Author Russell Edwards
Albert Bonniers in 2007 produced a new edition of Bevingat in a pocketbook edition. First published in 2005 in hardback format and of course in the Swedish language, there is such a large amount of English vocabulary inside the yellow covers that English readers can find that this book provides an insight into what makes Swedish brains tick over today. English speaking readers would find Bevingat more than useful in their briefcase when traveling to Stockholm on business or holiday.
It’s not easy to translate Bevingat in one word. Household words is one definition, this translation being used in Swedish dictionaries since the days of Wenstrom and Harlock when Swedish-English dictionaries became readily available. Household words of largely foreign derivation were not common in the early twentieth century, but they are now. The book describes what soars up and takes wing in the contemporary Swedish imagination- what are the dreams, nightmares, random thoughts, crossword clues, daily interests during the twenty first century, and how current thoughts have evolved from varied literary sources such as the bible, Shakespeare and the Beatles. Diversity in household words has now evolved to such an extent that much current daily discourse appears not related now to the national heroes of old but to the offerings from a world wide palette.
Birgitta Hellsing, Magdalena Hellquist and Anders Hallengren all have names beginning with H. Perhaps Bonniers selected them for this, as Bevingat is arranged in its 961 pages alphabetically, in sections from A och O, Alpha and Omega through to ost, as in east is east and west is west, Rudyard Kipling’s tag.
It’s hard to describe quickly a book so rich, which provides an insight into the way Swedes see themselves and the outside world, what they current preoccupations are and how they have developed through inter relations with other cultures. Using examples is the best was forward. It’s a bit like a children’s primer. A is for Atomkraft, atomic power. Swedes usually add the word no, as in “no atomic power thank you”, but of course their whole economy is dependent on fissile material turned into energy. Nevertheless, Swedes think that the main significance of atomic energy is that they do not want it, and have organized appropriately unsuccessful campaigns to go back to waterfalls and add wind and hot rocks.
Swedes have always been interested in bimbos and blondes, and if Bonniers is to be believed, know that bimbo is of Italian derivation. Why should Swedes not spend a lot of time thinking about bimbos, having provided the world with so many women whose attractiveness, it might appear at first glance, is not matched by their intelligence? Swedish bimbos are like Swedish atomic energy. They are smart bimbos, clever enough to market their assets, but aware since 1926 that gentlemen prefer blondes and diamonds are a girl’s best friend. Marilyn Monroe is chosen to illustrate the point, historically correct but equally representative was Anita Ekberg. In 1953 with a Swedish title “ Men prefer blondes” was the most popular film in Stockholm, and showed that local women's liberation had a long way to travel.
While blurring the credit for such inventions as dynamite and the telephone, Swedes have been punctilious in attributing the invention of sensible ideas to cultures other their own. To take an example, using the tag “a woman without a man is like a fish without a bicycle.” This, Bonniers explains, is a feminist slogan attributed to the author and feminist Gloria Steinem. As a way of showing the useful use of English in this pocket book text, here is a quote at length from Time Magazine 2000, which Bonniers uses to set the record straight.
In fact, Irina Dunn, a distinguished Australian educator, journalist and politician, coined the phrase back in 1970 when she was a student at the University of Sydney. She paraphrased the philosopher who said: 'Man needs God like a fish needs a bicycle'. Dunn deserves the credit for creating such a popular and durable spoof (lustighet) of the old idea that women need men more than vice versa.
Irina Dunn did not think of a memorable alteration to the memorable almost comical phrase that only a man could speak 'Caesar’s wife is above suspicion', although many feminist possibilities suggest themselves, and this truism was not of disputed coinage. Caesar said it, not Gloria Steinem, and of course he only said it to deflect attention from his own back- not that this deterred Brutus.
While female dependency on men was fought over, equally fierce battles were and are being waged over the role money plays in Nordic society. Was Cash king? The Volvo chief Per Gyllenhammar (golden hammer) minted that phrase at a press conference in the 1990s. By 2000 Cash is shit was more politically acceptable at least in banking circles. Abba as well as Volvo spoke for Sweden from the 1970s.
