Wednesday, 29 April 2009

Strindberg and Love by Eivor Martinus

I have been obsessed with Strindberg since I had to study his plays at school in Finland. Having lived in Sweden as a child my language skills were beyond those required by the curriculum and so my Swedish teacher decided that I should not only achieve a good mark in my Swedish Baccalaureate, but should learn something new. She set about encouraging me to write an essay on Strindberg. For a teenage girl the Swedish playwright was not an easy subject. The prolific, socially critical and revolutionary writer, who died in 1912, was generally known as a misogynist. Eivor Martinus’ motivation for Strindberg and Love is to try to refute this allegation. Strindberg’s three marriages and a last engagement to a fourth, young actress Fanny Falkner, could make this a difficult task.

Martinus describes the writer from the point of view of his women. She tries and succeeds in describing a passionate author living in a time with dramatic social change with fond detachment. Many of the sources the author has available to her are by Strindberg himself, which makes her task even more difficult. He had a tendency towards long periods of depression, often triggered by the end of an affair, or marriage. To combat these bouts of what I’m sure in today’s world would be diagnosed as bipolar episodes, he often retreated to writing. The resulting novels or plays were putrid, hostile, egoistic accounts of the previous relationships. But as Martinus points out, he made notes in his diary to remember not to let anyone see the writing; especially a new object of his love. Economic realities, however, often intervened and time and time again Strindberg had to sell the poisonous manuscripts to his publisher to pay for food and rent.

Martinus account of Strindberg is vivid, the writing is excellent, and the reader finds it easy to follow the loves and lives of the great writer without feeling she is reading a boring biography. I was sad to come to the end of the book and felt that the women in his life and Strindberg were deeply loved by each other as well as by the author.

Tuesday, 28 April 2009

'Mind's Eye' by Håkan Nesser

I can't claim I'm new to Nesser's murder mystery world. I've been reading his unusual novels in Swedish for a couple of years and am an enthusiastic fan. At last he's being translated into English, at a rate of one book per year.

Mind's Eye is a well constructed story of a serial killer, who almost by accident becomes one. But the first scene is seemingly a domestic affair. After a drunken night, Eva Mitter's body is found in a pool of blood in the bathroom of a flat she shared with her new husband. He remembers only fragments of their night together but claims he could not have killed her.

The Police Chief Inspector, Van Veeteren, has his own worldly concerns. He's an old autocrat feared by his superiors as much as by his underlings, due to his undisputed talent for solving murders. But this case baffles him and makes him question his future in the force. Following the modern Swedish literary detective story tradition, Mind's Eye is more about the detective that it is about the murderer or even the victims. As in all Nesser's books the setting is an invented Northern European country, with bad weather and sombre buildings. Nesser's clipped, economical writing style suits the genre and the story. All the while we wonder what hides in the background, what we're not being told. He creates the story in our minds as much as on the page.

But the surprising twist in the end is less satisfying just because Nesser does not allow the reader any relevant insight into the mysterious Van Veeteren's mind. Even with a few chapters written from the murderer's point of view, the reader is none the wiser as to who he could possibly be, nor how the Chief Inspector came to suspect him. It's the norm to be led down the wrong track, but in order to satisfy the fans of the genre, the writer needs to give at least a hint of the solution away. If the great detective can work anything out, the reader will lose interest. What's the fun in reading about a magic trick? It only works if you can watch it.

Perhaps Nesser's later books, with the more approachable detective Barbarotti, would have suited the English speaking market better? Nevertheless, I'm looking forward to reading the English version of the next book in the Van Veeteren series, Woman with Birthmark.

Monday, 27 April 2009

'Ei Kiitos' by Anna-Leena Härkönen

The heroine of 'Ei Kiitos', Heli, is 43 and married to a man with intimacy issues. He lacks sex drive. But Heli has enough to spare, and spends all her time trying to get her man into the sack. Slowly we see that the little time the couple spend in bed (not sleeping) belies deeper, more serious issues in the marriage. He spends his time in front of the pc, while she obsesses about sex. The relationship hits serious rocks when the couple's 13-year daughter leaves the marital home for a month long summer holiday in London. A holiday in Greece to celebrate their 15th wedding anniversary only adds pressure.

The style of the book is light, and it is meant to entertain as well as deal seriously with modern relationship issues. This is not a good combination. A third of the book is spent in a painfully open and detailed account of the many advances Heli has to make to get her husband to notice her, let alone to 'give it' to her. 75 percent of this is unnecessary. We get it. She wants sex with him, he doesn't care for it. Is he depressed? Is she unattractive? Is it him, or is it her?

If only the author had not felt the need to shock and titillate her audience with frankly too graphic sex scenes, the reader could have been rewarded with a gem of a book about modern marriage, in an age where divorce is easy and affairs are the norm. The message of the book that men and women both still thrive on old-fashioned, romantic love as well as on wild and passionate sex is lost amongst all the bodily fluids and unusual positions.

The 13-year-old daughter's departure amid arguments about cropped tops, tongue piercings and use of rude words, is a truly moving scene, one which shows that the author could have done something quite beautiful with the story if only she had not in the same breath moved onto a frankly crude lovemaking scene.

'Ei Kiitos', or 'No Thank You' has sold well in Finland, over 65,000 up to the end of 2008. Perhaps I've become too British, but I have to admit to being much more moved (and excited) by McEwen's library love scene in 'Atonement' than I was by the 30 or so in 'Ei Kiitos'.

Sunday, 19 April 2009

New books from Finland

The main aim of this blog is to comment on latest books published in Finnish. There will be crime, romance and so called literary fiction. Any title suggestions are welcome, please let me know.Occasionally I'll comment on translated fiction from Northern Europe. Again if someone has a burning desire to know about a particular book, just post a comment here and I'll try to accommodate you.

A trip to Helsinki to stock up on reading matter is imminent, so I ask for your patience. In the meantime, there's a short review of Mika Nousianen's Vadelmavenepakolainen on February 2009.