Reviewed by Marie Andersson in SBR 2017:2
Review Section: Autobiography
This is the second part of Agneta Pleijel’s autobiography, following her highly acclaimed Spådomen (A Fortune Foretold). She is now in her early 20s, studying literature and anthropology in 1960s’ Gothenburg and living away from home for the first time.
Pleijel takes us back to the essential question of how she became who and what she is and how her relationships have shaped her, from family members to lovers, friends and colleagues – some of them respected writers. The boyfriends and love affairs are as varied and different as the lessons she draws from each one of them, even though there is always the hope of finding true love and having a child.
In her rear view mirror, she watches an old movie featuring herself as a young woman with all her dreams, ideas and ideals, as well as an acute need to be loved, coupled with a lack of self-esteem. Lost in everything that is unspoken. Failed relationships and heartbreaks make her use sex as a survival and recovery kit, ploughing through meaningless encounters. As her career in journalism and writing flourishes, she continues to ponder the big questions: why are women perceived as they are? Why are women less valued than men? Why are women not supposed to have an opinion and a voice? And most of all: what do men want? How is it possible to fulfil their desires, based on their dream of what a woman should be? And how can you escape a marriage that is not your own, but your parents’?
Her father appears as the central influence on her character. Their relationship is intense, complicated and verging on something she feels should not exist between father and daughter. They write letters to each other in which the true message is concealed between the lines. And Pleijel’s mother still lives in the hope of her estranged husband returning to her some day. The children play along with their parents’ charade in order to keep the peace and avoid conflict.
Pleijel has a unique and appealing way of writing. It is easy to understand and relate to the mind and actions of the young woman she describes. She has said she would like to be able to give the book to her young self, and it would certainly make an empowering gift to any young woman! The book is peppered with quotes from and references to other great writers and poets, all with a relevance to her life and thoughts. There are many truths to be considered. It is a thinking person’s book, nakedly honest and somewhat unassumingly innocent, even though it is the older, successful, writer and woman now remembering and portraying herself as a young woman. It is written with love.
And what about the title, The Scent of a Man? Does this refer to the father with whom she has an ambivalent but intense and complicated relationship? The men with whom she becomes intimate, the ones she is drawn to and who she both absorbs and is absorbed by? Agneta Pleijel is among Sweden’s most prominent authors, poets, playwrights and literary critics. Now aged 77, she has published a long list of awardwinning books, many of which have been translated into several languages. She remains as current and topical as ever, with her heart firmly on the left and her eyes and mind clear and open. It is no surprise, but a great delight, that this book is as relevant and important to young women today as it would have been for the young author herself.