Swedish Book Review is not responsible for the content of external websites.
Sensibility, Anguish and Humour
The Work of Mare Kandre
Eric Dickens

This article appeared in the 2008:2 issue.

 When interviewed for a Swedish national tabloid in 1984, the 22-year-old Mare Kandre was all promise, with only one published short story to show for her incipient career as an author. There was a slightly boastful and bantering tone to her comments; and the press was mainly interested in the fact that a leather-clad punk rocker had decided to write serious literature.

By the time of her untimely death in 2005, she had become an established, if reclusive, figure in Swedish literature. Her eight poetic novels, plus collections of stories and shorter prose poetry had all been uniformly well received by the critics. But her private life had remained her own, and she rarely took part in readings. For approximately two decades, Mare Kandre devoted much of her energy to cross-genre literature, hovering somewhere between the novel and prose poetry.

Mare Kandre (the forename, of Estonian origin, is pronounced marr-eh) was born near the town of Söderhamn in north-eastern Sweden, some 120 miles to the north of the capital, Stockholm. Her father is Swedish, her mother Estonian, one of those who had fled her homeland in 1944 when Estonia was suspended in limbo between the retreating Nazis and the advancing Soviets.

Mare Kandre's own awakening to the world, and her ultimate road to literary expression, came when she was taken by her parents at five years of age to Canada, where her father had obtained work. More crucial was the return of the family to Sweden, two years later. While Mare Kandre hardly remembered anything about her pre-Canada years, the wrench involved with being uprooted from Canada is seminal to virtually all her writings.The family did not return to where Mare was born; instead they moved to an apartment in the centre of the large western coastal city of Gothenburg, a city where new housing estates were sprouting like mushrooms as the districts of wooden houses, some by now slums, were being demolished. In Canada, she and her brother had spoken English together. Now they had to speak "the old language", Swedish. Maybe if her family had remained in Canada, she would have written in the English language. And the English language remained with her throughout her life. Even in her teens, she was said to carry around copies of novels by Dickens and the Brontë sisters. Many of her favourite authors later in life were also British or American.

Because Mare Kandre's work straddled genres, her oeuvre is somewhat hard to classify. But maybe the names of three more of her favourite authors give a clue: Virginia Woolf, Janet Frame and Sylvia Plath. These names were mentioned during interviews several years ago. And indeed, echoes of all three can be seen in Mare Kandre's work. But Kandre read widely and was also influenced by such authors as the Norwegian Tarjei Vesaas and, not least, by the Bible.

Early Work
After publishing several stories in literary magazines, Mare Kandre made her monograph début in 1984 with I ett annat land (In Another Country). The very title sets the scene, and Kandre's leitmotifs become evident: change and resistance to it, a strong blend of physical life and psychology. One interview in a Swedish newspaper concentrated more on her membership of the rock band "The Global Infantilists" than the work itself. One suite of short pieces in this novel describes a trip in the family car, but despite the accessibility of such a theme, critics still did not know quite what to make of Mare Kandre the author.

Two years later, Bebådelsen (Annunciation) appeared.This was now clearly defined as a series of prose poems.The critics spoke of a growing maturity of style. The annunciation itself is something that the protagonist does not ask for. It is in fact puberty that is being alluded to. In a sense, the heroine of these poems does not want to grow up, but knows that biology is forcing change upon her. Pre-pubertal life represents a freedom no longer allowed once a child becomes a woman.

By the time that Mare Kandre brought out her third book, she was beginning to attract serious critical attention. The critics had detected the leitmotif of Kandre's work: a young girl faced with puberty.The epigraph of Bübins unge (Bübin's Kid) is by Lewis Carroll, from when Alice wonders what has happened to her. The dustcover has one of Carroll's photographs of a small girl in a nightdress holding a comb and a mirror. The style is that of prose poetry, but now the narrative is joined up ­ the book has become a poetic novel, a style that Kandre would adopt for much of the rest of her oeuvre. The protagonist is a self-styled "annoying little girl", made of flesh and blood, always getting in the way of Bübin and Uncle. It is a narrative that is beyond realism; the woman, Bübin, is presumably the girl's mother, the Uncle is slowly going blind. There was a danger that the book would get pigeonholed by all those eager to list Jung and Freud as their mentors. Swedish critics were still nervous about this young author who had come from nowhere and was now making a name for herself.

