Michael Eriksson's Blog

A Swede in Germany

Posts Tagged ‘reading

A few thoughts on Nabokov’s “Laughter in the Dark”

leave a comment »

During my recent escape to Düsseldorf, I picked up a copy of Nabokov’s “Laughter in the Dark”.* While I enjoyed reading it and saw a few points to improve my own writing, I found it interesting primarily as a counterpart to “Lolita”, with strong parallels in behavior and situation between the respective male protagonist (Albert** Albinus resp. Humbert Humbert) and female temptation (Margot resp. the eponymous Lolita): in both books, an older man falls for a younger woman, makes himself a fool and ruins himself as a result, with an end involving a confrontation with a gun and death*** for the protagonist. Indeed, the similarities are large enough that the one might amount to a reworking of the other by a more mature author, as “Lolita” is considerably longer and later.

*Apparently, originally published in Russian as “Kamera Obscura”, and subsequently translated by the author into English. Even with a translation by the author, it cannot be ruled out that the original differed in some respects, e.g. prose quality. Oddly, the two main characters are from Berlin, where much of the book plays.

**This name is used, but sufficiently rarely that I am not certain whether it is his actual given name or some type of joke/pet/whatnot name or even an error. I cannot (without re-reading) rule out that the given name, too, is “Albinus” (paralleling “Humbert Humbert”), or that the given name is “Albinus” and that the family name goes unmentioned.

***Albeit postponed and, possibly, unrelated in “Lolita”, as Humbert died of natural causes while awaiting trial. (I.e. it is not a given that he would have lived if not imprisoned.)

In particular, in a footnote to an older text, I once wrote:

As an aside, one of the other books that I picked up was Nabokov’s “Lolita”, which I am currently reading. While a very different type of book, it does take the daughter–father version of wife–husband to an extreme. Still, the eponymous Lolita appears to have a stronger will and more to say in the relationship, while barely straddling the border between childhood and womanhood, than the thirty-something heroine of [“A Discovery of Witches” by Deborah Harkness]. I might also consider Lolita and Rebecca [of the book “Rebecca” by Daphne du Maurier] something of kindred spirits.

This goes together with larger doubts as to who predated on whom in “Lolita”, which fits the stereotypical adult-male-abusing-an-innocent-child poorly, with manipulations and machinations by Lolita that often leave Humbert the lesser villain and the more sympathetic character. When we turn to “Laughter in the Dark”, the situation is crystal clear: Margot (young, but adult) is the predator from the first step to the end of the book. Examples include deliberate attempts to sabotage Albinus’s marriage, the (secret) intent to marry him unless her paid-by-him movie career takes off, and outright defrauding in favor of a secret lover (Axel Rex) after Albinus goes blind (literally—not “with love”; although, a deliberate symbolism might be intended).

While an interpretation from one book to another is risky, I do see my impressions of Lolita and Humbert strengthened. (But Lolita comes of as a better person than Margot and Humbert as a worse one than Albinus.)

However, there were two other works that popped up in my mind again and again while reading: Kipling’s “The Light that Failed” and the movie* “The Postman Always Rings Twice”. In the first case, the protagonist sees an unending stream of misfortunes, including the loss of his sight, his love interest, and his life. In the second, a perfidious wife and her lover take advantage of an older husband with car crashes** playing a key role.

*The original 1940s movie. I have not seen the remake or read the original novel.

**Albinus loses his sight in one, while there likely are two in “The Postman Always Rings Twice”: one staged to murder the husband, one truly accidental to kill the wife and send the lover to prison (the respective second “ring” for them). Unfortunately, Margot was still alive and at large at the end of “Laughter in the Dark”. (But I have some hopes that the overall circumstances will lead to her demise at some point after the end.)

The first two paragraphs of the book are interesting with an eye on my own doubts as to when more and when less detail is appropriate: the first summarizes the book in a very bare-bones manner; the second gives a motivation for why the book, beyond that first paragraph, might still have a value as a (much) more detailed way of saying the same. From another point of view, comparing that first paragraph with the overall book gives quite a few pointers as to why and when detail is important, e.g. what motivations different characters had and why events played out as they did. (This, in turn, but off topic, shows why it is risky to take even factually-true journalists at face value—let alone those who distort events and interpretations to their own preference. Cf. a number of earlier texts.)

The blurb at the back of the book is worthy of some remarks of its own:

An aspiring young Berlin actress turns the tables on her lustful middle-aged admirer, in Nabokov’s deadpan, deliciously cruel story of hopeless infatuation and horribly inventive revenge.

(With reservations for transcription errors.)

Apart from the extremely poor writing, this matches the contents of the book very poorly. I strongly suspect that the writer of this blurb either fell for prejudice about typical male and female behavior* or that a catering to a certain type of female reader (think “dragon tattoo”) was intended. From this blurb, the impression arises that he used and/or abused her, and that she took revenge on him, which turns the story on its head in an inexcusable manner. The only instance of “table turning” (that I can recall) is when Margot, at the end of the book, literally manages to turn Albinus’s gun at him, when his (justified) feelings of betrayal and atrocious mistreatment cause him to try to take revenge—despite being blind. Any revenge involved was neither horrible nor inventive—and certainly not successful. There were many horribly and inventive acts, by Margot, but the only way to consider them revenge were if she took out her feelings for others on Albinus.

