‘Sweden is more complex than a Billy bookshelf’

The Local's Susann Eberlein catches up with Gunnar Herrmann, a Stockholm-based correspondent from Germany, to learn about stereotypes and Germans' undying fascination with Sweden.

'Sweden is more complex than a Billy bookshelf'

Herrmann, 37, works as a foreign correspondent for the Süddeutsche Zeitung. In addition to spending his days scouring for Swedish stories of interest to readers in Germany, he has also written two books detailing his impressions of Sweden and the Swedes.

As the son of a Swede who grew up in Germany, Hermann has a closer relationship with Sweden than the average German.

His latest book, “Alter Schwede! Zwei Hochzeiten und ein Elchgeweih” (‘Goodness Swede! Two weddings and an elk antler’), was published in January and uses his own personal reflections as the basis for a humorous exploration of Germans’ often-idealized view of Sweden.

The Local: You’ve lived in Sweden for six years now. What were the stereotypes you had in mind before moving to Stockholm?

Gunnar Herrmann: Since I have relatives here and spent a year studying in Lund, I knew the country pretty well. So I didn’t have a picture of [children’s author Astrid Lindgren’s] Bullerby in my head, that’s for sure.

Knowing Ikea, you associate Sweden with simplicity and practicality. And then you come here and realize that it may be something more complicated than putting together a Billy bookshelf.

TL: And now, what do you value most in Sweden?

GH: The wonderful nature, of course. And Sweden is a safe country. And because I have two small children, I definitely value the child friendliness and child care.

In most coffee shops, there are baby changing areas. The kindergartens are fantastic. In Bavaria, where I come from, that’s not always the case.

TL: In your new book, you alternate writing chapters with your wife. Do men and women see Sweden with different eyes?

GH: I think there is no general difference in the way men and women look upon Sweden. Although my wife works, she is the one who takes care of our children the most. So we get to know different sectors of society.

My view of Swedish society is through my work, especially the official parliamentary parts of Sweden and the government ministries.

My wife however, goes to the parent evenings in school or organizes children’s birthdays with the other parents. She may even get to know Sweden in a more intimate way.

TL: What gets on your nerves about Sweden?

GH: Sometimes the food. I find it somewhat monotonous. And Sweden is sometimes very bureaucratic. It’s all very well organized and everything follows clear rules.

Therefore, it is often very inflexible and exceptions are rare. That’s something I could go crazy about sometimes.

TL: Speaking of crazy: Valborg and Midsummer are two rather mad Swedish festivities. Do you celebrate these parties too?

GH: Definitely, together with my relatives. But just as we celebrate the Swedish traditions, we also celebrate Germany’s traditions too. Many events can be transferred easily, because the cultures are so compatible. There are Midsummer celebrations in Bavaria, too – they look just different.

TL: Is participating in these festivities the best way to integrate into Sweden?

GH: I think Swedes have a small circle of acquaintances, but very close friends. Getting into a clique can be tough sometimes.

But at parties or in clubs, Swedes always like you to join in. You just have to be open and engaging.

TL: You have now written two very humorous books about your time in Sweden. Do you think it’s easy to write about Sweden in such a manner?

GH: Yes, because Sweden is very well known in Germany for being like this. Many Germans have a connection with Sweden, either by Pippi Longstocking, Ikea or just through their holidays.

And then there are certain images or stereotypes they have, coming from movies, books, or vacations. But they are not all true. And if you play around with these stereotypes, a certain humour often follows.

Susann Eberlein

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‘Lost’ manuscript of pro-Nazi French author published 78 years later

A book by one of France's most celebrated and controversial literary figures arrives in bookstores this week, 78 years after the manuscript disappeared

'Lost' manuscript of pro-Nazi French author published 78 years later

It is a rare thing when the story of a book’s publication is even more mysterious than the plot of the novel itself.

But that might be said of Guerre (War) by one of France’s most celebrated and controversial literary figures, Louis-Ferdinand Celine, which arrives in bookstores on Thursday, some 78 years after its manuscript disappeared.

Celine’s reputation has somehow survived the fact that he was one of France’s most eager collaborators with the Nazis.

Already a superstar thanks to his debut novel Journey to the End of the Night (1932), Celine became one of the most ardent anti-Semitic propagandists even before France’s occupation.

In June 1944, with the Allies advancing on Paris, the writer abandoned a pile of his manuscripts in his Montmartre apartment.

Celine feared rough treatment from authorities in liberated France, having spent the war carousing with the Gestapo, and giving up Jews and foreigners to the Nazi regime and publishing racist pamphlets about Jewish world conspiracies.

For decades, no one knew what happened to his papers, and he accused resistance fighters of burning them. But at some point in the 2000s, they ended up with retired journalist Jean-Pierre Thibaudat, who passed them – completely out of the blue – to Celine’s heirs last summer.

‘A miracle’
Despite the author’s history, reviews of the 150-page novel, published by Gallimard, have been unanimous in their praise.

“The end of a mystery, the discovery of a great text,” writes Le Point; a “miracle,” says Le Monde; “breathtaking,” gushes Journal du Dimanche.

Gallimard has yet to say whether the novel will be translated.

Like much of Celine’s work, Guerre is deeply autobiographical, recounting his experiences during World War I.

It opens with 20-year-old Brigadier Ferdinand finding himself miraculously alive after waking up on a Belgian battlefield, follows his treatment and hasty departure for England – all based on Celine’s real experiences.

His time across the Channel is the subject of another newly discovered novel, Londres (London), to be published this autumn.

If French reviewers seem reluctant to focus on Celine’s rampant World War II anti-Semitism, it is partly because his early writings (Guerre is thought to date from 1934) show little sign of it.

Journey to the End of the Night was a hit among progressives for its anti-war message, as well as a raw, slang-filled style that stuck two fingers up at bourgeois sensibilities.

Celine’s attitude to the Jews only revealed itself in 1937 with the publication of a pamphlet, Trifles for a Massacre, which set him on a new path of racial hatred and conspiracy-mongering.

He never back-tracked. After the war, he launched a campaign of Holocaust-denial and sought to muddy the waters around his own war-time exploits – allowing him to worm his way back into France without repercussions.

‘Divine surprise’
Many in the French literary scene seem keen to separate early and late Celine.

“These manuscripts come at the right time – they are a divine surprise – for Celine to become a writer again: the one who matters, from 1932 to 1936,” literary historian Philippe Roussin told AFP.

Other critics say the early Celine was just hiding his true feelings.

They highlight a quote that may explain the gap between his progressive novels and reactionary feelings: “Knowing what the reader wants, following fashions like a shopgirl, is the job of any writer who is very financially constrained,” Celine wrote to a friend.

Despite his descent into Nazism, he was one of the great chroniclers of the trauma of World War I and the malaise of the inter-war years.

An exhibition about the discovery of the manuscripts opens on Thursday at the Gallimard Gallery and includes the original, hand-written sheets of Guerre.

They end with a line that is typical of Celine: “I caught the war in my head. It is locked in my head.”

In the final years before his death in 1961, Celine endlessly bemoaned the loss of his manuscripts.

The exhibition has a quote from him on the wall: “They burned them, almost three manuscripts, the pest-purging vigilantes!”

This was one occasion – not the only one – where he was proved wrong.