Performing Passion

Lena Andersson, trans. Saskia Vogel, Acts of Infidelity

Picador, 208pp, £14.99, ISBN 9781509856497

reviewed by Thea Hawlin

‘There are neither words nor syntax for falling in love,’ Lena Andersson observes, ‘however many attempts have been made to parade it through the alphabet.’ Acts of Infidelity might be said to be such a parade. In her long-anticipated sequel to Wilful Disregard (2013), Andersson gives us a book about the dangers of loving the attached. An act between two people in an affair is always more than the sum of its apparent parts, every smile, every kiss, every action forever accompanied by a third figure, the ever-present shadow of the absent spouse.

Andersson’s protagonist is the playwright Ester Nilsson, who meets the married actor Olaf Sten at a reading for her latest play, Threesome, prophetically about an unhappily married man who has an affair. When she first announces her feelings to him, Olaf teases Ester: ‘You’ve fallen in love with a character of your own creation.’ His playful jibes are layered with pained irony. He calls her Pygmalion, the sculptor who fell in love with his own work, and the upset of course is that this is precisely what we witness Ester do throughout the novel. Ester, like many women in love, fashions the character of Olaf in line with her desires. She makes excuses for him; she ignores certain behaviours; even more frustratingly, she recognises her own self-deception and continues with the ruse anyway.

Her female companions act as a chorus, as she becomes ‘loose-lipped . . . careless with herself and very one-sided’ and in her suffering quickly isolates herself from those around her. The image of Pygmalion lingers as she declares that ‘true passion, fire in the blood couldn’t be communicated to those who were cast in stone,’ bracketing her life around a man she has designed. Joan Didion famously stated that we tell ourselves stories in order to live. We can’t help but map out our lives in linear frameworks, to declare destiny or fate as intervening forces that steer our lives to create the shapes they do. For Ester, attempting to untangle herself from her own determinations proves to be a harder task than imagined. As Andersson reveals, it’s easier to say than do.

What Andersson so skilfully captures, and what is rendered so clearly that at times it becomes acerbic in Saskia Vogel’s compelling translation from Swedish, is that the complexities of our emotional lives are complexities that should be allowed space in which to be examined properly. Andersson is at heart a philosopher of love, it seems, and like her protagonist Ester a critic of emotion. Everything holds within it the capacity to be examined, to be analysed, to be turned over. The almost tragically comic Greek chorus of girlfriends, with voices that pull and push Ester one way or another, are but that – a chorus, a continuous background noise, waves in the sea that can compel a boat in one direction or another but ultimately fall flat when the boat has its own idea of where its going, when a motor gets turned on or a rudder steered to course.

Ester’s life has a clear rudder at work. Her engine works at full steam, steering the book towards the object of her affection; she circles again and again in an unending loop around her lover with Sisyphean dedication. At times her repetitive to-ing and fro-ing and changes of heart and mind come to grate at a reader’s patience. Can she not see? Can she not understand? But of course she can. Andersson’s study is fascinating precisely because it dares to allow a protagonist to have self-awareness. Ester knowingly enters again and again into the same habits. It feels clichéd to call love an addiction, but some clichés rise from the bedrocks of truth. By the book’s end she becomes ‘biochemically dependent on one individual’s presence in her life’ – a dependency that manifests physically, the pleasure her lover brings countered by pain as physically acute as an asthma attack. When he calls, ‘the pain was gone, her air passages opened,’ the anxiety she endures during his silences is forgotten, and so the cycle of abuse continues. All we can do is helplessly witness as this twinned pain and pleasure seesaw Ester through the minutes, days and months. ‘People,’ Anderson notes dryly, ‘have their patterns.’

Yet like most loves, Ester’s is worn down by one relentless factor: time. Time dissolves passion; it dissolves delusion; it unpins hope. Dependency, in turn, inevitably loses its original appeal and turns sore. Ester’s resilience is astounding as it is painful: ‘As always in the space between their encounters, the heart forgot all the negatives that the mind still recalled.’ Her seemingly unending ability to regenerate her emotions becomes almost admirable. Rather than dismissing her returns to the man she loves as foolish, Andersson shows us the strange compulsions that underpin such damaging behaviour. Ester’s determination ‘that progress was inevitable’ is a driving force so strong it erases any doubt: ‘Hope was all she wanted.’ Andersson reminds us again and again that ‘the largely positive can leave negative stains and vice versa.’ Even moments of damaging repetition hold the potential for restorative power and joy. She captures the tremendous highs of love – ‘bliss makes people light’ – but with those highs the somewhat inevitable crashing lows.

When a friend suggests that both husband and wife are using Ester to spice up their marriage (‘a rival only makes him more interesting’), denial comes easily: ‘using each other like that is a crime against a person’s humanity,’ Ester declares dramatically. When other friends, tired of the repetitive strains of Ester’s obsession, dare to question the strength of her affection, she finds ‘this reliably recurring thought about a lover’s capacity for self-deception tiresome, not to mention tainted by its own simplicity.’

Yet whatever her haughty condescension, Ester does come to see the incongruous state of her emotions and actions: ‘You say one thing but do another, and actions are more important than words. You say you don’t want to be a mistress, and yet you keep agreeing to be one.’ She comes to realise that her lover is ‘a sort of automaton, the same thoughts, actions and language where one thing led to the next in a loop in which he was stuck,’ that her tragedy stems from the simple fact that ‘she for some reason was stuck with him. Why did she love an automaton? Why didn’t it help that she knew he was an automaton? Why did nothing help?’

By the end of the novel Ester is finally able to shatter the illusion both lovers have spun, and the consequences are predictably painful. Yet finishing the book, one hardly recognises the crescendo at all. What lingers instead is a strange disillusionment, a wary fear of this capacity for self-delusion that governs so many aspects of our lives.

When we are first introduced to Ester, Andersson seems to warn us, informing us how Ester had ‘striven for psychological realism’ in her latest play, yet ‘critics would call it absurdist.’ Perspective matters. Our own perspective matters. As the book’s title suggests, the acts of infidelity are just that, an act, a word that carries an array of connotations: a deliberate, purposeful move, a deception, a pretence, a fiction. Ester studies her lover but rarely studies herself. She ‘read and read, interpreted and interpreted, making eternal deductions, but didn’t come any closer to certainty.’ For all her efforts, she remains continually in the dark. Andersson at times allows us a glimpse into the world of Olaf, where a similar form of deception is at play. She notes how he ‘remade [Ester] in his thoughts,’ attaching her to the versions of truth that best suit him, casting her as an ‘empress mistress’ character who accommodates all his desires and easily fits into his life without substantial change. In this way we witness his equal delusion, his cruelty, which rises from sheer petulance. He allows her to play a role in his life, but on no account will he allow her to stray from the role he wishes her to play.

At one point, musing on the difference between events and intervals in life, Ester notes how ‘it’s the stream of consciousness in between that constitutes life, and that’s where cultures are practised. Life happens in the intervals.’ ‘Is what we’re doing an interval or an event?’ Olaf asks provocatively. Love for Ester is the amalgamation of both, the perfect unity, the staying force that is mundane and everyday, yet also special and significant. The truth, as both discover, is that we define our own love just as we define our own lives. For Andersson, it’s up to us if we love in events or intervals. It’s up to us how we act out our loves and our lives. Our own subjectivity, Andersson seems to say, our own delusions, carry us with them.