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Majgull Axelsson, En stad av slott (A City of Castles)

Natur och Kultur,  2002. ISBN: 9127353761

Reviewed by Linda Schenck in SBR 2003:1

Majgull Axelsson’s A City of Castles is the seventh in a series, published by Natur och Kultur/LT’s förlag under the umbrella title “The Trip” (Resan), in which prominent Swedish arts personalities are asked to present their own angle on a part of Sweden that is dear to them. It’s a brilliant idea that ought to receive more media attention than it has. Axelsson began her adult life in Norrköping, where she had her first proper job with a proper salary when she was hired as a reporter for the local daily paper. It was also her first real adult home, after a period of restless searching: “In two years she had polished off two countries, four cities, eight lodgings and hundreds of people, including three cheerful English cleaning ladies, two irate Welsh cooks, one morose Italian businessman, fifty-five giggly Swedish switchboard operators, a temperamental old-woman newspaper owner, a lazy editor-in-chief and one non-Conformist one, three tense students travelling left, and eighteen journalists from Småland, of varying dispositions. She remembered not a single address, telephone number of name. There was no point in remembering.” Now she was in Norr-köping, where “Winter nipped at her thighs as she crossed Queen’s Street. It was December, 1967, and her skirt was very short” The title, A City of Castles, alludes to a spectrum ranging from castles in the air (Axelsson’s own dreams of the good and real society and the dream of industrialization as bringing permanent welfare to all) to novels in the Swedish tradition (City of Light, by Kerstin Ekman which, in its turn, alludes to A City of Light, A City of Darkness by Eyvind Johnson), to the industrial “castle” that then dominated and still stands proud in the Norrköping skyline. Today it houses the Swedish museum of the history of work and the worker, Arbetes museum, a “different” kind of museum, with no machines and no permanent collection beyond a poster of a woman named Alva, born in 1908 in Norrköping and employed for 35 years as a textile roller in the building. Much of Axelsson’s book revolves around her discussions with the museum’s director, Erik Hofrén, who sees all history as personal, and the museum as playing the corresponding role in his life to the role novels play in Axelsson’s. Together, Erik and Majgull “read” Norrköping. A more loving reading would be difficult to find, or a more insightful one. Axelsson generously shares her many recollections of being young in 1968, of being an enthusiastic woman reporter under a wise taskmaster of an editor-in-chief, and of watching a city change over a period of nearly forty years. Norrköping is also one of the places in which her own novel, April Witch (Random House) is set. A City of Castles also contains numerous glimpses into the creation of that novel. And of herself, transformed. From remembering nothing of the two years of her life prior to December 1967, she now recalls every detail: “What is truth? Is it the things we remember, or the things we don’t? Time after time I have to remind myself that the past does not exist, it only lives in us, and we create it and recreate it. Still, I am astonished over the detail in certain memories, and over how much I recall of that girl’s first years in Norrköping. How is it possible that, thirty-five years later, I remember the exact date of a staff party? Or the feel of a certain dress against my young body? Or the cold and the silence early one morning as I walked to the paper in the December darkness?” As a non-native Swede with very little experience of Norrköping (I have been there a couple of times for a day or two), I find myself deeply moved by this little book (150 small pages with large print), not least because it triggers so many memories of my own first “real adult life” around those same years. It leaves me eager both to reflect further on my personal experience, to read the rest of the series and to visit the places they describe.

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