is my last day as employee of the University of Cambridge.
I inevitably contemplate what I will miss from now on, I cannot help
thinking, as a summary of my eleven years in Cambridge, about whether
I have missed anything, professionally, during this time. It may
sound odd coming from someone with a world reputation in children's
literature studies, but I have profoundly missed teaching,
supervising and researching things other than children's literature.
I have missed teaching Shakespeare, Chekhov, Selma Lagerlöf and J.
M. Coetzee. I have missed teaching literary theory and close reading.
Don't misunderstand me, I am not saying that children's literature
research is inferior – I am still adamant that children's
literature scholars are leading, not following. But I have felt that
a whole range of my knowledge and skills was never claimed.
(Certainly, no one appreciated my knowledge of Nordic children's
literature. Actually, no one appreciated my knowledge of Australian
or Canadian children's literature either).
I was hired to teach, supervise and research children's literature
full time, which is more than most my children's literature
colleagues can dream of. I have tried hard to enrich my professional
skills with various interdisciplinary opportunities.
will miss the environment. I will miss being among brilliant young
people from whom I have learned so much, maybe more than they have
learned from me. I will miss college lunches that are so much more
than just “free meals”. I will even miss committee meetings. Most
committees I have been on or chaired were quite interesting, albeit
will miss the city with its riches of opportunities for culture, its
museums, concert halls, its gardens and riverbank walks. I will miss
its posh restaurants and small coffee shops.
in and around Stockholm brings back memories that I didn't know I
had. All the weird things I did in those many years. Today I went on
a walk close toSigtuna, a lovely
historical town north of Stockholm.
Suddenly I remembered that I used to go to Sigtuna regularly, on
weekend retreats invited as a guest and speaker by Sigtuna Foundation. These were small gatherings of about twenty people:
writers, artists, musicians, theologians, and if you wonder what I
was doing there, I wonder myself, but I know who had brought me
there. There were talks and discussions, nice meals, evening
performances and a Sunday morning service with communion that you
could decline by putting your arm across your chest – you got a
blessing instead. During that time I contributed to the cultural
journal of the Swedish church. I had completely forgotten about this
part of my career.
from there, I remembered that I used to attend Ingmarsspelen, which is
an open-air amateur performance based on Selma Lagerlöf's novel
Jerusalem. At that time, Swedish dailies were happy to get
contributions from free lancers, and I was asked to do a feature
about a Polish scholar who was receiving Ingmar Prize for the best
work on Selma Lagerlöf. It was long before computers and even faxes
so I dictated my piece over the phone, with someone in the office in
Stockholm typing it up. They sent a photographer to take pictures. The prize-winner was asked to give a lecture from a
church pulpit. It was my punch line in my article about the Polish scholar.
Selma Lagerlöf's novel The Story of Gösta Berling starts:
”Finally the priest stood in the pulpit”. A
couple of years later I won the same prize and had to give the lecture. It was the only time in my life I stood in a church
Going further along Selma Lagerlöf path, for many years I attended
the annual meetings of the Selma Lagerlöf Society. My old professor
pushed me toward Lagerlöf scholarship which I gratefully embraced
because then as now you needed to demonstrate other merits than
children's literature to get a job, and Lagerlöf had been a
favourite. I became a Board member of the Society, eventually Master
of Ceremonies, which involved arranging annual membership lunches.
The Society's by-laws prescribed that every other year the annual
meeting should be in Sunne, Lagerlöf's birthplace where she also
lived most time of her life; and alternative years some other place
in Sweden connected to her works. Attending meetings was always a
nice adventure. My professor did not drive, and at that time driving
was for me still a pleasure rather than a burden so I was happy to
drive us both. Halfway to Sunne there was a coffee shop where we
would stop for mid-morning coffee. I guess we had interesting
conversations on the way. When I resigned from the Board due to my
move to Cambridge, I received a medal for my service. Another
exciting part of my professional life that I have sort of forgotten.
