Wednesday, 30 January 2013

Forty years ago

Forty years ago I was as big as a barrel. I thought I was three weeks overdue. (At that time, in that place nobody knew how to predict it, and didn't bother). Two weeks before I had grown so desperate that I faked labour and was taken into hospital. Instead of throwing me out they kept me, took blood tests and blood pressure, put me on and off various diets. Outside, flu ravaged, and the hospital was in quarantine. Family and friends came to communicate in gestures through sealed windows. You could also whisper through a locked basement door. Reading was out of the question because the brain was turned inwards. Time got suspended, like on a Magic Mountain. It was measured from breakfast to doctors' round, lunch to tea, dinner to lights off. Women in my ward were taken down to birth and came to visit the day after, full of horror stories. New women we brought in. I got still more frustrated and asked to be discharged.

There was nothing much I could do at home either. It was bitter cold outside, so no walks. Flu hazard, so no shops. Knitting was too tiresome. I spent days chopping vegetables for beetroot salad that they had fed us in the hospital. I had hated beetroot since early childhood. Somewhere out there, life was going on. People went to work and to the movies. People laughed and cried, went skiing, listened to music, learned foreign languages. I kept to beetroot salad like a lifeline.

Memory is so weird. I am sure family and friends were there, talked, maybe played games, but the only thing I remember is this huge empty loneliness that I was trying to fill with beetroot. I had collapsed on myself.

Forty years ago I still didn't know anything about the stranger with the working name Dmitry/Margaret.

Monday, 21 January 2013

Book of the month: Oblomov

After dozens of young adult dystopias of dubious quality my mind craved something slow and peaceful, so I rummaged through my bookshelves and took out Goncharov's Oblomov. Some people say that it is the best Russian nineteenth-century novel, and after I have re-read it again, I think I agree. It's not half as famous as Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy or even Turgenev, but it has qualities none of these have.

We had to read it in school, when I was fifteen, and even though there was plenty of love the rest was boring, almost as boring as the war bits in War and Peace. From my vantage point it's almost criminal to make or even encourage kids to read books they cannot appreciate. I read War and Peace when I was thirteen - what did I understand? With Oblomov, we learned in school that he was an example of degraded Russian upper class that oppressed peasants and was doomed to die out.

Many years later, in Sweden, I was asked to teach a course in classic Russian literature in my department, Comparative Literature, not for Slavic students. As I was selecting required reading I decided to give Oblomov a chance, because all sources mentioned it as a great novel. And yes, it was great. And my students liked it, all 600 pages of it. And we had great discussions.

Then I wrote about it in my postdoc comparative-semiotic project on Swedish and Russian literature. I compared Oblomov with Gösta Berling. Both are good-for-nothing, and both are in passing described in their respective novels as poets, although neither has written a line of poetry.They are themselves embodied poetry.

This was a very long time ago, and when I re-read the book now, I read it very slowly, savouring every word of this magnificent prose. I had of course forgotten most of it, including the fact that Oblomov has a child. No man or woman can be said to have lived in vain if they have a child. I was also reading, although I tried very hard not to, through my new professional eyeglasses, through empathy and cognitive engagement. Yet twenty years ago I already asked myself: if Oblomov is so depraved, why do we like him? Why does Olga love him? Why does Stolz love him? Why does his servant love him? Why does his landlady love him? Why is this good-for-nothing so immensely lovable? Why do I feel real pain reading about him? (Ok, cogntitive poetics can describe it all by mirror neurons, but that's not the point).

And then I noticed a detail that I had missed on all previous readings. I have always been curious about sexual life of classic novel males. There are secondary characters who have mistresses, go to prostitutes or have fun with maids. But the romantic hero is immaculate. This has always felt implausible. Oblomov is thirty two in the beginning of the novel. Virgin? Rich, upper-class male? No way. But of course nineteenth-century authors would not provide any information about their heroes' sexual experience. So I thought. But just because I read very, very slowly, I caught a phrase in the middle of one of Oblomov's many self-flagellating monologues. He says that he has wasted his life, neglected his property, spent half of his income on Mina... wait a minute... who is Mina? She is never mentioned again, but obviously she used to be important enough to spend half an income on. Mina is not a Russian name so the lady in question was a foreigner. An actress? A governess? An expensive cocotte? This little clause throws a whole new light on Oblomov. Was he as obsessed about Mina as Swann about Odette? What happened? It is beyond the page, and fictional characters have no life beyond the page, but for some reason the author decided that this detail was important.

I am sure Slavic scholars have published articles on the mysterious Mina, and there are a couple of PhD theses written about her. But I have just discovered her. She does not feature in Oblomov's dreams or memories. But somewhere deep inside she is omnipresent.

