Book Horny

You know the feeling: that tickling, bubbling exhilaration that starts somewhere right underneath your bellybutton and spreads like a warm current to all limbs. Your cheeks turn slightly red perhaps, or your neck, or your ears, and your eyes get glassy and twinkle in the light. It makes you dizzy, a little out of sorts and slightly disabled because how on earth are you going to help that customer find something “a bit less philosophical; just something light for the beach you know” when you feel downright randy and want nothing other than to stroke the back of that gorgeous, leather bound book with gold-rimmed leaves all day?

Alright, I may have lost you there in that last sentence. When I say “book horny” I don’t mean “horny by the book” as in the definition of horny, nor do I mean the Fifty Shades of Grey soft porn kind of horny – I mean horny for books. Actually, horny by the book might be a better way of putting it, since it is a pun on the literal meaning versus the semantic meaning, and I adore puns nearly as much as I adore books. The Oxford English Dictionary defines horny as “sexually excited; lecherous”, which is precisely what a beautiful-looking novel will do to me. I am horny by the book (i.e. dictionary) and horny by the book (i.e. the one I am pressing passionately to my chest right now). It doesn’t happen every time I’m in a bookshop (which is at least those two afternoons each week when I work in one), but every so often there is a new book in stock which will cause me to whinny or purr with a yearning and a pleasure that is not exactly by-the-book public behaviour.

You know the saying “don’t judge a book by its cover”? Well, that’s exactly what my over-the-top bookish brain does. The cover of books can make me go positively crazy for various reasons. Sometimes the vileness of the illustration makes me want to rip it off, put it in the toilet and flush thoroughly because it’s not worthy of the treasure it guards. Like that horrid cover of The Casual Vacancy by Rowling – it looks like a warning sign in an amusement park. Or the cover for the Norwegian edition of The Ultimate Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Ghastly!

Other times the putrid covers represent perfectly well what’s inside, like those absolutely gruesome novels for fifty plus-women with covers depicting ladies who gaze longingly out in the distance; their cheeks flushed with deep emotion and their surroundings blurry. The mere sight of those makes me feel like I’m fifty and menopausal. There are the covers that are so dull they make me sleepy, and covers that give me the feeling of being reprimanded by a teacher with horn-rimmed glasses upon a pointy nose and an underbite, and if I don’t like the text inside it’s because I’m an imbecile who doesn’t know how to take in the subtleties of such a complex work of art. Susan Sontag’s On Photography and Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace are examples of such fear-inspiring books. I haven’t yet dared to do more than read on their backs, and I carefully put them back afterwards and am still trying very hard to ignore the nasty glances they send me every time I walk past their shelves.

But then there are the covers that will turn my entire day around. It may be the gorgeously formatted title, the burgundy leather back or the artful illustration; it could be the fact that it has a lovely silk bookmark sticking out or that the pages are trimmed with gold. If a book is beautifully bound I will nearly always get somewhat affected, although it does help, of course, if I know that those seductive, silkily shining covers hold between them a little piece of the world’s best literature. A dazzling new edition of The Hobbit or the complete works of Jane Austen, for instance, will be more arousing to me because I already have a well-established relationship with their contents.

Sometimes the book’s physical beauty will fool me and its insides will be a disappointment. Kind of like a promising date that turns into an unpleasant one-night stand. Other times I have already been married to the book for years and so it feels safe and natural to be standing in a bookshop with the luxury edition of A Game of Thrones in my arms and slowly slide the book in and out of its slip. I don’t care about the odd glances I get when I stand behind the counter, moaning over The Lord of The Rings Anniversary Edition or drooling over a particularly pretty Poe-collection. I tell myself that customers like my enthusiasm and that their averted eyes and uncertain smiles merely reflect their lack of experience. Because books are sexy.


