I listen to David Bowie’s album Low from 1977 and I immediately think of Selma Lagerlöf. It’s a long way between Lagerlöf’s Mårbacka and Bowie’s then-Berlin, and by that, I don’t just mean the geographical distance. They are two artists, so far there is a connection, but two artists who work in two different times and in completely different art forms. Still, I find a similarity.
The record Low, which Bowie recorded in close collaboration with Brian Eno, was for Bowie yet another musical experiment to, true to his habit, take a big step away from what had previously been. He had left his previous characters Ziggy Stardust and The Thin white duke behind. Inspired by the new music from Germany, called Krautrock, he went to Berlin to experiment with the new electronic music and all the exciting ideas that were brewing there during the 70s.
The result was something I would call episodic. Sprawling and rather strange songs, full of both bad-sounding and good-sounding electronic soundscapes. Half the album is almost instrumental and some songs feel more like short sketches, rather than finished songs. But together, the eleven songs on the record form a strong whole – a story.
And there we have it – the similarity between Bowie and Lagerlöf. The episodic, where short delimited parts together form a whole. Right now I’m reading Selma’s book Jerusalem parts 1 and 2. Each chapter in the book is written like a short story. I think that this was a narrative technique she used anyway from the debut of Gösta Berling’s saga, which is written in the same way. One can sense a legacy from the oral storytelling tradition. Jerusalem is a kind of construction of texts.
And I am extremely fond of this way of writing, I am attracted by it. Letting each chapter be a story in itself, a kind of short story that can be read independently if you wish. The difference to the more linear (can’t find a better word) writing is, as you understand, that one chapter doesn’t pick up exactly where the other left off, as is often the case in fiction.
An author who can also be mentioned in this context is Kafka. His novel The Process is structured in much the same way. Each chapter is its own part – it moves the story forward, but can also be read independently. It is not one hundred percent clear in which order these chapters should be in the book. Kafka’s publisher Max Brod in several cases had to guess the order after Kafka’s death, based on notes Kafka made in the script. The publisher Bakhåll believes that it would be advantageous to toss around these chapters, and thus create a personal interpretation of the novel since no one can know what is right anyway. A funny thought!
I feel like flipping through the songs in David Bowie’s Low to see what would happen. I know he chose the song order he did for a reason, but I still think he would have liked the idea of creating his own, new work from his album. It’s sort of in line with his artistry. The Jerusalem chapter, on the other hand, will probably retain its internal order. I dare not defy Selma.
Mattias is an author and illustrator