“I don’t tell stories,” says Lars Norén.
This seems an unpromising beginning to my interview with a man frequently credited as Sweden’s greatest living writer, often cited as the heir to Strindberg. At first, when we meet in a busy café in Stockholm’s Vasastan district, he seems more interested in my stories than his own, keen to hear what brought me to Sweden, where I grew up, when my father met my mother. I notice, though, that it’s not the narrative that interests him but the details. I keep going, nervously, until one such detail ignites a spark. The pale blue of his eyes deepens, and the words start to come. But not as stories.
“I hate stories. I can’t even read stories any more,” he says. “Whenever I see a story is developing, I stop and go back. What fascinates me is the material, and stories get in the way of that. I want to look at this point, like in music, when you can feel the material coming alive so that it brings with it a way of seeing. I’m interested in individual moments, pictures or fragments, which suddenly bring something into view.”
The comparison with Strindberg — whom Norén characterises as someone “mad, but in a controlled way, who consciously used his madness as a tool” — is a fair one. In his plays and novels, Norén has an uncanny ability to tune in directly to the darkness at the heart of Sweden’s peace-loving society. For those captivated by the current phenomenon of Scandi-noir, Norén could be seen as a kind of godfather. That said, his plays are not peopled by murderers and loner detectives, or plotted through a slow-grinding police procedural and the falling into place of puzzles. Norén’s characters are largely ordinary people in familiar scenarios whose false equilibrium is broken apart when they come into contact with a truth of some kind.
The comparison is apt in other ways too. Strindberg’s antipathy to his compatriots — as well as to the press and the literary establishment — runs equally strong in Norén. His published diaries record his contempt for most of the country’s leading theatre critics. Though his plays for both stage and TV, which now number about 75, maintain a strong presence in both Sweden and mainland Europe (currently there are plays running at Stockholm’s two main theatres, as well as one in Paris), he avoids the limelight. Quite literally. He hasn’t seen one of his own plays performed for years, he explains, though he has directed nearly all of them. His time on the stage ends when the rehearsals finish. When the curtain opens, he is back at his desk, writing.
At 74, he confesses, it takes him longer to get started than before. But the process is still the same. “When I start to write, I am like a bird which is about to leave for Africa. They wait and watch for days and days until the right moment. When they see it, they go.
“I am less and less interested in what happens in the world. At 74 years old, it’s a world I am preparing to leave. I write most now about older people, not because I am old myself but certain details — the colour of a toy, the feeling of evading a caress — are more luminous to someone who looks back more than forwards.”
Norén is not well known to British or American audiences. Yet his roots, he explains, lie deeply in English-language theatre, above all in the plays of Harold Pinter (whose plays caught on early in Sweden) and Samuel Beckett.
“Pinter taught me about communication. People often say we should communicate more, but he thought that we did it too much, that by capturing too much of ourselves and others in language, we easily imprison ourselves and end up using language to hide something we too carelessly revealed.”
In Act, the first in a double bill being staged by The Print Room in London next week, the prison metaphor is made concrete by the setting: an interrogation room in a postwar Germany to which the spectre of Nazism has returned. Here the linguistic prison is a kind of death, literal for the “terrorist” prisoner, spiritual for her interrogator.
“Language is thinning out under the pressure of conformity,” Norén declares. “We increasingly hide behind euphemisms which leave a kind of mucus over everything we talk about.” Characteristically the one he reaches for relates to the concealment of death: “to pass away”.
At the same time, Norén, who has been writing every day since the age of 15, and says “words give themselves to him” more readily every day, is under no illusions about the limits of language.
“The nearer you come to capturing something in language, the more visible becomes the gap between the described and the description. It’s a failure, but a failure that can still take you closer to something in a different way. Words create a shadow. Those are real.”
Like Beckett, Norén is fascinated by the musical qualities of language. A jazz and classical music buff, he crafts his dialogues with an ear to their rhythmic and melodic qualities. Sometimes, as in the recent Still Life, there is no dialogue at all, but in all his work there’s a strongly discernible counterpoint in which the different characters — their speech, worries and ways of seeing — all play around each other until, eventually, they coalesce or collide.
In Terminal 3, the second of the two plays being staged in London, the dissonance becomes almost deafening in a scenario in which two unrelated couples, one older and separated, one younger and on the verge of separating, find themselves in the same waiting room. One couple waits to identify the dead body of their son, who has committed suicide. The other is waiting for the birth of their child. Their conversations mirror but dart past each other, closer and closer.
“What fascinates me is composing structures which work on different levels. I can start with a phrase which keeps coming back. Just like a musical phrase it might contain nothing to begin with, but as the play of levels progresses it will suddenly fill out, bringing a whole world into view.”
Although Norén professes his estrangement from contemporary society, he is keenly aware of how his plays relate to its problems, both in Sweden — where he worries about the rising tide of populism — and abroad. His chief worry, though, is the theatre, an ancient institution that is always vulnerable to the desire to dazzle and entertain, to sell itself. He complains that actors ruin themselves by becoming celebrities, captivated by the childish desire to be cradled in the audience’s loving gaze.
“The empty stage is sacred to me. It’s the place of our greatest ambitions and our hardest truth-seeking. An audience absorbs the best and the worst moments of life. You don’t need to identify with characters. You take what you see and carry it away with you, inside.
“Theatre must return to the word and the naked stage. Because there is nothing more beautiful than an actor on the stage, an actor plainly, really there. That’s truth. Everything else just gets in the way.”
‘Act’ and ‘Terminal 3’, June 1-30 the-print-room.org
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