Fever chronicle (Friday, 13 January 2017)

What a curious monster it is, fever. One morning the mercury reaches 39.7°C, the next 40.1°. After a temporary decline to 38.9°, the liquid metal climbs past 40.5° on the fourth morning. The lines on the chart look like dragons’ fiery tongues, each one more barbed than the next. Between them lie long nights of ague and self-pity. Swaddled in a quilt and double blankets, wearing a cardigan and woolly socks, the author shivers like a boiling egg. After a few hours of sweaty cold, a switch is suddenly thrown inside him. Now the body seethes instead. Forehead a hob, chest a furnace. Face covered in scaly sweat draining down his neck to darken the sheet. When morning comes only the underside of the pillow is dry. Into the washing machine go all the bedclothes, and the bed is made anew. Twelve hours later the next round begins with the monster.                                       

There is no mitigating aspect, nothing noble in either shakes or dry cough. The last thing he wants is to remain in this body taken hostage by fever. As a ten-year-old he was hospitalised with double-sided pneumonia. The X-ray plate showed two tangerine-sized fists, blurry yet compact. Since then he cannot think of the fruit without thinking of finite flesh. Still, he best knows this condition from literature – in its more distinguished form, as tuberculosis, or in the shabby version, as cold turkey. Despite trying to find a way to make the fever productive, if only minimally, he is in no mood to play feeble relation to Edith Södergran or William S Burroughs.

Nonetheless, as darkness falls and he prepares for another night, he decides to note down the heart-rending scenes ravaging his mind. They’ll always come in handy for something; distortion has its own poetics. But each time a new fit roils him awake during the night, his first thought is: Air! When the cough at last abates he is too exhausted to fumble for pencil and paper.

Seven days and nights pass without a word, then the temperature settles at around 38°. The cough subsides, he feels unexpectedly frail, but also new. Feebleness has a certain charm of its own. Each exertion requires a subsequent rest of up to a minute; in return, the experience offers a new perspective on existence. In his imagination, everything he does seems as if it might be for the very last time. He begins to fantasise about a new masterpiece to be written in one cold, concentrated sweep, before breathing becomes too difficult and his body slips into a different dimension of existence. He also recalls his old dream about a short story of a hundred breaths, divided between a handful of characters. Undecided about which text to begin – after all, it may prove his last – he accomplishes nothing.

Finally the fever departs his body. Piled at the bottom of his consciousness are its petrified remnants, alien contours awaiting interpretation. Still, he ponders whether the fever could perhaps be excavated archaeologically, like some overheated Pompeii. Then he abandons that thought too. »Free, free«, he thinks, and gratefully mumbles a few words from Stina Aronson’s Feberboken: »release yourselves, o my lungs, heave up, breathe, seize the air.«

Seven questions from Jönköping municipal library (10/11/16)

I. Do you have a literary role model?

Once you’ve grown a few books old it would be odd, no, strange to have literary role models. But there are many colleagues whose work I like to read. Selma Lagerlöf, for example. Or Ben Marcus.

II. What is the best word in the Swedish language?

Och (»and«), without a doubt.

III. What is the worst word in the Swedish language?

I’m not keen on dissing words. But the profusion of Swinglish, which turns up in the most unexpected places, doesn’t exactly do it proud.

IV. What is happiness for you?

An evenly poised sentence. A certain daughter. A hundred suns.

V. Which book would like to write if it hadn’t already been written?

It’s not a book, but: The Song of Songs.

VI. Do you have any hidden characteristic that you are proud of?

If I said what it was, assuming I had one, it would no longer be hidden.

VII. If you couldn’t write, what would you do instead?

Not mean me when I said »I«.

Be homeless, I think.

Weigh 21 grams less.

The last day of September, 2016

Dreadful. Before I’ve managed to hide and lose myself in work on a new book I behave like Stig Dagerman: waiting for the postman as if God were writing me. Only when I hear that rustle in the letterbox does the tension let go. By that time half the day has gone. During periods like these I genuinely wonder what would be easier: to find peace to work or to make Sunday the only postal delivery day.

