Lotta Lotass: Experimental Author of Fiction and Drama
by Eric Dickens
Experimental literature came into its own during the 20th century. Names include Daniel Kharms and Hugo Ball. In Sweden the phenomenon arose somewhat later, but over the past three or four decades a number of genrecrossing experiments involving prose, poetry, essays or plays, have been made by Emanuel Qvarnström in Sweden as well as Anders Cleve, Martin Enckell and Thomas Wulff in Finland. Nowadays the small Swedish publishing house specialising in experimentatal literature is Trombone, with authors such as Christer Boberg, Krister Gustavsson, Magnus Ringgren, Emma Helgesson and those associated with the periodical OEI.
One such experimental author is Lotta Lotass (born 1964), who has been publishing work on a regular basis since around the year 2000, so she can perhaps be described as one of the first serious Swedish experimentalists of the twenty-first century.
The Ancient Greek chorus and its multiple voices are key to much of Lotta Lotass’ writing. The characters in her works are not always the passive bystanders, but are sometimes active participants, not always individual voices, but part of a collective commentary. The somewhat disembodied grouping of voices often forms the core of the work. In this overview article, I shall be covering her most significant works. Most, though not all, were published by Albert Bonniers förlag in Stockholm.
Her first novel Kallkällan (The Cold Spring; 2000) also sets the scene for some of her spatial and psychological leitmotifs, which range from the earthy closeness to the soil of village life, via the alienation of a hospice for misfits that society has shrugged off, to a bleak kind of moon landscape, or the Earth after a catastrophe, where the survivors wander and cluster. There is also a mythical dimension. This first novel is, in essence, a number of interlinked pieces of short prose, rather than the successive chapters of a conventional novel. These prose fragments include description, dialogue, and the odd letter. There is some use of dialect, the dalmål of Dalarna, spoken in a region from which Lotass herself hails. One recurrent feature here is the dangerous profession of logging, and what happens to the trees after they have been felled. In a sense, this novel has no beginning or end but starts in mid-episode and ends that way, too, though there is a curious kind of epilogue where even flying and the Pripet Marshes are briefly mentioned. So, at the very end of the book a further leitmotif, something that absorbs Lotass’ interest, is introduced: aeroplanes. Her interest is said to be derived from reading Biggles as a child.
Chronologically speaking, Lotass’ second novel is Aerodynamiska tal (Aerodynamic Talk; 2001) although it is, in fact, described as a ‘collection’. Of what, you may ask. This is a collection of chapters or prose fragments that are dated: 1903, 1909, 1910, 1911, and so on, up to 1947. These years represent the dates that progress was made in the history of aviation. But the names of the aviators are suppressed. He flies, he tries. But often we do not know who. The description of the flying machines themselves and their arcs in the air is exact and scientific. For the year 1914, readers are treated to a list of Swedish words all beginning with Tap... and Tar... from an old encyclopaedia. The archaic spelling dates the encyclopaedia to around the turn of the 20th century. The fourteen entries are all scientific or geographical and are mostly to do with warfare. Other fragments of the book are in sober prose – or are even written as poetry, such as the first of four entries for 1929, which describes a search mission to places such as Broken Hill, Wave Hill and Ord River Downs – i.e. places in Australia. A crashed plane? For 1931 we encounter a fully-fledged Greek chorus plus the Master of Ceremonies and the Pilot in dialogue. The chorus describes the dimensions of an aeroplane: ‘A high-winged monoplane built entirely of wood. / Built entirely of wood with a fuselage / 8.7 metres long / in a shape that most resembles / resembles a a a narrow pipe’. A pause ensues. Then the chorus continues to describe the exact construction of the aircraft. The style is somewhat reminiscent of the works of the Dane Peter Adolphsen or maybe the Anglo-German author W. G. ‘Max’ Sebald.
In her third book Band II – Från Gabbro till Loväng (Volume II – From Gabbro to Loväng; 2002), this time once again described as a novel, Lotass almost returns to the style and pacing of her first. Again we have the oddballs and misfits of Dalarna. Some of the same characters return from Kallkällan. One of the characters emigrates to California, as did one or two of Lotass’ own forebears, and there is even a brief glossary of English words he writes down, with old Swedish spelling for the meaning, and a rough phonetic rendering of the English word itself. Lotass appears to like introducing archaicisms into her work. There is a strike, a whiff of Socialism and rather tub-thumping Christianity, though undershot with mysticism. People drown, people sing hymns, the characters have such names as Worry Peter, Blind Jonas, the Nihilist, Fighter Lars, and so on. Archetypes or individuals? The episodic nature of Kallkällan is repeated, there is fishing, the Nihilist makes up a song, and sings it on the road: ‘Farewell, o world with all your joy and finery, / Today the comet comes us to part; / Because the Earth he will destroy, / Will cause confusion great, / If he but with his tail our old Earth brushes’. This is sung as other people in the background are sorting out practical things to do with the old people’s home and its residents.
