Monday, February 1, 2016

Willful Disregard by Lena Andersson

Paperback, 208 pages Published February 2nd 2016 by Other Press (first published 2013)

In this wonderfully dense slim novel Lena Andersson manages to encapsulate the intensely personal—the treatment of a woman writer in love with a famous painter who is uninterested in her—and broaden it to encompass larger political questions and concerns.
”[Are] we in fact not all to some extent utilitarians, that is consequentialists, that is, we judge things in terms of outcomes, even when we claim to be applying principles?...A consequentialist…is obliged to be against democracy if it turns out to have worse consequences than dictatorship. For her, there can be no intrinsic value in anything other than maximum well-being, whereas for the rights-based ethicist, intrinsic value is the only orientation point. The intrinsic value of freedom and autonomy.”
As it happens, this is precisely what I have been mulling over lately when considering the foreign affairs of nations. Andersson’s fascinating study on the monomaniacal intensity of a woman in a relationship she is not able to control, being the partner who cares too much and who therefore has less power, dovetails nicely with the direction of my reading and thinking. Part of the pleasure of this novel comes from listening to the undeniably realistic internal confabulations of a woman under the influence of an overwhelming attraction she cannot escape. We’ve all been there, to greater or lesser degrees. The pleasure and pain of an unrequited love is something none of us forget.
”Ester Nilsson…was a poet and essayist who lived by the understanding that the world was as she experienced it. Or to be more precise, that people were so constituted as to experience the world as it was, so long as they did not let their attention wander, or lie to themselves. The subjective was the objective, and the objective was the subjective.”
What a remarkable idea, and since it is expressed on the first page of the novel, we are obliged to apply its principle throughout, finding plenty of contradictions in her approach since her passionate though unrequited love clearly colors her reality. She experiences “willful disregard” for facts. The obsessive circuit of her rehashing of events and conversations leads her to conclude that the object of her attention does not love her but the slightest attention on his part can restart the destructive obsessive cycle all over again.

At one point Ester travels to Paris in the spring to see if she can break the cycle and look at the world anew but “Paris didn’t help. Nothing helped you still had yourself with you.” Truer words… We feel her pain. Shortly after her return to Stockholm she calls her ex-boyfriend, the one she threw over when she became obsessed with the artist she is pursuing. We are not exactly sure why she calls her old boyfriend, Per, and neither is she. Per is clearly in the weaker position of the relationship, as he loves her more. After her call, Per’s obsession with Ester begins anew, with Per calling her twice a day, culminating in Per’s shrill denunciation of her disturbing his hard-won equilibrium after her departure last time. This portion of the novel recalls perfectly the novel Climates, André Maurois’s depiction of a trio of loves, all unrequited. We create our own climate in the atmosphere of our minds. Other people may or may not feel comfortable in that climate.

Ester had a group of women friends with whom she shared the story of her obsession, and they ended up telling her “he’s just not that into you.” She turns her back on them since they clearly do not understand. As the finish of the novel approached, we savor the final pages, sure that some resolution is imminent. The reader finds oneself simultaneously annoyed with Ester for her blindness and outraged by Hugo, the object of her affection, for his brutish manipulation of Ester.

Andersson draws back to show the larger political picture once again at the end of the novel. Hugo trots out the usual tired tropes about U.S. imperialism in the world:
"He often talked like that, she noted, about nobody doing anything, saying anything, having the guts for anything. They were all morally corrupt, bankrupt and cowardly...Ester looked at Hugo. This body and this consciousness were what she had been yearning for, all day every day for almost a year and four months…How is it, she asked, that only Westerners have to answer for their actions and ideas, not other people?"
Ester's bewilderment and disgust at this point are very nearly enough to tip her into recognition of her delusions. Undoubtedly a great deal of Ester’s obsessive love was her own construction of what Hugo’s ideas as an artist represented. Hugo was a construct, and what she imagined did not exist outside of her own mind.

The final few pages of the novel are a worthy finish to a novel of obsessive love, reading like a thriller of the heart. "'Best of luck, then', he said...'Best of luck, then', she thought, a phrase with all the qualities of a murder weapon", words that drive a stake through the notion of love. But it isn’t over even then. She still needed final confirmation.

A terrific novel that brings into relief human capability and culpability, Willful Disregard won the 2014 August Prize awarded by the Swedish Publisher’s Association, and the Literature Prize given by the Swedish newspaper Svenska Dagbladet. Translated into twelve languages, it was published in English in Britain in 2015. It was developed into a screenplay in Sweden and was performed on a minimalist stage in 2015 with a cast of five. It is being released in the United States this week by Other Press.

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