A STRANGER IN HIS TIME
On the eighth of May this year I was in a heavy downpour driving through Germany. A nightmare since the major thoroughfares cutting through Germany and Italy nowadays are clogged by seemingly endless rows of monstrous trucks. Furthermore, when freed from hindering trucks and lorries the dangerously speeding traffic was soon halted by generally incomprehensible road works. Flashing warning lights, road cones and strange road-managing vehicles were constantly materialized in the rainladen fog.
Where Autobahn Nummer Zehn meets Strassenbahn Zwei a mile west of Michendorf and four miles south of Berlin, passenger cars were blocked by a kilometre-long queue of trucks. One by one the cars were allowed to pass through openings created when a considerate truck driver occasionally allowed a desperate passenger car driver pass by in front of his huge vehicle. For me the only positive thing about this forced halt was that music from the CD player could be heard more clearly, though it continued to be accompanied by the windshield wipers' monotonous swishing back and forth.
After almost an hour´s waiting time, I ended up just in front of the obstructing queue of enormous trucks. Above me hovered a truck cabin of dark blue chrome, so high that I could not distinguish the driver. I assumed he could not see me either, but suddenly a several metres free passage opened up ahead of me. I assumed the driver had discovered my car and graciously left the road open to the stream of cars rushing along the highway. To demonstrate that I was on my way through the gap I blinked with the car's indicator light and had practically passed the truck when I discerned a screeching sound behind me. The left back door had apparently been hit. How bad could it be? Would I be able to continue my journey to the sunny south? Was our car crushed in the back? What should I do? What would I say to Rose who was waiting for me in Rome? Lightly I pressed the gas pedal. Well, the car was moving, the wheels were turning. I would be able to continue my journey.
I drove as close as I could to the road cones edging a gravel pit and surrounded by a cacophony of blaring horns I stepped out into the pouring rain. At the same time, the truck driver climbed down from his cabin. We met on the roadside while rainwater flushed over our shoes. In a not particularly unfriendly manner he shouted at me in German, explaining that as soon as an opportunity was provided I had to follow him to a parking lot a few kilometres ahead:
– Dort werden wir alles aufklären! he screamed to drown out the rain and blaring horns. ”There we will arrange everything!”
Then he entered his huge truck. When the queue began to move he passed me and I followed his tail lights, feeling miserable squeezed as I was between huge, menacing trucks. After a quarter of an hour´s drive we ended up in a virtually deserted parking lot, in front of a combined café and supermarket. The rain had stopped. I went out to inspect the damage, which was not as bad as I had feared – a back door had been scratched, though considering the cost of repainting it was serious enough.
Further afield, the truck had stopped. The driver had stepped out and was busy calling the police over his mobile. When I came up to him he had just finished his call. He was a fairly young man and exceptionally friendly. ”That is an idiotic intersection” he noted and explained that my car was the third one he had driven into at the same place during the last six months. During all that time there had been no sign whatsoever of any activity by the roadblock. Almost daily, the driver had passed the same spot. He made an annoyed grimace and mumbled, as if he was talking to himself:
– I failed to notice your car, it´s like that all the time. From my position it´s impossible to see a small passenger car when it is has come as close as yours.
With a deep sigh he turned to me:
– Nevertheless, we are forced to go through the insurance procedures and thus we need the police. They always come late. It takes them more or less an hour to appear. So … you better wait in your car. There will soon be more rain.
Sitting in the car I watched the vast, deserted parking lot. Further afield, the chain smoking truck driver walked back and forth in front his large vehicle. A sense of unreality came over me. I remembered the title of a book written by Bengt Lewan, one of my university teachers in History of Literature – Främling i sin tid, A Stranger in His Time. There in Michendorf the title of that book was an apt description of how I felt – alienated and frustrated among monster trucks, cell phones, apps, podcasts and meaningless police reports. Trapped inside a scratched car on a virtually deserted parking lot in unknown Germany. I felt like the odd, old man I actually was, or as they say in Göinge, my part of Sweden – Helt å banan, totally off track.