He hates her as he loves her

I returned yesterday from a study trip to Stockholm, arranged by my University for the students of an in-depth course on Strindberg. August Strindberg is probably the third most celebrated playwright in the world after Ibsen and Shakespeare, and one of the founders of modern drama. The first association a lot of people have when they hear his name, however, is “the man who hated women.”

From the current Norwegian production of “The Dance of Death”

Feminists and other critics have been pointing out Strindberg’s obvious loathing for women for a century now; revealed, they say, in several of his numerous plays. Thus the reception of Strindberg as a mean, mad, morbid male chauvinist has spread to innocent, virgin Strindbergians and polluted their judgement before they have even experienced one of his many productions. And true, in a number of Strindberg’s texts there lurk female characters that would make good friends with Cersei Lannister. In The Father, for instance, the manipulative wife tricks her husband into thinking that he is not the father of his child, and he goes completely bonkers, collapses into a pathetic toddler of a man in a straitjacket (she actually lures him into it), while she smoothly takes over as “head of house”, and the play ends when the poor guy dies from a heart attack. Classic bitch for you.

Though I must say that there are plenty of wonderfully profane hags in George R. R Martin’s epic too, and nobody is accusing him for hating women (yes, I do honestly try to keep my Game of Thrones references at bay). That is, I am sure there are those who do accuse Martin of sexism, but the feminists have been quiet compared to the flame war which Strindberg has gone through. After learning more about the famous Swede’s life I realise that “woman hater”, if that really is what he was, is an all-too narrow tag for Strindberg.

Alright. He looks a little scary

There are many reasons for admiring Gustie (my new nickname for Strindberg), apart from his schizophrenic-oedipal relationships with women (be they fictional or real). He was a painfully prolific artist, and in addition to plays and novels he wrote several articles on everything which concerned him, from literature to politics. He was also a brilliant chemist and he was into alchemy; moreover he painted quite a bit. My favourite is this one:

“Underlandet” (1894)

It is called “The Underworld”. He smeared it together in three hours, apparently. Peanuts. (You can clearly see Strindberg’s hatred for women in his aggressive brush, his obvious disdain for feminine colours and the camouflaged little man with the impressive moustache down in the left corner, who is stepping on a wailing girl’s face while smoking a cigar and waving his huge cane triumphantly.)

He hates her, as he loves her. The adding of a comma to the title would make a world of difference, as it would mean because instead of like like the lack of punctuation invites to. I poached this piece of writing from an analysis of Strindberg’s most famous novel, “The Defence of a Fool”.  The emphasis of the analysis is not on Gustie’s contempt for the opposite sex, but on the great ambivalence by which we must always understand his work. I agree with that. Strindberg’s ambivalence is a key aspect of his abundant writings. However, is that not nearly always the case with emotions – real or fictional? I catch myself frequently saying “must we choose one or the other; can’t it be both, and both of equal value?” This tendency is aggravated by my studying art. In art you cannot take sides – unless you are being polemical – because beauty is subjective. Nevertheless, by saying that we need to interpret this author and that painter through a spyglass in which the lens is oiled with ambivalence, we sort of cause the work of art to disintegrate into a shady void where nothing is wrong and everyone smiles and nods pedagogically at one another.

I’d be tired too if I were August.

My point is this: perhaps it is a tad narrow-minded and unfair to bluntly accuse Strindberg of being a sexist prick with mommy issues, but conversely it is cowardly and downright detrimental to defend him by pointing to the ambivalent nature of his work. I realise that I am being horribly circular. We can’t defend everyone by saying “he’s only human”, but neither can we base our judgement on a one-sided interpretation. So it all comes down to the healthy balance between empathy and acceptance at one end of the scale, and independence and critical thinking at the other. And there I am again, happily twittering in my best Mary Poppins voice that I don’t need to choose one or the other. Strindberg: I hereby name you woman hater for the sake of my own argument.

“Don’t worry about me, for I do not exist anymore.” Allegedly Strindberg’s final words, 1912