Compelled to write

30 June 2000 | Authors, Interviews

Kjell Westö

Photo: Marica Rosengård

Kjell Westö (born 1961) is one of a generation of younger, urban Swedish-language writers who are at home in both Swedish and Finnish. An extract from his novel Vådan av att vara Skrake (‘The perils of being Skrake’, Söderströms, 2000), which traces the fortunes of the Helsinki family of Skrake from the 1910s to the present day. Here, Westö is interviewed by his alter ego, the discontented poet Anders Hed, editor of the cultural journal Bokassa (now sadly extinct)

Anders Hed: So, to get us going: do you write any poetry at all nowadays?

Kjell Westö: No. The last poem I wrote comes at the end of the title story in Fallet Bruus (‘The Bruus case’). And that book came out in 1992.

It’s a poem about human face and the search for ‘the Thou’, isn’t it?


It doesn’t hold up, in my view. An ill- digested mlange of Buber and Levinas.

You’re entitled to your opinions.

Was it a deliberate policy, or…?
What? The ill-digested regurgitation of other people’s thinking?

Hee hee hee… no. Not to write poetry.

By no means. The poems just stopped coming. And I’m no adept at forcing them out. I can’t sit at my desk and decide: ‘Today I might write a poem about the flight of the White-tailed Eagle.’ If the White-tailed Eagle isn’t in me at that moment, in my body and therefore in my soul as well, then nothing will come of the whole project.

That’s a rather widespread notion, I think, and a risky one. That poems are a sort of magic: they only come spontaneously, while the other literary genres – and pretty-well all other writings – are, well, rough stuff? Was it thinking along these lines that led you to prose ten years ago?

Ah, from Dedalus to Drudge – is that how you see me? No, that’s not how I experienced it. In fact I’ve carried wishy-washy intuitionism even further than the proponents of the magic of poetry. For me it often holds good for prose, or at any rate short stories. I’m not going to be able to write about Aunt Elsie’s crack-up, or even the advent of Coca-Cola to Finland, unless the story’s begun to live within me. Sometimes I’ve dreamed of telling a certain story for years. The structure, or at any rate the plot, is all set up in my head; it’s sizzling there, my fingers are itching. But the words are missing: that particular story’s language hasn’t yet come to fruition in me. And without the language nothing else is there. And all that I, the potential writer of that story, can do is wait, however painful it sometimes may be.

But isn’t that risky? You get an idea, you find a story. But then you tell yourself: Damn it, I haven’t the right language for this one. In a way you’re giving yourself leave to kill time…. I mean, if storytelling’s a certain process, then can’t you speed the process up by simply bashing on, worrying at the story, till it consents to be told?

Well yes, often that’s how it does go. The trial-and-error method, with its mistakes and blind alleys, does speed up the creative process, and a result is squeezed out. But I’ve also had dire experiences of how you simply can’t force a story. Or rather, you can, but the result’s forced too – bad, in other words…. Nevertheless I want to emphasize that though I do stress intuition and unconscious processes in writing, I don’t take them as an excuse for lolling about on a sofa, passively waiting for so-called inspiration. That way stories definitely do remain untold. But every writer knows how painful the periods are when a poem or a story or part of a story is seeking its form. For someone passionate about writing it’s like waiting for a resurrection….

You’re speaking to a poet who hasn’t published a poem for ten years.

Apologies. I wasn’t meaning to hurt you.

Nor have you. You’ve hit a sensitive spot, though…. Well, when we met last summer you said there was a pile of books at your bedside about Helsinki and its recent history. Have you read them all?

I read a lot, mostly when I’m unable to write when the stories are seeking their form. In recent years I’ve been more and more fascinated by the recent history of Finland and Helsinki. I’m mad about Finnish memoirs from the early nineteen hundreds, for example. We Finns – like other nations of course – were so earnest then, so much in earnest about our mighty, far-reaching thinking. If that earnestness hadn’t so often led to crypto-fascist or Stalinist thinking I’d say the Finns of that time were a little absurd. Anyhow, I feel a sympathy for them. And sometimes envy. My psyche is so constituted that I’d have been usefuller in a world fitted out with more ideas than buying and selling.

