Wednesday, January 29, 2014

It Will Do: Carl Jonas Love Almqvist's Sara Videbeck

“It is said that a light veil hangs suspended before the future of Europe and prevents us from observing clearly the forms that beckon to us from within…” writes Swedish writer Carl Jonas Love Almqvist in his preface to his 1839 novel, Det går an; un tavla ur livet (translatable as “It will do,” “It can be done,” or “It’s acceptable”; “A picture from life,” though the English translation settles for the more pedestrian Sara Videbeck). With extraordinary explicitness and forward-thinking, Almqvist defines the writer’s role in trying to discern these mysterious new contours:

We must first learn to know people themselves, observe them in all their nooks and corners, listen to their innermost sighs, nor scorn to understand their tears of joy. In brief, what we need are true stories or sketches from life: examples, contributions, and experiences.

In other respects, though, Almqvist’s preface is remarkably opaque, and walks on eggshells around his radical subject: the liberation of sexuality. For readers with their antennae out, it’s hard to miss Almqvist’s euphemisms - “happiness,” “material interests,” “a glimpse of heaven on earth” - and the sexual imagery of the preface’s final lines abandons most, if not all, pretext. But Almqvist needn’t have obfuscated; Det går an dropped onto Sweden like a bomb, igniting a furor concerning marriage; helping add fuel to women’s rights efforts; inspiring later Swedish authors in their presentation of social material; even launching a new literary genre – Det går an literature – that challenged Almqvist’s ideas and occasionally reworked them to reveal his story as naïve or prurient male fantasy (conveniently, Almqvist appears to leave children out of his utopian picture of relationship). It also led to Almqvist himself being branded as a corruptor of youth and morals. The invaluable site has a fascinating short piece on the reception of Det går an.

Given Almqvist’s straightforward intentions, it’s hardly surprising that Det går an tethers itself to an equally straightforward plot, one traced by the journey of Sara Videbeck and an infatuated non-commissioned officer, Albert, as they meet and travel together, first by boat and then overland, from Stockholm to Videbeck’s home province of Västergötland, with Almqvist using their developing relationship to explore a range of issues in male/female relations. But Almqvist provides more than a simple polemic; Det går an succeeds as a richly imagined story touching on marriage, the position of women, the stratification of Swedish society (Almqvist cleverly uses the ship’s hierarchical accommodations to comment on Swedish class structure, even inserting a memorable depiction of the typical bourgeois family), and above all the impediments to individual happiness placed by tradition and convention. While foregoing the more daring literary acrobatics present in the one other Almqvist work I’ve read, his exhilarating 1834 "fugue,"  The Queen’s Tiara, in favor of a stricter focus on social concerns, Det går an nonetheless displays Almqvist’s idiosyncratic imagination; rich, realist description (one could duplicate the trip without a map; even the Yngve Frey’s departure hour is drawn from its actual schedule); astute psychological observation; incisive commentary on class and regional manners and differences; and wry humor, including - as in The Queen’s Tiara - the narrator’s occasional interruption of the narrative to comment upon the story or explain himself.

Videbeck, her chaperone aunt having comically missed the boat by seconds (as in The Queen’s Tiara, Almqvist revels in eliciting comic potential), is making her way home from a business trip. She forms a striking silhouette among the middle class passengers, and the slightly cartoonish Albert has a difficult time trying to pigeonhole her into a particular social stratum. Bemused and befuddled by Videbeck’s apparent non-conformity, Albert expresses his confusion by fussing irritably with the boat’s serving girls and displaying an obsession with cigars that might have caused Freud to reassess his famous caveat. But in Albert’s persistent attempts to get to know Sara, he is as deferential and awestruck as he is mystified by her uncompromising sense of herself.