Dancing Queen was connected with king Carl XV1 Gustaf (note the small case k in Bonniers) and his wife Silvia. Written by Stig Anderson, with music by Bjorn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson, from 18 June 1976 Sweden and the world of popular music had a new and lasting hit song. Non- Swedish readers, homosexuals especially, readily got the point of Dancing Queen, but found it hard to grasp the totemic importance of Strindberg’s boast in a letter to what Bonniers describes as his housewife (surely inadequate for the most beautiful Finnish Swedish actress of the day), 'My fire is the biggest in Sweden.' Having watched the competition for the midsummer bonfires in Aland, I know that he is not referring to the size of his love. The letter is as beautiful as Siri, but must remain inaccessible to the majority of students of Strindberg and of love, love by the way being one of most discussed key words in the book.
More explicable are the words which I take to mean “blooming hotdog.” All vegetarians sympathize with little Lisa, who in 1965 was immortalized when she refused to eat up her blooming fakukorv. Easily understood was the term Fucking Amal. Lucas Moodysson made a film about a town where the younger generation of Swedish teenagers knew more English swear words than English geography, and they were smarter than their liberated parents. This did nothing to help the residents of the real town Amal, hitherto virtually unknown. Amalites (to turn them Greek) were able to take consolation by laughing through a sequel Fucking Sweden. The Amal film was a tale of small-town sadness and now probably more relevant than dated masterpieces like Winter Light or Cries and Whispers.
Who says Swedes have no sense of humor and are preoccupied with black moments? PR advertisers came up with the phrase fine street to advertise IKEA knock offs of Danish lamps, advising not to buy from a dear shop on a fine street, but to go for something cheaper. Why pay 3450 crowns when you could get the same thing from IKEA for 2470, and from pictures to leather sofas a smart Swede could buy Milano a la Amhult. Amhult or Amal, it was all a matter of branding. Certainly mass produced art adorned if that is the correct word the walls of Gamla Stan apartments, and a special term was invented hotorgskonst, Haymarket art, to describe pleasant paintings of rural scenes, natural, idyllic and from 1935 available for those who preferred Rembrandt to Munch, nothing too pale or depressing. For Swedes are more aware than most, that we are here today and gone tomorrow, “I dag rod, I morgon dod” and need distracting by pleasure, or lust as they call it. The bible told them so, as did the viruses and bacilli which carried them off in plague times. If they wanted more information about death and comparative philology, Bonniers suggested look up Death’s Angel. He or she was always about.
That’s why Swedes sang the classic snapps song, Helan ga. First re-corded (not recorded) in 1843, Strindberg thought of it as the national anthem. Foreigners were always be mystified by the outburst of snapps skullers roaring away at an unintelligible lyric, which even got Franz Lehar to have a crack, writing five versions of the patriotic alcoholic’s favorite in the 1930s when he was living in Stockholm. So to truly pass for sensitive, one must sing up as well as drink up, and to do that learn the words, here recorded definitively by Bonniers.
While Lehar tried to help the Swedes, the Beatles amused them with lyrics which perfectly hit the right note for a conservative society where wealth was discreetly concealed. John Lennon was a particular favorite. In 1963 Swedes recall John Lennon performed at a concert in the Prince of Wales theater before the Queen Mother and Princess Margaret, or prinsessan Margaret as the Swedes (with coy pretence at egalitarian sentiments) prefer to put it. Before Twist and Shout (the Queen Mother never, Princess Margaret often), Lennon asked the public ‘For this number we’d like your help. Will people in the cheaper seats clap your hands? All the rest of you, if you’ll just rattle your jewellery.”
Queens, princesses, women: for a social democracy justly now proud of gender equality it’s no accident that women play a large role in the ids and egos of the Swedes. Bonniers singles out Catullus 'Give me a Thousand Kisses'. He is described ‘as a romantic poet from Verona who died 54 BC.’ Like many Swedes Catullus came to Rome, where all roads lead, as a young man, seventeen, and his undying poem to Clodia (in the verse called Lesbia) is beautifully translated into accurate but sensitive Swedish ,beginning as it does, 'Let us, Lesbia, live, let us love…' I am sure readers know the Latin, its so famous for its invocation of sunshine, old age, light, darkness, death, envy and all those kisses, ,000, 100, then another 1000, then another 100.