More Lagerlöf: for a while I was on the jury of the Lagerlöf Prize,
recognising a lifetime achievement of a Swedish author whose work
could be defined as written in the, I quote, ”epic spirit of Selma
Lagerlöf”. Imagine the debates over the wording! The chair of the
jury, who had no vote, but whose duty was to make sure that the jury
was in unanimous agreement, literally locked the door of the meeting
room so that we could not leave without making a decision. The
meeting, usually taking place backstage at the Royal Drama Theatre,
was followed by a fancy dinner, a good incentive to finish quickly, but I remember at least one meeting
that went on for hours. Other times, we would get together, one of us
would propose a candidate, everybody would support, we wrote a
motivation and had plenty of time for preprandials. The members of
the jury were among the most intellectually stimulating people I have
where a simple walk in the vicinity of Sigtuna has led me!
remember well when Vinterviken
(“Winter bay”) was published in 1993. Mats Wahl was by then a
well-known YA writer, particularly for his historical novels
(“The master”) and Anna-Carolinas
krig (“Anna-Carolina's war”), the
latter one of several cross-dressing novels that appeared at the same
was, however, different: focusing on contemporary Swedish society. We were all entranced by it; the reviews were overwhelming, and it won
the August Prize for the best children's or YA book of the year. I
have written about it, and I taught it on many occasions.
with the other books I am reading for this challenge, I tried to dig
into my memories before re-reading. I remembered the main character
and his dilemma, I remembered romance across class and race borders
(race issues were not as prominent in Sweden at that time as today),
and I remembered crime and violence. What I remembered most of all
was the narrative voice. First-person, present tense – it has
become so common there days in YA fiction that it is trivial, but it
wasn't that usual.
I had completely forgotten are details that are of overall
importance: the fact that the main character attends a drama school
and a boxing class, the way he meets the upper-class girl when he
saves her little sister from drowning, the conflict with the
stepfather (not too original), and a confrontation with a neo-nazi
had forgotten how unsympathetic, not to say abominable, the main
character was. I did remember that he and his friend break and enter,
but I did not remember that he also commits other small and big
crimes, without slightest regret. I guess I was seduced by the
narrative voice, as the reader of course is supposed to be; I fell
into identification trap that I have warned so often in my research;
I aligned with the underdog ignoring his depravity. But it turned out
that I also misremembered the narrative perspective. I must have
confused it with a different novel. My sense was that the unreliable
narrator “forgets” to mention that he is mixed-race and that it
comes as a surprise toward the end, explaining in retrospect some of
his behaviour. This is why I reacted so strongly to the cover of my
edition, taken from the film adaptation that I also reacted strongly
to when it first came: revealing in advance something that the
narrator omits. However, this decisive fact is disclosed from start,
as John-John is abused and bullied by a gang of neo-nazis, who
continue to chase him throughout the plot. And John-John's dreams
about his African-American father would not make sense unless we
already knew that he was mixed-race. I remembered the dreams, so how
these circumstances could be reconciled in my memory I don't
I remembered correctly though was that being mixed-race is not
John-John's dilemma, it's just a part of who he is, and that was what
I liked when I first read the novel. His dilemma is class, not race,
and in the context the intersection is negligible.
did not remember that his upper-class girlfriend hits and almost
kills his criminal stepfather in self-defence. So she is not
precisely an angel either. I did not remember that the stepfather
sleeps with his sister, on consent, and the mother does not object. I
did not remember that the best friend gets involved with neo-nazis
and then asks John-John to help him escape from them.
did not remember the ending at all so I was kept in suspense about
how all these conflicts would be resolved. On re-reading, I wonder
why I wasn't disappointed when – skip this if you don't want a
spoiler – the enemies conveniently drown in the ice-covered Winter
Bay (so the novel starts and ends with drowning). However, while I didn't remember it before reading, I now recall
that I was pleased - another spoiler - with the lovers reunited
because it was the first Swedish YA novel in many years where the
protagonist wasn't killed or committed suicide. I welcomed the happy
ending as refreshing. I don't now. I don't find it persuasive.
short, my memory of the novel was not merely fragmented and
distorted, it was next to non-existent. And I have written about it
and taught it!
I had forgotten how badly it was written. Again, I think reviewers,
scholars and August jury were enticed by the subject, the voice –
and after all, it was perhaps the best book of the year and even
decade, but that doesn't necessarily mean it was good.
glad I have re-read it and will from now on not misrepresent it in
conversations with colleagues. It is also a perfect example of a book
that has definitely not survived the trial of time.
Wahl's literary sign is appropriately by Vinterviken in the Western
suburb of Stockholm. It is behind bars because of road construction.
