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Reading the World 2017: ‘The Leech’ by Cora Sandel ****

I chose to purchase Cora Sandel’s The Leech for my Reading the World project, as she is an author whom has been on my radar for an awfully long time, but whose books appear to be few and far between.  I had originally thought that I would start with the Alberta trilogy which Sandel is arguably most famous for, but  The Leech was the most easily available of her books to me through Abebooks, and so I plumped for it as what I hoped would be a good introduction to her work.  The only other person who has reviewed it on Goodreads also compared it to Virginia Woolf, so of course it was almost inevitable that I was going to begin with this one.

The Leech was first published in Norway in 1958, and in the United Kingdom two years later.  This particular translation has been wonderfully rendered by Elizabeth Rakkan, and printed by The Women’s Press.  Interestingly, we do not meet the woman, Dondi, whom the story revolves around until almost the end of the work.  She is relatively young, and left her home in southern Norway to head to a small town within the Arctic Circle in order to marry.  The Leech begins ten years after Dondi’s decision has been made, and things have not turned out quite as she was expecting them to.  Her writer husband, Gregor, is less than famous, her twin children Bella and Beppo are rebellious, and she is ‘miserable to the point of hysteria’.  Added to this, Gregor’s extended family see Dondi as the reason why he has not quite realised his full potential as a writer; they believe that she has sapped his talent pool dry. 9780704340053-us

The Leech takes place over two days in Midsummer, and from the beginning, Sandel sets the scene perfectly: ‘The veranda doors were open to the radiant North Norwegian summer: a summer which heaps light upon light, shining and brittle, only to fade too soon’.  The majority of the prose takes place within conversations; it opens with Lagerta speaking to her grandmother, who is berating everything modern, from jazz music to motorcycles.  She is grimly comic and belligerent, most fulfilled when she has something to complain about, and somebody to argue her points against.  She is shrewd, and notices everything, telling her granddaughter the following in the opening passage: ‘”But you Lagerta, are over-nervous, my dear.  You must have something in your hands all the time.  You can’t rest any more, don’t think I haven’t noticed it.  One can simply get too tired.”‘

Gregor’s brother, Jonas, acts with his aunt Lagerta and his great-grandmother as a voice of reason in the novel.  We learn an awful lot about Dondi, and her relationship with Gregor, but our view of her is always through their disapproving eyes until she appears in the flesh.  She has very little agency; until she is given a voice of her own, our interpretation of her is negatively biased, and when she is allowed her say, she is forever being fussed over and ordered around somewhat by those around her.  Whilst Dondi is always the focus of their speech, the characters do become protagonists in the piece through Sandel’s clever and effective prose techniques.  Lagerta particularly describes how she has had to live through and adapt to a changing world; she is a thoroughly three-dimensional being, and the most realistic character in the book.

The geographical isolation of the family is best described by Lagerta, when she states: ‘”Coming up here was a violent experience…  I don’t know what to compare it with – being killed and slowly coming alive again.  I was not myself for a while…”‘.  The relationships which Sandel draws are complex and interesting, and the homestead in the middle of nowhere exacerbates the fact that they have few other people for company outside of the familial base.

Sadly, and undeservedly, The Leech has fallen by the wayside.  Using Goodreads as a marker, it has had only a few ratings, and one review other than mine.  There is a marvellous flow to the whole thanks to Rakkan’s translation.  The Leech is a wonderful read, full of interesting and important points about the state of the world and a woman’s place within it, and great writing.  If you can get your hands on a copy, it’s a book which I would certainly recommend.

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‘The Palace of the Snow Queen’ by Barbara Sjoholm *****

‘A Frequent traveler to Northern Europe, Barbara Sjoholm set off one winter to explore a region that had long intrigued her. Sjoholm first travels to Kiruna, Sweden, to see the Icehotel under construction and to meet the ice artists who make its rooms into environmental art. Traveling to the North Cape, she encounters increasing darkness and cold, but also radiant light over the mountains and snow fields. She crosses the Finnmark Plateau by dogsled, attends a Sami film festival (with an outdoor ice screen), and visits Santa’s Post Office in Finland. Over the course of three winters, Sjoholm unearths the region’s rich history, including the culture of the Sami. As Sjoholm becomes more familiar with Kiruna, she writes of the changes occurring in northern Scandinavia and contemplates the tensions between tourism, the expansion of mining and development of the Ice Hotel, and age-old patterns of land use, the Sami’s struggle to maintain their reindeer grazing lands and migration routes.’