6 February 2015

TURMOIL ON THE SEVENTH DAY. Yesterday I handed in a new book to the publishers, and since then am experiencing the now so familiar turmoil. For nearly thirty years now: the same story. A sense of vertigo, where eddies of relief and loss whirl through each other and the sense of having committed some unforgivable act can never quite be pushed aside.

Looking for descriptions, I realise that I need to combine several different ones to do my bewilderment justice. The first account I come across is in The Real Life of Sebastian Knight, otherwise not one of my favourite novels. At one point Nabokov depicts that characteristic relief which is part of it, mixed with arrogance. It is April 1927, somewhere in London:

The door opens. We see Sebastian Knight lying with arms and legs outstretched on the floor of his study. Clare is making a tidy pile of the typescript papers on the desk. The person entering hesitates.

»No, Leslie«, Sebastian says from the floor, »I’m not dead. I have finished building a world, and this is my Sabbath rest.«

The author may appear outwardly dead, but inside him reigns a great calm after the storm – and the presumptuous conviction of having consummated a world that only exists in one copy. This is the demiurge on the day of rest, contented.

But in my turmoil there is also a rusty sense of loss akin to melancholy joy. It is probably best formulated by a souvenir from Hiroshima, where someone has written on the back of a picture of a mushroom cloud: »On a nice day we feel good and our heart sings« …

And then there is that strange feeling of having desecrated – this unholy sense of having defiled something that is not wholly human, without which the turmoil I feel would not also be chilling. The Orphic defeatist Gottfried Benn best captured it, I believe, when he described in an essay how it felt to be »outwardly an earl, inwardly a pariah«.

Relief, arrogance, sorrow, jubilation, loss, melancholy, curse … Quel spectacle.

17 June 2014

For many years I mistrusted my dreams. It seemed far too easy to interpret them as wishes freed from the superego. On cue, the Viennese delegation was there by my bedside. When I woke up its was enough to shake my head for the desire to interpret the dream to disappear. And I was never struck by reminders later during the day – a delayed insight, or the feeling of having unexpectedly spied something secret. But for some time now, the dreams are wild and pleasurable. When I wake up these days it’s as if my mind had gone fifteen rounds in the ring. I feel exhausted in that blissful way that otherwise only comes after physical exertion. The feeling that the dream »was worth it« is overwhelming, even though I haven’t the faintest what »it« might be.

Trust »it«. That’s all any dream asks.

The secret behind good lovemaking: greediness and generosity make common cause.

Words from a dream (about a person who died on this night, 26 years ago): »You’re so unbounded, still.«

It’s happened a few times too many for me to be able to regard it as a coincidence: I am talking to another person. But instead of formulating a considered view on something I happen to have done, I ascribe the observation to a third party. Suddenly the person I am talking to is in agreement. Had I personally laid claim to the thought, I would have to expect doubts, agonised nods or unalloyed opposition. But as I am stating that the opinions are those of a third party, concurrence flows freely and easily.

It is oddly satisfying to know that one’s own person can stand in the way of accord.

A colleague of mine who until now has had a reputation for being »difficult« and »serious« – or who has at least written books that only a small number of readers would regard as entertaining – wants success at last. To this end, the writer recently published the first part of what promises to be an epic novel, on a historical theme, of thousands of pages. Why not? This colleague has every right in the world to wish for more from life than editions of 2,000 or it might be 5,000 copies, a third of which are sold and the rest sent to the sales. Who doesn’t want to be able to live off their writing? Nor is there any rule which says that a text is blameworthy simply because its writer is keen for the reader to turn the page.

And yet it isn’t difficult to see that the colleague has switched sides – from a belief in literary prose as an independent form of knowledge to genre fiction. Interviews are peppered with categorical sallies, usually against those who do not favour genre fiction, all with the same objective: to justify the choice. And if this isn’t sufficient proof of how a guilty conscience is ennobled as conviction, the need to distinguish oneself at the expense of others fills the gap. Or, for that matter, the plethora of adjectives and historical details in the text itself. Everything must be included, and the number of nouns that manage without a qualifier is small indeed. This is what happens when you substitute structural walls for filler. The rest is the same old stuff: a suitably unconventional sex life laced with so-called political material. A work such as this relates to literature as a band playing covers does to its music.

