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Play and Dreadful Seriousness in the Writings of Monika Fagerholm

Written by: Pia Ingström |

Anniken Hannevik, Søndagsengel, 2010

The Finland-Swedish writer, Monika Fagerholm, combines, in one book after another, the reader-friendly characteristics of realism – plot, strong local colour, and interesting characters – with a bold revival of the storytelling of traditional prose in unusual ways. She entertains and experiments; she has her cake and eats it, too. She is, in other words, capable of winning the hearts of ordinary readers while simultaneously eliciting a many-faceted interest among literary scholars – as queer and subversive, and as an innovator of literary style. Or, as small-town literary celebrity Lila Anderson, one of the secondary characters in Fagerholm’s novel, Lola oppochner (2012; Lola Upsidedown), describes herself: “She is so amusing, and expressive, and beautiful, and incredibly charismatic (and of course, objectively speaking, a very good writer, one of those authors who manages to be both highly marketable and profound)”.

Bar Lila’s irony, one may easily concur with this description.  

Girls, Girls – the Early Short Stories

The debut, Sham (1987; Sham), is a collection of short stories about young women which borrows features from the complex, postmodern girl characters of writers such as Swedish Mare Kandre and Inger Edelfeldt or Amerian Joyce Carol Oates. The girls fast, feast, love, hate, make out, and get on with it. While they sometimes seem possessed, at other times they appear battered. Patricia (1990; Patricia), which was published three years after Sham, continues along similar lines. Despite Fagerholm’s legerdemain with brands and other indicators of the time, the tone is more sombre however, addressing issues such as profundity, honesty, and solemnity. At this point, Fagerholm seemingly detaches herself from the sociology of realism or feminism – her main characters enter a free zone where gender and class initially may appear as less important themes than carnivalesque, transgressive metamorphoses, and identity in an existential sense.

A Criminal Breakthrough in Summer’s Paradise

While the first two books gained her the respect of literary critics, she had not raised much interest from readers. This interest was achieved with the debut novel, Underbara kvinnor vid vatten. En berättelse om syskon (1994; Wonderful Women by the Water, 1997).

It is the 1960s, in the archipelago, where, during successive summers, some families meet, enjoying summer’s delight in the typical “summer’s paradise” of Nordic literature. While the description of the psychological landscapes of the children and women is spot-on, it is subordinate to the ambitious, original, and cleverly realised novel, which elicits multiple readings.   

On one level the novel is about Thomas and Renée, two children neglected by their glamorous, decidedly non-maternal mothers, Isabella and Rosa. As suggested by the book’s title, another reading focuses on the wonderful women: their tentative and failed emancipation project – attempting to create a female identity beyond the confines of bourgeois family values, without being fully able to neither name nor solve their problems. In the end, the only transgression they are capable of is adultery. They try to flee, but are bogged down by the trivialities of life. Renée, who assumes the rage of her mother, Rosa, and becomes the openly aggressive transgressive, is ultimately punished by death.   

Throughout the novel, Fagerholm offers the reader subtle guidance, enabling us to read beyond the realism and chronological plot. The dialogue of the wonderful women and the glamourous accessories of the early 1960s, such as rainbow cocktails and bar cabinets with built-in lighting, the grand American car belonging to one of the families, and social graces hailed as a form of ritual, elicit both confusion and fascination. By constantly emphasising (and overemphasising) the superficiality – Rosa and Bella’s constant preoccupation with their appearances, sunbathing, makeup and sundresses; their trite conversation going in constant circles like a snippet of 16 mm home movie depicting Rosa and the drinks, spinning around and around – Fagerholm piques the reader’s curiosity, all the while raising doubts as to the actual meaning of the text.

Is there an authentic statement to be gleaned from underneath the layers of trite stereotypes? What would Rosa and Isabella say if they were speaking from the heart, rather than dreaming their lives elsewhere through a dialogue infused by vague slogans: “There is another option. We could leave. Into thin air.” Or: “We’re the restless kind, Bella. […] Sometimes one simply must leave. Follow one’s nose.”   