People are telling me that they enjoy my reports from Stockholm so I will continue.
Today's flâneurie took me to Södra Mälarstrand and the island of Långholmen. I didn't plan it beyond looking at a map and stating that Långholmen, once upon a time famous for its prison, has vast green areas and marked paths. I had never been there before. I cannot help contemplating how strange it is that I have lived in this city for more than twenty-five years all in all, but never discovered its walking potential. I was a passionate walker before I came to Sweden. Then I guess I became a passionate driver. But I keep thinking how much my father would have enjoyed all these walks. Let's say I dedicate my walking to his memory. I started by walking downhill, then uphill, then climbed some steps and came to the second-best view of Stockholm after Fjällgatan - Bastugatan, on the opposite side of Slussen. Few tourists come here.
Then I took a long flight of steps all the way down to Södra Mälarstrand, South Embankment of Mälaren, which is the lake where most of Stockholm is built. The salt sea is on the other side of Slussen. (Slussen means The Lock).
On the way, I discovered another literary sign. I wasn't looking for it, but the name of the street halfway down rang a bell.
Erik Asklund is another famous Swedish working-class author. He was highly rated in Russia, but I don't think I have read anything by him, possibly excerpts in a anthology.
A more interesting sign is a street name on a rock, at the bottom of the steps. It did help me find my way back.
When I came down to the embankment, the views were wonderful. I have of course driven this way many times, but when you are driving you are not enjoying the views. Here is the City Hall across the water.
North Embankment, Norra Mälarstrand.
Children's nursery rhyme: Vi lossar sand ibland på Norra Mälarstrand... (or maybe Södra)
Some of the boats along the embankment are hotels and restaurants.
Others are historical ships, with signs explaining when they were built and what purpose they served.
Yet others seem to be inhabited, with garden furniture and flowers on decks. It may look romantic, but I know I would be seasick all the time.
Then I crossed a narrow bridge, and I could just as well have been transported to a different world. You cannot tell that you are right in the middle of a large city.
The map was right: there are vast green areas on Långholmen, not just the former prison, now turned into a hotel and conference centre.
On the second bridge I found another literary sign. I don't know this author, and the sign is not on the list I am so far working through, so I am indebted to a friend who shared it.
Again: right in the middle of the city.
They say abundant rowan promises cold winter.
The path along the shore went up and down, taking me to rock tops that offered stunning views, then down to the brink of the water. At the farthest point of the island I sat for a long time listening. The high rises and the bridge far away were the only reminders that I wasn't at the end of the world. One good thing about walking solo is that you can sit down and stay as long as you wish in a place that appeals to you.
Then I walked on the other side of the island, and soon there was the City Hall again.
I didn't have my Runkeeper on, but I estimate about 10 km, up and downhill and up and down many steps. I returned the same way, enjoying the embankment with its views once more. I had ice cream for lunch.
to my Goodreads account, I had read this novel before, but I had no
memory of it at all, and as I was re-reading, nothing rang a bell, so
it must be one of those books that you think you have read
because you should have. I believe I had it in my book shelf once
upon a time, and I am pretty sure it was on the syllabus when I
studied Swedish literature.
Anders Fogelström is a very prominent Swedish
20th-century writer, and his most famous series of novels depicts
several generations of working-class people living in Stockholm from 1860s to 1968.
By serendipity – or maybe not a all – one of my recent walks took
me exactly to the place where City of My Dreamsis
set, Åsöberget on Södermalm. At that time, it was slums where
harbour workers and prostitutes lived. A small part of it has been
preserved as a cultural monument and looks rather idyllic today.
It was illuminating to have seen the place just before I read the
novel. The characters also take strolls in the city, just like I do,
and visit places that I have recently visited. So the setting was
very vivid, even though I had to rewind the clock one hundred and
sixty years back.
from the fascination of the place, the book was excruciatingly
boring. The plot was minimal, and the characters totally flat,
without any appeal. It is obvious that the point was to paint a
picture of the misery of the working class, the hopeless struggle. So
I guess as a document of its time – written with a century gap –
it is of interest, but I couldn't make myself care about the
characters. The style was this conventional ”And then he did this…
and then she thought that… and many months had passed...” It just
doesn't work. I conscientiously read the first 150 pages carefully,
but skim-read the second half because life is too short to read
I was looking up this book in the library catalogue, most editions
were abridged. Perhaps whoever decides still thinks this is a classic
every Swede should have read, but realises that no reader today can
endure this kind of fiction. I wish I could say there were at least
some passages I enjoyed, but I didn't.
