A.S. Byatt, Anne Rice, Barbara Taylor Bradford, Chris Brookmyre, Christopher Brookmyre, Hans Christian Andersen, Henning Menckel, Ingmar Bergman, Jostein Gaarder, literature, Mons Kallentoft, Peter Hoeg, purple prose, Scandinavia, Stieg Larsson, Sweden, translation
Books by Scandinavian authors are cold.
Egregious generalization, that, so let me qualify the statement by saying I have found books I’ve read by Scandinavian authors to lack a certain je ne sais quoi that warms me as a reader. I’ll also admit to having found the same preternatural coldness in the movies of Ingmar Bergman, which I find unwatchable.
As a child I was a big fan of Denmark’s Hans Christian Andersen, and as an adult I have read (and enjoyed) books by Peter Hoeg, Jostein Gaarder and Stieg Larsson, to name a few. But a thread I have followed through crime writers Larsson, Henning Menckel and Mons Kallentoft, all Swedish, is a chilly distance placed between the writer and the characters. It’s almost as if the writer is observing the activity as the reader is doing so, but refusing to engage with it.
This fall I read a series of four books by Kallentoft featuring a Swedish police detective — an alcoholic, as the best literary detectives seem to be; a single mother; a woman trying to get over a failed relationship in part by having excellent casual sex with a man she has no intention of letting get close to her. Unfortunately, Kallentoft doesn’t let the reader get close to her either. I found it very difficult to care about her or her problems, or her cases. But I can’t quite put my finger on what I found off-putting, why I felt as though Kallentoft and the rest were talking at me instead of to me.
It could be a question of translation, god knows that’s hard enough to get right and I’m particularly sensitive to the bad stuff — my brain stumbles on cracks in sentence construction and trips over inappropriate word choices (the Kallentoft books were translated either by someone from England or who had learned English there but whose cultural references were dated by about 15-20 years, IMHO).
There’s also a question of a relatively spare writing style, and I wonder if that’s because the writers were journalists (as Larsson was) or fans of Hemingway, or maybe it’s a cultural reserve.
As a reader I’m not necessarily a fan of the florid — I had to read a Barbara Taylor Bradford book years ago before interviewing her and the adjectival enhancements nearly killed me. Every noun had its adjective, every verb its adverb. There was barely a word that wasn’t qualified in some way. I still shudder to think about it. But I do enjoy a little lexical avoirdupois as long as it doesn’t descend into glossolalia. One of the things I loved about early Anne Rice was that opening one of her books was like falling into a velvet cushion — it was lush, it was louche, sensual, but not, for all that, over-written.
One of my current favourite authors is Christopher (now Chris) Brookmyre who I’m certain successfully fought off all attempts at editing quite some time ago — at least I’m pretty sure Christopher did, Chris seems to have been vanquished somewhat and I’m not at all sure that’s a positive thing. I’ve tried to recommend Brookmyre to friends and some of them have tried to read him but it is the rare brave soul who finishes even the smallest of his books. Brookmyre (Christopher) would go on fabulous rants about retail blowjobs and the sad, stupid c**ts who worked for a living to buy better minivans so they could live in the suburbs with all the other people who were too stupid to dream big. These could go on for PAGES, and I loved every word of them. Because while they’d go on for far too long, not a word would be wasted; they were polished gems and ridiculously funny — in the eye of this beholder, in any case. Check him out, I dare you. Contact me for recommendations, I’ll tell you where to start and the one book you must avoid (even though it has some of Brookmyre’s funniest dialogue).
I’ve known for a long time that I don’t read for the same things the critics and judges of book prizes do. I just want a good story well told, and sometimes I’ll take a mediocre story told in language that I find beautiful — at least in the moment; my tastes have of course evolved over the years. I read a book years ago by Paul Anderson called Hunger’s Brides that as a novel was a great heaving train wreck but my god the writing was glorious. It made me salivate, made me despair of ever coming close to achieving that level of polished perfection. I find literary novels, for want of a better word, cold. There is in many of them that same quality of aloof observation that distracts me in Swedish crime novels; that sense that the author doesn’t want to muddy his or her hem by getting too close. I’m currently reading Babel Tower by A.S. Byatt. The characters are nothing if not earthy, and Byatt doesn’t shy away from telling us so, but there’s still a distance between her and the action, and therefore between the reader and the narrative.
The reason this interests me so much is that while I revel in wordy novels, I can’t seem to write them. I’m not saying I can’t write long; I CAN by god, write LONG, what I don’t do is fill in the spaces. I don’t naturally describe things. My first stab at my current WIP looks like a play, almost. My training as a journalist explains some of my abhorrence of purple prose and filigree, but my natural inclination seems to be to write books that as a reader I wouldn’t pick up. And when I do make a conscious effort to overcome my linguistic reticence and add colour, instead of emulating the swinging conversational style that enchants me in a Christopher Brookmyre novel, I write words that fall with a thud on the screen. Songs for a tin ear. It’s possible that this is something that changes as the work in progress is polished, written and rewritten, and it could be that this is just first-draft syndrome and my problem is that I half expect it to be perfect the first time.
My question is, do I go against my instincts as a writer and write woodenly the warm book I would be more comfortable reading, or go against my instincts as a reader and write a spare, cold book I wouldn’t like?