"He can only speak through a book and they only listen through it"

Per Olov Enquist, The Wandering Pine (2008)
Translated from the Swedish by Deborah Bragan-Turner (2015)

EnquistThere’s something disconcerting about meeting a veteran author’s work for the first time in what is effectively a fictionalised autobiography. You have the sense of coming to know that author more deeply than others whom you might have read for years (though of you course you don’t know them, or at least can’t be sure what you know), but without the context that a greater knowledge of the writer’s work might bring.

Perhaps that goes double for The Wandering Pine, a book that sometimes brings you almost unbearably close to its author-protagonist’s experiences, and at other times reminds you how distant it remains. Per Olov Enquist was in his early seventies when the book was first published in Swedish in 2008, though the events narrated run up to about 1990. It’s written in the third person, which has an immediate fictionalising and distancing effect; the obliqueness of its structure and style only add to that.

The first part of The Wandering Pine is one of the finest depictions of childhood that I’ve read in a long time – albeit one of a very particular childhood. The young Per-Ola, as he’s known, grows up in a village in northern Sweden; his mother is the deeply religious village teacher; he doesn’t remember his father, who died when he was six months old. There are vivid flashes of life, such as the great expedition to visit family each Christmas (a bus journey in the darkness, then though the forest on uncle’s sleigh). But Enquist’s main focus is the personal, and his book shines as it depicts Per-Ola trying to make sense of the competing forces at work in the world around him. For example, out of duty the boy invents a sin for Saturday confession, because he feels that he never has any real sins to confess. Later, he struggles to reconcile the piety of the local revivalist movement with his own burgeoning sexual awareness and the (to him) obvious links between sexuality and the movement’s emphasis on ritual: “You had to bow your head in the anguish of sin, and only in silence feel the irresistible draw of the warm, the forbidden…Where everyone else found warmth and security, he found only guilt and anxiety” (p, 96). Deborah Bragan-Turner’s translation comes into its own when treating such personal themes, as they become undercurrents in the text that bind together disparate scenes.

Per-Ola may feel that he can’t find his way in the world, but there is one thing above all that gives him a measure of security: “it becomes natural for him to feel no fear when he writes. But only when he writes” (p. 82). Indeed, it’s striking that there is so much in The Wandering Pine about writing in comparison to, say, Enquist’s personal relationships. This is very much a  chronicle of a writer’s life, in the sense that writing is how its protagonist engages with the world, and his problems and concerns are largely mediated through the act of writing.

The middle of The Wandering Pine concerns the beginnings and continuing success of Enquist’s writing career. I have my reservations about this section: it is not that it doesn’t work – on the contrary, there are some quite effective passages, such as when P.O. (no longer Per-Ola) decides to write a novel about a particularly contentious aspect of recent Swedish history, and discovers that many potential pitfalls lie in wait. But for me, this stretch of the book just doesn’t have the same intensity as the opening. I think it’s because the subject matter feels less fundamental, more concerned with the ‘busyness’ of life.

But the final section of the book heads into darker, more deeply personal territory, and regains the strength of the beginning. The hints are oblique at first: a comment that “he knows he is sinking” (p. 313); or an abrupt shift in circumstances – P.O. living alone in Paris, writing about a childhood home he never had, in more sustained detail than anything we’ve come across previously. The truth emerges: P.O. is an alcoholic. This section then becomes in some ways an inversion of the beginning: periods of treatment slip from the narrator’s memory, driving the scenes apart where at the start they were drawn together. A scene where the treatment centre inmates are forced into painful confrontations with their relatives stands in opposition to Per-Ola’s childhood, where the hurt came from what he did not have the opportunity to say to his family. This whole period is a bleak one for P.O., but he does come through; and he knows his life has turned around when he can visualise – what else? – his next book.

The original Swedish title of this book, Ett Annat Liv, can be translated as ‘Another Life’, or ‘A Different Life’ as it appears in the text of the English version. This is a reference to P.O.’s desire to hold on to his true self when being subjected to treatment (which he regards as an intrusion) for his addiction, and the new life he feels he that he gains on recovery. The Wandering Pine, on the other hand, is how Enquist describes himself as a reporter at the 1972 Munich Olympics – the tall but unobtrusive observer. The English title gives the book a different emphasis: the author as quiet documentarian of his own life, rather than the central transformation indicated by the Swedish title. In the end, I think the two titles sum up the different sides of Enquist’s book: a journey through a life that we experience as passengers, but with a vivid sense of what it was to live that life – in fiction, at any rate.

The Wandering Pine is published in the UK by MacLehose Press.

6 Comments

  1. Looking forward to reading this. Reminds me a little of Neil Gunn’s 3rd person autobiographical work. I’m intrigued to discover which of his novels deals with ‘a contentious aspect of recent Swedish history’ (most are historical).

  2. Sorry, Grant, I missed your comment!! I hadn’t heard of Neil Gunn before, but I’d be intrigued to check out his work – what do you recommend? The historical novel I refer to is The Legionnaires; though it’s not an episode of The Wandering Pine that I treated in detail, I did find it interesting to read.

  3. I’m nearing the end of this book and I have found the use of the 3rd person a rather tiresome conceit.

  4. Fair enough, but for me the third person narration creates a vital distancing effect. I don’t think the book would work in the first person.

  5. I have just read this book and done a brief review. Like you I found the section on his childhood compelling, and the last section on his time struggling with alcoholism very strong. The middle section read somewhat like a catalogue to me. I had even forgotten about his Olympic Games disappointment until I read it in your review. But why call this book a novel? I think it has been well established that memory is not reliable and memoirs can always be taken with a grain of salt. So for this I could accept ‘fictional memoir’ but novel? Maybe Knausgaard has set this trend.

    • Hi, and thanks for your comment. For the benefit of anyone else reading this, I should explain that The Wandering Pine is subtitled ‘Life as a Novel’. It’s a tricky question, which I pretty much sidestepped in this review. On reflection, though, I think I would be happy calling Enquist’s book a novel, because it pushes the reader towards encountering and responding to it in the same way as a novel.

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