This article appeared in the 2009:2 issue.
One of the most cosmopolitan, productive and talented novelists of her generation, Birgitta Stenberg studied briefly in Paris before exploring southern Europe for a number of years, returning to Sweden in the mid-1950s. She worked for a while as an actress, Foreign Office interpreter and, from 1956 to 1958, as a journalist for Arbetaren (The Worker) as well as editing the journal Kulturkontakt and freelancing as a cultural commentator. In 1956 she made her literary debut with the novel Mikael och Poeten (Michael and the Poet), but she made her name properly with the novel Chans (Chance) in 1961. This story of the class divide followed the lives of a chaotic woman from a socially deprived background and a young, upper-class man. The book was filmed the following year and was well received internationally, including in the USA. Her suite of autobiographical novels, beginning in 1981 with Kärlek i Europa (Love in Europe), has won an enduring place for itself on the Swedish scene. Kärlek i Europa was described by a reviewer as a ‘female picaresque’ novel. The author herself commented: ‘I wanted to show how life could be for a young woman, throwing herself into Europe to become a writer...’
The excerpt that follows is from Alla vilda (All the Wild Ones), the penultimate novel in the sequence, published in 2004. The author is now working on a concluding part.
Birgitta Stenberg received the prestigious Selma Lagerlöf Literature Prize in 2005.
The ballet evening in Palma was a curious experience. The music wasn’t loud enough to drown the loud thumps made by Lucia Graves and the other girls jumping about on the stage. Chuck was wearing a typical princely costume cut for a dancer: a white, hip-length silk jacket with a fitted waist and broad glittering epaulettes. Below, a pair of revealing white tights and ballet shoes. The girls were fairly chunky and he had to put some elbow-grease into it when he swung them in the air from time to time. It was when he put them down that the worst thumps resonated in the theatre. He was beautiful in his full stage make-up and we applauded enthusiastically when it was all over. He regretted the fact that Nounja was no longer on the island; he would have liked to hear her verdict. When I asked if she were also an expert on ballet, he of course answered that Francis Adler was an expert in all matters relating to the scenic arts. His fierce loyalty to his favourites was as impressive as his biased judgments on his enemies.
We took the winding, jolting bus up to Deyá. Robert Graves met us at the last stop, together with Alston Anderson. They said there was going to be a rustic feast in a little marketplace a bit further up the mountain; we must go there and watch the people dancing, singing and clapping.
First, Robert took us to his house where he was joined by the rest of his company. It was a long way to the little village and as usual Robert moved at high speed. By the time we arrived, out of breath, our saucer-eyed group seemed as embarrassingly large as a coachload of tourists. To get out of having to stand there gawking with the others, I moved away and squatted on my heels. Across the square, between the legs of the dancers, I found myself staring directly into the eyes of Alston Anderson. He had also withdrawn. We squatted there while the villagers flitted back and forth between us without breaking our eye contact. A fire burning on the ground lit up his face, throwing a soft red hue over his dark skin.
After half an hour our company had grown tired of the dancing, maybe partly because of Robert who was constantly restless. In the black night we returned to Deyá along the gravel track infused with the scent of broom and rosemary and surrounded by the loudly singing cicadas. Chuck caught up with me.
‘I think you should ignore Alston. You won’t get any joy out of him. He’s a born depressive, everything in the whole world is always set against him. Of course it’s hellish being black in the United States and it’s a good thing that he writes about it. I just wanted to warn you, he’s a dreary type who takes tranquilisers when not drinking himself into a stupor. Robert’s worried about him. In the three months he’s been here he’s apparently only managed about three pages on his next book.’
‘Maybe they’re good.’
‘Or not, and he knows it.’
‘Anyway he’s no fun, Bergie. But I suppose you’ll have to find out for yourself.’
At dinner with Robert Graves in their dining room, furnished in the Spanish style, I sat next to Alston. He was silent, and it was up to me to try and talk to him. It was not a success.
Me: Oh by the way, I met Louis Armstrong once.
Him: So what?
Me: I was just thinking... well, he was nice, he really was.
Him: Oh. Was he?
