The last book I have read (completed) in 2010 is a non-fiction book about journalist Andrew Brown’s relationship with Sweden (the book’s subtitle is “Sweden and the future that disappeared.”). It is part travelogue, part socio-economic commentary, part autobiography and part fishing saga (the man is obsessed with the sport, or is it hobby?) The book is told in chapters divided by theme, so for the first half is not chronological. At the start, Brown is in Sweden with his girlfriend Anita, staying with her father in the 1970s/80s. He spends a lot of time fishing as he’s a non-national and can’t be employed. Soon, he and Anita marry and move to a satellite “town”, she is a nursing auxilliary and he works in a factory making wooden pallets to support Volvo parts. The descriptions of their life and work are quite compelling, as are Brown’s observations of Swedish society at that time, though he has the irritating habit throughout of extrapolating his own (necessarily limited) experience to the whole country, and he isn’t reluctant to make sweeping generalisations about the country and its people. (The Sweden of Abba, Ikea, Bergman or tennis, for example, is not mentioned in this section, but these elements were all there, even dominant, at that time).
Soon it emerges via “flashback” chapters that Brown is a public-school dropout who spent part of his childhood living in the very rich part of Stockholm when his parents were in the diplomatic service. As an aimless young man, Brown became a volunteer nursing auxilliary in a Leonard Cheshire home where he met Anita: this section is compelling to read.
After a few years, Brown gets bored with his menial job and sparse existence (understandably) and begins to write journalistic pieces, selling them to the Spectator (a British establishment current-affairs and opinion magazine). Eventually, his marriage disintegrates and he gets a job as religious affairs correspondent for a new UK national newspaper, The Independent.
Because of his son, Brown does not lose his Swedish connections, and many years later returns to try to write a novel, staying in the far north. His descriptions of the remote farm annexe where he lived for a summer, and the lifestyle of the local people, is engaging, although I personally could have done without the fishing. After this, he decides to tour round the country, visiting all the people who were his family and friends 20 years ago, to see what happened to them and their country. He finds a land full of immigrants, who in his opinion are forming the region’s new life-blood. He tells the reader that Sweden as a nation is no longer fruitlessly aspiring for everyone to be equal, as was the general assumption when he was a young man there, but because of the collapsed manufacturing and service sectors, is now accepting of a “two-tier” society in common with many other Western countries, in which full employment is an alien concept to many young people, and in which drug abuse and obesity (Macdonalds comes in for considerable stick) are prevalent.
I found this book to be a curate’s egg. Some of it is really fascinating to me, as I’ve read so many Swedish novels in translation and I enjoyed the perspective and context provided here about the routine ways of life of the people. The sweeping opinions expressed so confidently can be both grating and interesting – there are two long passages about the Martin Beck novels of Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo which are articulate criticisms, but only tell part of the story of these superb but, in retrospect, politically naive novels. As another example of the lack of perspective shown in this book, no other Swedish novelists (crime or literary) are mentioned, as if Sjowall/Wahloo speak for the whole country at that time.
Brown’s fascinating account of Olaf Palme’s life, rise to power, assassination and its aftermath again seems only to tell one side of the story. Perhaps the most successful chapters are Brown’s descriptions of the various older Swedes he meets, where he lets them and their various traditional ways of life emerge from the page. As for his socioeconomic assessment, the fact that Sweden (in common with other northern European countries) is currently doing very well economically after weathering some hard years (as I read in the Times business pages today, for example) goes to show that one should not be too confident in condemning a philosophy of government or the viability of a whole country.
Andrew Brown has a blog at The Guardian, which seems to be mostly about religion and ethics and another one (less frequently updated and on more scientific topics, heavily featuring science/religion spats) called Helmintholog (presumably after C. elegans, the nematode, about which Brown wrote a book).