Category Archives: Andersson Lena

Acts of Infidelity: Lena Andersson

“Ester might just have met a real shit.”

In Lena Andersson’s novel Acts of Infidelity, writer & playwright Ester, a single woman in early middle age, begins an affair with the married actor who features in her play, Threesome. Olof doesn’t talk a great deal about his wife, Ebba, a doctor, who works out of town during the week and returns on the weekends, so Ester assumes that the marriage is ‘disintegrating.’ The affair is just a few months old, and not yet consummated, when Ester tells Olof, as they sit in a restaurant, that she wants to share her life with him. In response, Olof shreds his paper napkin nervously. Not a good sign.

Acts of Infidelity tracks the progress of Ester and Olof’s affair through its stages. Ester is the active party here, doggedly pursing Olof, and yet Olof is no innocent. The affair is often sporadic in nature, and when Ester doesn’t contact Olof for a while, he, obviously missing the attention and ego gratification, stirs up action repeatedly.

 

For those who read Lena Andersson’s Willful Disregard then you know that Ester has been down this road before. This begs the question: are some people more likely to participate in long-drawn out affairs than others? After reading both novels, that’s a big ‘yes’ in Ester’s case. She “always pawned her life’s meaning for the man she’s chosen.” In Willful Disregard, Ester lost all sense of self and perspective when she sank into a nebulous, obsessive relationship with charismatic artist, Hugo Rask. In many ways, Acts of Infidelity is working the same themes: a woman who misreads a man’s signals and wants to put a fence and signposts around a relationship that defies commitment.

In Acts of Infidelity, Ester is older than she was in Willful Disregard and her career has progressed. In that sense, she has more to offer to a potential partner, and she also, in some ways, has more control and more self control than she had in Willful Disregard.  At one point, Ester acknowledges that she’s not “about to wade back into the bog of uncertainty” she endured with Rask, yet here she is, accepting crumbs once more while demanding, almost the minute she starts meeting Olof on the sly (even before they’ve had sex), that he leave his wife … or else.

Olof is a much more conventional (and less interesting) person than artist Hugo Rask, the man she pursued in Willful Disregard, but there are commonalities. While she was out of her league in dealing with Hugo, she seems determined not let Olof escape, and it’s not that easy to see just why Ester is relentless in her goal of nailing Olof into a monogamous relationship with her; he’s not exactly a great catch. He’s not particularly intelligent; he’s weasely, smug and he’s spineless. Ester realises that “he was a hard-done-by person, not an active subject in his life,” and this is a significant realization given the circumstances of their relationship. I began to wonder if there were some deeper psychological game at play here. Is Ester’s single-mindedness a psychological manifestation, closure if you will, of her affair with Rask? That relationship, which capitalized on her vulnerabilities, almost destroyed her, but will her relationship with Olof somehow repair the damage and return her life to equilibrium?

There’s a lot in this novel that’s spot-on. Ester has a circle of friends she calls for advice, and she will recall a scene between her and Olof seeking an interpretation of events, but of course the interpretation has to be the one she wants.

Then there are moments when Olof says one thing but Ester hears another:

Olof thought for a moment and said:

“I’m thinking we should meet up now and again in the future and see what happens. Decisions don’t always have to be made right away.”

Not again, Ester thought, never again, I’m going to get right up and go.

She stayed put and finished her meal. Soon they were walking from Djurgården towards the city along Strandvågen, arm-in-arm on Olof’s initiative. In line with Grevgaten, Ester stopped and embraced him, and he reciprocated, while saying he shouldn’t be doing this. They were approaching Dramaten National Theatre, their bodies close, when Olof stated:

“Leaving my wife isn’t on the cards.”

This was exactly what married people said when someone else had shaken their foundations, Ester thought. When people felt an intense desire, they might insist otherwise. The trick was knowing when they meant what they were saying and were saying it to be clear and honourable, and when they meant the opposite. 

The book intellectualizes the affair, and this is partly achieved through Ester’s constant need to interpret Olof’s words into the narrative she wants to hear. Sometimes this works:

To Olof Sten, the mistress was an idea he so eagerly embraced that he never stopped to question that the traditional ‘mistress’ might not in fact exist. Instead he zealously embraced the idea as reality. 

At other times the intellectualizing of the affair is over-the-top and starts to read like non-fiction:

The self-loathing that arises from being unable to abstain from that which makes a man weak, his urges, is redirected to the mistress because she reveals the lover’s weakness to himself and the world. The mistress as an idea constitutes a third counterpoint between the complementary woman/man. Her anatomy is woman’s but her autonomy is man’s. She is a third, the most frightening and most alluring, that which in the end must be pushed out of life’s bid for dualistic order

In Willful Disregard, (a better novel IMO), I wanted Ester to dump Rask and show him how insignificant he was. In Acts of Infidelity, I wanted to ask Ester what on earth she was thinking; at one point, for example, Olof texts his wife repeatedly, smiling at the exchanges, while sitting at a table for two at a restaurant (they’re off on  a dirty weekend) in a ski resort. So my reaction to Ester’s respective behavior in both novels shifted from sympathy to deciding she’s an idiot and needs to talk to someone (professional) other than her friends, about why she indulges in these cyclical behaviours.

Acts of Infidelity explores that all-too familiar scenario of the woman caught in an affair with a married man who has no intention whatsoever of leaving his wife. Unfortunately Ester (and many others like her) never quite gets that a spouse is the ultimate defense, the ultimate excuse. Human motivation is complex at the best of times, and an extra-marital affair is a situation fraught with opaque inducements. The over-intellectualized portions are the novel’s biggest weakness, but its greatest strength is in its exploration of self-delusion and why affairs, conducted with two completely opposing narratives, layered with excuses, coercion, guilt, self-deception, and abdication of personal responsibility, are ultimately so toxic and destructive.

Review copy

Translated by Saskia Vogel

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Willful Disregard: Lena Andersson

“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…

Willful disregard

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.

Review copy

Translated by Sarah Death

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