In the opening pages of Lena Andersson’s novel Willful Disregard, we are told that Ester Nilsson, a thirty-one-year-old poet and essayist in Stockholm with “eight slim but densely written publications to her name,”
renounced expensive living, ate cheaply, was always careful about contraception, only traveled rationally, had never been in debt to the bank or to any private person, and did not get herself into situations that forced her away from what she wanted to spend her time doing: reading, thinking, writing and debating.
We’re prepared to be in the company of a fairly sober actor. Instead, Ester soon makes one vain man the subject of all her “reading, thinking, writing and debating,” losing her sense of herself as a strictly logical creature. She is forced by her feelings to contend with the bewildering “other” that is any human being.
Willful Disregard won Sweden’s prestigious August Prize in 2013. Crisply translated by Sarah Death, it is subtitled “a novel about love” and not “a love story,” for while the latter phrase conjures sensuality, bliss, dreaminess, and pleasure, this rigorous and cerebral novel offers none of that. It is a pleasure, but the pleasure comes from Ester’s detailed analysis of her lover, and the narrator’s detailed analysis of Ester.
Ester first begins to fall in love while engaged in the unromantic task of academic research. Commissioned to give a lecture at a seminar about a famous artist named Hugo Rask—whom she has never met but whose work she has been “watching with great interest”—she finds that with every day of preparation for the talk, “her sense of affinity with its subject grew”:
From feeling respect on Sunday she progressed to reverence on Tuesday and by about Thursday she felt an insistent yearning, which on Friday turned into a deep sense of lack.
It turned out that a person could miss someone she had never met, except in her imagination.
After the talk, Rask, who is in the audience, is full of admiration and praise. He takes her hands and kisses her on both cheeks in gratitude. Their story has begun.
Rask’s most famous pronouncement is “Any artist who fails to engage with society and the vulnerability of the individual in a cruel existence should not style him- or herself an artist,” so we can safely assume that he will fail to notice the vulnerability of the individual he is actually involved with. Soon enough, we are deep in the thickets of unrequited love. Ester and Rask meet for dinner, exchange gifts, discuss ethics. She waits anxiously for his e-mails and calls him six times in a row. He ignores her to make art. She counsels herself, “What she must definitely not do now was to expose herself to the anguish of sending a text message that would go unanswered.” She consults the “girlfriend chorus” and wonders about the nature of his relationship with a female studio assistant. She despairs at his silences, then all is golden when he writes.
Andersson renders Ester’s emotional vicissitudes with thoughtful attention rather than scorn, and yet it is impossible not to see Ester as a faintly ridiculous creature. The book’s humor comes partly from the distance between Ester’s obvious intelligence and how little use that intelligence is in making sense of her situation, or in bringing about her happiness. Wondering why Rask hasn’t yet made a move—after weeks of dinners and intimate conversations—Ester deludedly assures herself, “Anything important takes time…. When both are equally eager it takes longer.” When she invites him to her house for a romantic dinner, she is disappointed to find them, after the meal, sitting on a couch watching the Winter Olympics. She comforts herself with the thought that, after all, she “wanted to usher normal life into their relationship. They could not sit in restaurants all their lives, looking into each other’s eyes and conversing. At some stage they would have to start watching television together as well.”
Andersson was born in 1970 in Sweden. She is a prominent cultural critic there, and she is also the author of eight novels, which have sold more than half a million copies in her native country. Three of these—Willful Disregard, Acts of Infidelity, and Son of Svea—have been translated into English. Acts of Infidelity, published in Sweden a year after Willful Disregard and translated by Saskia Vogel, is also about Ester Nilsson. Again she is in love with a man who cannot properly love her back, this time because he—Olof Sten, a theater actor—has a wife. Responding to an interviewer about why she had written a diptych about a woman repeating such a similar situation, Andersson explained that she was interested in “the question why women never learn,” and that “the answer in Ester Nilsson’s case is that she rationally thinks that no two people are exactly the same, so there is no reason to think she will be unlucky twice.”
Cultivating the reader’s sympathy for Ester is not what Andersson is after; she is more interested in tracking Ester’s mistakes of deduction, which lead her deeper into her painful predicaments. In a literary landscape in which we are tirelessly reminded that the great value of novels lies in their ability to teach us empathy, Andersson’s project is refreshing: her books offer us a respite from the endless demands for our care. She seems to believe that the novel is a place where we can, finally, put feeling to the side, and that this is a good, since not feeling is impossible in life, and feeling clouds thinking. Where are we able to consider ourselves patiently, analytically, and at a distance if not in literature?
