📖 🇸🇪 #15: A wise anti-romance from Sweden

A tale of unrequited love by Lena Andersson

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Lena Andersson’s Wilful Disregard won Sweden’s August Prize in 2013. Two years later, it became Andersson’s first novel to be translated into English. It’s a delightfully bizarre, utterly relatable, book about the agony of infatuation; about giving up your entire life for a man who can barely be bothered to acknowledge you.

Our narrator is Ester Nilsson, a thirtysomething poet and philosopher, who prides herself on making rational decisions and taking a logical approach towards life. She’s a self-described intellectual who enjoys running, reading, and spending time alone pondering the meaning of existence. That’s when renowned older artist Hugo Rask comes onto the scene and upends everything.

Ester Nilsson had not felt any sense of unhappiness with life, nor even any normal, everyday depression… she renounced expensive living, ate cheaply, was always careful about contraception, only travelled rationally, had never been in debt to the bank or to any private person, and did not get herself into situations that forced her away from what she wanted to spend her time doing: reading, thinking, writing and debating.  She had been living like that for thirteen years, and for more than half that time in a quiet, harmonious relationship with a man who left her in peace while satisfying her physical and mental needs. Then she got a phone call.

When Hugo shows up unannounced at a talk Ester is giving about him, it doesn’t take long for her to fall madly in love. The decision to leave her long-term boyfriend comes worryingly easily to Ester who gives everything she’s got to seduce Hugo, her intellectual equal. Hugo, in return, shows almost no interest in Ester.

Hugo never followed up anything Ester said. Ester always followed up what Hugo said. Neither of them was really interested in her but they were both interested in him.

For a while, things seem to be going well for Ester but it’s not long before Hugo loses interest and her life starts to spiral out of control: she starts showing up at Hugo’s studio unannounced; circles his apartment block in the hope of running into him; and sends him long, unprompted messages about the nature of desire. But while Ester is awake to the futility of her destructive behaviour, her infatuation cannot be helped and she winds up losing years reading far too much into his behaviour.

Ester is an insufferable, pretentious narrator whose endless anxieties are nothing short of infuriating. And Hugo’s even worse: a self-centred libertarian fuckboy with almost no moral compass to speak of. And yet Ester’s endless thoughts on whether or not she should call Hugo (spoiler: she does, every time) are completely gripping and Andersson’s prose is sparse to the point of hilarity.

Who knew that 196-pages about two Swedish intellectuals not being in a relationship could be so gripping? But it truly is; I was hooked from the very beginning.

Wilful Disregard by Lena Andersson, translated by Sarah Death (Picador, 2015)


More books by Swedish authors

Here’s a list of the other recommendations I received this week. I’m a big fan of Jonas Hassen Khemiri:

  • Acts of Infidelity by Lena Andersson, tr. Saskia Vogel

  • They Will Drown in their Mothers' Tears by Johannes Anyuru, tr. Saskia Vogel

  • Beartown by Fredrik Backman, tr. Neil Smith

  • Eventide by Therese Bohman, tr. Marlaine Delargy

  • Welcome to America by Linda Boström Knausgård, tr. Martin Aitken

  • Welcome to the Pine Away Motel and Cabins by Katarina Bivald, tr. Alice Menzies

  • Everything I Don’t Remember by Jonas Hassen Khemiri tr. Rachel Willson-Broyles

  • The Faculty of Dreams by Sara Stridsberg, tr. Deborah Bragan-Turner

  • Inlands by Elin Willows, tr. Duncan Lewis

  • The Polyglot Lovers by Lina Wolff, tr. Saskia Vogel

What have you read recently?

If you’ve read a brilliant book in translation or want to pass on a recommendation, I’d love to hear about it! For this project, I’m focussing on contemporary fiction and short stories, with a preference for female authors—but I won’t be too dogmatic about it so do share recommendations that don’t quite fit the bill, too.

You can get in touch by replying to this email or leaving a comment. I’ll be featuring your recommendations in upcoming newsletters, and I’ll keep a growing list here.

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Bookmarked is written by Tabatha Leggett. Thanks to Maria Antas from the Swedish Arts Council for her help with this issue’s recommendations. If you know someone who would enjoy this newsletter, please forward it to them!