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Sara Stridsberg, Darling River: Doloresvariationer (Darling River: Dolores Variations)

Albert Bonniers förlag,  2010. ISBN: 9789100122683

Reviewed by Rick McGregor in SBR 2011:1

In interviews in the Swedish media, Sara Stridsberg has described how she read Vladimir Nabokov’s minor classic Lolita (1955) while she was working on a novel about a girl who seduced older men in parks and indoor swimming pools. She was fascinated by Lolita and inspired to fill in some of the gaps in it. The result is her latest novel, Darling River, which, as the sub-title implies, consists of variations on the story of Dolores Haze (Lolita). Each of the four variations recurs in the first four of the novel’s five sections, and each section closes with a number of fictional short encyclopaedia entries defining some of the key themes in the stories. The first four sections are titled ‘Destiny’, ‘Time’, ‘The Mirror’ and ‘Illness’. The fifth section, ‘Loneliness’, consists solely of the fifth instalment of the title story, ‘Darling River (Lo)’. One might wonder what an Australian river has to do with a novel inspired by Lolita. It transpires that Sara Stridsberg saw the name on a map of Alaska, while working on her novel, but has not been able to find it since... Of course, the connotation of darling or lover is not accidental, as the ‘Darling River’ chapters are told in the first person by Lo, who spends her days seducing men (her ‘brothers’) on the muddy banks of the river of the title, and her nights being driven around in her father’s Jaguar through forest fires, while he runs over animals on the road, has sex in the car with prostitutes and shoots holes in Lo’s mother’s dresses hung up between trees. Lo says that her father ‘was in his youth obsessed by a Russian exile author and butterfly collector and named me after one of his novels... Dolores means pain and I imagine that it could also mean roses. Roses are connected to death...’ Dolores is a fated name for a girl, so she prefers to call herself Lo. Until the age of seventeen she thought that she would die in childbirth, as the fictional foreword tells us that Dolores Schiller, née Haze, did in Nabokov’s Lolita. Stridsberg fills in the gap between the end of Nabokov’s novel and Lolita’s death in Gray Star, Alaska, in the four chapters she calls ‘The Book of the Dead (Dolores)’. These are told in reverse order, starting at the maternity hospital in Gray Star in December 1952, and working their way back several months to the start of Dolores and Richard Schiller’s journey to Alaska. I once saw a very interesting student production of Romeo and Juliet which was done with the events reversed, but here I feel Stridsberg has let form come before function; I don’t think it is as successful as it was with the Shakespearean story. The other gap that Stridsberg fills in is in the chapter entitled ‘Jardin des Plantes’. In an afterword to Lolita, Nabokov wrote that ‘the initial shiver of inspiration’ for his novel came from a newspaper article about an ape who, ‘after months of coaxing by a scientist’, produced a sketch showing the bars of its own cage. The article has never been found, so Nabokov probably made it up; Stridsberg has said that she wanted to tell the story which did not exist. In her version there is a sexual element to the scientist’s fascination with the female ape which links this story with the other Dolores variations – along with such other themes as captivity and the parent-child relationship. Indeed, it is only in the chapters entitled ‘From the Mother Map’ that a female main character is not in some way captive or oppressed. In these chapters (two or three in each section), the unnamed mother travels around with typewriter and camera by car, boat and plane in various parts of the world after leaving her husband and child, whom she thinks of as strangers. Darling River is a fascinating novel with strong writing, powerful passages and an intriguing interaction between its different strands. It engages in an interesting way with the original, and is well worth reading for its own sake. If it inspires those who have not already done so to read Lolita, all the better.

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