Per Olov Enquist, The Wandering Pine (translated by Deborah Bragan-Turner) – TLS
“If only you could have understood, just once, how everything joined up.” Time and again, Per Olov Enquist addresses himself with this lament in the pages of his autobiographical novel, The Wandering Pine. The desire to make narrative sense out of the haphazard or mysterious is a common enough motive for life-writing. In Enquist’s case, the wish to understand “how could it turn out so badly?”, is charged with the suggestion that the “it” in question, is not only his life, but that of Swedish social democracy. Enquist is one of his country’s most eminent writers and as an award-winning novelist, playwright and journalist he has often been at the heart of its political and cultural debates. The Wandering Pine, rather like Arthur Miller’s autobiography, Timebends, is a fascinating portrait of intellectual life in the twentieth century. But whereas Miller portrayed himself with the monumentality of a Mount Rushmore carving, Enquist is ironic and self-condemning. (It’s hard to imagine the American writing of himself, “He experiences it all and understands nothing.”) Crucially, Enquist’s book advertises itself not as memoir but fiction, with the subtitle, “Life as a Novel”, and it plays out in the third, not the first person, dividing “Enquist” between the judging narrator and the hapless creature being written about. It’s a division that underscores the impossibility of things ever being “joined up”, and the novel’s stoicism in the face of this.
The idea that life should have order and coherence was embedded deep in Enquist’s childhood. Growing up in a small village, without father or siblings, he had an intense relationship with his mother, a protestant schoolteacher who taught the native values of honesty, fairness and cooperation with an iron rod. One painfully funny passage has the innocent boy inventing a crime he can admit to at the weekly confession she demands he perform. This fabrication is something like Enquist’s original sin, suggesting a connection between creativity and madness, an idea he pursues in stories about relatives locked up in attics for their inclination to writing or wandering. It suggests, too, how the dogmatic imposition of reason results in lies, guilt and absurdity, leading to a sense of hypocrisy from which Enquist – and Scandinavian social democracy – can never quite escape. “He finds it natural that he is good”, Enquist writes of his young self, but the constant emphasis on goodness causes him to daydream about how it would be if he were not. Corporal punishment is forbidden, yet he “hankers after a taste of it”. It is this paradox Enquist identifies between goodness and its discontents, which fuels so much contemporary Scandinavian literature, from Steig Larsson’s indictments of racism, misogyny and corporate greed, to Karl Ové Knausgaard’s complaints about homogeneity and infantilization.
The toughness of village life through long snowbound winters turns Enquist into an athlete, but when he arrives at university in Uppsala he discovers that intellectuals “are silent on the subject of sport” and his interest makes him seem an oddball in cultural circles. His sense of being an outsider persists, even as he advances to the heart of Swedish life – working as a cultural commissioner for the government, debating with Olof Palme – yet it is just this feeling of being peripheral that makes him such an exemplary Scandinavian. For a while, in the relaxed climate of the 1960s, his isolation and awkwardness fall away and he takes part in heady experiments in sex, drugs, politics and art. He writes a non-fiction book about the Baltic soldiers who were handed over to the Soviets by the Swedish authorities at the end of the war, which proves to be an unexpected, if controversial, success: in a country that prides itself on its reputation for decency, probing the murky past, he is told, is “inappropriate”.
Enquist’s work also gains a reputation – for iconoclasm and obliquity, making him ever more determined to get to the centre of things. Moving to Berlin, he is caught up in the Baader-Meinhof story. Yet even here, in the heat of history, he feels the “cancer” of his goodness makes it hard for him to “understand the grime of life” or the youthful disobedience he witnesses all around. Working at the Munich Olympics as a sports reporter, he stumbles into the event which marks a fundamental shift in global politics, though he fails to grasp this at the time. (No one does.) Then at home, the mood turns darker. The happy, open, permissive Swedes are troubled to find even they are not immune to the prevailing mood of conservativism: political debates no longer focus on the different futures proposed by communists, syndicalists or social democrats, but on crime and immigration, as people look for someone to blame for threats to the Swedish way of life.
At some point in all this Enquist starts drinking. His decline is intermittent and though he suffers from writer’s block, there are still periods of productivity, including a new career in the theatre which takes him to Broadway. Despite such successes, he senses he is increasingly in the grip of something destructive, even if he is unable to identify precisely what it is or “how it all went wrong”. Friends check him into rehab but, rationalist that he is, he finds it hard to accept the religiosity of Alcoholics Anonymous. On his second incarceration, this time in a clinic in Iceland, he bolts, fleeing shoeless into the glacial night. Finally, he finds more sympathetic treatment in Copenhagen, and begins an autobiographical novel, his own secular tale of “resurrection”. Enquist never drinks again. Why he started and why he has stopped are questions he cannot answer, but his recovery has something to do with finding his way back to the stories of his early life, to his mother’s powerful belief in goodness, and to his laptop’s “funny brownish-red light like a lamp in the darkness”.