon ur en dröm (1984; Eng. tr. Eyes from a Dream). In Vindspejare she does it. If the two poetry collections Änglar, dvärgar (1981; Angels, Dwarves) and Ögon ur en dröm are read in the light of Vindspejare, it can be seen how they are part of the same search for identity. They describe the life that was not, the estrangement that lies rigid around ongoing life. Here, history is still a murderous ballast: “It is told: / How deep within the frozen mammoth body / a foetus was found, fully developed and preserved / Like a mighty memory the ice / had preserved this foetus.” “Who placed this weight in me”, the poem asks without finding any answers, but time and again it seeks to reconstruct a possible story that may explain the torment of the icy cold present.

Agneta Pleijel systematically tries all genres, but the object of research is constant, it is always about the transformations of love and identity. In her second novel, Hundstjärnan (1989; Eng. tr. The Dog Star), the happiness of love only exists in the incest between mother and son. Otherwise, existence is plagued by the painful absence of love. The novel contains great drama: puberty, infidelity, incest, jealousy, madness, and suicide, but unlike Agneta Pleijel’s other two novels, the tone is very moderate. The narrative is like a black, hard stone, the opposite of the bright star Sirius, the dog star, that lends its name to the book’s title and the protagonist’s mother, Siiri, who with her burning light destroys people around her and finally ends her own existence.

“For me, it was decisive that they place both woman and love at the centre,” Agneta Pleijel writes in the preface to Rut. Dramatisk berättelse i fem sånger, (1994; Ruth. Dramatic Narrative in Five Songs). At the beginning of the 1990s she was part of the Bible revision commission’s group for the retranslation of the Old Testament, and when she is commissioned to write a drama about a biblical woman, her choice is easy. She lets the two books that attracted her most – and that also resonate clearly in her own works – be woven together. She intersperses hymns from the Song of Songs in the drama about Ruth, and thus manages to create both an elegy for the marginalised positions of love and woman, and a song of praise for the same.

Agneta Pleijel does not shy away from the destructive sides of love in her works, but in her next novel, fungi, 1994, she changes the perspective. She here presents a thorough criticism of Schopenhauer’s type of cultural pessimism. Countering his theory about life as suffering, she places her trust in love. Not the much-lauded excessive love, but rather the undramatic, harmonious, and symbiotic kind of love, and the title’s ‘fungi’, with their symbiotic, inseparable, non-alienated lives, come to function as the utopia of the novel.

fungi is a novel of gigantic ambition: a philosophical treaty, a Bildungsroman, and a picaresque novel all rolled into one. The protagonist, F W J-hn, journeys, as Voltaire’s Candide did once upon a time, through all corners of the world and all kinds of suffering before he finds his garden. It is a strange mixture of tragedy and the burlesque, an elegy and a hymn to love that here and there threatens wreckage, but still retains cohesion through a very consistent perspective. Whereas the great philosopher in Agneta Pleijel’s novel, like Schopenhauer, only sees suffering, his disciple F W J-hn makes a different discovery and indefatigably praises the world’s unlimited wealth and beauty. Like Agneta Pleijel – and Anna Westberg – he changes his perspective, allows the low to be high, rehabilitates the despised, and rallies the in-spite-of-everything speech of love and humility against the pessimism he nevertheless shares.

“I was the one who penetrated into the ear of the mosquito and from there viewed the world”, writes the natural scientist Franz Wilhelm Junghuhn in Agneta Pleijel’s novel fungi, in a passage that can easily be read as metatextual.

In Agneta Pleijel’s narrative, his homage to nature is both misread and misused in the name of cultural pessimism, but she lets him speak again and praise the world’s fathomless beauty.

Translated by Marthe Seiden