So you regret you were born too late to be a fascist or Stalinist?

The subject’s more serious than you think. I was born on the sixteenth anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima, just a few days before they started building the Berlin Wall. I have – like most people of my age, evidently – found myself assessing what I think about the twentieth-century’s ideologies and wars. I consider that all those political ideologies ruined the twentieth century, a century where there was otherwise a great deal of admirable development. And one shouldn’t forget that the threat of totalitarianism hasn’t decamped somewhere, quite the contrary. The threat will abide as long as man refuses to study himself, his inner being. Our own time’s full of cruel and frivolous thinking nurtured by self-deception, and it isn’t even concealed. Our Weltanschauung, with its manic fixation on profit and profiteering, is kin to the superman-ideal in fascism and Stalinism. Our media-dominated technological society on the the hunt for constant pleasure recalls Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World of the early 1930s. And a world like that is very far from being an ideal democracy. As for myself, I picture myself as comparatively immune from totalitarian thinking. I’m no good at lining up in the ranks of anything. And, on the other hand, I’m rather a coward. I’m also hot-tempered, and I can’t bear being put down. So that if I’d been born at the wrong time, under unfavourable stars, I might have put up a poor show.

You’re now somewhat under forty, like myself. Have you considered this: Are we twentieth-century people or twenty-first-century ones?

I have a powerful impression that certain childhood experiences and emotions relating to twentieth-century history have eaten deep into my psyche. I grew up in a family where both grandfathers were killed, one in the Winter War, and the other in the Continuation War. This left its mark on each of my grandmothers, it marked my mother and father, and has left its mark on me and, I’m sure, my younger brother and fellow-writer Mårten. Wounds like those are not healed in one generation. And then of course there was the Cold War and all its side-effects….

My view is that it’s growing up during the Cold War that makes us irrevocably twentieth-century people.

Yes. We belong to the generation that had to take all the ddrs, brezhnevs and reagans seriously. We didn’t fully appreciate it at the time, but it must in fact have been a pretty horrible experience.

We’re pitiful relics of the Sputnik period. If you watch some DDR documentary along with anyone born in the 70s or 80s, they look at you with big eyes, and those eyes are asking: Did you really take all that stuff seriously? And it makes me want to shout: Take it seriously? We bloody well had to, with all those long-distance missiles pointing their noses every which way…?

And the insidious way we internalized that world’s bipolarity. So that whenever the Russkies did something it had to be compared with what the Yanks were doing, and vice versa.

You’ve sometimes stressed the weirdness of the atmosphere at the beginning of the 1980s. You’ve said that the Zeitgeist of those years had left its stamp on you.

Ever since my childhood I’ve felt somehow, in my being, unbelieving. I’ve had a strong feeling of the uncertainty of everything, and I could never reconcile myself to any kind of right-mindedness, either bourgeois or leftist. Nor did I care for the prima-donna lifestyles cherished by artistic souls, where ‘the clothes you chose’ really are ‘your pose’, as the popular song has it. The suddenness of the changes in the 1980s strengthened this uncertainty-based world-outlook of mine. Everything seemed to be going arsy-versy. When I was growing up, a generally left-wing attitude could get you into the gang of progressive intellectuals. Ten years later the left had de facto become conservative, to protect the enduring values…. Or think of this: one summer everyone was copulating like rabbits all over the place, but the following summer we were queuing up pale-faced for HIV-tests and contemplating death, as it had finally dawned on us that the microbes didn’t take account of sexual orientation or the colour of your skin…. But the greatest and suddenest change was certainly in that magic autumn of 1989 and the winter following. I was living in Portugal at the time, and I stared disbelievingly at the television news, trying to guess what the Portuguese commentary was reporting. And the really big impression came from Nelson Mandela himself – walking out of the prison gates after almost thirty years, not the least bit embittered, but full of life and the desire for reconstruction. If you’ve grown up in a tightly enclosed world founded on linguistic falsification and you experience – at under thirty as well – a time of possibilities like that, it really does mark you with indelible traces. If there’s any optimism in me, it comes from 1989.

