'The Other Woman' Tells of Class, Status, and Ambition in Gender Relations
This is a small gem of a novel, translated from Swedish, that looks at class and heterosexual desire, as well as female friendship, from the perspective of a dissatisfied and lonely young woman.
The Other WomanPublisher: Other Press
Author: Therese Bohman
Publication date: 2016-02
In Adultery, a book-length memoir-essay by American writer and Virginia Woolf scholar Louise DeSalvo, the work of imagination is given as much due as the material circumstances in one’s life that propels one towards adultery: “Unless you consciously (or unconsciously) want to jet-propel yourself into committing adultery, reading about it isn’t such a good idea. Because reading about it, I can assure you, will almost certainly result in your thinking about doing it, and perhaps even in your doing it.”
This magnetic, sometimes harmful pull of the life of imagination -- cultivated by a mental landscape nourished by the act of reading -- is intelligently observed in Therese Bohman’s second novel, The Other Woman. Translated from Swedish by Marlaine Delargy, Bohman’s novel excavates the work of the life of the mind through the combined effects of alienation via urban loneliness and class marginalisation. Although it isn’t the unnamed female narrator who commits adultery, she plays a part in its actualisation. Told entirely from her perspective, the novel excavates the impulses behind self-destructive actions and offers no tidy resolutions as to whether it’s a means of exerting control over an increasingly precarious existence for many young people, especially working-class youth, or simply a means of escaping what stretches out ahead of them as a predetermined existence of hard work and inescapable tedium.
We enter the narrator’s life by means of her living conditions: her apartment is bare and cold, with baking parchment stuck over the windows because the landlord has provided no blinds; meanwhile, her alarm rings at 6:30 every morning, after which she will ride the bus to her work job as a food worker at a hospital cafeteria in Norrköping, a city in eastern Sweden. The language flows as if the narrator is in a walking daydream: “The asphalt outside of my window is a deep black, it is a wet fall, there is mist in the air in the mornings, the smell of dampness, it comes from the harbor, or perhaps all the way from the sea.” It's hard to tell if this is a comma splice or an intentional form of building momentum and rhythm that perhaps loses some of its fluidity in translation from Swedish to English.
It takes on its own power in its strange disjointedness, however, heightening the reader’s affective disorientation and alienation the more they immerse themselves in the narrator’s experience. Her numbing day job of physically hard labour is made bearable by the books she reads, the conviction that all she endures will make her a better writer, and the fantasies she indulges in: particularly of one tall, attractive consulting doctor whom she spots in the cafeteria on occasion. This doctor turns out to be one Carl Malmberg, very married, and as the narrative progresses, very into her. The story of her relationship with him -- and as one might glean from the title, its fall-out -- makes up the entirety of the book.
The situation that defines the narrator’s existence, and propels her actions, is her fundamental aloneness. A number of factors contribute to this; she speaks of a relatively content working-class childhood, but her class position has placed her outside of her circle of friends from school, most of whom have effortlessly gone on to a university education without having to worry about how to support themselves. Through conversations with a friend Emelie, a bourgeois feminist who goes to consciousness-raising groups, and her interior monologues that interrogate of the principles of feminism that Emelie espouses, the narrator’s class position and fundamental aversion to what is required of bourgeois sisterhood continuously clash against each other.
She identifies with male literary characters and writers like Baudelaire, Dostoyevsky, Harry Martinson, and Vilhelm Ekelund. She feels that the requirements of sisterhood “would mean lowering myself to an inferior level” because on some level she believes herself to be better or at least more intelligent than most, but she also knows that the same women who speak of sisterhood “did everything they could to distance themselves from working-class girls, even though they were doomed to buy their clothes in the same stores as these girls for financial and geographical reasons.” Thus, she identifies with Dostoyevsky’s underground man: “On the whole I was always alone.”
This combination of self-indulgent narcissism plus superiority and self-loathing can be chalked up to youth, partly, as well as common cultural notions about what it is to be a writer, certainly. Most crucially, however, the tragedy is that the narrator is too young to realise that she does need people, and that there certainly are problems with bourgeois feminism but not for the reasons she suspects. That she paints feminism with a broad brush and assumes it requires that women not adorn themselves for men or sexually desire them suggests a lack of understanding about gender politics, even if owing to her class position, she is very aware of bourgeois feminism’s aversion to working-class women’s thoughts and ideas.
