Conversation / 18 February 2019

I Do Not Believe in Labels

An Interview with Steve Sem-Sandberg

Photo by Mirela Jašić.

Steve Sem-Sandberg is one of the most acclaimed Swedish and European novelists of our time. He published 14 volumes of fiction, essays and novels. He began his career as a science-fiction novelist but became known as an author dealing with the subjects of Nazism and the Holocaust. His novels have been translated into every major European language. He received numerous awards. His latest novel will be published in March 2019 with Faber.

Vladimir Arsenić: Why Nazism and its crimes? It is obvious that your main novelistic interest lies in the Second World War (to name just a few of your novels such as The Emperor of LiesThe Chosen OnesThe Tempest). Do you, by writing about Nazism, write about the world today?

Steve Sem-Sandberg: No, I don´t see Nazism as a metaphor, and I do not write my novels as allegories for today´s world. What interests me (in the case of this specific period of time, as well as in general) is the extreme distance between the oppressor and the oppressed, between those who wield power and those who are victimised. Also, the moral fall-out when people are caught up on either side of this divide. For example, when Chaim Rumkowski, in my novel The Emperor of Lies, tries to save the Jewish community in Łódź by ‘giving up some Jews’, the weakest, the ones least capable of work, or when the nurse, Anna Katschenka, in The Chosen Ones justifies giving lethal medication to children in her care by arguing that it eases their suffering. In general, I´m not much interested in abstract themes (historical or otherwise) but rather how people react or interact when put under pressure or faced with moral choices. For example, Anna Katschenka in The Chosen Onessees herself not as a perpetrator, but as a victim herself, needlessly suffering from having to do all this dirty work and then (as an added burden) being penalised for it.

VA: It seems that the main interest in your novels are the characters. The Emperor of Liesis built around the character of Chaim Rumkovski, The Chosen Onesaround Adrian Ziegler and Anna Katschenka, The Tempestaround Andreas, as if they are the anchor and the story is built around them. It seems that only after you have found the right character you could tell your story. How hard is the quest for the main character(s)? 


SSS: Actually, what comes to me first is seldom the character(s), but usually the place(s), the settings for the books. These places often tend to be isolated - in The Emperor of Liesa ghetto, in The Chosen Onesa psychiatric hospital, in my latest novel The Tempestan island. My characters evolve very much from these places. I believe that an acute sense of isolation or even incarceration, a feeling of being locked up, imprisoned or excluded, either by society as such or by your own perceptions of society, permeates all my writing. 


VA: Your two critically-acclaimed novels, The Emperorof Liesand The Chosen Ones,are based on very thorough research and are considered as docu-fiction. Is this genre the only way to write about the past? To which half the author should be more faithful: The document or the fiction? 


SSS: I do not believe in the label docu-fiction, or any label you can put on fiction, for that matter. I believe that fiction is inclusive in its own right. It should be judged not by what kind of material, documentary or not, it uses, but by the intensity of its narrative urge and the density or complexities of feeling that it is able to evoke in the reader. That said, of course I do spend a lot of time doing research for my novels, but I tend to think of this research more as an integral part of the writing process in itself, not as dull legwork, something you have to do in order to connect ‘fiction’ to ‘fact’. I do believe that the dichotomy between fact and fiction that applies to novel-writing is a false one. You have to be true to what you write. It is your own novel which creates the rules whereby it should be judged, not the outer fact it might or might not refer to.


VA: It is obvious that you are interested in bleak topics. How hard is it to stay faithful to literature when you are dealing with the abuse of children, for instance? To put it another way, how hard is to stay focused on the aesthetics of the story, and keep oneself far from pathos? 

SSS: I do not believe that there is a contradiction between writing fiction and staying true to reality. See above! False writing (pathos) comes from trying to cut corners in order to reach the reader, to portray characters or situations in a simplified, ‘banal’ manner, to soften the gaze on the subject matter in order to comfort the reader, to make him or her feel safe and secure when the subject matter calls for exactly the opposite. There is so much trivial and trite literature going around out there, especially as regards to the Holocaust. For that reason, you simply cannot be too wary and sceptical about what is being written and why. 

