Early twentieth-century Germany. Against all the odds, Nelly Becker has realized her dream: to become the country’s first female pilot. She and her French husband live for aerial highs, among hangars and whiffs of gasoline, until World War One and a failing heart puts an end to it all. If she continues to fly, Nelly will fall from the sky.
Separating from her husband, she moves into Mrs Colding’s boarding house, home to as many unusual souls as destinies. Nelly feels »muddy, without momentum,« a condition worsened by her addiction to Mr Murphy (pilot slang for morphine). Thanks to her skills as a mechanic, she finds work at BMW on Kaiserdamm, where she looks after the motorcycles in the showroom. At the annual automotive fair in the fall of 1924 she meets Irma, lean and self-sufficient as a candle. An unexpected movement gives Nelly’s life a new direction, making her blood sting and sing.
Aris Fioretos’ new novel is the story of a muscle that will not be deterred.
»I answered that the fair was closing soon and put down the kickstand. But she wasn’t in a hurry. Instead of following her colleagues to the exit she placed her hand on mine. For someone interested in learning how the clutch on a R32 works, it’s a natural movement. To me, it was a shock. Nonetheless, I felt calm. Calm yet electric.
In that moment I didn’t understand what was happening. Now I know that life as Completelycrazyyou began.«
Aris Fioretos’ previous book was the widely acclaimed novel Mary, which received prizes both in Sweden and abroad and has drawn much international praise. He has translated Friedrich Hölderlin and Vladimir Nabokov, among others, into Swedish. His most recent awards include Sveriges Radios’ Novel Prize (2016) and the Swedish Academy’s Essay prize (2018). He lives and works in berlin and Stockholm.
I would like to add some thoughts about skin.
There are three kinds, I think as I lock myself into the bathroom. The first is the one to which people most commonly refer. It’s the skin without quotation marks, the one we use to freeze and sweat; the one that tickles or gets dry and cracks; the one that blushes, can be burned by the sun, or gets goosebumps from fear or delight. Then there is “skin” within quotation marks. This is the one we adopt—to fulfill an image held by others or to show how we view ourselves. Such skin is made up of clothing and gestures, movements and rules; it’s a shell people don out of free will, but it is also imposed, a disguise you cannot shed without losing your role in a certain context.
If I think about the former type of skin, I envision the hands with which I feel the water in the bathtub, blisters from new shoes, the impressions left behind by undergarments. The latter kind is a girl in a stiff school uniform and the sculptress in a floor-length dress under a white coat which, when buttoned all the way down, makes it impossible to bend the knees in a sensible manner. It’s also the student at Technikum in Dresden, drawing a line under the calculations she’s just made before she quietly exits the auditorium, leaving the notes sent over by her seatmate untouched. She’s wearing a reform dress and is visiting the lecture hall not to be asked out but to learn something about aviation. It’s the mechanic cranking the cylinder head one last time and stopping just before it breaks, the boss clattering away at a typewriter and the wife burning sheets behind a barn.
And then there’s the skin that only appears when you cannot eat because everything it encloses—every vessel and organ, every nerve, every tissue—has been claimed by another person. This third kind ought to be written out with special letters since it is just as if you have been flayed. And that’s the one I think about as I sink into the bathtub after having pressed the garments one by one to my face in the hope of capturing foreign scents.
Concerning such SKIN one might say,
“All of me is bubbles.”
“Sister, I am burning!”
“Where you begin? And I end? But that’s impossible to say.”
Though such phrases only come after the other types of skin. At this point you are eating normally again, no longer lying awake full of warmest agony. This SKIN is the true skin. It is there inside the others, and yet it goes beyond them. You experience it only when you have been stirred up by other skin, when you feel concentrated although, at this moment, the world is in a most tender state of dissolution. I ought to type that word in italics, for when I come to think of it that is how I experience this SKIN: it concentrates me. Suddenly everything is easier and light years faster. Why? Because all things unimportant vanish. Everything that doesn’t bear and reinforce and advance, everything that does not belong to the SKIN.