Let’s now turn to your childhood. Can you pick out one situation or fact that influenced your becoming a writer?

In that case I must tell you about a certain key-change.

Dear chap, you’re a writer, not a musician.

Yes, unfortunately. But I loved music long before any other art. And I loved it so fervently that I began wondering while I was still a child why some pieces gave me gooseflesh and others left me cold. And then, after I’d made a little progress on the guitar, I noticed I had a weakness for a certain key change, and…. But there’s a problem here….

And that is….

That this isn’t about the finer points of classical music, and therefore it embarrasses me to bring this up in an intellectual magazine like Bokassa… where anyway my books are always written off as dull and hackneyed. But well, OK. We’re talking about the simplest of simple musical figures. If some musical piece began in, say, C major, then I was always floored when the key changed into the relative minor, or, in this case, A minor….

Hold on. I’m not sufficiently versed in music to take the point. You’ll have to give an example.

All right, let’s take, say, Ben E. King’s soul classic ‘Stand By Me’. It starts in A major. The singer begins ‘When the night has come’… after which there’s a change to the relative minor, F sharp minor, and over it King is belting out ‘and the land is dark’…. Can you imagine how sold I was when I first heard that piece on the radio? My avidity for that chord-change went on and on, and it’s continued to this day. When I was twentyish, early in the 1980s, my favourite piece was Dire Straits’s ‘Tunnel of Love’: that has the key change as well. Round about the same time I discovered classical music. It happened through one of Dvorak’s Slavonic Dances – which also had the key-change. Again, if I’d been asked to choose the most compelling song of the 1990s, I’d have chosen Daniel Lanois’s post-modern gospel-song, as sung by Emmy-Lou Harris: ‘Where Will I Be?’ And that has the key-change in it. But it was only a few years ago, after I’d been listening to music for over a quarter of a century, that I got the point….

I hope I’ll get the point too. I haven’t the faintest idea what you’re on about.

I realised there was a phase in the history of light music when that key-change was an obsession in practically every composition, and the period was 1960-1963. In those years that key-change is everywhere. It’s in Ricky Nelson’s ‘Hello Mary Lou’ and ‘Travelling Man’, and in the piece I just mentioned, Ben.E.King’s ‘Stand By Me’. It’s in Sam Cook’s ‘What a Wonderful World This Would Be’, Del Shannon’s ‘Runaway’, Pat Boone’s ‘Speedy Gonzales’, Roy Orbis’s ‘Only the Lonely’, Elvis’s ‘Devil in Disguise’, and many other electric-guitar hits. It’s also on Olavi Virta’s November 1961 translated hit-disc, ‘Moody River’, which always gives me the shivers.

What are you trying to say? That through your paranormal powers you composed all those pieces while you were still a babe in arms?

No. What I’m saying is that my mother or my father or my grandmother, or whoever was looking after me, must have plonked me on a transistor radio in the daytime, and that while I was lying in the cradle or on the floor this key-change – in spite of Finnish Radio’s starvation diet of pop in those days – rooted itself in the innermost recesses of my soul. So when I write, I unconsciously try to make the key-change audible in my text. And because the key-change – that change from major to minor or the other way round – is so much alive in me, I have to find ever new tropes for it, or I’ll crack under the music.

So I was right! You create long and wearisome stories merely to imitate some pop-jingle’s key-change! Good grief! And to think I’ve always defended you when Bokassa’s reviewers have written you off as a cliché-monger with the brains of an Australopithecus.

Well, that’s not the whole of it. I do admit I’m not one of the brainiest of writers. And I realise this interview will give Bokassa’s reviewers more grist to their mill. But over the years I have been engraved with other kinds of music. And there have been literary fruits. In other words, I don’t regard myself as a two-key man. But I think a person gets a certain basic tone to his soul very early on, and that it remains. In the last couple of years I’ve become very keen on Schubert’s late piano pieces, and they’re characterized by poignantly beautiful melodies and extremely skilful transitions from major to minor cadences, and vice versa….

