Johnny Cash’ song Hurt holds a special place in my heart. The opening verse never fails to send shivers down my spine:
As great as the lyrics are, it’s Johnny’s voice that really delivers the punch. The man sounds like he’s been through hell and back.
I thought of that the other day as I turned the last page of Lina Wolff’s book Djävulsgreppet.
I’ve been a keen reader of Wolff ever since her book De Polyglota Älskarna – The Polyglot Lovers – was awarded the August prize in 2016. The following novel, Köttets tid – Carnality – established her in my mind as one of the most interesting contemporary Swedish writers.
I find she has an absolutely unique voice and I love how she tells twisted stories that come at you like curve-balls. Her hallucinatory imagination often reminds me of Roberto Bolaño, whose work, incidentally, Wolff has eminently translated.
If her previous stories have been carnivalesque and rowdy with a hint of darkness, the darkness is now what’s overwhelmingly dominant. Wolff herself has said that writing it had been like riding a luge-sled into compact blackness. That’s a pretty good description of what reading it feels like, too.
The story is about a young Swedish woman who’s leaving everything behind to get tangled up with a much older and extremely violent Italian man. For a brief moment, they’re happy together as they walk the streets of Florens, enjoying people’s stares; she’s so beautiful, he’s such an ugly brute, what on earth is going on here!?
The initial excitement quickly fades as the woman we only know by her nickname Minnie is drawn into an increasingly isolated existence where she’s getting horribly abused.
Things turn from bad to worse, and then worse again when you think it can’t get any more wretched.
Djävulsgreppet is a veritable descent into hell and I read it in almost one straight sitting just to get it over with. It’s probably the most revolting piece of storytelling I’ve come across since reluctantly reading Austrian master of pain Elfriede Jelinek.
That doesn’t mean it isn’t great literature however. On the contrary, Wolff might have written her best work yet.
What really got to me was the haunting feeling that just under the surface of fiction lay a lived experience. It was like listening to Cash singing; the intuition that it’s simply not possible to write like this unless you’ve lived through the horrors that you’re depicting.
And then the morning after I finish her book, I see Wolff’s face in the paper. There’s an interview on account of her being nominated to yet another prestigious prize. In it she now chose to go public with how the story was indeed “closer to her own life than any of her previous work”. She says how it had felt impossibly hard to release this monstrous and intimately revealing book into the public sphere, but also how healing it had been to get such a tremendously warm reception. By critics, but more importantly by scores of women who’s written to tell how much it’s meant for them to see their own misery mirrored so artfully.
She says how she’s tried to rid herself of her trauma by countless but ultimately futile hours of therapy. How in the end it was only through the artistic liberty of literary composition that she could reach the true core of her painful experience.
During the reading, I was repeatedly reminded of an image that has been lodged in my mind since childhood, when someone told me a terrifying story about horses. According to the story, horses have this instinct that is supposed to protect them from prairie fires. If a prairie is on fire, the only way for a horse to survive is to run towards the flames and through them. Apparently this instinctual knowledge is passed down genetically, which means that if a barn catches fire and the horses aren’t stopped, they’ll gallop into it and be destroyed.
It makes sense that Wolff’s book spurs the memory of that story, because I think its biggest merit is how vividly it conveys the deeply irrational force within a victim’s own psyche that attracts her to the perpetrator and pulls her back to him should she ever try to leave.
I was appalled by every page of Djävulsgreppet, but I’m profoundly grateful that Wolff took the pain to write it. The world is a richer place for it.