We are constantly reminded of how this is not simply a singularly adept evocation of an “imagined reality”, this is rather a literary artefact, a demonstration of true verbal artistry. 

The Superheroine, Diva. Quintessential Queen Bee of School

Lina Scheynius, Inka and Neele in Germany, Summer 2013

In the next novel, Diva. En uppväxts egna alfabet med docklaboratorium (en bonusberättelse ur framtiden) (1998; Diva. The Alphabets of an Upbringing with Doll Laboratory (A Bonus Tale from the Future)), we encounter a heroine who inspires greater optimism. Here, Fagerholm masterfully repudiates the usual limitations and sociological issues associated with stories about girls. Diva is a thirteen-year-old, a schoolgirl who loves food and maths, and realises the full potential of her beauty and budding sexuality across boundaries of both gender and age. She is invincible, hungry and fabulous, and repeatedly nominated as head girl of the annual St. Lucia procession at school, which, in Scandinavia, is celebrated as a festival of light on December 13. The head girl of the procession wears a crown of burning candles. Being crowned as head girl of the procession is considered an honour and a social indicator of beauty and brilliance.

The narrator/main character instructs her readers that she is Diva, “everything I’m telling you is the truth. Close your eyes, dream the most beautiful of dreams. Open your eyes again. Look at me. The girl-woman, DivaLucia. Thirteen, soon to be fourteen. BabyWonder. The one you wouldn’t believe existed.”

In Diva, Fagerholm introduces the hitherto indistinguishable Eastern suburbs of Helsinki as a highly evocative place. While Helsinki-natives may recognise Diva’s “Värtbyhamn”-district as the suburb Botby, we can all imagine “the waste land by the City Supermarket”, the sparse landscape of 1970s modernist architecture. This is a new world, where tradition is neither useful nor burdensome. The charge given to Diva by her mother, the poet, reads: “YOU are made for me, Diva. New. Fabulous. Different”. Her friend, Franses, depicts her as a: “Fragmented mosaic, and Diva right at the centre and in-between.” Researchers have pointed out the postmodernity of Diva – saturated with intertextual references to both high- and low culture, reflecting its own narrative in a kaleidoscope of mirrors, creating images of its own narrative-under-construction.

Diva has language at her disposal, and she dispenses with it how she sees fit, blending high and low, intimate and abstract, in a playful, inventive torrent of words where new words – e.g. “hugsandkissesbirds” denotes a particular kind of teenage girls, “mubbling”, making love – are coupled with ironic quotations from all kinds of different sources. Her mysterious counterpart is Kari, the girl behind the wall, who, having lost her language due to a mysterious disease, is now forced to reconquer language bit-by-bit, phrase by phrase, through arduous exercises from a tape recorder.

There are shadows of disgust and destruction here. Diva wears her burning crown of the St. Lucia procession, while Kari is consumed by fire. Diva’s strategic use of a kaleidoscopic splinter-mosaic strategy, the language in which she triumphantly emerges “right at the centre and in-between”, appears to carry her through the dangers and ambivalences towards the prospects of an open future vis à vis her upbringing. “The question of the young women’s entitlement to speak up and claim their place remains unanswered but undeniable, the novel concludes on a note of both triumph and tragedy”, writes Michel Ekman in the most recent edition of Finland-Swedish literary history, Finlands svenska litteratur 1900-2012 (The Swedish Literature in Finland, 1900-2012), where Fagerholm is recognised as a prominent writer.          

The American Girl and The Glitter Scene – Death in the District

Monika Fagerholm owes her international breakthrough to Den amerikanska flickan (2014; The American Girl, 2010), which garnered her the August Prize in Sweden and a slew of translations into foreign languages, including English and French. During this period, she also became a star in both languages of Finland, with the Finnish versions translated directly from the Swedish manuscripts.  

