This article appeared in the 2013:2 issue.
Lillemor Troj, a main character in Kerstin Ekman’s Grand final i skojarbranschen (Grand Finale in the Trickster’s Trade), is one of Sweden’s leading contemporary novelists. After making her mark with thrillers, she has become renowned for more complex novels which have appeared in big print-runs, won virtually all the major Swedish literary awards, and also earned her a seat in the Swedish Academy.
Kerstin Ekman is one of Sweden’s leading contemporary novelists. After making her mark with thrillers, she has become renowned for more complex novels which have appeared in big print-runs, won virtually all the major Swedish literary awards, and also earned her a seat in the Swedish Academy. Ekman, however, left the Academy in 1989, following the debacle caused by the fatwa against Salman Rushdie.
In Grand Finale, Lillemor Troj gets to read a manuscript threatening to reveal that the books she has published with Sweden’s leading publisher over the past fifty years have in fact been written by a ghostwriter. After more than half a century of successful collaboration, begun in Uppsala in the 1950s when Barbro (Babba) Andersson wanted to submit a short story for a competition that also required a photo of the author, a competition that her text won with the photogenic Lillemor collecting the prize, the two have fallen out with each other, and Babba is taking her revenge by revealing the truth.
The references to contemporary Swedish society and culture, to Ekman’s authorship and to her texts come thick and fast in Grand Finale, and Jens Liljestrand, reviewing the novel in Dagens Nyheter, predicted that someone would in due course attempt to disentangle ‘truth’ and ‘falsehood’ in the text. Indeed, the book has already been interpreted, at least in part, as a roman à clef. But what is the point of trying to read this hilarious yarn, this irresistible page-turner, in such terms? Ingenious, disrespectful, absorbing and provocative, Grand Finale seduces us with a brilliant display of what prose fiction can do. Yet, as part of the fireworks, Ekman’s novel also tackles a range of serious and urgent issues.
A number of Ekman’s previous novels remind us that they are texts: for example, the first-person narrator in En stad av ljus (1983; City of Light, 2003) claims to have made herself ‘a body of words’; and in Pukehornet (1967; The Devil’s Horn) the narrative in the first half turns out to be the opening section of a novel on which one of the characters is working in the second half. Grand Finale brings Ekman’s entire œuvre into focus, referring to and quoting from earlier texts. But for all the similarities with Ekman herself, this text emphasises, Lillemor Troj and Babba Andersson are as fictitious as the other characters in Ekman’s novels.
Grand Finale provides a devastating analysis of gender and power in Swedish society in the second half of the twentieth century. The broken-up chunks of the novel, Babba’s text interspersed with sections focalised by Lillemor as she reads her ghostwriter’s revelations, show with brutal clarity the constructions of female bodies and feminine selves. The norms according to which the female body is valued in Sweden in the 1950s form the very basis of the collaboration and interrelationship between Babba and Lillemor: Babba’s talents as a writer belong in a body that is big, clumsy and ugly, while Lillemor with her slim body, blonde hair and large eyes is perfect not just for the judges of that initial short story but also for her publisher’s marketing department. The fiction that one female writer is constructing another female character makes the masculine power determining the prevailing discourse on gender all the more prominent. In Grand Finale we follow Lillemor from the point when, as a patient in a psychiatric hospital, she is the object of the expertise of male doctors and of staff who regard makeup and a new hair-do as important signs of improvement in the condition of a female patient, to her first marriage with its trappings in the form of outfits from leading designers and presents for the middle-class household, and on to her emergence as an author, with one reviewer concluding that her style is as banal as ‘that vapid girl’s face staring from the adverts for the book’.
Lillemor establishes herself as a writer in a Sweden characterised by the growing political awareness of the 1960s and 1970s, but when she is elected to the all-male Swedish Academy and arrives meticulously coiffured and made-up, wearing a blue velvet gown and silver shoes that are tantamount to ‘every little girl’s dream of a princess outfit’, little seems to have changed with regard to relations of gender and power.
However, the juxtaposition in Grand Finale of the talented and successful ghostwriter and her glamorous persona raises further questions. In late capitalist Western society the novel has become a commodity marketed by the publisher. What happens when the author is marketed along with the novel, and more especially when the author is female? What happens when the female author is turned into a celebrity – to the author, and to her novel?
Babba underlines to Lillemor the importance of ignoring both criticism and praise and focusing on writing that which is her own, and Lillemor objects: ‘My own! But it’s really yours. And when omega replica it’s published it’s changed and distorted and dragged willy-nilly into that fluctuating and flickering sphere. The unreal one’.
Lillemor Troj is an object instance of celebrity as defined by P. David Marshall in his Celebrity and Power (2011): lacking substance, the sign of celebrity is ‘entirely image’ and the ‘center of false value’ (p. xi). Not surprisingly, our preoccupation with celebrity is particularly problematic for women writers, and in the article Ekman published in Dagens Nyheter in 1978, following her election to the Swedish Academy (translated by Sarah Death in Swedish Book Review, 1995 Supplement), she ridiculed some of the versions of herself constructed by the media: ‘the myth of Success and of Proletarian roots, the Thriller Queen who got into the Academy and the myth of Unpretentiousness and how I really care more about Sheep than Culture (and they put me with a sheep on Svenska Dagbladet’s billboards).’ The Canadian author Margaret Atwood, it has been pointed out, re-enacts her celebrity persona through her fiction, for example in Lady Oracle (1976); and on her website, www.owtoad.com, according to the scholar Lorraine York, ‘[m]any of the stock descriptions of [Atwood’s] physical appearance are on full display’ with Atwood, ‘by co-opting and reproducing them’, intervening and recapturing ‘the power of the gaze’. Kerstin Ekman, arguably, launches a parallel process in Grand Finale.
Despite the prevalent gender discourses and the late-capitalist commodification of culture – or because of them? – novels continue to be written and published. And we continue to buy them, read them and discuss them. As Grand Finale demonstrates so boldly and exuberantly, the novel still matters, capable as it is of engaging our curiosity, our imagination and our craving for excitement.
When, in the opening section, Lillemor’s publisher tries to dissuade her from publishing the manuscript in which Babba has revealed the truth about their collaboration, his main argument is that it is ‘just a novel of entertainment’. A number of Ekman’s texts test the conventional genre boundaries, and as has often been pointed out, the mysteries around which the plots of several of her later novels revolve have features in common with the early thrillers. The mystery at the centre of Grand Finale – how have Babba and Lillemor managed to keep up their deceit of the Swedish cultural establishment for over half a century? – may not involve disappearances and crimes in the sense of the traditional thriller, but it does create a sense of urgency and tension that engages us as readers, makes demands on us and persuades us to turn those pages. Lillemor eventually realises that the only way to avert the threat posed by Babba’s manuscript is to continue to play the game and publish it in her own name; but it is Babba, with her experience as a librarian and awareness of how quickly books are forgotten, who provides the direct response to the publisher’s objection. ‘[O]n the other hand’, she writes, ‘what’s actually wrong with entertainment?’. Indeed, what is?