As one critic, Rita Tornborg, pointed out in her review of Mare Kandre's 1988 book Det brinnande trädet (The Burning Bush), a pattern was emerging in Kandre's work: loss. In a story possibly inspired by the fates of Kandre's paternal uncles, the pristine innocence of childhood now gives way to a very concrete loss: the death of two small brothers.The two coffins are about to be loaded onto an open cart to be taken to the cemetery. The book describes the journey. There is something of the atmosphere of two Norwegian authors: Tarjei Vesaas, who wrote, for instance, The Ice Castle about the fate of two small girls, and Jon Fosse, whose low-key novel Morning and Evening, published some dozen years after The Burning Bush, deals with the death of an old man. Kandre's novel is narrated in the third person, which is, as Swedish critic Horace Engdahl points out, a move away from the egocentred narration of Kandre's previous works. The novel focuses on the sadness and despair of the family about to bury two of its sons. The living members of the family consist of Emmett and Kitt, who appear to be the parents, and If and Etty, their surviving son and daughter.Though even these names are mysteriously anonymous:

Emmett lifted the dead boys down into their coffins where Etty tucked them in under the new, clean sheet, each with their embroidered pillow. It was a deep, dry silence in there among them now. Kitt held her hand still in the tepid water. If was still standing in his corner. Etty placed the boys' old possessions in the coffin. Each had his spoon, each his cup, a wonderful carved horse that Emmett had made, and two black books that Etty took out of a pocket in her skirt, kissed them hastily, lay them neatly on the their chests and then folded their hands carefully over them.

Swedish Gothic ­ Aliide, Aliide
At this point, another factor was introduced into the work of Mare Kandre, one that was to re-appear in most of the rest of her work: the Gothic. Swedish academic Mattias Fyhr wrote his doctoral thesis on the Gothic in Swedish literature, starting with its distant roots in English-language works by, for instance, Horace Walpole, Mary Shelley, Charles Maturin, Anne Radcliffe and Anna Aikins, via Sylvia Plath, up to Joyce Carol Oates.The thesis is entitled De mörka labyrinterna ­ Gotiken i litteratur, film, musik och rollspel (The Dark Labyrinths ­ The Gothic in Literature, Film, Music and RolePlaying Games) and appeared in 2003. After the introductory and theoretical sections of the work, Fyhr moves on to examining four contemporary Swedish authors whose work contains a Gothic dimension: Inger Edelfeldt, Per Hagman, Alexander Ahndoril and Mare Kandre.

The Kandre novel discussed is Aliide, Aliide (1991), which has recognisable features from Kandre's previous work: a small girl somehow lost in the world and experiencing, for the first time, the confusions and horrors of life. But now the author has moved on from sparse, abruptly interrupted, sentences to a much more flowing, burgeoning prose.

The setting is clearly identifiable as the western Swedish city of Gothenburg, where Kandre lived after her years in Canada.The protagonist is just as easily recognisable as Kandre's alter ego. But this, Kandre's longest novel ­ 270 pages ­ now becomes much more descriptive, discursive, leaving behind (albeit temporarily) the jerky poetic style for which she was to become famous.The novel is filled with angst, a fear of death, self-hatred and a fear of being touched by others. Fyhr identifies certain aspects of the Gothic in this work, one being the contrast between the surface and underbelly of a city, where the surface is represented by, for instance, the museum on the hill, the underside by the slums. Gothenburg is indeed a city on many levels, humped on several hillsides and rocky outcrops.This novel is decidedly urban, after the rural or placeless nature of her earlier works. Fyhr also identifies a (post-) punk dimension in this work, which is of a more realist nature than what Kandre published hitherto.

