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An existential hedge

A Swedish novel about the ordinary confusions of infatuation

Simon Willis | July/August 2015

TITLE  Wilful Disregard
AUTHOR  Lena Andersson

The wilful disregard of this novel’s title comes from an artist named Hugo Rask, a figure possessed of seductive intellect and romantic evasiveness. Ester Nilsson, the protagonist and a writer of strict self-discipline, gets ensnared by the first when she is asked to deliver a lecture about him, and enraged by the second when his momentary reciprocation flips into indifference. The arc of the book follows her from appreciative critic to fluttering schoolgirl, as her harmonious, if rather pinched, life comes undone. At one point she runs away from her home in Sweden to Paris, where she stays in a dismal hotel room by the Gare du Nord with dusty corners and plastic wrapping on the mattress.

The result could have been a Mills & Boon story scripted by Hannah Arendt, but it is saved by Andersson’s dry wit and sharp insight. She’s good on the psychology of Rask’s dishonesty as an escape from Ester’s “catalogue of rights and programme of reforms”. And she nails the “battle between insight and hope” that sums up infatuation.

If she sees an intellectual pretension, she pricks it. Rask takes trips to other parts of Sweden, and Ester accuses him of maintaining several distant relationships to avoid having a single close one. She sees it as a “sort of existential hedging of bets”. He replies, deflatingly, “I like it on the train.” At the start of the novel, Ester sees herself as a clear-eyed truth-teller, only to fall prey to ordinary confusions. As Andersson writes, “Definitive answers are easier to deal with than diffuse ones.” ~ Simon Willis

Picador, June 4th