As a reader of other writers’ books – which scene or scenes have you found unforgettable?
For my part it tends to be the tone of a book that grips me, not individual scenes. Take Saul Bellow’s Herzog, for example. I remember neither the story nor the secondary characters, but I can tell you the precise time and place that the narrator’s voice made its indelible impression on me. (I was lying on the grass by Observatorielunden in Stockholm one deserted July afternoon in 1982. Bellow is so associated with that grass – green, dense, strong – since then that I can’t think of Herzog without recalling the chlorophyll blades beneath and around me, in likelihood even within me.) Or take Clarice Lispector’s The Passion According to G.H. I have no idea what the Swedish rendition of the novel is entitled, but the memory of reading the English translation about the cockroach that the protagonist discovers one day in her flat, in the wardrobe of the room in which the maid who has just been fired used to live ... The tone with which the narrator re-evaluates this encroachment by a thoroughly different being on her thitherto stable reality – so much so that, halfway through the book, she eats and actually incorporates the cockroach into herself, in a more radical form of transubstantiation – has stayed with me. (I lay in my bed in Baltimore on a bitterly cold January morning in 1993. Since then Lispector is associated with sheets, snow and hissing radiators.)
Neither Bellow nor Lispector wrote novels in which scenes were particularly significant. They weren’t interested in »action«. The real action lay in the telling.
It’s probably a matter of temperament. As reader I naturally want to know what happens in a novel. The scenes in a story are beads on rosary. Each one must lead to the next according to a hidden but plausible logic. When I reach the final bead I wish to feel a sense of logical satisfaction.
But my »passion« as reader, to borrow Lispector’s term, is of a different nature. What captures my attention is the narrative voice – how both straightforward and enigmatic it is. My faith in what is written flags if there is no equilibrium between the evident and the inscrutable. The plot may be of the most banal sort (boy meets girl; a trauma is revealed; opposing notions of righteousness clash) – if the writer has found the right tone, the text will hold up anyway.
Take Kafka. His texts are full of mischief and sorrow and wonder. But I don’t think we reread them for their scenes. After all, in Kafka, the truly important events have usually occurred before the plot begins. One day, young travelling salesman Samsa wakes up to discover he has been transformed into a »monstrous vermin«. Or: someone must have slandered Josef K., for one fine day he opens his eyes and is promptly arrested, »without having done anything wrong«. The rest of Kafka’s texts consist of attempts to understand what happened before them. Somewhat pointedly, you might argue that this is anti-narration. Of course there are many memorable scenes in Metamorphosis and The Trial – recall the apple thrown by the father which lodges in the son’s body, where it begins to rot; or the webbing that Josef K. spots when Leni splays her fingers. Nobody forgets details like that. But these scenes do not move the plot forward in any decisive way. Rather they imbue the text with a significance which is as puzzling as it is straightforward. If Kafka had not hit the right tonality, the apple and the webbing would have been symbols as heavy and lumbering as a pair of clogs. Instead they are enchantingly limber. The tone shows that a text’s magic is made from narration.
Describe a scene which has made a mark on you.
One that actually did make an impression occurs towards the end of Vladimir Nabokov’s last novel in Russian, The Gift, from 1936–1938. It is summer in Berlin. While waiting to meet with his beloved Zina Merts, the protagonist, Fyodor, decides to go for a swim in a lake on the western outskirts of the city. When he comes out of the water he discovers that someone has stolen his clothes, in which he kept the key to the flat where he is renting a room. Untroubled, he wanders back through the city in his dripping wet swimming trunks. A policeman stops him and points out that he is not allowed to walk the streets in such a state of undress. Unfortunately, Fyodor explains, he cannot transform himself into a wisp of smoke, or grow a suit. Suddenly it begins to rain; having stated his name and address Fyodor continues on his way home – which in this case is synonymous with a future with Zina, impoverished but with every prospect of happiness.
An almost naked Russian in exile. An overbearing German policeman. A pavement, a cloudburst. Not much happens. But the way in which everything is depicted, the tone with which a penniless existence is portrayed as nonetheless containing all the vigour and beatitude a life needs, has taught me much about what I want to achieve on the page.
As a writer, do you find that there are there recurring images or scenes you can’t let go of?
Freud spoke of »primal scenes« in people’s lives, obscure events that define how they act and regard themselves. Writers have these experiences too, of course. They are rarely numerous, and need not be significant to others. But much of the energy in a writing life is drawn from them. They are like a wound that won’t heal. Or invocations – yet of what? In my experience, one only becomes aware of primal scenes retrospectively, which is to say when they’ve already found expression in a text. They are not water under the bridge, but keep welling up, urging insight.
My first book, Delandets bok (1991), is a prose poetry account of a girlfriend who was killed in a car accident. Many years later, Den siste greken (2009) ended with a collision on the dreadful motorway traversing what used to be Yugoslavia, on a rainy summer day in the 1970s, just outside Zagreb. No doubt these events are somehow connected. In my latest novel as well – De tunna gudarna, to be published this autumn – an event occurs involving a car on the wrong side of the road. While I was working on it I did not once think of the similarities with earlier works. It was only when the manuscript had been submitted that I was struck by the continuity – but also by how things had evolved. In the first book the girlfriend is killed, in the second a small child, who is not the protagonist, dies, and in the third ... I won’t say what happens, only that the accident paradoxically heralds hope. Thirty years of writing have transformed the primal scene. Its hidden energies are no longer solely destructive.
(SVT Babel, April 24, 2022)