Going on a summer holiday

Issue 2/1995 | Archives online, Authors

As the setting of her first novel, Underbara kvinnor vid vatten (‘Wonderful women beside the water’), Monika Fagerholm has chosen the Finland-Swedish summer paradise, a group of summer cottages by the sea just outside Helsingfors. The portrayal of summer cottages is, as Fagerholm herself has pointed out, almost a genre within Finland-Swedish literature; writings on the subject include those of Tove Jansson and Johan Bargum. Summer-cottage life involves a return to the safe lucidity of childhood, while those who live all the rest of the year in a cramped
 city apartment understandably enough 
dream of the freedom that the sea and the sun represent. Above all, the life that is lived in summer is more whole, more full than anything that is experienced during the dark winter.

But Fagerholm’s summer paradise is not merely a borrowed literary device – the story she tells is, among other things, about how the protected oasis of the classical nuclear family is disrupted by a new era with new sexual roles.

The choice of setting also means that
 Fagerholm has made a virtue of the

Finland-Swedish novel’s traditional problem – how to write a contemporary work of fiction in Swedish in a country where the dominant language, especially the spoken language, is Finnish.

Underbara kvinnor vid vatten builds up a strictly defined fictional world that is, none the less, realistic: at the summer resort there is an encounter between Swedish-speaking people from different social classes who would never meet in the working and social environment of winter. Like the ‘wonderful women’ of the title: the nouveau riche and Americanised Rosa, and her friend Bella, who has a lower middle-class past behind her as a mermaid at a funfair.

Fagerholm’s novel is also a fascinating visit to the forgotten Sixties that existed immediately before the onset of the social, political and value-oriented

turbulence that we nowadays denote by the code-word ‘sixty-eight’. Rosa and Bella, housewives with young children, are friends who gradually drift apart, exponents of a female role which, to those who were children in the 1960s, seems both very familiar and uncannily remote.

Underbara kvinnor vid vatten tells two stories. One is that of the women, who gradually give up their roles as housewives and mothers and finally cause a scandal by running away to Copenhagen.

Rosa will eventually return, we understand, but Bella becomes a ‘tour guide’ to Mallorca and disappears forever. The other story is that of their deserted children, about Bella’s son Thomas, a survivor who makes up for the loss of his mother by joining the boy scouts, and later acquires Camilla, the ‘little psychologist’ of her class at school, as his girlfriend. And of Rosa’s daughter, the tomboy Renée, who cannot adapt, but runs away from home and becomes a creature of the forest. Much later, in the book’s epilogue, she lives a space-child’s life of meaningless consumption and raw teenage sex, until she quite literally goes under: drowning during a stupid and unnecessary boat excursion in connection with a parent-free party.

The reader is compelled to become involved in both these conflicting stories. The insightful portrait of Thomas, his beautiful infatuation with his hopeless mother, his ability to understand the things in her that go beyond the maternal role, make it easy to opt for a reading that sees Bella and Rosa as egotistical and reckless family saboteurs. It soon turns out, however, that such a reading is too simplistic.

Monika Fagerholm’s position as narrator is of course marked by irony in both its polyphony and its satirical qualities – but her sympathy for the wonderful women and their vague project of liberation, in an age when no one had yet heard of women’s liberation, is unmistakable.

The early Sixties emerge as an era of freedom and naïvety, the era that came to an end when the shadow of the Vietnam War fell over the western world. The self-realisation takes place by means of a consumption that is not yet overlaid with guilt. The passionate longing for electric cookers and freezers is not yet overshadowed by an awareness of ozone layers and global warming. Rosa’s and Bella’s liberation has nothing to do with feminism, it does not exist in their world, but rather with making life into a frivolous party – Bella’s icon is the picture of Anita Ekberg in the Fontana di Trevi. This is how their first meeting, when Rosa comes over to borrow some flour from Bella, is portrayed:

‘…well you see, I never bake cakes and if I bake cakes I use MIX,’ and her hands beat the air and then she laughs again and comes over and sits by the table and says her name is Rosa.
‘And if I have an American accent it’s because we came back this spring from three years in Washington DC. Marilyn is dead. Did you hear?’
‘Marilyn Monroe,’ laughs Isabella, the heartless laugh of a brunette.
‘Marilyn Monroe,’ laughs Rosa Angel, the heartless laugh of a brunette.
When they are together they are almost like Elizabeth Taylor and Jacqueline Kennedy.
For two hours they are together.

Of the two possible different readings, one perceives Rosa and Bella as tragicheroines in an impossible attempt at liberation; the other regards them as recklessly indifferent mothers. The novel never finally settles for the one or the other. The insoluble conflict is personified in the character of Renée – she can be seen both as a victim and as the person who continues her mother’s project, and who takes maladjustment to its extreme, tragic consequences.

Instead, through Underbara kvinnor vid vatten passes a meta-literary thread that constantly reformulates the narrative itself. From whose perspective is the action seen? Who stands in the centre, who on the periphery, and who is not even in the picture? The novel’s characters are constantly preoccupied with photographing one another – whether for real or in pretence, without any film in the camera.
 Over and over again Rosa and Bella watch the home movie ‘Family Memories IV’, which ends like this (Gabbe is Rosa’s husband):

‘It looks as though at any second now Rosa is going to lose her balance and fall down wih the tray and everything. But it doesn’t happen. She stays on her feet; it’s just Gabbe, who has taken the camera and is doing a bit of trick photography.
‘Gabbe always has to pretend,’ says Rosa every time they get to this point in the film.

Fagerholm has a way of creating distance from her characters by cutting their dialogue into little pieces, which robs them of their spontaneity and honesty: this is how Rosa sounds on the telephone, long after her liberation project has failed:

‘I m falling, falling, falling,’ Rosa says suddenly on the telephone to Tupsu Lindbergh.
‘But Tupsu. That’s also an awfully ordinary, banal idea.’
‘My head is full of ordinary, banal ideas.’
‘I can’t express myself any better.’
‘And I talk nonsense. Just nonsense.’
‘I’m someone who seems to make a point of it it. Talking nonsense. Someone who is exactly the way she looks. What shall we have for dinner, today, Tupsu? I wonder what we shall have.’
And blah blah blah. Until they hang up. And then phone each other again. The next day, and the next one. Talking. Months go by, and years.

Not for nothing does Thomas get a skeleton construction kit as a birthday present. As the motto for one section of the novel, Fagerholm quotes from the kit’s instruction booklet:

But in order to have any hope of understanding one another, we must speak in metaphors, in pictures. We do this every day in the simplest situations, and we must do it now, as we try to learn something about reality together. The real scientist never says: ‘This is how it is!’ Instead, he says:
 ‘Here is a picture of how we think it is.’

Underbara kvinnor vid vatten is a very skilfully told story. What gives it luminosity is not least its fantastically sharp-detailed depiction of the Sixties. Objects, music, ways of dressing and expressing oneself – an entire innocent world of illuminated mirrored drinks cabinets, mahogany motorboats and space voyages comes alive for a moment, already carrying within itself the seed of its own destruction.


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