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My Book World extract

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Issue number: 2024:1


from My Book World

by Kerstin Ekman

introduced and translated by Linda Schenck

In autumn 2023, Kerstin Ekman, one of the most prominent voices in twentieth and twenty-first century Swedish literature, published Min bokvärld (My Book World), on her re-readings of some of her favorite works of fiction. These 24 essays cover works from Homer to Doris Lessing and from North America in the west to Russia in the east, plus one essay about her eleven years as a member of the Swedish Academy (1978-1989).

My Book World includes both Ekman’s personal reminiscences of her own adolescent reading and her memories of reading specific works. This extract offers a little of both, first an adolescent memory and then a section of the chapter on Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain (Der Zauberberg, 1924).

Ekman’s text contains a number of quotations from the Swedish edition of the book (Bergtagen, translated by Ulrika Wallenström, 2011). Because I did not own The Magic Mountain in English I began by accessing the complete text of Helen Tracy Lowe-Porter’s 1927 translation from the Internet Archive (published by Martin Secker, 1927). Then the translator in me grew curious to compare with the more recent English translation, by John E. Woods (1996, published by Alfred A. Knopf), which I quickly acquired. I went on to do my detective work, searching both for English words corresponding to the Swedish words which, in turn, were translations from the original German words. I became so interested in the two English versions that I decided to include both below, denoted as (L-P) and (W) respectively, in the places where Ekman’s text contains quotations. I hope readers will find this of interest. And of course also that some readers will feel inspired to read The Magic Mountain, either again or for the first time. My Book World certainly left me with a tremendous desire to reread my own favorites from my younger years as well as Ekman’s, both the works she discusses which I have read before and those introduced to me in My Book World.

Kerstin Ekman with dog in forest. Photo: Thron Ullberg
Kerstin Ekman. Photo: Thron Ullberg.


from My Book World

An Uneasy Time

When I took Eyvind Johnson’s Minnas (Memories) down from my bookshelf and began to reread it, tranquility descended. The tranquility of reading. The first time I read Memories I wasn’t old enough to be held accountable. This was at a time of life when a person is wide open and prepared to make a great deal of inner space for whatever they are reading. They experience the uniqueness, the oddness of a work, even if it makes them uncomfortable. And clearly only really good books can open us up that way.

The house is quiet. The radiators are clicking. I mustn’t forget to go down and stoke the furnace as Pappa instructed. My parents are at a meeting, playing bridge or at a choral rehearsal. I don’t keep detailed track of their evening commitments. I clink briefly at the piano to still my unease. This autumn, my final term of high school, the future looms close. My classmates have already staked it out. They are applying to the Royal College of Technology or the School of Economics, or, like my best friend Solveig, to the Gymnastics Institute. She’s going to be a physical therapist.

There is nothing I am going to become to which I can put a name. Some evenings I go upstairs and tackle my Latin homework to settle my anxious mind with the logic of language. But more often than not I remain downstairs playing the piano in the dusk. My playing isn’t much to listen to, but I am comfortable. I enjoy being alone.

Today, deep in old age, the atmosphere of these evenings often returns to me. I have spent time in worlds including the ivory tower and the film industry. And I have spent even more time in the external world of literature with its awards juries and foundations, talk shows, newspaper interviews and arts events. And I have not always said no. I have put on my finery when invited to speak and air my views about what I’ve been reading. Or writing for that matter. Now I no longer have to. Thank heavens I am no longer held accountable either for the books I am reading or the things I have written myself. I believe this is the reason those quiet evenings in solitude return to me.

The dachshund is asleep and sometimes opens an eye to see if we won’t soon have our walk. All the way into town, all the way to the library. Lots of lampposts to tinkle on. We pass a tree where a cat once sat. It has to be inspected thoroughly. When we finally arrive he sits down and curls up happily by the radiator in the library vestibule. 

My reading includes not only library books but also the ones my Pappa buys in the bookshop or from the publishers’ representatives the unions send to the workshop. He bought Eyvind Johnson’s Memories in fall 1951. It was published in 1950 by Folket i Bild[1]. Eyvind Johnson was young when he wrote it. In his preface he describes his novel as ‘an attempt to depict the ambiance around young people, their excitement, their anxiety about life.’ He was writing about his hometown, Boden, although he didn’t acknowledge it.

