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When six-year-old Lo meets thirteen-year-old Lukas, a friendship is born that will shape the rest of their lives. Breathless fuses the lyricism of youth with the desires and betrayals of the adult world. Lo, now a grown woman with insatiable wanderlust, casts her memory back to a 1980s childhood shaped by thriving factories, swimming holes, and the dark forest hideaway where she and Lukas enjoyed a friendship that was pure and true—and strictly forbidden.
Lo and Lukas came from very different households: Lo lived surrounded by a large and caring family who desperately wanted to protect her from dangerous influences; Lukas was often the target of rage from his abusive father. Forsaking her family's watchful love, Lo helped Lukas build an idyll of his own in a lakeside shack (away from his violent father), where they whiled away their summers in the water and spent their winters curled up inside, re-enacting dialogue from their favorite film, Godard's Breathless. The two felt like outsiders together, mismatched accomplices in their summer adventures, which slowly drove them closer together and further from their homes. The age difference was always a cause of deep worry for Lo's family; they constantly feared the worst and viewed Lukas mainly as a predator. As Lukas moved into adolescence Lo grew with him, learning quickly for a child of her age and knowing far more than perhaps she should. The desire to catch up with him, to advance beyond her years, was a feeling Lo could never shake; it followed her into adulthood even after this sacred bond had been severed.
How that friendship ended, and how Lo bears the weight of her ultimate betrayal, is a mystery that unfolds across Lo's travels. From Berlin to Copenhagen to New York, from tryst to tryst, each move conjures reveries of the summers that brought Lo and Lukas ever closer to the outside world that would eventually tear them apart. Haunting, resonant, full of whimsy and depth, Breathless captures those moments in childhood that stake an unimpeachable
Anne Swärd made her literary debut in 2003 with the novel Polarsommar, which earned her an August Prize nomination. It was later followed by Kvicksand in 2006, which was nominated for Vi magazine's Literature Prize. She lives with her family in Skåne, Sweden.
Deborah Bragan-Turner is a bookseller and translator. She lives in Béziers, France.
Q. How did Godard's film, Breathless, become such an integral part of your novel? Have other films or pieces of art inspired your writing?
I have a great interest in visual art, photography and film. It's a source of inspiration to me - especially film. I studied fine arts before I wrote my first novel, and I like my novels to have a visual quality to them.
Godard's movie wasn't a starting point for my book, though. It's a modern classic from the French New Wave, but I hadn't seen it until my novel was half-way written already. Something in it fitted in so well with my story, I think it was the atmosphere more than anything else. Picturing an "innocent time" (from our perspective) and I thought it was interesting that the movie was made during a turning point in the modern history. (The 60s in Paris probably equals the 70s in the countryside in Sweden, that you'll meet in my novel.)
I also liked the "androgynity" of the two head characters. Seberg with her boyish haircut, free spirited and vulnerable at the same time. And Belmondo being sensual and boyish and hopeless, a kind of anti-hero.
Q. While Breathless is set in Skåne and depicts a uniquely Swedish lifestyle, the novel is ultimately about the universal themes of love, family, and growing up—subjects that are part of the human experience no matter what language one speaks. How does it feel to have your work translated? Do you feel that the process ultimately results in a loss of communication, or can a good translator manage to get across the full story and feeling of the book?
Having my novels translated into so many languages feels unreal, but absolutely fantastic. Especially for me coming from a small country in the periphery of Europe, and all of a sudden being translated into world languages like English, French, Russia … Getting so many more potential readers. It's a writers dream. For some authors it might be something of a nightmare, because you totally loose control of your text. But in this specific case I find it quite exciting and stimulating to loose control. And of course I trust my translators, and the editors that work with them. Even if something is lost—and it always will be—it's worth the prize, since the pay-off is lots and lots of new readers in different parts of the world.
Translation is more or less "mission impossible", but still a very valuable thing to readers around the globe. I myself read a lot of translated literature that I wouldn't miss for the world. Even though the original version is being altered an "compromised" in different ways, I do believe a good translator can catch the feeling of a book. They just have to be sensitive, gifted and devoted enough. And of course very, very good with words.
Q. After leaving home, Lo travels on her own throughout Europe and to the United States. Do you prefer to travel alone? How have your own travels found their way into your writing?