*E.g. typical Feminist propaganda that men use women for their own ends.

Indeed, if Albinus did someone wrong, it was his wife (and, possibly, daughter), and much of that damage was only partially* his fault. Despite this, the wife took care of Albinus in the later stages of the book, while Margot only used and abused him. Similarly, if anyone did Margot wrong, it was not Albinus. A much better case can be made for Axel Miller, who briefly “kept” and then abandoned her when she was sixteen—and who resurfaced in her life as the aforementioned Axel Rex. But Axel Rex she treated well …

*Yes, he did have an affair and he did spend considerable money on his mistress (i.e. Margot), which should not be excused, but she only found out through Margot’s malicious intervention, and the marriage, based on later events, might very well have been salvageable, had the wife taken the fight instead of running away. (To avoid misunderstandings, I do not blame her from an ethical perspective for doing so, but my impression is that she wanted a continuation, which makes her actions pragmatically ill-advised.) He also seemed to have had enough money that the practical impact on the wife, pre-flight, would have been limited. To boot, the affair might never have gone beyond an unrequited infatuation or a guilty flirt, had not Margot pushed very hard for things to happen and move forward.

The aforementioned first (alone) or first two (together) paragraphs would have made a much better blurb, giving the serious reader both a better idea of the contents and a greater wish to read the book. (In my case, I bought it based on my very positive impression of “Lolita” and Nabokov’s generally high reputation. If I read the blurb pre-purchase, I do not even remember it, and if it would have had any effect, at all, then a deterring one.)

Written by michaeleriksson

July 23, 2020 at 5:55 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Tagged with , , , ,

A few thoughts on “The Dark is Rising”

leave a comment »

Among my many recent re-readings we have Susan Cooper’s “The Dark is Rising” series—which was a great favorite of mine as a child*. This especially the eponymous second book, which introduced Will Stanton, who to me was (what I imagine that) Harry Potter became to a later generation.**

*I do not remember the exact ages when I read this series in the past, but my first reading was well before I turned 11 (cf. **) myself and, excepting a nostalgia reading some ten years ago, I doubt that I read them past “Mellanstadiet” (years 4–6 in the Swedish school system). The childhood readings were, obviously, of a Swedish translation; the adult in English.

**Indeed, I strongly suspect that Rowling borrowed a fair bit from Cooper, including a British boy whose magic powers are revealed when he turns 11. Generally, Rowling used a great many ideas from the works of others for the “Harry Potter” series (unless she independently came up with the same ideas).

By and large, at age 44, I find the books disappointing. “Over Sea, Under Stone” was boring to me even as a child; and the too long, too haphazard, too pointless, too nightmarish* “The Lost Land” sequence in “Silver on the Tree” leaves me with just the same feeling as back then (as, to a lesser degree, do some other sequences from that book). However, the stronger books (in my recollection) now leave me a lot colder, and I see some outright deficiencies. The most notable among these is the very black-and-white approach to good and evil, including the apparent evil-for-the-sake-of-evil, which poorly matches real evil, and the common description of sensing almost tangible evil, malice, whatnot, again much unlike real evil.** This is possibly not that unusual in literature for children, but others have done it better—even Voldemort was more nuanced, including an unhappy childhood and a wish for power; and he was a real person, not some abstract force of evil. Other deficiencies include how Will jumps into the camp of the good guys more-or-less based on their own word that they are the good guys (well, apart from that almost tangible feeling of evil emanating from the other camp …), how problems often come close to solving themselves (instead of being solved by the heroes) or how just following a near-trivial instruction resolves the problem, how confrontations between the camps often amount to nothing but abstract forces clashing like two weather fronts, and how the behavior of the camps often does not make sense***.

*As in having that weird, distorted, “wrong” quality that nightmares often have—not in the “is scary” sense.

**This deficiency is what tipped the scales when I contemplated whether this text was worth the trouble. Note a few earlier texts dealing with the nature of evil, including the quite recent [1] and [2].

***Possibly, there are hidden rules, the revelation of which would change this impression. If so, however, too much of the rules are hidden, leaving the reader in a sea of arbitrariness. How, by analogy, is someone supposed to truly appreciate a football game without understanding the rules and without being able to interpret what happens (or does not happen) why? Similarly, would he not enjoy a game with rules that make more sense, e.g a game of Quidditch that does not boil down to just catching the golden snitch?

Two of the greatest strengths of “The Dark is Rising” (the book) in my child’s eye were the atmosphere and situations created (a) around the family of Will and in the family house, and (b) the scenes in the snowed-in mansion. These had a much smaller effect on me today, which could give me some pointers on how different people might experience the same scenes differently.

Looking at (a), Will was the opposite of Harry Potter, having an unusually large*, loving, and (relatively speaking) harmonious family. My own family, at the time, had been cut by divorce and was anything but harmonious—me, my mother, and a sister that I could not stand. Brothers there were none and the family dog was dead. Despite my introversion and comparatively low interest in socializing, his situation seemed so much better. Today, my interest is even lower and I suspect that I would have gone bonkers had I had his family—“Too many [children]!”, to quote the very first words of the book. Here there was, I suspect, a strong “the grass is always greener” effect in play.

*I could not find the exact number during a quick look at the book, but Will was a seventh (and youngest) son and there were sisters, two parents, and a few animals to boot.