In Lewan's essay we encounter various authors from the age of Romanticism. If I am not mistaken, Lewan wrote about continental literary giants like Byron, Stendahl, Heine, Hölderlin and Pushkin. Extra ordinary personalities who had ended up as stern critics of the prevalent mood of their time. An antagonism that made them search for ideals in times gone by – such as Classical Antiquity, the chivalry and piety of the Middle Ages, the simple life of an idealized peasant society, an alluring, sensual Orient, as well as several other dream worlds. Most of them wanted to change society in a radical direction. Several were actively promoting social justice, women's emancipation, liberation from oppressive regimes, free speech, and a host of other praiseworthy initiatives. Masterly writers who strived for an earnest collaboration with unfortunate social groups. However, they remained outsiders, doomed to end up feeling apart from any community. Strangers who claimed their right to be exceptions from the madding crowd, their right to be different. An egocentric attitude that negatively affected those who were close to them, and not the least themselves.
I could not remember if Lewan wrote about Carl Jonas Love Almqvist, a Swedish author who to me appears to be the prototype of a ”romantic hero”. An ingenious observer and brilliant writer, albeit somewhat aloof and lost when it came to practicalities. Almqvist mastered a great variety of literary styles. He believed that any writing had to be intimately apapted to its subject, in every detail reflecting the reality he intended to describe. The speech and behavior of the characters of a literary work had to be intimately related to their specific environment. This meant that an author had to take on different roles. Almqvist's huge production demonstrates how he chameleonically adapted his style and language in an earnest effort to capture expressions, feelings and moods of people acting within the framework of a carefully reconstructed environment.
Almqvist mixes high and low; peasant verbage and city slang with precocious salon conversation, fairy tales with detailed historical frescoes. Everything shifts and lives, filled with opposites and inexplicable events. In realistic depictions of contemporary society sublime terror can suddenly make its appearance, while pious religiosity mixes with blasphemy, darkness with light. Sharp and fierce irony joins naivity and popular piety. Almqvist depicts contemporray life and politics, as well as historical events, from different and often unexpected perspectives. He played with demonic attitudes and deeply felt religiosity, was both a reformer and a mystic. He became a priest, a journalist and admired school teacher, but he was also a servant of usurers and moved within shady circles. On top of all this, Almqvist was musically gifted, a composer and poet whose music and poetry was deeply rooted in a straightforward, folksy religioisity.
Almqvist believed that the pursuit of belonging to a community was a human faculty. He also assumed that every human being strived for justice and truth. Such ideas made him suffering from his own inability to become an accomplished, jovial fellow. While he tried to make a living as selfsufficient farmer and independent journalist he made both admiring friends and powerful enemies. His financial situation gradually became disastrous. Tormented by indebtedness, poverty, overwork, fear for his own and his family´s future and a deeply felt embitterment caused by constant quarrels with a host of irreconcilable enemies, the idealistic Almqvist ended up in the hands of unscrupulous usurers and was even forced to act as their bully and debt collector. By the middle of 1851, the notorious money lender Johan Jacob von Scheven accused Almqvist of stealing bonds from him and signing them under false name. When von Scheven discovered this and threatened to sue Almqvist, the famous author did according to von Scheven on no less than three occasions try to poison him with arsenic, on top of that von Scheven claimed that Almqvist owed him 18,000 Swedish crowns, which at that time was such a huge amount of money that Almqvist impossibly could have been able to pay them back.
Before being tried, Almqvist fled from Stockholm and traveled through Bremen and London to the United States, where he during fifteen years lived under different names and in various places, both in the north and south, barely able to make a living by giving lectures and occasionally selling an article or two. During his absence, Almqvist was convicted by Stockholm City Council and
as a fraudulent debtor sentenced to stand for two hours in a public square chained by the neck to a post by which his name and crime are advertised, after that exposure he will for three years be imprisioned within a penalty fortress.
Under such an imminent threat Almqvist was unable to return to Sweden. To secure a minimum living standard Almqvist did in Philadephia marry a 69-year-old owner of a boardinghouse. Since his Swedish wife was still alive Almqvist did thus make himself guilty of bigamy. Constantly studying and writing Almquist ended up in Bremen in Germany, where he in 1866 died alone and unknown under the title and name of Professor Karl Westermann.
