by Matilda Södergran
translated by Bradley Harmon
Matilda Södergran is a Finland-Swedish poet, translator and critic who has published five well-received collections of poetry, including Överlevorna (‘The Remnants’), which won Sveriges Radio’s Poetry Prize in 2019.
In Nell, her first work of prose, Södergran turns her finely honed lyricism to themes of loneliness and loss, as the protagonist gives herself over to solitary rest over the course of one summer. In short but keenly weighted fragments of text, Södergran conveys her protagonist’s preoccupations with astute psychological depth and striking, at times dreamlike, imagery.
The novel was awarded one of the Society of Swedish Literature in Finland (SLS)’s literary prizes in 2022, with the jury drawing particular attention to its smouldering yet muted language and mastery of the poetics of loss. This excerpt is taken from the opening of the book.
Whenever Nell has found herself lying down long enough, it becomes entirely conceivable for her to live out the rest of her life just like that. Conquered by the furniture’s fatiguing softness. The playful dance of light on the wall above her feet is an appeal to this, to make use of rest. To be horizontal is no defeat. This much is clear. The organs sink into the body like sand into water. When she lies down, she feels her liver, intestines, kidneys, lungs, bladder, heart all assemble in her back, like at the bottom of a cradle. Everything settles down to rest within her. She is clearly separated from inseparable things. In the simple existence that rest offers she needs no occupation. This existence is enough. To lie down is not to give up, but to give in.
Outside the widows there are currant bushes, the perennials that have survived previous owners, the bindweed still tightly knotted. The conscientious watering is not noticeable in the already wet weather. Outside, the horseradish shoot has penetrated the tall grass that surrounds the plot, telling passers-by of a boundary: Here but no further extends the chastisement, the cleansing. If the horseradish shoot wants to embarrass her, it has her permission. It is impossible to keep up with weeds, beloved weeds, weeds that go well with boiled potatoes, weeds that require more strength than zeal to pull up with their roots intact. Inside the windows, the stillness gives her a defense against such grandiose little things as horseradish. As the dust and the occasional tuft of dog hair settle over her, she cannot resist the stillness, as if watching the dust move around the room, slowly descending and tucking her in with the thinnest of blankets, fastening her to the sofa. Here she lies, anchored in the ground like a lichen.
Resting and walking. States that exist in order to absolve each other. The dog’s inexplicable sense of smell finds its way to what she might otherwise miss. The bumblebees in the flowering blueberry bushes, the murky ditchwater filled with tadpoles, the endless swarming of the anthill and the stench of piss, the early imperial crowns. A thought that she has finally gone so far that she goes through something. Like a needle goes through the skin. So she endures, repeats her walks. There are states that cannot be approached without movement. When she has walked longer than she can bear, she can almost taste the new state, catching it with her loose mouth, just as a dog’s firm nose gets fixed on the most strewn of niceties. In her mouth, a taste of metal that cannot be washed down afterwards, even with many glasses of water. She understands this. No one needs to explain the long walks to her: She walks. Her legs do the work for her.
The walks invariably lead down to the sea. The winding coastal roads are only used by boaters checking on their boats or heading to their summer cottages on the islands. Road dust in her mouth and nostrils. The many clearings interspersed with dense spruce patches. The taut curves with their reeds, cattails, everything that unfolds in the ditches as she approaches the water. And by the water, the highwater marks of salt on the rocks. Her stays here are short. They are disproportionate to the time it takes her to get here. The arrival at the sea only punctuates the forward movement of the walk. The turning point, to fleetingly notice the smell of salt. Curiosity is to be satisfied, not fed.
Nell looks past her face in the bedroom mirror. She dwells at length on what is going on in the room behind her. A feigned disinterest in the trappings of her face. The dog moving about in the room. In the window behind her, the fly stuck behind the interior winter windows that have not yet been removed, the small drinking glasses placed to catch the condensation. The scratchiness of the curtain. The lily of the valley stems that have just finished drinking their water in the vase on the desk. If she now looks at herself in the mirror, she sees the trappings floating around in her face as separate parts. She sees the childish mouth that does not like to talk. She then opens it, perhaps as a test. Testing its ability. The voice is younger than one might think. It sounds unused as it takes to tone in the silent room. Is it really being used as a voice should be used? The act of violence, to suddenly speak in an empty room after an entire day of silence. In the misunderstood address, the dog brushes against Nell’s shins so that the soles of her feet briefly leave the plastic mat. She lingers on her nose, the center of her face, but only for a moment. It hurts her, the beautiful nose that nails her face to her head. On a whim, as if someone asked her to, she tries to catch her own gaze in the mirror. But the lazy eye does not meet her. It denies her when she needs her sight the most. The anxious eye, the cross-eye, the one that insists on looking at the bridge of her nose when she wants it to look straight at her.
