Decline and Fall: “Eventide” by Therese Bohman, translated from Swedish by Marlaine Delargy

Eventide by Therese Bohman

Reviewed by Gabi Reigh

Eventide is Therese Bohman’s third novel and just as the heroines of Drowned (2012) and The Other Woman (2016), Karolina, the novel’s protagonist, is a disenchanted observer of the workings of Swedish society, rejecting its norms through her self-destructive emotional entanglements and exposing its hypocrisy about sexual politics. In an interview with Michelle Johnson for World Literature Today, Bohman comments that Karolina “is desperate for a change in her life, and for a new era to begin.” This comment encapsulates the message of Eventide, suggested also by its title – it seems a novel about things coming to an end, be they relationships, illusions, political systems, with a glimmer of hope that, after this decline and fall, new ways of life may begin.

From the beginning of the novel we are alerted to the fact that an important stage of Karolina’s life has ended as she has terminated a long-term romantic relationship. The fact that she has committed the “daring” step of becoming a single woman in her 40s separates Karolina from the rest of her peers, who are either threatened by her actions or pity her. Her own thoughts about the separation are also confused. As time goes on, she becomes aware of her paradoxical feelings about her former relationship as, although it made her feel trapped, it also provided her with a sense of normality and gave her life structure. That ambivalence is excellently expressed as she considers how “it had taken a few months for the oppressive feeling of being a couple to turn into the oppressive feeling of loneliness” (41). Her relationship, with its compulsory dinner plans and social engagements, provided her with a “framework on which to hang her life” (41).

As Bohman notes in the interview, Karolina is “desperate for change,” yet this change does not initially materialize into fulfillment. Her new apartment, her “room of one’s own,” feels empty and tragic to her, and, rather than relishing her new independent life, she tries to fill it with transient sexual encounters. Moreover, her romantic fantasies bely the idea that she is a self-sufficient woman. Watching King Kong, the image of the small, helpless woman captured by the monster appeals to her. She describes “the sense of being utterly at the mercy of another individual and at the same time safe and secure” as the pinnacle of “absolute intimacy” (26). Through these descriptions of Karolina’s contradictory feelings about relationships, we begin to understand the tension within her life as that between the desire for space and autonomy and the loneliness that makes her hunger for a romantic connection. Bohman asserts that the complexity of Karolina’s inner world adds to the novel’s realism: “I wanted her to be independent but also sensitive—strong and weak at the same time—and not always very nice or sympathetic, not a role model and not a victim.”

But Eventide is not only a novel about the trials of being a single woman in modern society. Through Karolina’s focalization, we begin to see how the liberal identity of Swedish society is in a state of crisis. Bohman exposes how this society’s dreams of gender equality have fallen short of their promise. The university where Karolina works as an art history professor acts as a microcosm of the patriarchal society she criticizes. A study in 2014 found that despite the government’s attempts to increase female visibility in positions of power, 75% of university professors in Sweden were male. Although Karolina is a respected professor in her own right, she is continually undermined by male colleagues such as Lennart Ohlson.

Ironically, it is men like Ohlson who appear to profit the most from academia’s feminist agenda, as he uses the system to his advantage to make his reputation through writing about female artists and then gains financially from his collection of their art works. However, his feminist pose is exposed as shallow and hypocritical through his contemptuous comments, as he states that “the history of art is a compost heap, particularly when it comes to women” (13). Karolina herself reflects on the tragic absence of significant female artists from the art history she loves, assenting that “history was full of dead ends, artists who had never fulfilled their true potential, especially women, for such crass reasons as children and family life” (9). Unlike those women, she has put her professional life first and this has filled her with meaning, as before her career she had felt “homeless,” “an empty vessel” (10). Yet her growing realization of the cynical exploits of people like Ohlson and even her own PhD student make her feel disillusioned and estranged from the cause she had devoted her life to.

Nevertheless, Karolina’s intellectual life is so central to her consciousness that her thoughts about her academic research illuminate her understanding of her personal circumstances. She becomes fascinated by her inquiry into Soviet experiments of crossbreeding between humans and apes and in particular with a woman, ignored by history, who volunteered to be part of this experiment and be impregnated with ape sperm. In her musings, Karolina ennobles and humanizes this woman whom she calls Gavrika, empathizing with her need to devote herself to a cause greater than herself. It is this absence of a meaningful cause that she can still believe in that is at the root of Karolina’s existential angst. No longer able to devote herself to a romantic relationship or truly believe in her academic enterprise, Karolina also sees signs of decline and incertitude in social and political life.

Again, Karolina turns to her academic interests to explain her view of life in contemporary Sweden. Her favorite artistic period is Mannerism, “a magnificent and extravagant final effort in an age when there was no longer any point in thinking about restraint or moderation” (17). She notes parallels between this movement and the state of Swedish society, where the front pages of newspapers are filled with “a convulsive, screaming hysteria, possibly a consequence of the feeling of losing ground to the populist criticism of immigration, and on the opposing side the identity politics” (18). Just as Mannerism is considered by many a point of decline after the grandeur of the Renaissance, she sees the world around her also entering a period of degeneration. She pessimistically observes how next to “the most desolate and inhospitable areas” (27) of inner Stockholm the affluent middle classes are sipping coffees in the square, living life “without really getting involved too much” (28), creating a semblance of meaning by emulating the lifestyle “peddled by weekend supplements and interior design magazines” (27), distracting themselves from their society’s problems through the “hysterical refurbishment” (5) of their homes. In the same interview, Bohman describes Stockholm as “a rather cold and hostile city” where she could never settle for long and in the novel she comments on Karolina’s feelings of alienation from the inhabitants of the city who are concerned merely with  “maintaining a series of facades.”

Marlaine Delargy, who is the translator of Bohman’s two other novels as well, skillfully conveys Karolina’s wry, melancholy narrative voice. The lyrical descriptions of settings and emotional states retain their power in this translation. Delargy’s rendering of dialogue retains the naturalism of the original and none of the nuances of cynical humor are lost. The translation sustains the novel’s vigor and urgency, all the more remarkable as the narrative is not so much driven by plot, but by the exploration of the heroine’s psychological state. Eventide is compelling and timely, engaging with candor and passion questions about gender politics and social change in contemporary Sweden.

Bohman, Therese. EventideTr. Marlaine Delargy. Other Press, 2018.

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