Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Were Sjöwall and Wahlöö the last romantics?

Why not? Their observations about urban decay wrought by technology are less polemical than wistful (or, at most, gloomy), whether about factory-produced bread putting an end to local bakeries or, as in The Fire Engine That Disappeared, about cars and highways:
"It was not exactly a scintillating panorama that lay spread out before his eyes. A dismal industrial area and a motorway, of which all lanes leading into the city centre were crammed with vehicles jerking along at a snail's pace. Martin Beck loathed cars."
How could such a pair of Marxists be so philosophically Romantic? (That unimpeachable source, Wikipedia, quotes a definition of Romanticism as "In part ... a revolt against aristocratic social and political norms of the Age of Enlightenment and a reaction against the scientific rationalization of nature.")

And then it hit me that Marx flourished smack in the heyday of High Romanticism in music. His most productive period coincided almost perfectly with Wagner's, for example, and they died the same year. (That year, 1883, was a watershed for artists and thinkers who made our view of modern life. Édouard Manet died then, too.)

So now I can relate Marx to Romanticism in one direction and to Sjöwall and Wahlöö in another. Who says crime writing is not educational?

© Peter Rozovsky 2011

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25 Comments:

Blogger Susan said...

You know, I just said that Erlendur was a romantic too. I've just ordered a Sjowall and Wahloo book at the library because you've been writing about them so much! I may have read one long ago, I can't remember much so I've decided to try one and see if I like them. I'll be back to compare! lol What do you think, Peter? And can you think of any other detectives that might be 'romantic' in this sense, where they are against the political norms and "the scientific rationalization of nature"? I like that phrase.

January 25, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I don't know if I'd have thought of associating Sjowall and Wahloo with Romanticism if not for their politics. Erlendur certainly bemoans the sprawl of Reykjavik, which I think reflects Arlandur's own thoughts about Iceland's postwar change from a largely rural society. (He has spoken about this at conferences.) That may make Erlendur a distant relative of the Romantics.

I an reading the Martin Beck novels in order, so expect at least occasional posts about them for a few more months.

I hope you enjoy your reading. One ought to remember, though, that Sjowall and Wahloo's seamless integration of their politics into their stories is just one reason to enjoy reading them. They really were early practitioners of any number of features that other crime writers took up.

January 26, 2011  
Blogger Dave Riley said...

The most 'romantic' of Marxists is the english writer, designer and urbanologist William Morris. In fact a good part of what Marx and engels tried t to do was make a romanticised utopianism, scientific such as in Socialism: Utopian and Scientific. So the yearning was a very real impetus for the theory.

In Sjowall and Wahloo the yearning is about, in my estimation, what could have been if the capitalists were not in charge -- that we could have choices that we were not allowed to make.

But you are wrong to rule on Marx as advocating the scientific rationalization of nature. The story is very different as one of Marx's key themes is a rich ecology -- an ecology embraced by latter biologist such as Stephen Jay Gould expounded most recently by John Bellamy Foster.

In Sjowall and Wahloo I read rich allusions to that sort of outlook. The crude Industrial interpretation of Marxism was very much a Stalinist rendering as much as it was a conscious polemic against the philosophy

FYI: The term 'ecology' was invented by a Marxist biologist..

January 26, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

"In Sjowall and Wahloo the yearning is about, in my estimation, what could have been if the capitalists were not in charge -- that we could have choices that we were not allowed to make."

That's one reason I'm reading the series in order. I'm curious to see whether that yearning becomes stronger -- or whether the politics becomes more explicit -- as the series goes on.

I wasn't suggesting that Marx advocated a scientific rationalization of nature. In fact, I was associating him with Romanticism, which opposed such a rationalization.

At this early stage in my reading of Sjowall and Wahloo, I find it plausible that you would see allusions to such an outlook. The bakeries example was one such. I'll be interested to see whether the yearning for what one has lost turns into a call to save what one might still win.

This puts me in mind of something Michel Foucault said some time quite after 1968. He said Marxism became a kind of screen upon which students and others projected all sorts of dreams and aspirations to which it was not suited. He made this remark in an interview; he did not expound on it at length. Still, I'll take it a salutary injunction toward caution and sobriety of thought.

January 26, 2011  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

"Martin Beck loathed cars."

Wonder what he'd make of the recent international auto manufacturers' bailout?

Might he not loathe cars because, at their most fundamental level, they are the machine of the individual rather than the collective?

January 26, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Nah, it's the pollution.

January 26, 2011  
Anonymous I.J.Parker said...

All of this is very insightful. I hadn't thought about it, but it is quite true. Of course it raises the question about whether romanticism is truly dead. I had always thought that the American political system still rests squarely on the romantic (and untrue) notion that all men are by nature good and therefore will always choose wisely when casting votes for their leaders.
As for Marxism: many authors look for likely villains and find them among the wealthy and powerful. A poor author's resentment of the wealthy is reasonable, but too often they overlook the fact that violent crimes are rarely committed by the millionaires in or midst.