Her next novel is Tredje flythastigheten (The Third Flight Speed; 2004). It is basically the story of early space flight in Russia, involving Yuri Gagarin, plus a number of less well-known scientists and engineers, all of them real-life figures. This novel progresses chronologically. But Lotass’ characteristic narrative patterns recur: concision, short paragraphs, and one slightly unsettling one, as in the first excerpt, changing from first-person narration to third-person narration within the same paragraph, even though writing about the same person.
This novel was followed by skymning : gryning (dusk : dawn; 2005), which is described as the last part of the trilogy that started with her first and third books. But the narrative pace is different. This novel is denser somehow, and involves a larger mass of people acting together. The archetypes, e.g. the boy, have now become entirely nameless, except where it is essential to distinguish, but even then only initials such as H and M are used. Icebergs, ships, snow, and bleak plains feature in this meditative novel that is somewhat longer than her previous ones. The human body and the surfaces of objects are focused upon. Textures and sounds. In this book the narration is all from the outside, by an all-seeing observer. There is hardly any dialogue, nor single voices. A railway is being built, by collective effort. And yet the whole enterprise seems like a dream. The focus is in some way more on the materials than on the people involved. A 240-page prose poem?
And then, all of a sudden, Lotta Lotass changed genres. The change was no doubt occasioned by the subject matter, as Lotass believes that every story requires a special genre. So in that same year, 2005, she published a play entitled Samlarna (The Collectors) which consists of a dialogue between two eccentric brothers. It was first staged at Teater Bhopa in Gothenburg in September of that year. The episodes depicted are essentially taken from real life, but as in her first novel, the only two characters in this play are these misfit brothers, people who do not fit normal society. It is set in Harlem, New York, and involves Homer and Langley Colyer. They lived in a largish house and were not tramps or winos. The one brother was a lawyer, and they had inherited their house from their parents. But once left to their own devices things went rapidly downhill. The play is set at two points in the brothers’ lives, in 1935, just after Homer has lost his sight, and in the early 1940s, by which time the decline and decay are considerable.
Back to prose, but still in America. The following novel has the long title Min röst skall nu komma från en annan plats i rummet (My Voice Will Now Be Coming From Somewhere Else in the Room; 2006). I can do no better than quote the blurb on the back of the book: ‘Lotta Lotass’ new novel stages a meeting between five serial killers, four of them authentic – here called the Clown, the Rabbit, the Apostle and the Monster – against a backdrop of huge dams, the sites of atom bomb tests, and fictional gaming and casino buildings in that idiosyncratic desert landscape of south-west USA, and around Las Vegas. Lotass’ book is a disturbing and fascinating depiction of instances of a dropout existence, at the very edge of human society, and the subjects of modern myths, from Hitchcock’s “Psycho” to Joyce Carol Oates’ “Zombie”’. This novel appeared in a cheap paperback edition.
In 2007, Lotass follows Julio Cortázar and others in producing something that can be read in a different order at will. This ‘book’ consists of a box filled with numerous loose-leaf and individually stapled, but unnumbered, 2, 4 and 8-page pamphlets that can be read in absolutely any order the reader wishes, hence creating his or her own context and juxtaposition of experiences. The title is Den vita jorden (The White Earth). The pamphlets contain miniature self-contained units, mostly prose, with the very occasional dialogue, letter, or poem. Lotass applies herself to a large number of detailed descriptions of constructions, machines, fields, landscapes, seascapes, maps, telegrams, long distance runners, precipitation, vehicles, rivers, offices, dunes, stones, metals, engineers, speed, blueprints, glaciers, institutes, temperatures, geology, ice, mileposts, trains, stations, heat, marshes, and so forth. This mildly manic list represents only a fraction of the ‘book’ and, of course, only the order in which I found the individual pamphlets when I borrowed the book from the library.
That same year, Lotta Lotass published a slim volume entitled Arkipelag (Archipelago) which contains several radio plays, where she continues to use the chorus as a central constituent part. In one of these short plays, symbolically depicting the retreat from Mons as told by a chorus of twelve voices, another theme is introduced, namely that of the First World War, which for Lotass is anything but a great war, merely a killing ground populated by lost souls. Other plays here depicts lost pilots, an admiral at sea, and one described as ‘three radio plays for one voice’.