How was it James Fenimore Cooper had it? Much book, little know.

It’s late afternoon and I’m feeling listless. Nothing is going as intended. Purposes are pulverised before I have time to turn them into something definite. Suddenly a word comes to mind: »godpowder«. What on earth might that mean? Godpowder?

Reading a collection of aphorisms, I and am struck by the writer’s need for clarity. On one occasion it’s about sorting out a tangle of prejudices, on another about making space for a notion so that the thought can continue ringing out long after the book has been shut. This ability of the author to reinvent clarity, page after page, is admirable. As admirable as his own explanation for why he admires a French colleague who once wrote a publication about himself in which astonishment was turned into an art form: »To have a achieved a literature outside of literature.« Such rapture is probably reserved to those who have once put literature before life.

Does the need for clarity prevent one from writing poetry, a novel, drama? Perhaps. Here, too, clarity is required, but of a different kind. When a piece of literature originates inside literature, yet expands its boundaries, we are faced not with pellucidity but with an image of the circumstances in all their shocking impenetrability. It’s as if the X-ray plate suddenly revealed an unknown organ made of lead.

Should I perhaps write a diary? I almost added »again« – as if I had ever written one … The notebooks I’ve used, on and off, over the years have always only served as rubbish bins of the soul. Repositories of thoughts discarded halfway through their formulation, curt telegrams from the synapses about nothing in particular, reports of Pyrrhic victories from the battlefield of the desk. What about a painstaking dissection of one’s own motivations, hopes and passions? Or a perceptive probing of the times, of the fluctuations of zeitgeist or at least the flora and fauna of public cultural life? Zilch. Today I would enjoy reading what I felt and thought – for example – during my first years spent with German literati. Or how I viewed, ten years earlier, the self-stylising of older Swedish colleagues. But former friendships would interest me just as much – including the blind spots that appear only afterwards, and the passions that later versions of myself have exorcised with garlic and mirrors.

Instead I fiddle with these caveats of dejection. What’s become of my whole-heartedness? Where’s the elation, where the dithyrambs? Above all: what became of the unguarded wonderment of earlier times? The considered opinions of later years seem so wishy-washy on recent revisitation. Is that the price of believing in self-improvement: this appalling unreadableness?

How much easier is it not to polish pessimism into pearls than to fashion joy into a thimble.

No unnecessary cynicism, and never galgenhumor alone. Surely it must be a matter of getting at the valiant despair, of finding ardour also in sorrow?

Some things can only be proclaimed when one is dead. Literature is the only way of getting round this rule without sinning.

Heiner Müller offers scant consolation, but his is probably the only available in an era of bestsellerism: success is not the same thing as effect. Otherwise Goethe’s talk of »world literature« would sound like the scared man’s whistling in the woods.

As a genre, the biographical novel is an abomination. A novelist hitching a free ride on another person’s life! As if it weren’t enough that the chosen person is never asked, her life is told after the event, with all outcomes to hand. Highs and lows are portrayed retrospectively, when adversity has been endured and battles won – that is, from the hillock in the terrain that affords a surview of a destiny. In terms of narrative technique, this means that the life is treated as a success story, which goes against the most fundamental feeling a person can have – that of being »amid«.

The biographical novel’s raison d’être ought not to be the covert corpse inspection, but the shock of being alive. If, as writer, you nevertheless insist on using historical material, then the least the chosen person can ask is that the narrative tricks offered by a senescent genre do not shackle life to a dramaturgy which makes it deceptively like that of others. None of us lives illustratively; each person is an example only of herself. The prospect of being made, unasked, the subject of a biographical novel, in which the keenly-eared can hear the historical watch ticking smugly in a vest pocket, is enough to make one want to live such an abysmally boring life, so momentously monotonous, that no one would ever even think about making literature of it.

Occasionally I see a man who deals in prints. On this particular day I am actually looking for dragonflies, but he shows me a hand-coloured copper engraving of termites that I am unable to resist. It is from »~1820«, as someone has pencilled on the back. Below the drawings of insects in various stages of development is what could be a fairy tale mountain by Arnold Böcklin, in hues of brown, grey and green. With its tall, narrow pinnacles it is reminiscent of the tip of an asparagus. The picture next to it shows the same formation, but now in cross section. The termites appear to have accomplished their destructive work. The interior is hollowed out; two thirds of it is white powder, the rest a void.

