Nineteenth century Sweden

Yesterday I finished reading my second Swedish novel, the first in an autobiographical trilogy by Moa Martinson depicting life in Sweden a hundred years ago. The book, which is called Mor gifter sig, or in English, My Mother Gets Married, is apparently her best known novel. It was a much heavier task than my first novel, which I mentioned a few days ago in this blog. The language was much more antiquated and the vocabulary was quite different to contemporary Swedish. At times I felt like I understood very little, but I plodded on to the end and was glad that I made the effort.

The book describes life for the working classes in Sweden at the end of the nineteenth century, seen through the eyes of an eight year old girl. Mia was born as the result of a brief liaison between a “gentleman” and her mother, who is from the working classes. Mia’s real father could not marry someone from such a background, and so paid her some money, a one off payment to care for Mia, and then disappeared forever from Mia and her mother’s life. The money, of course, was soon gone, and Mia’s mother went back to working in whatever job she could find.

The book begins when mother gets married some years later to a handsome but irresponsible man called Albert, and the story covers the first year of Mia’s life with this intermittent stepfather who who provides money from time to time and unpredictably. He has already fathered some other children and his liking for other women continues after his marriage. Mia can never quite fathom what her mother sees in Albert, but life goes on.

The book presents a grim picture of working class Sweden before social security existed and when the poor were really poor, living from day to day, often with no food in the house and no shoes on their feet. Drunkenness was a popular form of recreation among the men, though not across the board. Mia describes a long series of miserable individuals who she encounters, but there are certain people who shine out like gems in the midst of, and in spite of, the misery. A significant period of the book she describes as the “time of degradation” and yet not all her memories are bad ones, despite the dirt, the cold, the poverty, the violence, the drunkenness, the sickness, the cockroaches and the lice. There are individuals who bring joy into her life with their kindness, their simple beauty, their joy and their generosity.

The final effect of the book? Illuminating. It creates an interesting backdrop to the very modern, clean, comfortable and secure environment that is the Sweden of today. It explains why almost one third of the Swedish population emigrated between the 1840s and the 1920s, mostly to North America. It says a lot about the effects of poverty on human beings. It raises questions about why such poverty had to exist in a country which was unaffected by war, and how Sweden managed to pull itself out of the pit in which it found itself in that period of history.

A hard book to read, especially in Swedish, but worth it…

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