Crisis by Karin Boye

Translated by Amanda Doxtater

Reviewed by Karen Langley

When we think of Nordic fiction nowadays, we’re probably inevitably aware of the preponderance of Scandi-crime; it not only seems to have taken over as the predominant kind of crime fiction, but has also seeped onto TV screens. However, two handsome new releases from Norvik Press (a publishing house specialising in Scandinavian literature and based in UCL’s Department of Scandinavian Studies) set out to challenge this notion. These books, from women writers of the 1930s, are ground-breaking modernist works and translated into English for the first time; and here I consider a challenging and original work from an inspiring author.

Karin Boye has come to prominence recently with the release of a fresh new translation of her classic dystopian novel Kallocain (which I previously reviewed for Shiny New Books here). Boye was a Swedish author of both poetry and novels; her short life ended with her suicide in 1941, but she’s still highly regarded in her home country and the success of Kallocain has brought her to a wider Anglophone readership. Crisis is an earlier, modernist work, and is a pioneering look at a religious crisis which leads to a lesbian awakening.

Her days will be a struggle against forbidden feelings. At night she’ll sleep on the floor to escape dreams she is not allowed to dream.

The protagonist of Crisis is Malin Forst, a twenty-year-old woman studying to be a teacher in the 1930s. Deeply religious, she exists in a world where the belief in God appears to be fundamental to much of the instruction she receives. However, Malin is struggling with her faith and this develops into the debilitating crisis of the title. In what appears to the modern reader to be a crippling depression, Malin finds herself unable to undertake to the simplest of tasks, bursting into tears at the slightest provocation and finding the smallest act almost impossible. A paternally patronising doctor diagnoses anaemia; an old teacher fails to understand the depths of her despair; and her bullying father simply adds to the horror of her everyday existence. As Malin continues to search her soul for a solution, a chance glimpse of a particular female fellow student leads to an infatuation, a revelation and a chance of recovery.

What does it mean, this unease? Where does it lead? Driving one’s soul to relinquish everything it has, hindering it from searching for anything new. What is this great weariness towards everything she has found, what is this great longing for something that no one can find that drives us to fold our hands in our lap – and despair?

The story of Malin’s experience is in itself a fascinating one; however, what adds even more depth to the book is the unusual and innovative structure. The sections dealing directly with Malin are often poetically and beautifully written, as she explores her emotions and feelings, wrestles with her faith and struggles to subdue her rebellious will. However, alongside this are all manner of different narratives, including extracts from her classmates’ letters and diaries, the thoughts of the adults she encounters, and some very intriguing philosophical sections. These are perhaps the most unexpected element of the book, and they include dialogues between good and evil, as well as discussions amongst diverse groups representing the viewpoints of such disparate types as theologians, humanists, doctors, aesthetes, pastors, and even a ‘woman with common sense’. These take the novel into a completely different realm, allowing Boye to examine all kinds of varying philosophies, setting them against each other and showing just how many conflicting attitudes there are to everything.

The Mora grandfather clock ticks loudly, spitefully. It enjoys the privilege of being a blameless object, while dread embraces the living as they are judged. It amuses itself blatantly, unabashedly, while the living sit in silence. The air is charged and tense as always these days.

Although the structure and content are in many ways dissimilar, at times I couldn’t help being reminded of Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar and its more modern, less philosophical perhaps, take on the female nervous breakdown, growing out of the ridiculous pressures society puts on women. Malin’s crisis comes about because of the extreme control of religion and the expectation by society that she will conform completely. When Malin cannot subdue her willpower and her independence, she’s mentally unprepared to deal with this; hence her emotional collapse. It’s a fascinating and sobering tale and yes, perhaps the Bell Jar of its time.

Crisis was obviously an innovative book in many ways; as well as the sometimes complex and unusual structure, it also allows the reader to look at Malin from a number of different viewpoints. The use of the device of her fellow students’ letters and diary entries lets us see Malin as she appears to others, which is very different to how she perceives herself, and not always flattering. The discussion sections reveal the issues at work in Malin’s psyche, as she struggles to find herself amongst others’ expectations. And the infatuation with her fellow pupil, which is never developed into more than a longing or crush (as it’s described by one character), hints at a lesbian subtext which could perhaps not be developed more at the time. Certainly, Boye herself moved from marriage to a man, to a relationship with another woman who was the love of her life, and it’s hard not to see the author in her protagonist.

This new Norvik Press release is translated by Amanda Doxtater, who also provides a useful introduction and afterword to the book. Interestingly, she has a long history with Crisis, having first read and attempted to translate it in her teens. A multifarious work like this can’t have been easy to render into English, so kudos must go to her, and indeed Norvik, for bringing Boye’s pioneering book to us. Although Crisis can seem complex to start with, the narrative (and its digressions) soon fall into place, and it’s a deep, compelling and stimulating read. Boye’s talents were clear from Kallocain, but this new release reveals an innovative and fascinating side to an author who left us too soon.

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Karen Langley blogs at kaggsysbookishramblings and loves to read books which push the envelope.

Karin Boye, Crisis (Norvik Press, 2020). 978-1909408357, 185pp, paperback.

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