When I make discoveries like this, I wonder how much else I miss in my reading.

Tuesday, 15 January 2013


Unless something spectacular happens in my life, there won't be much for me to blog about. From now on and until mid-April all my days will be the same. I get up between eight and nine, which is a luxury. I try to get up at eight so that I can have a quiet breakfast and still be at my desk by nine. I check my work email quickly. It is set to Auto-Response, but people haven't realised it yet, so there are emails still coming in. I try to reply at once and keep the number of inbox messages under 25. I don't open my private email, my Facebook or my Blogger.

It takes me about an hour to read through what I had written the day before, by which time I am ready for another cup of coffee. Then I write until lunch. Then I write a bit more. Then I go for a walk, unless the weather is really awful. Then I write a bit more. By four in the afternoon I am too tired to be creative, but still capable of other work, such as writing recommendation letters and reading PhD theses. I have managed to keep the list of urgent tasks below 10. I am not taking on any new urgent tasks, but I cannot refuse to write a recommendation letter for a colleague or student.

At this point I also check my private email and read Facebook. I read my colleagues' interesting links, so it takes some time. I skip all status updates about what people had for lunch and what their pet did and what weather they are having. I skip all witty quotations and jokes. Occasionally, a colleague catches me on FB, and we have a conversation, and sometimes people Skype me when they see I am online.

My wonderful husband cooks dinner. After dinner we sometimes watch a movie, most often a nature documentary. At other times I play with my dollhouses - no, sorry, I make miniatures in 1:12 scale. I go to bed at ten and read non-work-related books for a couple of hours.

In the predictable future, there is very little that can disrupt this routine.

Sunday, 6 January 2013

Twelve days of Christmas

On the first day of Christmas Julia, Pontus and I went for a wonderful walk along the river. It was warm and sunny. In the evening we watched Gremlins which is just the right sort of Christmas movie.

On the second day of Christmas we did nothing much, except that we discovered that there were no trains to Stansted that day, and the kids had to take a bus and have a good margin. When they had left, I assembled and tested the new colour printer I got for Christmas.

On the third day of Christmas I graded student papers.

On the fourth day of Christmas I graded more papers, read and ranked postdoc applications and responded to zillions of urgent emails.

On the fifth day of Christmas I read a Norwegian PhD thesis on ethical values in Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter. When I got sick and tired of it, I read more postdoc applications for a change. In the evening I made some miniature knitting books for my yarn shop room box.

On the sixth day of Christmas I finished the Norwegian thesis and wrote my report; wrote a recommendation letter and a conference abstract.

On the seventh day of Christmas, which happened to be the New Year Eve, I made lobster thermidor in the morning and set the table. I read some more postdoc applications. We ate far too much for dinner and watched An American in Paris. We celebrated the New Year by Swedish time, listening to church bells from the thirteen Swedish cathedrals. I was fast asleep by the New Year GMT.

On the eighth day of Christmas I was still slightly behind my schedule. I finished the last batch of postdoc applications and spent the rest of the day making a miniature cabinet that I had got from Julia and Pontus for Christmas.

On the ninth day of Christmas I finally started writing my new book. I spent the day going through two years' files: initial, intermediate and final drafts of articles and conference papers, notes, reviews and bibliographies. It is a most ungrateful task, and I always warn my students against keeping multiple drafts because then you have to go through them all in case there is one stray clever sentence hiding somewhere (usually there isn't). My first surprise was that all in all I had more text than I had expected. My second surprise was that the text was in less completed state than I had remembered. In the middle of the day I went for a walk. A lady came toward me just as I was leaving the gate, saying: “It's very muddy in there”, meaning the park. Nice of her, but I knew it already and thefore walked toward and along the river. In the evening Staffan and I watched the first part of the three-hour documentary about Olof Palme.

On the tenth day of Christmas I continued working on my book. I merged several papers into two chapters, which felt highly satisfactory. Then I started on a very difficult theoretical chapter which I had thought was finished. In fact in was all in bits and pieces and yellow highlights with notes to myself in caps: DEVELOP! We watched the second part of the Palme documentary

On the eleventh day of Christmas I went on with the chapter and came up with an idea of exactly how to DEVELOP it. We watched the third part of the Palme documentary

On the twelfth day of Christmas I worked hard on the chapter. I went for a walk along the river.
I allowed myself to finish early and made some more miniatures. In the evening, I watched Werner Herzog's Into the Abyss. It isn't exactly a cheerful movie, but very thought-provoking.

Now the Christmas season is over. I am working on my book. I have set up a goal of walking 150 km and have already done 7% of it. I have four exciting room box projects. Stay in touch.