Me: I also know James Baldwin.
Him: Yeah, he’s a queer, he is.
Me: Oh. So what?
Him: No, I was just thinking.
Then we sat in silence for a good while and emptied our glasses before everyone else at the table, so that when Robert welcomed us all with a toast, we covered our glasses with our hands to hide the fact that we had nothing in them.
I asked Alston why he had not come to the ballet evening.
‘I didn’t dare. If I understood things right, anything could have happened. After every rehearsal Chuck was complaining about the unevenness of the floor. It was dangerous. He had to pick up all these girls weighing more than seventy kilos and swing them about.’
‘Oh it was all fine. He’s as strong as he’s beautiful. He saved my life the other day. That hefty Dutch woman Tini is furious with me for some reason, and she tracked me down to one of the bars along the Calvo Sotelo. I tried to hide inside, but in the end I slunk out of the window into the street, by that big urn they’ve put there. Then I charged down the Calvo but she chased me, caught up and threw me on the ground as if she was going to beat me to death. Then I felt something coming down hard on my back; it turned out to be Chuck landing on her and pulling her off so I could get away. They were rolling around and he was trying to pin her arms behind her back. Then he shouted out: ‘Run Bergie, I don’t know what she’ll do when I let go of her!’ I ran off quicker than I’ve ever run anywhere. I’ll get over my grazed arms and legs, but Chuck was sensible and took me up here to be on the safe side.’
‘I know all about it. Robert told me this morning.’
‘Does everyone know?’
‘They find lesbian intrigues exciting. Robert always asks Chuck to update him on the latest from La Portassa. Your lives down there are a constant source of entertainment here in the mountains.’
‘I see. What else do you know?’
‘That you’re going to have your breasts removed.’
I was stung by that one, having discussed it with Chuck in strictest confidence once when my swimsuit was embarrassing me and I’d grown tired of minding my posture and looking as though I had no higher ambition than to act out the part of the playa’s mammary queen.
‘So Chuck pretends to be straight and talks to you about women’s breasts.’
‘Not with me, no. All that sort of thing goes via Robert.’
He glanced at Robert sitting there sparkling and showing off with some juicy, suspenseful episode from the Greek mythology which he was researching with Janet. Everyone except the two of us were listening to him, and it struck me that perhaps Alston did not like his benefactor very much; that he felt the kind of recalcitrance that always seems to set in when one person is too much in debt to another. For my part, I could almost see Robert sitting there the night before, joking about me in just the same way as he was now making light of Demetrius and Pandora. I felt like getting up and leaving, but of course that would have been impolite. Had I been as great a writer as Graves, or an even greater one, I could have done it. So I calmed and consoled myself by thinking about how I must seem to the others here. How no one here really cared at all, except when from time to time my existence afforded them some measure of entertainment. And after all, I made the same use of them.
Alston Anderson accompanied me back to the house where I was staying. There were no hotels here, but the villagers let rooms. He told me that everyone in Deyá venerated Robert, who had done a lot for the area; among other things it had been on his initiative that the village, despite its remoteness, had been connected to the island’s electrical grid. According to Alston, people had shown their appreciation by presenting Robert with a donkey. The villagers had not understood that Robert quite voluntarily undertook his hearty twice-daily walks up and down the mountain sloping steeply into the sea. He had thanked them and accepted the beast, but the two of them immediately took a strong dislike to each other. The donkey took no more than a few steps at Robert’s rapid pace before it sank down on its haunches. Eventually Robert solved the problem by giving it to the postman, whose shuffling gait suited the donkey perfectly; it even allowed the postman to ride on its back, something Robert had only rarely managed to persuade the obstinate beast to agree to.
Alston told me about his book Lover Man, which was going to be published in both Danish and Swedish (in my country under the title of Friends). We entered the house where I was staying - but only till the following morning - for Alston had asked me to house-sit his place and take care of his caged birds while he went to Palma. We sat and talked, emptying my one bottle of wine. When he was leaving he kissed my brow and crept silently into the corridor. Soon he was back.
‘They’ve locked the front door and taken the key.’