What I discovered was that he was writing about a small town, and quite a dull one at that. It had an eatery I recognized exactly as one in Katrineholm. I had even been there, when Mamma and Pappa went to Sälen for winter sports, and she wanted to be sure that I, along with the girlfriend who was keeping me company, would get hot meals. She bought us meal certificates there, but after the first meal we traded them for money and bought ourselves pastries. We were too lazy to keep the furnace stoked.

So it was possible to write about a small town. Olle Hedberg had done so as early as 1940 in Josefine eller säg det med blommor (Josephine or Say it with Flowers). Mamma had that book, and I read it. But his ‘Red roses grow out along the Esplanade’ wasn’t really Katrineholm. Memories, with crazy Galen on a drunken rampage and Mr. Clerk the librarian, now that was Katrineholm. In Mr. Clerk I saw our head librarian, K.G. Wall, and attributed the same wisdom to him with which Johnson endowed Mr. Clerk. However, not until later did it become clear that wisdom in this story was divine. In the 1928 edition the scenes that took place in heaven had been deleted. Johnson thought the publishers wouldn’t appreciate them. Not until 1998 was the work published unabridged under the title Herr Clerk, vår mästare (Mr. Clerk, our Master).

The years whirl past. But I remember how this story gripped me the first time I read it. I think the cover had a lot to do with it. The streetlight, the trees. The shadowy shape that might have been Mr. Clerk.


Does Reading Make You Wise?

The Magic Mountain is not the story of a young woman, but rather of a shipbuilding engineer by the name of Hans Castorp, whom Mann describes with his treacherous irony as ‘simple’. What he is, in any case, is young, a recent graduate with very little experience of life when he makes his way up to the sanatorium at Berghof. It lies at an altitude of sixteen hundred meters above sea level and he lives just as comfortably there as at home in Hamburg. He is a young man of means, orphaned but looked after with the best of intentions by various guardians and relations. He arrives at the sanatorium to visit his cousin Joachim, who is suffering from tuberculosis. In Swedish Hans Castorp is ‘enchanted’, or ‘spirited away’ by the mountain, in German he is ushered into the eponymous zauberberg (a charmed or magic mountain) which is not the residence of the trolls, but rather of the tubercular.

Thomas Mann’s family nicknamed him der Zauberer, the magician. At the very beginning of this nearly-thousand-page novel Mann begins to play magic tricks with time. In a Swedish folk song known as 'Den bergtagna', in which a woman is spirited away to a magic mountain, there is a line: ‘tiden görs mig lång’, meaning ‘the time is elongated to me’. For Castorp the opposite prevails. Time rushes on, becoming weeks and months and then suddenly he has spent seven years at Berghof.

What happened to him? How can seven years have passed in ease and indolence without his even noticing or attempting to depart? This is the magic, the enchantment. The Magic Mountain is not a novel about a young man finding his way through life, not a bildungsroman. There are plenty of those in literature, and altogether too few about young women. Goethe, indeed, has two such novels, both about Wilhelm Meister, centering around the development of the protagonist as he travels through life. We must bear in mind that Goethe accompanies Mann wherever his writing takes him.

The Magic Mountain, however, breaks with the pattern of following the character’s development, in that Castorp leads an indulged and idle life in one single place. It has been analyzed as a developmental novel, a novel of ideas and a bildungsroman. I, however, would refer to it as a narrative about the maturation process. Castorp matures in a serenity of his own. He does so despite the fact that his ideas can hardly be described as inspired by much reading, at least not of fiction. His reading matter for the journey to Berghof was entitled Ocean Steamships. But as time passes, his intellectual curiosity awakens. During his seven years he reads a modicum of the natural sciences, primarily on the subject of anatomy, but he also makes forays into biology and botany. Eventually he finds himself succumbing to the temptation of psychoanalysis, and he sneaks off to secretive meetings with a psychoanalyst.

He actually listens and observes more than he reads. This is when he makes discoveries that alter the conservative, easygoing, optimistic outlook on life with which he arrived from Hamburg.

He encounters death in the very first pages of the novel. He is informed that anyone who dies at this enchanted mountain is borne away with great discretion during the night or at mealtimes to spare the others seeing. He listens to deep, horrifying coughing the likes of which he has never heard back home. And he is exposed to a macabre joke when a young woman member of the ‘One Lung Society’ frightens him with a muffled whistle from deep down in her pneumothorax.

