Reviewed by Irene Scobbie in SBR 2015:2
Review Section: Lost Treasure
Elisabeth Rynell’s breakthrough as a novelist came with Hohaj (1997); the same translucent language and mystical evocation of nature characterise her later novels Till Mervas (To Mervas) and Hitta Hem (Finding Home). In Om skrivandets sinne, a collection of essays, she describes entering language as if it were a forest. At best, writing offers her a kind of symbiosis with nature, though she sometimes suffers from ‘writer’s cramp’, anguished periods when a dark cloud descends and her self-confidence disappears. Courage, concentration and a spark of inspiration help her to snap out of it.
Rynell records her thoughts with disarming honesty. When her husband died suddenly, leaving her with three young children, her rage was assuaged by an elderly woman’s letter: ‘Try to understand that there is a meaning in everything.’ Helped to think calmly about her husband’s life, she saw that his death was not meaningless. Once able to grieve and accept her loss, she reflected that, while modern society views death as a weakness to be resisted, it is part of an individual's destiny, or narrative.
'Foot to Foot' and 'Sara's Feast' make up an endearing portrait of the author Sara Lidman, a live wire who ‘sparkled like a northern day in midwinter’ and embodied ‘rage, pain and love in equal measure’. They had lively discussions on many issues, profound and trivial, and often disagreed but nonetheless remained affectionate, appreciative friends. Sara once remarked that the portrayal of the evil Knövel (in Hohaj) was unsuccessful because Rynell had been unable to love him; she insisted that writers must love all their characters. The pen portraits include one of Rynell’s aunt and ‘author mother’, Birgitta Trotzig, who was ‘in contact with the source and mystery of life’.
In the essay ‘The Giant’s Brain’, Rynell follows up Harry Martinson’s diatribe against modern society (Reality unto Death, 1940). In 1981, she had fled from the claustrophobic city structures that expressed ‘the giant’s thoughts’ and in which antlike humans followed designated routes. Three decades later, the expanding ‘brain’ that is Stockholm seems even more tyrannical and prone to turn dissatisfaction into fear. In less pessimistic moods, Rynell persuades herself a writer’s mission is to fly the flag for humanity. Too few do but who is to blame?
Although neoliberalism claims to have the right answers to our questions, its monopoly on thought has banished the free thinking that promises to lead to remembered watering holes and glades. Rynell instinctively wants to escape into nature but she adds – possibly in despair – that she has already tried that. The theme recurs in ‘On Ugliness’: we are surrounded by ugly places – shopping centres, car parks etc – designed without love.
At sixteen, Rynell was raped. The experience has been on her mind, ‘invisible but active’, until, forty years on, she must write about it. The memory still fills her with revulsion.The sixteen- year-old believed that she had brought shame on herself and her family. Now, the event becomes a springboard for a discourse on society’s views on women. Hild’s rape in Hitta Hem is based on Rynell’s own ordeal and when the novel appeared she expected reactions. None came – ‘suppression obviously applies not just to an individual but collectively to society’. Foreign ‘honour culture’ causes indignation, but is not all that alien: although Hild’s male relatives don’t kill her, she does not escape obloquy, and her rape is deemed less important than her aura of shame. If a flamboyant man is robbed, the thief is not excused, as is a rapist if his victim is scantily clad. In an apocryphal Gospel, Christ referred to Mary Magdalene as a human being rather than as a woman; however, patriarchy remains a fundamental social fact, the source of ‘honour’ (sadly often upheld by women) and the rule in settings like sports arenas, boardrooms and courts.
Rynell reasons that her rape was never about her; she was just a pawn in a game. Men are violated whenever a woman is raped. The wartime purpose of mass rape is to shame the enemy’s soldiers. Fundamentally, rape is an act of aggression between men – denied, dangerous. In this short book, Rynell progresses from the autobiographical to the universal and airs a remarkable range of issues. Readers will surely ponder these perceptive, thought-provoking essays long afterwards.