Looking a (b), I have long held a fascination with being snowed in, fighting the cold and dark, and similar, likely partially as a side-effect of my life in Sweden, but somehow the scenes did not click this time around. This possibly partially because there were, again, very many people involved, both as a plus back then and a minus now; however, too haphazard writing and a too short duration might also have something to do with it.*

*Generally, thinking back on my recent re-reading, I have the feeling that there were quite a few crises and periods of suspense that loomed large for a short time and then were gone, almost anticlimactically, where a longer duration might have been more realistic and/or more captivating. What if they had jumped straight to the duel in “High Noon”?

Compared to works by some other authors, there is also quite little going on under the surface. The Narnia books definitely had more depth, as (going by vague memory) did the Prydain books.* To some degree, Cooper’s books are quite simplistic, as with the treatment of evil (cf. above) or the caricatured or cartoony bad guys—more Blyton than C. S. Lewis. Even Rowling, against whom I would raise a similar criticism, is ahead of Cooper.** Off the top of my head, there is only one major exception (and a few minor): the sub-story of Hawkin in “The Dark is Rising” (book), which is thought-worthy, tragic, and almost paradoxical—and the largest reason why I still rank “The Dark is Rising” as number one among the books (cf. excursion).

*These were, together with the-for-an-older-audience Tolkien and “The Dark is Rising”, the big book series of that period of my life, all with multiple readings.

**In some earlier text, I noted that books for women often had similar problems, while books by women gave me no reason to complain. “The Dark is Rising” series is written by a woman for, likely, mostly boys; while “Harry Potter” is by a woman and at least slightly tilted towards boys. With a few similar examples, I might have been too optimistic with the “books by women” part, and I begin to suspect that male authors are more likely to produce “depth” than female ones. (But my sample might be too small. Certainly, there are individual women, even in fantasy, e.g. Le Guin, who do better, and plenty of men who are as bad.)

The question of length is interesting with an eye on child-me vs. adult-me (also note an earlier footnote): children tend to read slower and have a shorter attention span, and what might seem short or too short to an adult might not be so for a child. (Generally, I do realize that viewing a children’s book from an adult’s perspective might not be entirely fair.) However, Cooper can be quite long-winded in other regards, and I had repeated occasions when I found my self skipping half a paragraph just to avoid boring dead-weight, often of a descriptive kind. If she had cut material where it served little purpose and inserted more material where it would have, then the books could have been improved.

On the upside, Cooper has a quality of language that is considerably higher than some modern authors, including Rowling (which seems to be part of a more general trend of less and less attention being paid to grammar and style as time passes).

Excursion on ranking:
My personal ranking of the books, now as then, would be “The Dark is Rising” (chronologically 2), “The Grey King” (c. 4), “Silver on the Tree” (c. 5), “Green-Witch” (c. 3), and “Over Sea, Under Stone” (c. 1). This is interesting in two regards: (a) The books with the Drew children do not fare well, and the fact that I clicked less with them as characters than with Will (and Bran) might play in.* (b) “Silver on the Tree” appears to be the most lauded by others, but is in the middle of the pack for me. I grant that this is the most ambitious of the books and likely (at least attempted as) a bit deeper than the others, but there is too much in it that does not work well as written, including (cf. above) the “The Lost Land” scenes (good ideas, poor execution). As a child, I also reacted very negatively to the revelation of Blodwen as a “double agent”; today, however, I see it as one of the few points where something thought-worthy is introduced, and evil actually has the guise of good, instead of being too obviously evil.

*But it should be noted that the order might be distorted by “Over Sea, Under Stone” being written considerably earlier than the other books, implying that Cooper might simply have been a less accomplished author at the time and that the other books might have benefited from ideas for the series gathered over the years. Moreover, “Green-Witch” is quite short, which might have had a negative effect on its ranking.

Written by michaeleriksson

December 17, 2019 at 2:03 am

Follow-up: Trying to buy Peter Handke / German bookstores

leave a comment »

As a brief follow-up to an earlier text on treatment of Peter Handke:

I just stumbled on a much longer text on UNZ, which gives a very good overview of the situation and also goes into some other writers who might not have received the Nobel Prize for political reasons.

(I will likely write more on UNZ in the near future.)

Written by michaeleriksson

October 30, 2019 at 12:36 am

Trying to buy Peter Handke / German bookstores

with one comment

I have previously written about problems with German bookstores ([1]) and mentioned the criticism against recent Nobel Literature winner Peter Handke ([2], excursion).

Today, I dropped by the local Mayersche to pick up at least one of his books, to widen my own perspectives on writing. I did not see a single one …

Normally, even entirely non-German winners are given prominent display. This was certainly the case when Herta Müller (Romanian born German), Günter Grass (German), or even* Elfriede Jelinek (Austrian) won.

*Of the three (four, including Handke), she is by far the one with most disputable literary reputation.

Peter Handke is Austrian with a German father, is indisputably one of the most influential and lauded German-language writers of the last fifty-or-so years, and belongs to those who has had at least some impact outside the German-language area. (If in doubt, through the screenplay to “Der Himmel über Berlin”, often oddly rendered as “Wings of Desire” in English.) He was even on my reading list for the somewhat nearby future before he won his Nobel Prize.

Handke had not received such a display … (Note that the timing prohibits reasons/excuses like “It’s been two days—we haven’t had the time.” and “We had a display, but only for the first few weeks.”.)

