Wednesday, 28 March 2018

A tribute to my mentor


My old professor, Vivi Edström, has passed away.

She was 95, and she had lived a long and happy life. Yet it definitely feels that an important part of my life has gone with her.

Vivi was the first Chair of children's literature in Scandinavia, which was a big thing back in early '80s. And she was at the Comparative Literature department in Stockholm, not Education, not Library and Information, not Childhood Studies, and not even Sociology of Literature in Uppsala where the first PhDs in children's literature were awarded. For Vivi, children's literature was literature, fullstop.

I remember coming to her office for the first time. I had been in Sweden for three weeks, but I had an oral recommendation from the Director of the Swedish Children's Books Institute whom I had meet the previous year in Moscow. I wanted to study children's literature because it hadn't been possible in Russia. I had read Vivi's book Form in Children's Books: A Study in the Art of Narration – I am not sure how I got hold of it in Russia. There I was, scared to death, as I always am with new people and in new situations. Although I had studied Swedish for thirteen years, I had never been to Sweden before, and I hadn't had many opportunities to speak it. Many years later Vivi mentioned that her first impression of me was “scared girl with big eyes”.

I enrolled in two courses, Children's literature and Young Adult Literature and wrote a final undergraduate dissertation on the topic that eventually became my PhD. Vivi gave me special privileges to attend her graduate seminar where I met my future fellow students. She was generous and supportive. I was accepted into the doctoral programme next term, and after a while Vivi managed to get me a four-year studentship, which was unusual at that time. She was like that, always finding way to promote her students and sharing her favours fairly among us. She got us various awards for our theses. She would pass on to us tasks that she didn't want or had no time to do: leading book circles and teaching professional development courses, writing reviews and even more prestigious stuff; for instance, I contributed, on her recommendation, a chapter on children's literature for a History of Swedish Literature with University of Nebraska Press. She also edited several volumes in Swedish, on picturebooks and on children's poetry, and we all contributed to these.

Vivi and I didn't always agree, and she could be quite harsh. Several times after supervisions I came home in tears and told my husband that I would never again set my foot in the department. Vivi strongly opposed my wish to write my thesis in English; my argument was that all my primary and most of my secondary sources were English. It was habitual then, and perhaps still is, in Comparative Literature departments in Sweden to study one particular writer, preferably dead, and even “XX's early writing”, so my Proppian structuralist approach felt alien. I learned later that the night before my defence she called several colleagues asking whether they thought I would pass.

A typical glimpse of our conversations:

Vivi: I think you should let chapters 2 and 3 change places.
Me: But I have just changed them as you told me last time.
Vivi: Good, now we see that it didn't work.

One term I was Vivi's TA for the dissertation seminar on children's literature, and at the first session I introduced myself and said that the professor would join us any minute. Only she didn't, and I had to spend two hours talking to students without preparation or any qualifications apart having done the course myself. Next term, I was entrusted with teaching this course on my own. I had to use Vivi's syllabus, and one session I found particularly challenging. When I told Vivi, she said: “Next time, let them work in groups”.

Toward the end of my PhD as I was considering my future career, Vivi said: “Don't bother about publishing articles, they don't count. Write books”. (Ironically, these days I have to tell my students the opposite).

Vivi was President of the Selma Lagerlöf Society, Lagerlöf her other passion and academic interest apart from children's literature. She invited me to join the board of the Society and pushed me toward Lagerlöf research, which became decisive for me subsequent career. You couldn't get a permanent position in Comparative Literature with children's literature research only, you needed to show that you could do ”real” literature as well. Lagerlöf became my real literature area, and I wrote a book for the Society's series and several other things. Vivi and I spent many nice hours together as I was driving us from Stockholm to Värmland, Lagerlöf's home province where Society's annual meetings were held. I used to drive Vivi home from the University after seminars or guest lectures – it was in the opposite direction from my place, but not too much out of my way. I thought it was quite natural since I had a car and she didn't, but she mentioned this as one of my special virtues at my defence banquet.

We co-edited a volume on Lagerlöf, and I contributed a chapter. Vivi didn't like my interpretation of earthly and heavenly love.

Vivi: You are wrong.
Me: There is no right or wrong in literary analysis; this is the way I see it.
Vivi: You cannot make this claim.
Me: You are not my supervisor any more, you cannot tell me what I can or cannot claim.
Vivi: You are wrong.

This is Vivi in her essence.

After retirement she withdrew from public academic life. She published more books, including one on Jane Austen, but otherwise she took up painting and had small exhibitions and enjoyed life. Every now and then she invited me for tea.

When I got the chair in Cambridge, Staffan called her to brag on my behalf. Well, she said, that's what Masha had always wanted, hadn't she?

In her study Form in Children's Book, Vivi was the first in Sweden and probably among the very first in the world to claim that formal features of children's literature were just as important, or even more important than content, what she referred to ”children's literature here and there, representations of this and that”. She wrote about the significance of narrative perspective and temporality long before these concepts became commonplace in international children's literature scholarship. She was a pathfinder and a flagship. Swedish children's literature research would not have flourished as it has without Vivi. We all owe her. And I certainly would not have been where I am if I hadn't had the privilege of being her disciple.

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