This interview with the wonderful writer Klas Ostergren appeared in The Irish Examiner back in October.
‘In Sweden, a writer needs to have a sense of humour,’ Klas Östergren smiles, pausing for effect before taking a sip from a pint of continental lager. Now in his mid-50s, the avuncular novelist has been a household name in his homeland since the 1970s but still he cannot compete with Sweden’s most famous export – ABBA. ‘After one reading a girl asked me to sign her book Benny Andersson,’ he laughs. ‘I explained that I’m not Ben Andersson but it didn’t matter – “It’s him I like,” she said. That’s what it’s like there.’
Thankfully Östergren is one writer who refuses to take himself too seriously. It could be the brown linen suit and overcoat that make him look like a pre-digital incarnation of Doctor Who or the bright eyes that coruscate behind his coke bottle glasses, but the amiable Swede carries a definite air of insouciant mischief. As we wait to be served in an upmarket bar in Edinburgh’s West End he recalls downing 38 beers to win a drinking contest in Amsterdam. ‘They were only little beers, and I was a much younger man,’ he remarks, running his hands through his corkscrew hair.
Ever since the publication of his debut novel, Attila, at the tender age of 20, Östergren has been something of a Swedish literary phenomenon. Five years later, in 1980, came Gentlemen, a stylish celebration of post-World War II-era Stockholm that cemented his reputation as a comic and insightful social critic. Since then he has written countless novels and screenplays and translated everything from Catcher in the Rye to Baudelaire into Swedish. In spite of his popularity at home, Östergren’s work was unavailable in English until recent translations of first Gentlemen and now The Hurricane Party finally brought him to the attention of the Anglophone literati.
A tale of urban dystopia set far in the future, The Hurricane Party is based on the Norse legend of the eagle that dared to defy Loki, the most sinister and menacing of the gods. The novel is the latest in the Canongate ‘Myths’ series, which has already seen authors including Margaret Atwood, Michael Faber and Alexander McCall Smith put a contemporary spin on age-old fables. Östergren was flattered to be considered among such exalted company but, he says, had reservations about his contribution: ‘I had to find my own heart and my own angle on the saga of Loki. It took me a year before I began writing the story.’
The protagonist of the Hurricane Party is Hanck Orn, a repairer and trader of ‘obsolete’ machines like typewriters and telescopes, whose world is turned upside when two members of mysterious ruling Clan call to tell him that his son, Toby, is dead. Hanck’s search for the truth, which puts him on a collision course with Loki, provides the novel’s narrative drive.
Despite its setting and subject matter, the book, Östergren explains carefully, is based directly on personal experience. ‘It is really a story about me and one of my sons who was born with very serious health problems. For the first three years of his life we thought was going to die. I barely slept, I didn’t eat, I lost weight.’ The novelist’s concern for his child, who is now fully recovered, was such that the panic attacks that plagued him since his own childhood abated. ‘It was as if I was cleaned by fire,’ he says. ‘This book is a way of approaching and understanding that whole experience.’
Having grown up and spent much of his adult life in Stockholm, Östergren now lives with his wife of 17 years and their three children on a farm near the seaside town of Kivik in southern Sweden ‘My wife is the green fingered one, the weeds are my business,’ he replies when I ask about his agrarian talents.
He spends his days writing, his evenings given over to the farm and the family home he is in the process of building: ‘I think TS Eliot’s life was quite bohemian compared to me’. It might be ‘a boring life to describe’ but after years immersed in the hothouse of Stockholm’s arts scene the writer seems genuinely happy to be out of the city, and its temptations. ‘I do not have a bad character, but I had friends who had bad characters,’ he says cryptically of the years during and after his first marriage, to well known Swedish actress Pernilla Walgren, which ended in divorce in 1989.
Writing always came naturally to Östergren, but he admits that the artistic process is not as smooth as it once was. ‘I find it harder to write because you become more of a critic. You become aware of the complexity of writing. When I started I probably understood only 10% of the complexity.’
Nowadays he thinks more about his readers, self-critically wondering ‘Am I the right guy to occupy you? Should you read something else?’ Such candour is typical Klas Östergren. ‘Perhaps it’s not fine art but I don’t give a shit for that,’ he says after listing Graham Greene, William Faulkner and John le Carré among his literary heroes. He does admit, however, that TS Eliot holds a special place in his affections: ‘He’s the only writer I read and reread’. Later he admits to being unable, or unwilling, to use a computer. The Swede has worked on the same typewriter since 1964, though even that is starting to grate. ‘Sometimes, when you’re on the final draft of something, you think the noise of the keys clicking is going to drive you mad.’
The life of a Swedish writer has its trials and tribulations but if anything Östergren is warming to the task: ‘I used to say give me any other job and I’ll take it but now I’m not so sure.’ While rustic living seems to suit his artistic temperament, it is difficult to imagine the author ever getting too comfortable. ‘I’m a little more anarchist that I appear if you scratch the surface,’ he smiles before polishing off his drink. If only the same could be said of Benny Andersson.
The Hurricane Party is out now, published by Canongate, priced £12.99