I went to the most likely* alphabetized shelf, where I would have expected to find a few of his books even without a recent Noble Prize. There were none …

*Because the alphabetization is not pure, but repeated within different sections (think “Crime”, “Fantasy”, “Chick-lit”, …), it is conceivable that he was in some other section. Here I picked the generic “Romane” (“Novels”). Possibly, he was sold out, but the books looked too packed.

Has Handke been censored for having the “wrong” opinions (not unheard of, unfortunately) or has the intellectual standards of Mayersche dropped so disastrously that they do not want to touch him for commercial reasons? Either way, it is very unfortunate.

I also went by the area where I knew that there was a small section with cross-word/sudoku/whatnot books to be found, specifically looking for something in the “Eckstein”* series. This section had shrunk from small to virtually non-existent. There were three or four books there, none “Eckstein”. (The presence of some books is important, because a complete lack would have been a sign that the section had been moved.)

*One of the more challenging and handmade word-based cross-words, often requiring decoding puns and finding double meanings to get the right solution.

Seeing that I have bought all of three books from this particular bookstore in roughly two years and possibly two dozen visits, I will now forego it permanently. I note that with a larger selection, the count of bought books would have roughly doubled today.

Written by michaeleriksson

October 17, 2019 at 3:08 pm

Follow-up: Further thoughts on the City-Pentalogy

leave a comment »

As the second book has resurfaced, I can now speak a little more completely than last time:

My overall analysis remains the same, except that a few characters do now receive enough pages to come alive in a different manner than without book 2, e.g. Emilie who spent* book 1 as a small child (or was not yet born) and books 3–5 as a reliable rock for others (or was already dead), while mostly dwelling on memories for her own part—and often memories that referred to book 2, which made them less accessible to me. With book 2, more of her youth**, hopes and dreams, etc., are present, which makes a great difference. This includes two failed romances, which put her spinsterhood in a slightly different light. Some other characters go from being mere names to me to being something more tangible; most notably Olof, who was born towards the end of book 1 and was already dead*** by the beginning of book 3.

*With the reservation (here and elsewhere) that my reading of the other books are now a bit back and that my memory might be imperfect.

**This might partially be rooted in me: I have often found that younger characters lead more interesting lives, that personal development during “formative years” is more interesting, that first loves are more interesting than tenth loves, etc.

***Checking the beginning of book 3 again, he must have died during the time of the first chapter of book 3, which covers several years in “fast forward” mode, but his death is not mentioned until the second chapter, as being almost three years before the “present” (1905).

Looking at book 2 on its own, it is closer to the first in quality than the others, and exactly for the expected reasons: The action is not yet spread over that many characters (and it is the longest of the books) and the author does not yet appear as intent on just getting a page quota done. The potential reader can read the first two books for value; the remaining three, if he is curious about outcomes.

A personally pleasing point is that Olof, an aspiring artist, makes a similar observation to my recent text on the benefits of learning the craft: he has artistic aspirations, but sees himself hindered by his lack of craftsmanship. At the end of book 2, knowing that he is dying, he even burns all of his works still in his possession, at least partially out of fear of postumous disapproval.

In terms of the history of my reading attempts (cf. excursion in [1]), I conclude that my first attempt (decades ago) must have contained at least a portion of book 2, despite my disappointment with Henning’s death at the end of book 1: Lotten, Henning’s wife, dies at page 131 (in my edition) of book 2 through falling through a hole in the ice; and I recall being confused during my second reading attempt (2010) of book 1, because that was how I wanted to remember Henning dying. (It is quite possible that my first attempt ended at that very point, however, because of the repeated disappointment. I was very young.)

Written by michaeleriksson

October 10, 2019 at 5:57 pm

Problems with books in the public domain

leave a comment »

We live in a world where great amounts of text, including by many great past authors, are in the public domain and also actually available on the Internet.

I still find myself constantly frustrated. Part of the benefit is removed by (often entirely unnecessary or arbitrary) artificial restrictions. Sometimes, all of it is removed.

For instance:

  1. Project Gutenberg, the leading source for several decades, is blocked entirely for German IPs—and has been so for several years.*

    *The reason is a German court decision relating to a small number of books. See a discussion by Project Gutenberg, including the reason for a blanket block.

    Downloading from Project Gutenberg using Tor is not possible either, at least not the last time that I checked.

  2. Germany is also otherwise weak, when we look at alternatives like e.g. Wikisource compared to the English, often even Swedish, counter-parts.

    A particular problem is a pseudo-Gutenberg provider, Gutenberg-DE*, which has killed part of the market with a for-profit site and a borderline unusable web-interface. The last time I tried, it did not even work with JavaScript on…

    *I provide no link, because the site does not deserve the traffic.

  3. Poor interfaces are not restricted to Gutenberg-DE (or Germany): Many sites that provide free books only work with JavaScript activated and provide no ability to download books for offline reading. Indeed, they often work on the assumption that the website should be used as a virtual eBook reader, one page at a time…

    Not only is this user hostile, but it also severely limits the options for those who do not want to expose their computers to the risks of JavaScript.

