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Birgitta Stenberg, Eldar och is (Fires and Ice)

Norstedts,  2010. ISBN: 9789113026336

Reviewed by Henning Koch in SBR 2010:2

There are two broad features of autobiographies upon which most commentators would agree. Firstly, autobiographies tend not to be experimental in their style. Secondly, biographers cannot always be trusted to write about themselves in a way that in a substantive sense can be regarded as truthful. However, Birgitta Stenberg’s Eldar och is is an inventive autobiographical hybrid, which challenges both these assumptions: it is a free-flowing novel (Birgitta Stenberg figures as a minor character) and a deeply personal statement, which strikes one as rigorous. Writers have an ill-defined need to express their emotions, inner conflicts and occasional unreasonableness. Birgitta Stenberg is a writer of ferocious gifts, and one of the interesting aspects of this biographical novel is the clear-sighted and passionate way in which she interprets and recounts the lives of her parents and grandparents. In Eldar och is the author chooses not to be anecdotal, writerly or decorous about the people she met in her life, or the places she saw. She avoids any mention of the picaresque, maternal grandmother), a young school mistress in the north of erotic and amorous adventures described in her other autobiographical writings. Only once does she make an offthe-cuff literary reference to Paul Andersson, the cult 1950s poet with whom she was closely associated while in Paris. It was with Paul, she proudly admits, that she coined the Swedish verb ‘knarka’ (to take drugs) in the Parisian gay bar La Reine Blanche. It is a tiny, enticing snippet of literary gossip in what is otherwise a work not so very concerned with such things. The reason for this, we guess, is that the author is finally approaching a sage assessment of love. Throughout her whole suite of autobiographical novels, Stenberg has been at pains to understand herself in her courageous journey through fear, longing, hope and recklessness. In Eldar och is, she arrives at an understanding of her origins – I say this with the proviso, which the author seems to share, that there is no such thing as completion in human existence. The title for this fifth instalment of Stenberg’s fictionalised autobiography seems to be alluding to the fire and ice of progeny itself: the fiery sexual origin of the individual with her nurture through the ice of repression. Eldar och is may be seen as a kind of spiritual confrontation on the part of the author with her past, not only in her own life but also with influential events prior to her birth. Stenberg uses a kaleidoscopic method, and herein lies much of her book’s deeper qualities and brilliance. Eldar och is ranges from impressively conceived historical fiction to coolly summarised biographical material that rarely fails to fascinate. It opens with a deftly handled, novelistic set-up of the story of the young pharmacist Ernst Johannes Stenberg in Gothenburg, then moves on to Alma (the author’s Sweden.There are elements here of Stenberg confronting her family myth – without any of the self-consciousness that would trip up many a writer faced with the difficult task of fictionally reinterpreting the past. Alma, much like the author, is a free-spirited woman who embraces the happiness that comes out of personal liberty. She conceives a child as a result of a spirited ménage à trois, is forced to resign from her teaching post and as a consequence is married off by her father (a vicar) to one of his farm-hands and moved out of sight into a life of subsistence on a small, remote farm. Her illegitimate child, Ingeborg, is also shown as a determined and resourceful woman possessed of a prodigious survival instinct. Some of the details of this story will be familiar to readers of Kärlek i Europa (Love in Europe), in which Ingeborg is horrified when Birgitta learns the truth of her mother’s illegitimacy. In Eldar och is, the matter is developed further and brought to fruition, but the author keeps whatever conclusions there are to herself – more of this below. Birgitta Stenberg, having recounted the story up to her own birth, thereafter performs a swift reversal of perspective, and slowly manoeuvres into a narrator’s role. From this point on, Eldar och is moves away from its novelistic beginnings. Stenberg intersperses the narrative with letters and even short stories written concurrently with the events.The tone grows markedly more personal. She calmly glides through the dangerous waters of progeny, repeatedly and courageously questioning, not who she is (she certainly has a notion of that), but the assumptions she had made about her parentage. Ingeborg, her mother, is rendered with love and affection while the author at the same time slowly transforms her into a figure of suggestive mystery. Characteristically, in this autobiographical piece, Stenberg subverts the genre by concluding on a note of uncertainty, when she decides to take a hair from the head of her alleged nephew (the hair attached, as it must be, to its own follicle) for DNA analysis. The reader is not informed of the result of the test or, indeed, if the author even pursues the matter. Thus, at the close of the book, the author is still unsure about her parentage. Yet ultimately, as Stenberg has proved, one’s life is one’s material and substance. Self-knowledge does not depend on progeny. We are part of our origins, but biology does not explain us.

Also by Birgitta Stenberg

  • Alla vilda (All Wild). Reviewed by Henning Koch in SBR 2005:2.

Other reviews by Henning Koch

Other reviews in SBR 2010:2

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