The early summer days have no shame. They beam without interruption and when Nell goes down to the sea late in the evening, it is still so bright that she can see the swarm of gnats rise and fall over the water. She sees the backs of her outstretched hands directing the scene, the almost silent choreography of the swarm near the surface of the water. It is too bright for her to really be able to think. If she were to take a step closer to the shore, she would see her face in the perfectly smooth water. She refrains, waits. Nell imagines the permissive darkness of autumn evenings, imagines the thoughts then, when at the water’s edge she can anticipate her thoughts, imagines herself continuing to walk, out onto the surface that bears her weight, the coils of perch grass, far out into the waterways, the soft turns of her body embracing the contours of the water. The walk home is always faster than the walk there. The clipped, quick steps. Exhausted, wanting to be done with it all. The walk home, pure disappointment. She goes there for nothing. She goes there to turn her heel. It is not possible to stay by the sea.
When it is time to rest, the body must be so tired that the mind yearns for the place of dreams, a livelier place to be. The sofa is nothing less than a daily chore. Here Nell lets herself loose in a rest more like a lush pasture than a nap. She spends most of her time in the soft copper-toned corner furniture. At rest, she is a sticky flypaper, attracting thoughts that would never emerge in the waking world. Although rest is not for everyone, although it is intended for those who have earned it, Nell allows herself it. You don’t go to rest anyway, you don’t lie down on the couch as if in death. No, the day’s work should burn your thighs. The day’s work must be blown out into a bright handkerchief in the form of soot and dirt and dust. If you are to lie down on the sofa at all, the day should be felt in your body. If you want to lie down at all, you should first have been given a reason to wash your hands. The dirt under your nails, you are to take a good look at the dirt under your nails and its unsightliness. With the nail brush and the strong soap for a good while under the running water. The dirt is the course of life; in the morning the palms are dazzlingly white in the bright sunshine, in the evening the dirt is chalked over the lifelines, over the dead-tired hands. A dirt that justifies everything that is not as it should be, a dirt that clears itself. You rest because you have something to rest from. You don’t begin to rest. You don’t lie down to think. You don’t go to rest to search for exhaustion. Yet that is exactly what Nell does. The walks are just an excuse.
The early morning gusts of wind, the pine trees, the birch trees, the red-washed houses, the ditches of lupines. She makes her way through it so easily that it’s almost shameful. Independence is forgiving; it is all that surrounds the walks. Nell resigns herself to being alone because she has arranged it that way, summoning solitude as one would summon an animal that has wandered too far from its owner. Loneliness is hers, a utopia she must constantly defend. She has never sought it out; it is inscribed within her. Nell knows how it should be handled. She knows that it actually bears another name.
The light green is soothing to the eye. It helps her to look up into the trees, to see the sticky mouse ears of the birch trees as marks of passing time, time that does not stand still. If she could not follow the changes in the trees, she would not be lost immediately, but very slowly, imperceptibly, so that she would not understand it herself but would have to have it explained to her. Nell is haunted by the certainty that if she were not allowed to look at the trees every day, her brain would begin to brush against her like an uncuddled cat and cease to be the steel against which dignity is sharpened. There would be an unwanted softness, a churning inside that would lull her into the belief that if she just stays still enough, her head still, if she just looks at a stagnant point, everything will calm down. The churning inside would tell her that change is a dangerous thing and that she need not bother her little head with all the world’s vicissitudes, just balance it like a thin glass ball on her shoulders. Her gaze would straighten out, she would see straight, in the village they would no longer say that her drifting eye became so because she had been looking up at the trees for as long as anyone can remember.
When mom’s mind began to leave her, tangles started to appear in her hair. They arrived like in the fur of a long-haired cat, or the tufts of fur stuck in the poultry fencing on the fox farms, badly hidden in the forest. The tangles just as badly hidden. The tangles that stubbornly lie on top of her hair. The tangles like comforting palms over her head. After each visit to the home, Nell feels more and more upset. The sight of the tangles burns into her retina as if they want something from her. Why are they still there every time she comes back? Why doesn’t anyone deal with them? One evening, as she pulls the brush deeply through the dog’s fur, she realizes that this is on her: the combing. When a mother loses her mind, her daughter has to comb her hair, just as the mother combed her daughter’s hair before the child’s hand had mastered the movement, before the child had learned to do without that tenderness.
