Den svarta månens år
(Year of the Black Moon)
by Ellen Mattson
reviewed by Sarah Death
Ellen Mattson’s books are always highly original and this short tour de force is surely one of the best, a complex interleaving of middle-aged angst, ambition and inhibition, a small-town iliad that is existentially unsettling yet absurdly humorous.
David Svarthed, a fading lecturer in literature at a minor university in a coastal town, is stopped in his tracks when a student complaint leads to a suspension, which he is allowed to disguise as a sabbatical. He seems happy enough staring at the trees from the window of his shabby inherited apartment or tinkering with his research on night as a metaphor for heroic death in Homer’s Iliad, but a fall on the ice outside a cafe leaves him with a fogged brain and in a profound state of limbo. Suffering visual disturbances and unpredictable mood swings while awaiting a battery of hospital tests, he finds himself drawn into an obsessive local quest for something he knows to be lost, the finding of which will, he is convinced, restore him to the golden age of ‘as you were’. He is soon fixated on the idea that a red book has vanished from his desk. Egged on by two teenagers who knock at his door claiming to have been first on the scene after his fall, he decides to track it down. They say they witnessed a tall man and woman grabbing the book from him and running off.
In keeping with the classic tradition of a quest, David then encounters a succession of people, both helpers and hinderers: the sister with whom he has had a prickly relationship since childhood; his reassuring old GP; the marine archaeologist; the stressed young man minding his uncle’s bookshop; David’s friend Stefan, with his enthusiasm for pubs and sailing; the sympathetic head of faculty; the disapproving university vice-chancellor introducing a sweeping programme of new courses; the old lady poet, her body and her poetry both dried up; the laughing, ever-surprising female chief librarian. David is obsessed with telling his own story and not having others tell it, yet they all persist in doing so. He pompously tells his sister, ‘I forbid you from thinking about anything that relates to me!’ but her riposte is a withering ‘You’re not as enigmatic as you think.’
Is he just a superannuated classicist with a vivid imagination and mild concussion? Or is this a micro-tragedy of existential angst and potentially fatal brain injury, an inexorable descent into a real and/or mythological abyss? This hiatus in David’s life has unquestionably brought him up short and faced him with some hard truths about his own inertia and lack of finishing power. The ground beneath his feet is treacherous, and not just because of the ice. His stream of consciousness grows increasingly erratic, contradicting itself from one page to the next, and the reader learns to treat him as the most unreliable of voices.
Homer’s Iliad is a crucial intertext in this novel, as well as the subject of its protagonist’s studies. Mattson interweaves her Homerian threads in inventive ways, most overtly in David’s recurring confusion of his own experiences with life in ancient Troy. Seeing slides of a ship sunk off the Swedish coast in 1794 and postcards of an underwater excavation on ancient Greek vessels, for example, he confuses these ships’ holds with the warehouses in the port area of town, conducting an impetuous, fruitless search there. Later, a tricky interview with the vice-chancellor brings the word ‘brutality’ into his head, and he mentally prepares to don his shield and face his opponent on the battlefield.
The novel is studded with visually memorable set pieces in which David gets himself into absurd situations. They are sad yet funny, but disconcerting because we do not fully understand what we are witnessing. One of my favourites was the episode in the second-hand bookshop, where David and the teenagers are ineffectually hunting for the elusive volume, obstructed by the tetchy stand-in bookseller. As with the entire novel, the scene is beautifully written and full of unexpected images. Disorder is spreading in the bookshop, thinks David, ‘welling out like leaking upholstery’. In the basement, ‘there was a crunchy, brown, burnt smell, like being in a gingerbread house’. Mattson’s writing is of a richness that invites many re-readings; it is the sort of novel that makes me want to underline multiple passages on every page.
With David slowly but surely losing his grip on reality, the quest reaches its culmination in the central library, in an extended set-piece denouement that made me chuckle out loud. Reviewing one of Mattson’s previous novels, critic Jonas Thente said he would love to see a little more mischief from this ‘divine literary architect’. In this story, she most definitely heeds his wish. After the thrill of the chase, Mattson concludes this cerebral yet entertaining tale with a gracefully open ending. If David has learnt anything from his personal odyssey, it is perhaps that even those heroic warriors of antiquity were sad to die, and that the most important thing is simply being here.
Den svarta månens år
Albert Bonniers förlag, 2021, 198 pages
Foreign rights: Hedlund Agency
Den svarta månens år was one of six works shortlisted for the fiction category of the prestigious August Prize for 2021. Ellen Mattson’s 2001 novel Snow (transl. Sarah Death) was published by Jonathan Cape in 2005 and won the Bernard Shaw Prize for translation from Swedish in 2006.
Ellen Mattson's Sommarleken (The Summer Game) was reviewed in SBR 2016:1, Tornet och fåglarna (The Tower and the Birds) in SBR 2018:1 (both reviews by Sarah Death); Vinterträdet (The Winter Tree) was reviewed by Rick McGregor in SBR 2013:1.