‘So what’ll we do? Will you have to stay till tomorrow?’
‘Of course I can’t. They’ve only locked us in to bring scandal on us. On you.’
‘I don’t understand.’
‘They’re probably fascists. In which case they don’t like blacks and those who consort with us even less.’
‘Consort... what a word. But we can just forget about what they think.’
‘I can’t, I live here. I don’t want them openly against me.’
I held my tongue, thinking to myself that they already were. He walked over to the open window and carefully unhitched the green shutters.
‘It’s not so high.’
‘Pity Chuck didn’t come with us. He would have made a hell of a noise and that door would have been unlocked ages ago.’
‘If he’d been here they’d never have locked it in the first place. Come here.’
He was already straddling the windowsill, whispering that I had to be up in just a few hours, at dawn. The bus to Palma left at about seven, he’d give me his keys at the bus stop, as well as instructions about how to take care of the birds.
‘And if the door’s still locked?’
‘They’ll open it as soon as I’m outside in the road. Bye... pity you didn’t have more to drink, then I’d have stayed longer.’
With this comment he crossed the line as far as I was concerned. With a snarl I told him I’d changed my mind, I wasn’t going to house-sit and take care of his caged birds until on some whim he decided to take the bus home: ‘Either take them with you to town or find someone else’, I said - then found myself taken by surprise at his reply.
‘What do you take me for? I knew from the start that you weren’t someone to be relied on. You’re the sort of person who never does anyone a favour without expecting something back. I’ve already arranged for a little boy to go there and feed them.’
He jumped down onto the concrete, agile as a cat. I walked inside and stood by the door, listening. He had been right, steps could be heard in the house, so silent until now; a key was inserted into the lock and turned. What a terrible country I was in.
Chuck had been right. Alston really was no fun at all; and what an idiot to think I’d drag a load of bottles around with me wherever I went, like some drunk. It was bad enough being dependent on cigarettes. I was thinking of quitting. The little amphetamine pills, on the other hand, were excellent; they weighed nothing and did a lot of good. I planned to carry on with them for the rest of my life.
Because of the amphetamines I slept little that night. At first light I arrived at Alston’s house and told him I’d changed my mind, I’d keep an eye on his stupid birds for a few days while he stayed in Palma. He looked pleased.
‘But is it okay if I stay on for more than a few days?’
‘Then I’ll move the cage to Robert’s house.’
A few interminable days passed. Enthusiastically I wrote away at the novel on the one hand and my story about the Catalan peasants on the other. Until, that is, I heard the bus from Palma straining laboriously up from the valley. As soon as I heard it I lost all my composure. It always sounded its horn in the same place, on some troublesome bend in the green depths usually ringing with birdsong and the tinkling bells of the herds of sheep. Day after day I sat paralysed with expectation, waiting for Alston’s return; I didn’t even seek out Graves’s friends. On the first day I wandered off to the bus stop, and stood there watching the people getting off, even though I was absolutely sure Alston wouldn’t be among them. Then I just sat there without moving, staring out over the valley.
I longed for him as if I were head-over-heels in love; yes, I tricked myself into a passion for him, pining stupidly for skin and lips - stupid, because I hadn’t felt like this at all when he was close to me. I was as imprisoned in that place as Madame Bovary in her horrendous little town, and as filled with erotic dreams. Unlike her, I didn’t just read other people’s novels - I worked on my own. Yet we both used words to underpin our fantasies. Outside the window, life was moving. The wheels of carts creaked, people called out greetings to each other. Inside, the birds screeched in their big cage. The room was ill equipped for my writing by hand; no comfortable chairs and no table of suitable height other than the one where Alston had put his typewriter. I began using it, manually adding the rings and dots of the Swedish ‘åäö’ symbols. Every time the bus down there in the valley made its presence known to all with its drawn-out horn, my heartbeat speeded up with urgent longing. At night I slept in Alston’s smell in his pillow and mattress, and I was woken up two days in a row by thumping, shimmering orgasms.
On the third day Robert came to visit on one of his daily, high-speed walks. He had only now learnt that I was staying there, in the house. With evident concern he asked if I had heard from Alston.