  4. Even sites that provide better options and an ability to download, however, are often highly limiting through artificial divisions. Even Wikisource usually insists on dividing texts into one chapter per HTML-page. If a book has thirty chapters, they then have to be downloaded individually, be it manually or per script, and then merged into a single document. Even the reader who reads in a browser still has to open all thirty chapters individually…

    True: this might still be less effort than going to a bookstore, even price aside, but why not just allow a download as a single document? It is a one-time effort for the provider (often even less effort than providing more HTML-pages), but it saves effort for reader after reader after reader.

    Many even have a division of one book-page (!) per HTML-page, as with most entries on the Swedish Projekt Runeberg.* The reader might now have to open several hundred links to read a book…

    *Not to be confused with the above item, where the standard is to navigate the book pages per JavaScript in a single HTML page.

  5. Often, the best download option is provided by sites that are on the darknet and/or also provide illegal contents, as with The Imperial Library of Trantor*. However, these automatically put the burden of copyright investigation on the downloader, and even the download of a text which is in the public domain in principle can be shady, because the specific edition provided might have further restrictions.** I typically only use these to read something that I could read for free on e.g. Wikisource, but strongly wish to read offline.

    *I provide no link for legal reasons. Also note that it is only (?) accessible through Tor. No part of this text should be seen as an endorsement.

    **I have not investigated the legal situation in detail, but I suspect that e.g. old works with a new foreword or an extensive commentary might be problematic. I would not rule out that even new cover-work could cause problems.

Excursion on varying copyright:
Varying copyright rules between different countries is another complication. This is e.g. the cause of the problems with Project Gutenberg and Germany above, because Project Gutenberg uses U.S. copyright law, while a reader in Germany underlies German law. The reader in the U.S., in turn, might have to be careful when visiting an Australian site. The combination of the often excessive copyright lengths and different laws can lead to absurd situations, e.g. in that a tourist might legally download a book in a visited country but not his home country. If he travels back with it, he would either* break copyright law or force another absurd situation, in that physical travel would overcome the difference in legislation, making this difference the more preposterous. Then again, if he downloads a greater quantity of books during the vacation and is caught in a police raid back home, how is he to prove that the download and “import” was legal?

*I do not know what the typical legal regulation is. A similar situation would apply to physical books, however, which makes me suspect that the second alternative is more common.

Unfortunately, barring an unlikely global harmonization, there are no good solutions. For instance, going by nationality or nation of residence could lead to two people reading the same book next to each other, the one violating copyright law and the other keeping it. Taking the lesser of the copyright durations applying to the reader’s and the website’s respective location might be a way, but this opens the door for “country shopping”—possibly, including countries with next to no copyright protection. Taking the greater duration would keep most of the paradoxes. Etc.

In some cases and some jurisdictions, there might be significantly reduced criteria for downloads (as opposed to uploads) or specific forms of downloads, e.g. streaming. I deliberately ignore this possibility above. (In part, because the research would be enormous; in part, because I consider such restrictions highly dubious. Why would it, e.g., matter whether I watch a video as a stream or do a regular download, watch it once, and then delete the file?)

I have not verified that described behaviors and examples are present at the time of writing. Changes for the better might have occurred.

Written by michaeleriksson

September 11, 2019 at 12:52 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Tagged with , , , ,

Further thoughts on the City Pentalogy

with one comment

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.


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.


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

Tolkien and applicability vs. allegory / Follow-up: Observations around literary criticism and interpretation

leave a comment »

In preparation for my own writings, I am revisiting a few old favorites. I just started on Tolkien’s “The Fellowship of the Ring”, and found this claim in the foreword:

I think that many confuse ‘applicability’ with ‘allegory’; but the one resides in the freedom of the reader, and the other in the purposed domination of the author.

This single sentence concisely covers much of what I try to say in the second half of an earlier text.

More generally, it is interesting how Tolkien rejects suggested hidden meanings, allegories, connections with WWII, … This despite (because?) the “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy being highly open to interpretation. Indeed, specifically a WWII influence felt obvious to me as a young* reader, in the repeated rises of Sauron resp. Germany and how both World Wars changed the world sufficiently that it might be warranted to speak of a new era—just like in Tolkien’s history.

*How young I do not know. My first reading might have been at age nine or ten, but I am not certain that I already knew enough about WWII and the overall situation to already have this image, implying that it might have arisen during a later reading.

With age, of course, I have been less likely to make such interpretations, because the analogies hold poorly, e.g. with WWI Germany (or the other “Central Powers”) not being more evil than other countries, and the “Allies” of WWII containing a very comparable evil to Hitler’s Germany in Stalin’s Soviet, or with the dubious identification of WWI Germany (respectively, the “Central Powers”) with WWII Germany (respectively, “Axis Powers”) Indeed, shortly before the above quote, Tolkien discusses how a strong WWII influence on the book would have implied changes that blurred* the difference between good and evil.

*Likely, to him; definitely, to me: I note my repeated claims that “evil is as evil does”, “fascist is as fascist does”, etc. (However, I stress that Hitler, like Sauron, instigated the evils and pushed them further, and that any evil acts by the Allies would have been made unnecessary by his absence.)

As an aside, for a beginning author looking forward, this foreword, by an accomplished author looking backward, is very interesting and educational.

Written by michaeleriksson

August 4, 2019 at 1:14 pm

Follow-up: Observations around literary criticism and interpretation

leave a comment »

With hindsight, I will backtrack a little with regard to an earlier text, especially the claim:

Vice versa, a naive reader (e.g. a considerably younger me) might reason that “I loved it; ergo, it is a great book!”, which is equally simplistic.