Almqvist's writing is occasionally heavy reading, though just as often it is fluent and fascinating, sometimes sloppy and crowd-pleasing, but it can also be fresh, surprising and even thrilling. Over the years I have read only a few of his works, but what I have come across has generally remained in my memory. A few years ago, I read Jaktslottet, The Hunting Castle, where Almqvist created the setting for most of his stories, something he called Törnrosens bok, Book of the Briar Rose. Every evening in the Yellow Parlour of Sir Hugo Löwenstjerna's rural hunting castle a group of friends and relatives assembles to tell and listen to stories and lectures. Sir Hugo is a jovial, but somewhat abstracted, gentleman with an insatiable interest in everything imaginable. During cosy evenings by open fire- and candle light, stories are told by persons with different temperaments and storytelling abilities. Most prominent is Richard Furumo, a widely traveled gentleman farmer who lives not far from the hunting castle. Furumo is a knowledgeable and unpredictable, though not entirely trustworthy, storyteller.
Furumo surrounds himself with a slightly demonic aura. At the time, when Almqvist´s writing was very popular, readers tended to equate Furumo with Almqvist himself, though he assured that in the Furumo character he had emphasized just one aspect of himself, a number of his other qualities and opinions were spread among other personalities within in his vast literary output.
According to Almqvist the Book of the Briar Rose was his attempt to create an all-inclusive work of art, an intricate mosaic comprising all kinds of poetry, drama, epic, philosophy, music and contemporary criticism. Part of this assemblage was the novel The Queen´s Diadem, a somewhat strange fantasy weaved around the murder of Sweden´s glamorous 18th century king Gustav III, which later on became the theme of Verdi´s opera A Masked Ball. Almqvist´s presents a gallery of real and fictitious characters, among them the elusive androgyn Tintomara, who like other remarkable fictional characters seems to be endowed with a life of her/his own both within and outside the story's framework.
An androgyn? Certainly a creature finding itself and remaining within a border area. It is said that gender has to do with roles. You are generally male or female and your life becomes defined by male or female roles. However, an androgyn is neither male nor female, but something in between. A threshold creature enclosed by her/his liminal existence.
At Raststätte Michendorf Nord's parking lot I found myself in a Limbo, a world in between. While waiting for the police I had been forced to make an unwelcome stop on my journey between Berlin and Rome. I didn't belong there. A stranger in my time. It was probably one of the reasons to why my thoughts drifted towards the romantic hero and ended up with Jonas Love Almqvist. Another reason was that in the door compartment next to the driver's seat I kept a pocketbook - Almqvist's Free Fantasies: The Palace, Arminta May, It is Acceptable, a selection of stories from the Book of the Briar Rose. I was already familar with Det går an [It is Acceptable], since that short novel was part of the compulsory reading for Swedish high schools. I do not know if it still is, but as a teacher in Swedish language and literature I had several times scrutinized that particular novel together with my students. That was the reason to why instead chose to read The Palace, while being confined to the car during a new shower of rain. The truck driver had been right – it took quite some time before the police arrived and thus I was grateful for having been absorbed by Almqvist's strange story, finishing it at the same moment as the police showed up.
Richard Furumo has ended up in an English port, which also is some kind of spa, with large parks and affable people. Alone and quite satisfied with himself and his surroundings, Furumo spends most of his time strolling in the parks and watching life go by. He is surprised at how kindly beggars and tramps are treated, they are often bestowed with generous alms and rarely chased away. During his evening walks Furumo becomes aware that exactly eight o´clock a carriage comes to a halt in front of the main entrance to the city´s biggest park. One or two passengers are helped out of it while new ones are politely welcomed. Most of those using this particular service seem to be destitute. After several hours of absence, the carriage returns and those who step out of generally look confused, exhausted, or relieved. It seems that no one is willing to repeat the journey, there are always new passengers. Richard Furumo's curiosity is aroused even further when he finds that in his hotel there is an office handing out tickets for the carriage ride. No payment is required, on the contrary is any person who receives a ticket paid a guinea.
