by Nina Wähä
translated by Sarah Death
When Lou invites Katja to stay in the sun-drenched French chateau she shares with famous cinematographer Renaud, Katja jumps at the chance. She and Lou have been best friends since high school, but over the past fifteen years their lives have taken very different trajectories, ever since Lou was plucked from obscurity to star in the internationally acclaimed film Babetta.
Initially their relationship seems unchanged, and Katja settles into the lap of luxury, observing her hosts’ lives with an almost voyeuristic fascination. But as the summer wears on she finds herself increasingly party to their secrets, and the power imbalances in her and Lou’s friendship are brought into sharper relief. The shadow of Babetta hangs over them both.
Following the commercial and critical success of 2019’s family drama Testamente (Testament), Babetta is a suggestive psychological drama that explores the complexities of friendship and the various roles we play in life. This passage, taken from the start of the novel, introduces Katja and Lou’s relationship, and the dynamic that charges the events of the novel.
What is friendship?
Is it a platonic love relationship?
Is it an elective sibling relationship?
It can probably be all of that, but there is a dimension of friendship that is more all-embracing than any sibling or love relationship, one that feels almost cannibal-like at times. Surely a friend must be the only one you can love so much and so absolutely that it sometimes feels as if you have to eat each other up before you can be satisfied?
I have only once felt it burning inside me that way, this crazy flame of friendship, and for that friend I would have done anything at all, without asking a single question. And I know, I know, she would have done the same for me.
This is a story about that friendship.
She calls and I come. That’s how it is. That’s how it has always been. She asks me and I do as she says.
Yes, I’m coming. Oh God, I’m coming.
Her skin, golden. She’s lying on her back alongside the pool, one hand in the water, gently stroking it, the water, over and over again. Her stomach concave, in a black triangle bikini. Everything about her body is perfect. Long legs, perfectly smooth, breasts flatteringly small. I could watch her for any length of time. Her face, her body, her hair. When she turns her attention on you, you feel it so distinctly, as if the sun is suddenly emerging from behind a cloud, or a spotlight has been switched on. She has that effect on people. The Lou effect. The one that helps you land a leading part in a major international film at the age of just nineteen. The one that means all doors are open to you.
Standing beside her and seeing it happen, it’s impossible to look away.
Her skin, it had such a grey tinge in the winter months. Until she learnt to use spray tan. Until she learnt to go to the solarium, but only once a week. It was one of the many make-up girls who taught her that. Go more often and your skin would age. Irreversibly. Always careful with the SPF. Of course. This is one of those truths that mark you out, indicate who you are, what place you have in the hierarchy, and where your allegiance lies.
She has constructed her persona around being the kind of person who most definitely never does anything just for the acknowledgment. Acknowledgment builds on a need in each individual person. Work, on the other hand, builds on a conviction that you are meant for something greater, something beyond the body, something more important. The important thing for her has always been work. The process and the work, always in focus. So disciplined. ‘It’s the only way to get anywhere.’ And the duality of wanting to get somewhere, yet absolutely not wanting to be a climber. Because success is not important. Well, that’s easy enough to say if you are someone who has pulled it off.
It was a major film. In every way. There’s no ignoring the fact. No one can take that from her. Babetta was seen by millions of people, all over the world; the film won the Golden Bear at the Berlin film festival and a number of Oscars, including for Cinematography and Set Design, (it was nominated for Best Film but didn’t win), and in Sweden it was shown at every cinema and got top rating in all the papers, everywhere. Everybody was talking about it. Every door was suddenly open to her. There’s no denying that. Whatever one thinks of the film today, it is legendary.
Babetta is about a girl employed as a servant by the Széchenyi family in the household of the young count, István Széchenyi, on the family estate in the province of Gyór-Moson-Sopon, the Hungarian part of the Austrian Empire, in the early nineteenth century. Lou played the main part. It was her first international role. That is, she had made short films in London during her summer course at film school there, and we filmed our interrailing trip, but this was her first proper film role, internationally. The one that was to change everything.
People seemed so surprised, I mean in the media and so on, and people who didn’t know her. I knew it came as no surprise to her. It didn’t happen by chance.
‘All my life I’ve been preparing for this,’ she told me. We were sitting in the park, Björn’s Garden, it was late at night, or first thing in the morning, we’d come back via the bakery on Tjärhovsgatan after closing time at Kvarnen, how did we get into the nightclub when we were only nineteen, it was for that very reason, our youth, our age, still unspoilt, the spotlight.
We sat there with the fresh bun the size of a frisbee, passing it to and fro between us. She broke off careful little pieces, mouse-sized bites, before she handed it back to me. I had a good appetite and ate most of it. I couldn’t stop myself in those days. Didn’t realise that it was demanded of me. Had no self-restraint. Not like her. How can she say all my life? I thought. It hasn’t even started yet. That was the way it felt to me. As if my life hadn’t started. But I really had no self-discipline, no perspective. I still thought it was enough to do things in the right order, and there was no hurry, and life was infinitely long and that I had all the time in the world. I was so stupid. Not like Lou.
