An interview with Per Olov Enquist
When I was reading your autobiographical book Ett annat liv (Another Life) that has just been published in Hungarian I felt that you were very honest with yourself, yet you hid some parts of your life—you hardly wrote about your family, your marriages and your children.
I don’t think I am hiding. I was looking upon myself as if I was a character in a book which makes it easier to write about yourself, and I was mostly obsessed with this character. It is not that I wasn’t interested in others, but I said to myself, maybe you are writing a lot of shit about yourself, but don’t write about your wives, because they are innocent. I couldn’t blame anyone for the alcohol and all that happened to me in the 80s—I am not blaming my father, my mother or my wives, they did all they could to help me. But I was interested in why I did what I did, what happened to me, and so on. So I am not hiding them, I am simply concentrating on that character in the book called Per Olov Enquist.
Péter Esterházy said it was interesting that for you it was easier to write about yourself in the third person, whereas for him it was easier to write in the first person, because he could be more honest with himself that way.
Well, I tried in the beginning to write in the first person, but it didn’t work, it just slipped out of my hands. Today when I look at the book and ask what book it would have been if I had written it in the first person I am very glad that I didn’t.
How hard was it to face the bad decisions you made in the past, especially your drinking problem?
It wasn’t hard facing it, because I had been facing it for a long time. I stopped drinking on 6 February 1990 and I haven’t touched alcohol ever since in any form. During that time in the 80s and also afterwards I was constantly thinking of what was happening to me and why. I thought there had to be an answer to all those questions. So when I actually sat down to tell the story of that whole period it was not hard or painful at all. In the beginning I was thinking a lot about how to write about it, but then I thought I should just write it down as it happened. Just tell his story, what he did and what he didn’t. In fact it was the best working period in my life when I wrote the last 140 pages. I didn’t change one word, I wrote very quickly, I finished the last part in about three and a half weeks, and it is in some way a very unusual description of this circle down, from the inside of this man who is falling down.
How much did you change or cut out when you write about other people, not yourself?
You mean how much did I censor? If I had written about all my life it would have been two thousand pages, but I realized I had to stick to five hundred. But I wasn’t hiding anything because I was scared to write down controversial things, it is simply that if something was boring I didn’t write it. There are of course black holes in the story: for example, the first part ends when he is 13, and the second part starts seven years later, when he is in Uppsala, but this is because I had to make choices.
Why did you end the story with the 90s?
Because 6 February 1990 was the end of that period of my life. I tried to answer the question why this catastrophe happened when everything was going so fine. And yes, he was living on; and yes, he was writing; and yes, he did an astonishing amount of writing, but that is another story. Am I going to continue to write it? I don’t think so. That story is such a closed curve. Of course, I could write a normal memoir, but that wouldn’t have this curve.
Your children’s book, Three Cave Mountain, was recently republished in Hungarian. What I found fascinating is that most children’s books are full of fantasy and mystical creatures, but in this book there are none of these. Why?
There are: my mystical grandchildren! I am a very inexperienced children’s book writer, I am an amateur. I read very few children’s books before I was 45, and I don’t know how to write such books. Initially I just wanted to write a story in five copies for my grandchildren about a house, a mountain, a lake, a dog and a grandpa. This is a story that is very close both to rationality and to irrationality. Last year I wrote the second part of that book entitled The Secret of the Third Cave which is a much tougher book, you have to be a bit older for it—the first is for 8-10-year-olds, the second for 9-12-year-olds. It starts with a chapter on the death of a dog, a Siberian Laika, which is absolutely true in every detail, but then it develops into a rather tough story. It also has some real background, it’s a mixture of fiction and reality. My grandchildren love it, because they can jump right into the experience they had through the story, and their reaction is really fantastic.
When you write historical books—and I am especially thinking of the film novel that you wrote on Knut Hamsun—do you change anything? How is the protagonist Hamsun related to the real person Hamsun?
The film manuscript is based on facts. A lot has been written about this sad story of Hamsun being a traitor. I didn’t invent anything, I just had to break the story into scenes. I had to be very careful because Norwegians have a very specific opinion about Hamsun, whether he was a traitor or not. But I didn’t tell any fiction, it was all based on facts. When I write a historical novel, like when I wrote The Royal Physician’s Visit, I read everything that has been written about the period. I am not a historian, but I am used to research and to a close evaluation of sources, it was part of my education when I studied in Uppsala. So I’ve done my homework, and then I tried to make fiction of it.
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