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50 Words for Love in Swedish

Review by Olga Wojtas

A Review by Olga Wotjas

Stephen Keeler
Archetype Books (2022)

Stephen Keeler is known as a fine poet, so it’s no surprise that his prose memoir, 50 Words for Love in Swedish, is a linguistic delight. And the language, as the title indicates, is not confined to English. This is by no means a conventional chronological memoir, but instead offers a series of fascinating vignettes evoked by fifty Swedish words, such as osthyvel (cheese slice) and pimpling (ice fishing). This leaves the reader complete freedom to read from start to end, or dip in at will, perhaps wanting to know more about semla, a cardamom-infused, marzipan-filled, cream-topped Lenten bun which proves just as effective as Proust’s madeleine.

     In 1973, Keeler, newly qualified as a teacher, moved to Sweden to teach English as a foreign language, his first foray abroad. Thus began a lifelong love affair with the country, which Keeler presents as so welcoming and entrancing that he should be on commission from the Swedish tourist board. He has lived and worked in many other places, including China, Vietnam, and the former Soviet bloc, and now has a home in the north-west of Scotland, but still makes frequent visits to Sweden. 

     While each vignette is free-standing in terms of theme, length and mood, there are intriguing contrasts between Keeler’s upbringing, and the new society he finds himself in. As well as being a fan of Keeler’s poetry, I’m one of his Twitter followers (@stephenkeeler). His tweets, as with this book, are witty, humane and thoughtful, and also show him to a have a deep knowledge of a host of subjects, including literature, art and classical music. Because of this (exposing my own prejudices), I had him down as a posh boy, and it’s been a shock to find in this volume that he had a less than privileged upbringing in the north-east of England.

     A section entitled ljus (candle) reveals that even in the 1960s, his great grandmother’s house had no electric lighting upstairs, and no hot water supply.

     “None of us had bathrooms. All of us had an outside toilet across ‘the yard’.” On particularly bitter nights, Keeler’s mother would put a night light next to the cistern to prevent it from freezing.

    Keeler contrasts this with Sweden’s culture of winter candles, functional, affordable and decorative, packaged in dark blue boxes emblazoned with the Swedish royal family’s coat-of-arms. On his first visit home for Christmas, he brought candles as presents for everyone – an unexpectedly welcome gift since it coincided with the Three-Day Week and the hazards of power cuts.

     Several vignettes contain references to Keeler’s beloved late wife, Yvonne, whom he met in Stockholm. These are touching, sparing, and affectionately humorous. He records moving in with her in a section entitled sambo (live-in partner), explaining that this “functional word for love” is “clumsily welded together” from samman, together, and boende, living accommodation.

     They named their daughter Lucy after Lucia, St Lucy’s Day, the midwinter celebration of light, giving her the middle name Astrid after the children’s author Astrid Lindgren. Another section tells how Lindgren rocked the government with a satirical story, Pomperipossa, attacking the punitive system that had her paying tax of over 100%.

     Lucy clearly shares her parents’ love of Sweden, and every year she and her father buy one another Swedish Ballograf pens for Christmas and birthdays.

   With a cast list encompassing elderly Mercedes-driving ladies, Erik the naval cook, and Bjorn Borg as well as Keeler’s own family, this is a beautifully written, life-affirming book. Bear it in mind for Christmas and birthdays. 

Northwords Now acknowledges the vital support of Creative Scotland and Bòrd na Gàidhlig.
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