Echoes of The Madwoman in the Attic, Wuthering Heights and Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, and similar works abound. Fyhr suggests that the way that Aliide herself experiences the world and her feelings is by way of Gothic intertextuality.And her emotions flip over to their opposites. This is by no means a romp though childhood. Some of the passages in the novel are very dark, such as one where Aliide finds a handbag belonging to a pathetic emaciated woman, maybe a prostitute, who has just been beaten up in a gloomy alley. Aliide feels deep shame at the fact that she had found the handbag before noticing the woman, saw its contents scattered on the ground, and would have been quite happy to take the money lying there, had not the woman, gaunt, wrinkled, in badly laddered stockings, appeared at that moment. The woman gives Aliide a few coins as a reward.

The epiphany of the novel follows, coming about a quarter of the way through, during a short chapter when Aliide has to undergo what for most people would be a routine medical examination by the school doctor. Aliide thinks that somehow this episode is triggered by the coins, for which she bought sweets. She is fetched by the nurse, appears blinded by the light of the surgery, where the doctor's examination almost feels like groping, an incursion on her physical privacy. She cannot remember afterwards where she has been and, most shocking of all, finds her body is now totally alien to her, when she looks at it while getting dressed.

The work makes use of labyrinths and mirrors. The labyrinth of the school, the city, the mirror in the handbag, the ponds. The novel itself is labyrinthine in structure. As Fyhr points out, these labyrinths are both physical and metaphorical. Cyclical, circular movements and events occur regularly. Aliide almost seems trapped in a dream.

Two Major Poetic Works
During the early 1990s, Mare Kandre wrote two major works: Deliria (1992) and Djävulen och Gud (God and the Devil, 1993). Kandre returned to her earlier style with sentences chopped short, not always reaching the end of the line; but the subject matter of these two works varies somewhat.

The first, Deliria, is a plaint, against whom it is hard to say (God?), yet also a pæan.The poetic exhortation of the introduction echoes eighteenth- and nineteenth-century literature:

   You who shall hold in trust my poetry,
   appreciate or hate it,
   walk past it or pay it absent-minded
    find it grim or difficult,
    never perceive it,
    desire, but never find it;
    are you already longing for the
wooden fish that
    shall be shown you later on,
    have you put your weapons under the bed,
    arranged sufficiently beautiful stones
    the coat you wear so that
    you'll be held still at the table,
    is the house, that large, empty
    body, protected
    by sunshine now,
    are you wreathed at the stool,
    bound to your dead mother,
    have you fallen asleep in a hat or
    and the door,
    has it been shut against the night,
    is the mist consigned to its vale
beyond the river,
    are the trees with their flocks of
reader, in that case,
    shall we take it as read?
    The hour has now

By now, readers were now convinced of her poetic qualities. But what is lacking in many contemporary reviews is a serious attempt to tackle what it was that Mare Kandre was writing about, the subject matter. The focus of critics is on the unusual prose poetry, the rhythms, the delirium of Deliria, but the message she was, in part, trying to convey beyond the stylistic prestidigitations gets lost somehow.The fact that she was taking on broad, grand and global themes and issues was not picked up sufficiently by the critics. The book is fragmented, has something of the atmosphere of Whitman's Leaves of Grass in its sheer flood of images and attempt to describe many aspects of our world. Critic and poet Kristina Lugn says that she has never come across such "euphoric pessimism".

Maybe Kandre was also hoping to emulate Nobel prizewinner Harry Martinson's long poem Aniara, a purportedly science-fiction epic about the voyage of a spaceship that in fact holds up a mirror to what we term civilisation. Kandre, like Martinson, was committed to this world. She somehow feared it but is solicitous about it at the same time. Nevertheless, this is perhaps Kandre's most joyous work.

The title of the second novel was changed in the English version to God and the Devil by the author, who made an attempt at translating a large part of the text herself into English, so despairing was she growing of ever finding a translator. In the English title, God therefore comes before the Devil.This novel is written in much the same style as Deliria, but the story is more focussed. And contains a good deal more wry, tongue-in-cheek humour.

