In her essay ‘What Makes A Good Writer?’, Zadie Smith writes of the literary cliché: ‘What is a cliché except language passed down by Das Mann, [Heidegger’s term for ‘the indeterminate “they” that hang over your shoulder’] used and shop-soiled by so many before you, and in no way the correct jumble of language for the intimate part of your vision you meant to express?’ To make use of a cliché is ‘to sleepwalk through a sentence’, according to Smith. I was reminded of her essay when reading Beate Grimsrud’s final novel Jag föreslår att vi vaknar. Grimsrud, who passed away last summer, never once sleepwalked through a sentence; instead, her unique ‘jumble of language’ seemed perfectly suited to express the most intimate part of her vision.
Last autumn, Grimsrud became the first author to be awarded the Norwegian Brage Prize posthumously, for Jag föreslår att vi vaknar. The semi-autobiographical novel follows Vilde Berg, a middle-aged writer living in Stockholm with her partner O. Vilde has received an ‘ice-cold diagnosis’ in the middle of a ‘tropical’ Nordic summer. She is in dire need of a story, a narrative that can make sense of her situation, a second self that can shoulder her burden. An imaginative child, Vilde once adopted a second identity as the boy Florian, the owner of a moss-green invisibility cloak. When she is first diagnosed with malignant breast cancer, she longs for Florian’s green cloak to slip over her shoulders.
Fantastical elements make their way into the narrative in the form of conversations between a rat and a fox. The talkative rat carries a mislaid letter from Karolinska University Hospital to Vilde’s doorstep, while the fox ponders the limitations of the universe and listens to the ancient clanging of the cosmos. Both have meandering conversations with God (who speaks English), and cling to each other when life becomes unfathomable. Meanwhile, Vilde’s condition deteriorates.
Terminal illness is a solitary business – ‘the X-ray camera doesn’t take group shots.’ Vilde has to undergo surgery, and grieves the loss of her right breast. She searches for it as though it is a runaway child, ‘as though it was left outside playing on its own in the evening.’ She calls for it in the park. She calls for it over Lake Mälaren. She looks for it among her clothes, in her laundry, wondering if she can ask her remaining breast to call the other one up, all the time nearing that impossible truth: she could die. Cancer is monumental. The seven wonders of the world are nothing against the seven faulty genomic patterns that cause cancer.
‘Life is a dot’, Grimsrud writes. ‘Seen from the inside, a giant dot.’ The prospect of an early death leads to a crisis of identity for Vilde. ‘I think I’m so unique that my life should be longer than everyone else’s’, she thinks. ‘Now they’re claiming I’m so unique my life will be shorter than everyone else’s. Don’t single me out. Leave me alone.’
Grimsrud was one of those rare authors who, like Beckett and Nabokov, wrote primarily in a second language. Born in Norway in 1963, she lived most of her life in Stockholm and wrote her novels in Swedish and then Norwegian. This bilingual approach allowed her to tease out the poeticism of the Swedish language and somehow spirit it into her written Norwegian, and the result is like nothing else in Nordic literature. Her imaginative prose contains no short-cuts, no lazy phrasemaking, and not a single sentence that feels drab or out of place.
An English translator of Grimsrud’s novel would therefore have a tremendous job recreating the delightful eccentricities of the text, including her exacting compounds; Vilde is not sentimental about the loss of her breast – she is ‘breast-sentimental’. The prose is bursting at the seams with arresting imagery; when Vilde considers her past, it is like viewing ‘facts in the rear-view mirror.’ When she lies awake pondering her upbringing, awaiting the arrival of her visiting mother, she sees herself as a little girl in a white nightie: ‘We all wander through the night in our memory’s pajamas. Truth is naked. Memory wears pajamas.’
Jag föreslår att vi vaknar is an astonishing exploration of what it means for an individual life – ‘a giant dot’ – to be erased. With Beate Grimsrud’s passing, Scandinavia has lost an utterly original writer.
This review was first published in the Swedish Book Review