Swedish author Kristina Sandberg and the stories about Maj
When we meet at one of Stockholm’s best preserved old-fashioned coffee bars, the 21st century suddenly feels very far away and the atmosphere is more reminiscent of the 1950s. You won’t find any smoothies or wraps here. Instead, it’s petits fours and pastries and traditional filter coffee. It is an appropriate venue to meet Swedish author Kristina Sandberg because it’s a place Maj, the central character in her novels, could very well have spent time, if her 1950s housewife duties had permitted her to take an outing to Stockholm from the small town of Örnsköldsvik.
Kristina Sandberg has written six books in total, but it is her trilogy about Maj, a very ordinary mid-20th century Swedish housewife, that has been her big literary breakthrough. However, it was not until the third in the series, Liv till varje pris (“Life at any cost”), that the books gained the attention many thought they deserved. Maybe because a series of thick books describing a woman’s life and household duties in such a detailed and intimate way did not really suit the trend-sensitive Swedish literary scene. A male critic expressed surprise, saying he never thought he would enjoy reading a book about baking, cleaning, and cooking. Housewives have long been a neglected subject in Swedish literature.
“I wanted to write about a woman who stayed at home and depict social developments through her eyes. Allow her to take her place and explain everything she does. All the work these women did – the cleaning, the cooking, the mending – has disappeared without a trace. The demands on them were tremendous, and it was so important everything was perfect. These mothers were heroic,” says Sandberg, who first had the idea of writing the books when she was expecting her first child and chatting with her grandmother.
“I happened to say ‘but you must have been pregnant when you got married?’, and was met by a total wall of silence. I suddenly realized that she had borne this shame all her life. We never said a word about it again.”
Sandberg stresses, however, that Maj is a fictional character, not her grandmother. Maj leaves her rural village to work in a coffee bar in the larger town of Örnsköldsvik. There, she meets a slightly older man, Tomas, falls pregnant and they marry in haste, despite hardly knowing one other. The marriage is a step up in class for Maj, as Tomas comes from “better” circumstances.
We then follow Maj’s life as a housewife and mother from the 1930s to the 1960s. Life is not always simple – Tomas struggles with alcohol and has financial worries, while Maj wrestles with dark thoughts as she slaves away in the home. She is never touched by the women’s liberation movement that started to emerge during that time, instead remaining in the kitchen, taking pride in being an accomplished homemaker. She cleans, she cooks, she bakes, she does the laundry, and she raises children. Everything is described in great detail. When you read the books, you can almost smell the freshly baked cakes and scouring powder.
‘Sometimes you look at your audience and wonder ‘will any younger people come after them?’ It is so difficult to know’
Sandberg explains that she had to do a great deal of research for the books. She was determined to describe everything as accurately as possible.
“I read research dating from the time, as well as contemporary research. One of my most important sources was Rut Berggren, a housemaid who wrote a very lively diary for many years. I wanted to discover what life was really like. One reader -I met yesterday said that even washing whites took a whole week in those days. There was no scope for women to do anything other than look after the home. The few women who took another course in life usually did not have children.”
The MAJ trilogy
Att föda ett barn (“Giving birth”), Norstedts, 2010
Sörja för de sina (“Care for one’s own”), Norstedts, 2012
Liv till varje pris (“Life at any cost”) Norstedts, 2014
Maj is a fictional character who has aroused strong feelings, and most readers develop a very personal relationship with her. This is not just because Sandberg lets us become very intimate with her, sharing her innermost thoughts – it is also because she has dared to make Maj a not altogether likable person. The need to “do the right thing” makes Maj something of a narrow- minded and prejudiced person at times. However, Sandberg is always on the side of her fictional character.
“She gets people’s backs up. At times like that, I feel like putting my arms around Maj and defending her. One reader asked ‘did Maj really not like anyone, was she that self-confident?’ But these ugly thoughts are simply her defense mechanism. These invisible women whose lives revolved around caring, don’t they have a right to be bitter?”
Sandberg adds that many people have also said that they recognize themselves in the way Maj thinks and feel a sense of relief that they are not alone in having such thoughts. Other people worry about Maj. Is she ever going to be happy in her life?
Since part three, Liv till varje pris, won the prestigious August Prize last fall, Sandberg has barely had a moment to herself. Readers in every part of Sweden want to hear her talk about the books, and to share stories of their own mothers and grandmothers. But does Maj really only belong to a forgotten era? How many of the demands that almost drag Maj under are relevant today, in an age where there is supposed to be more equality? That is a question Sandberg has been thinking about a lot.
“Some of them are probably still with us. For instance, I can feel enormously embarrassed when the house looks messy. When there are things that are expected of us, in environments where we want to fit in, these demands bubble up. Particularly when you have children, there is so much fear of doing things wrong. Maj is critical of others to protect her own life, and I think that is something that remains with us even today.”
The light is fading outside, our coffee cups are empty, the petits fours have been eaten. Before we go our separate ways, we talk a bit about the place of literature in general.
“Sometimes you look at your audience and wonder ‘will any younger people come after them?’ It is so difficult to know.”
Sandberg dares to be cautiously optimistic.
“People will still want stories. I recently read somewhere that reading is starting to go up again among young people. I see this in my own daughters and their classmates. It is so incredibly important to read. And what is so unique about reading is that it is an experience you can be all on your own with, which is completely different than, say, with films.”
Text: Annina Rabe
Published: April 4, 2017