As if I guessed that March might bring more snow, for this month I decided to focus on countries that are situated just below, on or above the Arctic Circle. The first two books I read both featured stressed mothers of young children, haunted by memories of past freedoms and creative ambitions.
Linda Boström Knausgård: October Child, translated by Saskia Vogel, World Editions, 2021.
This is a memoir rather than a novel (although it is officially described as the latter), describing the author’s struggles with mental illness and the horrendous effects of the electroconvulsive therapy to which she was subjected. What was most frightening for her as a writer was that the treatment, described euphemistically as ‘restarting a computer’, actually caused her to lose some of her memories. This book is an attempt to remind herself of who she is, why she chose to write, and also reignite her relationship with her family and friends, especially her children.
It has also been described as the ‘revenge story’, for Linda is also famous for being the Norwegian author Karl Ove Knausgård’s ex-wife and he wrote about her, their children and their domestic arrangements in painfully candid and exhaustive detail in his hugely popular memoir/novel series My Struggle. To me, however, it felt more like self-chastisement for not being strong enough to avoid falling into the maws of ‘the factory’, as she calls the psychiatric ward, for not being good enough as a mother, a writer, a wife, a daughter, a friend.
Having been so close to my children when they were small didn’t matter… because what they remembered most was that I was a mother who could disappear. I wasn’t only hurting myself, like when I was young; I was also hurting my children each time I left them to stay in these rooms, these corridors. Not to mention how much I had hurt them before, serving up my bad judgement for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, weeks in a bed… I wasn’t their mother anymore but someone else, someone they feared and didn’t understand.
She tries so hard, probably piling too much pressure and unrealistic expectations upon herself, so she inevitably ends up disappointed, feeling that she’s failing to create the ideal family life. ‘The children’s summer vacations not being as rich and full of escapades as I would’ve liked. What kind of memories would they have? What kind of magic?’
As she addresses her husband directly in second person, we begin to suspect he is indirectly contributing to her dissatisfaction and anxiety: ‘I constantly worried you’d die of a heart attack and I’d be left to take care of the children all on my own. There was no doubt in my mind I wouldn’t be able to handle it.’ But overall, it feels more like self-flagellation, extreme vulnerability – but also anger directed at the medical system that allows such a misguided treatment for depression (so that they can tick the box ‘cured’).
I was very moved by Linda’s story, which somehow manages to avoid self-pity or self-righteousness. Although she describes truly painful situations, she remains factual and precise, almost detached, as if observing her life in the third person, but with the intensity of poetry.
Depression’s torpid darkness, its void and waking death, it’s what awaits me when I sink deeper. To where there are no words, no consciousness, just dull slumber, morning, noon, and night, the anxiety enveloping every cell.
I related perhaps a little too well with Linda’s marital struggles and occasional downward spirals. The scene at the airport when she loses her temper with the airline officials, which is the moment when she realised that her husband no longer wanted to be with her, is almost the exact replica of a scene from my own life. Yet I admire the way she writes not in red-hot anger but with calm recollection and restraint. This is, of course, because writing is the one thing in her life that gives her satisfaction, hope and meaning:
No one needed to tell me I was good at writing. I knew it deep down, even in the years I wasn’t writing… I’ve always known I can write as though it were a matter of life or death… You’d tell me to write instead of moping around and wasting my time and I’d tell myself that, too, because I listened to my own voice most of all. I appreciated your perfect pitch, but enjoyed mine more. It felt like letting all the horses run free.
Although many will come away from this book thinking that the author must have been incredibly high maintenance and that it is a messy, chaotic read, I felt like I understood so much of what she described and would have liked to be her friend.
Marian Engel: The Honeyman Festival, The House of Anansi Press, 1970.
If you thought Linda Boström’s story is messy and chaotic, then you should stay away from this day in the life of Minn Burge, a heavily pregnant mother of three, whose journalist husband is constantly away in far-off places. She is preparing for a party given in memory of a rather second-rate film director called Honeyman, who was her lover and protector in Paris in her youth.
Minn feels heavy and ugly, pulled in all directions by her children, her guests, a rental home that seems to be falling down around her, the so-called Flower Children who are lodging in their attic. She is intelligent and self-deprecating, but apparently unable to stand up for herself or say no. Just like in Engel’s later novel Lunatic Villas, the messiness of her main protagonist’s life is rendered in long, rambling sentences filled to the brim with ideas, descriptions, lists. The effect is often comical.
You weren’t supposed to take fat, hot baths in mausoleum tubs towards the end of a pregnancy, you were apt to fall asleep and drown or fall and break your neck getting out or grab the electric light to save yourself and be found blue, naked and rigid on the mat next day by a window-washer, or get Ajax up the birth canal. In some ways, life was comically reduced; sin a chocolate bar at a bus stop, adventure a forbidden bath.
Minn also feels guilty about not being a good enough mother, but she is far more realistic and provocative about family life. I had to laugh at her indignant reaction when the doctor tells her she is eating too much and should lose some weight:
There was beer in the afternoon after wiping the nap-shit off the walls, and peanut butter sandwiches when they got her up at night, and eating their leftovers, and guzzling and stuffing when you were too angry to consider hitting them. And you couldn’t walk it off, you didn’t have three hands, they took you along the street at a snail’s pace… you felt the flesh mounting and multiplying with frustration and knew that captivity was tolerable only when it was comfortable; you ate, you drank a little, you sat on the floor and rolled with them, indulged them, always tamping impatience down inside you, because it was their time now, not yours; you had had your adventures. But the spirit rebelled against their forced slow-march in little spurts and dangerous leaks. It was better to eat than to hit them even when they were naughty.
I’ve read some reviews in which they say Minn is sadly a product of her time, but this reminds me very much of the conversations I had with other mums in the mid-2000s (thirty-five years after this book was written) and it didn’t feel all that different. The sheer drudgery of looking after small children, the sensation that you are now reduced to your animal functions, rather than using your brain, the way the juggling gets even worse once you have to return to work – well, when the male Knausgård moans about it in his book, he is considered revolutionary, but if a woman dares to complain, she is of course a bad mother. Still, perhaps after the lockdowns of the pandemic, when everyone was going slightly mad with too much domesticity, we can all understand Minn better.
Minn doesn’t have a greater purpose or high-flying career or artistic ambitions to justify her impatience with domesticity. She was once a (bad) bit actress, but what she really yearns for nowadays is her youth, lack of ties, the freedom to do what she wants, to love and be loved rather than just tolerated as a sort of housemate. Like a more modern-day and sweary Clarissa Dalloway, Minn tries to keep her higher (romantic?) aspirations intact.
There was no one to talk to. She stood and thought, do I love Norman? Does Norman love me? There was no answer… Love was an idea you lived through and came out on the other side of. It was slowly replaced by the necessities of devotion and duty. But it manifested itself periodically in little misplaced surges of carnality, and went away again. The spirit nourished on Lorna Doone and Jane Eyre and Le Grand Meaulnes did not give up adventure easily.
Although the two authors are almost exact opposites in terms of style – the ebullient overabundance of the Canadian, the more minimalist aloofness of the Swede – I certainly appreciated both of these accounts of the complex and ambiguous feelings surrounding motherhood and marriage. Can I see some potential male readers shuddering and giving these books a wide berth? Yes, possibly, but perhaps no more so than women who are not mothers and may feel this is all too domestic. What I think both of these books show so well is women’s endless capacity for reinvention and survival – and who can fail to find that inspirational, after all?