Andersson’s writing is concise and direct, and it moves quickly, like an argument. The Ester books are written in the third person, and one senses that Andersson is writing them not only for her readers, but somehow to or for Ester, as if she could somehow be reached before all this happened, so that in an ideal world, these books wouldn’t have had to be written at all, because Ester would never have acted so foolishly. The books’ narration seems concerned less with telling a story than with sorting out a story. And the narrator always sorts it out differently from Ester, whose analysis is ever colored by how the men she loves treated her last, and her faith in their ultimate union.
In Acts of Infidelity, after Olof tells Ester, “If we’ve got to talk about us all the time, I’m going to lose interest in this,” Andersson writes, “Not a great comment but she clung to the word ‘this.’ They now had something he called ‘this.’” It is subtly brilliant writing—simultaneously showing us Ester’s thoughts and the narrator’s thoughts about Ester’s thoughts. The dueling interpretations give these books their tension: Will Ester ever see her situation the same way her narrator does? If not, why not?
We are advised in the opening pages of Willful Disregard that the book is about “the dreadful gulf between thought and words, will and expression, reality and unreality, and the things that flourish in that gulf.” Yet even more than that, the books seem to be about the gulf between being an actor in a story and being its narrator, as if the source of our relational problems is that the actor is never detached and objective enough to also be the narrator. But that’s the thing about acting—being. It is an entirely different thing from narrating. And, as we are repeatedly shown in the case of Ester, our narrating to ourselves is also not narrating—it is only more being. The distance between being and narrating is this diptych’s deeper, even more dreadful gulf.
Andersson’s thorough, investigative style animates the intellectually bold columns on politics, society, and culture that she writes for Swedish newspapers. Her mind is always reaching for the fascinating and unexpected conclusion: in a recent consideration of the Swedish documentary television series Under the Knife, published in Svenska Dagbladet, she argues that “appreciation of beauty wherever it appears has nothing to do with superficiality, but with soulfulness,” yet those who undergo cosmetic surgery must know that they are forgoing the “cardinal virtues” inherent in us of “wisdom, bravery, moderation, and righteousness.” She wonders whether cosmetic surgery is “the logical consequence of the ambition of Enlightenment ideas and modern liberalism to free people from shackles” and observes that, since it strives “to obliterate all signs of lineage and history,” its goal is “the end of history.” It’s as though no one whom Andersson narrates—real or fictional—is equipped to see the many meanings and hidden dimensions of their choices; Andersson makes this her job.
Often her point is more political: perhaps no thinking could ever be sufficient to prevent us from experiencing pain under structures that have no interest in our protection. Indeed, after much suffering, toward the end of Willful Disregard, Ester finally strikes on a broader interpretation of her situation than that there is something wrong with Rask; perhaps the real problem is that she lives in a world that has abandoned the customs that once governed love and courtship. Ester longs for a past in which
the strict rules then governing life together were in actual fact far more rational, in the sense of being properly planned and thought out, than this idiocy of caprice and sentiment into which she had thrown herself and to which all modern-day people were consigned. No rules, no traditions, no crutches to lean on, nothing.
In Andersson’s latest book to be translated into English, Son of Svea: A Tale of the People’s Home, she elaborates on a question that was quieter in Willful Disregard and Acts of Infidelity: the relationship between one’s character and the ideals of the world in which one was raised. Ragnar Johansson, the protagonist of Son of Svea, is a living embodiment of the Swedish welfare state, known regionally as folkhemmet (“the people’s home”). The book traces his life from his birth in 1932, “year zero” of that political project, through and beyond its next forty-plus years, as the Social Democratic party helped elaborate a society based on the principles of universal fellowship and care, with a planned economy, universal health care, free universities, child benefits, and new suburbs to house the working class. Although the party was voted out in 1976, marking the end of folkhemmet, it holds the prime ministership again today, and many of its programs remain.
