Chronicle A Swedish love story, lost in translation

Most countries have a few writers who never become known outside their own borders and their own language. Their literary qualities are not questioned in their native countries, but they do not gain the international fame that seems granted. For example, Gore Vidal, the American writer who died last week, is known only in limited literary circles in Sweden. (A Nobel Prize in literature is not as vital as many might think to attract a wide range of readers. If I were to list all the Nobel laureates in literature, you would not have heard of at least 50 per cent!)

A few Swedish writers have seemed destined to become internationally famous but somehow have never made it. One of these is Hjalmar Söderberg (1869-1941), who constantly attracts new readers at home. But in the rest of the world he is unknown; his novels have been translated into more than 20 languages, but he does not have as many readers as the literary qualities of his work justifies. Söderberg was born in Stockholm to a truly bourgeois family (his father was a civil servant). Söderberg’s great biographer, Bure Holmbäck, summarises his literary life like this: Söderberg wrote poetry, short stories, causeries, novels, plays, books about the history of religion and articles critical of society. He was successful in all his endeavours, but was always very careful about which genre to use for which idea.

I have no intention of introducing the collected works of Hjalmar Söderberg and instead will focus on his fourth novel, The Serious Game, which is one of the best and most touching novels about love that I have ever read. And I have read it many times. It was published a hundred years ago but is still very modern; in its approach as well as in Söderberg’s cool and penetrating language. It is not the only great love story ever written in Swedish, but it is up there at the top.

As in most literary works that mean something, the story in the beginning is quite simple. Then, slowly, Söderberg unveils the complications, gripping the reader until the end. It is a story about Arvid Stjärnblom, and his relationship with two women, Lydia Stille and Dagmar Randel, and takes place between the summer of 1897 and the autumn of 1912, a couple of months after the Olympic Games were held in Stockholm. It is clear that Söderberg wants the time he lived in to play an important and visible part; he wants the reader to identify with the story without any historical distance between the reader and the time that the novel is set in.

The story moves along in an almost undramatic way. Lydia and Arvid meet by accident in the summer of 1897. While Lydia has no great passion, Arvid’s feelings are much more complex and contradictory. He knows that he truly loves Lydia, but he is not ready to make a commitment to her. For him it is too early in life, something that he has yet to experience, both as an external adventure (What shall he do with his life? What career should he chose?) as well as an internal one. His emotional experiences so far are insignificant. Arvid and Lydia’s different approaches to love make them, unwillingly, drift apart. Lydia marries a man old enough to be her father, a choice that is justified by her need to find a security that she lacks in her life. Arvid and Lydia part to seek out their different paths, but Arvid soon realises the great mistake that he has made.

The years pass. Lydia’s face fades when Arvid meets and marries Dagmar. However, their marriage becomes one of habit and routine — a relationship not better or worse than many others. They respect each other, but it soon becomes evident that their love is too weak, too constrained, to bring about the passion that Arvid once felt for Lydia. The pair accidentally meet again in 1907 when they find themselves sitting next to each other at the opera. Now they can devote themselves to the passion that they never explored when they were young. The complications do not end here. In The Serious Game something unexpected, something dark is always lurking in the shadows. Arvid finds out that Lydia has been having an affair with a colleague of his at the newspaper where he works. He is devastated. He forgives her and they continue their relationship. But Lydia finds a new lover and Arvid is forced to realise that they have no future. The passion they can find in the moment will always be threatened.

A brief summary such as this will not do this great novel justice. Intricate and surprising details show Söderberg’s fantastic ability to decode and describe the psychological reactions that people experience when they decide to take part in “the serious game”. He is remarkably good at depicting love’s mysterious ways and is a great intermediary in how human beings evolve, but it is not only for these qualities that the novel still feels so alive. Söderberg wrote a contemporary novel. He wants the reader to look upon that time and to understand that love is not a secluded island, it is always affected by the “big” world; by society; politics, disasters and scandals (he even mentions the Dreyfus affair).

Holmbäck, his biographer, makes it possible to see how Söderberg drew from his own experiences. His own marriage was not happy and he cheated on his wife a couple of years before he wrote the novel. However, Arvid is not Söderberg in disguise; Söderberg used his own experiences but the novel he wrote is fiction.

The Serious Game is a love story that has barely aged at all. It is still touching, evocative and vivid. Perhaps its centenary will mean — one can hope — that it attracts more readers around the world. It is a novel that every writer, including myself, would want to have written.

Chronicle published in The Times August 11 2012

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