Amalie Skram was a naturalist writer, perhaps the most naturalist of all Norwegian writers. She most well-known work is the four volume novel series entitled The People of Hellemyr. In Constance Ring, a different book altogether, Skram outspokenly covers such topics as sex, adultery and women's rights.
Constance Ring is a frank and open book, and raises questions which at the time (1885) were not discussed in public. It was initially refused by the author's scandalized publisher. However, today Constance Ring is considered a classic of Scandinavian and women's literature. It is a passionate condemnation of marriage and moral hypocrisy, especially the different standards for men and women with regards to sexuality, and has sometimes been compared to works like Madame Bovary and The Awakening.
Constance is a naive young woman who marries the 16 years older Edvard Christensen Ring, a well-to-do businessman who loves her but indulges in the casual adultery that is customary for men of his social circle. Constance is very unhappy in her marriage and in particular not pleased with their sex. However, she is a vibrant woman in her early 20s, very beautiful, and learns that she is attractive to men.
However, she soon she finds that no one will support her decision - not even her mother and sister - but she refuses to yield to the forces of a society that offers women few choices other than marriage. She divorces her husband, and marries again.
The second part of the book appears to be somewhat autobiographical. When Constance Ring finds out that her second husband has an illegitimate child, she enters into an affair with a musician, only to find that he has been having an affair with her maid, and that she expects a child with him.
Constance Ring is a strong, very engaged book that at the same time provides a rich description of some of the fundamental challenges facing women at the time. It is a valuable book, both as literature and in a larger, cultural and historical perspective.
Broken, by Karin Fossum
The opening of Broken is wonderful. It is a about a female author. There are people waiting in line to get in to her, to get their stories written by her. But she is tired. Then something unexpected happens: A polite, quiet man pushes his way forward in the line, and all the way into the bedroom of the author, wakes her up, and asks to have his story told before all the others. He can't wait for his turn to come. If his story isn't told, he doesn't think he will have much of a life. The author reluctantly agrees. This starts the second story line of Broken.
The author gives the shy and polite man the name "Alvar Eide" - invents him - and begins to tell (or invent?) his story. We follow his story as it unfolds throughout the book, as well as and at the same time, the relationship between Alvar and the author, who reflects both over his life and her own. Thus Broken deals with the intersection of an invented story (or is it real) and the real story of the person inventing it(or is that too invented?).
Alvar Eide is pictured (or invented?) as a shy, middle-aged man who lives a quiet and undramatic routine life, with no responsibilities to anyone. His parents are dead and he lives alone. He enjoys his work at an art gallery where he is a knowledgeable and conscientious art dealer.
One cold winter's day a young, freezing cold, drug addict comes into the gallery to warm herself, and Alvar feels sorry for her and offers her some coffee. From that moment on, he is unknowingly caught in a relationship that will have dramatic consequences for him.
Broken is a fiction book, but as exciting as a thriller. It is a different, clever, and touching story which describes how Alvar, a quiet, staid man becomes a dramatic creature, as well as about the author's life with her fictitious characters. Concerning the author, it raises issues about how much it costs to create literature, and how deeply involved she is with her characters. The book becomes a meeting place for (fictional) fictional and (fictional) real worlds. To some extent it resembles the relationship of man to God: We all want to be seen, to be visible, to experience good things with others. The author can give Alvar all of that, but tells him he has to make it happen himself.
Broken is a wonderful book, beautiful and controlled in its style, insightful, and with black humor and sharp observations. Perhaps Karin Fossum's best book so far! I think so!
Order Broken by Karin Fossum from amazon UK!
For more Karin Fossum books - see our Karin Fossum page!
Siamese, Stig Saeterbakken
In Siamese, Saeterbakken paints a harsh, to some extent comic but also brutal portrait of an old married couple. There is a saying in Norwegian about couples like the one described in this novel: “The only thing they have together is their mutual hatred for one another”. In Siamese the author digs deeply into the daily life of such a couple.
Siamese (Norwegian title Siamesisk, 1997) and the two subsequent books, Selvbeherskelse, published in 1998, and Sauermugg (1999) comprise Saeterbakken’s S-trilogy, the author’s most ambitious literary project to date. The trilogy may be said to explore male identity problems.
The main characters are Edwin and his wife Erna. Erna has problems with her hearing but sees well. Edwin is paralyzed from the waist down and incontinent. He has chosen to live his life in the bathroom. He is also more or less blind but can hear well.
"This chair is my throne, from here everything is governed, I rule supreme in my own realm, in the kingdom of my mind", says Edwin. He sits locked in his bathroom and tries to liberate his mind from his body. And his experiment seems to be going well: His limbs are in decay, many of his bodily functions have ceased, and his digestive system is breaking down. His body “is a sewer”, he says.
The old couple lives in a symbiotic relationship like a pair of Siamese twins: Each is dependent on the other and neither dares to break out of the relationship. Structurally, the analysis to some extent reminds me of Hegel's analysis of the master-slave relationship and August Strindberg's dramas. In Siamese, the two parties do not communicate in the ordinary sense of the word, instead there is humiliation and cruelty and efforts to dominate.
Then a third party is brought into the conflict - a young maintenance man arrives to replace a light bulb in Edwin’s bathroom. Now the conflict escalates, and the couple enters into a new and vicious struggle for power where the form is somewhat different.
‘Look at me, you bitch!’ His tongue had gone back into his mouth so that he could shout again, at the top of his lungs. ‘Look at me! Don’t you think I’ve been a bad husband?’
In writing style, Saeterbakken may be closer to Beckett than to Strindberg – bleak, dark, sometimes extreme in his form. Siamese is a hard read, but interesting, intense and deep, filled with fury, frustration and fear. In some ways a disgusting book.
Praise for Stig Saeterbakken:
One of the most interesting contemporary authors in Europe: always controversial and never uncomplicated, he forces the reader to confront the less flattering sides of both self and society. (Eurozine)
Stig Sæterbakken deserves one thing only: to be read! (Stavanger Evening Post)