We are first brought into Ragnar’s story in late 1999, through his twenty-nine-year-old daughter, Elsa—like Ester, an intellectual. She has taken him to a café in Vällingby—the planned community outside Stockholm where he lives, which was built in 1954 as “a suburb of the future”—to introduce him to an ethnologist in search of people who might be said to represent “the Swedish mentality in the age of modernity.” Although he has agreed to the meeting, Ragnar, who thinks of himself as a simple man, doesn’t see the point.
Elsa watches the ethnologist carefully, aware that she is missing the very cues that mark Ragnar as a typical Swede of his time—the way he says his name, the way he eats his bun—and perhaps mercifully, before the chapter’s end, the project is called off. “The ethnologist’s supervisor criticized her from the word go for trying to reproduce essences in so-called reality outside discourse,” Elsa unhelpfully explains to her father. The book begins again with a more direct narration of Ragnar’s life. Of course, a novel, not an ethnological study, is a more appropriate medium in which to attempt to show that a person might represent their country’s political project.
“This is the story of a twentieth-century Swede,” we are told at the start of the second part of Son of Svea. “A man without cracks but with a great split running through him, and in this he entirely resembled the society he populated and shaped.” In characteristically straightforward and economical language, once again translated by Death, Andersson highlights incidents from Ragnar’s youth that show him as an analogue for the modest, egalitarian ideals of Sweden, almost to the point of alienation from the people around him. In grade school, a teacher asks him to look after her lunchbox while she leaves the room. He puts it on the radiator and it tumbles off, spilling the pancakes on the floor. The other boys laugh. Ragnar is humiliated:
Miss Aronsson should have understood the blow that being chosen inflicts, thought Ragnar, and he would never stop thinking that. She had raised him above the crowd and told him he was worthy of guarding her pancakes.
It seemed unreasonable that you had to pay for your sense of order with shame and dread, but that was the way it was. Distinguishing yourself was too costly; you were entrusted with things that were too much for you. And he thought that as long as you were normal and blended in, you wouldn’t make any mistakes.
The cause of your shame was what you had to divest yourself of. Being chosen. Being different. Being special.
This principle of not distinguishing oneself—which is at once socialist and truly Ragnar’s—defines the choices that direct his life. Though he has the talent to be a master craftsman, he decides to be a woodworking teacher instead, subsuming his distinction as an individual under his general principle of not standing out. In the schools of Stockholm’s new suburbs,
he taught the children the basics of handling the materials, persuaded them to see their form as something fundamental to existence, encouraged them to smell the wood and feel with their fingertips how alive it was. He taught them to work with the grain and the life of the wood, not against them, tried to make them understand that a knothole was part of the wood and not a troublesome inconvenience, to see how the lathe could bring out the loveliest lines, and that none of this was gratuitous.
He too strives to work with the grain of his society. Everyone—even knotholes—might have a legitimate place in modern Sweden, a society that can function as a working whole if it can continue to make room for all its people, in a spirit of reason and equality. When he reads about socialist East Germany’s construction of the Berlin Wall, and its intent to “block off the West,” he thinks that even though there is outrage in Sweden about it, “the arguments in favor of the wall had an irrefutable truth to them”:
If the state had paid for everything in your life, you were not free in your relationship to the state. You owed it something. That was how it had to be, he thought, and nothing else would be logical or reasonable. It was not acceptable to keep receiving and never give.
Ragnar’s devotion to Sweden is traced back to the childhood of his mother, Svea. When she was two years old, her mother died, and when she was seven—in 1912, the same year that the Titanic sank—her father went to America to find work, leaving Svea and her brother in the care of their grandmother until he could send for them. But the two children never heard from their father again. It was only after their grandmother died, thirty years later, that Svea found a trove of letters and learned the truth: their father had written to them every month for years, sending money for their passage and pleading for news, but their grandmother was afraid that she would end up lonely and in the poorhouse if the children left her, so she never replied.
“It was when Ragnar Johansson thought about Mother Svea’s childhood that he began worshipping the state,” we learn.
He based this on its self-evident superiority to human beings. In the state there was no room for passion or apathy…. Its principles of equality, clarity, and absence of emotion’s caprices should be striven for, even in individual lives…. The state was humankind’s better self. Solid. Exemplary.