January 26, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I'm no philosopher, but I can't believe that anything anyone has ever done or thought is truly dead. Some vestige lurks somewhere in a library and in our mental landscape. Hmm, what politcal system is not romantic? Anything based on fear and raw power, and we have had those throughout history. But thinkers have built theories on such ideas, which seems oddly Romantic, doesn't it, since it implies hope that one day enlightened subject and rulers will achieve that utopia of living in perfect power and fear.

And was it Walter Lippmann who said that the people get the government they deserve?

As for authors who look for villains among the rich, perhaps Sjowall and Wahloo might call such a tactic too easy. The villain, they might have said -- as much as this as been watered down into cliche -- is the system.

The rich may not commit many violent crimes, but an easy answer is that they don't have to. The French crime writer Dominque Manotti manages to build fine crime stories that draw plausible connections between the powerful and the street-level people who do the dirty work for them (without ever making angels of the latter). Of course, she's also an economic historian, so she may have a better -- that is, decidedly un-Romantic -- understanding than most of how things really work.

January 26, 2011  
Anonymous I.J.Parker said...

Absolutely agree with Walter Lippman. As for villains, I prefer the psychological approach. The sociological one never quite fits reality.

As you know I think S&W superb, but then I don't ponder their political stance.

January 26, 2011  
Anonymous kathy d. said...

What about Camillieri and Montalbano? He's a leftist, and he does have a bit of romanticism about him.

A lot of Marxists are romantics, optimists and are full of hope. Many even like great literature, including the French romantics, great music and art.

The image of some doctrinaire, hard-core minds is really out-dated. Yes, understanding of society and the material world is based on science, but there is a lot of romanticism in all of it.

As far as writing about villains, poorer crooks go to jail. The Wall Street, banker and hedge fund managers whose misdeeds are in the millions and hundreds of millions get off the hook usually--except for Bernie Madoff.

And what about the mortgage holders and dealers who swindled so many people--the elderly, poorer people, and more--? Many in the health insurance companies who deny coverage for serious illnesses when the clients have paid for premiums all along, who find an excuse not to pay?

One could go on and on about this. Not enough is written about them. Some of the top financial wheeler-dealers do things that affect the economy, not only a few people, and often without restraint or liability.

January 26, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

As you know I think S&W superb, but then I don't ponder their political stance.

That's part of what makes them so good. They tell their stories without getting polemical. Their politics, they might say, only very rarely seems a stance, a position adopted for the occasion.

January 26, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

The image of some doctrinaire, hard-core minds is really out-dated. Yes, understanding of society and the material world is based on science, but there is a lot of romanticism in all of it.

Kathy: Yep, it's politics that gives Marxism a bad name, at least in America. How many self-proclaimed Marxists that we knew from college would have noted for the humor, optimisim and hope?

I once suggested that writing about corporate, financial and high-political crime mught be difficult both because authors may lack the knoledge to write about those worlds and because the consequences of such crimes are so far removed from the acts that cause them. Dominique Manotti bridges the gap.

January 26, 2011  
Blogger pattinase (abbott) said...

Just found a copy of THE TERRORISTS, which I don't think I have ever read.

January 26, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

And I just got The Abominable Man and The Locked Room.

January 26, 2011  
Anonymous kathy d. said...

I can see that I really do have to buy Manotti's "Affairs of State," as my library doesn't have it.

As for the "humor, optimism and hope" point, I knew many and still do, positive, cheerful people who love satire, good jokes, crossword puzzles, classic French novels and more. No negative, demoralized curmudgeons among them.

And now my dilemma is which Sjowall and Wahloo to get. Have been waiting for "Roseanna," from the library. May have to buy it or another one at this point, can't wait.

"The Locked-Room" is a wild ride full of characters, plot lines, aconvoluted, but interesting story with some zany criminals.

January 27, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I haven't read Affairs of State, though I still think I may have it lying around. I bought a copy at a convention, then gave it to one of my fellow attendees because I thought I had a copy already. Now I'm less sure.

You might also try Manotti's Rough Trade or Lorraine Connection, either of which will illustrate well what impressed me about her writing. The latter novel won the British Crime Writers' Association's International Dagger Award for translated crime fiction a few years ago.

Some people would be shocked to see the word zany associated with Swedish crime writing. Having read a fair amount of Sjowall and Wahloo recently, though, I would not be.

January 27, 2011  
Anonymous kathy d. said...

Okay, the library may have other books by Manotti.

Also, aforementioned friends from college whom I still know like Sjowall and Wahloo, Camilleri and Simenon. (We do laugh about Montalbano's antics and comments.)

Yes, zany, when you read "The Locked Room," you'll see that Sjowall and Wahloo's collective sense of humor was in play.

January 27, 2011  
Anonymous kathy d. said...

