When I came upon The Wandering Pine, by P. O. Enquist with the sub title Life as a Novel I was of course immediately drawn to it. It seems to be the genre of the modern age and one can think of many different iterations of it. The Knausgaard books, the Gerald Murnane books, Gaute Heivoll’s Before I Burn, which we reviewed here, are all variations on the theme of the writer’s life.
Enquist is an important contemporary writer in Sweden, a political journalist, playwright, and novelist. The book is written in the third person but seems to follow the path of Enquist’s youth and career fairly closely. It unrolls its story chronologically; not for Enquist the back and forward weaving of Knausgaard or Per Petterson. We begin with his birth and then his childhood and the intensity of his relationship with his widowed mother, he bearing the name of his dead brother Per-Ola, the ‘ghost boy.’ He is a good-natured boy and not inclined to be bad or mean. As he says,
He is good. This seems to pose a problem for his mother.
She wants him to acknowledge his sins to her. Every Saturday he has to confess a sin he has committed during the week. This is a problem for him because, as he says,
The problem is that he, who is always so good, never has any faults to confess. He is almost clinically sin-free.
In his desperation the boy is driven to confess a false sin, which leads to all kinds of complications.
His mother, a primary school teacher and a strong voice in her community, is hard to please. Until he leaves home to go to Uppsala to further his education he is subject to her ethics. When she hears that her son and his high school graduating class are planning to end their school years with a dance, she soon puts a stop to it. He is confused about religion and expounds on the mingling of the Moravian heresy with their brand of fundamental Calvinism, bringing with it a somewhat lurid sexual overtone. But he remains in Mother’s thrall until he leaves Hjoggböle:
Apart from him she has no-one, except the Saviour.
The first one hundred and twenty pages about his life in Hjoggböle play the familiar strains about life in remote snowy parts of the world – going to school in snowshoes, running through the forest, learning the ways of the animals and people in a small community – and are delightful in the way these individual takes on life are. But after he leaves his life there for the wider world Enquist launches into a chronicle of his works and achievements for the next many years. The detail is not so engaging to one who is not familiar with the political events of the last forty years in Sweden, so I did pass over it quickly.
He marries, he has two children, he has success upon success. He is a novelist, a journalist with political involvement, a playwright. Then suddenly everything falls apart. He has married a second wife and left his children, he is a successful playwright when it happens. He can no longer write. He drinks more and more, and quite soon becomes lost in alcoholism. And here is where my interest in the story rekindled as he relates the massive struggle he goes through to get out of the clutches of alcohol.
Many of us have qualms about having a drink too many, starting too early in the day, drinking on too many days of the week, but very few people reach the desperate depths of alcoholism that Enquist and his fellow sufferers do. He is prescribed Antabuse but regards it as a challenge to conquer the drug and go on drinking.
By seven in the evening he has won the fight against the Danish tablet, a difficult and dangerous feat, but the redness in his face has faded, his heart rate is down to between 80 and 85, his strength of character has been victorious, and he can start drinking wine again.
But it is a Pyrrhic victory, as the very next line shows:
He is sinking.
And so begin his various ‘interventions’. His wife never gives up the struggle to find him a cure and somehow persuades him to try treatment regimes. At that time rehabilitation hospitals in Sweden were very few and followed the Minnesota method, a combination of AA and tough love and humiliation. This treatment only provokes Enquist to resistance. He often carries the other residents with him. He is a provocateur and usually ends up getting thrown out, if he hasn’t run away.
He is in battle, but against the wrong adversary. From his diary,
Ants crawling all over my body. All the others are in groups, but I’m not allowed. They assume I’m in withdrawal. All that’s left for me is ant nests and loneliness. Out with drink. Hungarians. Social disaster.
He flees what he sees are attempts to destroy him. But two months later he still can’t write and in another few months he starts drinking again.
It is only on the third attempt that he finally drags himself free. What’s different about this time? Just a short interchange at the first meeting with the doctor, where she asks him if some small particular suits him. He likes that, he feels he is not being bulldozed, and at last manages to complete the course. If it were not for his wife and children’s concern though, he is quite clear he would have been happy to drink until oblivion.
P.O. Enquist has not had alcohol for over fifteen years now. Why did he fall into its grip? He has a memory of his grandmother on her deathbed warning him not to take to alcohol like Paapa, his long dead father. Was it that?
This book is a fascinating and honest exploration of a man’s life, with its achievements and failings. It is the catalogue of the career of a writer, but is at its most engaging when it reads like a novel.
P.O. Enquist, The Wandering Pine (MacLehose Press, tr. Deborah Bragan-Turner, 2015).