I always travel alone. Only recently, when I went to Armenia, and down to the border of Iran, I had my husband with me-for various reasons (some of them safety). It's a wonderful country, but communicating is a problem, and it's difficult and dangerous to drive through all these heavenly beautiful but steep roads through the mountains.
Last spring I also went to Argentina and Tierra del Fuego with three female fellow writers. That was a new experience to me, travelling together. We would travel around all day and talk about life and literature at dinner. Great combination.
But actually I think travelling on your own will bring you even closer to everything and everyone you meet along the way. No human life-line to turn to, when things get rough or intense, you have to endure— and enjoy—everything in solitude. At least for a writer that's good. Writing is all about practicing solitude, anyway.
My travels usually find their way into my writing with a certain delay, so to speak. Sometimes a year, or two, but sooner or later the experiences will find their way into my writing. I guess it takes time do digest your impressions and experiences, if you want to make literature out of it.
Q. Who are your main literary influences?
I read very much, and I always have. But I couldn't point out any specific influences, because I like to read as various as possible. Contemporary, as well as older literature. Poetry, prose. Fiction and non-fiction. Female writers and male ones. From all over the globe. To me variety is the very "core" of literature, and its raison d'être. I want all sorts of perspective on the world, told in as many different voices as possible.
Q. Swedish authors have been making a splash in the literary world during the past couple of decades, notably Stieg Larsson and other crime novelists. Have you noticed any common themes surfacing across Swedish fiction?
Social awareness is very important in Sweden, which is reflected in our literature, as well. The deconstruction of the welfare state is bound to give some sort of echo in the literature—and there's a lot of examples of that already.
We're just beginning to see literature coming from second generation of immigrants—fairly young people who's been born here in Sweden, but have parents with another ethnic background. The amount of immigrants and political refugees has been fairly high in Sweden since the 60s, and I think that will contribute to revitalizing our literature, now and in a close future.
Another trend is the very dominating stream of autobiographical literature that we;ve seen in the Nordic countries for a while. Sometimes it turns out interesting, but as a reader it doesn't appeal to me very much, I must admit. There's always the risk of it being too private, undigested and artistically/literary bleak.
Q. There is a brief mention of the Hyrrokkin myth in Breathless. Was Norse mythology a large part of your formal education? Is it a source you draw on often as a writer?
No, not really, but I'm sure all writers are more influenced by their cultural traditions than they can see for themselves. The context you live in may be a blind spot to yourself, but it doesn't make it less strong when it suddenly turns up in your work. I'm quite fascinated by that—all those sub conscious influences that leave more or less obvious traces in the novel you're working on. I usually see them when I've completed the work—or sometimes not until someone points them out to me. Although the references aren't always intended, of course a reader can see them and "decode" them.
And, yes, as for Hyrrokkin, I was really struck by that short passage in the Norse mythology, where she was mentioned. The thought of a giantesse is compelling, and we have a very long tradition of women being strong and independent in the Nordic countries—in life, as well as reflected in the sagas. And, all the same, it was just so typical to see that after Hyrrokkin showed her strength (in this saga) Thor wanted to kill her…When Hyrrokkin is mentioned in my novel it's like a prediction of what will come. That one day Lo will be too big for this narrow (and not very accepting) world she's born into. And she will rise in her full length —and leave.
Q. Was Nabokov's Lolita another inspiration for this story, particularly the character of Lo? Did you envision Lukas to be a predator?
Actually not, this story is more based on own experiences and as it happens my middle-name is Lo (or Lotta), but—more important—"lo" in Swedish is the animal "Lynx", a name which I think suits this girl well. The lynx is a rare and wild, sensitive but daring animal, and some of that applies to Lo too, the way I see her. And for me Lukas is not a predator. At least not consciously or viciously, but of course there's this physical tension/problem/risk when he grows older, filled with hormones and unreleased sexual tension, and he and Lo spends so much time so close together, almost like in a symbiosis. Symbiosis can be beautiful, but also dangerous for both parts.
Q. The landscape of childhood makes a wonderful backdrop for many stories. Do you think we ever get over our childhood years, or, like Lo, do we spend the rest of our lives either running from them or trying to reclaim them?