Lodovico Settembrini, Castorp’s newfound friend at the sanatorium, describes him as ‘life’s delicate child’ (L-P)[2] or ‘one of life’s problem children’ (W)[3]. Early on, he had experienced the deaths of his parents and his beloved paternal grandfather and was thus deeply marked by the darkness of death, the rituals of grieving and the transformation of the body to a corpse.

Castorp awakens during his time at the sanatorium, not only emotionally but also sexually. And Thomas Mann’s sense of humor is nowhere so wry as in his description of a love affair to which we gradually become privy. Castorp falls in love with a Russian woman by the name of Clavdia Chauchat, and the portrait with which she gifts him is an X-ray image of her diseased lung. 

It is a sheet of glass he has to hold up to the light in order to see her insides: ‘showing not her face, but the delicate bony structure of the upper half of her body, and the organs of the thoracic cavity, surrounded by the pale, ghostlike envelope of flesh.’ (L-P) or ‘without a face, but revealing the organs of her chest cavity and the tender framework of her upper body, delicately surrounded by the soft, ghostlike forms of her flesh.’ (W).

This is what Castorp is struggling with. The tangibility of death. Death within life. That which inevitably awaits us all but which we – particularly when young – can postpone so far into the future that it is hardly to be reckoned with.

Seven is a magic number in religion and mysticism. Seven months have passed and we are in the middle of the story of Hans Castorp’s sojourn at Berghof. He is passionately infatuated with Clavdia Chauchat, and when he finally takes possession of her (as one said in his day) we are in a chapter entitled 'Walpurgis Night'. Mann played a little magic trick with time order for his narrative to allude to the Walpurgisnacht in Goethe’s Faust. In real chronology it is Holy Week, more specifically Shrove Tuesday, when the brazen, elusive Claudia and the long-lethargic Hans Castorp finally click. Mann makes it carnival time at the sanatorium. The champagne is flowing, the ceiling lights are extinguished, and by every indication wild abandon is set to prevail. The lovely but fatally ill Marusja wears a green tissue paper jockey cap over her dark tresses and Hans Castorp stares at Clavdia’s neck, shuts his eyes and whispers to himself: ‘My God!’ The sober humanist and enlightenment figure Settembrini passes him notes unquestionably indicating what a risk-filled night it is.

But mind, the mountain’s magic-mad to-night,
And if you choose a will-o’-the-wisp to light
Your path, take care, ’twill lead you all astray. (L-P)


But bear in mind, the mountain’s mad with spells tonight,
And should a will-o-wisp decide your way to light,
Beware – its lead may prove deceptive. (W)

He passes four such notes with quotations from Goethe’s Faust to Castorp, but nothing can restrain the merrymaking of the wildly costumed guests or Hans Castorp’s obsession with Clavdia’s neck and her tender, white arms.

The first time I read The Magic Mountain, I found the pages directly following this passage extremely difficult to understand. Perhaps not literally, because the lovers spoke French together and as a high school student I was able to follow their conversation. But what were they really talking about? She lent him a pencil and bade him farewell with these words: ‘N’oubliez pas de me rendre mon crayon.’ Those words, that he shouldn’t forget to return her pencil, were an invitation. But I didn’t see that. Nor did I realize that he was thus meant to come to her room that night.

I wasn’t much enlightened about what was known as sexual life in those days. And this was in spite of the fact that I had been early to read Ivar Lo-Johansson’s Kungsgatan. It had been serialized in Folket i Bild, a magazine my father bought regularly from the representative who sold it at his factory. I had also read works by Moa Martinson and other working-class writers. But what Ivar Lo-Johansson meant when he wrote that Martha was a streetwalker I had no idea, nor did I know that Adrian’s illness was called gonorrhea. All this was as yet unbeknownst to me. In our home, no books were banned. My mother owned Dagmar Edqvist’s Hjärtat söker nödhamn, about the situation of refugees in Sweden. There I at least understood that the lovers were performing that unmentionable act.  When I read my mother’s copy of Louis Bromfield’s The Rains Came, things began to clarify. Later, when I was a bit more acquainted with both infatuation and powerful sexual attraction I was able to identify with young Castorp’s sudden upswing in his attitude toward life.

