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Kerstin Ekman, Mordets praktik (The Practice of Murder)

Albert Bonniers förlag,  2009. ISBN: 9789100123864

Reviewed by Rochelle Wright in SBR 2010:1

The novels and short stories of Hjalmar Söderberg (1869-1941) remain widely read in Sweden today. Two novels in particular, Doktor Glas (1905; Doctor Glas, trans. 1963 and 1998) and Den allvarsamma leken (1912; The Serious Game, trans. 2002), have inspired fellow writers to retell the core narrative from a different perspective. Gun-Britt Sundström’s För Lydia (1973; For Lydia) provides a feminist slant on the love story of The Serious Game, updating it to the time of writing and highlighting the woman’s experience, while Bengt Ohlsson’s Gregorius (2004; English translation, same title, 2007), purportedly a first-person account by the much maligned pastor in Doctor Glas, reinvents that character to make him self-critical and to some degree sympathetic. Kerstin Ekman’s Mordets praktik (The Practice of Murder) also takes its point of departure in Doctor Glas, but her approach is different and more complex. Though the Ekman novel incorporates numerous quotations from and allusions to Söderberg, the plot is not a recapitulation, but rather a response and commentary on several interlocking levels. Ekman’s first-person narrator, a down-at-heel physician named Pontus Revinge, follows up on a chance encounter with the writer Hjalmar Söderberg by providing him with information on potassium cyanide pills as an instrument of death. Though the two have no further contact, when Doctor Glas appears a few years later, Revinge is convinced that, in some inexplicable way, he has served as the model for Söderberg’s protagonist. The relationship appears, rather, to be the reverse, for Revinge gradually begins emulating the fictional character. He keeps a diary that incorporates not only events of the day but episodes from the past as well as reflections on moral and philosophical issues and comments on previous entries. Apparently inspired by Glas, he also takes action to bring about change in his life, most drastically by offering a potassium cyanide pill, under the guise of heart medicine, to his medical partner Johannes Skade (‘Harms’ is an equivalent English name), whom he finds despicable. At the same time Revinge prides himself on not suffering from Glas’ prolonged indecision and tendency to brood, which he considers to be solely the product of Söderberg’s imagination. Glas’ diary ends only a short time after the death of Pastor Gregorius with the realization that his act, and action in general, is ultimately meaningless. Revinge, in contrast, continues putting his thoughts down on paper for many years, albeit sporadically. Though he takes over the medical practice by marrying Skade’s widow and gradually moves up in society, happiness remains elusive and illusory. His physical health and mental state deteriorate as he increasingly believes himself to be under suspicion from his wife and from a young female doctor, whose theories about what has transpired are influenced by popular detective novels. In an attempt to extricate himself from a situation he finds increasingly untenable, he takes injudicious steps that very nearly lead to discovery but do nothing to solve his dilemma. Whereas initially Revinge had stressed the power of his will to determine the course of events, by the end of the narrative he has, without acknowledging the fact, absorbed the fatalistic, deterministic world view expressed by Glas. Parallels between Revinge and Glas are not solely a product of the former’s identification with Söderberg’s character; Ekman establishes a number of similarities that Revinge himself does not note. In their teens, both suffered hardship and loss of social standing due to their fathers’ economic irresponsibility; both were close to their mothers. As young men, both experienced a budding romance at a Midsummer celebration in the Stockholm archipelago that came to an abrupt, unhappy end. In the present time of the respective narratives, both acknowledge a secret, forbidden attraction to someone who is unavailable and off-bounds. In their professional capacities, both are asked to perform illegal abortions. In each comparison, however, Revinge’s experience is more distressing or sordid. His father went to jail rather than merely going bankrupt; his relationship with his mother was tainted by sexual overtones. The youthful romance is terminated not by death but by the girl’s involvement with another man and a subsequent abortion reluctantly performed by Revinge, which remained undiscovered but had negative repercussions for his career. Glas is in love with a married woman, while Revinge’s infatuation is with his stepdaughter, initially a schoolgirl of sixteen. Comparisons between Revinge’s ‘reality’ and Söderberg’s novel indirectly illustrate Revinge’s discussion in his diary of how literature transforms reality, removing the stench and the grime to make it more beautiful. For readers who identify Ekman with multi-volume epics such as the Katrineholm series or the Vargskinnet (Wolfskin) trilogy, or with long, complex novels such as Rövarna i Skuleskogen (1988; The Forest of Hours 1998), Händelser vid vatten (1993; Blackwater, 1997), or Gör mig levande igen (1996; Revive Me), Mordets praktik, with its concentration on the thoughts and experiences of a single character, may seem an anomaly. Connections to earlier works are nevertheless apparent, and not only with regard to the murder mystery aspects of the story. Intertextual discourse is found throughout Ekman’s oeuvre, most prominently in the multi-valenced response to Eyvind Johnson’s Krilon trilogy in Gör mig levande igen. One of her greatest strengths is the ability to recreate the everyday reality of an earlier era; the verisimilitude in Mordets praktik is present even at the linguistic level, through selectively archaic word choices and the use of plural verb forms. Ekman’s emotionally distant, insensitive male protagonist, unable to view women as competent and autonomous, may also seem an odd choice, given her focus on the female experience in many previous works. But Pontus Revinge’s attitudes call attention to the pervasive sexism of Söderberg’s time, implicitly challenging the reader to make comparisons with the present.

Rochelle Wright

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