The Details

Mar 13, 2024
Dimitris Passas

Review. “Emotionally nuanced and formally innovative, Ia Genberg's beautiful novel The Details manages the remarkable feat of painting a whole picture of a single life, solely via the lives of the people who have touched it. ---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------- Serious readers, after decades of filling their shelves, often notice that “some books stay in your bones long after their titles and details have slipped from memory.” The unnamed narrator of Ia Genberg’s brief and penetrating new novel, “The Details,” is just such a reader, haunted by the nearly forgotten minutiae of the novels — and people — that have changed her life. (NYT) Fiction-induced nostalgia is a primary concern in the Swedish author’s fifth book and her first to be translated into English. Each of this novel’s four chapters centers on a pivotal, lost relationship in the narrator’s life. Little is known about our heroine’s present, aside from a high fever that leads her impulsively toward a copy of Paul Auster’s “The New York Trilogy” inscribed to her from Johanna, her ex-girlfriend from 25 years ago. After Johanna, she ruminates on her rapid and fragile friendship with her former housemate, Niki, who lives “as if the full cast of Greek gods and all the emotions and states they represented had been crammed in behind her eyelids.” Their shared apartment is saturated with literature and the shared belief that “the ownership of books was distinct from other types of ownership, more like a loan that might run out or be transferred onto someone else at the drop of a hat.” In the end, a nearly destroyed copy of Birgitta Trotzig’s “The Marsh King’s Daughter” is all that’s left of their ruined friendship. " Niki was an adventure, an endless all-genre drama where nothing was static and nothing could be predicted. " The nonlinear structure of “The Details” means the narrator’s children flicker in the periphery as toddlers, then babies, then teenagers. She de-emphasizes her own parenthood as a way to recover some past part of herself that exists outside of being a mother, lover or friend. Books are so crucial to her inquiry because they cannot define the reader the way a child, husband or girlfriend does. The one character she connects to without the proxy of literature is her fleeting lover Alejandro, a Chilean-German dancer who plays only a secondary role in his namesake chapter. This is, paradoxically, a sign of his importance in the narrator’s life: Their brief affair was burdened with “a gravity so demanding that it scared me,” she says; “our relationship was the length of a breath and yet he stayed with me, as if there was something in me that bent around him, a new paradigm for all my future verbs.” Alejandro has left more than memories in her life, as we find out in an elegant plot reveal, but it’s the unfinished narrative between them that leaves the narrator hungry and enthralled, like a novel missing its final scene. “As far as the dead are concerned, chronology has no import and all that matters are the details,” Genberg writes in the last chapter, and though this isn’t the kind of novel given to spoilers, there are elements here best left for a reader to discover firsthand. ---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------- In her translator’s note, Kira Josefsson mentions Karl Ove Knausgaard, drawing a parallel between Knausgaard’s prodigious output and Genberg’s concision from which I deduced that her novella is to some extent autobiographical. As Josefsson observes, the narrator’s life is revealed to us refracted through her relationships with others rather than documenting her every action, a style which I find very much more appealing. Being young, in love, en thrall, allows the narrator to overlook the implications of their single difference. It doesn’t occur to her that a single difference contains a myriad of differences, each themselves containing a multitude. (THE MONTHLY) Niki is her close friend before Johanna, the opposite in every way. If Johanna is innately direct, Niki is a natural liar, a charming enthusiast clad in adjectives: all Niki’s friends are “brilliant super women”, the “world’s loveliest people”, with “the kindness of bodhisattvas”, at least until they upset Niki and become little rats. The chaotic Niki tried to kill herself when she was a teenager and now cuts herself to manage anxiety: “a vent for the soul in the skin”. What writing! But Niki touches the narrator’s heart. “Niki was an adventure, an endless all-genre drama where nothing was static and nothing could be predicted.” Birgitte is a dive into the past. Elusive, hopeful Birgitte who, at the age of 23 had a full-blown psychotic break. It was the day her daughter, the narrator, was born. From then, until she dies, anxiety directed her life. The analysis of anxiety, everyday anxiety, is both incisive and poetic. ----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------- Memories of books read long ago and relationships that ended return to haunt the narrator of this prize-winning Swedish novel when she is laid low with a fever. Often, they’re inextricably linked: a copy of Paul Auster’s The New York Trilogy, for instance, is inscribed to her girlfriend, while a waterlogged copy of Birgitta Trotzig’s The Marsh King’s Daughter is all that remains of her friendship with former housemate Niki. The nonlinear narrative renders the protagonist both vivid and obscure – the perfect conduit for this compelling, uncannily precise meditation on transience. -------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

. The book in my hand is The New York Trilogy. Auster: hermetic but nimble, both simple and twisted, at once paranoid and crystalline, and with an open sky between every word. Some books stay in your bones long after their titles and details have slipped from memory. To read with a fever is a lottery; the contents of the text will either dissolve or penetrate deep into the cracks accidentally opened by an out-of-control temperature. 100.4, a day of soporific dissolution, the walls thin between the world and me. At 100.4 degrees there’s nothing
in me that whispers “forward” anymore. And isn’t that command the truest essence of this world, that which
makes everything tick? Forward, forward We installed ourselves in each other in a manner that only happens with people who are certain of a long life together, as if we’d received a guarantee that only death would tear us apart. A melancholic eye for detail though, that’s spot on.” The next insight came on the heels of the first and was just as simple, as crystalline: all my writing efforts were a vain attempt to reach for something that was forever lost. That’s all there is to the self, or the so-called “self”: traces of the people we rub up against.

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