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Case Studies · Prose · In Swedish · Stockholm: Norstedts, 2019, 464 pages · Design: Birgit Schlegel, gewerkdesign, Berlin · Cover: Alphonse Bertillion, »Table showing the nuances of the human iris« (1893; detail) · ISBN 978-91-1-309794-7 · English language rights available
It all began with an obituary notice in the newspaper. One day Aris Fioretos discovered that an archivist had passed away at an advanced age, leaving no immediate family. The name Iris Frost would not have stuck in his mind had it not been similar to one he had given a minor character in his first novel. Curiosity aroused, he contacted the newspaper and was given the number to the person who had put in the notice. When they met, truth proved stranger than fiction. Not only had the deceased read his novels about »the New Man« at the turn of the last century, but she had also annotated them. When she died she left behind a plastic bag full of unsorted papers.
Frost’s notes in the margins of medical history – called case studies – have now been edited and published in book form. Atlas mixes cautionary tales with non-fiction. Allowing fables to make common cause with testimony, this laboratory of a book brings to life a world parallel to our own.
Aris Fioretos has added a foreword and an afterword, a bibliography, and illustrations.
Maturity, charm, learning, sensibility. Very rarely have I met all of these traits in one and the same person, and almost never in any of the writers of our time. Aris Fioretos can be conceptual and impassioned, paradoxical in his style and superior in his vision. His books are always borne by that human warmth in which we recognise a great writer. – Mircea Cărtărescu
Aris Fioretos is a Swedish writer, living in Stockholm. Critics’ appraisals of his trilogy about »the New Man« include the following:
»Fioretos is an adventurous miracle worker who uses the playful body of language and waving arms to make snow angels, blowing from their frozen hands the most earthly butterflies of sensual observations.« Tobias Berggren reviewing Irma, 25 on Kulturnytt
»Fioretos is a veritable and remarkable stylist. His prose unites narrative gusto, stylistic virtuosity and advanced literary construction.« – Bengt Emil Johnson on The Truth About Sascha Knisch in Dala-Demokraten
»Fioretos has a quite unique ability to combine poignant, almost melodramatic life stories with a prose so crisp and clear it makes the whole world seem as new.« – Amanda Svensson on Nelly B’s Heart in Expressen
Ten years ago I wouldn’t have spent much time on the births, marriages and deaths section of the newspaper. At most, obituary notices interested me as a literary form. These days I read the section regularly – fortunately in a city where I rarely know any of the deceased. Imagine my surprise, then, when I opened the paper last winter. Next to a notice about an expatriate who had been interred in his adopted homeland I spotted a familiar name. At first I couldn’t place it. Still, a strange sadness came over me as I ransacked my memory. Then it struck me.
The name was similar to one I had given a minor character in my first novel. The archivist at the former National Swedish Board of Health, who died at an advanced age in February this year, the notice reported, was named Iris Frost. My Frost – Siri Frost – also worked with publications, albeit as a librarian in Solna. Although she is only mentioned two or three times in the novel, she is at the centre of events: on the final page she turns out to be the narrator. Twenty years ago I liked having a peripheral figure as the secret heart of things. She dwelt, incognito, in the eye of the storm. Today I’m not sure how I feel about this device. But the similarities of name and profession aroused my curiosity. Might these women have more in common? I decided to find out.
An editor gave me the contact details of the person who had put in the notice. That’s against the rules. As the deceased did not have any immediate family, however, he was willing to turn a blind eye; no harm would be done to anyone. Thus I was given Najva Sol’s name and number. Born Dilizian in Tehran, she studied social anthropology in her home town before arriving, via Barcelona (where she married) and Dusseldorf (where she earned a Master’s Degree), in Sweden. Now she was working intermittently as a healthcare assistant at an old people’s home north of Stockholm. I won’t deny that my pulse quickened as I introduced myself. But that was nothing compared to the rush in my veins when Najva replied: »I was hoping you’d call.«
She didn’t want to elaborate further on the phone. When we met I understood why.
At one of the gatherings regularly arranged in the sheltered housing where Iris Frost spent her final days, three of my novels were discussed. Certain thoughts about the colour grey interested her, so she asked Najva to get her the books. Once she had read and pondered them, she decided to make annotations. I don’t wish to describe her motives; that is best left to her. Since the archivist had suffered a bad fall she was bedbound, and Najva had to borrow the reference works that were needed to examine my book’s shortcomings. She also copied pages from publications that could not be removed from the National Library where, incidentally, she was herself working on a Ph.D. thesis about the »anthropology of fleeing«.
