Lena Andersson, translated from the Swedish by Sarah Death, Willful Disregard
Publisher: Other Press
2016, 196 pages, Paperback, $16.
“A NOVEL ABOUT Love” is what the cover of Willful Disregard says, but that’s not really the case. It’s a novel about unrequited love, sure, and about the dangers of living in your head, spending too much time building up fantasies, and overanalyzing everything. Esther, a writer and critic, falls completely and obsessively in love with Hugo, a swaggering artist always surrounded by an entourage. Willful Disregard becomes the story of the distance between the reality of their relationship and the version of it that lives in Esther’s head.
Reading this book, I delighted in the comparisons that Andersson effortlessly drew between the events of the novel and larger topics. Sometimes this happened in dialogue, like when a conversation between Esther and Hugo about whether we should hold the powerless and the powerful to the same ethical standards had some obvious parallels with the power dynamic in their relationship. Other times the narrator, who kept a distance from Esther that Andersson uses frequently to her advantage, makes the comparisons. In one passage, the narrator notes how predictable Esther’s obsession and overanalysis is, not by saying it’s predictable but simply through phrasing: “He had bought breakfast for her sometime between Wednesday morning and Thursday evening. That must mean that he, etc.” The narrator frequently makes smart commentary—sometimes indirectly, sometimes directly. In a parenthetical aside, the narrator notes that, “Interestingly, in general linguistic perception a ‘good friend’ counts as more distant than a basic ‘friend’ just as an ‘older person’ is younger than an old one.” I loved those moments when the narrator asserted themselves, like just before Esther invites Hugo to stay for breakfast after their first night together:
Then the morning’s conversation began, maybe one of the more common among postcoital interchanges. Its themes were evolutionary: dependence, power, weakness, strength, supply and demand, all expressed in the guise of breakfast.
She said: “What do you want for breakfast?”
He said: “I don’t want breakfast. I’m going home.”
Even the punctuation sends a message. The switch from a typical comma to colons hints at the roles these two people are playing.
One of the key messages of this book, that too much criticism and analysis can prevent a person from enjoying art or life, reminded me of Zadie Smith’s portrayal of Howard in her novel On Beauty. But, while Smith beat us over the head with the consequences of Howard’s critical nature, Andersson here is more nuanced. I shook my head at every misstep Esther took, I pitied her, and I was even annoyed by her in some stretches, but at all times I understood her. In other words, the ideas that the character of Esther represents never supplanted Esther’s need to be an actual person, as sometimes happens in books with a message like this one. Also, despite spending too much thought on academic analysis being criticized by the events of the book, it was very pleasant to read a story about the relationship between two intellectuals. It happens so infrequently in literature, and it made much of the dialogue wonderful to read.
While I understood why Esther spent much of the novel being a very passive and obsessive person, there was a section of book, about 2/3 through, where it became a little bit too much. Although the recurring nature of her having a brief encounter with Hugo then spending a lot of time analyzing that encounter and being angry at him for not taking their relationship more seriously rang completely true, it was depicted a bit too thoroughly, creating some tedium. The novel would’ve benefited from less of that, and I did find myself wanting much more depiction of Esther’s life outside of her relationship with Hugo. Frequently throughout the book, Esther receives advice from a “girlfriend chorus” in the form of a brief, summarized mention, yet there is only a single scene early in the book where we see Esther having one of these conversations with a friend. Similarly, Esther writes and works throughout the book, we only see her with her editor once, very early on. Turning the focus away from the moments apart from Hugo made sense thematically, but a few scenes between Esther and other people would’ve let some needed air into the second half of the book.
Willful Disregard is a beautiful, shatteringly real portrayal of how obsession and love can take a serious, professional, critical person and make them act more akin to a crushing high schooler. It’s refreshingly smart, filled to the brim with clever metaphors and observations. Its author, Lena Andersson, is known in Sweden for her analysis of contemporary culture, and she uses that ability to her advantage in this work. While this is her fifth novel, it’s her first to be translated into English, and it makes me hope that we will be seeing more.
Graham Oliver also interviewed this book’s translator, Sarah Death, for the Ploughshares blog. You can read their conversation here.
Lena Andersson is a novelist and a columnist for Dagens Nyheter, Sweden’s largest morning paper. Considered one of the country’s sharpest contemporary analysts, she writes about politics, society, culture, religion, and other topics. Willful Disregard is her fifth novel and winner of the 2013 August Prize, Sweden’s highest literary honor.
Sarah Death is a translator, literary scholar, and editor of the UK-based journal Swedish Book Review. Her translations from the Swedish include Ellen Mattson’s Snow, for which she won the Bernard Shaw Translation Prize. She lives and works in Kent, England.