Well, perhaps it isn’t shed entirely. But it has become so meaningless that it might as well have been.
Take someone who has just asked her landlady for a bath even though it’s Wednesday and she ought to wait until Saturday. Now she has taken off her skin inside quotation marks. No one can see her at this moment, and she herself isn’t interested in who she happens to be, only that she is. As she sinks into the bathtub her veins sing; soon the water is lapping at her armpits. Everything tightens until the first skin is tense and hot and yet permeable. That last part is crucial. Without the sense of permeability, she would not be able to experience the third type of skin. But she does. And in this moment, as the second skin lies in a pile on the floor, she knows that the rush can come just as much from the outside as from the inside, and that it will be her salvation.
Yes, the SKIN is where one is saved. It doesn’t make a person think: I am home. It doesn’t make her declare: I am beyond my self. It makes her say: I am everywhere, and yet right here, right now, young and untouched in this hot, steaming water. Thus such a person feels one thing above all: concentration.
»Fioretos’ new novel Nelly B’s Heart begins precisely at the moment when Germany’s first female aviator becomes aware of the failure of the most important muscle in her body. Her heart is functioning so poorly that it forces her to stay on the ground. But what can anyone with an insight into their own mortality do, if not try to live as fully as possible? . . . [Fioretos] observes, describes, senses and reflects in a voice that is, by turns, detached and dreamlike. . . . It becomes all the more compelling towards the end, as Nelly’s health in body and soul deteriorates, as she increasingly loses her grip on the reality that lies beyond sedative drops on a sugar cube. And as her fervent desire for dissolution and fusion can only take her on a destructive course, the language and narration grows denser. At last she well and truly arrives before this new persona, Nelly with the broken heart.« — Jenny Aschenbrenner, Dagens Nyheter
»Reading Aris Fioretos is as beneficial to the soul as taking an evening swim in warm seas. It may sound touchy-feely, but the boundary between the words on the page and myself as reader becomes blurred as Nelly B. moves into my mind and body. I follow her around Berlin, noticing the details of her rented room and memorising facial expressions around the dinner table, reading the book slowly to make the pleasure last longer. It’s been said by many before me that Fioretos’ prose is lyrical, sparse, concise and subtle. And so it is — his ability to allow each sentence to be precisely as long, as short or as rich in detail as it should be is, if not unique then at least remarkable. Similes and metaphors are never overbearing, but always precise and surprising. It’s quite simply delightful.« — Elin Claeson, Kulturnytt
»Fioretos mostly writes so beautifully that it makes you want to scream with pleasure; ›I will have been this wild muscle.‹ And even if this novel is not as unguarded as his earlier The Last Greek or Mary, the ending prompts, in its solitude and extinguishment, an utterly unguarded response from this reader: I weep a flood.« — Maria Edström, Göteborgs-Posten
»Aris Fioretos has written a novel about weightless infatuation. Nelly has given up life in the air for the sake of her heart, but in love it flutters dangerously all the same, beating her into a passion that puts her fragile health at risk. His skill as a writer is at its most evident in this description of infatuation, so desperately difficult to capture on the page. Almost as difficult to describe are the physical expressions of love. You’ve heard of the Bad Sex Award, but Aris Fioretos could receive the opposite — an award for the best depiction of sex. . . . [He writes] with such sensuality that as reader you feel the protagonists’ passion under your skin, rather than seeing it with your eyes.« — Kristian Ekenberg, Vestermanlands Läns Tidningar
»Aris Fioretos’ new novel is a love story — the account of Nelly and Irma is the beating heart of the book. Earthbound rather than airborne passion. Besides being a gifted stylist, Fioretos is adept at portraying the ›rationale‹ of lovers, their tendency towards self-deception. For Irma constantly slips away from her, and Nelly, who yearns for freedom more than anything else, must experience what it is to feel dependent, pleading. She is prepared to love unconditionally – , a place from which the fall is as long as from any airplane.« — Therese Eriksson, Svenska Dagbladet