Here an author–reader split is needed that is analogous to the one used for “meaning” later in the same text, e.g. in that the book qua work/effort/message/intention is considered separately from the book qua the resulting artifact and/or the book separately from its impact on the specific reader. From a (formal) critic’s point of view, it is obviously the success of the author in reaching his goals that matter and it is (almost) only for this that the author should receive credit or blame. (And, in my defense, this portion of the text was intended to deal with a critic’s perspective.) However, from a reader’s or more casual critic’s* perspective, it might very well be that a book turns out to be a “great book”, even when the author fails. Similarly, there is nothing wrong with seeing as much beauty in a cloud as in a painting. (But the cloud remains a non-work, a non-message, a non-painting, …) Similarly, the monkeys’ “Hamlet” would read no worse than Shakespeare’s. (But it would still differ in not having a greater meaning that any other output from the same monkeys—and it would not be an accomplishment, just a coincidence.) Similarly, the “Hi!” accidentally sent by the cat could still prove immensely valuable, e.g. if the involved humans turned into best friends or spouses down the line, but would have just remained casual and temporary acquaintances without the “Hi!”. (But it would still not be a message or have had any meaning or intention behind it.)

*E.g. someone who makes a book recommendation to a friend, and as opposed to someone who makes a formal evaluation of the author’s accomplishment.

Under no circumstance, even in the second part of the text, do I imply that a reader should refrain from e.g. drawing own lessons, making own interpretations, whatnot. On the contrary, I argue (e.g. in parts of [1]) that it is less important what we read (watch, hear, …) than what own effort we put into thinking about the input. It is, however, important to bear in mind that these lessons, interpretations, whatnot are ours—they are not necessarily the author’s, they are not necessarily inherent in the text, they are not necessarily “there” in any non-coincidental sense, etc.

Excursion on mistakes by the reader/viewer:
An interesting example of accidental value is provided by my watching of The Pit and the Pendulum, some time ago: My overall feelings were mixed, and the movie was to some degree saved by the unconventional coloring scheme, where it appeared that the film-makers had applied some type of purple color-filter, which created a very interesting mood. When the same color effects appeared in a sit-com a few hours later, I realized that this was caused by my computer—not by a deliberate artistic choice.

Specifically, the “hue” adjustment in mplayer* had somehow been thrown to an extreme value, likely through something accidentally resting on the keyboard and sending a stream of “666[…]” to the computer. Considering some of Poe’s works (by which the movie was inspired), it would have been quite funny if a cat had been involved and input that number, but no cat was present.

*My video/music player of choice. The default key-bindings have the 6-key increase the hue setting one step (and the 5-key decrease it one step).

Written by michaeleriksson

July 20, 2019 at 5:19 pm

Observations around literary criticism and interpretation

with 5 comments

With an eye on my own book plans, I have spent some time thinking on topics like literary criticism and interpretation. Two central ideas, partly applicable in other contexts than literature:

Firstly, when it comes to literary criticism, a major common error is to not cleanly separate between what the work/author attempts to achieve and how great the success is. For instance, some years back, I was disappointed by the “City Pentalogy” (also see an excursion): the goals of the author were simply not compatible with my goals as a reader, and I judged the (general) value* of the books more based on this than on their quality. It is, however, quite possible that the books achieved exactly what the author wanted—and it is possible that another reader would have viewed them differently merely through having a set of priorities closer to the author’s.

*The formulations actually used in the linked-to text are not very critical sounding; however, they understate my disappointment at the time.

Or consider “Oasis Army” by John Robb—an obscure 1959 book for boys. (See excursion.) I just finished my first adult reading,* and consider it absolutely brilliantly written—for the purpose of entertaining boys. From a “literary” point of view, it is a complete triviality, but it was not written to compete for the Booker Prize. While it entertained me enormously as a boy, I can today understand why and that the typical author with the same target group would do very well to take it as an example. (Indeed, while my own intended target group is considerably more mature, I intend to revisit this book to help with some problems in my experimental writings.)

*I “inherited” a copy of a Swedish translation from my father, which I read with great enjoyment on several occasions as a boy. It was one of a few dozen books that I brought with me to Germany from my visits to Sweden. (In this case, for sentimental value.)

A naive critic might reason that this book has no higher value or purpose—therefore, it is crap. Vice versa, a naive reader (e.g. a considerably younger me) might reason that “I loved it; ergo, it is a great book!”, which is equally simplistic. The better perspective is to note that the book had a purpose (e.g., in this case, entertaining boys or earning money) and an execution, and then to grade the former based on how valuable we consider the purpose and independently the latter based on quality and success. Both dimensions of the evaluation will, obviously, still often be highly subjective, but a disagreement about goals will not kill the evaluation of the execution—and the author has a better chance to be judged by his own priorities.

Of course, this type of evaluation is to a high degree dependent on having an idea about the author’s purpose. Often, it is approximately known in advance through knowledge of author or genre, based on a foreword, or similar; often it can only be (speculatively) understood through studying the book. But what to do when the purpose cannot be discerned? A partial reason while I was so critical against “Pride and Prejudice” is that I could find nothing that this book was good at, implying that more-or-less any purpose would have been poorly implemented—but then we have its sustained success… If Austen’s goal was a large readership, she has been successful—even if I cannot understand why. However, possibly, she had some purpose that I failed to recognize, that is well implemented, and that did hit home with millions of readers.

