En bok för Ingen
(A Book for Nobody)
by Isabella Nilsson
reviewed by Emma Olsson
I was about to write that Nietzsche is at the heart of Isabella Nilsson’s newest book, but I don’t think that’s right. His role seems a lot less bodily.
In En bok för Ingen (A Book for Nobody), Nilsson engages with Friedrich Nietzsche’s 1882 book, The Gay Science, in a literary free association exercise. Borrowing The Gay Science’s chapter titles, Nilsson muses about friendship, psychiatric care, suffering, desire for suffering, religion, writing, eating disorders, and, sometimes, Nietzsche. But not that often. She prefers juggling writers like Clarice Lispector, Fernando Pessoa and Hagar Olsson.
And then, after she’s finished one quick thought on Pessoa, Borges and Schopenhauer, she drops them for the next motley of writers, philosophers, directors, characters from a children’s book, or pop stars. Britney Spears, for example: ‘Let us hope for a “Britney’s law”, let us hope for the right to not always say “yes please, thank you”,’ she writes about the singer’s famous conservatorship, in a passage about the failure of the psychiatric care system to allow patients the right to not be okay.
If it sounds frenetic, or like a lot of name-dropping, that’s because it is. That’s just an observation, though, not a critique. This is how it feels to read ‘A Book for Nobody’, to be carried from one meditation to the next, unwillingly yet happily all the same.
The book works mostly in the mind, but it also has a heart (and no, it isn’t a German philosopher, as I’d first suggested). It is a woman trying to quiet her ‘mind ghosts.’ Unable to sleep, Nilsson confronts her demons head on. ‘I also want to regain my health and be happy,’ she thinks to herself in the prologue, watching the mind ghosts move around the bedroom. ‘I want…or I will also write a gay science.’ This is the challenge that spawns the book. And so, with The Gay Science as a jumping board, she begins her collection of essays, letters, journal entries, aphorisms and wordplays.
Some of the book’s most delightful moments involve word play, like an alphabetical acrostic passage in which each letter of the alphabet corresponds to a word for Nilsson to explore. A for ‘alliteration’, B for ‘barn’ (children), C for ‘clownskräck’ (fear of clowns). (Good luck to any translator who embarks on this passage, though I’m sure the required inventiveness would suit Nilsson’s style). Elsewhere, she pens quick poems and translations.
Nilsson has already proven herself to be a writer of incredible lexical ingenuity. Her 2018 book, Nonsensprincessans dagbok (‘A Nonsense Princess’s Diary’), also featured poetry and rhymes so linguistically joyous that they sweeten the pill of the subject matter. The book also focused on mental health issues and involuntary medical treatment.
‘A Book for Nobody’ takes a similar route, tackling difficult topics but having fun while doing so. Therefore, I never felt the need to take a break from the book’s themes, to escape the persistent ‘mind ghosts’. I did, however, find myself pausing for air every few chapters simply for some mental respite. There are a lot of complex ideas in this book, and complex ideas don’t make for binging. This is no page-turner, but rather a companion that can be picked up and put down in a quest for inspiration.
Following popular psychological thought, people are believed to engage in the cerebral to avoid engaging in the emotional. We overthink, we write, we chat and we pontificate all to avoid the burden of having to feel. One of the ways ‘A Book for Nobody’ surprises the reader is by turning this idea on its head. For Nilsson, the cerebral is not a tool for emotional suppression, but a way to feel. Amidst the synthesising that drives the book, the heart still beats.
En bok för Ingen
Foreign rights: contact Ellerströms förlag.
Isabella Nilsson debuted in 2011 with the young people’s novel Verklighetsprojektet, ('The Reality Project'), which was reviewed in SBR 2012:2 by Tuva Tod. This was followed by Nonsensprinsessans dagbok in 2018, which was nominated for the 2019 Nordic Council Literature Prize.