Sara Stridsberg’s “Darling River”

by Åshild Lappegård Lahn

  • Author: Sara Stridsberg
  • Paperback: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Achehoug & Co (September 2011)
  • Language: Bokmål
  • Translator: Monica Aasprong
  • ISBN: 9788203214523

Despite the English title of her third book, Swedish Sara Stridsberg’s most recent novel isn’t available in English (at least to my knowledge), but it has finally been translated into Norwegian. Stridsberg is brilliant in telling «the other» story by basing her stories on characters or people that are already familiar to us. Her last book, Drömfakulteten (“The Dream Faculty”), is perhaps one of the best books I’ve ever read. It’s loosely based on the life of Valerie Solanas, perhaps best known as the one who shot Andy Warhol, but she was also an un-apologetic feminist who wrote the SCUM (“Society for Cutting Up Men”) Manifesto.

In a sense, Stridsberg uses the same technique of basing her stories on familiar characters in Darling River. More than one of the three main characters resemble Nabokov’s Lolita, and the link is made explicit in the book’s subtitle: Dolores variations. Dolores is no longer with her step-father. Pregnant, she drives off with the child’s supposed father, Richard, dreaming of the innocence and purity of a white, snow-clad Alaska. Another Lolita is Lo, either sedated by her father who is driving through the burning woods at night, or meeting one of her many “darlings” by the river. We also meet an unknown mother who has left her husband and child, and a female monkey in Paris, which a scientist tries to teach how to draw. The four stories are told through fragments, with many shifts in time and perspective, but in more than one sense the stories are linked together, both thematically and through explicit references.

Lolita as depicted in Stanley Kubrick's movie

One of the most visible links to Nabokov’s Lolita is the presence of the male gaze, either from some kind of father figure, a lover or a master. But the shift in perspective from “Humbert” to “Lolita” reveals her dependence on that gaze. Her need to be objectified and appreciated becomes visible in sentences like “He could be anyone, but now he’s hers.” When Lo grows sick, for instance, her greatest fear is that her “darlings” will stop seeing her. The story about the monkey is the only one that is seen solely from the man’s perspective, but it nonetheless complements the other stories in depicting the captured female, the monkey’s great black eyes reflecting the scientist and her cage.

All the women seem to have a lack of direction in common, or a lack of destination. As Stridsberg herself said during an interview at Oslo Bokfestival, we have gotten used to seeing and reading about the individualistic woman, the woman in control of herself, and in a way it is painful to be confronted with her opposite. Stridberg’s work is often seen as feminist, and that gets complicated when her characters suddenly are passive, unwilling to take charge of their own lives. You are triggered to ask to what extent the male gaze turned them that way, and to what extent they let themselves turn that way.

Stridsberg’s language is at once poetic and repulsive, dream-like and ugly. There is a focus on the body, and the aging Lo’s increasing weight, blisters and pimples are described in detail. There is little left of the Lolita-icon, the young innocent and alluring beauty, in Stridsberg’s characters. However, they still seem to cling to that role, not wanting to grow up or to grow out of their childrens’ clothes. They never were children, yet they never really grow up, either. Showing us the other side of the male gaze and lust, Stridsberg vividly paint the decay of these women, and their seemingly meaningless and stagnant lives. Her Dolores-es are and are not Nabokov’s Lolita: they are grown-up children, hideous and lonely and human.

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Interested? You can buy the book here.

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