How to survive in the fast lane

Issue 2/1991 | Archives online, Authors

Kjell Westö is very young, but he has enough historical sensibility to be able to understand small details and how they vary as epochs change. Reading him, I was reminded of one of the dustiest practitioners of the philosophy of art, the 19th-century Hippolyte Taine.

Taine was a dyed-in-the-wool positivist who sought connections between art and geology: just as the earth is overlaid with a layer of ‘soft mulch’ – last year’s decomposing leaves – so ‘the individual is overlaid with customs, ideals, spiritual or intellectual characteristics which last for three or four years; they are the creations of fashion and the moment’; among them are details of speech and clothing. Taine’s description, written around 1830, of the young literary hero, is unforgettable: the upstart ‘who has great passions and deep dreams, who is inspiring and lyrical, political and rebellious, humanitarian and reformist and enthusiastically consumptive, fateful looking with his tragic waistcoats and his arresting hair style’.

In describing his heroes of the 1990s, Westö (born 1961) uses the clever device of sometimes slipping forward three or four years into the future whose seeds are being sown. I shall try to describe Westö’s young Helsinki dweller in the terms Taine might have used. He is sexually active and socially ambitious; he is from a seemingly blameless upper middle-class family whose hidden lies press on his mind; he is highly conscious of the subtle distinctions of his peer group, and in his close relations he is almost adolescently helpless. He is probably afraid of Aids, clothed as he is in the garments of his clan, the carelessly casual blazer he bought in New York and his unnaturally swelling body-builder’s muscles.

Westö’s irony is subtle; at base he is a moralist. He says he was driven by the desire to write a lamentation for a lost generation. Ali right, but how many lost generations have there been since Scott Fitzgerald? One of Westö’s characters is a 1980s rock musician who has lost his contact with his new audience. The name of the group, which is hoping to succeed in Europe, is no longer English, but German: Anhalter Bahnhof. And a Finnish artist called Mäkäräinen (which is the diminutive form of a small but bloodthirsty insect that lives in Lapland) needs a new professional name to make him legal tender in the unifying world. Westö’s guitarist is amazed at the new players who can at one and the same time express sorrow and indifference. The time of total engagement is over, and Westö is on the losing side.

Westö’s first published work, a collection of poetry entitled Tango Orange, included loquacious poems that one almost dares to place in the tradition of Walt Whitman. The charming abundance of its rhetoric turned Westö, at a stroke, into the young hope of Finland-Swedish literature, but when Epitaf över Mr Nacht (‘Epitaph for Mr Nacht’) appeared in 1988, literary opinion turned against him and criticised his poetry for its absence of personal language. Westö defended himself by saying that ‘each different element of a story demands its own language’. From the beginning his poetry has been narrative; so strongly narrative that the move to prose in the collection of short stories Utslag (‘Rash’) seemed entirely natural.

One of the poems in Tango Orange speaks of the violent pace of today, in which the morals of the individual are rudimentary, like ‘the wretched dinosaur of my soul’, or the cry of a loon in a Helsinki street at rush hour. In Utslag, one of the short stories describes a newspaper editor who injures people with his cheap, sensationalist journalism and is punished by stigmata which appear on his skin, suppurating marks of what is wrong. Westö sympathises with his character, whose awakened conscience makes him leave his job; but he also chronicles how that vacancy is filled by an even more ambitious and hard-bitten journalist.

Westö is at his best in his ironic descriptions of the social games of young males, their loutishness in love, their blasé affectations and their tragedy. The combination of gallows-humour description of the present and sensitive empathy for its subjects gives Utslag a vivid expressiveness.

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