The American Girl is at once both a thriller and a melodrama. The novel unfolds in the District, an area similar to Porkala, the westernmost part of Finland’s southern coast, which, in the aftermath of war, remained occupied from 1944 to 1956 by the Soviet Union, one of the victorious powers of World War II. While we are thus on the scene of considerable historical drama – the evacuation, and subsequent return twelve years later, of the local population – the main characters of the novel are primarily children and adolescents who are entirely consumed by the dramatic and dead serious games of their own making. The time frame is indicated by one of the first chapter headings: “It happened at Bule Marsh 1969-2008” (The American Girl). Fagerholm describes the mood of The American Girl in an interview: “When you’re young, life seems terribly short. ‘I will kill myself’, says one. Games are played, but it’s dreadfully serious”.   

Pi Bartholdy, Under water, 2011

Two of the most important characters in the novel are Sandra and Doris – Sandra with the cleft lip, whose mother has disappeared, and Doris from the outer marshes, who has availed herself of a new family, because her biological family had proved itself to be literally lethal. The girls form a symbiotic, physical friendship, the way some girls do on the threshold to puberty.  

Their most important game is about the district’s great murder mystery, the American girl, Eddie de Wire, who turned up in the district one summer and later disappeared mysteriously, perhaps into the depths of the Bule Marshes. Her disappearance echoes a previous mystery. What happened to Sandra’s mother when she could no longer tolerate being married to Sandra’s father? All that remains are lengths of silk from her failed fabric shop, Little Bombay.

The novel frees itself from the shackling conventions of the thriller genre by clearly indicating that the reader should not expect a catharsis-like solution to the mystery.  

The mystery deepens when the American girl rises to the surface and an explanation for her disappearance is presented. Somebody else dies, but why? And those who are let off the hook – what price will they pay? Tecnically, this question is answered in the final pages of Glitterscenen (2009; The Glitter Scene, 2010), which in conjunction with The American Girl forms an odd literary diptych. The Glitter Scene takes its subtitle from a popular folk song, “and the girl she walks in the ring with red golden ribbons” (The Glitter Scene).

Anniken Hannevik, Jenta i vannet, 2010

The American Girl retains a narrative spine in the form of a thriller with its mystery brought to a conclusion in a tale about the district and its dark saga. While the houses are houses, they are imbued with imaginary features and images. Time levels are altered and jump, not frantically, but contribute to making chronological changes appear as normal “foreshadowing”, enabling the reader to lean on the experience of a linear course of events. Psychologically, the novel may be interpreted as a story about childhood and adolescence, in a literal sense, when Eddie finally rises to the surface, and the mystery of the disappeared mother is solved, it is a story about the reappearance of the repressed.

Initially, In The Glitter Scene, the metafictional tone that questions everything is firmly struck by the tragic cameo role of the brilliant character of the schoolgirl, Ulla Bäckström.

She is the poseur showing-off, the multi-talented one – her pleasurable, theatrical staging of the district’s old murder mystery is – as will become apparent later – a dangerous game.

The houses are, in part, actual architectural artifacts in the District, where the socio-economic development has once again picked up speed, displacing centre and periphery, the beautiful and the ugly, local and newcomer. Similarly, while the Winter Garden in The American Girl is the product of the imaginary games of three orphans before becoming an architectural reality, in The Glitter Scene it is more imaginary than real, a sort of super spa or landlocked luxury cruise liner, shimmering in the dark, behind locked gates.

If the relationship between Doris and Sandra constituted the emotional source of energy in The American Girls, the nervous system of The Glitter Scene is electrified by the relationship between Maj-Gun Maalamaa and Suzette Packlén.

Their decisive encounter and battle is played out as adults – they are women who should move beyond adolescence in order to rearch adulthood but who seem unable to do so before their final conflict is played out. The town centre, where greasers cruise while Maj-Gun sells cigarettes and magazines in the newsagent’s, is a pivotal stage for their relationship. This most everyday environment is elevated, twisted and turned in typical Fagerholm-language, leaving the reader to imagine it looking like a magnificent opera set awaiting tremendous arias.  