Ragnar is thirty-four when he marries Elisabet, a woman from northern Sweden who, he thinks, “seemed mentally well-balanced and independent in her ways.” They have two children in quick succession and move into a “purpose-built suburb” called Paradise, where everyone is obliged by the principles of equality to build the same home, “with no scope for willful variation.” Ragnar approves of this, and he also approves when he hears a politician remark on television that “if the Swedish people wanted to show greater solidarity with the social project, they ought to stop baking and making jams and fruit juices at home, as this was to be considered a form of tax evasion.” Ragnar thinks of his jam-making mother, Svea, and is confirmed in “his vision of her as an ancient monument from the agrarian age.”
However, Ragnar soon starts to feel critical of his wife. Unlike himself—or the country—she seems to have no inner cohesion. “She had read a good deal,” Ragnar thinks, “but it all went whirling around inside her, like torn-out pages without any central point for the interpretation of what had been read and the contradictions in it.” This fundamental disorganization extends to her homemaking. When she offers her mother-in-law a savory tart for lunch and then a gooseberry tart for dessert, even Svea disapproves. Two tarts are “one too many,” Svea thinks. “You really ought to have something else with your coffee if you’d had a tart for your main course.” Whereas in Elisabet’s view, “things could be combined however you liked, and at any juncture she would make whatever she liked best for any component of a meal, regardless of the overall effect.”
Earlier we are told, “Order and civilization were the result of a guiding hand, Ragnar knew, not an invisible one.” If Ragnar is a stand-in for the “people’s home,” Elisabet can be seen as a corollary for the world as it’s progressing outside Sweden: the onslaught of empty Western capitalism. Ragnar’s view of Elisabet’s apparently chaotic, free-market lack of interest in “the overall effect” is reminiscent of Ester’s experience of love in Andersson’s earlier novels. For the men Ester desires, it is women—wives, studio assistants, and admirers like her—who “could be combined however you liked.” At any juncture, these men were free—as a result of a lack of an organized, moral, ruling principle—to do “whatever they liked best.”
For Ester, the tragedy is being separate from one’s time, whereas for Ragnar, it is being too like it. His middle years are “wonderful” ones for Sweden. Andersson writes:
The country had sped like a javelin through the sixties, and by the seventies it was near the top of every list of national comparisons. It had the most day care places, the lowest income disparity, the greatest film director, the foremost children’s writer, the best slalom skier, tennis player, and pop group, the most impressive gender equality, the highest taxes—all of them sources of real pride.
These are also good years for Ragnar and Elisabet as they raise their family. But times change. For their children, it turns out, not everything was better under the Swedish welfare state: the country was more homogeneous and xenophobic then. When Ragnar tries to explain to his family the principles by which he lives, they now just leave the room. The world has outgrown him, as it has outgrown the socialist project.
Like Ragnar’s devotion to the ideals of his country’s experiment, Ester’s is extreme compared with that of the people around her. She claims to want love affairs based on “clarity and equality”—or, as Ragnar characterizes the virtues of the state, “equality, clarity, and absence of emotion’s caprices.” When, during one of their debates, Rask complains that Ester is too critical of other people and that she should instead be critical of “pharmaceutical companies, Western regimes, top public officials,” she objects. His argument is just a way of letting himself off the hook:
According to you, everybody who is formally powerless also lacks responsibility for their actions…. But we can demand moral insight, moral deliberation and that each individual acts in a way that causes the least harm to others.
Near the end of Willful Disregard, Ester writes a long and passionate essay, fueled by her unhappy experiences, in which she tries to work out why she believes that sleeping with a woman imposes obligations on the man, even when she knows that Rask is not obliged to love her. “It was stuffy old honor culture,” she thinks to herself, and “turning the idea round,” she writes:
Honor culture should not be understood as a deliberate curtailment of freedom but as the result of an observation of something entirely fundamental in human life: the fact that one has no right to run away from the wonderful thing that formed between two people who have come close to each other…. Having intercourse with another person brings responsibility onto the scene, the deeper and more naked the intercourse, the more far-reaching the injunction. Honor culture had understood this and regulated it…. The crux of the matter was to induce people not to start associating in the first place if one party knew that he did not wish to be involved with the other but planned to toss her aside.
Perhaps, Ester thinks, in writing and publishing this article she can change the culture to become a bit more like what she wants it to be, rather than having to submit to its frustrating and demoralizing reality. Andersson allows her this creative frenzy, but in the end, the journal she sends it to declines to publish it. Of course they do. Only in a rational, state-run paradise would anyone understand her, let alone agree.