How can you lose something that’s growing within you, like a tree?

Dear Karin,

Crisis (tr. Amanda Doxtater, 2020. Original:  Kris, 1934) is a book that resists being defined, a book that resists solidifying into a unified form of taste: a queer book in form and content.

We follow Malin Forst, a 20-year-old devoted Christian who is studying to be an elementary school teacher. When the story opens, Malin is about to start a long process of personal and spiritual crisis: she begins by praying for total obliteration of desire (“when human life becomes God’s life”), and longing to annihilate her individuality as a form of total surrender to God’s will.

Then, she starts to question her faith and her moral principles, and their incompatibility with any form of institutionalization. Finally, Malin goes through a kind of psychological breakdown, which initially finds expression in religious terms. Malin longs for a kind of symbiosis with the absolute: she both fears and is attracted to it, and the book explores this tension between fear and longing, as well as between contingent and universal, religiosity and spirituality, institutionalized religion and mysticism.

Malin’s breakdown then expands from a crisis of faith to a profound inner turbulence, as she is caught in the entangled web of her faith and her desperate efforts to find her own core – who she is, what she wants to do, who she wants to be.

In the midst of her depressive crisis, Malin reaches a turning point: she discovers that she is in love with a classmate, Siv. This is represented as a form of rebirth, and Siv is described through nature symbols. Here, as in your poem The Tree Beneath the Earth (Trädet under Jorden) and in the novel Kallocain, we have the recurrent image of the tree: Malin refers to Siv as a tree that grew inside her. It almost feels as if she were undergoing a conversion from Christianity to a form of paganism.

Our protagonist loves Siv from a distance, seeing her as a role model and a rare example of integrity. Siv was never concerned with what others thought of her: “She grew with absolute faith in the secret, intrinsic law of her being.” Here, again, we have a topic that will also be explored in Kallocain: the idea that a human being is “a law in him or herself”.

Malin’s gradual discovery of her own sexuality as well as her process of self-affirmation become her path back to recovery: from the turbulent spiritual and identity crisis she goes through at the beginning of the book, Malin is drawn back to herself and to her own desire – in which, ultimately, she finds a form of inner strength and a moral compass: “Right or wrong – there is something called necessity. My necessity. My will. (…) Consciousness: this is me, this is mine. You, severe and strange force: I am just as you are. I, too, am sword and will.”

In describing Siv, observing her from afar, Malin is also describing herself. Desire becomes her moral compass, nature becomes her morality –  an idea that merges two opposing concepts in the Christian tradition.

Your novel explores Malin’s journey: her crisis of faith, her rejection of Christian institutions, her bouts of anxiety and depression, and, finally, the process of discovery and acceptance of her lesbian sexuality. As in your poems, the book also explores the tension between doubles, or between ideas traditionally thought of as opposites: nature and convention, desire and law, necessity and choice, mind and spirit, feeling and thinking, female and male.

The highlight of the book for me was its form – fragmentary, experimental, sometimes lyrical. The narrative focus changes from character to character – and sometimes we seem to be hearing the protagonist’s own voice, as if she were talking to herself and referring to herself through an interplay between the pronouns I and you; or as if she were talking to the reader. We have sections of experimental prose, interspersed with dreams, inner monologues, and fictional dialogues.

The book is divided in three parts, and each part begins with a conversation along the lines of a philosophical dialogue, but tinged with a satiric tone: 1 – On Sound Ideals (a dialogue between a doctor, a theologian, a humanist); 2 – On the Meaning of Pious Words (a dialogue between a prior and a monk); 3 – On Malin Forst (a dialogue between a cactus grower, an aesthete, a functionalist, a pragmatist, a woman with common sense, a schoolmistress, an academic instructor in ethics, a pastor, a doctor, the training college principal, a man with a wedding ring, and a gentle person).

Each dialogue is followed by more traditional narrative passages, poetic prose, letters, internal monologues, dream scenes, and even a game of chess (like a battle between the Apollonian and Dionysian aspects of Malin’s personality). The dialogic framework is an interesting way to explore the dualism that seems to be the keynote of your work; and the fragmentary narrative style is a clever way to represent the fragmentary character of Malin’s own internal journey. You seem to explore both ​​the multiplicity and the singularity of desire, seeking to represent this multiplicity by experimenting with the continuities and discontinuities between different narrative styles.

We also have in the novel a discussion about women’s social roles, an exploration of the social invisibility of lesbian desire, a sharp criticism of blind obedience and subservience to authority (much like in Kallocain), as well as a representation of psychoanalysis as a process of retelling and interpreting events from a symbolic perspective and from multiples points of view in time and space – in which the past and the present, the real and the symbolic, creation and recognition, coexist.

You also explore here another recurrent topic in your poems and in Kallocain: the idea of the incommunicability of language and, at the same time, the richly expressive potential of silence; and the way the tension between silence and speech can both limit and form our experience of the world. “Lips, can’t you shut so tightly around the inexpressible that no words stick out their hateful smallness and muddy the waters. Don’t give it a name, let it be as it is, in my blood and my eyes, like life and sap.”

Your novel is a love letter to desire, to everything that escapes its own framework; a love letter to life’s potential to be a law in itself – that improbable and obstinate tree that is capable of growing beneath the earth; the imponderable choice that, at any moment, is capable of destroying and recreating a world.

Yours truly,

J.


Albert Herter, ‘Garden of the Hesperides’, 1898.

“Finally, the graduating class took the stage to sing their well-rehearsed songs for the last time. The last time! There, ahead of her, singing the second part, stood Siv, for the last time. After this day, Malin knew, they would rarely see each other.

But it wasn’t a farewell either. For how can you lose something that’s growing within  you, like a tree? How could you even imagine that a graduation ceremony, or distance, or time, could ever obscure the utter fact, the very creation that was Siv? Such things were of no importance.

There she stood, willowy, upright, and dignified, with the radiant shimmer of gold and fruit in her skin, radiating with the good fortune of nature’s happy nobility that sometimes falls upon a human being entirely unnoticed, like dew falling upon the grass. She stood there, her exterior and interior in perfect balance, mature in her own foundation, not the least lost. A human, wholly content, filled with a kind of vegetative wisdom, swaying on the narrow footbridge suspended over chaos.” Karin Boye, Crisis, tr. Amanda Doxtater


About the book

  • Norvik Press, tr. Amanda Doxtater, 2020, 187 p. Goodreads
  • Original: Kris, 1934
  • My rating: 4 stars

7 thoughts on “How can you lose something that’s growing within you, like a tree?

  1. Oh how lovely to see this being translated! And what a thoughtful review, I feel like I need to reread this book to truly appreciate it.

    Like

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