Albert Bonniers förlag, 2008. ISBN: 9789100112820
Reviewed by Kevin Halliwell in SBR 2008:2
Though published in the run-up to the Swedish summer vacation, Lars Norén’s A Dramatist’s Diary is not exactly airport reading. Weighing in at 1,322 grams and containing 1,680 extra-thin pages, one thinks immediately of the Bible. The Diary – including the lettering on the cover page – is also black. This is perhaps appropriate, since its celebrated author (and author of The Dead Plays) is obsessed with transience and death: "Everything I write has to do with death" ... "We will soon be dead. We only live for a day."
Already something of a publishing sensation even before it appeared in April 2008, the book is a first-person narration of Norén’s everyday life over a five-year period during which he works, shops, cleans and tidies his apartment. The literary premise is hardly inspiring, yet the first edition sold out almost immediately.
Clearly, anyone who has known or worked with Sweden’s most famous contemporary dramatist will have a personal interest in reading the Diary, and Bonnier has come up with an ingenious formula to get them all to open their wallets: the book contains neither page numbers nor index. Consequently, the hapless actor, director or critic itching to find out what treatment – if any – has been reserved for him cannot just leaf through it surreptitiously at the bookstore; he will have to lug it home and plough through it from cover to cover.
Norén’s candid, often merciless assessments of his peers have been widely reported in the media. Leif Zern, the drama critic of the daily Dagens Nyheter, comes in for particularly harsh treatment, as does the theatre director Jasenko Selimovic. Ingmar Bergman is similarly trashed: "The last ten years of his work have been like hospital food: already eaten and excreted for you before you get it."
While some theatre buffs will delight in the name-checking, they will learn little or nothing of Norén the director. The following extract is typical: "A hard, enjoyable rehearsal. We ran through the first 60 pages, had lunch, and then went into it in more detail. I managed to get an appointment at the dentist’s..."
They will, however, learn much about Norén the man. Those who have chuckled knowingly at the superficiality of characters like Ker in Trio to the End of Time may be surprised to discover that Norén shares many of the obsessions of his dramatic creations. Much of his time is spent shopping for clothes – and always by an exclusive designer. He is obsessed with tidiness ("trying to keep things clean. I don’t want too many things around me"); and he shares the artist’s often tortured relationship with money.
One of Norén’s editors at Bonnier tells him he sees the Diary as a novel, and this is indeed where the book comes alive. The reader is drawn in by its warts-and-all portrayal of a sensitive but self-centred artist battling with depression and a mid-life crisis that leads him to kill the thing he loves (his marriage to C).
Predictably, the Diary has met with a backlash, spearheaded by those who feel aggrieved at the vitriolic treatment meted out to them. It is to Norén’s credit, however, that his uncompromising candour also applies to himself. The result is a picture of Norén as a somewhat unlikely early 21st century Everyman who is not untouched by the angst, failings and petty foibles of the age.