30. v. 2024

It has never been an explicit plan, nor even, I believe, a subconscious wish, but over the years I have found myself writing about experiences which in several cases, perhaps in most, I am not equipped to make personally. White, sixty-plus years old and cis gendered – a specimen of European masculinity as standard issue as they get – I have written about pregnancy from the perspective of a future mother and same-sex love between women. As a child during two of the socio-politically most tranquil decades in Swedish history, I have written about adversity in times of dictatorship and persecution. And as a person who still wakes up most mornings with a foggy notion of who he is, I have found myself slipping into the minds of conjoined twins and rock’n’roll artists alike, Armenian men with legs of glass and Javanese women with a morphine addiction. I have even named a person born without a navel Leo Tager, which, as an anagram of »alter ego,« seemed to me the closest I could hope to get to being present, as an implied writer, in a piece of fiction.

Some might consider this cultural, gender or even aesthetic appropriation. Personally, I believe it has more to do with the urge to get out of one’s own skin – no matter what and if only for as long as fingers and keyboard make common cause. Whatever self-experienced stuff may be found in my books, it has never served as a wheeled walker, but only ever as a trampoline. When writing, I do not wish to speak backed up by passport, domicile and dietary habits. On the contrary, I find it liberating to be catapulted into people with wildly different ways of living; I learn much more about the world from conduct and beliefs with which I am unfamiliar. The practical consequence, at least in favorable cases, is that such curiosity may rub off and make the prose limber, probing, receptive. In a word: charged.

And charge, I believe, is the one thing that no fiction can do without. What good is literary prose if it does not get under the skin of its readers? As a goosebumps producer or, on the contrary, a chills provider, it is less about matters of truth and falsehood than about evidentiality. As long as a text makes the spinal column shiver, no reader can deny its impact. Obviously, literature amounts to many other things – such as a transaction of knowledge, memory management and the repair of damaged existential goods –, but above else it must strive to be acute.

In his 1947 essay on the »situation of the writer,« Sartre touched upon this desideratum when he spoke about »an acute sense of justice and generosity, and a taste for solidarity.«* I am well aware of reading more into this assessment than he would have deemed possible, but in terms purely of the technical requirements for writers, a »sense of justice« in my eyes has to do with the moral backbone of a text, »generosity« signals its ability to thrill and enchant readers, whereas »solidarity« makes it clear that literature, despite mostly being read in solitude, is about reverberation, that is, sharing human experience. When these three roles are in balance – when there is a lesson to be learned, when the story is skillfully imparted and there is dazzle to boot – that is, when vigilance, ardor and chutzpah work in tandem, literature tends to be incisive.

Such keenness, I have come to believe, lends literature transformative powers. One of the most succinct examples thereof is the declaration made by a sixteen-year-old to whom Sartre refers on several occasions in his essay. In an often quoted letter in 1871, Rimbaud spoke of the need, as a writer, to achieve a derangement of all the senses. And then went on famously to announce: Je est un autre, »I is someone else.« I am not certain today’s literature needs to rearrange the psychic interior of its readers from the chandelier of the cerebellum to the wall-to-wall carpet of their foot soles. 150 years after Rimbaud’s missive, transgression has become such a staple of avant-garde culture that it has fostered its own tradition, and thus is as predictable as disappointingly easy to commodify. But a statement which, as a performative, manages to recharge our sense of identity within the space of merely four words? Chapeau. By using a verb in the third person singular with a first person pronoun, a transformation is executed through the sheer force of language, in which the being who began to speak is no longer the same after having completed the sentence.

Literature teems with similar transformations. Allow me to quote one more case before closing, as it has become paradigmatic of the kind of prose I find it impossible not to deem acute. Consider what happens when Jesus, the very incarnation of a divine Logos, crosses the waters in order to visit the graveyard of the Gerasenes. Among the tombstones he encounters a being curiously at odds with itself, »an impure spirit,« as the Bible puts it, who dwells among the dead and who, when asked to identify itself, responds contradictorily: »My name is Legion, for we are many.«

Here, too, there is a transformation as charged as the one suggested by Rimbaud. Beginning with the possessive pronoun »My,« the creature who identifies itself as Legion – which, as you know, is Latin for »many« and which, at the time of the encounter with the son of God, signified the largest military unit of the Roman army – this being, who seems in utter disagreement with itself, alters status as soon as the name has crossed its lips, turning into the rather more populous »we.« From the singular to the plural in merely five words. Again, chapeau.

Both declarations epitomize, to me, what makes literature acute. Not only do they display the understandable wish to alter a state of being deemed deficient by the sheer means of words. But also, they may be read as expressions of a feeling, often communicated by novelists, that their work is articulated by a narrative consciousness both different from and many times larger than themselves as well as the particular viewpoint from which a story happens to be told. Or as Vladimir Nabokov, otherwise hardly known as an admirer of so-called engaged literature, once put it: as a novelist, you are »a one-man multitude.«

When speaking of »an acute sense of justice and generosity, and a taste for solidarity,« Sartre tried, in actual fact, to understand the situation in which Communist intellectuals found themselves after the war. Purportedly irreproachable in all regards save for one, they carried the »original defect« of having joined the party out of free will; thus they could, if they so wished, leave the party just as freely, which made their treacherous ilk reek of a vice called »independence.« Since Sartre reflected on the situation of writers, three quarters of a century have passed. Today, material circumstances are dramatically different, not least because of digital forms of mediation; it is debatable whether there exists such a thing as a unifying canon, and even more dubious that it would be of Western persuasion; moreover, political creeds have proved detrimental to the liberties of literature enough times to render them suspect as incentives for writing. Still, I believe fiction could do far worse than to strive for a heightened awareness of the three objectives pinpointed by Sartre.

Ambitiously phrased, literature does »justice« to the troublesome plethora of human experience by exploring its contradictions and complexities, its silences and vulnerabilities. It cares for details deemed too small or insignificant by higher powers, thereby fashioning an aggregate of language which, in some fundamental manner, exceeds what is required to communicate, and hence is able to display »generosity.« Lastly, since literature sides, at least in my book, not with Logos but with Legion, that is, with the swine into which the throng of impure spirits once was banned, it demonstrates »solidarity« with what deviates from the norm – indeed, with what cannot be subsumed under whatever notion of purity being peddled as our common good. On top of it all, or rather below it, like Legion, literature is at home among the dead.I never expect to agree much with Sartre, but like him I believe that writing is, »in essence, heresy.« Channeling energies which are never fully controllable, literature becomes not merely charged, like a lightning rod, but in an acute sense always also stands charged – namely, with the »original defect,« that flawed yet patent idiosyncrasy, in which resides its independence.

(Written for a workshop at the Literaturhaus Hamburg)

*    Jean-Paul Sartre, What Is Literature?, translated from the French by Bernard Frechtman, New York: Philosophical Library, 1949; here and later: p. 258.