A couple months ago, I was given the latest of Fredrik Backman’s books, Britt-Marie Was Here, along with the other two that have been translated into English: A Man Called Ove, the first book Backman published, and My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry, which was the third (the second wasn’t translated into English). Unwisely, perhaps, I started backwards; though fitting maybe with Backman’s name (and its meaning in English, though I’m sure he’s gotten enough jokes about that at Book Expo America in Chicago where, according to his blog, he spent a lot of nervous time recently).
The reason I know that Backman was at BEA and that he was nervous is because I used Google Translate on his blog, which led to many funny-sounding sentences because, of course, the translation is far from perfect. For example, at a baseball game with his agent, Backman was apparently very excited and explaining the game’s ins and outs (though not its innings, as he wasn’t given the chance) to his agent:
so asked my agent if I “thought go on like this the whole match.” And when I nodded (basically quite normal enthusiastically!) He asked how long a match usually is. And when I replied that they could be anything between three and seven hours mumbled something about my agent that “this is not part of our contract.”
If I hadn’t read the books yet, I would already be a little in love, especially as, even with the garbled translation, the writing style is actually strangely recognizable from his books, which have been, as far as I can tell, very excellently translated, by Henning Koch, whose name only appears in the copyright information, unfortunately—I wish he would get more credit for his wonderful work. A shout out to translators here: you’re wonderful, and it is because of you that we get to read literature that wouldn’t otherwise reach us here.
So despite the bad translation that my computer spat out at me, I managed to get a general sense of the man through his personal writing, and what he said seemed to tie in so beautifully to the books he writes that I felt compelled to add one more thing he wrote recently before I discussed the books themselves. Specifically, this is about how hard it is for him to sleep without his wife and children:
I lack the expertise to sleep without my family nearby. They manage [of] course the reverse just fine, they’ve already messaged everyone was happy this morning… but I cannot even fall asleep without my wife’s wine cold feet, they are like two damn squirrels that have been dipped in liquid nitrogen running over my calves every time she turns in her sleep. You get used to it. And I’m not very good at being without the kids either, and hotel bed is too soft so tonight I get down to the front desk and ask if they had any Lego I could hide randomly in different places under the sheets.
I’m inclined to think that “wine-cold feet” and “squirrels that have been dipped in liquid nitrogen” are pretty apt translations since these are the kind of beautiful and beautifully strange yet absolutely sensical similes that Backman uses in his novels. And just wait until I get to one of the only interviews I could find about Backman… But we’re not there yet. Let’s get started on his actual books before we come back to Backman himself.
Okay, I’ll stop.
As I was saying, I started with Backman’s newest book, Britt-Marie Was Here. As seems to be the case with all his novels (which I discovered as I continued to read them), it started out with what seems like a fairly stereotypical stock character. In this case, Britt-Marie, an almost-70-year-old woman with severe hair, severe manners, little patience for the youth’s ridiculousness, and a rigidity reminiscent of the elderly Carl Fredricksen from Pixar’s Up. She starts out, like Carl, as a caricature of herself.
But unlike many such characters in literature, Britt-Marie’s past is slowly and tentatively revealed to the readers, and we learn to sympathize with her, just as she begins to learn to sympathize with the world around her. Her story begins with a ring-finger that is empty suddenly and her need, for the first time in many, many years, to get a job. She bothers a young woman at the unemployment office every morning for several days until she finally gets sent to be the temporary custodian of a community center in Borg, a town that everyone has given up on. What happens to her there I’ll leave you to read for yourself, but suffice to say that the cover does give you some clues:
What is fascinating in Britt-Marie Was Here—other than the interpersonal relationships which really carry the book along and the excellent dialogue, as well as the perfectly measured and paced flashbacks and memories which, when put together, make up not only a beautiful but also a very readable book—in addition to all that, Backman folds in some criticism and exploration of Swedish society and the state of the country’s economy. Borg, the town Britt-Marie gets a job in, is suggested to be a town like many others in a country still suffering from the financial crash of 2008 (despite the fact that Britt-Marie’s entrepreneur husband says time and time again that the financial crisis is over). In Borg, the people are what keeps the community together. The pizzeria is also a grocery store and a post office because the grocery store and the post office have closed down. The proprietor of the pizzeria, whom Britt-Marie refers to as “Somebody” throughout the book, having never bothered to learn her name, has taken up the mantel of these extra responsibilities in order to keep Borg alive, in order to maintain a sense of community during a time fraught with uncertainty.