VA: Your use of language is in a way very idiosyncratic, it seems sometimes that you are writing a long poem. You are trying to subdue the language to the story you are telling, as if you are trying to break your tool to be more precise, to improve it. As if the common language use is not sufficient for your goals. Do we need to reinvent the language when we are talking about the (traumatic) past? 


SSS: Language is a tool. It is through language that what we try to perceive becomes either clear or (if language fails) opaque. It is important to be as precise as possible. You should describe to the reader only what there is to be seen or sensed, never tell him/her how this is to be interpreted. You should trust the reader to make his or her own judgments. But if, in order for him/her to do that, you have to bend or break a few rules (ethical or grammatical) you shouldn´t shy away from doing that. 


VA: Beside your novelistic work you are also writing literary criticism. How it is to be on both sides of the coin at the same time? Does your critical writing help your authorial one? Or, on the other side, do you have more understanding for the authors as a critic, since you are very well aware of the effort and the hard work? 

SSS: I think it is sometimes difficult to combine the two. It is difficult not to fall back to your own preferences when reading a literary work written by somebody whose standards are different from yours. What you can and should demand from a critic is that he or she reads the book as closely as possible and with an open mind, trying to get attuned to what the author is trying to achieve. To his or her unique ´voice´. That said, you should not hesitate to point out flaws or failings when you perceive there are some, and never forget to tell the reader why. Equally you should always be able to give praise when you feel there is a reason to - when you find that the author, either through the use of the subject matter, the characters, his or her use of language or skills of composition, has been able to expand his or her range and by doing so been able to reach some layer of understanding that otherwise wouldn´t have come to light. I think it is very important for a critic to be open as well as very candid, and to try to be as little opportunistic as possible, to try to look beyond current tropes and tastes. 

VA: You live between two big European cities – Vienna and Stockholm. Is that an advantage? Does your chosen position help you with the perspective on your writing? Does one see better when s/he is moved out of centre? Could an author have any other, more marginal position? And what about literature today? 


SSS: I moved to Vienna, where I have lived now for more than ten years, in order to be able to write The Chosen Ones. That was a conscious decision. I wanted to be ‘embedded’ in the culture I was just then beginning to write about, almost in the same sense as a journalist is embedded with troops in a foreign country. That is, to be quite honest, how it sometimes feels, as a foreigner living abroad! But it is better to be ‘embedded’ in a country or a culture, being exposed to it, than to try to research everything from afar and in the abstract. To get a ‘feel’ or a sense of a place is very important to me when I write. 


VA: Do your cities of residence help you see the state of European culture as a whole? Could we, for that matter, talk about the European cultural scene? Is there such a thing? 


SSS: I would definitely define myself as a European writer. I find quite short-sighted, even stupid, any attempt to define writers according to his or her ethnical or national background. It is true that I am a Swedish writer and that I write my novels in Swedish. But that does not mean that anyone from another country can approach my work in order to find a lot of things Swedish: Exotic Swedish landscapes or peculiar Swedish characters. It is a degrading way to look at literature. Yet this is always done. 


VA: You have won very important awards for your work. Just to mention the August Prize or Prix Medicis, or recently you have been awarded with Natur and Kultur extraordinary scholarship. Are the awards just a satisfaction or are they an obligation too?


SSS: I´m simply just very honoured. Especially by the Prix Médicis Étranger. It shows that my novels can be read and appreciated also in other languages than the one I happen to write in, even though their themes and topics might not be ‘typically’ Swedish. I find this extremely gratifying. 


Vladimir Arsenić

graduated in comparative literature from the Tel Aviv University (master degree). He is a regular critic of the internet portal and He published texts for the Think Tank, Beton, Quorum,, He was a mentor on the project Criticize this! with Srdjan Srdić, he teaches creative writing in Hila workshop. He is a regular contributor to literary festival Cum grano salis in Tuzla, BiH. His texts are translated into Albanian and Slovenian. He translates from English and Hebrew. With friends, he edits a literary magazine Ulaznica that is published in Zrenjanin. He supports Tottenham Hotspur FC.