‘It’s better for him if he stays up here in Deyá, drinking. Down in Palma he usually gets hold of drugs as well.’
With quick steps Graves walked up to the table and looked at my manuscript. When he saw the words were not in English, he apologised - he’d hoped it was Alston who had produced so many pages. Then he asked if it wasn’t lonely sitting here? If I wanted to, I was welcome to come to his house for dinner that evening. Because Chuck had left Deyá with Alston I declined, telling him I found socialising difficult when I was writing.
Politely he asked what my book was about and I replied that I didn’t even properly know myself. He raised his eyebrows and smiled in a way that forced me to concede that obviously I knew what my story was, but didn’t want to impose spoken words onto it, just the written ones. Perhaps he’d like to sit down?
He chose one of the wooden chairs in the big, sparsely furnished room which now, in his company, felt pleasant to be in for the first time. It surprised him, he said, to find that I was so conscious of the risks of the writing process. For his own part he always had the main outline of what he was working on quite clear in his mind, and his secretary and others helping him with the research were also allowed to have access to the work as it was being created. But maybe I was more of a poet than a prose writer?
‘I’m nothing as yet. You, on the other hand, are very good. My mother reads everything by you... and because she also insists I read all your books so she has someone to discuss them with, I... well... I do.’
I grew silent and felt myself blushing. This reluctance I always had about doing what my mother demanded had made it sound as if I disliked Graves’s books. His eyes glittered with amusement, but he didn’t say anything.
I offered him a glass from Alston’s demijohn and when we raised our glasses I realised he was flirting with me, in spite of my reputation as a lesbian. Maybe he was doing so without thinking about it. For my part I found many of his gestures slightly gay: his face with that bronzed skin, his beautiful, classical features and his large, lively green eyes. The curly hair also underlined his resemblance to an antique emperor’s bust. And I liked his permanently casual attire; today, he wore a short-sleeved, light-coloured jumper, baggy brown trousers and sandals.
I mentioned that Chuck had told me several of Graves’s books were going to be made into films.
‘That sort of thing is always uncertain, getting a film off the ground is like push-starting a train with your hands. But absolutely... right now I’m fairly hopeful.’
‘You always have your Muse to ask for help’, I smiled.
Chuck had told me that Robert, apparently in full seriousness, believed he had a Muse up there in the spheres he could contact through one of the string of young women who showed up in his life. He quartered them with his family without any concern about what his wife Beryl might think; if indeed she were his wife at all - she had a different surname, but the children were theirs.
‘Yes, it’s very good’, he said gravely. ‘How come you know about my Muse?’
‘Because you write about her in your poems. Chuck showed me.’
‘I understand you’re close friends.’
‘I don’t know about that. But I admire him. Just as he admires you.’
‘He has many talents’, Robert said after a pause. I sensed that, in his view, Chuck was not making enough use of these. As if this had reminded him of his own duties, he drained his glass and stood up. ‘If you change your mind, come by tonight. There are always lots of us round the table, you’re bound to find someone you like talking to.’ I thanked him and smiled although I was actually on the verge of tears. I knew I wouldn’t be going anywhere, I knew the night would be dark and interminable; that my writing at this moment seemed no more than a lot of idiotic scribbling. That Louise was by now probably happily in love with butch Nick. And that I no longer belonged anywhere on this island. Chuck had suggested that we should escape to Rome, the three of us: Bruce, him and me. I had no way of affording such a project. To manage it, some extra factor had to come into play. As usual the money order from home was at least a week late; Spanish banks were never in much of a hurry.
I wrote and then wrote some more, had some bread and cheese with a few glasses of wine, switched on a lamp and covered over the bird cage as it grew dark. In the middle of the night I changed my mind and went out - maybe it would be good to sit in Graves’s circle and think about something other than myself.
The mountains were outlined against the sky: everything heavily fragrant with broom, the cicadas scraping away. The sheep-bells had grown silent. I went to Graves’s house; he had many buildings on his land but all of them lay in darkness. Through an open window I heard a woman’s weeping, intense and desperate. I retreated cautiously.