The word cold and kiss are close in Swedish, and Swedish imagination is caught by “The spy who came in from the cold.” Swedes love to travel preferable to warm climates. When they are not traveling they love to read about travel. The 236 days wandering of an American journalist Henry Stanley who eventually found a Scottish missionary-doctor in Tanganyika who was not lost took his prey with a sort of formality still found in elderly circles in Stockholm today, Doctor Livingstone, I presume?
“I was just obeying orders are words which also have echoes in Stockholm.” While not used with such sinister fatuity as in the Nuremburg trials, many Swedes wonder if they too do not live in a totalitarian state as controlled by the social democrats as were the Nazis. Certainly Roland Huntford thinks so.
Less threatening but equally unappealing is the realization that now in Sweden there is no such thing as a free lunch. The words were taken from the book by the monetarist Milton Friedman and became the brutal policies of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. The Swedish variant was coined by the social democratic party secretary Mona Sahlin which I translate as handouts are over, finished, run out. Swedes cheerfully tackle Proust in a translation by Gunnel Vallquist and can discuss the significance of the Madeleine cake, remembering times past with the best of them. They are still interested in John Osborne and the angry young men, and Turkey’s position as the sick man of Europe: especially as there are so many Turkish refugees enjoying political asylum in Sweden, if not the weather, and one of their countrymen was rewarded for his meatballs by the Nobel Prize for literature. I enjoy the Turkish cultural contribution, decent takeaway food in the vicinity of T- centralen, never accompanied by the Turkish word Yok. Curiously, the Turkish language is similar to the Finnish language in grammatical structure, and the Turks and the Finns to my mind make the most significant cultural contribution to be un appreciated in Stockholm.
More to heart are the thoughts of John Gray, Men are from Mars, women from Venus, but as true recent Europeans, Stockholmers are more inclined to quip that despite the sales of 90 million copies, all Gray has shown is that “Americans are from Mars, and Europeans are from Venus.”
Swedes are interested in the grey panthers and Pandora’s Box, Robin Hood and Roger Moore. They understand an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, and are enchanted by Fiddler on the Roof, know that Sig Paparazzo was the first of a new employment classification,a rat pack photojournalist: but page after page of Bonniers is concerned with the normal human interest in sex and money, despite almost a century of practicing home grown political correctness.
The Swedes have seen as fearful cowardly people, hiding behind their intelligence and economic strength to turn armed neutrality into slanted support for whoever seemed likely to to win the next regional or world war. They are often portrayed, not least by Ingmar Bergman (who is not a household word), as guilt ridden collaborators with aggressive regimes growing fat on the products of their armaments industry. By and large they do not feel this themselves, although it’s true that an interest in German foreign policy , and Nazi ways of social organization have always found ready supporters in Stockholm, as Swedes are after all Germanic as well as Vikings. It was a long time before a Swedish foreign Minister could talk naturally in English with his or her American or English counterparts in their language. Not so in German. Sturm and Drang to Swedes are equated to lust for life. Deutschland, Deutschland uber alles, Swedes simply see as music written in 1841. It was especially significant in Stockholm between 1922 and 1945 and from 1935 it and the Nazi – what the Swedes call camp song – Horst Wessel-Lied could be sung as naturally in Gamla Stan as God save the king in Canberra. So naturally the modern Swede thinks about September 11 and the war or terror and what it means in Darlarna.
For me it’s hard to believe that many Swedish households discuss the Winter War and what Sweden lost when it lost Finland,Catataline and Cicero and the availability of Carthaginian figs in ancient Rome, but most likely as Bevingat says, Monica Lewinsky comes up from time to time. As their minds drift towards sex and “I never had sex with that there woman,” the overall impression of Swedish domestic life as portrayed by Bonniers is of a well educated group of jolly intellectuals familiar with the Cannes film festival and place of their flag in establishing national identity.
Life is not all fun in Sweden. But to end at the beginning, with A. Some times frustrations creep in at the smorgasbord, and it’s necessary to use expressions from the middle ages to get the point across. Extreme negative commands and imperatives have been usefully produced by Bonniers, dating back to such impeccable authorities as Goethe and Luther. Although one of these was in regular conversational use on sailing ships in the nineteenth and twentieth century, the Germans and the Swedes agreed on one magic formula to get the message across, the words being so similar in English that no translation is necessary, kyss mig in arslet.