I was incredibly excited to read Barbara Sjoholm’s The Palace of the Snow Queen, in which she spends several winters in the Arctic Circle.  Sjoholm’s entire account is vivid and fascinating; she brings to light so many elements of life in the far north, always with the utmost sensitivity for those who live there.  9781593761592

Throughout, Sjoholm writes about the Sami, tourism, custom and tradition, the Icehotel in Sweden, and ways to travel around, amongst a plethora of other things.  She strongly demonstrates just how quickly times change, and how some centuries-old traditions are being dropped in favour of the necessity of tourism.

Everything has been so well researched here, not only with regard to her own experiences, but with insight by others who have explored the region in years past.  Her narrative voice is incredibly engaging, and I learnt so much from her account.  It was the perfect tome to read over the Christmas period, and has extended my wanderlust even further.  The Palace of the Snow Queen is undoubtedly one of the best travelogues which I have ever read, and is a sheer transportative joy to settle down with during long winters’ nights.

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One From the Archive: ‘The Looking-Glass Sisters’ by Gohril Gabrielsen ****

The first offering in English by acclaimed Norwegian author Gohril Gabrielsen has just been published by the marvellous Peirene Press, making it their eighteenth title, and the final instalment in 2015’s Chance Encounter series.  For those who do not know, Peirene focus upon translating European novella-length works, which would otherwise probably completely pass us by in the United Kingdom.

Translated by John Irons, The Looking-Glass Sisters – first published in Norway in 2008 – is a stunning and intense portrayal of the relationship between two sisters.  Bergens Tidende, Norway’s fifth largest newspaper, believes that The Looking-Glass Sisters is ‘innovative and sensuous’, and Meike Ziervogel, the founder of Peirene, calls it ‘a story about loneliness – both geographical and psychological’.  Here, Gabrielsen presents to us ‘a tragic love story about two sisters who cannot live with or without each other’.

Ragna is the elder sister, and has been tasked with caring for her partially paralysed, and thus totally dependent, sister since the deaths of their parents.  Our narrator, who remains unnamed, says, ‘I’m dependent on her help and goodwill…  But she ignores my cries, does not come, punishes me severely.  And repeatedly…  I have to realise that we’ve come to a watershed in our relationship as sisters.  After our last agonising quarrel, it looks as if she’s forgotten me.  I’ve been stowed away like an object among all the other objects up here – discarded and outside time’.

The prose style which Gabrielsen has made use of is gripping from the very start.  The story opens in the following way: ‘My sister and her husband are outside, digging a deep hole next to the dwarf birch by my attic window…  Soon I am dozing dreamlessly, just as hidden as the thing down there in the dark earth’.  She uses the simple yet effective technique of going back in time in order to build the contextual information, and to give us further insights into the tumultuous and often cruel relationship between the sisters.  The entire novella is deftly shaped, and Gabrielsen’s care and attention to detail mean that one is immediately submerged within the dark, stifling world of our narrator.  The very notion of everyday life, and those tasks which we perhaps take for granted, are examined, as are the ways in and means with which our narrator brings herself to cope.

The reader is soon called upon to be a participant within the story, rather than merely an overseer: ‘Imagine an attic.  Not just any attic, but one in a remote spot in a northern, godforsaken part of the world…  You go up there only reluctantly, and preferably not alone – it’s got something to do with the creaking of the staircase…  It’s not easy to make it to the room at the top.  And it’s even more difficult to come down’.   The power of the first person perspective grows: ‘You place your ear to the door.  After a moment, you sense some sound of life, not breathing and movement, but a vibration of existence, an unrest that only life can produce…  Deep inside, among the dancing white spots, you can make out the contours of a body resting on a bed.  And this body, this only just perceptible unrest – it is me’.

The Looking-Glass Sisters contains such interesting and original aspects of personality, and builds a cast of characters who feel – often horribly – realistic, particularly in their cruelties.  Ragna, for example, ‘is a person you instinctively talk loudly to, long and hard, so as to be heard through the thick layer of resistance’.  Gabrielsen’s prose, and those elements which she depicts, are startling in places: ‘Her little heart shrivelled, like the animal hearts in the larder that her sister cooks with cream’.

Gabrielsen shrewdly demonstrates that one can be with somebody every day, and not really know them at all.  In The Looking-Glass Sisters, she masterfully builds intensity, and weaves in elements of sensuality and control.  She shows the hidden strength of our narrator, and sculpts the overriding feeling that people are not always as they may appear.  The fact that the narrator herself is never given a name gives a whole new depth to proceedings; despite her lack of identification in this manner, she is still the most human depiction in the entire novella.  The stark darkness within the plot, too, unfolds marvellously against the framework of the northern Norway setting.

