Translated and introduced by Linda Schenck
This article appeared in the 2013:2 issue.
Babban (Barbro) Andersson, unphotogenic, solitary author, has used her friend, the lovely Lillemor Troj, to ‘be’ her for an entire writing lifetime. As they age, the question becomes who has used whom, and why. This duo, or these split personalities, is/are the protagonist(s) of the novel. The three extracts below are all narrated by Babba. We, as readers, identify with Lillemor, who is also reading what Babba has written, mainly about her, Lillemor. The first is a denigrating comment on Lillemor’s use of the present tense and, by extension, what Babba perceives as Lillemor’s inability to live in the present.
In the second, Babba has come to find Lillemor who has escaped from her marriage and is living on the margins of a women’s commune. Lillemor reads aloud to the women and children in the evenings, and is deep into Bleak House.
By the time of the third extract, Babba is writing more about herself and her life than about Lillemor. She owns a second-hand bookshop in Stockholm and has come upon an inventive scheme for amusing (and intimidating?) her customers.
The present was a tense she disliked. Banned in fact, calling it the angst tense. Personally, I thought she was exaggerating. You really shouldn’t overuse words like angst, I told her.
All right, then the anxiety tense, she said, since angst must be those jittery morning hours before the reviews are read.
Oh no, that’s only anxiety. You of all people should know what angst is. Well the present is impossible in translation, she said. Especially in English. Anglo Saxon writers shy away from it.
Meaning they shy away from presence. Because that’s all the present tense is really, presence. Lillemor wanted the past tense, probably since it means you’ve put things behind you and are in control of them in a narrative form as solid as cast iron. The pluperfect would be even worse, of course. It’s a tense for old men, best left untouched. In the pluperfect the past is shifted even further back, it’s like stomping around in extremely distant memories, colorless as old film slides.
If the present is angst, she can have it. The past tense will be mine, since everything seems to be behind me now. Life. Nothing left but this damned plodding along. Get myself up to put on the radio and the kettle. Plod on.
When we had been reading Bleak House for some time we arrived at the peculiar episode of Miss Flite’s birds. Lillemor was reading, and when she started the list of names of the eccentric old woman’s many caged birds, we could see her eyes brimming with tears. Hope, Joy, Youth, Peace, Rest, Life she read, so far so good. But then she got to Dust, Ashes, Waste, Want, Ruin, Despair, Folly, Death, Cunning and Madness, at which she started weeping and was unable to stop. She didn’t snivel, her tears just ran like the rain on the windowpane. She couldn’t read the rest, and handed the book over. One of the ‘wood nymphs’ called Torun took it, reading ahead to herself first. Then she said, very softly:
‘You’re upset about all that stuff … hope and joy and everything that vanished. Maybe it turned to ashes and ruin and despair, what do I know. Maybe even to madness. But not death, Lillemor. Not death. We’re all sitting here no matter what we’ve been through. And you shouldn’t think of the rest of the bird names as if they were a a pile of rubbish. Words, Wigs, Rags, Parchment, Plunder, Precedent, Jargon, Gammon and Spinach are everyday words.’
Then she read the page from the book.
They might be good words, too, she said. Not so serious, LiIllemor. A little gammon now and then. And what’s wrong with a bit of spinach? Is there anything bad about spinach?
She went on reading to us. Lillemor leaned back on the kitchen settle and when I saw Jeppe get up from his place under the table and sniff out her hand, something struck me that I ought to have realized long ago: Lillemor has never been among really kind people before.
When Lillemor was away on a trip I’d walk Polly in Tegnérlunden and up the hill to Observatoriekullen. She was interested in absolutely everything on the pee-soaked grass except for empty cigarette packets. But I was collecting them now. I also got into reading the warning labels on the wine bottles people tossed under the trees. Then I started collecting the wine ads from magazines. I’d figured out that I could use my fancy copying machine to make labels suited to my business. For instance:
affects your brain
I pasted one into the back of every book I sold. Lillemor had listed the shop on secondhand.net, intending to make my life easier. The idea was that fewer people would come in; I might not even have to keep the shop open. So I started pasting warning labels into the books I packed up and mailed off as well. I received the occasional angry letter or post card from people who found them offensive and demanded to return their books. I don’t give a damn about them, I thought. Second-hand is second-hand.
Internet sales didn’t result in fewer customers at the store, though. On the contrary, curious young men began to come in and browse. They grinned appreciatively if they found a warning label in a book.
When a copy of Karin Boye’s Astarte came my way, I couldn’t resist pasting this one into it:
is the cause of
in this country.
The labels served a purpose. The shaven-head member of the ironic generation who bought the book strictly for the label glued into it might read Astarte. Books that have been forgotten are close to my heart because I know that mine, too, will be packed into boxes when people die, be refused by the already overfull second-hand bookstores and, after a spell at a Salvation Army or other thrift shop eventually end up in a landfill.
I discovered that certain kinds of customers expected a label; some even asked about them while leafing through a book. I always said I’d glue one into any book that was bought and paid for. Among the young or early middle-aged men who wear straight-legged black jeans and horrendously long shoes, my notes became kind of cultish, and business picked up much more than I ever wanted it to.
the arteries of the brain
and leads to
heart attacks and stroke.
When you’re between twenty and thirty, and maybe even up to forty, you don’t believe in death. But you love music that resounds of death. The heavier and harder the better. That’s why I always have cancer or heart attack labels at hand when a thirty-year-old in a short, black overcoat starts browsing the shelves.
Book dust causes
fatal lung cancer.
I think I hit the bull’s eye with one young woman. Her eyes glazed over when she read:
Reading when pregnant
will affect your child.
It’s not really very hard to see when someone’s pregnant. I am quite sure she had been sitting on the toilet looking at the test stick not very long ago. That made me feel like a witch, which wasn’t a bad thing. It reminded me of Old Lady Pflöke in Hjalmar Bergman’s Ljung, Medardus and Me. Bergman knew, strangely enough, what was going on under the layers of cloth in an old woman’s body.
When high-spirited mothers with children came in asking somewhat militantly for Pippi Longstocking, I went to the Astrid Lindgren shelf. I had an absolutely perfect label to stick in those books, to protect children from maternal cultural imperialism.
Avoid reading aloud to children.
It can impair their hearing.
I put those labels into books bought by certain mothers, because I could hear the minute they walked into the shop how shrilly they projected their preferences onto their kids.
Shouldn’t children’s reading largely be their own secret? I have a feeling it’s imposed by the authorities today. There was a daycare center near my apartment in Birkastan. The gate to the play area was locked to keep out pedophiles. When they went out through that gate, the little ones walked in straight lines, two by two, holding hands. They wore yellow vests to protect them from the traffic. Doesn’t that make it easier to get them to march to the beat as adults? Perhaps when those children grow up they’ll see a label like this and actually believe it was pasted in at the office of some government authority:
Reading is exceptionally addictive.
Never start reading.
Those shaven-head or ponytailed wearers of straight-legged jeans soon began stopping in with books they wanted to sell; books that would’ve scared the life out of old Apelgren if he’d still been alive. The first one I remember was Trainspotting. But the old man had died at Danderyd Hospital, as was only to be expected, and I had spent his last few days by his side. If I didn’t want to get stuck in the shop myself, I had to find a replacement. I could afford to pay someone now; business was actually good, too good for my taste. Though, of course, it’s always nice to be successful. Around that time I also stopped saying yes to whatever came in, and I told Apelgren’s successor he had to be selective. We were going to concentrate on the books the young men in black jeans wanted. And we’d always be sure to paste in labels they would really appreciate.