Thursday, 23 November 2017

Astrid Lindgren's war diaries: A World Gone Mad

Book review: Astrid Lindgren's war diaries: A World Gone Mad · Lisa Hjalt

One of the books on a reading list I shared in March was A World Gone Mad: The Diaries of Astrid Lindgren, 1939-45, published last autumn in English by Pushkin Press (translated by Sarah Death). Astrid Lindgren was a Swedish author who wrote fantastic books for children. When we lived in the UK it seemed as if people only knew Pippi Longstocking and not the other wonderful characters she created. I still remember moments in primary school when the teacher read Seacrow Island during breaks; one of the books from childhood that I have read countless times and hold dear is The Brothers Lionheart. I doubt children think much about the personal life of an author, they simply forget themselves in the world he or she has created, thus the war diaries showed me a side to the author I knew nothing about: Lindgren as a young mother trying to grasp the horrors of the war, not without the feeling of guilt in a neutral Sweden.

Do Lindgren's war diaries have anything to add to what already has been written about the Second World War? What I found interesting is that she is barely 32 years old when the war breaks out and clearly feels the need to record its progress. She collects press cuttings and writes entries of various lengths in leather-bound journals, a total of seventeen which were found in her home in Dalagatan in Stockholm after her death in 2002 (published in Sweden in 2015). The book only contains the entries, and some illustrations, and it surprised me how thorough she was in her accounts. I thought I was about to read Lindgren's personal thoughts but soon realised that this was a book about the war in layman's terms.
Astrid Lindgren's war diaries: A World Gone Mad · Lisa Hjalt

Lindgren comes straight to the point without overdramatising, although she naturally experiences fear and anger. The first entry is written on the 1st of September 1939 when the Germans invade Poland. With a constant voice she compares the peaceful life in wartime Sweden - where there was no conflict, only the effects of rationing - to the horror elsewhere in Europe, especially in the neighbouring countries Finland and Norway. When she starts working for the Swedish Intelligence Agency, in its postal control division reading overseas mail, the war gets closer; she mentions this one 'profoundly sad Jewish letter' from the Continent to a friend in Sweden.

By Christmas 1944 the reader realises that something serious has taken place, she has experienced a breakdown which many who don't know her story could interpret as a consequence of the war and her work: 'I've had a hell of a six months this second half of 1944 and the ground beneath me has been shaken to its very foundation; I'm disconsolate, down, disappointed, often melancholy - but I'm not really unhappy.' She never writes in the diary what exactly is the cause but those who have read about her life know that there were troubles in her marriage. Her husband had met someone else and had asked for a divorce, which he then didn't go through with.

The diaries predate Lindgren's fiction writing but on its pages we witness the birth of an author; during the war she is writing her first children's books: 'I'm the happiest when I write.' However, the book is not a diary of an author, as I have heard people say, that is, hers is not a diary with entries about fiction writing and style. Her first book, about a girl called Britt-Mari, was published in 1944 and for that one she received an award. In March 1944, when her daughter is bedridden with measles, Lindgren is working on the first book about Pippi Longstocking and on the book's last pages there is an illustration of the rejection letter she received after submitting the manuscript in April 1944. A year later she talks about Pippi again, about rewriting - 'to see if I can make anything of that bad child.' We all know how that turned out.

I can recommend the book, which is very readable and, as stated above, showed me a new side to my favourite author from childhood. My quibbles have to do with the book not containing more illustrations. There are photos of Lindgren and her family but I would have liked to see more photos of the diary entries and press cuttings, particularly those relating to some key battles that Lindgren writes about in her entries. It would have helped to connect more visually with her experience of the war.

A World Gone Mad: The Diaries of Astrid Lindgren, 1939-45
By Astrid Lindgren
Pushkin Press
Hardcover, 240 pages, illustrated