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‘Professor Andersen’s Night’ by Dag Solstad **

Merry Christmas Eve, one and all!  I am wishing you a wonderful day today, whatever you may be doing.

Heralded as ‘Norway’s most distinguished living writer’ by The Sunday Times and as ‘an unflinching explorer of the plight of educated humankind in the inexplicable’ by The Guardian, it seems as though Dag Solstad’s Professor Andersen’s Night will be a treat for readers everywhere.

9780099578420First published in Norway in 1996, this rather short novel was translated into English in 2011. The story begins on Christmas Eve, where readers will instantly recognise his frustrations with the holiday – wrestling with the lights and putting up the tree, for example. The third person narrative voice which Solstad has used throughout is interspersed with Professor Andersen’s muttered thoughts about his Christmas Eve supper – ‘if the crackling isn’t perfect, I’ll be furious, I shall swear out loud, even if it is Christmas Eve’ – and the way in which he finds himself alone at the time of year which is generally celebrated with one’s family. In this way, the loneliness and sense of melancholy which weaves itself through the majority of the book is founded at its outset: ‘He celebrated Christmas mainly because he felt very uneasy at the thought that he might have done the opposite’.

Professor Andersen is a middle-aged literature professor at a university in Oslo. Many questions regarding the man and his lifestyle are present in the minds of the reader almost from the outset. We wonder why he is alone, and why he seems so detached from everything around him. The main thread of the story comes when Professor Andersen, looking out of his window into the Christmas Eve darkness, witnesses a man strangling a woman in one of the flats opposite his. Little emotion is created as he surveys this scene, and the event almost comes across as an everyday occurrence in the way it is told: ‘She flailed her arms about, Professor Andersen noticed, her body jerked, he observed, before she all at once became completely still beneath the man’s hands and went limp’.

Although he feels he should call the police, he does nothing: ‘He went over to the telephone but didn’t lift the receiver… Instead, he stationed himself at the window… and kept watch on the window where he had seen a murder being committed’. Professor Andersen himself is clearly a complex character, but he comes across more often than not as a cowardly oddball, rather than as anything deeper.

With regard to Solstad’s writing style, some of Professor Andersen’s thoughts merely repeat the narrative in parrot fashion. Many of the sentences also seem rather too long and clumsily written, although whether this is merely a translation oversight or if it actually mirrors the author’s original manuscript is difficult to tell. It may perhaps be due to the stream of consciousness style which has been adopted throughout the book, as this does provide some problems of its own. The repetition of phrases is rather common, and it feels rather strange that there are no chapters or even page breaks included throughout. Several of the scenes are more drawn out than is necessary, and we never really get to know any of the characters as the book progresses. They are flat, lifeless creations for the most part, and the continuous paragraphs, which are filled with dialogue exchanges between more than two characters, can be a little confusing at times.

The prose itself is clinical at times, and rather matter-of-fact: ‘The rectangular curtains which covered the whole window, in an extremely compact manner’ and similarly oddly phrased sentences can be found throughout. There are few descriptions throughout, and even fewer scenes which contain any emotion whatsoever for any of the characters involved. Professor Andersen’s Night is not one of the easiest books to read, merely due to the style in which it has been written. Its telling is dull and stolid when it has no reason to be, and as Professor Andersen himself is not the most likeable of characters, a feeling of detachment on behalf of the reader is present throughout, particularly with regard to some of the decisions he makes. Not all of the loose ends are tied up, and although the story itself is interesting, but it could have been told in a much more inviting and literary way.

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‘One of Us: The Story of a Massacre and Its Aftermath’ by Asne Seierstad ****

For the purposes of background to this review, I have copied the original blurb: ‘On 22 July 2011 Anders Behring Breivik killed 77 of his fellow Norwegians in a terrorist atrocity that shocked the world. One of Us is the definitive account of the massacres and the subsequent trial. But more than that, it is the compelling story of Anders Breivik and a select group of his victims. As we follow the path to their inevitable collision, it becomes clear just what was lost in that one day.’