Per Anders Fogelström's sign is, appropriately, on Per Anders
Fogelström Terrace, with the best view of Stockholm.
were to decide, I would choose Karlsson-on-the-Roof
as featuring Stockholm in the works of Astrid Lindgren. It takes
place wholly in Vasastan where Astrid Lindgren also lived for many
years. But whoever decided, chose Mio My Son, that is my
favourite, so I won't complain, but it can be questioned whether
Stockholm setting is integral to it when most of the story takes
place in Faraway Land. Unless of course we adhere to the
interpretation that Bosse (for whatever reason, Andy in English)
never travels to Faraway Land, but sits on a bench in Tegnérlunden
in central Stockholm, imagining the wonderful and dangerous
adventures in a parallel world. This is the most plausible
interpretation, but a sophisticated one, and without doing any
research I would guess that most young readers and many adult
readers, if asked where the story takes place, would say, Faraway
Land. Because we so much want the unhappy orphan Bosse to find a
father and friends. Yet does the character-narrator really believe it
himself? He has to shout – represented by italics – that he is in
Faraway Land and not sitting on a bench in Tegnérlunden.
have written extensively about Mio My Son and taught it both
in Sweden and in the US. Narrative situation and narrative
perspective are the aspects that fascinate me, and the novel,
published in 1954, is a very early example of first-person narration
in fantasy. Writing in 1992, John Stephens claimed that first-person
perspective was impossible in fantasy, but of course since then we
have seen tons of examples of the opposite. Yet believe me, as
someone who wrote her PhD on twentieth-century fantasy, it was
unusual until 1990s, so Mio was indeed a daring text.
re-read Mio as recently as two years ago for a conference in
Cambridge about horses in children's literature. Horses are prominent
in Astrid Lindgren's work, and I tried to explore Mio's horse not as
or Patronus, which can of course be done, but as an artistic device
to represent the protagonist's emotional states in a more detached
way. Writing this paper, I was looking exclusively at horsey moments
so I probably didn't read the whole novel as carefully as I did now.
I pretty much know it by heart, although there were a couple of
details I hadn't remembered; but I did have strong memory of the
narrator going back to his life in Stockholm, so maybe the choice of
this book to represent Stockholm is not inadequate after all.
was struck once again by the beauty of language, the rhythmic flow of
prose with a folktale flavour to it.
own Swedish copy is in storage so I borrowed the book from a library.
I don't like these luxury editions of Astrid Lindgren with red cloth
quarter bindings because I find them distracting. Otherwise it is
exactly the same, with wonderful original illustrations by Ilon
enjoyed re-reading Mio even though I remembered it so well.
This book is like a poem that you can read again and again.
sign is of course in Tegnérlunden,
and I sat on the bench I think was the right one. But I had no golden
apple and found no genie in a beer bottle.
first heard about this novel from a student who wanted to write his
BA dissertation on it. A recently published book by a totally unknown
author. I read it and was blown away. As were all critics and other
children's literature people in Sweden.
who otherwise was a university lecturer in numeric analysis, wrote
the novel in a creative writing course, and rumours have it that it
actually was the course instructor who wrote it. I don't really care,
and it does happen that a first novel stays the best. Pohl never
wrote anything better, and while some of his later books are good
enough, most are typical “problem novels”. According to Pohl,
Johnny, My Friend is a problem novel, so as usual authors have
no idea about what they do.