It is only when I turn the print over that I realise what I am seeing. »The most remarkable thing about these insects«, the verso text points out, »is the large and artful edifices in which they live. These are frequently ten to twelve feet tall mounds of mud and sand decorated with many turrets and spires, while inside they are empty and equipped with a multitude of passages, cells and spaces. These mounds are so sturdy that several persons could stand on them without causing them to collapse. From a distance they have the appearance of huts.«

My dream text is such a hut. With a shell of tunnels and nooks that nevertheless can withstand the weight of giants, and an interior of two thirds godpowder and one third empty space, so that the reader will fit.

Literature – or the proof of how you attain freedom through order.

Thomas Mann kept a close watch on Hermann Hesse. In one of his diaries he notes that he has read The Glass Bead Game. The verdict? »Reassured.« Nothing more need be said about the significance of rivalry for writing beings.

Old book title: At an abortion clinic in Bethlehem.

Title long used as a working title: Seven chapters on pain.

Book I wish I might write: Atlas of distant instincts.

Another: In the termite hut.

And a third: Heat.

Title for a biography: My second suicide.

Short novel: The day nothing happened.

Work in a foreign tongue: Instructions pour un crépuscule.

Short story collection I’d never want to write: Love and other disasters.

Selected aphorisms: Manual of astonishment.

Pamphlet: Souls in plastic bags.

Dream seminar, alternatively a religious tract: »It«.

Collection of poetry: Requiem for a mosquito.

Ad hominem.

Among the invectives I’ve had the dubious taste of using over the years are some that, to my shame, I must admit I am still a trifle proud:

»Hermann Hesse for bad boys« (of Ernst Jünger);

»Sibyl of the sausage box« (of a Danish poet);

»Pathos athlete« (of one of the most tanned specimens in Swedish letters);

»Johnny Cash lite« (of one of our most celebrated crime writers); and

»H&M-Bataille« (of a second-book writer with out-of-place hormones).

What would I call myself if I was going to be nasty? »Nobel wog«? »Posh radical«? »Complexity cowboy«? It’s difficult to be accurate when you have to deliver the coup de grâce to yourself.

Questions from Vi magazine (March 2013)

Is there any word in particular which has meant especially much to you?

»And«.

What associations does the word give you?

It’s only one syllable long – but what connections it creates. Yes and No, Heaven and Hell, You and Me … »And« has neither beginning nor end. Like a coral reef it just adds, making existence richer and more complex. »And« is the shortest answer to the world’s abundance.

Take that curlicue the Romans used: &. Doesn’t it look like an infinity sign in profile? A mini eternity buddha. But two ends stick out. As if even eternity weren’t enough, and instead the word opened itself to something even more – upwards and downwards …

Do you know anything about the origins of the word?

It dates back to a Proto-Germanic word for »increase«. You find the remnants of it in the German auch, »also«.

What does the word sound like to you?

Like a short explosion in your mouth – both painful and pleasurable. Air is inhaled through the o, the tongue rears, ch ignites and then all is once again well with the world. It’s like starting an old Volvo.

I can’t help also hearing the Greeks’ melancholy óch, their cry of woe, much like the Scots’ och – as if the word were also a sigh. Perhaps the sigh that was heard when the world was created? In that case, our mouths mimic the first day of creation every time we speak.

Do you use it often?

Not a day without it.

In what contexts?

When holding your tongue will not suffice.

Do you know of any other author who likes to use it?

You’ll have to forgive me, I know little of my colleagues’ mouthings.

What would you say the word’s role is in Sweden today?

The least remarkable yet most important. I’m happy for Sweden to be an and-society.

What word would you say is the word’s diametrical opposite?

»Or«, which does not unite but separates.

Who would do well to use the word a bit more frequently?

Or-people.

