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Birgitta Stenberg, Alla vilda (All Wild)

Norstedts,  2004. ISBN: 9113012924

Reviewed by Henning Koch in SBR 2005:2

Alla vilda is deceptive – a work of autobiography far greater than the sum of its parts. On first reading, Stenberg’s narrative seems nothing more than an endless list of inconsequential happenings, but slowly the reader is captured by her virtues of honesty, modesty and precision. There is also a good deal of sociological and document-ary material. The main threads of the narrative are developed by a relentless energy that drives the reader on. After VE Day, hordes of Scandinavians “charge” out into Europe. In Saint-Germaine, Stenberg first notes the tourist buses slowing down to announce through loudspeakers where Jean-Paul Sartre can be seen, sitting in such and such a café. In Paris, Stenberg meets and falls in love with Louise, a demobbed GI studying painting at the Academie Julian. She immediately proposes a trip to Spain, and Louise accepts. They take a ferry from Barcelona to Palma, where they rent a house – she to write, and Louise to paint. Charles Corbett from Paris joins them in Mallorca. A cosmo-polite and friend of James Baldwin, Charles (also known as “Chuck”) has recently married a 19-year old American heiress worth 72 million dollars – notwithstanding the fact that he is gay. Spain is in the midst of political repression. A Swedish woman on Mallorca is known locally as the spy. “Franco pays her” to check all letters sent to Scandinavian artists on the islands. Unfortunately she steals the expensive nylon stockings, which relatives send from Scandinavia. Birgitta keeps late hours, helped along by amphetamines that are readily available over the counter at the pharmacist’s. She works at her writing, trying to break down her enormous insecurity at being twenty years old and unpublished! She notes that when she buys her stamps at a tabac in Palma, the smiling proprietor fixes the stamps by punching Franco’s profile. Chuck falls in love with a vacuous young American male model, whom he later rapes, chagrined to find that the latter has instigated a “love triangle” with a couple of Spanish peasants who have come to Mallorca to break in their patron’s new shoes – apparently a reasonably common custom at this time in Spain. Chuck also manages to get a job in a ballet of The Blue Danube by Aina Latvian with Lucia Graves (Robert Graves’s daughter) headlining. At this time Stenberg is trying to write in the style of her beloved Djuna Barnes, particularly her Nightwood, which she adores. For her 21st birthday she invites her mother down, a chain-smoking bourgeoise woman who is constantly complaining about “her poor lungs”. Her mother comes mainly in the hope of meeting Robert Graves. When Stenberg’s birthday night is spent with the crew of a Norwegian merchant ship, and in the morning her mother chances on the captain snoring away under her overcoat, she goes back to Sweden without another word and never again touches the coat. Later, at a party, Stenberg’s friend Jack Richtman is seen in drag in public, and the next day he has to skip the country after the Guardia Civil come looking for him. Stenberg finally decides to go and stay with the Graves set in Deyà, but once she gets there finds she is too shy to join in with the entertainments. She ends up staying in the cottage of Alston Anderson, a short story writer and one of Graves’s protégés. Believing herself to have fallen in love with Anderson, in spite of being fazed by his black skin, she holes up in his cottage for three days and writes a long novella. Robert Graves visits to check up on her, and asks, in a complimentary manner, whether perhaps she is more of a poet than a prose writer? She replies with customary insecurity: “I am nothing as yet.” When finally Stenberg goes back to Palma, Louise has found a new lover – Nicki, a drug addict, who has been beating her. Stenberg resorts to a lie in order to borrow some money: “I am pregnant with a black man's child and I have to go to Germany to have an abortion.” She uses the money to go back to Sweden. After a brief interlude in Bromma, Stenberg’s book flashes forward by almost a half century. What the author shows is that none of the people portrayed in this book have changed by one iota in the intervening period. Are they still “wild”? Yes. Jack Richtman is still in love with Charles, and none of his relationships ever lasted “because no one could put up with his endless talk about Chuck...” Chuck, meanwhile, has somehow managed to survive the saunas of New York and a lengthy foray into sado-masochism, but he is now celibate and “into” yoga. Louise has settled in Carmel, California with a steady partner, but even as she approaches her eighties she is still consumed by physical desire. As for Stenberg, she notes that old age is not unpleasant as long as one retains a certain level of fitness. She works out every day and keeps writing. In Nice, she remembers a park where a few years ago she used to watch groups of homeless people who had taken over the place and formed a functioning community. However, in 2004 the municipality of Nice concretes over the whole park and rips out the trees. Stenberg sees this as “silent fascism growing unobtrusively – once again certain people are simply not allowed to exist.” Birgitta Stenberg’s voice is one we should take note of. She is an honest, fearless writer who has spent her whole life exploring a set of specific preoccupations. There are not many writers of her calibre, with so much experience to draw on and such a steady, uncompromising gaze.

Also by Birgitta Stenberg

  • Eldar och is (Fires and Ice). Reviewed by Henning Koch in SBR 2010:2.

Other reviews by Henning Koch

Other reviews in SBR 2005:2

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