A World Gone Mad: The Diaries of Astrid Lindgren 1939-45 (translated by Sarah Death)

I have a confession: I’m not a huge fan of books set in or about either of the world wars. So much has been written about events – both non-fiction and fictionalised accounts – that I wonder what’s left to say, what new angle can be discovered or created. I tell you this so you know when I say that Astrid Lindgren’s diaries, written during the second world war, are compelling reading, you know I mean it.

What’s different about Lindgren’s take on events is that she was writing a diary, documenting life during the war while living in Sweden, a neutral country. The diary reads as an attempt to make sense of developments for herself. Her comments on politics and strategy sit alongside mentions of her own life and that of her family. She is married to Sture and they have two children, Lars (nicknamed Lasse) and Karin.

2 September 1939

It’s Children’s Day today, and dear me, what a day for it! I took Karin up to the park this afternoon and that was when I saw the official notice that all men born in 1898 [Sture’s year of birth] would be called up. I tried to read the newspaper while Karin went on the slide but I couldn’t, I just sat there with tears rising in my throat.

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She’s forthright as to her views on Hitler, ‘It’s a shame nobody’s shot Hitler’, but is often no less critical of the allies. A humane streak runs through her comments, particularly when she worries about the cold in Russia that soldiers on both sides have to contend with.

Two threads to her narrative are of particular interest. The first are those which indicate similarities to the world we’re living in today:

In the end the world will be so full of hate that it chokes us.

Poor human race: when I read their letters I’m staggered by the amount of sickness and distress, grief, unemployment, poverty and despair that can be fitted into this wretched earth.

Sweden is pretty much flooded with refugees. We apparently have about 50,000 of them here.

The second is about Lindgren’s writing. It was during this period that she was first published and began to write the Pippi Longstocking books. Although there isn’t a huge amount about her work until later in the diaries, there are little gems about her work and particularly how it’s being received. Dagens Nyheter returned both pieces she’d sent to them:

On one of them, Staffan Tjerneld had written some comments, starting with ‘The girl can write, there’s no question about it, but it was too short and not true enough to life, hah hah!

Lindgren’s diaries were published posthumously in Sweden, after being discovered in a wicker laundry basket at her home. In the introduction to the English edition, the translator, Sarah Death, quotes another Swedish writer, Kerstin Ekman:

War diaries were kept by general staff and units out in the field…It is striking to think of this 32-year-old mother of two and office-worker taking on the same sort of task with such seriousness. But only for herself, to try to understand what was going on.

In doing so, Lindgren’s given us another perspective on the second world war, one that makes fascinating reading about a young woman’s daily life in extraordinary circumstances.

 

Thanks to Pushkin Press for the review copy.