Michael Eriksson's Blog

A Swede in Germany

Further thoughts on the City Pentalogy

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I have finally, after thirty-something years, finished* Per Anders Fogelström’s “City Pentalogy” (cf. excursion in [1]). My feelings remain mixed, and I would rate book one considerably above the others. A particular problem with the later books is that the author’s attention is divided over more and more individuals, making it hard to build sympathy, vest interest, develop insight into characters, or even keep track of who is who—reading book five, I had to make use of the included family trees again and again. The average** year might cover a dozen pages. This can work when, as in book one, there is a clear focus on a single character. By book five, the attention is split*** over possibly two dozen characters, who then might average half-a-page per year… In the end, Henning, the protagonist of the first book, is the only character that I truly clicked with, that truly felt “real”, even if a few others came close. (See e.g. [2] for earlier discussions of sympathy and identification.)

*Even now, somewhat incompletely: The second book is still missing, implying that I have not yet gone through the whole series in one sequence, and that I am left with a sense of incompleteness this time too. (Obviously, many claims made here must be taken with a reservation for the contents and quality of the missing book.) To boot, this led to a pause of several weeks between my finishing book one and starting on book three. Still, I have now definitely read all five books at one time or another.

**The division is very uneven. Some years have not a single page or share a chapter with several other years. Others have several chapters on their own.

***However, as with the years, the split is very uneven. The overall page count is likely “won” by Henning’s daughter Emilie, who features in all five books, from birth to death, and is something of a focus character in books three and four, and the parts of five before her death. Some others, e.g. his great-grand-son Henning (“the second”), who inherits the focus in book five, might also rival Henning (“the first”). (Note that I use “focus” quite loosely.)

For my own writings, this is a warning not to introduce too many core characters: Not only might this lead to too little time per head, but it might also make the reader see them as a fungible dime-a-dozen characters, whose fortunes and misfortunes can be shrugged off. (Note the contrast to the ensemble take in [2].)

I also suspect that Fogelström wrote book one with a greater dedication than the later books, later often trying to fill a quota of pages. (In all fairness, the total page count might be around 1500, in my edition.) A contrast with my own writings, after all of three weeks, is that I currently have a number of key scenes that I plan and partially write, with what might amount to filler* between them.** In the “City”, there appears to be few or no key scenes, but still a lot of text that feels like filler.

*Which is not to say that this filler will be boring, pointless, or irrelevant to the story—just that it will not be “key”.

**Whether my own take will be fruitful or continue in that manner, I cannot yet tell. However, I do note that e.g “The Lord of the Rings”, which I have also re-read in parallel, seems to follow a similar pattern of key scenes and filler. (And I suspect that a part of Tolkien’s popularity goes back to the great number of scenes that can be considered “key” or else “highly memorable”.)

Similarly, Fogelström might have been too unfocused in general topic: Is this a family saga, a history of Stockholm*, a description of working-class life, a documentation of Swedish politics, … Trying to do all of these is not necessarily an error, but when we combine it with the above abundance of characters and the low page count per year, it becomes a problem—the more so, because the focus is continually widened, increasingly addressing a global situation.**

*While a prior knowledge of Stockholm is not necessary to understand the books, it will likely increase enjoyment considerably—especially, for those who once could recognize events, buildings, developments, whatnots, from their own experience. (The latter group is far smaller, and covers a smaller portion of the time line, today than when the books were written, in the 1960s. I, e.g., was born in 1975, and only moved to Stockholm in 1994.)

**This is almost certainly a deliberate choice. The fifth book is titled “Stad i världen” (“City in the world”; or, possibly, “City surrounded by the world” or “City as part of the world”, going more by implication.)

As a final negative, much of the language is fragmented in a manner that reduces readability, introduces ambiguity, or becomes outright annoying. This includes both heavy use of the full-stop where e.g. a comma would have been expected and a tendency to drop subjects. For instance, a paragraph of the fifth book reads:*

*With reservations for mistyping. The passage is found close to the end of the chapter “Nära Stillhetens hav”. The page was picked at random. This is the whole paragraph.

Förr skulle han ha varit skamsen över det. Inte nu. Kände snarast saknad, smärta. För sent, för gammal för henne.

Translation:

Once* he would have been ashamed** of it. Not now. Felt rather longing***, pain. Too late, too old for her.

*“In the past” would be more literal, but is awkward for the four-letter “Förr”.

**The English “ashamed” might be a little stronger than “skamsen”.

***I cannot think of a truly good English match for “saknad”. Contextually, “absence” might be better. More literally, it indicates a feeling or state of missing something/someone. Cf. e.g. “Jag saknar dig”/“I miss you”. (Note that a re-write to accommodate such language differences would ruin the example.)

This might be acceptable as a single occurrence of deep introspection, but similar formulations are quite common, often in trivial situations. I would argue that e.g. the following is stronger, while grammatically sounder and still somewhat in the same style:

Once he would have been ashamed. Now he felt longing, pain. It was too late; he was too old for her.

Respectively:

Förr skulle han ha varit skamsen över det. Nu kände han saknad, smärta. Det var för sent; han var för gammal för henne.

Among more neutral items, many of which surprise me in the works of a Left-leaning author:*

*However, there are also many clearly pro-Left statements that give the impression of being Fogelström’s own opinions.

