Stats from the Wilderness

I seem to recall promising myself, my wife and the world that there would be no more harping on about Edmund Ek for a while. Nevertheless I can’t help directing readers’ attentions to an article in this week’s Majfisk (a Swedish literature and fishing magazine, for those who don’t know) written by one Marianne Vingerbäd.

Entitled Wilderness: The Statistics, the piece in question employs Ek as the primary case study in what purports to be a ‘comprehensive study of what happens when young writers go into the wilderness’. It is, of course, anything but comprehensive, as you’d expect from a two-page magazine article (one page of which is taken up by a large photo of Ek himself, in prime ‘dandy’ mode) but this doesn’t mean that it isn’t, in its way, perfectly readable.

Vingerbäd has noticed a trend that was, let’s be honest, obvious to all: that of young writers creating a book or two, garnering some success, suffering a spiritual/emotional crisis and promptly rushing off into the ‘wilderness’ to write a pseudo-philosophical poem on the nature of being. Obvious to all, maybe, but let us give the lady credit for getting down to the business of actually writing about this ‘trend’ of hers. Though she invests her project with no more than a sprinkling of originality (Jesus, she kindly informs us, is the true model for our modern-day literary adventurers) she does present a refreshingly scientific approach to the subject. One question alone lingers over her study: What is the success rate? All these young scribblers scurrying off to the middle-of-nowhere to pen a magnum opus – but what is the end result? Everybody loves the idea of Ek in his Norwegian nowhere-land – but what are the chances of us loving the work he produces?

The statistics she comes up with suggest, perhaps surprisingly, that Ek’s chances aren’t half bad. He may even create something vaguely worthy. In short, all my fears of an anticlimax may have been in vain.

Then again…


Why address a topic directly when you can dance a merry and fruitful waltz around its boundaries instead? Having spent many years as an editor of a literary journal, I have been witness to a fair procession of reviewers getting down to the wonderful business of never quite getting down to business. Critical fumbling, it could be called -except that this fumbling isn’t as bad as it sounds; not always, anyway. Sometimes a strange diversion can enrich a review; very often a seemingly irrelevant comment or anecdote can make the whole thing worthwhile. As the Finnish actor Tippi Udje once said: ‘Mr Ambiguity wears some funny shirts, but he makes a good cup of tea’.

There are other times, yet, when one is driven near to violence by a reviewer’s refusal to look his/her subject in the eye; to make good on their promise to ‘explore’ the relevant issues in any sense at all. This is not quite the case with Heidi Kohlenberg’s two page reaction to Edmund Ek’s name change (published this morning in Majfisk, a Swedish fishing magazine, available in all good Scandinavian newsagents) – but it may as well be.

To be honest, it’s not as if she doesn’t warn us. ‘I am struggling to conceive an arrangement of words that would properly sum up my feelings on this subject,’ she writes in the opening sentence. Only struggling? ‘In fact,’ she writes two sentences later, ‘I have totally failed to conceive such an arrangement’. Aha. But this is not quite the end of the matter. In the final paragraph she reassesses her failure and tries, at the last moment, to salvage all with the assistance of a single word. ‘I wonder,’ she wonders, ‘whether or not all this can be summed up after all, within the following statement: Ha!’

That, then, is her response. ‘Ha!’ The rest of the review deals simply (and rather wonderfully, as it happens) with the idea of responding to unexpected news, with other people’s responses to unexpected news, with possible responses to these responses to unexpected news, with responses to ideas of responding to responses of unexpected news and with various other things of little or no relevance to the matter in hand. I have to say it – it’s a good article. But (‘Ha!’ aside) it isn’t really the response most of us were looking for.

All of which leads to the question – is ‘Ha!’ enough? I wonder…

The Transcendent Reader

According to this postage over at Hooting Yard: ‘an eighteenth-century subscription library in London divided its readers into four categories: the Sedate, the Historian, the Theatrical Amateur, and the Gay and Volatile.’