Music seems to be some kind of ur-artform for you. At the beginning of the interview you said you couldn’t write while the language of the story was lacking…. What if that lack is in fact the story’s music, which hasn’t yet started sounding within you?

That’s not a bad notion. John Cage once said that architecture was frozen music. I admit I’ve sometimes wanted to think of words, writing and composition in similar terms: writing as the notation of silent melody, the creation of frozen music. This exuberant love of music and this very anti-intellectual attitude to language marked my first two fat poetry collections. They’d have been better books if I’d absorbed that writing always has a reflective, self-critical side to it. I have certainly learned that since. But I’m still not interested in the theory of writing, or literary theory either. My justification for my level of existence as a writer must be enough readers wanting to read the stories I invent. In fact I’d be happy to serialize my stories in newspapers, as they did in the nineteenth century. But nowadays the cultures have pulled apart: it won’t work any more. But anyway I’ve accepted that I don’t belong to the literary innovators. I don’t expect my junk to be read in fifty years’ time….

You’ve divulged to me that your stories always take off from some sort of initial image, or vignette, and that without such you can’t catch hold of the story. Could you throw a little more light on this?

I absolutely do require an initial image, and, moreover, one that comes from deep down, that’s alive in me with vivid colours and contrasts. Without such an image my machine won’t start. In my short-story collection Fallet Bruus for example, there’s a story called ‘Iiro and the Boy’. It originated from my playing in various amateur bands for several years. I was accustomed to arriving at unfamiliar restaurants or community centres and carrying my things into the still empty auditorium, along with the other musicians. During those years an image grew within me. A musician arrives at a little town and is carrying instruments and amplifiers into the shabby Town Hotel’s restaurant, still empty and smelling of the previous night’s fag-ends. The day’s grey, it’s dim in the room, and suddenly the musician sees a boy of about ten in the restaurant’s entranceway; the boy looks at him silently and seriously.

But ‘Iiro and the Boy’ doesn’t start with that image.

It’s not mandatory for these personal initial images of mine to form the first image of the story. What they do is give birth to the story within me… or rather they get it going. For often I have to wait years before finding the story linked to a given image. And when the story is ready to be written, the image may come at any point, even right at the end. The image for ‘Bruno’ was three men standing round the body of a dead dog in a veterinary clinic. Recently I finished a novel-chapter called ‘Notes related to pharmacist Pemberton’s holy nectar’: the initial image for that was a lorry that hit a tree in Mäkelänkatu street in the summer of 1952.

Are those initial images inventions, or memories of actual experiences?

Both and. Or rather, either or. There are no amateur musician’s illegitimate children of mine in some strange town. I’ve not been the type of musician who tries to seduce women by playing; and, this being so, no serious-looking boy has stared at me across a restaurant floor. The ‘Bruno’ image is directly connected to my parents’ divorce and the splitting up of our family, though the actual story isn’t particularly faithful. But this I don’t know – did a lorry hit a tree in Mäkelänkatu street in the summer of 1952?

Am I wrong in thinking your almost hundred-page-long story, ‘Melba, Mallinen and I’, was a sort of preliminary run-through for your novel Drakarna över Helsingfors (‘Kites over Helsinki’, 1998)?

You’re not completely wide of the mark. Only after finishing the novel did I realise there were certain motifs in ‘Melba’ that later turned out to be important in the novel: a sketch of the Sixties and Seventies, evocating the atmosphere of that time from a child’s point of view with a gently ironic tone, the portrayal of an upwardly-mobile family, and so forth. But there are also great divergences. ‘Melba, Mallinen and I’ is a story about childhood and adolescence. It’s about the closed and cruel world of these unripe individuals, where the adults have a supernumerary role. In Drakarna, on the other hand, all the generations are important. In ‘Melba’ it’s only the young. And there’s a primary theme, or rather crucial issue, hanging over it – very important for me personally and tormenting – and that is: What happens to a person who’s always getting bullied and beaten up in childhood because of his mother tongue?

Why is this issue so important for you?