  1. Much of the books deal with changes: changes to the city, changes to life, changes to working conditions, changes to technology, …, but also changes to attitudes and maturity. Notably, there are repeated references to attitude differences that more-or-less match what many* say about the “millennials” today, e.g. that they are too soft, have it too easy, are too lazy, are too immature, … Indeed, Henning came to Stockholm, alone, at 15 (give or take) and had to fend for himself and take adult responsibility from day one—and he was a working orphan** even before that. In book five, we have persons in their twenties going to university, teens getting into trouble because of “too much” spare time,*** someone turning 18 and immediately driving a car, …

    *To some degree, I do too. However, I see a wider problem over a hundred or more years that too many of any generation take their current life-style for granted and fail to understand how much harder members of prior generations had it (on average). Ditto in comparisons with less fortunate countries. I see this view validated by the books.

    **Unless I misremember. It is conceivable that he was “just” estranged or otherwise unable to draw on parental support. (This part of his life is only known through later references and have not remained very clearly with me.)

    ***Here and elsewhere, unless the opposite is clear, I relate my impression from/of the books and the author’s attitude, without necessarily agreeing or claiming that the books are realistic.

  2. The issue of too much spare time could also be seen as part of another pattern: the division of the subjects into ambitious hard-workers and “no goods”*. Every generation appeared to have several of these, who tried to get by on crime, begging, borrowed money, and/or prostitution; who felt that having fun was more important than planning ahead; or similar. They invariably (?) fared poorly in life and died young or young-ish.

    *My ad-hoc term. The books have no equivalent term.

    At least one character (almost certainly someone in the Berg family) even had extensive thoughts on how the “no good” life-style was something to be proud of—better to beg or steal than to work. (As opposed to the typical Leftist explanation that those who beg or steal have been driven to the edge of society by need, misfortune, “discrimination”, …)

    On a lesser scale, there is some division between the competent hard-workers and those who are incompetent or lazy (while still actually being employed).

  3. As a special case, there is a large proportion of women who are (too their own detriment) promiscuous or outright prostitutes. There are also several cases, not limited to women, of too calculating marriages that end in unhappiness. Consider e.g. Klara and Annika, who are room-mates with Henning (and several others) early in the first book: Klara prostitutes herself, grows into an alcoholic, ages prematurely, and dies in her late thirties (?). Annika dedicates herself to finding a rich husband. She succeeds, but her marriage is not happy and she remains childless (except for an adoption). Their similarities and differences is one of the stronger points of the first book.

    An interesting variation is the case of Tyra, a later promiscuous woman who dies at forty and spends most of her life in poverty with a considerably older “no good”. She appears to be genuinely dedicated to her husband and (likely, my memory is vague) to her children, while lacking in judgment. A similar dedication is not a given among other spouses and parents, even when hard-working and intelligent.

  4. These areas are over-lapping with the influence on own success (cf. [1]), which is unusual for Leftist material. While it is rare for the poor to become rich, the lowest-of-the-low almost always have themselves to blame: Those who are lazy and irresponsible mostly descend in life; those industrious and responsible mostly, barring the odd stroke of bad luck, ascend.* Similarly, competence plays a role for success. One character, likely Leftist activist/politician Gunnar, even explicitly considers how equality (implied: of outcome) appeared impossible, and how even equal opportunities seemed to lead to differences in outcome.

    *Henning, who arguably worked himself to death, might be seen as strong counter-example, but even he had a broadly upwards tendency before his sickness. I suspect, however, that Fogelström’s goals in the first book were more strongly focused on showing the horrible 19th-century conditions and later drifted, be it because of an own change of priorities or the great societal improvements that did take place. (Note that the books cover roughly twenty years each, implying that the conditions change considerably between every “first page”. With book two missing, I have a forty year gap between two of the first pages…)

  5. Considerable space is spent on conflicts within the Leftist movements, notably Social-Democrats vs. Communists and Communist faction A vs. Communist faction B. This plays in well with a text that I have in long planning (do not hold your breath) concerning the “First they came …” concept with regard to the Left, the great abuse of “Fascist” to include anyone not of the right Leftist sub-sect, and similar. Indeed, these books are just one of many places where I have encountered variations of “Social-Fascist” to refer to Social-Democrats.* Or consider the well-documented condemnation of e.g. Trotskyists as Fascists, this problem area being an important inspiration for “Animal Farm”.

    *Without giving any signs that Fogelström, himself, would see such an equivalence. He merely reports a historical propaganda/defamation use.

As an aside: Many characters have great similarities between generations. I am not certain, e.g., whether this is a result of laziness when creating characters, whether something almost inevitable, or whether the author has deliberately pushed similarities. The latter might be to prove a point about types of humans recurring, to see how the “same” character fares in different times, to illustrate how some characteristics can run in families (if so, because of nature or nurture?), or similar.

Excursion on prior reading:
I can now date my second attempt (cf. [1]) a little more precisely: I found an accompanying note from my mother, dated “100122”, i.e. January 22nd, 2010. The books will have arrived a little later. (This makes the occasion my 35th birthday, on the 19th of the same month, which indeed made me slightly older than Henning at his death.) I found the note somewhere in the first half of the forth book, likely implying that this is where my reading ended. However, I also found an old (unrelated) receipt very early in the fifth book, which could imply that I had actually finished the fourth book, and got held up in the fifth (or, e.g., that I just had put the receipt there temporarily to clear a desk).

Written by michaeleriksson

August 21, 2019 at 10:29 pm

One Response

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  1. […] As the second book has resurfaced, I can now speak a little more completely than last time: […]


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