2008

The only talent for which I was justly world-famous as a teenager: skipping class. In upper secondary school I could more often be found at a café table than a school desk. Impossible to say why. It would be too simple to claim that it had to do with hormone imbalances, or the discovery that not just the sky but the soul, too, was fathomless. More truthful would be to say that an invisible path led from the sixteen- or seventeen-year-old back to the sullen six-year-old who ran away from home – and ahead to the middle-aged bureaucrat I was until recently, who didn’t think twice about trumping up a meeting to get out of the office where he was expected to accomplish great things on behalf of the homeland, and instead wander around the city in the hope of undoing the knots to a text he had hardly even begun. Nine times out of ten he had to make do with the irritation that came over him a few hours later when, without having put a word on paper, he went about washing, cooking, brushing the child’s teeth. These roles – runaway, skiver, dodger – are but different versions of the same irredeemable need: to live according to your own calendar.

And yet … How willingly, how delightedly have I not dreamt of being a cog in The Great Machine. Ah, this utopia of becoming a bookkeeper, a clerk, a civil servant! Is it the other side of the same coin – also, that is, a wish to be left alone, only this time by making oneself replaceable? Sometimes a soldier’s life offers the best protection. No one is as loyal as the recruit waiting for the opportune moment to desert.

»Where are you going?«
»To the privy. Pray for me.«

The eighth deadly sin: lack of imagination.

When she realised that flattery, ironically framed, opened all doors she was able to step in and out of his good books as she pleased.

In younger years I was bothered by people’s inability to talk about anything but themselves. My reaction was born of callowness: I tried to counter with an insight or achievement of my own. Then it dawned on me: the only attitude worthy of the name lay in not needing to talk about yourself. The advantage was not just that you learned more about the world by listening (by extension that was just miserliness masquerading as generosity), rather it was that the ego took on other proportions. Twenty-five years ago I would not have thought it possible, but today I know that parts of me exist on the inside of other people. Does that make me weaker, or more dependent? Not at all. Fitter for survival.

S., who is an arts editor, guards his special position so jealously that he sees every act not carried out for his sake as an affront. On one occasion I invited him to a public appearance at the institution where I worked until recently. We spent fifteen or twenty minutes chatting in the office. Then I needed to seal an envelope. At once S. rose from his armchair and began pacing like a caged animal. He reckoned he was a lion. Now he showed his true colours: a hamster without a wheel.

For a long time I was tormented by a strange mixture of a guilty conscience and morals. If someone wrote me to ask something – even in passing, perhaps without any real interest – I felt called upon to go into the matter. It might cost me a sleepless night if I neglected it, which led to absurd efforts at retroactive reparation of the matter. Eventually I realised that this desire to do the right thing was imposed from without. In reality I might even disdain the person, or at least the situation I had been put in, which meant that my attitude sooner or later turned into its own opposite. I became arrogant or flippant, allowing myself absurd exaggerations or disparaging judgements. What a fuss. He who wishes to be left alone does best to cultivate absent-mindedness. Lack of interest almost always requires an effort. Only the abstracted knows he mustn’t jangle the keys to his calm in his pocket.

À propos of the eternal talk about style: style is what you haven’t got if you’re demanding it.

Pleasure? I can’t say what it is, only what it may contain. One characteristic is recurring: the future ceases to matter. The books of the sages would beg to differ. They claim that only knowledge of a future to which we do not belong provides spice to the present. Pleasure, then, is based on finiteness. Either we ignore this knowledge, in which case we become licentious and lose our grip (who hasn’t read of the giddiness that overcomes people on the eve of doomsday?), or else we observe it, and so discipline ourselves. But the former is a life in its decadent form, the latter a project, ethical or aesthetic. I am not referring to debauchery or culture; I am talking about self-forgetfulness with a heightened sense of presence. Only then does the balance, at once desirable and preternatural, install itself. As if there were no tomorrow.

I was a late learner of the benefits of »sleeping on it«. Even now the fact that the trick actually works can surprise me. On the night before, an area of low pressure blankets the brain; the morning after skies are clear. Or else the rain beats down. Whatever the weather: it goes on.

The only rule of etiquette worth observing: never utter a good word about yourself.