Secondly, with regard to what a work “means”: As is clear from the above, there are at least two perspectives on a book—the author’s and the reader’s.* This brings the danger, and very common error among naive readers, of perceiving an intention, a meaning, whatnot, to the book that is not (necessarily) there—and to simply declare it the truth. This in two forms: believing** that no doubt remains about what the author intended and believing that the author’s intention is irrelevant (“my ‘truth’ is the truth”). A particular danger is present when it comes to “hidden meanings”, e.g. an obsession with symbolism in fiction or attempts to find hidden hints in religious writings, e.g. by use of numerology. (The latter example show the unsoundness of this attitude.) It is very true that a reader might find a personal value or an interpretation that the author never intended, which is of a corresponding personal benefit—I do all the time. However, such interpretation is comparable to e.g. contemplating a koan—the koan can serve as inspiration for own thought, but own though cannot create an inherent meaning that was not there to begin with, nor can it prescribe what the author’s intentions were. Similarly, there are some natural phenomena, e.g. crystals that form near perfect cubes, that could easily be interpreted as made by humans—but which do not become so because of the interpretation.

*More accurately, as many perspectives as there are authors and readers (taken to include critics). For the sake of simplicity, I will stick to a two person perspective. Note that an original author who revisits a text might be viewed as a reader and/or as another author, depending on his activities, because his later intents or his own perception of his original intent need not match the actual original intent. (Cf. the saying that you cannot cross the same river twice.)

**A border-line case is formed by understanding that doubt remains but failing to mention this in discussions. This might be acceptable when the doubt is very small or when it is implied from context that statements refer to beliefs—not truth.

Here it can help to apply a more explicit message model, where e.g. the author/sender has an intent, tries to capture it in a message, and this message is then interpreted by a reader/recipient causing a (possibly faulty) perception of the original intent. Into this model, we have to factor in possibilities like the author making a faulty capture (e.g. through language errors or through leaving out something important), the message being distorted (e.g. through printing errors or censorship), the reader making mistakes (e.g. misreading a portion, accidentally skipping a paragraph), and, importantly, that author and reader might have too different world-views or whatnots for even a (theoretical) nominally perfect transmission from brain to brain to result in the correct understanding. (Also see e.g. parts of [1].) The impression that arises with the reader does not prescribe what the original intent was—and it does not prescribe what the message means.* Similarly, while Shakespeare wrote “Hamlet” with some set of intents, monkeys endlessly typing until they accidentally have reproduced the same text do not have an intent—and their “text” does not have an actual meaning, even if the actual text by Shakespeare did.** The reader might very well see a message in both cases, but it is not there in the second case. Indeed, even in the first case, recognizing the presence of a message would be correct, but it is by no means a given that the interpretation of this message is even remotely compatible with Shakespeare’s intent (and the actual meaning), when we move beyond the surface action. Thus, it is not correct for the reader to speak of a “meaning” in “Hamlet”, just because he perceives this meaning. (In contrast, “interpretation” is quite acceptable.) Similarly, there are messages formulated in one language that might, by coincidence, form a valid statement—but this does not imply that the meaning of this statement is the meaning of the message. For instance, a written “Chat!” might be an English demand that someone joins an online chat—or it might be a French notice that a cat has appeared. Similarly, (even a spoken) “Mist!” could be an Englishman commenting on the fog—or a German saying “Shit!”.***

*But there are situations where a message misses the original intent sufficiently that the reader’s interpretation of what the message actually says might be more correct than the original intent. For instance, “I could care less” typically intends the diametrical opposite of what it says.

**This might be easier to understand with a simpler example, e.g. a grown-up who sends a chat message “Hi!” to start a conversation and a cat (even if French) who takes a walk on the keyboard and causes the same set of characters to be sent. The recipient might interpret both events in the same manner and respond identically, but the one actually involves a message, the other a mere coincidence. (However, this example shows that there are non-messages that can be used to deduce or speculate something about the “sender” or cause of the non-message, e.g. that someone or something pressed certain keys. When “means” is used as an equivalent of e.g. “implies”, it might be valid to speak of meaning in such cases—e.g. “this message, with its many typos, means that John is drunk again”.)

***Indeed, there is a scene in a “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” episode, where a “Mist!” by Englishman Giles first made me think that I had accidentally landed in a German dub…

Excursion on “Oasis Army”:

(Brief summary: Plane crashes in the Algerian desert. Crew and passengers are captured by terrorists. Heroes escape and bring military help to defeat the terrorists.)

Among the factors that make it great boy’s entertainment: A very high tempo, interesting characters,* various machines** and weapons, danger and suspense, heroes and villains, several plot twist, a very sympathetic surrogate character,*** … A very positive point is that the protagonists did not win through just deploying brute force, having superior weapons, being simultaneously impervious to bullets and master sharp-shooters, or some other common characteristic of this genre—no, they won through thinking, through being smarter than the antagonists. I suspect, however, that there is some vague aspect of quality that I cannot put my finger on (even now), where making the right calls in the countless detail decisions make a difference between e.g. good and great or mediocre and good. (This matches my experiences with e.g. software development—there are very many small decisions made all the time, often unconsciously, and the sum of all these small decisions can amount to the worth of one or several much larger decisions.)