At eight o'clock the same evening as Furumo received his ticket, he awaits the carriage. A taciturn and polite servant shows him into the comfortable and spacious equipage, he closes the door after his passenger and the vehicle is set in motion. Curtains conceals the view, but an oil lamp spreads light and an exotic fragrance. Oddly enough, a thick curtain is placed right in front of Furumo, separating him from the opposite seat. During the journey, curiosity overwhelms him. Furumo grabs the drapery and tries to part it only to his horror finding that his hands have become imprisoned by a pair of invisible, mechanical claws. In this way, he is held captive for a long time before the grip of his hands losens up and he is dropped off by the park entrance where he previously had entered the carriage.
Furumo does not give up. The following evening he is back inside the carriage, this time he finds by his side a beautiful, but motionless lady. Furumo politely addresses her, though she does not answer him:
in my neighbor's strange look I could discern neither disdain, nor benevolence, no chill, no heat. In it I could not find anything that might be interpreted as a danger, but its steady fixation could easily drive its object out of its composure. I began to assume that I by my side did not have a living being, but a painted, with supreme skill manufactured statue.
However, unexpectedly the extraordinarily beautiful woman raises her right hand to sweep away a raven black tress that had fallen across her cheek, after the gesture she became just as immobile as before. Furumo leans forward and succeeds in catching her gaze:
the pupils turned out to be quite small, but twinkling like garnet stones, or better said, like dark amethysts, because her dark glance appeared to contain something violet. A pulsing alternation between enlargement and contraction was not fast, but appeared with a strange regularity making the very beautiful look, that actually was amazing, impossible to endure.
When the unknown, alluring lady, after a painfully long and tense silence, almost imperceptibly parts her lips as if she is about to tell her fellow traveler something and thereby reveals ”the tip of a beguiling tongue”. However, she does not emit the slightest sound. Furumo can no longer control himself and exclaims in desperation:
- For heaven's sake, what am I to believe? Who are you? What do you want? Can I be of any assistance ...
Immediately a heavy, black drapery falls down between the two passengers and shortly thereafter Furumo is brusquly thrown out of the carriage. However, he stubbornly returns for a third ride in the mysterious equipage and he does once again find himself in the company of a beautiful woman. She is very similar to Furumo´s previous travel companion, though she is not the same person. This time, however, the lady addresses her fellow passenger in an unknown language:
– Acampapixi menetekel ubarsinto?
Furumo recalls similar words he had read in the Bible, mene tekel ufarsin and quotes them to the lady who in response unleashes a stream of incomprehensible words. Furumo finds them entirely unintelligible, but at a whim he utters a courtesy phrase he invents without thinking about it: “Gramasch, garamascho!” The attractive lady answers in English: “Ha! Ha! Ha! Marvelous! You're the right one. Follow me!”
The carriage has come to a halt in front of a palace. The strange lady grabs Furumo by the arm and brings him in through the gates, but suddenly she disappears, leaving behind a confused but ever-curious Furumo who begin to wander through large, magnificently ornated, but abandoned halls until he enters a room which walls and ceilings are adorned with large mirrors, marble and lacquer works. Most of the huge room is occupied by a swimming pool over which hangs a gigantic chandelier from which thousands of prisms reflect the light of hundreds of candles, throwing it towards the turquoise, transparent water, as well as the mirrors, marble and guilded stucco covering the walls.
A ripple on the pool´s surface makes Furumo detect a shadowy figure that disappears by the far end of the pool, where he glimpses an opening under the water. Confused, Furumo looks around and finds a door in which a key is inserted, he rushes over there and turns the key, thus making the huge chandelier fall into the pool:
hundreds of candles, half extinguished, half shimmering, floated upon the water, while several of them had been thrown against walls and mirrors, broken to pieces, spreading igniting sparks all over the room, sizzling and jumping around in hitherto dark corners turning the entire bathroom into a firework nonpareille.
Furumo flees from the catastrophe and after wandering around among immense halls and long corridors he reaches the core of the palace where he finds its owner, an old man, and his two daughters. Here does Almqvist, in my opinion, make the fatal mistake of revealing the nationality of his host, which to some extent destroys the mysterious atmosphere of the entire tale, though he still manages to maintain most of it until the entire palace through the disaster in the pool room makes the entire building going up in flames, while Furumo as the sole survivor succeeds in escaping the burning inferno.