In his writing, Backman demonstrates a sense of positivity in the world, even while describing desperate circumstances. He covers up horror with humor but allows sadness and pain to have their time on the page as well, once his characters have developed enough of a closeness with each other to be able to experience it together. There is a kind of central thesis to his books in this: pain is something to be shared, something that is far harder to deal with alone and that is often pushed down or ignored or dealt with matter-of-factly when one doesn’t have a support network.
His belief in the goodness of even the grumpiest of people seems to stem from a deep empathy he has with his characters. In his newest book, that empathy begins to overtake the last quarter of the book when violence, loyalty, and a desire for and belief in fulfilling one’s dreams, as far-fetched as they are, all blend together into a messily yet realistic ending. An ending that had me end up looking like this (as I documented on Instagram at around 2am when I’d stayed awake reading the last 100 pages or so):
After I finished the beautiful new book, I went back to read the first one, A Man Called Ove. Which brings me back to Pixar. In Up, we know all about Carl’s sad state of affairs before the story really begins: we see the montage in which Carl grows up with the girl—and later woman—he loves, the way they make a life together, and the way their life together ends when she dies before him. I kept thinking of Carl when I began reading Backman’s first book, to the point where I wonder if he saw the movie and whether it stuck with him.
Ove, in A Man Called Ove, is also a stereotypically grumpy man, almost 60, who, we come to learn, has recently lost his wife. The first chapter includes references to things Ove’s wife says, in the present tense, and soon we find out that when Ove is talking to his wife, making coffee for her, or dreading what she might think of him, it is because he still feels her all around him in his house and because he visits her at the cemetery, where he tells her that he misses her.
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He is not a man who likes change, but this is also because of the terribly tragic circumstances of his upbringing. He lost both his parents early, had to drop out of high school and work for a living, and was very unhappy for many years until he met his wife, whom he describes as colorful, as being the one spot of something cheerful. She is utterly unlike him, but she lets him ride a train with her for three months, knowing full well that the train ride is taking Ove far out of his way until finally she tells him to ask her out to dinner.
Having read Britt-Marie first and Ove second, I see the similarities between the two books, but they’re told from such different perspectives and the issues dealt within each are so different in scope that they can only be seen on a continuum rather than as actually comparable, even though their protagonists go through some of the same changes and revelations.
Ove, for instance, is obsessed with killing himself, and keeps being interrupted in his various attempts—he could be the famous Dorothy Parker poem that ends with “You might as well live,” because he indeed fails in one way or another to kill himself with almost every method she suggests. At first, his failures are accidental, but eventually, he begins to think outside of his own small world and into that of others. One memorable instance is when he stands in front of a train, having just saved someone who’s fallen onto the tracks, and is preparing to go all Anna Karenina style, except that he meets the eyes of the young conductor of the train who is trying desperately to make the thing stop. And once Ove sees the young man’s eyes, he can’t stand the idea of being the stuff of nightmares for another person in that way. Besides, even though he doesn’t seem religious exactly, Ove’s desire to kill himself is really only reflective of his words to his wife every time he visits her: “I miss you.” He wants to join her in the afterworld, which he imagines must have some sort of clothing department since it would be impossible to expect people to walk around in ragged or dirty clothes around there. But the more he lives, the more he worries about how she’ll see him if he fails his neighbors and his one-time friend by dying just then, just when they need cars and bikes fixed, rides to the hospital, or their radiators adjusted.
