“It’s all about manipulating the recipient into feeling what you want them to feel.”
In Swedish author Lena Andersson’s novel, Willful Disregard, thirty-one-year-old Ester Nilsson, freelance writer, a “poet and an essayist” is asked to give a paid lecture on artist, Hugo Rask, a man “rated highly for his moral fervor in a superficial age.” Through her research, she begins to feel a strong interest in Rask, “her sense of affinity with its subject grew,” and when she meets him that interest blossoms into a strong attraction. From the very beginning, Ester confuses Rask’s “frequently quoted assertions,” as an artist “obsessed with morality in his work,” and his apparent sensitivity with the flesh and blood man.
Ester, who has led a fairly quiet and sheltered life, is in a “quiet, harmonious relationship with a man who left her in peace while satisfying her physical and mental needs,” and unfortunately, she’s never met a man like Rask before. After the lecture, Rask approaches Ester, grabs her hands, kisses her cheeks and tells her:
No outsider has ever understood me so profoundly and precisely.
A more experienced woman would probably regard Rask’s comment with suspicion, but from that moment on, Ester is a goner…
Unfortunately for Ester, she can’t stop thinking (or talking) about Rask. She thinks she can “develop a friendship with Hugo, an elective affinity.” She tells a friend about Rask and says, “we’ve made contact at a deep level and we’re going to be friends.” Consequently, Ester’s friends and acquaintances realize she’s falling in love before she does:
Before you understand where the emotion is going to lead, you talk to anyone and everyone about the object of your love. All of a sudden, this stops. By then the ice is already thin and slippery. You realize that every word could expose your infatuation. Feigning indifference is as hard as acting normally, and fundamentally the same thing.
Ester takes a casual invitation from Rask seriously and begins hanging around his studio which also serves as his home. Although the warning signs are flashing that she’s one of several women in Rask’s life, she thinks they have something ‘special.’ A few texts from Rask later, and she’s losing weight and ignoring her partner of 13 years.
As the plot spins out, there’s Ester, a woman who’s a stranger to casual sex, convinced that she has this special connection with Rask–after all Rask, himself, even said that. Rask, who maintains a coterie of worshippers, is a slippery character, and even though the story is told in the third person, with its necessarily limited point of view, it becomes screamingly obvious that Ester is the only one interested in a relationship.
This is the story of an obsessive relationship. Ester doesn’t even get the courtesy of a brush off–her life is full of unanswered texts and unreturned phone calls, but there’s some quirk to Ester’s personality that will not allow her to walk away with dignity. Most women would, I think, get the message. Instead Ester, infected with “the malarial love itch that is always latent once it has invaded the cells,” conjures up the notion that “there was something holding him back. Perhaps there were unknown obstacles.” She frequently consults “the girlfriend chorus,” an invisible collective group who urge Ester to move on, but she can’t and consequently she humiliates herself repeatedly.
If we wanted to be cruel, we would call Ester a stalker, or at least let’s say that’s what Rask would call her, but he is a game player and in one marvelous scene in the novel, we see how when Ester appears uninterested, his vanity demands that he reel her back in.
Willful Disregard is the sort of book which will spark various arguments and debates about relationships and for this reason it’s a perfect book for book groups. I always feel a bit divided about making a comment that a particular title would be a good choice for a book club as I tend to shy away from book club choices, but in this case, Willful Disregard is practically guaranteed to encourage opinions–I even argued against myself at a few points in this excellent, thought-provoking novel. I didn’t have a lot of sympathy for Ester at first, and I found her obsessive nature rather unsettling, but as the novel played out, it became easier to see how Rask brought out Ester’s vulnerabilities.
It’s possible to read this as a book about obsessive love, but on another level the novel has a definite philosophical tint to it, and asks questions such as: is there such a thing as responsibility in relationships? How much of an explanation is owed to a sex partner? In a perfect world, a couple would sit down and discuss just what sex means before it happens, and in this case, Ester, who looks as sex as a serious commitment, could have really used such an occasion. Think of a pre-nup, well this would be a pre-sex. I’m thinking of a neighbor who, after his wife dumped him, would bring home a string of young women for the night. In the morning, he’d lower the boom, and when the women, invariably asked when they’d see him again, he’d explain he didn’t want a relationship right now. My personal favourite was that he was ‘too fragile’ for a relationship. So I’d see these young women drive off Were they disappointed? Did they care? Would they wise up?
There are occasions when Rask and Ester debate about various philosophical subjects and it becomes quite obvious that they are talking about their own relationship. There are a couple of points when the novel pushes the philosophical too hard–for example, Ester writes an essay and the extensive details of this rejected essay bog down the reading. That very minor complaint aside, I really loved this novel and hope that more of the author’s work makes it to translation. I’ve seen Rasks in action, and author Lena Andersson nailed it.
The one who wants least has the most power.
Translated by Sarah Death