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Stewe Claeson, Rönndruvan glöder (The Rowan's Cluster Glows)

Norstedts,  2002. ISBN: 9113011081

Reviewed by Charles Harrison-Wallace in SBR 2003:1

The title of Stewe Claeson’s ninth major work comes from one of Esaias Tegnér’s best-known shorter poems, Flyttfåglarna” – “och hararna hvitna och rönndrufvan glöder/och tåget församlas. Mot Söder! mot Söder!” The phrase has been variously translated as “the rowan-tree’s red” (Bethune 1848), “the ash-berries glow” (Stork 1930), and “red ash-berries say” (Moffett 2001). But there is significance attaching to the word “drufva”. When the German doctor, Jessen, who is treating Tegnér for depression, is puzzled by the Swedish poet’s use of language, a word such as avveckling, for instance, he asks himself, “what nuance is intended by this, let us say, perplexing choice of word?” “Drufva” implies the luscious cluster of the vine, as if the rowan-berries were bitter grapes for Tegnér, to burst against his troubled palate. Tegnér (1782-1846) somehow managed to match most of the output of the English Romantic poets, from Macpherson to Tennyson, within his own personal range. Claeson portrays him at two stages in his life, first as the aging, already disoriented lover of a married woman, Emili Selldén, between the spring of 1834 and the winter of 1835; and secondly, during 1840, as a voluntary incumbent of an asylum for mental patients, near German Schleswig. Episodes from the two periods are interleaved, with the second stage partly recounted by the distancing device of the doctor’s case-notes. At times the finely-wrought text reads like a prose poem, redolent of the bitter-sweet melancholy of Tegnér’s contemporary, Keats. Claeson took nine years to complete this work, and in the intensity of its recreation of the relationships and interchanges between Tegnér and his very young mistress, and a selection of other characters, his style is as minutely studied as the descriptions of Henry James. Tegnér’s vision is despondently retrospective: this, and the background tapestry of the preparation and ingestion of numerous repasts and libations in a variety of social settings, even sent me back to renew my losing struggle with Proust. Perhaps the main theme is avveckling; the running down or winding up of the poet’s past: in a word, the entropy of existence. Dr Jessen notes that one of Tegnér’s pre-occupations is that “life does not lead from one point to another: there is no unity in a person’s life. … He wants life to have held some meaning for him, who doesn’t, but at the same time he perceives that whatever meaning life may have had has escaped him”. An ancient Countess Löwenhielm comments that “Human desire weighs down and paralyses.” There is a parallel between the gradual waning of the poet’s passion for Emili, and his gradual recovery from his depression. “Writing obviously has a calming influence upon him”, says the doctor. At the end there is an implicit acceptance of the approach of Time’s chariot. This carefully crafted dissection of a poet’s psyche is demanding, and unlikely to have its readers eagerly turning from one page to the next; but it can and should be savoured. At a select reception in their house, Tegnér instructs the young son of Doctor and Mrs Jessen, who is reading some translated verse by Horace to the assembled company, to “dare to read slowly. A good poem can be read one word per minute”.

Also by Stewe Claeson

  • Stämma i havet (Voice in the Sea). Reviewed by Irene Scobbie in SBR 2000:1.

Other reviews by Charles Harrison-Wallace

Other reviews in SBR 2003:1

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