When Frost passed away Najva found the papers under the bed. The housing management had no objections to her taking what was destined to be thrown away; the unsorted papers were kept in a Vivo supermarket bag. As a researcher with a sense of responsibility she felt that the author of the books ought to be informed, so she put an obituary notice in the paper. If it was meant to be, I would see it and get in touch. Which it was, and I did.
Most indications are that Frost finished her work. Despite understandable reservations, the publisher has therefore decided to release her compilation of texts — under my name so as to be on the safe side. Certainly the treatment of invented persons as if they were real must be taken as a sign of age-related debility. But she does base her work on novels I have written. And some historical aspects are bound to be unfamiliar not just to me. Najva’s view is that it could even be of anthropological value to see what kind of person was behind these notes »between literature and medicine«, as the author herself puts it. Though on that point I have my doubts.
The subtitle is mine. I was looking for a designation that could capture the clinical and literary character of the articles. »Case studies« may not be ideal, but at least the term has this double meaning. As a research practice it assumes analysis and empiricism, while as a teaching method it sets out from an object situation that may be fictitious or historical. What’s more, Frost herself uses the term in a couple of instances. If occasionally she sounds like her editor, that’s likely only because the texts required editing.
I leave to others more capable to determine how the motto should be interpreted. The introduction describes the background. Personally, I would then follow the archivist’s advice, skip the biographies and go straight to the articles. To the extent feasible they have been arranged in chronological order, so a quick consultation of the biographies should suffice when necessary. Text not from Frost’s pen has been printed in red. This also includes references to sections where a subject is expounded in greater depth. The bibliography lists consulted works and collections. Where references are absent I believe it is just as well to assume that an event or person has been made up. The index catalogues all characters mentioned, real and fictitious, as well as a few animals.
Katharina Erben has helped with the images. Where originals have not been possible to establish, Takaya Kobayashi has made illustrations. These only show what something might have looked like, but as the author seems to have sensed, the »study of wisdom« (Mercator) occasionally takes on the subjunctive mood. Thank you to both.
My most heartfelt thanks go to Najva Sol. She has assisted with everything from source references to snapshots of elder care. She has even investigated one of the myths of Japan’s aboriginal people and the historical geography of Anatolia. If it hadn’t been for Najva, the papers would have gone to recycling at Lövsta. Naturally, the responsibility for any irregularities rests squarely on my shoulders.
TEXT The novels dealt with are Stockholm noir (2000), The Truth About Sascha Knisch (2002) and Nelly B’s Heart (2018). Frost’s annotations have led the publisher to reissue them in paperback. I have taken the opportunity to revise the two former books, mainly with regard to names and times: the first has also had its title changed to Irma, 25. Quotes in red are taken from these editions. References use a Roman numeral for the work in question, followed by an Arabic numeral for the page. | IMAGE 1 The Goddess of the Rainbow: illustration in Eliza Robbins, Elements of Mythology, or, Classical Fables of the Greeks and the Romans, Philadelphia, 1860, p. 49 · 2 Obituary notice in Dagens Nyheter on 29 February 2019 · 3 Frost’s plastic bag
»This magnificently mammoth monster of a book requires numerous rereadings, and could fill my next six months up entirely if I let myself continue to follow the temptation into the labyrinth. . . . Fioretos manages to pull together all the disparate strands, partly in terms of content, but perhaps mainly in the reader’s subconscious. To quote Vadim von Kolibar, a minor character and professor of mental activity: ›a consciousness sum that was different, indeed, greater than that of its parts.‹ The beautiful book design, with evocative images and photos, not illustrations but living artworks that lead ever deeper into the mystery . . .« – Aase Berg, Borås Tidningar