More work needs to be done, clearly, on the precise features of these four categories, although I can already say for sure which of the types I would like to see pushed off a rocky promontory into a shark-strewn sea. I refer, of course, to the ‘sedate’ reader.

Now I’ve got nothing against sitting down, or sitting still. An action-packed life is not for all of us. Nevertheless, seeing the word ‘sedate’ placed next to the word ‘reader’ makes me choke. Reading is a journey, is movement, is progress, is exploration, is momentum, is activity. A ‘sedate’ reader is not a reader at all: it is just a person looking at words.

A quick glance at the remaining categories makes me wonder whether they hold any more promise. Probably not. Categories can be pitiful things – and it would be dangerous for any reader to slot themselves into any one of these. The true reader is transcendent. They must slip into no and into every category. They must burrow like moles, soar like kites, scuttle like crabs, glide like eels, bounce like kangaroos, trot like ponies and dance like a cowboy’s daughter. They must transcend.

In Which My Wife Breaks Through a Brick Wall

Ever the one to follow the advice of pretty Norwegian literary critics (see below)  I have – with the help of my dear wife – messily backstroked my way through the last two or three copies of that inimitable fishing  and literature journal, Majfisk.

When I say ‘with the help of my wife’, of course, I do not mean to suggest – as some have hinted –  that I am too lazy to pick up a magazine by myself. Reports that my wife reads everything out loud to me are, I insist, grossly exaggerated. In fact the only occasions on which I do enlist her help are those in which I find my trial blocked by the inevitable brick wall of language. I don’t mind admitting it: my knowledge of European languages is not as extensive as it might be, whilst my wife’s is, well, vastly superior. Without her assistance, a Swedish text (such as Majfisk) would be almost impenetrable. I could, perhaps, poke a small hole or two in that wall – but that would be all. And why struggle on like so when someone in the same house owns a bulldozer?

As to the aforementioned articles in Majfisk– those in which the ‘true nature’ of Kesserman’s Black Hair is revealed – I hope you will permit me at present to take a seat on the fence. It’s true, there is something spurious about the tale, but I’m not yet convinced that it was intended as a weapon of mass propaganda.

A Hairy Predicament?

Heidi Kohlenberg writes (referring to this review, posted a couple of days ago):

My dear old Georgy, There you go, thrusting your foot through the windows of opprobrium again. For once, however, I fancy that your glass-wreaking was unintended, foolish though it was. Perhaps all those mince pies have eaten through your brain again; dulling your critical senses. I spotted something wrong when you confessed that you had only read the book twice. Maybe this explains why the pleasure you seem to have taken seem is such a sweet and earnest one, weirdly untroubled by the murkiness that inevitably cowers within.

There is another factor. You know, my old friend, that I have for some time been contributing articles for ‘Majfisk’ – and thus far you have done well not to spill any envy on the carpet of our relationship. Not jealous that I have shirked your journal, for now, to peddle articles for a Swedish fishing magazine? Good on you Georgy. Nevertheless, I cannot help but notice that, although I have been told that you are a subscriber to said fishing rag, you appear reluctant to throw your line into the text (i.e. you don’t read the damn thing). How do I know this? Well, Georgy dear, if you had read (or got your wife to read) either of the last two issues of ‘Majfisk’, you could not fail to have noticed a slew of articles relating to Viktor Kesserman’s ‘horror tale’ – the very one which you so innocently dug into the other day.

In fact, I have written a word or two on the book myself. Most Scandinavian critics have. For as it happens Kesserman’s text is kicking up no end of dust over here. And why? I’ll tell you why. Because the book is, essentially, right-wing racist propaganda.

Does your jaw drop? Ah, but you seem to have hinted as much yourself. Your last paragraph says it all: “Kesserman does well to keep his readers tied into the plot, channeling the spirit of Ionesco to produce the kind of story for which the word ‘disquieting’ was invented. This is, in short, the sort of tale that tiptoes like a ballerina beneath one’s epidermis; silently worming its way into one’s mind..”