God and the Devil meet when small. In the beginning, they are both two abandoned little boys, but while God is a well fed, shining cherub, the Devil is a pathetic bow-legged, asthmatic, hairy creature, nourishing himself on hare droppings. It is a playful novel, but none the less a profound examination of myth and history. At first, the sympathy of the reader is with the Devil, something which is a recurring theme in Estonian mythology, which Kandre could well have read or heard about from her mother. God, on the other hand, strikes us as spoilt and bored, indifferent to the fates of the beings he has created.The Devil was not an evil creature until mankind began to persecute him. On the other hand, God had moved up to heaven, to get away from the over-population of the Earth. He sends down his Son, but as this is not a great success, he proceeds to ignore the Earth, and falls asleep.

Once the misery of Earth has risen to apocalyptic proportions and everything begins to be destroyed, God finally wakes up. This curious rebirth occurs in a nether world, and as the Earth itself falls apart, God, now grown up, makes children with Lilith, the Devil with the hunchbacked Ini.

God and the Devil come to some sort of understanding, even friendship. But it all ends in tears, as can be understood from the fate of our world.

The style of the novel is more open and ebullient than most of her previous books; it lacks the undertone of moralism of Deliria and the gloom of her first, poetically crafted short books of prose poetry. Alongside The Woman and Dr Dreuf, this is Mare Kandre's most humorous and relaxed book, maybe her most successful, discounting Aliide, Aliide.

The Woman and Dr Dreuf
Yet Kandre's most translated novel (French, Danish, Russian, Estonian), also the one given most attention by critics, is Quinnan och Dr Dreuf (The Woman and Dr Dreuf, 1994) This is what can only be described as a spoof on Freudianism (the anagram in the title is not hard to spot).

The rhythm resembles that of God and the Devil, but we are now confronted with a sarcastic prose poem about the Woman (Eve) and Dr Dreuf.The action takes place on Scoptophilia Street and the entire novel consists of one analysis session during which the whole history of woman is examined while, at the same time, the ridiculous little Dr Dreuf expounds on his theories on the nature of woman. The setting is as much psychological as physical.The surgery is dusty and contains glass jars with various objects such as women's breasts and the foetuses of baby girls. It has all the appearance of a cabinet of horrors.

The work is a duel between the self-confident, cerebrally analytical doctor and his untamable patient. Because towards the end of this dialogue, which in some ways resembles the Strindberg play Miss Julie, it is the woman who takes the upper hand and ends up winning on points. Essentially, Mare Kandre is as little of a one-dimensional feminist as Strindberg was an obsessive misogynist. Both authors were too many-sided to be cheaply categorised. While The Woman and Dr Dreuf is certainly a study in sour grapes misogyny, this comic work is as much a study in the risible features of an over-reliance on the intellect and logical reasoning, on the claims of medicine to cure all ills of the soul, and is also about the covert prurience hidden behind the clinical façade of some doctors.

The Last Works
Mare Kandre's three remaining books are two Gothic novels and a collection of sometimes heart-rending short stories.

For Bestiarium (1999) Kandre moves to nineteenth-century England to find her settings: London and Yorkshire. Her reading of Dickens and the Brontë sisters is echoed here. A young man, living with his mother, has a dreary job as a bookkeeper, with laudanum as his only solace. When his mother dies, he goes off on a journey to find a monster, whose existence he discovers by notes in his mother's papers. The protagonist is named Doré, a clear allusion to the French painter and illustrator. Kandre herself produced paintings and she was therefore interested in the fine and graphic arts. The critics appeared not to read this book with great application. Those reviews I have read appear to focus once again on the feminist thread running though Kandre's writing. Some reviewers also think that this is perhaps the least successful of Kandre's novels. It is indeed somewhat more slow-moving than her previous works.

