Outside the goldfish bowl

Issue 4/2003 | Archives online, Authors, Reviews

Agneta von Koskull was born in 1947 into an aristocratic family in Helsinki – which, in post-war Finland, did not involve any great economic luxury. Her father, Baron Erik von Koskull, worked at the Hufvudstadsbladet newspaper as a correspondent in the advertising department, while her mother Elsa, née Behm, ‘minded the till’ at a shipping company. Agneta and her two older sisters were looked after first by their beloved nanny, Dodo, and later by a series of more or less unsuitable home helps and an eccentric uncle.

As a teenager, Agneta was sent to Germany to learn the language – and refused to come home again to take her matriculation examinations. After tough negotiations, her parents gave in, and Agneta von Koskull trained both as an actress and as a visual artist in Germany. She left her German life behind her with equal resolution in the late 1970s, when she moved to Sweden because she wanted to return to Swedish, her mother-tongue and the language of her childhood, she says. In Sweden – and, after winning a green card in an immigration lottery, also in the USA – she devoted herself to her painting, with good economic success, to meditation, and ‘the sort of things one did in those days, new age and so on’. Among other things she took part in founding an ashram in northern Sweden. Then she attended a creative writing course and wrote the book that has now struck Swedish-speaking Finland with amazement.

Från Twenty Gold till Kent (‘From Twenty Gold to Kent’, Schildts) is, to say the least, a mature first book, a memoir written by an author with an obvious gift for recollection and character portrayal. It could not have been written by an author who had lived most of her life in the cultural circle of Finland-Swedish Helsinki, where ‘everyone knows everyone else’, and it is therefore considered both unnecessary and inappropriate to remember the juiciest details in print – a major handicap for both the Finland-Swedish memoir tradition and for gossip journalism.

Von Koskull writes with wonderful indiscretion about her mother, queen of the soirées, sparkling hostess of the ladies’ club, hardworking housewife, office-worker and freelance reporter, more or less discreet secret drinker – and chain smoker. Elsa von Koskull becomes the book’s indisputable central character, a woman with style and good humour in spite of all her faults, a gifted woman caught in a net of family life, financial pressures, aristocratic ways and professional ambitions.

The book ends when Agneta reaches puberty. Her teenage years are not much to write home about, a melancholy time, she allows us to conclude. So the next book, which many people are probably awaiting with interest, will be more likely to be about her years in Germany – the artistic life, the society that seemed so colourful after the grey solemnity of post-war Finland, and ‘a lot of German men’.

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