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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


Karin Boye

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To purchase Crisis

Title: Crisis
Author: Karin Boye
Genre: Novel
Written: 1934 (Eng. 2020)
Length: 185 pages
Original in: Swedish
Availability: Crisis - US
Crisis - UK
Crisis - Canada
  • Swedish title: Karin Boye
  • Translated, and with an Introduction and Afterword, by Amanda Doxtater

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Our Assessment:

B+ : creative variation on a familiar, personal story

See our review for fuller assessment.

The complete review's Review:

       Crisis is a clearly autobiographical novel. Its protagonist, the twenty-year old Malin Forst, is a student at a teachers' college . The novel spans one academic year shortly after the end of the First World War, beginning with an assembly at the start of the school year and closing with the graduation ceremony.
       As the title suggests, Malin suffers through a crisis -- or several. She is no longer an adolescent, but she is very much still struggling to find herself; the professional-training path she is on would seem to offer a clear-cut future -- becoming a teacher -- but it obscures all the things which she is still uncertain about -- and which come very much to the fore over the course of the year. Everything is called into question -- "Everything has changed recently. I've begun to doubt everything", she admits -- as even the apparent certainty of her future no longer offers that easy hold: when she is summoned to the Principal's office and asked what her plans are after she completes her studies:

     She ought to have given the only possible, only imaginable response:
     'I'm going to be an elementary school teacher.' Instead, she sat completely silent, aghast as if at some scandalous revelation.
     Her path had seemed so clear to her. Naturally, she had wanted to be an elementary school teacher, that's why she was here ! It simply hadn't occurred to her that there might be another path besides becoming a teacher.
       A doctor's quick assessment of her sums her up a bit facilely, but does capture much of it:
an intellectually inclined young girl, erotically unawakened, and studious to the point of overexertion. A pocket-sized, female Hamlet, presumably.
       A talented student, Malin has suddenly found herself struggling -- not so much academically as in every other way:
     Paralysis from head to toe. Paralysis of the soul. Paralysis of the will. And behind this paralysis is a smoldering restlessness, which couldn't be expressed in movements, words, actions, thoughts -- it just persisted there, consuming her, day and night.
       Her family is even concerned enough to send her to a doctor, a nerve specialist. (Boye goes off on something of a tangent in describing this Doctor Ringström's background at greater length, but it's a beautiful little section, pegging the unusual character neatly.) Malin is desperate for help or answers -- she reaches out to others too -- but the doctor, although not without some insight, isn't up to the task; Boye nicely catches Malin's desperate frustration when he sends her off with a mere prescription ("an arsenic and valerian solution" ...):
     With that, Malin understood that the consultation was over, and she burst into tears.
     That was really all there would be.
       Malin senses that psychology is an unexplored avenue, both for her personally and beyond -- that here she might find some answers, about herself and also as a way to help others. When her Principal points out that the smart young woman might want to continue her studies she suggests theology would be an appropriate field -- but Malin is secure enough by then to tick that off, her faith already well on its way to the wayside ... -- and actually dares suggest that what would be of real interest to her, what she sees value in, would be the study of psychology (and pedagogy). Crushingly, the Principal dismissively retorts: "You do realize that psychology is not a subject worthy of study". (Boye amusingly has her add that she speaks from experience -- "I know, I've done it myself" -- showing that she really didn't get (or learn) anything out of it.) Fortunately, Malin shows a little backbone, her dreams might be dismissed by her elders, but at least she's willing to express and even, to some extent, defend them. (After graduating from Åhlinska skolan, Boye did go to university in Uppsala -- not to study psychology, but at least also avoiding theology.)
       A friend she goes to visit recognizes that Malin is losing herself too deeply in her own thoughts, but can also only do so much in trying to help Malin, ultimately no more than nudging her in encouraging her to:
find a book to read, something with a plot line, all right ? Don't sit here thinking about the stove and matter and all that.
       Her crises include ones of religious faith as well as of what she should do with her life, but central then is also a sudden realization -- "A liberation. A miracle". For all its power, it also complicates matters even more: Malin finds herself swept up by the beauty of a classmate, Siv Lindvall.
       It's just the sight of the nape of Siv's neck that suddenly hits her -- and Boye beautifully captures how Malin can barely even comprehend what has happened:
     She had experienced something like this before, though. Sometimes, feeling tried and dejected, she deliberately walked a different way home from school and passed a house that was beautiful in its pure, balanced proportions. Soaking up the form of the building, or rather letting herself be soaked up by it, relieved her exhaustion somewhat.
       This (homo)sexual awakening -- slow and awkward though it is here -- is clearly part of Malin's beginning to determine and come to terms with her (actual) self. In a way, it seems to help her resolve (to some extent) some of her other issues, such as her religious faith, but it also leaves her further unmoored. She is drawn to Siv, and pursues that -- "She was on a voyage to discover Siv" --, but she can also barely muster herself to more than an immature puppy love: "that timid, wide-eyed look of admiration she directed towards Siv's lovely profile -- comical, just comical !"
       While Crisis is a fairly familiar story of a young woman beginning to find herself and trying to find her way to an adult future, Boye's approach is an unusual and formally creative one. Rather than a simple account, Boye includes a variety of perspectives. So, for example, there are excerpts from classmates' letters and a diary, suggesting how they saw Malin -- "she's the kind of bookworm who's oblivious to everything", one suggests; "There's something so extreme in her opinions, and that strikes me from the start as being in some way -- improper !" another writes.
       An even greater leap comes in the form of three separate sections presented as Dialogues -- 'On Sound Ideals', 'On the Meaning of Pious Words', and finally: 'On Malin Forst'. These are more abstract dialogues -- the first, for example, involving a Doctor, a Theologian, and a Humanist -- and they make for a fascinating different level of discussion of the issues that Malin is grappling with. Beyond these, there are also other parts of the novel presented in dialogue-form -- including Malin actually pitted against herself: 'Malin 1' in conversation (or rather debate) with 'Malin 2'.
       Some of the formal inventiveness is that of a young author still trying to figure out how to tell a story (or rather how to present specific issues, and how to capture a character). Boye here is clearly processing her younger self and what she went through -- and finding creative ways to do so. It is a quite remarkable and fascinating work -- and a good one, too.

- M.A.Orthofer, 20 July 2020

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Crisis: Reviews: Karin Boye: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Swedish author Karin Boye lived 1900 to 1941.

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© 2020-2021 the complete review

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