» [Nelly B’s Heart is] a love story, and a fantastic one. . . . Aris Fioretos treats the Swedish language like a beautiful instrument, he makes it play as beautifully as it possibly can. . . . Fioretos’s language is so strong and so rich it makes him one of our unequivocally foremost writers. His books could be used as teaching material in Swedish.« – Lennart Götesson, Dala-Demokraten
»In his new novel Nelly B’s Heart Aris Fioretos once again proves that he is one of Sweden’s very best writers. The main character of the novel — partly based on a real person — is a pioneer. She was the first German woman who — despite prejudiced opposition— managed to get a pilot’s licence. . . . Fioretos has written an exciting and deeply insightful portrait of a woman. His language and characterisation takes no shortcuts. On every page it is new, fresh, and incisive.« — Anders Hjertén, Värmlands Folkblad
»I would wish that readers give Nelly B’s Heart all the time the book deserves. It is so far from the chattiness and breathlessness of most contemporary prose. And as with any navigation of the higher elements, Aris Fioretos requires attentiveness and concentration of his reader. In this he is much like his aviator, Nelly Becker. Amidst the squalling winds and turbulent air currents, he steers his craft with a sure and steady hand. It is a real accomplishment.« — Åke Leijonhufvud, Sydsvenskan
»Aris Fioretos’s language has an undeniably Strindbergesque richness, and he also evinces the same capacity for psychological depth as Strindberg – but his fire is serene, not grandiose. There are passages in Fioretos’s new novel where the reader wants nothing more than to linger in that specific atmosphere, in that eternal twilight hour that his prose continually evokes. In other words I think Fioretos gives us perhaps the most beautiful prose in contemporary Swedish – it has a precise measuredness, and the ability to delve deeper into being, finally making the word ›identity‹ flesh, which never happens when it’s batted about as a political cliché. He gives the flying ace Nelly Becker a singular, captivating identity in his novel. . . . Nelly B’s Heart is an extraordinarily rich novel; its duality, the symbolic interplay of clouds and eroticism in the aviating life, makes the reading of it shimmer, yet it never loses its narrative spine. It may be read as a gripping love story, a modern didactic novel, a romantic tragedy, or a dream of freedom.« – Jan-Olov Nyström, Upsala Nya Tidning
»Aris Fioretos has returned with a new, eagerly awaited novel . . . It’s called Nelly B’s Heart and if it doesn’t garner a multitude of prizes I’ll damn well eat my beret. . . . It’s quite simply magnificent. . . . Fioretos tells the story of Nelly’s life in an intelligent, precise, beautiful and – in the best sense of the word – literary language, which makes reading it both restful and reflective even as his language, just as the story requires, becomes denser and darker towards the end of the book.« — Kenneth Olausson, Bokhållarens läsblogg
»Nelly B’s Heart is in large part a hopeful and sensual novel, written in a lighter spirit than Fioretos’ previous one, Mary. Nelly’s new life teaches her to fly in other ways than she had done before: through the intoxications of love, but also through the drugs that lead to her downfall. And beneath it all lie existential questions: Should one live a life aloft, or remain earthbound? Is the heart a muscle or a machine? In short: the inevitable consequences of that well-worn motto, to ›follow one’s heart.‹ It may sound like a cliché, but nothing ever becomes clichéd in the hands of Aris Fioretos.« — Anina Rabe, Tidningen Vi
»Aris Fioretos is one of the best writers currently working in Sweden. I propose this as an objective truth. He has an entirely unique ability to combine gripping, almost melodramatic life stories with a prose so sharp and clear it makes the whole world appear as new. . . . Nelly B’s Heart is first and foremost a love story, and a magnificent one at that. It takes fingerspitzengefühl to portray love in all its various dimensions — of the soul and the body — in such detail as Fioretos does without it becoming cloying. . . . [This is] passion as an impending state of emergency, at once supremely dangerous and the one thing that makes life really worth living.« — Amanda Svensson, Expressen