»Atlas is a made-up story and an encyclopaedia. It is cultural history essay and fable, it is strikingly cerebral and factual, but rests squarely on a mischievously intricate foundation. It is also, really, a completely impossible project: who would think of publishing an encyclopaedic tome based on one’s own novels? It is both non-mainstream and megalomaniacal, but Aris Fioretos gets away with it. Perhaps because there is a tragicomic vulnerability here . . . With Atlas, Fioretos has created something unparalleled. The format – the aspiration! – can daunt the most hardened reader, but Fioretos convinces with stylistic finesse and that contagious enthusiasm of the nerd. You can recite what Atlas includes – from masturbation machines to the cultural history of chewing gum – forever, but in the end Iris Frost’s fabulous case studies are this above all: a resolute defence of the role that knowledge and fiction – pure invention – play in our time.« – Therese Eriksson, Svenska Dagbladet
»It is of course impossible to hide: I am one of Aris Fioretos’ devoted fans. And now he has put out a monumental work that leaves me even more convinced he is one of Europe’s leading authors. Atlas is like nothing else I have read – or rather partaken of. I am completely floored by this hefty tome that portrays a decisive epoch in European cultural history with consummate restraint. . . . Yes, it is a monumental work. And a magnificent one! A Gesamtkunstwerk!« – Anders Hjertén, Värmlands Dagblad
»[Atlas] is a totally unique work, never before seen in Swedish literature, and the only thing one can really do when faced with a work of such gargantuan distinction is humbly to bow.« – Gabriella Håkansson, Dagens Nyheter
»With all its interconnections running this way and that, Atlas is a book that gets your brain working, sparks flying at the synapses. It can be read as a megalomaniacal dissection of Fioretos’ œuvre, or as a generous invitation to his workshop for hardcore fans. But ultimately, and perhaps most of all, as a tribute to the infinite possibilities of literature.« – Ann Lingebrandt, Sydsvenskan
»Aris Fioretos has written an impossible book. That may also be assessment, but I am referring above all to the scope he has given to his incomparably ambitious novel Atlas. . . It needs to be reread. And then perhaps reread again. Turn back a few pages, then forward; read it front to back as well as follow the chronologies provided by each chapter’s many cross-references. I’m more than happy to do so. Fioretos writes a more lucid, beautiful prose than anyone else. . . . Perhaps the result is a novel that mainly appeals to the diminishing circle of readers who are still exercised by the question of what literature is and can be, or to those of us who believe that all the happenstances that constitute life add up to a peculiar logic, a kind of existential rhyme – but the fact that Fioretos toils in great literature’s neglected trade is of course no objection. For in Atlashe has made something akin to a masterpiece.« – Victor Malm, Expressen
»Is there anything more pleasurable than coming up against the limits of one’s own knowledge? I don’t think so. But as critics we rarely dare to admit that a work is infinitely larger than the sum of all the theories we can postulate about it. But now it’s happened. I am speaking of nothing less than Aris Fioretos’ Atlas, a labyrinthine, Piranesian, and utterly delirious hybrid of prose and essay, but also of essay and pictorial atlas, to which he has given the Freudian subtitle ›case studies‹. . . . Fioretos thus joins the ranks of Sebald, Umberto Eco, Cărtărescu and Perec in a fabulous pictorial novel about novels both written and perhaps to be written. A laboratory. A psychonautic cabinet of curios. A visionary tale that sets man in motion. A warm-blooded novel about cold-hearted stories. A textbook in empathy. A pharmakon. A masterpiece!« – Sinziana Ravini, Göteborgs-Posten
Snurra, Atlas 11
Medicinens musa 39 · Utgjutelser 43 · Gåshud 45 · Svindel 49 · Hjärnklubben 55 · Handflator 65 · Excitation 69 · Ringningar 73 · Omlopp 75 · Tunga 79 · Fantomsmärta 81 · Psyke 87 · Punktsubstans 97 · Vadd 103 · Stelhet 105 · Rodnad 109 · Inklinationer 117 · Murphy 123 · Vlavla Vlavlavovna 129 · Vild upplysning 137 · Vadim von Kolibars strumpteori 141 · Feber 151 · Eros 157 · Virilitet 179 · Hunger 195 · Synapser 201 · Adamsäpple 205 · Distortion 217 · Tremor 225 · Skugga 239 · Ben av glas 243 · Solhälsning 251 · Hud 255 · Vederkvickelse 259 · Vrånghjärta 263 · Rekreation 267 · Navel 273 · Behag 277 · Frågeformulär (I) 281 · Skadlig litteratur 285 · Puls 293 · Bläckfläckar 295 · Famn 303 · Blod 307 · Psykolokalisering 311 · Aura 317 · Proprioception 321 · Frågeformulär (II) 327 · Balans 331 · Läppar 339 · Luft 345 · Exitus 353 · Vit film 355 · Frågeformulär (III) 361 · Irisering 381 · Lungor 389 · Navelsträng 397 · Se rött 401 · Sömn 411 · Aska 415 · Möderne 427
»Om Atlas«: Talk on November 15, 2019 (TV4) (In Swedish)
»Litteratur om mig själv? Nej tack.«: Interview on November 9, 2019 (Dagens Nyheter) (In Swedish)