By Lena Andersson
Translated from the Swedish by Sarah Death
Other Press: Feb. 2, 2016 (paperback original)
$15.95, 196 pages
Lena Andersson is a well-known newspaper columnist, social commentator, and novelist in Sweden. Willful Disregard, her fifth novel and winner of Sweden’s highest literary honor, the August Prize, is her first book to be published in the U.S., and it is an impressive introduction to a writer with keen insight into love in both its universal characteristics and its modern trappings.
Andersson probes the mind of thirty-one-year-old journalist Ester Nilsson, who becomes infatuated with artist Hugo Rask when she is asked to write an in-depth profile of the semi-legendary older man. From their first interview, they seem to be intellectual kindred spirits, and Ester is entranced.
Over the following weeks they meet for meals or drinks and their long conversations about art, philosophy, and culture continue. Ester is smitten and believes Rask returns at least some of her affection despite the relationship’s platonic nature. It appears he is involved with another woman, at least in some fashion. Ester is so enamored of Rask and so convinced that her future lies with him that she leaves her long-term boyfriend. Undoubtedly, Ester reasons, Rask is disengaging from his other commitment as well. Ester hangs on Rask’s every word, gesture, and action, obsessively analyzing each for its true meaning with regard to his feelings and their burgeoning relationship. She squeezes impossibly rose-colored interpretations out of the most minor of words and deeds.
Andersson proceeds to probe Ester’s thoughts and emotions with laser-like intensity. The ruthlessly unsentimental narrator sees through Ester’s pretensions and rationalizations into her true motives, flawed thinking, and overwhelming need to “only connect.” In doing so, Andersson has written one of the most accurate explorations of the self-deception and madness of new love that I have ever encountered. In that sense, it reminds me of Scott Spencer’s brilliant Endless Love (although her prose style is tersely analytical where his is richly nuanced and Romantic).
In fact, if there is a writer Andersson puts me in mind of, it is Elena Ferrante. As with the Italian novelist behind The Neapolitan Quartet that begins with My Brilliant Friend, the writing is distinguished by a fierce and unrelenting psychological dissection of every character and relationship. But Andersson also displays a sharp wit and the ability to find the bittersweet humor in most situations. I can’t recall the last book in which I was tempted to highlight so many pithy lines of description and explanation.
A few examples should suffice.
At one point, Ester awaits Hugo’s call, which is not forthcoming. “She had to occupy herself with something while waiting for her life to start. She looked at the phone. Perhaps she had it on silent by mistake? No. No one had called, and no text message had arrived unnoticed. She rang herself from her landline to check her mobile was working. Sent herself a text. Everything worked as it should.” Later that day, the narrator notes, “It was three o’clock and he had not called. She had coffee in a cafe and an extra-large pastry with it, on account of the situation.” Both observations are bitterly true, full of pathos, and from a distance, undeniably funny.
When Ester believes Rask has lied to her, she sends him a ferocious text message. “It was a highly condensed communication, as strained as dread and panic become when they conceal themselves behind haughtiness. Its tone exuded contempt rooted in self-respect. It was a message you could cut yourself on. And she censured him with all the justification of the scorned.” [I’ll pause to allow you a moment of recognition.]
Not surprisingly, Rask pulls away in response. When, later, she and Rask discuss this situation, Ester discovers that his view of their relationship, and relationships in general, differs significantly from hers. Her naivete is astonishing for someone her age, who is clearly not inexperienced in matters of the heart. Is she simply irrational about love despite being coolly rational about everything else? Is this her first great infatuation? True love? Or does her delusion rise to the level of mental illness? (For the record, this is not “Fatal Attraction” territory.)
Is it so strange that “[S]he chewed endlessly over what had happened, with herself and with anyone who would listen, going through what she could have done differently at such-and-such a time or on such-and-such an occasion, if only she had known things would turn out as they had”?
When Ester has no choice but to conclude that the “relationship” is over, she suffers intensely. “Grief cannot remain acute indefinitely,” the narrator informs us. “It soon gets moved to the day ward and the rehabilitation clinic. Ester anaesthetized herself with company and people she would not have spent time with had she been harmonious rather than half dead. She did everything in her power to avoid being alone with herself…She was not stoical but in shreds, totally frayed.”
Although Andersson never introduces Ester’s friends individually, she makes effective and drily humorous use of them as a background character. “The girlfriend chorus was kept very busy. It interpreted, comforted, soothed, exhorted and indicated new directions of travel. She had to break free, it said, and she repeated: I’ve got to break free from this idiocy.”
A brief encounter with Rask months later rekindles her not quite extinguished hope. She decides to call him. “She was ringing because the itch was back, the malarial love itch that is always latent once it has invaded the cell system, lying ready to break out at any time.” This is exactly right. We have all been there, male and female alike.
Andersson perhaps puts this concept best when the narrator observes that “everything in existence wants to live, and hope is no exception. It is a parasite. It lives and thrives on the most innocent of tissue. Its survival lies in a well-developed ability to ignore everything that is not favourable to its growth while pouncing on anything that feed it and help it to live on.”
While Ester Nilsson is uniquely flawed and misguided in love, she is often Everywoman, at least as far as I can tell from observation and experience. I suspect that most readers will experience conflicting emotions when they read Willful Disregard. They will think, This woman is crazy. She is nothing like me! I would never do that! Mere pages later they will think, Oh my God, I’ve done that! That is so true. What was I thinking?
As I read Willful Disregard, my reactions ranged from cringing and shaking my head in disbelief, to laughing and nodding my head in agreement — all in recognition of its essential truth. Alice Sebold (The Lovely Bones) sums up this cherry bomb of a novel best when she says, “Willful Disregard is a story of the heart written with bracing intellectual rigor. It is a stunner, pure and simple.”