The year 2008 saw the appearance of two works: Den röda himlen (The Red Heavens) and Dalén (idem). The first consists of one sentence, starting in medias res and continues for about 100 pages. I write ‘about’ as the pages themselves are not numbered. The subject matter is war in the trenches, again during WWI, and the vicissitudes of the soldiers. The stage play Dalén consists of a dialogue between a real historical figure Gustaf Dalén (1869-1937) and Light. Dalén was born near Falköping in western Sweden, and was a prodigious inventor of mechanical devices including a forerunner of the Teasmade machine, but more practically for the dairy industry, a device for measuring the fat content in milk. Studying at Gothenburg and Zurich, he made the acquaintance of other technicians and inventors. On his return to Sweden, he married and started a firm specialising in acetylene lighting. By 1912, he was contracted to produce lighting for the Panama Canal. That same year tragedy struck. While he was testing a gas accumulator, one of the cylinders exploded, blinding him for life. The man who had spent so much time experimenting with light could no longer himself see. So the choice of dialogue partner in this play is highly significant. That same year, while still on his sickbed after the accident, Gustaf Dalén was awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics.
In 2009, Lotass published another play, this time entitled Speleologerna (The Speleologists). The play was staged in April of that same year, and this time the première was in Uddevalla, like Gothenburg also on the west coast of Sweden. This could perhaps be roughly described, if slightly tongue-incheek, as Beckett meets Euripides with T.S. Eliot as go-between. As in her previous play there are two main protagonists, rather as in Waiting for Godot, called The One and The Other. At the beginning of the play, these two are moving about, adjusting the furniture and stones in glass-fronted cupboards. The rest of the cast, slightly subsidiary to these two, consists of The Ten, typecast individuals who are given a number in the cast list, plus a oneword description of their chief characteristic: negotiator, melancholy, faithful, resigned, consoling, indifferent, idealist, realist, aggressive, cynic. The play (I have read it, but not seen it) reminds me vaguely of a play staged in the late 1970s in Helsinki by a Finland-Swedish troupe and called Liv & tvång, but there is a strong element of Eliot the playwright. Stasis and music (a CD of the music is supplied with the book). One of the elements of this play is warfare, or rather the psychology of the tactics and strategy of both sport and war. The epigraph, here used ironically, is the famous one by Henry Newbolt: ‘Play up! Play up! And play the game!’. Because as we all know, Newbolt was a British propagandist during WWI, and the epigraph is a quote from his stirring poem depicting the failed rescue of General Gordon in Khartoum, written some 30 years earlier and called Vitae Lampada, a title taken in turn from Lucretius. So it is no accident that when the chorus first appears on stage, the members are clothed in cricket gear of the old school, if a little smudged and bloody. But as an alienation effect, they are all wearing animal masks, three with identical pig ones. When Act Two begins, these same people are standing and sitting, now wearing blue overalls and brand new white plimsolls. The pace is now much slower.
Lotass’ maybe most difficult work also appeared in 2009 – Den svarta solen (The Black Sun). Again she uses the technique of making it possible to read the book in different sequences, but in the paperback edition at least, the references to other parts are limited to arrows and paragraph numbers, and the loose-leaf approach was not adopted. What makes this book difficult to read is that she has honed down the subject matter to include the architectural and spatial geography of a house and its rooms, plus the furniture. The pages are again not numbered, this time in order to encourage the reader to follow the suggestions as to how to continue reading, so it is not immediately possible even to say how many pages the book has! But I would estimate between 250 and 300. The descriptions are exceedingly detailed, and the appearance of everything in these spaces is given with a large number of adjectives, 3040 on every page. Many of the paragraphs begin with the same words as previous ones, but then they go off at a different tangent, and there are endless variations on a number of fairly circumscribed themes. Not maybe the best read for a tired commuter. Yet this book has been available in a modestly priced paperback edition, available in railway station kiosks.
In 2010, Lotta Lotass moved away from Bonniers, maybe only a temporary move, and self-published her next work Sparta (idem) in a limited edition. This book is described in more detail in my review in Bookshelf, SBR 2011:2.
And finally to date, as illustrated in a photo accompanying my review of Sparta, her latest work is Fjärrskrift (Long-Distance Writing; 2011) and surely almost the ultimate in experimentation, a reel of tickertape in a box containing a long string of words forming a text. This, too, was self-published.
Testing the limits of experimentation and readability is no doubt a stimulating experience for an author, but perhaps a return to somewhat more conventional writing would be beneficial to Lotta Lotass, should she want to gain more readers. She discarded early experiments with dialect, so that her stage and radio plays are more or less written in standard Swedish. Lotass’ fascination with technology in general and aeroplanes in particular is interesting, as is her penchant for glacial landscapes. And during the first half of the 2000s, she won several Swedish literary prizes. But in this last work she may, wittingly or unwittingly, have overstepped the bounds of experimentation for the majority of readers.
Lotta Lotass occupies Seat Number One at the Swedish Academy.