No, I don't think we ever fully get over our childhood years—if we don't suppress it (and if we do, it'll probably really start to haunt us, or have an impact on us…) I guess this is the reason so many writers return to this period of time, simply because it's such a strong and essential part of our lives—when everything happened for the first time. First love, first betrayal, first fear and adventure.
Having kids of my own is the best that has ever happened to me—also as a writer. They are now both in their late teens, and following them through their childhood made me re-live my own childhood, remembering so much of it…which was both thrilling and stirred up a lot of emotions.
I have the feeling I'm carrying all my ages inside me. Being thirteen and forty-three at the same time. Maybe it has to do with me being a writer—we have to have access to our whole life when we write. We can't afford to forget or suppress, since our experiences are the raw-material of our writing. But more or less I think all people are everybody they have ever been in their life so far—we carry all your experiences with us, for better and worse. You may just as well try to accept it, and see it as a gift of life. Although I can imagine it's easier for a writer to look upon (dark) memories as something valuable, since we can transform it into literature—hopefully.
Q. Lo's family is a complicated one, with mysteriously shifting dynamics. How do you think a person's place within his/her family shapes their character?
Tremendously much…I'd like us to be as free as we can, in this respect, but again, it's probably better to admit it actually do shapes and effects us, and try to work with it, if it's a problem or limits us in any way. And there's a lot of good things in families too, I mean it's our first "school" (for good and bad). It teaches us to be human beings. What if we were left alone in the woods and had to take care of and shape ourselves all on our own. We'd all turn out like variations of Caspar Hauser or all those stories of infants being brought up by the wolves. But then again the wolfs would be our family, they'd teach us right and wrong according to a wolf's way of seeing the world.
Very important in the family dynamics is of course weather you're the son or the daughter, and oldest, youngest or in the middle. All those issues of dominance and submission, and the different expectations parents will show each of their children will play an important part in shaping us. In a family everybody's shaping everybody. It's group dynamics in its purest form—and obviously depending on the environment, the time, cultural context and values this family exists is.
Q. Are you working on something new?
Yes, very intensely…A big, challenging project that I'd love to tell you all about, when it's completed. It has been thrilling and demanding at the same time, and I'm dying to finish it now, because however exciting it is to work on a big novel, it's exhausting too. But, like I said, highly simulating. Sorry if I sound a bit secretive, here. But I'm always quite cautious until I'm sure I can let other people into that world I just created, without it dissolving in front of me, loosing it's energy and sense of enigma.
- Fire is a dominant theme throughout Breathless. What do each of the fires in the novel symbolize? How else is fire used as a literary technique in this novel?
- Lukas is a complex character; in the eyes of Lo's family he is a predator, but in the eyes of Lo he is a loyal friend and co-conspirator. By the end of Breathless, what is your view of Lukas and Lo's relationship? Was it harmful and inappropriate, or nurturing and misunderstood? Provide examples from the story to support your claim.
- Lo's mother and Lo's grandfather, Bjorn, also have a complicated relationship. How does Lo's mother try to warn her daughter about men? Does she set a good example in her relationships or not?
- How does Jean-Luc Godard's 1960 film Breathless work within the novel? How do Lo and Lukas embody the spirit of Patricia and Michel? Does the film have a positive or negative influence on Lo and Lukas as children?
- How would you describe Lo's relationship with her mother? In what ways are their personalities similar and in what ways do they differ? How do secrets affect their relationship?
- Lo is raised not only by her parents but by her extended family all living under the same roof. With so many eyes watching her as a child, she seems to feel secure yet suffocated. Do you think her family's attention is part of what drives her into seclusion with Lukas? In what ways does her family make her feel more isolated?
- As a young adult, Lo is transient, restless, and haunted by her past. By the end of the novel she has returned to her home and her mother, who tells her what has become of her old friend. Do you think Lo is able to find peace in the truth? Explain your answer.
- Lo says that she began to read because she saw her mother escaping into novels and so she fostered a love for books as well. What other methods of escape—be it through entertainment or relationships—do the characters in this novel employ? Provide at least three examples.
- Lukas' relationship with his father is a silent one because of a language barrier and years of abuse. How does this relationship shape Lukas' character throughout the book? Does it ruin Lukas or make him stronger?
- Betrayal is another dominant theme in both the novel and the film, Breathless. Are certain betrayals necessary? Do any of the characters in this novel find forgiveness?