Maj-Gun and Suzette are, in in their own way, playing at being angels of death. But one of them is in reality in possession of a dark and destructive force, caught in a kind of mysterious, ritual, compulsive repetition like in the folk song, which “has many verses, the same thing happens in every one, over and over again, an eternal repetition” (The Glitter Scene). At the end, there are so many casualties in the District, and in the same social circle, that the death of the American girl, Eddie De Wire, in the 1960’s begins to lose its particular sensationalist glow and mythic depths.  

When the final solution to this mystery, which is in reality a different solution to the one concluding The American Girl, is presented at the end of the novel, the reader no longer cares. Instead the big question is perhaps: Why this obsession with death? Or: How to live in order for our emotions to become feelings, and experiences to become experience?  

Lola Upsidedown – Another District, More Death

The next novel, Lola uppochner (2012; Lola Upsidedown), appears to be more of a classic small-town thriller. We are in the small town of Flatnäs. The town shares, as pinpointed by Fagerholm in the postscript, certain similarities with the town of Ekenäs in Västnyland, where she has made her home since 1998. The book opens with a list of characters of the kind, one usually finds in detective novels in order to facilitate the reader’s understanding of the myriad of murder suspects and their social context: “Ronald Rouhe, local gangster. Lives in the woods beyond Stillwater Lake”, or “the Mad Woman, Minnie and Mitja’s aunt, a famous poet, in her fifties”.

A September night in 1994, moneyed youths are throwing a party in one of the smarter houses in town. Early the next morning, the 15-year-old Jana Marton finds, while en route to her summer job at Gusse Marin’s supermarket, one of the young men, Flemming Peterson, dead and covered with blood in a sandpit. The events of the autumn of 1994 are framed by the story of Jana Marton’s return to town 17 years later. She is invited to a girls’ night out at the home of the very same person who hosted the party with such tragic consequences many years before. Clues – both false and true – are presented in an intricate pattern, and the crime causes the small community to fall to pieces as many people – other than the perpetrator and the victim – reveal their secrets. 

The writers intentions are, nevertheless, more complex than simply the desire to entertain and amuse us. The list of characters’ brief descriptions soon prove to be painfully misleading as the characters’ inner lives and conflicts become more complex, the language of the novel more complicated, and the reader’s faith in the predictability of the narrative and its genre-loyalty is challenged. 

Once more, one is touched by Fagerholm’s passion for the creation of young characters with complicated inner lives – whether in jest or all seriousness – who are burdened yet also free from the constraints of sociological distinctions, duelling against timeless existential phenomena such as love, desire, fidelity, and freedom. 

Monika Fagerholm, Innovator of the Finland-Swedish Novel

​Pi Bartholdy, Upside down, 2012

If one considers Fagerholm’s entire oeuvre, it may seem as if Diva constituted the most radical experiment in terms of literary form, followed by a greater willingness to compromise between the chronological narrative, an interest in plot, and the psychology of the characters on the one hand, and the linguistic form on the other. However, Diva may also be considered a sort of artisan’s test piece, enabling the writer to henceforward handle her subjects daringly and freely, making a mess of narrative chronologies and complexities, while concomitantly maintaining the style of the genre condescendingly called ‘readers’ novels’ in Swedish, and which is expected to offer an absorbing storyline with engaging characters.     

Diva expands ironically on the kinds of books she will definitely will not write, novels brimming with “true Women’sVigour and FemaleDetermination” and “Sympathetic and positive heroines for everyone to identify with – strong and engaging women’s portraits.” But the question remains, whether the odd young women in Fagerholm’s novels are not, however complicated, akin to the previous description?

With Diva and other works, Fagerholm has undoubtedly paved the way for a new generation of young women in Finland-Swedish literature. 