However, this bourgeois ideal also governs her life. The narrator wants beauty in her life and yearns for it. The affair with Carl is a means of actualising a fantasy -- somehow, his bourgeois affectations and worldview do not repulse her as those of women of her age given more opportunities. Instead, his wealth and class standing only represent security, stability, and a way in to precisely that world which she abrogates through overtures made by people like Emelie who invite her to parties to meet other young middle-class men. The narrator is able to spot the kind of picture-perfect men who surround women like Emelie as a carefully-constructed image designed to appeal to their feminist sensibilities; being of a different class, she is able to see through Emelie’s boyfriend Niklas:
Just as he is aware of the importance of women’s sexual liberation, but would never want a girlfriend who looked as if she was actually sexually liberated, he is aware of the concept of class. Even if he could discuss it at a party with a troubled expression on his face, it’s obvious that he would never want to be with someone who has a job he finds unpleasant. That’s the word he uses, unpleasant.
The narrator goes on to explain that “Carl doesn’t worry about that kind of thing, nor does he judge a person by those criteria,” which the narrator finds validating, but there are clues later on that Carl might not be as fantastic as she makes him out to be. She describes their first conversation as awkward, when she tells Carl that she wants to pursue studies in literature and his reaction makes it seem like she is “talking to an elderly relative”. His lifestyle is fully immersed in bourgeois values; when he does take her out in public to attend an art viewing he wants her to buy something nice and approves of her looking “elegant”.
It’s a telling sign of what is expected of her before they are visible together in public. Sexual desire and wish-fulfillment fantasy, then, can do a lot to warp a person’s proclaimed principles. She is seduced by Carl’s beauty and his appearance of effortless wealth to see his manifestation of bourgeois stability as less repulsive than Niklas’s, simply because Carl is willing to fuck her in private. However, the narrator is aware enough to know that she has a “self-obsessed view”:
"Perhaps a normal person has to be stupid,” thought Dostoevsky’s man from underground, perhaps that’s true, at least if you are going to find happiness in that normality, put up with it, be satisfied. I wish I could be satisfied, yet at the same time I despise those who are. I enjoy thinking, At least I’m not like you, even though the only result is that I continue to be lonely.
This push and pull of lucid self-awareness mixed with insufferable certainty about the wrongs of the world is the hallmark of a still ripening mindset; of a youthful worldview that has not had time to steep in its own contradictions and carve a way through it.
Her friendship with another woman, Alex, someone whom she recognises for being different and a free spirit -- though just how, and to what disastrous consequences, she will come to learn -- is an interesting study of sisterhood. Drawn to Alex because she appears honest, she disregards Alex’s fundamental character trait: self-interest. Emelie, on the other hand, who drinks flavoured coffee and dates snobby, trendy young men is still around to give her a second chance even after a disagreement and a period of estrangement.
The narrator deplores Emelie’s “bad taste” at the start of the novel, bad taste in coffee, bad taste in feminism; but by the end, she’s the only one the narrator can still reasonably count on. Relationships based solely on taste and intellectual ideas, then, can be mutually self-limiting and perhaps even destructive when it’s expected to take on a shape of something that requires mutual trust; despite her bad taste, Emelie still has a core of decency that enables her to be responsible in her interactions with her friend.
In this way, Bohman has crafted an intriguing, intelligent novel about the vagaries of female existence without sacrificing the character’s perspicacity or, indeed, the traits that make her an occasionally unlikeable character. The underlying sadness comes from the character’s inability to justify her actions or withhold responsibility -- yet there is little to indicate that she has changed. Instead, whatever has happened to her has slowly been absorbed into her life; and the best she can do at the present moment is attempt to become the person she wants to be, even if the means to getting there involves entering into a contractual obligation that reduces all parties involved into hollowed-out versions of themselves.
Bohman’s language in Delargy’s translation is attentive to the shifting shades and sounds of the city and its landscape and makes one want to linger slowly over the words, but the truths that Bohman attempts to convey about gender and heterosexual relations, class and capital accumulation in the city, and the ever present striving for status and beauty, land over and over again like a blow.