On his path toward coming of age, young Hans Castorp was forced by circumstance to absorb and reflect on the thought that love might be pregnant with death, that the fruit of life contained the seed of decay and annihilation. But when I was a young woman the thought seemed to me nothing but macabre.

Is it silly to dive into long, good books so early in life that they are really beyond your comprehension? I don’t believe so. They offer entry into a fascinating world to which you can return and later decipher the things you didn’t comprehend on first reading. Each rereading opens new vistas in a narrative. And, with any luck, new vistas inside yourself.

Hans Castorp’s mentor Settembrini is eloquent. Castorp thinks: ‘But after all, it is worth listening to, he talks so well; the words come jumping out of his mouth so round and appetizing — when I listen to him, I keep seeing a picture of fresh hot rolls in my mind’s eye.’ (L-P) or ‘…how each word leaps from his mouth so round and appetizing – listening to him always reminds me of fresh hot buns.’ (W) But his rebellious, humanist message in the spirit of enlightenment initially bypasses the newcomer entirely. As it did me, too, of course. Settembrini is anything but an elegant apparition, a poverty-stricken young man whose only jacket and trousers are made of coarse wool and are nearly threadbare. In contrast, his intellectual resources and education are both considerable. Castorp finds him comical the first time they meet.

I do not espouse the theory that reading makes you wiser. It is all a matter of what you read and how. Hans Castorp is not much of a reader when he arrives at the magic mountain. But he has an enquiring mind. Thoughts that occur to him when he is horizontal, during the prescribed resting cure on the balcony, cause him to consider a number of matters that were alien to him in his lowland existence. He even pokes his nose into the occult.

You can’t read all the time. Of course there are audiobooks for when you’re peeling potatoes or cleaning the fridge. But The Unceasing Reader is just as much a dream as The Constant Gardener and The Complete Angler. Gardening and fishing, however, have benefits that other aspects of life lack. Not to mention walking in the woods. Eagerness, pleasure, discoveries and other stimuli – I can only dream of these things now, sitting, where I have been seated, on a terrace with a view of a lake, being served coffee and almond tarte. You can find out all kinds of things on a sunny summer terrace or at a winter dinner table. You are told of daughters defending their PhDs between two childbirths, and sons-in-laws’ heroic struggles with chain saws and wood cleavers, and funny things grandchildren say and how they learn, their school marks, their bicycling. Life is a struggle, but I already knew that. Even worse: you can be subjected to slide shows from distant beaches with wall-to-wall bodies wearing little bits of fabric that cover the body parts that distinguish the sexes, if barely. Such jam-packed beaches make me think of the murals on church walls of the Day of Judgement. For me that would be hell on earth, but I’m not there. I’m just floating around in a puddle of prattle. My dog lies at my feet, nudging me gently. She’s ready to go home. So am I.

When evening comes and the birds are silent, seeking sleep spots in the protection of the hazel bushes, I am back home. I wash and clean myself like the birds did a few minutes ago in the birdbath. But when they put their heads under their wings, I lift up my book, the one that has been lying here waiting for me the whole sunny summer afternoon. Assuming that books can wait. But we belong together, and what I can give them is time. And the more of that I give them, the less eager to be sociable in company I become.


  • [1] Folket i Bild began as a magazine (1934-63) and later also became a press. The press (1941-1960) specialized in inexpensive, high-quality editions of great works, sold largely at workplaces by union representatives.
  • [2] Mann, Thomas, The Magic Mountain, translated into English by H. T. Lowe-Porter, 1927, Martin Secker, London.
  • [3] Mann, Thomas, The Magic Mountain, translated into English by John E. Woods, 1996, Alfred A. Knopf, New York.

Min bokvärld

Albert Bonniers förlag, 2023

Rights: Johanna Lindborg, Bonnier Rights.

We are grateful to Bonnier Rights for granting permission to publish this translated extract.

Kerstin Ekman remains among the most prominent living Swedish authors, in a career that has spanned over six decades. Her works have been translated into 30 languages, and a number of extracts from and reviews of her works have appeared in SBR, most recently The Wolf Run, which was featured in SBR 2022:1.

Linda Schenck is a native English speaker who has lived in Sweden for many years. Professionally, she worked as a conference and court interpreter and a translator of both fiction and non-fiction. Today she devotes herself entirely to literary translation. In 2018, she received The Swedish Academy Award for translation of Swedish Literature.