Furumo's lonely stroll through the enchanted palace made me think of Aleksandr Surukov´s The Russian Ark where the camera in a single dolly shot leads us through room after room in Saint Petersburg's Winter Palace, while an unknown narrator who has told us he is a ghost brings us to meetings with real and fictitious people and make us witness scenes from bygone eras. Such dreamlike passages through empty or populated corridors and spacious halls within a lavishly ornated palace/hotel accompanied by the voice of an unidentified narrator is also present in Alan Resnais's equally mysterious Last Year in Marienbad from 1961.
A few months ago we invited some friends home for dinner and they brought with them another guest we had not met before. It was an elderly and lively gentleman who told us about a movie he could not forget, which imagery had become etched into his brain. That movie was Last Year in Marienbad. I laughed and said it was one of the most incomprehensible and boring films I had ever seen. My opinion was based on the fact that I and my good friend Claes sometime the early seventies in midst of our youthful arrogance had taken over the chairmanship of Hässleholm´s Filmstudio and could thereby from The Swedish Film Institute order movies we assumed could be exciting. On Sundays, our movie choices were shown at the Metropol Cinema, which was owned by the father of one of Claes's friends. Somewhere, maybe from my father, I had learned that Last Year in Marienbad was a movie that had to be seen. However, when we presented it in an initially almost crowded cinema it was soon abandoned. One by one the moviegoers left the premises, some of them muttering that it was the most boring misery they had ever seen. When the movie ended it was basically just me and Claes who were left in the cinema. An angered Claes told me that it was because of my bad judgement that we had rented a completely incomprehensible French movie, that I thus had made a fool of both of us and that people in our small town would not trust our movie choices anymore and probably would terminate their membership in Hässleholms Filmstudio.
After my prejudical outburst at the dinner in our home I at once felt quite ashamed, regretting what I had said and hoping that our guest did not feel offended. Not long after the incident I found an almost free DVD with Last Year in Marienbad in a magazine that in our neighborhood sells used stuff, mostly junk. After watching the film after more than forty years, I have to admit that either I or the film has matured – this time it came across as a masterpiece. Watching it turned into a uniquely aesthetic/visual experience. It excuded a dream's inner logic and strange displacements, where each image/scene appeared as the result of meticulous craftsmanship. The pictures emerged with a razor-sharp black-and-white sharpness, where light and shadows interacted with dolly shots, deep focus, constantly changing angles, close-ups, slow panning, repetitions and sudden cuts.
As in a dream, the surroundings of a scene played out inside the same room could almost unnoticed change place and looks; a mirror turned into a framed panting, a black dress became white, people changed places without moving, or remained in exactly the same position outdoors as they had in a preceeding indoor scene. With small, ever-changing variations, similar scenes were repeated time and time again. The actors said their lines not as if they were talking to each other, but to someone outside of the picture, people finding themselves inside or even outside the room. We all become observers, both moviegoers and actors, as in a dream we are all unable to control the course of events. We enter into another person, witnessing a difficult-to-understand, confusing mix of memory flashes and longer passing moments. We are forced to perceive the world through an unknown narrator's far from reliable viewpoint, incompatible memory images that do not correspond to any logic, or even comprehensible course of events.
Writing about Last Year in Marienbad makes me remember another unexpected mentioning of that odd film. While studing at Lund University I did for several years live in a student corridor where I became a good friend with a Peruvian, Felipe Zapata Avalos. We used to sit and talk in the common kitchen during evenings and nights. For some reason, Felipe who had lived some years in Paris, told me about his fascination with Last Year in Marienbad, not least because the script had been written by Alain Robbe-Grillet. This intrigued me. One or two years before I was talking to Felipe I had written a novel, which by a reviewer had been dismissed with the statement that my book was ”totally incomprehensible” and that ”the only good thing about Lundius's novel is that it has only one hundred pages”, he added that it appeared as if I had been inspired by Robbe-Grillet. I had actually never read a word by that author. When I told Felipe about the nasty review he laughed and told me that Robbe-Grillet had written the screenplay for Resnais's film and that this famous representative of Le noveau roman had been inspired by a novel that like mine only had a hundred pages - La invención de Morel, written by Jorge Luis Borges´s good friend Adolfo Bioy Casares. Felipe told me that this novel told a story about an alienated man, who within an unfamilar and utterly strange environment tried to make contact with an inaccessible woman, this was strangely enough also part of the ”plot” in my novel. I became intrigued, but at that time I did not know any Spanish and therefore, to my great disappointment, I could not read the novel Felipe presented me with.