This subject – childhood shame and fear through being a Swedish-speaker in Helsinki – has long been taboo in Finland-Swedish writing: even though young boys, certainly including many later writers, have in their time been beaten up like Kenu Backman in my story. Many may well have been able to fend for themselves better than Kenu, but still…. That you can be beaten up because of some external fact, a fact you can do nothing about, is bewildering. The feeling of total helplessness… the feeling that you could try to become a better, friendlier, more loveable person, but it would be no use, because that one external fact is decisive, and you’ll get beaten up time after time. The catalyst of hatred in my story is having the ‘wrong’ mother-tongue; but it could equally well be skin-colour, social position, the wrong clothes, or even one’s literary taste: you name it. That childhood experience marked me deeply. Because I was labelled ‘different’ in the playground, I was moved to understand and accept the differences between others and their ways. That battery also made me a convinced anti-racist. In my view the whole conception of race is mankind’s self-inflicted tragedy – particularly lamentable when you consider how ridiculously little variation there is in the genotypes of the different ‘races’. And in fact… even the nationalistic fervour of sports commentators produces nervous symptoms in me nowadays, though I do love Finland in my own way, and I was formerly an athletics freak.

So, to wind up at last…. When we met today, just before I set the tape going, you said that now you’d consented to this kind of interview you wanted to say a few straight words about how you became a writer as well.

Yes. As I said earlier, I specialise in being the wrong man in the wrong place at the wrong time. This has been a leitmotif in my existence. I’ve tried to learn my lesson, but I still misread the prescriptive codes of human intercourse. And when a situation starts sorting people into like-minded groups, I generally fall between the stools. Throughout the 1980s I was busily involved in the Finland-Swedish literary scene; I was part of this and that endeavour, and I wrote and wrote. At some point I realised I was thirty years old and had got myself the reputation among the left of being a staunch bourgeois, while the bourgeoisie considered me self-evidently a communist…. All right, I admit I tended to be provocative, and I was partly to blame myself. But there are domains where my identity is complicated or conflicting in spite of myself. My social background, for example, what used to be called class background, is incoherent and complex. A few years ago a journalist from the Finnish-language Helsingin Sanomat newspaper hit on the idea that the writer Carola Sandbacka – whom I’ve never met – and I were from the same family. He was making a story about the Tampere of long ago. He wrote mostly about Carola Sandbacka – who had written a novel about a wealthy Finland-Swedish family in Tampere – but planted the suggestion that I too had recalled the past grandeur of my family in a novel. The chief interviewee was a rich old Finland-Swedish man who sat in the library of his patrician home and ordered the maid to bring fancy cakes to the table. Thus, once more, I’d been dexterously slipped into the upper class. The only problem was that I’d never been a relative of the old gentleman who offered the journalist fancy cakes. I do admit that I have thriving relatives in Tampere, and I’m in no way ashamed of them. But at the same time I wondered if it would be of any interest at all to the Finnish-speaking journalist to know that one of my grandmothers was a war-widow who brought up her son by toiling as a seamstress and cook, among other trades….

I’ll mention still another example of my fragmented identity. As a Finland Swede, I have – at least so I imagine – a rather close relation to Finnish, and thereby to the ancient popular Finnish culture, the Finnish Film Industry, Olavi Virta, and so forth. But, but. If a Finnish-speaking artist admits his love for the tangos of Virta or the pop-songs of Rauli Badding Somerjoki, he’s blessed with a great Finnish heart. I, though, encounter astonished looks. And the most distrustful look at me as if they’d like to say ‘Why don’t you piss off to your Swedish Club, raise your schnapps-glass and howl your bloody Bellman songs….’

No, Anders. This isn’t self-pity. I’m inured to this incongruousness in my life, and nowadays I’m well able to see the black humour in it. But I know that without writing, without revealing myself, without this output, without this outlet, my inner conflicts would have landed me in a mess. And that’s why I wanted to finish off the interview like this – pointing out that I’ve been compelled to write, and I still am. I write to keep myself together. I try to write myself into wholeness. I look for stories where there’s a world that has a place for me in it.


Thanks to you.

Translated by Herbert Lomas


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