Friday, January 13, 2017

Books | The letters between Astrid Lindgren and Louise Hartung


 The German edition of the correspondence

 Louise would send Astrid pressed flowers and numerous gifts

The photo on the back cover shows the two women with an actor as Pippi Longstocking



This book of letters between the Swedish writer Astrid Lindgren, without whom my childhood wouldn’t have been the same, and her German friend Louise Hartung (who worked with children and was instrumental in Lindgren’s success in Germany; her vision was to heal a traumatised post-war youth with high-quality literature) was published last year*. 

A lot of the media reaction focused primarily on Louise’s open lesbian love for Astrid, which was never reciprocated. It is heartbreaking to read Hartung’s passionate and at times needy pleas to her friend, which were met with a detached response. Yet they continued to share a deep bond, formed when they traversed the ruins of Berlin, Hartung's city, together. Both women suffered episodes of melancholy and depression and both were capable of rapture at how wonderful life could be, and these feelings go hand in hand in these letters. The topic of death and the meaning of life comes up repeatedly, often triggered by a wry observation of Lindgren’s.

In general Lindgren’s letters are more measured and more in the traditional epistolary form initially, though she later opens up. Hartung’s letters are intense from the start. A bohemian intellectual and former singer, she had lived through two world wars and done extraordinary things: she was part of Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill’s circle and involved in their Threepenny Opera, had hidden Jews in her summerhouse, been bombed out of her house in Berlin - a life story Lindgren, who thought herself ordinary, marvelled at from calm, neutral Stockholm.

Reading this book made me regret that I haven’t written more letters and renew my resolution to change that. I used to, but then it dwindled to the odd letter here and there. Lindgren apologises when more than two weeks pass before she writes to Hartung (who is offended when a letter remains unanswered for too long), and it makes me ashamed – make that two years, no twelve years for me! I have no idea how they found the time to keep the correspondence alive. Lindgren was fast becoming one of the world's best-loved writers of children’s fiction and would have had tons of correspondence through her work alone, as well as being there for her friends and family - in fact, she often mentions feeling overwhelmed by and torn between all the expectations and obligations -, and Hartung was equally hard-working and had a busy social life. And yet they loyally wrote to each other, over 600 letters in a time spanning eleven years, until Hartung’s death in 1965, which overshadows the reading of these letters. 

John bought the book for me on our mini-moon in the Moselle Valley, and it was a nice synchronicity to learn that Louise sent Astrid wines from the region, during a phase when the two exchanged excited notes on the many bottles of wine Louise sent from Berlin to Stockholm, disguised as ‘grape juice’ when she realised there were restrictions on posting alcohol. It appears that on one of their trips together they also visited my hometown.

It is all the sensory pleasures these women pepper their letters with that linger with me, the wine, being in nature (Hartung’s love of the sea and her gardens, Lindgren’s solitary walks in winter landscapes), art, the music they described so beautifully, all the books they shared, the thoughtful gifts, all of which often form the starting point for philosophical musings. Their correspondence can be read as a lesson in how to live well (even though both Lindgren and Hartung repeatedly bemoan the fact that they work too much, but of course that work formed an invaluable contribution to the world) - there is so much life and so much humanity in these two very different life stories that happened to converge in such a wonderful way for a decade.


*There doesn't seem to be an English translation (yet), unfortunately. Lindgren's diaries 1939-45 were published in English recently.

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