Because you have to be smart, too. Being gifted isn’t enough. If you want to get anywhere, you have to make plans. Next week she was off to London to start on the pre-production. Hair and make-up tests. Costume fittings. Voice coaching. Personal trainer. Rehearsals (though those were fairly secondary, the director was very domineering and would control his actors like puppets) and ballet training with a teacher from the Royal Ballet Company in London. The production company rang several times a day, as it had been doing ever since it became clear that she had got the part. I would sit beside her, or in the same room, on the same rug, and see her get to her feet and pace up and down along the waterfront, out at Långholmen. I could see from her body language that she was captivating, even on the phone, and in English. The Lou effect was translatable, and could even be conveyed along telephone wires.
In June we had graduated from high school. The theatre specialism at Södra Latin. And there was me thinking life was about to begin. How wrong I was. How dumb.
We are best friends. Have been for so long that I can’t even remember how it started. How do relationships start? A love affair, that’s an easier relationship to put a date on, there’s a clear before and after. After the first kiss. After it all ends. But friendship? It creeps up on you.
We found ourselves in the same class at high school. I remember being so happy, that I’d got onto the best theatre course in town, it was proof that I was somebody, or could be. Was that even important to me, back then? I don’t remember. I don’t remember anything of the start of term, the nervy first days, the schoolyard, the classrooms, nothing. I don’t remember the others in the class, and I don’t remember Lou either. But in that way people make friends when they’re little more than children, we made friends and from then on it was the two of us. All through high school. And into infinity.
We did everything together. I didn’t think about it then, but now I’ve started feeling a sense of shame, I tell nobody, try not to dwell on it. But sometimes the thoughts come anyway, although I don’t want them to.
Like the fact that it’s weird to shower together when you aren’t together. Weird to sleep over at each other’s houses quite so often. Always to sleep in the same bed. To sleep naked in the same bed, more or less, just wearing T-shirts, no underwear. It’s weird to find boyfriends who also have to be best friends for it to work. To eat from the same plate, use the same fork, the same glass, share the same sandwich. To talk on the phone, last thing at night before you fall asleep, first thing in the morning, before school. To finish each other’s sentences. We were like a single organism. People said we were so alike. ‘You must be sisters.’ It made me so proud. Now I feel ashamed. Not that I’m ashamed of our friendship. Or of her. There’s something so unreflecting about that closeness, that vulnerability, in believing friendship can be all of that. It can’t. It can’t, can it?
It's been almost fifteen years since Babetta. We’ve stayed in touch; we’re best friends, after all. Don’t meet up as often, of course. She’s worked and travelled and worked and travelled and I’ve stayed here. Applied to drama college, every year, every city. Seen Stockholm change, seen it so clearly because I’ve stayed here. Stayed here as an obstacle to development. To modernisation.
When did we last speak on the phone, see each other? It must have been at least a year ago. And now she’s called me. Now, fifteen years later, asked me to visit her. In France. She sent a photo of herself, taken diagonally from above, looking tanned and wearing a straw hat with an openwork brim, the rectangles of light falling over her face like freckles of gold. She knew I wouldn’t be able to resist that picture. ‘Come here.’ Yes I’m coming. Whatever you ask me to do.
I book a ticket and two days later, on the first of July, I fly down to her. My mobile runs out of battery during the flight and I can’t find anywhere at the airport to charge it. I stand by the exit and hope there aren’t any other ways out. Long rows of taxis. Men of what I take to be North African appearance, smoking and gesticulating to each other, walking between the rows of cars or hanging out of open windows. The sun, so corrosively, pitilessly white. All the outlines blurred. The palm trees reaching up into the sky. Planes climbing and descending. I am sweating. Lou is nowhere. I wait. Feel unsure. Make another circuit. Go into the little place that sells coffee, cigarettes and croissants. Finally dare to ask the spotty teenage boy in my schoolgirl French whether I can charge my phone. He shrugs, doesn’t understand what I am saying. I do not repeat the question. Sit down on a bench outside the sliding doors and wait. My T-shirt is sticking to my back, I can imagine how damp it looks. She knows I’m coming. This isn’t the first time I’ve had to wait for her. That’s how the dynamic is and always has been, right? It’s always me waiting for her.