Many years ago I stopped using exclamation marks. My objection was banal: a sentence must itself be capable of suggesting emphasis or escalation. Yet I was irritated by sentences that should have ended with a question mark, but where the writer had neglected to insert it. Why? Should not the same thing apply for question marks as for exclamation marks? Not at all. Unlike an exclamation, a question is dependent on something the sentence itself cannot encompass.

Since having read a reflection by a Scottish poet I am experiencing a new problem. »Exclams are for hysterics«, he writes. »Ellipses are for sensitives. Colons are for bullies.« Despite the pointedness, he could be right. The only question is what I am to do with the colon, which I’ve always liked. The author’s own reply is hardly enough, is it? »Please: can we have either all punctuation, or none …« In that sentence, the know-it-all is feigning humility. Only a question mark could have saved him.

So: what am I to do with the colon? What?

He publishes a book and the only objection in the press seems to be: style too accomplished. When he juggles, the critics opine, he drops no balls. The brilliance is offensive. What sloppy readers! He himself hears dreams and china shatter on every page. And anyway: don’t they see that these are Christmas baubles and grenades, lumps of nerves and dishcloths? Is that not enough for his book not to be confused with a circus? »Be my guests«, he thinks, »sit down on the three-legged chairs in my head. But don’t expect any sea lions. Or that I intend to lose my poise on purpose.«

Aphorisms rarely speak in the subjunctive. That doesn’t mean they disdain uncertainty, only that they themselves arrange the world – and what world is there in which the creator is uncertain of its existence? In our era this indicative ability is viewed with scepticism. The fragment, the brief note, the jotting are preferred – guarantors of the incomplete. The attitude is not unpleasant. Nor does it lack an appreciation of literature’s peculiar character. But there’s something fishy about the pretension to incompleteness. The writer wants to be perceived as a person »with warts and all«. In other words, as someone who has yet to be beatified. This need, however, requires ever more space. If the person is not as clear-headed as Canetti, as entertaining as Lichtenberg, as distraught as Cioran in his best moments, the oxygen will eventually be used up in the rooms opened by his or her assertions. Here the aphorism is different. It limits the need for expression to a minimum. Thus the reader can stroll through a world created at leisure. The aphorism allows us to forget the writer.

Nabokov, who dedicated his life to fighting poshlost, the kitsch cherished by the masses, hardly escaped the affliction himself. For consolation, he blessed the tripe with such a keen sense of lucidity that most readers take his criticism at face value. But is he not the kitschiest of writers? For Pete’s sake, he even provides directions for how the brooches in the glass display case are to be used.

Writers say so many daft things about writing. This is not one of them.

If you must reflect on yourself: at least make common cause with the termites in the timbers of the ego.

Presumption’s prehistory. A rainy Sunday in February. For eight hours – it was still dark when I got up – I have been writing what comes into my head, gliding through reflections, utterly in my element, feeling allied to nothing more than the day. My faith couldn’t be greater. At two-thirty in the afternoon I boil an egg, butter a slice of bread. Overcome by this sheer sense of lucidity, I finish the meal with a bag of jelly bears found in the larder. They settle into a lump in my stomach. The day ends before I know it.

Poetry asks: »Who am I?« Drama: »Who should I be?« Only the novel says: »I am many.«

The feeling when a text doesn’t even stagger forward. Two minutes’ leafing through papers is enough to set off as many hours of evasive manoeuvres (washing, cleaning, nose-picking). Warning: author at work.

Daughter’s rebuke as we’re getting dressed before kindergarten: »Hey, be careful with my body! There’s skeleton in my body!« How to get on a par with such poetry?

After three weeks of treading water, the rhythm comes. For the past several days I have been ignoring email, feeling no reason to read foreign newspapers on the web, watching hardly any TV. Everything has turned into a routine, with a four-year-old making mischief in her rose-coloured room. Reclusion ensues, as sure as fate. I procrastinate infinitely over phone calls that should be made, shave only when the child says I scratch, forget the post in the letterbox. Conversations with the Vietnamese on the corner are sufficient socialising – and games in the rose-coloured room. Gentle everyday, please let the rainbow linger a while by this desk.

Notes · Translated by Tomas Tranæus