This, in short, is political propaganda at work. Two blond-haired Swedes are increasingly frightened by the appearance of black hairs? Georgy, sweet, you are living on the moon if you cannot see what is going on there. I hardly need to tell you that Kesserman doth not take a liberal approach to immigration laws. The only ‘horror’ in his story is the most distasteful horror there is: the horror of a couple of conservative nincompoops, faced with the glory of change.

For now, my friend, I will continue to blame your error on a surfeit of mince pies. In the future, however, I will probably be less kind. And in the meantime – well, I suggest you take to reading your old copies of ‘Majfisk’, lest you should slip on another skin and sink down, deep, where the trout don’t dare to swim.

My best wishes,

Heidi K

I think the letter speaks for itself, though I will take immediate exception to the line ‘perhaps all those mince pies have eaten through your brain again’. The ‘again’ suggests that this, if it ever happens, is a regular occurence – whereas, on the contrary, I am not the greatest mince pie fan (though the charms of this treat do, I confess, daily grow on me).

I might also add that Kohlenberg’s quoting of my last paragraph does not, I imagine, mean to suggest that Ionesco has any connection with political propaganda.

More on Majfisk here and, indeed, here.

A Feud with Fjords

My forgetfulness has got the better of me once again. Such was my excitement over Edmund Ek’s unexpected riposte to his ex-wife’s excessive criticism (see below) that I neglected to fill in a few significant details – the most obvious of which was the fact that Ek’s letter was printed not in Majfisk (where Kohlenberg’s original article can be found) but in Fjords.

Fjords, for those of you who don’t know, is a Norwegian literary magazine bent on ‘bridging the gap between ignorance and knowledge’. At least this has always been their tagline, though many may prefer to pledge their allegiance to the satirical alternative: ‘creating a cold wet hole in the damp ground of reason’. Why such antipathy? Well, despite publishing a range of brilliant articles by our own dear Lasse Huwam, Fjords has never been known to attract the most talented of critics. On top of this, it has of late developed a reputation for being self-consciously right-wing. Even Huwam’s latest piece – the otherwise brilliant Why Didn’t Van Gogh Ever Get a Proper Job? – is marked by moderately fascist tendencies.

It should come as no surprise, therefore, to know that Heidi Kohlenberg is in the habit of of arguing with Fjords, or that the slew of reviews she has been producing for the magazine Majfisk represent a clear attack on the journal which, unbeknown to many, gave her her first big break back in 1993.

If Lit Up  was one example of a trendy young literary magazine with a surprising lack of web presence, Majfisk is surely another – though neither as young, nor as literary. Indeed, as I have noted before, Majfisk is one of the few Swedish magazines to combine a love of fish and literature. It does this not through shoals of forced comparative pieces, but through simply dealing with both subjects, on their own terms, within the same forty pages.

There is no great mystery surrounding the ocean of abhorrence that lies between Majfisk and Fjords. I need hardly explain, furthermore, why a famous Norwegian journal might be annoyed by one of Norway’s best young critics writing for a Swedish fishing magazine. Need I say that Majfisk has always prided itself on its socialist principles? I need not.  

As such Ek’s decision to send his letter to Fjords might seem to be a clear signal that he is ‘up for the fight’. It is also a problematic move, since few Fjord readers will have read the original review – and vice versa. Had he outlined its main points in his response this would not have been a problem. As it is he didn’t, leaving Fjord readers with a spirited reply to something of which they were – and may probably remain – ignorant. After all, no Fjord reader is going to go out and buy a copy of Majfisk (and vice versa). If either magazine had web presence, all might be resolved, but sadly they don’t. Ultimately, it comes down to people like me (editor of a journal which, I must add, has never had any political alignment whatsoever) to draw both sides of the argument together.