Britt-Marie, on the other hand, is very clearly going to live from the very moment we meet her. She is not the kind to give up. She is the kind of woman for whom some good cleaning and scrubbing of a place will ensure that it makes more sense. Her world is orderly, like Ove’s, but she is softer than him from earlier on. She has experienced love and loss and has bent with it rather than broken, and so occasionally she will find a towel and bury her face in it, definitely not crying, except that of course, she is.
In a way, it seems like Backman’s newest book is what he said he wouldn’t be able to write in this interview, in which he discusses writing his second book, which had his publisher quite worried:
We had a lot of discussions about me using made up animals and swords and sending seven-year-old girls to space (I didn’t really, they misunderstood that part) and so on and so on. The sales department sent me a lot of emails asking me in different ways if I couldn’t write an Ove 2 instead, but I kept answering “HOW!!!???”.
What is all this about a seven-year-old girl going to space?
Well, in fact, as I found out when I read My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry, Britt-Marie and her husband Kent already existed before Britt-Marie Was Here happened. In the former book, she was, as one Goodreads reviewer wrote, “an intensely unlikable woman” and “Perhaps that’s because she was so unhappy herself.” She also writes that while she recommends reading My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry before Britt-Marie Was Here, the latter has no trouble as a standalone. I am proof of that, having been incredibly surprised to find Britt-Marie anywhere but in Here.
Backman’s second (as far as readers in English are concerned, anyway) book is the most imaginative in terms of its content. Its protagonist is Elsa, a seven-year-old girl who’s bullied at school, whose parents are divorced and married to other people, and who is far more grown-up than she should be, going so far as warning her pregnant mother not to yell at her or strain to apologize afterwards because she needs to think about the baby. Elsa is, in a way, a little old woman child, which is fitting as she had a beautiful relationship with her grandmother, who passes away near the start of the book. After her grandmother’s death, Elsa is charged with a letter that leads her to a real life monster from her grandmother’s fairy tales. For this is one of the things that kept them so close: stories. Stories that continue after her grandmother’s death, as Elsa interprets all the actions her grandmother takes as part of the fairy tales she told Elsa about the Land-of-Almost-Awake and the Kingdom of Miamas.
“The Girl Who Said No” was one of the first stories Elsa ever heard from the Land-of-Almost-Awake. It’s about the Queen of Miaudacas, one of the six kingdoms. In the beginning, the queen had been a courageous and fair-minded princess very much liked by all, but unfortunately, she grew up and became a frightened adult, as adults tend to be. She started loving efficiency and avoiding conflict. As adults do.
And then the queen simply forbade all conflict from Miaudacas. Everyone had to get along all the time. And because nearly all conflicts start with someone saying “no,” the queen also made this word illegal.
The story continues this way until a little girl rides into the kingdom, saying “No!” and making a prison crumble, leading to the moral of the story: “a queen only stays in power for as long as her subjects are afraid of conflict.”
A little heady and heavy for a little girl, or indeed for a book that is ostensibly about a little girl. But like Backman’s other books, Elsa is representative of others, of a larger and more universal pain and truth that is apparent in both children and adults: she is different. If we look at Britt-Marie and Ove, their stereotypical beginnings are shocking and funny to us because they are different too—people like them rarely if ever really exist, and so it is with their adherence to old and untrue stereotypes that they actually prove themselves to be different, until they show us—like Elsa and her fairy tales that explain the adult world being the way it is—that the stereotypes are really types of habits to deal with anxiety, fear, loneliness, sadness, and pain.
This is the magic of Fredrik Backman’s books as a whole: their ability to bring tears to readers’ eyes in mirth and sadness, often within the confines of a single chapter. His own way of answering questions in the few interviews in English out there reflect that he too is a deeply anxious person, like his characters, but with empathy and love brimming out of him, things that they often have to learn. I am not a fan of measuring the autobiographical elements in novels, and I am not comparing Backman’s life in any way to the lives of his characters or their stories—it is merely that he seems to speak the language of his characters, to understand what they’re going through, and to help them grow beyond themselves in a way that only masterful storytellers really can.
Featured image: Covers courtesy of Simon & Schuster
Author Photo: Edward Koinberg