In the spirit of Diva – where everything is possible and nothing is forbidden – bullied rebels and stubborn romantics, vampires and fantasy heroines are conquering the literary scene through the writings of Sanna Tahvanainen, Malin Kivelä, Hannele Mikaela Taivassalo, and Maria Turtschaninoff

In an essay on the pop-cultural features in Diva, Kristina Malmio, citing references to the comic-strip character, Phoenix-Marvel-Girl, calls the novel a turning point in Finland-Swedish literature: “Diva has been celebrated as the new girls’ book, but inasmuch as it fundamentally challenges tradition, it is equally a renewal of the Finland-Swedish novel. The novel stages the struggle between modernism and postmodernism, breaking, through the use of pop culture, the tradition of “constricted rooms” in Finland-Swedish literature with an almost grandiose gesture. Aided and abetted by the supernatural powers of Phoenic-Marvel-Girl, Finland-Swedish literature enters the world of mass communication, globalisation, and the internet.  

However, this feature was already present in Wonderful Women by the Water, where the writer obstinately refuses to turn her nose up at her heroines’ preoccupation with their appearance, modern gadgetry, and a trite rhetoric of freedom.

In The American Girl, popular music constitutes the sounding board for the existential awakening of the young protagonists. A young man roams the woods with a blaring wireless radio, a little girl sings hits in the kitchen with a kind foster mother, an older girl comes of age and creates a name for herself as the Swamp Queen of the Marshes in the world of pop – or, rubbish – music, and so on.      

In Lola Upsidedown, Fagerholm ventures into the domain of the pop literary genre of the small-town whodunit, which she proceeds to imbue with her own content, thereby extending and distorting its boundaries until they almost burst and become something altogether different.

Gurlesque – the Play and the Mess of the Novels

Gurlesque, which a portmanteau of “girl” and “burlesque”, is another useful concept for discussing many of the girls and women in Fagerholm’s novels. According to Maria Margareta Österholm, gurlesque is “an aesthetic which madly juxtaposes feminist and queer theory with cuteness and disgust”. Gurlesque affects both literary form and content, rubbing off on language while mixing queer and subversive ideas about femininity with “cheap sluttishness and fierce lipsticks”.

Österholm examines the gurlesque girls’ rooms in Diva, where Diva and her friends, Franses and mute Kari, reside in a teeming mess of dolls, knickers, and other props from the frontiers between childhood and adulthood.  

Monika Fagerholm. Photo: Ulla Montan

Similarly, one may find the girls’ spaces and twisted princess games of the gurlesque in Rosa and Bella’s encounters on the beach cliffs in Wonderful Women by the Water, in Sandra and Doris’ textile games and true-crime fetishes in the empty swimming pool in The American Girl, or in Maj-Gun Maalamaa, who dances as “the happy whore” in front of her brother in the playroom and who – with an Ava Gardner mask covering her face – plays “Liz Maalamaa, the Angel of Death” in the cemetery, while later having sex among the graves with a succession of boys/men. On the brink of middle age, she has decorated a new girl’s room in the newsagents’ in the town square, where she is perched – fat as a fiddle – behind the counter, collecting lines for her Book of Parting Shots and applying cosmetic samples carefully coaxed from the pages of the magazines she sells.  

In Lola Upsidedown, the incurably ill Anita runs a quiver of children by the name the Skeleton Birds, while pursuing her interest in anorexia and death. The youths on the cusp of adulthood engage in a game of ‘truth or dare’ or, as it is called in Finland-Swedish, ‘truth or do’, with ever increasing stakes, or walk a tightrope in a boathouse.

Thoughout Fagerholm’s literary output, intense games unfold on the boundaries of tragedy or rage. There are travesties, lilting, and ranting and raving alongside more heartfelt conversations. These games also enable a multitude of queer, or crooked, views on love, attachments, attraction, fidelity, and thus – albeit temporarily – a liberation from family-centric and heteronormative conventions. Play as motif and method liberates the writer’s language while also enabling a running (adult, metafictional) reflection on truth, truthfulness, and letting one’s imagination run riot.    