Only now I have come across Morel's Invention and it was probably after reading it that I finally came to appreciate Last Year in Marienbad. Bioy Casares´s novel was written in 1940 and the Venezuelan protagonist is a political refugee who after committing some kind of terrorist act in his home country and has thus become a wanted criminal all over the world. An Italian carpet seller in Calcutta befriends the narrator (it is his diary Bioy Casares pretends to edit) and tells him that the only place where he can probably be sure of not being persecuted is the island of Villings, believed to be part of the Tuvalu Archipelago in the Pacific, although even that is uncertain. According to the Italian, no one dares to approach the island since it is believed to be haunted by a strange form of a highly contagious plague. An affliction that consumes its victims outside in, as if they had been flushed by an acid that slowly corrodes them. Nevertheless, the unnamed narrator sees no other solution to his horrible predicament than assuming that the stories about the plague is an urban legend and decides to find a safe haven there. He manages to get the members of a crime syndicate to bring him to the vicinity of the island, where they put him in a boat which he rows ashore.
On a vast table-land the narrator finds a large, modern building with several floors, a chapel and a swimming pool. The main building turns out to be some kind of hotel with several rooms, meeting halls, a luxury restaurant, a vast kitchen and a well-stocked library. There are several basement floors on top of each other and in a towerlike annex, with inner walls painted in a dazzling turqoise colour, the narrator finds an assortment of sophisticated machinery. He manages to get one of them in working order and it turns out to be a dynamo generating electricity for the empty buildings.
At first, the narrator enjoys a quite existence in the andandoned ”hotel”, where he finds canned food. His loneliness is bearable, especially as he finds time for thinking about and planning the books he is about to write. One of them seems to have a content that remains up-to-date. He intends to describe how human beings
violate the sanctity of forests and deserts; I intend to show that the world is an implacable hell for fugitives, that its efficient police forces, its documents, newspapers, radio broadcasts, and border patrols have made every error of justice irreparable.
However, one day the refugee finds that unknown to a him a boat has apparently arrived at the island and the hotel is suddenly populated by chic, youthful and wealthy visitors, dressed in a fashion that was modern fifteen years earlier. They stroll discreetly through the halls, occupy the rooms, dancing, drinking, playing tennis, relaxing by and swimming in the pool and listen to music – Tea for Two and Valencia are played over and over again. The confused refugee fears he will be discovered and handed over to the authorities and escapes from the heights where the hotel is located, hiding himself in the surrounding marshes, where he suffers dampness, mosquitoes and starvation.
As unexpected as they appeared, the fashionable hotel guests disappear and the stylish buildings obtain the same worn-out character as before, when the jungle had invaded them with vegetation and all kinds of creeps and vermin. Morel's descriptions of the abandoned place made me think of the dilapidated hotel on the tropical Ping Island in Wes Anderson's peculiar and, in my opinion, probably underestimated Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou.
However, the same hotel guests return and the narrator inevitably falls in love with the ever-elusive Faustine, who, like other guests, completely ignores him. Bioy Cacares provided an intricate solution to the enigma of the recurring guests, which is strange but neverthless prohetic and thought-provoking for a time like ours, when illusions, fake news, conspiracy theories and other counterfeits are becoming reality and we increasingly are governed by an imaginary world – The Cyber World, which often appears as being far more real than an increasingly uncontrollable and alienating everyday life.
In the parking lot outside Mittenbach I discovered how old I had become. How I while the present times become increasingly unimaginable have ended up living among diffuse and far from reliable memories. I am becoming a stranger in my time. The police showed up, there was a lot of paperwork that as expected did not result in anything. When I arrived in Rome the insurance paid nothing and repairing the scratched door became quite expensive.
Almqvist, Carl Johan (1992) The Queen´s Diadem. Eastbourne: Gardners Books. Casares, Adolfo Bioy (2003) The Invention of Morel. New York: New York Review Books. Romberg, Bertil (1977) Carl Jonas Love Almqvist. New York: Twayne Publishers