This novel was followed in 2001 by a collection of untitled short-stories Hetta och vitt (Heat and Whiteness). The critics were back on board. Kandre was praised for her return to style and feeling.These stories are mostly grim, merciless to the reader in their despair. Kandre has dropped the Gothic and tongue-in-cheek aspects altogether. But these are some of the best things she wrote. The sincerity makes up for the sober avoidance of humour.They deal with outsiders, people who do not quite belong, are alienated from their surroundings. The protagonists live for the hour and seem to lack an anchor point in their lives. One small girl deliberately gets lost in the forest. A woman swaps a charter flight to a vacation resort for a trip to a wartorn part of the Balkans. A man takes part in the storming of a village, but saves some children, then deserts from the army. In the last story, a lonely boy finds a dead girl in a lake. This is a shock as he dare not really live himself, as we understand. When he finally dares to look at the girl, he is released from the inner isolation that so often pursues the characters of Mare Kandre's books.

Mare Kandre's last work to be published during her lifetime is the novel Xavier (2002). This is a Kafkaesque Gothic tale of a man who becomes obsessed with a woman and, in a similar way to the protagonists of Kafka's The Trial and The Castle, wanders past many doors in a block of flats in pursuit of her, meeting various people on the way. These people are stylised, almost stereotypical: a would-be suicide, a burly worker, a prostitute, an old woman watching over her daughter's corpse. Reviewer Magnus Eriksson, writing in the daily Svenska Dagbladet, suggests that the whole novel, again labyrinthine like Aliide, Aliide, is a parable about man's fear of making choices. The paranoia and hatred of one's body have returned, and Kandre now spells out the terms. All the people Xavier meets are doppelgänger of either himself or the woman he is pursuing (a real woman? his alter ego?).The burlesque is back, after the unrelenting grimness of her book of short stories.

Mare Kandre also wrote a number of texts for the theatre, such as "Vilse" (Lost), "Poeten och kritikern" (The Poet and the Critic),"Tre veckor på jorden" (Three Weeks on Earth) and "Pesthuset" (House of Plague). Only the first of these was ever staged, several times. But there are now plans to publish and stage all four.

A Posthumous Fragment
In 2006, the Swedish literary journal 00-tal published a special issue on the life and works of Mare Kandre. At the end of the Kandre section are several pages from her unfinished novel entitled Den underjordiske brudgummen (The Underground Bridegroom). The title comes from Rimbaud's Un saison dans l'enfer, Délires I, where the bridegroom is described as l'époux infernal ­ the infernal bridegroom.

The published fragment starts with the Dante quotation, "Midway upon the journey of our life...".A woman meets a man with a little wooden flute at a table outside a café. He later gives away the flute to a beggar or alcoholic. The narrator is meeting a powerful man who is also her alter ego. She later goes to visit him in a mental hospital. She is under no illusions.When the word "seclusion" is used, she knows that what on the surface sounds like a word denoting peace and rest, in fact means being confined to a bare, cell-like room.

Two critics singled out the work of Mare Kandre for special praise. In the English edition of the book trade periodical Svensk Bokhandel, Marie Peterson lists what she terms ten Swedish literary milestones. These are specific works that stand out, by for example Strindberg, Lagerlöf, Lidman and Jäderlund (see Svensk Bokhandel's website at www.svb.se for the full list). One of the ten is Mare Kandre's Bübins unge. In his obituary article in 2005,Thomas Götselius wrote in Dagens Nyheter that Kandre was perhaps the first and only true Wunderkind of Swedish literature in the 1980s. He goes on to say: "There is a tendency in Kandre's work in the direction of universality and interpersonal relations, something which tempted her to try out genres such as the saga or satire, and change style from book to book. (...) In Mare Kandre's world of the novel, disgust crosses paths with desire, pain with beauty, submission with revolt."

There is much anguish in the work of Mare Kandre, but also humour. This strange blend is what made her, for a couple of decades, one of the stars of innovative Swedish literature. It is to be hoped that several of her works will also appear in English translation.

Swedish Women's Writing 1850-1995, by Helena Forsås-Scott (Athlone Press, 1997), includes an English-language study of Mare Kandre's work.
360 pages
9780485910032 (hb)
9780485920031 (pb)