taught it in every children's and YA course in Sweden (even the one
titled “The Origins of Harry Potter”) as well as in the courses I
taught in California. Sadly, courses in Cambridge offered no opportunities to include translated texts. The novel was published in
English by Aidan Chambers during his short-lived effort to bring some
European YA fiction to Britain. The novel didn't sell, and most of
the printrun ended up in Chambers' basement, from which I ordered
copies for my American students, and after some US colleagues
discovered this brilliant book, they ordered their copies as well. My
Californian students didn't like it because they found too many
“strange” details in it. I must add that for me the 1950s
Stockholm setting, full of period-typical references, was also
strange, but I am more tolerant toward strangeness than Californian
Trites wrote a chapter on Johnny, My Friend for my edited
only met Peter Pohl once – he wasn't keen on public appearances. On
that rare occasion, he showed an amateur short movie he had made with
his students. I have never been much interested in meeting authors,
and I haven't got any signed copies of Johnny. My own
paperback, full of margin notes and underlines, is in storage – one
of the very few books I have kept. So I borrowed from a library. I
was surprised that so few branches had copies, although I shouldn't
have been. A couple of years ago, when I was revising my textbook on
children's literature, I asked my Swedish colleagues whether Johnny
was still taught in university courses, because it was very prominent
in the previous editions. They said it wasn't. But they agreed that
it was one of the best Swedish YA novels ever.
hadn't re-read the book since I moved to Cambridge, although I had it
in my shelf both in Swedish and in English. On re-reading now, I
could state that I remembered the plot and most details well, even
though you always notice something new on re-reading. I had forgotten
that the narrator spends quite a long time discussing the penalistic
system – one of the “problems” - in the famous elite high
school in Stockholm in the 1950s.
struck me now is the careful topography. The whole novel takes place
within a few blocks on Södermalm – precisely the blocks where I
live now. My street is mentioned several times; the temporal “now”
of the novel takes place on the corner I pass daily. Of course I knew
it then and pointed it out to my students, but I had never walked
these streets before. My daughter went to the same secondary school
as the protagonist (the school structure was different in the '50s,
but the school was the same, “with traditions”, for better and
for worse). But I used to drop her off and drive back home so I never
took time to explore the setting.
have now. I have walked every street, including the far away
(15-minute walk) square where mysterious Johnny lives. There is no
bike repair shop now, but there is a car repair shop, so it may be
the same. The magnificent tree is never mentioned, probably because
trees are of no interest for eleven-year-old boys.
novel is still piercing. It doesn't matter that I already know the
answer to the mystery, but I could kill the person who reveals it on
the title page. It's like revealing on the title page of a crime
novel who the murderer is. I will point it out when I return the book
to the library.
library edition is from 2006, and there is an appendix, compiled by
the author, of the '50s Södermalm slang. Apparently, teachers had
asked him to do it, to make the novel more palatable for young
readers. Perhaps the generation of teachers who could explain it to
schoolchildren has died out. But it was already out of date when the
book was published in 1985, and it was a deliberate artistic device.
is a good example of great books that get drowned in the flotsam of
today's publishing. Fifty years from now it may be re-discovered and
acknowledged again as the best Swedish YA novel ever. Yes, I mean it.
Write to Aidan Chambers – he may have some copies left in his
Peter Pohl's sign is appropriately on top of the steps at Kvarnsgatan where Johnny wins a crate of soda by biking down the steps - see cover image above. The bottom of the steps end in the street where I live. It is one of the first signs I noticed on my walks.
in Stockholm is a long and narrow street more or less in the city
centre. Traffic goes in an endless stream”.
made me smile to read this opening today when Drottninggatan is a
pedestrian street and has been for ages, but who could imagine it in
1948 when the first Ture Sventon book by Åke Holmberg appeared
(published in English by Methuen in 1965 as Tam Sventon, Private
have never been a fan of this series, even though I once won the
second prize for the best costume at one of the Children's Books
Institute unforgettable dress-up parties; I dressed up as Mr Omar,
wearing a fez, with the famous flying carpet under my arm. Still, I
don't find these books funny or thrilling, but I can see why a child
in '40s or early '50s might. Or maybe it is the special kind of
Swedish humour that aliens don't get. Perhaps they are those books
that nostalgic grandparents give their grandchildren for Christmas,
and publishers believe they are still popular and reprint. Maybe
these books were revolutionary when they came, part of the great
post-war children's book renaissance in Sweden. But today there are
so many other children's detective stories, written for today's
children, that I cannot see why a childish grown-up detective solving
idiotic crimes with the help of a flying carpet would have any
had a good memory of the silly plot, but I had forgotten that Ture
Sventon (he has a lisp - that's why he is called Tam in English) had
four sidekicks, four totally flat and boring children whose role is
simply to make the book look child-friendly. For it is obviously a
parody that goes above young readers' heads.
library copy is a reprint from 2008, and although the cover designer
is not acknowledged, the cover image has been doctored to bring it at
least slightly closer to contemporary readers. Compare with the
main character is the same, but the children have been given “modern”
clothes – 1960s maybe? Still stone age for today's readers.
