Swedish Reflections Ed. Judith Black & Jim Potts Arcadia £11.99, 277pp £11.99 (plus £2.25 p&p per order) from 0870 8001122

To Sean French, Anglo-Swedish usually relations mean slaughter more than sympathy

Friday 27 September 2013 04:34

One of this book's editors, Judith Black, of the Swedish Institute in Stockholm, also edited an earlier work called Sweden-Britain: a thousand years of friendship. Yeah, right. So deep was the friendship that in 1018 the British paid the Scandinavians more than £80,000 not to kill them. My mother is Swedish, my English grandmother's family came from Cambridgeshire, and I'm writing this review in Suffolk. If I'd been here in 1009 I could have walked up the road and witnessed one of my ancestors, in the service of the Viking chief, Svein Forkbeard, burning the land on which another of my ancestors would have been a very lowly peasant.

There may well have been any number of cultural exchanges organised by the Swedish Institute, and this new anthology commemorates them with some dutiful poems by writers-in-residence. But at its enjoyable best, Swedish Reflections demonstrates that not all that much has changed. When Laurence Olivier brought Ingmar Bergman to the National Theatre in 1970 to direct Maggie Smith in Hedda Gabler, he didn't exactly rape and pillage. In fact, in his autobiography he wrote movingly and perceptively about Olivier's theatrical genius. But the experience was traumatic for Bergman because - and there is only one possible word for it - of its sheer Englishness. Which, from a Swedish perspective, means: chaotic, drunken, dirty. Bergman stayed in Olivier's flat and was appalled by the grubby sofas, the torn wallpaper, the lip-prints on the glasses.

The most lyrical account of Sweden in the book is Bergman's conclusion to his English stay: "I left London, which I had hated with every fibre in my body. It was a light, May evening in Stockholm. I stood down by the North Bridge looking at the fishermen in their boats and their green scoop nets. A brass band was playing in Kungsträdgården. I had never seen such beautiful women. The air was clear and easy to breathe, the cherry blossom fragrance and an astringent chill rose from the rushing water."

Anybody who has experienced the long golden Swedish summer evening will know what he means. I once caught a train in Gothenburg and, as we travelled north, the glowing evening turned into bright morning with no night in between. It was magical and intoxicating. No wonder Swedish people go a bit mad with it in the summer.

But what you get in summer, you pay for in winter. Mary Wollstonecraft wrote sniffily in 1795 that "the severity of the long Swedish winter tends to render the people sluggish". Wollstonecraft was frankly appalled by Sweden. She detected a voluptuousness in the nature - all those rocks and forests and lakes - which she thought partly responsible for "the total want of chastity in the lower class of women". Expressed in a rather different way, 150 years later all this would be part of Sweden's attraction.

Even at its closest, the relationship between Britain and Sweden has been about difference. Much of the best writing here, by Malcolm Bradbury, Michael Frayn, Evelyn Waugh, is about the comedy of mutual misunderstanding. The greatest encounter is when Shaw calls on Strindberg in Stockholm in 1908. Strindberg called his actors back from holiday to stage a special performance of Miss Julie for an audience of one. A beautiful story, but as Michael Holroyd writes here, it was a meeting of opposites: "Shaw's tragedy in the need to suppress such things; Strindberg's in the need to re-enact them".

The relationship with Sweden is more like a troubled love affair than friendship. The attractions are obvious: the lakes, the blondes, the space, the clear light that lasts all summer. There is darkness as well, endless forests, with trolls in them. And, in October and November, it just rains and rains.

'Land of the Living' is the new novel by 'Nicci French'

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

View comments