Has any friendship like this, febrile or cannibal, survived the ravages of time? Are there people who can live their whole lives as minor characters in someone else’s life? […]
[...] It's not that I’m incapable of forming my own relationships. But I think people often adopt different roles, and they do that fairly early in a relationship, within families and between people falling in love, but also in friendships. Lou has always been the one to go first. Of the two of us. The magnet everyone else is drawn to. At an early stage, I became the one walking behind, even though I haven’t always been someone who walks behind. I’m not the one walking behind in my other relationships. I do have other relationships. My God, it’s been almost fifteen years since they filmed Babetta. That was when I lost her. No, not lost. God no. That was when our lives started developing in different directions. Or that was when it started to be noticeable. It’s easy to forget when you look at her successes, when you’ve been able to follow them. To forget that my life actually develops, too. I don’t just stand still. I have new friends, other friends, relationships. I do things. I think things. There are people who feel attracted to me. In whose lives I am the magnet. But I always think, when I wake up beside a boyfriend who’s at that soppy, newly-in-love stage and looks at me as if he would do anything for me, or when my current friends laugh their heads off at something I’ve said, that their eyes, their feelings, for me, how they would change, the fact that they would change if they got to meet Lou. How much I would pale by comparison. I want to see it happen, but at the same time I’m scared stiff of it happening. I have this sense of my life, in which I play the leading role, as something I only have on loan. A sense of needing to be ready, ready to resume my part, a minor role in her life.
In those early years, she made contact more often. I think she got in touch every time she was in Sweden. She called or texted. ‘Staying at the Grand Hotel, do come!’ Or ‘At the Diplomat, do you want to stay the night?’ And off I would go, every time. Sometimes it was only her and me, but just as often the place was full of other people. New friends, who I didn’t know. Only knew by name, or because I’d seen pictures of them in the paper, or seen their films, surreptitiously tried on their clothes at the smart NK department store. Some of them took no notice of me, treated me as if I didn’t exist, others were interested, nice. I made some new friends through those hotel room parties with Lou. That was how I got my first job as an assistant on a film set. From a director who was in love with Lou and was going to make a film about the Gothenburg riots and wanted to cast her in the leading role. But she was heading for Australia for the filming of a free-standing follow-up to the Jurassic Park films, so she couldn’t. I think he gave me the job because he sensed that I was close to her. By having me close, he kept some kind of link to her. That was how he saw it, I reckon.
I just about got by, working in films for a couple of years, but I was always on the breadline. My parents went on at me, ‘Qualifications, Katja, qualifications,’ and in the end I gave in, and applied that year to both drama college and the university film studies department. The ecstatic rush I felt at for once being offered a place was enough to make me accept without even considering whether it was what I wanted. And I’ve just been sort of carried along since then.
What I like about academic study is that there are rules. There are rules and criteria and if you just stick to them, there are no limitations. There’s no gatekeeper standing there to say no, sorry, good try but you can’t come in, or you don’t match the image the director has in mind, no, as long as you do what you need to do, you can go as far as you like in the academic world. So that’s what I’m invested in now. Without really thinking about what I want. I haven’t even really invested, because the word itself has a hidden desire and nervousness about it, and I’ve never felt anything like that. So I’ve never tried to trip myself up, the way I probably have in acting. It just carried me along. But it has never impressed me. Belonging to a club that wants me as a member, and all that.
She’s always been bad at answering the phone. Or texts, or emails. It kind of has to be on her terms. I don’t think it’s only me, she’s does that to everybody. And I understand her. Her schedule is always so packed that it’s the only thing she has any sort of control over, how and when she makes contact with people. I know some people have let it get to them, the fact that she never replies, but I don’t know, I’ve never found it hurtful. There’s so much in her life that’s important, God knows, and I can’t expect to be the most important thing in her life.
She would always meet me in the lobby, in dark glasses and discreet make-up, carrying a big designer bag crammed with scripts and other stuff. She always toted a load of scripts around with her. For parts she was going to take, or possibly take, and sometimes other scripts that the director had asked her to run her eye over, as she put it. I saw before me all the men desperately trying to find a way of being in her life. Of still existing in her life. We sat in various hotel bars, and although her phone kept on ringing, and a stream of people came up to say hello or ask for an autograph, I always felt so inspired after we had met. As if a bit of her magnetism had spilled out onto me. As if I she had infected me with her success.
Sometimes people would ask if we were sisters, not as often as when we were at high school and saw each other every day, but it was still a regular occurrence and every time we giggled and shook our heads, no, only best friends. When I left afterwards, I even moved like her. Until it gradually wore off and I was just myself again.
Norstedts, 2022, 325 pages
Foreign rights: Linda Altrov Berg, Norstedts Agency
We are grateful to Norstedts Agency for permission to publish this translated extract.
Nina Wähä saw her major breakthrough in 2019 with third novel, Testament. It was shortlisted for a string of literary awards, such as the August Prize, Norrland's Literature Prize, Tidningen Vi:s Literature Prize, and was awarded Swedish Radio's Literature Prize.
Sarah Death is a translator and editor and lives in north Kent. She enjoys working on texts from a wide range of periods and genres. Most recently, she was awarded the 2021 Bernard Shaw Prize for her translation of Tove Jansson’s Letters from Tove.