Language – Dialogue, Repetition, Incantations, and Platitudes

The novel, Diva, and its main character and narrator, Diva, are both completely caught up in language – sensuous and disgusting, ironic and fervent, babbling and abruptly so in a cascade of words, which spurs the reader onwards with utter astonishment. In a modified version, this is also the case in the subsequent novels, where syntax is characterised by the repetition of key phrases and the sudden almost eavesdropping on the inner communication of one character after another.  

Meanwhile, a playful – but fundamentally grim – metafictional reflection is expressed through textile motifs. A motif which is tangibly about the expensive silk fabrics which Sandra and Doris play with in the empty swimming pool in The American Girl. These silk fabrics derive from the missing mother’s fabric shop, silks with wonderfully exotic names such as dupioni and habotai. The games they play about women who die and disappear, become serious as the shining silk fades into rags of cloth.

In The Glitter Scene, the wonderful fabric has been exchanged for buckets brimming with rags of cloth, old clothes cut-up into rags for rugs. The shreds are cut by an ageing, depressive woman, Mrs. Packlén, and her lodger, Maj-Gun Maalamaa, the latter of whom – though approaching her thirties – appears to have come to a standstill on the threshold of early adulthood and further studies.  

With the image of Maj-Gun, Fagerholm surreptitiously sneaks in the image of the writer entangled in her text/rags of cloth/manuscript – engaged in an endless novel and an extensive correspondence with an editor. We are led to believe that this is a sort of hopeless substitute for making critical life choices.  

Gender, Regional, and Family Policies – De-Centering and Re-Centering

Pauliina Haasjoki has examined the various levels of omnipotence, sexuality, and ambivalence as explicit motifs and as functions of the headstrong narrative in Diva. She considers this an attempt at writing about sexuality “by writing beyond naturalised heterosexuality”, and “to ponder the question, ‘who am I?’, as a questioning of one’s own desires, making a theme of the connection between knowledge and desire”. Like Malmio, she defines Diva as a milestone. To Haasjoki, the queer point of view, a new consideration of gender and sexuality, remains the core point: “Diva was published at a time when the question – and questioning – of sexuality was not merely an option but a premise – also for Diva who narrates, undresses, and exposes herself in ways which, at times, appear almost obsessive.”

Diva is ceaselessly examining her own omnipotence, her alleged independence from boundaries and heteronormativity, against a still-existing hierarchical structure. The narration, with its alternating takeoffs and landings, is itself an act of resistance to conventions. 

Challenging unambiguous, heteronormative structures – in relationships, romances, and alliances – is a recurring theme in Fagerholm’s writings.

By extension, she concerns herself with a constant anti-familycentric work of sorts, a challenge or dethronement of the bonds of the nuclear family. Wonderful Women by the Water carries the subtitle En berättelse om syskon (A Story about Siblings), yet the relationship between biological siblings remain irrelevant to the novel, which rather explores the relationship between Bella and Rosa and between their children, Thomas and Renée.

Paradoxically, in Diva, the relationship to the biological mother and brothers assumes more importance than in any other novel by Fagerholm. In The American Girl, The Glitter Scene, and Lola Upsidedown, the life-determining bonds are more often found in friendships, love, or alternative families, than in the biological family.

When it comes to actual geography, Fagerholm has engaged with a playful, but decisive de- and re-centering. In Diva, the “desert plains” of a new suburb are imbued with complexity and meaning. In the three latest novels, places beyond the cultural epicentre of the capital are forcefully written into the canons of literature. The peculiar ‘District’ and the small town of Flatnäs – with their coastlines, dark marshes and deep secrets – become familiar and wonderful places in the fiction of Fagerholm.     

The various strata of the class society – gentry, lower-gentry, lower-middle class, and unspecified hustlers with suspicious means of living – coexist in tense relationships to one another. Yet the crucial life-determining events in Fagerholms novels always occur between young protagonists who are – albeit temporarily – set free from their various social backgrounds through the community of school and youth culture.

Somewhere beyond here is the ‘city by the sea’ and other grand places that one may forge ahead towards in order to finally return to the formative place, the locus of the original conflict and the primary mystery. 

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Published december 2014