Videbeck is a glazier, having taken over the business from her deceased father but prevented, by rigid guild rules, from continuing in the trade once her sick mother expires and takes along certain widow’s rights. Yet Videbeck is confident in her future, having invented an improved commercial glazier’s putty and also planning to open a shop where she can sell decorative glass boxes and mirrors. She describes her work using the confident, competent tones of a professional, even noting that she herself supervises special jobs as she cannot trust “the boys” – her employees – to be sensitive in manipulating the diamond. Videbeck also asserts her independence by insisting on paying her own way, even when Albert invites her to lunch. Further, she shows no sense of embarrassment about being on familiar terms in public with a young man she barely knows, culminating one night at a hotel where, with only a single room available, she suggests Albert share it with her.

As Albert and Sara’s relationship develops, the former begins to learn the vision Sara has for the ideal relationship, one born from witnessing the experience of her poor mother, driven nearly to suicide by an alcoholic husband.  When Albert suggests that as an unmarried woman, Sara will nonetheless be unprotected and vulnerable, she replies,

We shall see. On the contrary, if I had a husband as unsober and irritable as my mother’s was, I should be defenseless and miserable. No, I tell you, I shall get along just as I am.

To Albert’s credit, he rises to meet Videbeck’s calm assertiveness, emboldened rather than intimidated by her complexity:

Quite unexpectedly and boldly he answered: “I am just wondering whether any person has ever kissed that mouth.”

A quickly flitting smile was her only answer, and she looked away over the Mälar waters. In so doing, there was not the slightest coquettishness or glimmer of mischief discernible in her eye, but, on the other hand, nothing exactly romantic or dreamily divine. It was an intermediate something of an incomprehensible character. Not at all ugly, nor yet profoundly beautiful. It was of the kind concerning which we are wont to express ourselves with a happy countenance: ”Oh, it will do!”

At a subsequent hotel room, the narrator suggests that relations have become warmer than warm (in this delightfully subtle passage, the metaphorical text flies at such a high altitude that it may leave some readers behind), and all that remains is for the couple to find a form for their relationship going forward.

That form is apparently what caused Det går an to explode with such impact. Videbeck makes clear she has no interest in marriage (the narrator, with Almqvist’s trademark tongue-in-cheek drama, refers to it as “humanity’s greatest problem”), proposing instead an arrangement that will guarantee both her and Albert’s independence and the long-term vitality of their affection for one another. With gently ascending courage and respect for Sara Videbeck’s individuality, Albert - and Almqvist - step through that veil into the future. One can only hope to see more of this remarkable writer’s work translated into English.


  1. OK, this one is a little different than the previous one. It ain't ETA Hoffmann, that's for sure.

    Do you have a sense of what guiding philosopher might be behind this novel? Meaning, was Almqvist a Fourierist or something like that?

    1. Yes, quite a bit different from The Queen's Tiara, and yet with enough idiosyncrasies to mark it unmistakably the work of the same author.

      I've been frustrated by how little there is both by and about Almqvist in English, and I don't have the philosophy background to even hazard a guess as to his guiding influences (aside from those mentioned in biosketches of him: the Romantic philosophers Rousseau and Swedenborg). There seems to have been a major historical turn in Sweden in the 1830's both in freedom of the press and in discussion of social concerns, and (I'm purely speculating here) this may have helped move Almqvist along towards a more social focus in his writing.

      But his versatility seems mind-boggling; he wrote theology, philosophy, and music in addition to fiction, and I'd be particularly interested to read some of his later pot-boiler mystery works - if only some were available in English.

    2. Oh, Swedenborg, of course.

      The whole episode - all of the responses - is amazing,

    3. I'd love to read one of those "response" novels like But Can It Really Be Done? or It Can Never Be Done. Actually, come to think of it, I'm pretty sure I'd opt for That's How It Can Be Done.

  2. I had never heard of Carl Jonas Love Almqvist before. I tend to really like these allegorical tales packed with meaning. The language in the passages that you quoted is indeed subtle and I would have missed most of it's meaning had you not pointed it out.

  3. I found Sara Videbeck: The Chapel. is this the same book?

    1. My confusion, too, Guy. It's actually two separate works within the same volume: the novella Sara Videbeck and the short story "The Chapel."