9781844089185It’s always going to be difficult to review a book about such a sickening and notorious crime as the massacre which happened on the island of Utoya in July 2011, and the bomb attack which happened in central Oslo just beforehand.  Norway is one of my favourite countries, and Oslo is certainly one of the most peaceful and friendly places I have ever visited.  I was even more shocked, therefore, when I learnt about Breivik’s crime.  What occurred was reported in the British media, but relatively few details emerged about the trial. When I spotted One of Us in Fopp, I decided to pick it up to learn as much as I could.  The fact that it is written by Asne Seierstad also swayed me, as I very much enjoyed her fascinating The Bookseller of Kabul when I read it a few years ago.

One of Us is the very pinnacle of excellent journalism.  Seierstad has taken her subject and written about his entire life, as well as taking into account elements of his parents’ lives to see what, if anything, rubbed off on Breivik and caused him to have the views which he so firmly holds.  Seierstad is thorough, but this will surprise nobody who is familiar with her work.  I have read several reviews which stated that One of Us is far too drawn out in places.  I did not get this impression at all; rather, the very depth of the details which she included, and the scope of her study, was of the utmost importance to try and understand Breivik and his motivations.  (I still do not, but that is by the by).

Perhaps unsurprisingly, I learnt far more than I did throughout the original media coverage, and in retrospect, I feel that One of Us is one of the most important books I have ever read.  I admire Seierstad and the amount of scholarship which has gone into every single page of this book.  She gives such weight to the victims, picking out several of them and giving their backstories, which again was such an important element of the whole for me.  One of Us is a masterful work, which has been fluidly translated into English.  It is a book which I would – and will – recommend to everyone.

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Reading the World: Scandinavia (Part One)

I adore Scandinavia, and was very excited about choosing books to showcase this beautiful region, which, for my purposes, is comprised of Finland, Sweden, Norway, Denmark, and Iceland.  I have read a lot of literature, and some non-fiction books, set here, and it was so incredibly difficult to narrow down my choices that I have decided to show them in two parts.  There are some comprehensive reviews floating around on the blog for the majority of these, which I have linked.  So sit back, relax, and read about Scandinavia…

1. The Sculptor’s Daughter by Tove Jansson 9781908745330(Finland; review here)
‘Tove Jansson’s first book for adults drew on her childhood memories to capture afresh the enchantments and fears of growing up in Helsinki in the nineteen tens and twenties. Described as both a memoir and ‘a book of superb stories’ by Ali Smith, her startlingly evocative prose offers a glimpse of the mysteries of winter ice, the bonhomie of balalaika parties, and the vastness of Christmas viewed from beneath the tree.’

2. The Vanishing Act by Mette Jakobsen (Somewhere in Scandinavia; review here)
‘This is a story about a snow-covered island you won’t find on any map. It’s the story of a girl, Minou. A year ago, her mother walked out into the rain and never came back. It’s about a magician and a priest and a dog called No Name. It’s about a father’s endless hunt for the truth. It’s about a dead boy who listens, and Minou’s search for her mother’s voice. It’s a story of how even the most isolated places have their own secrets. It’s a story you will never forget.’

97818435458353. Let the Northern Lights Erase Your Name by Vendela Vida (Finland)
‘When Clarissa Iverton was fourteen years old, her mother disappeared leaving Clarissa to be raised by her father. Upon his death, Clarissa, now twenty-eight, discovers he wasn’t her father at all. Abandoning her fiance, Clarissa travels from New York to Helsinki, and then north of the Arctic Circle – to Lapland. There, under the northern lights, Clarissa not only unearths her family’s secrets, but also the truth about herself.’

4. Burial Rites by Hannah Kent (Iceland; review here)
‘A brilliant literary debut, inspired by a true story: the final days of a young woman accused of murder in Iceland in 1829. Set against Iceland’s stark landscape, Hannah Kent brings to vivid life the story of Agnes, who, charged with the brutal murder of her former master, is sent to an isolated farm to await execution. Horrified at the prospect of housing a convicted murderer, the family at first avoids Agnes. Only Toti, a priest Agnes has mysteriously chosen to be her spiritual guardian, seeks to understand her. But as Agnes’s death looms, the farmer’s wife and their daughters learn there is another side to the sensational story they’ve heard.’

5. Naive. Super by Erlend Loe (Norway) 9781841956725
‘Troubled by an inability to find any meaning in his life, the 25-year-old narrator of this deceptively simple novel quits university and eventually arrives at his brother’s New York apartment. In a bid to discover what life is all about, he writes lists. He becomes obsessed by time and whether it actually matters. He faxes his meteorologist friend. He endlessly bounces a ball against the wall. He befriends a small boy who lives next door. He yearns to get to the bottom of life and how best to live it. Funny, friendly, enigmatic and frequently poignant – superbly naive.’