Title font has been changed, while in the original it repeats exactly
the door sign on Ture Sventon's office on Drottninggatan. Yet we do
judge books by covers, and although everything in the text must feel
ancient, marketing people probably insisted that the cover should be
re-reading Ture Sventon did not prove to be a great aesthetic
experience. Fortunately, it is a short book, as children's books were
at the time.
Holmberg's plaque is appropriately on Drottninggatan or actually not
quite; the guide says corner of Drottninggatan and Jakobsgatan, and
it took me some time to examine the two sides of each corner. The
sign is inconspicuous and at the moment obscured by scaffolding. I
had almost given up before I finally saw it.
trying to remember when and why I read P C Jersild's probably most
famous novel, Barnens ö (Children's Island in
English). It was published in 1976 when I still lived in Russia and
had no easy access to foreign books. The most plausible is that I
read it, and possibly got it as a gift from the publisher, at the
first Moscow Book Fair in 1977, or maybe I just saw it then, or maybe
I was asked to read it for a Russian publisher who was considering a
translation. Jersild was at the time being considered for
translation, because he was viewed as ”progressive” and socially
engaged, but Children's Island would be out of the question
for many reasons.
thought I had a good memory of it, but apparently this memory was
entirely based on the film version, directed by Kay Pollak and
screened at the Moscow Film Festival in 1981. (At that time, I
already knew Pollak well, because he had attended the Festival in
1977 when I was his interpreter).
memory was rather idyllic, and what I remembered best – probably
again from the film image – was the bald young woman Nora who saves
Reine from drowning. I had no memory of their meeting after that. I
remembered that Reine ran away rather than being sent to a summer
camp, the titular Children's island, and roamed Stockholm, finding
all possible and impossible ways of fending for himself. I had
forgotten that he found a job painting
funeral ribbons. I remembered that he was reluctant to come into
puberty and contemplated life and death. But I had
forgotten the incredible violence
and self-destruction. I remembered his hunger,
but I had forgotten the detailed
descriptions of his defecation. Did I really read it back
then? Can you forget such details?
is not a children's book. I used it in my teaching as an example of a
novel that is not a children’s book even though the protagonist is
eleven. Did I re-read it then or trusted my unreliable memory?
wonder whether this novel would today be marketed as a young adult or
maybe crossover book. Things have changed in the past forty-five
years. It has never been marketed as a YA novel in Sweden. I
wouldn't give it to an eleven-year-old.
I could not help thinking about as I was re-reading it, or maybe
reading it for the first time, is how specific
Jersild is with Stockholm topography, plotting
Reine's bizarre trajectories. Reading it now, I recognise every
setting – I have actually just been to most of the places
mentioned: Concert Hall, Royal Library, Municipal Library, Central
Station, and more. When – if – I read the book back in Russia,
the place names would not mean anything to
me. Neither would the numerous brand names: McDonald's menus, drinks,
sweets, clothes. Neither would some typical social phenomena of the
time. I didn't know that Children's island was a real place, not a
metaphor (our daughter went there one summer). I didn't even know
what a commuter train was. The Swedish word is
pendeltåg, pendulum train, and I thought it was some kind of
funicular with the train hanging from a rail like a pendulum. And of course most of
the slang I could only guess. It sounds old-fashioned now, as
forty-five years old slang does.
I enjoy it? Yes, definitely. It was painful, poignant; I was
suffering, not with the character, but for him. I had forgotten the
ending, had a vague idea that the child-parent conflict would be
resolved, but almost hoped that the character would kill himself
because his life was so totally bleak. But somehow he reconciles with
it. It didn't feel satisfactory. Can a child so profoundly abused go
on? Perhaps. Jersild is a medical doctor so he would have seen all
short, this novel is still fully readable, although I smiled when the
character imagines how wonderful life would be in the year 2000.
Jersild's plaque is at Kungsgatan 65, the same building as the Oscar Theater. When I took the picture of the plaque I wondered why it was there, and then of course I got the answer in the book.