Bloomers Ek

Jonathan Franzen’s eventful UK visit for his rapturously received new novel, ‘Freedom’, took a fresh twist last night, at his launch party at the Serpentine Gallery in London’s Hyde Park. An assailant snatched the novelist’s glasses from his face and ran off – leaving behind a ransom note asking for $100,000 for their safe return… (The Guardian)

Ah, yes: here we go again. The history of literature is simply littered with spectacle theft. I can hardly think of a writer who hasn’t, at one point or another, had his/her glasses whipped off. Ik Nunn, Koira Jupczek, Paavo Laami, Viktor Kesserman: the list could go on. Sometimes the glasses are the least of it. In 1996 Edmund Ek had his trousers stolen at a launch party. They were later bought for eight thousand krone by a female admirer.

These days, of course, Ek has ditched trousers altogether; opting instead for ‘rough brown robes’. Whatever keeps you writing, Edmund…

Bad Dream Fodder

‘I hate bad dreams. My writing life has consisted, largely, of channeling all possible bad dream fodder into my waking life, with the help of fiction. To put it simply: I write bad dreams in the day, so I don’t have to suffer them at night. This is, I have found, a largely satisfactory method. There may be violent crime in my books, but there are gambolling lambs in my dreams. But what, you ask, of my reader’s dreams? That, I would say, is none of my business.’ (Viktor Kesserman)

Doctor Saves Literary Reputation

You may recall the smattering of controversy over the political intentions of the Swedish writer Viktor Kesserman (I covered it here and here) whose novel Black Hair was seen by many as – to quote Heidi Kohlenberg – ‘right-wing racist propaganda’. He said the book was about hair, they said it was about immigration, using hair as a symbol.  He kept quiet.

Truth be told, I was never completely convinced by the charges thrown in Kesserman’s direction – and recent developments appear to bolster my righteous doubt. Kesserman has since broken out of his hermitude, armed with ‘proof’ that not only was hair not a symbol, but that his characters’ predicament is very much shared by the author himself.

All of which goes to say that Kesserman, according to the best Swedish doctors, has a chronic case of what some call Chaetophobia, others Trichopathophobia and still others Hypertrichophobia. A fear of hair. According to one report he employs as many as three people to rid his house of hair, all of whom are – like the writer – completly bald. ‘You’d be surprised by how much hair gets in,’ he has said. ‘It’s alive.’

Whatever you say, Viktor.

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.

Black Hair

Demi-semi regular readers may be aware that, though I profess to exploring a wide range of obscure literature, there are certain murky territories into which I rarely allow my ancient feet to wander. Just as I have always preferred cream to crime, and chicken-farming lit to chick-lit, so the ‘horror genre’ is another of those holes in the ground into which I will not deign to crawl.

It’s not that I’m not, in my way, an annual subscriber to the dark side. After all, many would consider me a world expert on suicide-related novels – not to mention the fact that a fair few of the folk tales I study (see here, for instance) bare the horrendous spots of the scare-mongerer. Despite this, blessed is the patient fool who waits around in bookstores in the hope of seeing me pick up a tale of ‘horror and suspense’. Blessed and rare: for of all the things I do in bookstores (and I’m not averse, I will say, to the odd stroll through the teenage and toddler sections) this counts amongst the the least likely sights you shall ever see. Perhaps the best way to put it is that I deal with horror quite happily when faced with it – but I do not go so far as to seek it out.

Yesterday, however, I am proud to said that I read straight through, twice, a story that (so the spine informs me) falls firmly into the horror bracket. It was a gift (aka peace offering) from Peggy Grounter – and came with her cautious recommendation (indeed, a greasy thumbprint on p.58 – and again on p. 119 – suggests she read the same copy).

Black Hair, it is called, and it is written by a man going by the name of Viktor Kesserman (previous works include Quiet Pastures, An Empty Sky and Whither the Sourpuss Treads With Lonely Toes). The story itself contains more suspense, I would say, than horror, which is to say that there is a disturbing lack of decapitations and clowns. The enemy is, in fact, a very quiet one, consisting as it does of faintly threatening strands of hair (though these could be said to form, in the minds of our protagonist, a character of far greater ferocity).

A Swedish, thoroughly blond-haired couple, live alone amongst the tall rolling hills. They own no pets; they hide no secret lovers. So why is it that long black hairs keep appearing in their broth? Where are they coming from? Will the battle to discover the truth break their marriage apart?

Employing simple means, 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, to the extent that one shivers for hours when your eyes fall upon a single strand of hair: black, blond, or, in my case, grey.