6. When I Forgot by Elina Hirvonen (Finland)
‘Anna is on her way to the hospital where her brother has been sectioned. But – on route – she falters, and her world splinters into a blazing display of memory and madness fueled by her family’s psychological disintegration.’

97819086702437. The Looking-Glass Sisters by Gohril Gabrielsen (Norway; review here)
‘A tragic love story about two sisters who cannot live with or without each other. Far out on the plains of northern Norway stands a house. It belongs to two middle-aged sisters. They seldom venture out and nobody visits. The older needs nursing and the younger keeps house. Then, one day, a man arrives…’

 

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‘The Looking-Glass Sisters’ by Gohril Gabrielsen ****

The first offering in English by acclaimed Norwegian author Gohril Gabrielsen has just been published by the marvellous Peirene Press, making it their eighteenth title, and the final instalment in 2015’s Chance Encounter series.  For those who do not know, Peirene focus upon translating European novella-length works, which would otherwise probably completely pass us by in the United Kingdom.

Translated by John Irons, The Looking-Glass Sisters – first published in Norway in 2008 – is a stunning and intense portrayal of the relationship between two sisters.  Bergens Tidende, Norway’s fifth largest newspaper, believes that The Looking-Glass Sisters is ‘innovative and sensuous’, and Meike Ziervogel, the founder of Peirene, calls it ‘a story about loneliness – both geographical and psychological’.  Here, Gabrielsen presents to us ‘a tragic love story about two sisters who cannot live with or without each other’.

Ragna is the elder sister, and has been tasked with caring for her partially paralysed, and thus totally dependent, sister since the deaths of their parents.  Our narrator, who remains unnamed, says, ‘I’m dependent on her help and goodwill…  But she ignores my cries, does not come, punishes me severely.  And repeatedly…  I have to realise that we’ve come to a watershed in our relationship as sisters.  After our last agonising quarrel, it looks as if she’s forgotten me.  I’ve been stowed away like an object among all the other objects up here – discarded and outside time’.

The prose style which Gabrielsen has made use of is gripping from the very start.  The story opens in the following way: ‘My sister and her husband are outside, digging a deep hole next to the dwarf birch by my attic window…  Soon I am dozing dreamlessly, just as hidden as the thing down there in the dark earth’.  She uses the simple yet effective technique of going back in time in order to build the contextual information, and to give us further insights into the tumultuous and often cruel relationship between the sisters.  The entire novella is deftly shaped, and Gabrielsen’s care and attention to detail mean that one is immediately submerged within the dark, stifling world of our narrator.  The very notion of everyday life, and those tasks which we perhaps take for granted, are examined, as are the ways in and means with which our narrator brings herself to cope.

The reader is soon called upon to be a participant within the story, rather than merely an overseer: ‘Imagine an attic.  Not just any attic, but one in a remote spot in a northern, godforsaken part of the world…  You go up there only reluctantly, and preferably not alone – it’s got something to do with the creaking of the staircase…  It’s not easy to make it to the room at the top.  And it’s even more difficult to come down’.   The power of the first person perspective grows: ‘You place your ear to the door.  After a moment, you sense some sound of life, not breathing and movement, but a vibration of existence, an unrest that only life can produce…  Deep inside, among the dancing white spots, you can make out the contours of a body resting on a bed.  And this body, this only just perceptible unrest – it is me’.

The Looking-Glass Sisters contains such interesting and original aspects of personality, and builds a cast of characters who feel – often horribly – realistic, particularly in their cruelties.  Ragna, for example, ‘is a person you instinctively talk loudly to, long and hard, so as to be heard through the thick layer of resistance’.  Gabrielsen’s prose, and those elements which she depicts, are startling in places: ‘Her little heart shrivelled, like the animal hearts in the larder that her sister cooks with cream’.

Gabrielsen shrewdly demonstrates that one can be with somebody every day, and not really know them at all.  In The Looking-Glass Sisters, she masterfully builds intensity, and weaves in elements of sensuality and control.  She shows the hidden strength of our narrator, and sculpts the overriding feeling that people are not always as they may appear.  The fact that the narrator herself is never given a name gives a whole new depth to proceedings; despite her lack of identification in this manner, she is still the most human depiction in the entire novella.  The stark darkness within the plot, too, unfolds marvellously against the framework of the northern Norway setting.

Purchase from The Book Depository