At night, Nell dreams that she gently places a crown of thorns on the newly combed hair. Mom pricks her forehead, Nell can see it very clearly, but no blood comes out. She could swear she saw the thorns quickly pierce the skin, but the forehead, it remains blank and pale as endpaper.
Nell and mom in front of the mirror with the comb. They look into each other’s eyes in the mirror as she slowly pulls the comb through the lengths. Mom has long hair, much longer than what suits her. Miserably straight hair. A greasy scalp that Nell constantly fantasizes about dabbing with blotting paper. They meet each other’s eyes in the mirror and talk. Combing presupposes speech. And they speak to themselves, not directly to each other. It suddenly becomes easy for Nell to talk to her fading mother. A non-reactive conversation where no one listens to what the other has to say. Talking out loud to herself, to someone else. The real conversation: not looking away. It is stressful to pull the wide-toothed comb through her hair; should it get stuck in the clumps, there is no way to anticipate the reaction. Every time Nell tugs too hard, the tenderness of mom’s hair makes itself known. Mom yelps or says something careless, something uttered beyond her control.
As long as Nell gets the messy hair out of her mother’s eyes, she can walk. She can walk to the turning point with her body upright. She can turn her back on the time-consuming activity of making mom presentable. To stand there in front of the mirror and try to hold mom’s gaze in the mirror is to say no to something else. It is to deny herself. Interchangeable with not thinking.
During one of the combings, Nell is overcome by the desire to cut off mom’s bangs. Mom sits on the chair in front of her, completely unprotected, as she puts the scissors to the long strands. They fall down like adders in her lap, gathering in mom’s upturned palms. Nell remembers the first time she got a haircut and the unspeakable sorrow of seeing herself as a stranger. Those ratty baby bangs. Cutting so that the whole forehead is exposed. Nell cuts mom’s bangs this way so she doesn’t have to recognize her as much now that she is no longer the same.
The choreography of that laughter. Their bodies really resound. They look at each other and can’t stop laughing. Her bangs look so funny. When mom laughs, she sounds like a choked baby seagull. She squeaks and hisses, and her little tongue grows longer than usual, vispipuuro-pink and fluttering in her open mouth. It erupts from her like that, like hunger and abandonment. The laughter waits as if for bait, something to be dropped into the gaping mouth and sate it. But Nell has nothing to feed her mother’s laughter. She therefore laughs in response. She actually sees the humor in the situation. Mom, who is otherwise unable to focus on anything, is now looking into her eyes with an excitement bordering on ecstasy. Nell’s laughter is not fleeting like mom’s. It is a loosened field, loosened earth, yes, a heavy mass that has been aerated and made porous. She really laughs, it digs into her like shovels. And so it goes on: They repay each other with their sounds. When mom roars, Nell responds with the same guttural honking. They howl and now mom is actually crying with joy. Her shriveled face a wet raspberry.
The sounds gradually become more and more similar, merging across the scrubbed surfaces of the room. For a few seconds their laughter is indistinguishable. They laugh in exactly the same way and Nell is forced to look away with an immediacy that turns her mother’s laughter into a cough. Nell monitors the cough as one can only monitor a very old person’s cough, fearing that the raspberry-pink color will spread across her face and very quickly down to the neckline of her loose-fitting sweater, that the old person has swallowed wrong. But mom did not swallow wrong, she recovers from the coughing fit like a young woman, picks up where she left off, her stomach muscles now so contracted that she has to double up over the table. Nell pats her thighs. In that moment, Nell does not long for privacy. Instead, she is fully immersed in the communion with her mother. She wants to remain in this laughter.
Ellips förlag, 2021, 120 pages.
Foreign rights: Ellips förlag.
We are grateful to Ellips förlag for permission to publish this translated extract.
Matilda Södergran is a poet, translator and literary critic. Born in Korsnäs, Finnish Ostrobothnia, she is currently based in Östergötland, Sweden. Her latest poetry collection, Överlevorna ('The Remnants'), was awarded Sveriges Radio's Poetry Prize 2019. Nell is her seventh book.
Bradley Harmon is a writer, translator, and scholar of Scandinavian and German literature, philosophy, and film. Recent translations include works by Monika Fagerholm, Katarina Frostenson, Roskva Koritzinsky, Birgitta Trotzig, and Christa Wolf. He’s been an ALTA Emerging Translator fellow, invited to the Översättargruvan Translator Workshop, and is a 2023-2024 ASF Fellow to Sweden as he writes his PhD dissertation on German, Swedish and Danish poetry.