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Hjalmar Söderberg– Spleen
Translated and introduced by Alistair Gage
This translation of Söderberg's short story Spleen appeared in the 2003:2 issue along with Alistair Gage's translation of A Cup of Tea.
 
"Spleen" and "En Kopp Te" were both written by Hjalmar Söderberg in 1897 and published in a collection of short stories called Historietter a year later. The two stories were not included in the collection of short stories translated by Carl Lofmark in adn published by Norvik Press in 1987 (ISBN 1870041038). The translations here are based on the MånPocket edition of Historietter published with the permission of Albert Bonniers Förlag AB in 1985 (ISBN 9176422070).

Both stories are fairly representative of others in the collection in that they are characterized by a lightness of touch and slight sense of detachment, and indeed one of the main problems encountered in translating the stories was attempting to maintain such features. The occasional somewhat unusual collocations used by Söderberg also proved something of a challenge, and attempts were made to make some phrases, for example, "stone cold drunk" stand out from the page in the same way the Swedish sometimes does.

SPLEEN

My life has the hazy and strangely blurred colours of a dream.

The first street lamps were already shining, when I left home having spent the whole day deep in thought puzzling over the meaning of life. Despairing at not being able to find any answers, I said to myself, you fool, grinding your day away vainly trying to find out something you most definitely wouldn't be any better for knowing – and instead turned my attention to a chess problem in four moves. But when this task proved beyond me as well, I hurled the chessboard out of the window onto the head of an old man with a wooden leg, for whom death could only be described as a blessing, and then threw myself out into the throng, full of self-reproach.

The evening was warm and clear and wonderfully still. The moon was right over the castle, as tubby as an old priest, yellowish-red and fairy-tale large. The sound of people's feet on the cobbles was like the ticking of thousands of watches and made me shudder at the thought of the speed with which seconds were slipping through my hands... A tram was hurrying past, I jumped up onto it and went round the circular line several times. I don't know why, but for some reason this diversion has always been able to dispel my melancholy. The whole world seemed to go round like a carousel, and when I was a child and went on the carousel, I could never stop laughing. The same thing happened now, I had hardly completed three circuits of the line before I burst out laughing indecently loudly.

"Good evening" said a voice very nearby, and a face turned around from the seat directly in front of me, a pale and long face which despite my efforts I couldn't place. "I recognize that laughter" he continued. "You laughed in exactly the same way at my aunt's funeral seven years ago, when the priest was expressing my and the other heirs' grief. You tricked us into laughing, the priest included, and most likely my aunt as well. You have a happy disposition."

"Yes,” I replied politely, “I have a very happy disposition. And what about you, dear fellow? "

"Oh, let's not talk about me. I am a hopeless old stick-in-the-mud. I've been like that ever since I was left some money by my aunt."

"Yes, I know," I answered absent-mindedly.

"You do?" he answered opening up two large, dumb and sad eyes. "Who told you?""

"It's obvious. Before your aunt died you were happy and cheerful, because you hoped she would die and leave you some money. Then she died and left you some money, and now you have no more aunts left to leave you anything. You see there is nothing for you to hope for now, and that's why you're sad. It's quite simple really."

The poor man was now looking not only with his eyes, but with his mouth as well. His entire soul was peering out towards me through three enormous openings.

"You are right, he answered finally. You have put into words what I have long suspected. Thank you. Thank you so very much."

He shook my hand vigorously and continued:

"You have taken a load off my mind. There is nothing more unpleasant than feeling sad and not knowing why. But that's no longer the case, and you have done me a great service. Now let's go out and have supper."

This new idea was not at all without its appeal. True, I couldn't remember his name, but for a long time now I have learned to ignore the things in life that do not really matter, and, just how important is a name anyway?

So we jumped down from the tram and up into a carriage and careered off at a mad pace to a little restaurant deep in the country. In this idyllic haunt we passed the time eating herring, radishes and new potatoes and drinking Norwegian brandy and three different types of Champagne. After that we leapt out through the window taking with us a bottle of acquavit and some mineral water. On landing we found to our delight that we were on a gently slanting tin roof with a magnificent view over the most idyllic lake, which was encircled by reeds and willows. We both poured out a drink and continued our conversation.

"Yes," I said, "wealth is a cause of great heartache. I once had a friend, whose hobby was catching colds. He played the lottery hoping to win enough money to be able to buy himself a fur coat. And he won three hundred thousand crowns. Such a large sum could not be kept secret. When all his friends found out about it, they immediately borrowed so much money that he could just about afford a fake beaver fur with the money remaining. But he didn't. And how could he have done? For everybody knew that he had won his money on the lottery and there was no way he could trail around the streets in a lottery fur."

"No, you couldn't, could you?"

"Of course not"

"That's right"

We remained silent for a few moments, both of us busy with our own thoughts.

Then at once Mr Kihlberg (who had confided to me that this was his name whilst drinking the fifth glass of the third type of champagne) stood up, a sudden flash of happiness coursing through his eyes, and asked me:

"What's the biggest prize on the lottery?"

"I think it's either five or seven hundred thousand,” I answered. “One thing's for certain, there's absolutely no way it's six hundred thousand, as the organizers are only too aware that odd numbers hold sway over people's imaginations in a way that even ones cannot even hope to do."

"Well then, at least five hundred thousand,” Mr Kihlberg started up again. “I only inherited two hundred thousand crowns from my aunt. If I play the lottery I can hope to at least double my fortune. I can hope to inherit another aunt and a half. Then I would have something to live for!"

"That's right. Things are looking up once more."

"Yes I can still hope. I shall play the lottery, but what if I win? What will I do then?
Then only the grim reaper remains!"