*Including a captain of the French Foreign Legion, a world-class heavy-weight boxer, and a highly capable, but possibly slightly insane, terrorist leader.

**This the more so in 1959, when one of them, a passenger airplane, was still somewhat exotic and new, and when very few of the readers would have own experiences with flying. Indeed, it was only years after my own first reading that I first flew, despite being of a later generation than the original readers.

***A brave and intelligent boy, as the main character, well suitable for the boy-reader to identify with.

As brilliant as it is, I suspect that this book would have been an impossibility, had it been written today, or that it would have been very heavily PC-ified. The three main protagonists are all Westerners; the antagonists appear to have been something in the Algerian family, possibly Berbers*. One of the protagonists is a soldier for the occupying French; while the antagonists, named as terrorists, might well have been viewed as heroes and freedom fighters in today’s climate. The description of the antagonists sometimes point to cruelty, crudeness, incompetence, or whatnot, relative the Westerners. To boot, an Armenian, while nominally on the same side as the protagonists, is painted as a fool and a coward, which today would likely be interpreted as “he was a fool and a coward because he was Armenian; ergo, the book is racist against Armenians” (the author might or might not actually have held such sentiments, but he is not likely to receive the benefit of a doubt today).

*They are referred to as “Dylak” in the Swedish translation. I do not know whether this is or was a real group. Other references are made to variations of “Arab”.

Excursion on the “City Pentalogy”:

(Brief summary: The five books each deal with roughly a twenty-year span from 1860 (a hundred years before the first book was written) until 1968 (the year that the last book was written), and follow the lives of several families in the Stockholm of the day, usually with an emphasis on working-class conditions.)

This series and I have a complicated history. I first tried to read it at a fairly tender age, possibly around twelve, and lacked the ability to appreciate it on an adult level. Indeed, I was quite annoyed when the main protagonist (“Henning”) of the first book and its twenty-year span died towards its end—and this just aged thirty-four, give or take. Here I have invested all this interest in the main character—and he dies with four-fifths of the series remaining!?! I did continue with one or two of the other books (I am vague on the details), but never really recovered my interest or grew invested in the other characters, and I did not conclude my reading. This likely influenced by some of the more “adult” aspects going over my head or just seeming very odd. At this time, I was likely a few years younger than Henning at the beginning of the first book.

Much later, I grew curious and wanted to renew my reading, having the suspicion from my vague memories that it would be a quite interesting read. Likely at roughly the same age as Henning at the end of the book, I asked my mother to send me a set for my birthday. This led to the text linked-to above. I did see much that I had not seen as a child, however, e.g. the historical value. At some point of the fourth book, some thing or another came between me and the continued reading, and I never got around to start again. Eventually, they (and many other of my books) spent the years between my moving to and from Düsseldorf in the one box or the other, the minuscule apartment not allowing a full unpacking.

After I moved to Wuppertal, (some of…) the books resurfaced, and with my renewed interest in Sweden, I gave the first book a third try last week. Now, I am not only considerably older than poor Henning ever grew, but have also gained a greater appreciation for other goals than my own, and could appreciate the book more deeply even in the absence of e.g. the “intellectual depth” that I found wanting from the series the last time around.* Indeed, right now my main complaint is that I have also recovered books 3–5, while my reading is blocked by the continued absence of book 2…

*In combination with a somewhat limited entertainment value: I am not a a major “book snob”, and I am very prepared to read e.g. a shallow book that entertains me. However, an aspect of unfulfilled expectations could additionally have played in—I expected something intellectual and read looking for, but not finding, it. Of course, during my last reading, I also had expectations of social realism and historical interest that were more suitable.

Moreover, I found that the early parts of the first book, possibly due to greater early ambition by the author, contained at least some attempts at adding a bit of psychological insight and whatnot (but, unfortunately, these soon faded). To boot, the introduction has an almost poetic character and the juxtaposition of the early hopes and dreams of Henning and the harsh reality that he is very soon exposed to, is both gripping and educational, if in a very depressing manner. Indeed, the title of the book is “Mina drömmars stad” (“The City of my Dreams”, but with a more poetic feel and lacking the hackneyedness that phrases with “dream” tend to have in English). Dream—or nightmare?

Among the “whatnot” above, we have a good example of what I write about in an earlier text: How e.g. literature is filled with explorations of the male role, in stark contrast to claims by gender “scientists”. For instance, the worries of the young Henning include topics like whether he is yet a man, how he is supposed to behave in the company of (indisputable) men, how in the company of women, and similar. Through-out the book, there is a theme of being responsible and providing for his family, even at great personal sacrifice, which is an aspect that I am explicit about in the linked-to text. This to the point that he arguably worked himself to death, not being able or willing to afford the rest and care needed to combat a TBC infection.*

*I cannot judge whether the book is medically realistic in this regard, but this is a very secondary concern in the current context.

As an aside, while the book is written in the tradition of Swedish social realism and critical-of-society worker’s literature, it is not as one-sided as e.g. the propaganda of typical Leftist politicians. For instance, the author points to how many are held back by spending significant parts of their earnings on alcohol; for instance, one of the few wealthy characters is the owner of a company built from the ground by his father (grand-father?), who found a way for himself to make money.

Written by michaeleriksson

July 14, 2019 at 8:42 pm