Interestingly, await the commentary on "The Locked Room," the crooks, the bank heist, the locked-up, the women, red herrings.

January 27, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I hope I don't keep you waiting too long. I'm reading the series in order, so I have another couple of books to go. I also like to read something other than Sjöwall and Wahlöö occasionally, as good as they are.

January 27, 2011  
Anonymous kathy d. said...

Yes, a mystery reader does have to vary the authors. I know this or I'd rush out and get all of Camilleri's books and read them one after another, but am actually trying to vary the reading list, having just read a good Gianrico Carofiglio legal thriller, and now a L.R. Wright (Canadian) book, just published by Felony & Mayhem Press.

January 27, 2011  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

"...it's politics that gives Marxism a bad name, at least in America. How many self-proclaimed Marxists that we knew from college would have noted for the humor, optimism and hope?"

In our house it's not only Marxist politics but Marxist theory and its domination of historical, art historical, and literary studies in academia that have given it a bad name. Today our fellow students of the 1960s-80s, those "self-proclaimed Marxists we knew from college," are themselves the university profs. Marxist theory in academia is doctrinaire and oppressive, even corrosive.

Although Romanticism and economics have common sources in late 18th-early 19th century thought, the rise of industrial capitalism saw the two movements go their separate ways. The admirable but failed art + socialist ventures of William Morris is an illustration of this disconnection. To suggest there is a link between late modern/contemporary Marxists and their dreams of an idealized Marxian-centered world as the "best of all possible worlds" with the vision of such Romantics as William Morris, Johann Wolfgang van Goethe, Percy Bysshe Shelley, J.M.W Turner, and Frédéric Chopin seems a bit disingenuous.

January 27, 2011  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

I want to retract that mean-spirited "disingenuous" and replace it with a more appropriate word, considering the subject under discussion -- "sentimental". Mea culpa.

January 27, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I'd refrain from making much of any such link between Sjowall and Wahloo and Marxist theory because their novels, the first five, at least, are blessedly free of such theory.

Such tenuous links as I speculate idly about between them and the Romantics obtain only insofar as all may have lamented the state of their own worlds and possibly -- possibly -- dreamed of a better one. I don't take into consideration any plans they may have had for putting theor dreams into practice.

January 27, 2011  
Anonymous kathy d. said...

Sjowall and Wahloo tell good stories. They do make comments on what's going on in Sweden, especially developments with the state and the police, hardly anything shockingly politically radical.

Their books are pretty devoid of their politics. Anyway, we read them because they're good! The stories are clever, the characters are interesting, and readers like Martin Beck.

Interplay between the police inspectors is better than in many books, and each one has a unique, and sometimes eccentric personality. All of it makes for good reading.

January 28, 2011  
Anonymous Dave Riley said...

To suggest there is a link between late modern/contemporary Marxists and their dreams of an idealized Marxian-centered world as the "best of all possible worlds" with the vision of such Romantics as William Morris, Johann Wolfgang van Goethe, Percy Bysshe Shelley, J.M.W Turner, and Frédéric Chopin seems a bit disingenuous.

Each to their own I guess but in your list Morris was a Marxist activist who worked with Frederick Engels establishing socialist parties in England and Shelley's The Masque of Anarchy is a clarion call for solidarity in the context of the Chartist revolt.

There is really no contradiction between the two platforms -- Marxist and Romantic -- except in terms of tactics. If you aspire to something, how on earth do you get there? By dreams? By writing about it? By creating fantasy options?..or by being politically active?

In crime fiction the Marxists and Marxist background oeuvre is like a plague -- : Andrea Camilleri, Manuel Vázquez Montalbán, Sjowall and Wahloo , Stieg Larsson,Henning Mankell, et al ...It is a knee jerk response that seeks to delineate culture and ideology by deploying political labels as markers of quality and worth.

It's an ideological game. It is not a quality control game.

I'll defend Marxism anyday as a means to understand the world but it is not a ruling on how you should write literature. ..or read it. (Although Marxist based studies of literature are almost pandemic and often very good.)

I love James Ellroy regardless of his fascist background and his crass conservatism...and Marx's favorite author was the bourgeois indulgent Honore Balzac.

There's no 'moralism' at stake. Culture rules. Humanity rules.We are all writing and reading together.

It is not worth fearing any literature ... nor me either. If I am a leftist thru and thru ( I can send out my CV as well credentialling of my Marxist background) why is it supposedly contradictory that I may have (Capital R)omanic yearnings?

I read Shelly and Goethe and listen to Mozart ; and I seek out Turner and embrace Hesse...in fact one of my favorite Marxist writers -- Peter Weiss -- was best friends to Herman Hesse while being ruled by the literature of Franz Kafka!

And the main French Surrealists -- Id Romantics -- signed up with Marxism.

You can be anti Marx as much as you prefer but lets' not create straw man arguments for the sake of bogeyfying.

February 03, 2011  

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