Lamentations of the Woman: Irreverent Feminism in Therese Bohman’s “Eventide”

Besides her newly single life, there’s her approach to her career. She does what you’re not supposed to do. And she wants her peers to express opinions, not prepackaged ideas — “anything, just as long as they expressed some kind of feeling for the work itself and not just the theories surrounding it.”
No, she’s not a typical academic, nor a typical feminist. She’s not distinguishing herself with her own work, and isn’t finding fulfillment in the success of a younger man blasphemy for an independent, intelligent woman? Why couldn’t she have just gotten married and had children? ¤
Randy Rosenthal is a writer and editor currently studying religion and literature at Harvard Divinity School. She thinks how you’re not supposed to think. We are here to understand why they look as they do. We’re not here to decide that the artists back then had an unacceptable view of women, and that these pictures are appalling. Karolina wants insights, not fish-in-a-barrel commentary condemning art as objectifying or misogynist. She knows that relativism is fashionable, that one is supposed to talk of “the equal value of all expressions of culture,” but even back in her undergrad years “she had instinctively known that she didn’t think that way.” And now during faculty meetings she has an urge to scream, “Why do you want to destroy everything?”
While showing examples of motifs of how women are depicted, she warns her students away from the lazy thinking found on most campuses and in too many comments sections:
I want you to remember that we can’t demand the political correctness of today from pictures that are a hundred and twenty, a hundred and thirty years old. But then again, as a colleague tells her, “Failure is merely a question of perspective.” Karolina lives by her own terms, and that alone is a courageous kind of success. She knows she didn’t love Karl, just as she knows she won’t be able to love Robban, the man from her hometown with whom she has a fling. Bohman pushes this dilemma throughout the book, distilling its main thematic concerns to Karolina’s resigned question, “What was the point of the feminist struggle […] as long as the biology stayed the same?” Bohman’s issue is not the motivation behind feminism but the product of it. She once imagined her fellow professors would be having intellectual discussions, but now she understands that academia is just “a workplace like any other, with the same topics of conversation: the weather, the weekend, the kids, TV programs, the contents of today’s lunchbox.” She, however, loves art and culture “with a pathos and a conviction that she knew was old-fashioned, maybe even inappropriate.”
For Karolina, art is religion; at one point she walks past a museum, “a building in which she would have wanted to pray to a god. It’s not fair. Karolina is no different:
[She] had recently paid around two thousand kroners for a cream that contained snake venom. Karolina is a professor of art history who specializes in the portrayal of women at the turn of the 20th century. She’s a cheater, encourages others to cheat, and has inappropriate relationships that could get her fired. But Anders has children and is splitting from his wife … until they decide to get back together for the children. If she believed in a god.” But in academia there’s nothing that smells fishier than the words pray and god. she often asks herself. “[R]ight out of the catalogue,” as Philip Marlowe would say. “Ordinary people are so spoiled with their ordinary lives that they don’t even reflect on the fact that they have them.” But she can’t be ordinary even if she wants to. She wanted to give her body to men who definitely didn’t deserve her mind.”
She knows this is a terribly unfeminist thing to feel, but it’s her truth. That is to say, it all comes down to desire, mating. She’s fortysomething, childless, and lives alone in Stockholm — in a smaller apartment and crummier neighborhood than those she recently shared with her partner of 11 years, Karl Johan. She can see herself falling for the editor Hans Jerup, but after they sleep together he admits he has a celebrity girlfriend back in Copenhagen — a much younger and pregnant girlfriend. It produced a mild allergic reaction that caused the skin to plump up just enough to make the wrinkles less prominent. “Surely biology couldn’t get the better of her, when she had read so many books?” It’s easy to picture Bohman smirking at Karolina as she wrote this, thinking, Oh, yes it could. Like Drowned and The Other Woman, Eventide is full of damn fine writing, but it’s the novel’s irreverent attitude toward feminism that makes it as challenging as it is necessary to read. She drinks a river of wine and wastes a lot of time on the internet. No matter how much a person may want to be admired for her brains, she still wants to be admired for her looks, too. “In this most secular and liberated age,” Karolina thinks, “[feminism] has created fresh taboos that she enjoyed using for her fantasies. Karolina is the heroine, but there’s really nothing in her life to root for. And by expressing it, Bohman’s novel seems to be saying that no matter how intellectual people like to think they are, sexuality inevitably runs the show. APRIL 13, 2018
IT’S RARE WHEN a literary character is defined by what they think and not by who they are or what they do. Maybe she really is a failure. The only plot development the reader can hold on to, since all of Karolina’s romantic relationships evaporate before they can begin to solidify, is the potential breakthrough of her PhD advisee’s research. Such catalog thinking is shown by her more successful (male) colleague Lennart Olsson, who declares that Karolina’s PhD advisee will be looking at “an extremely important feminist body of work.” Karolina responds, “I realize that’s a key word when you’re applying for grants, Lennart, but the fact that the artist is a woman doesn’t make this feminist research.”
In fact, while embodying the result of feminism — she is an independent, highly educated, relatively successful academic in a male-dominated field — she spends much of the book lamenting her life choices. Yet the irony is that these thoughts are provocative because women like her are not supposed to be thinking them. That’s not what women her age are supposed to do, and now she has to get used to the pitying looks that say, “Women in their forties don’t dump their partner. To her most thinking regarding feminism, or any -ism, is unoriginal. Just the same, Karolina is so well drawn that she’ll be instantly recognizable to readers familiar with the existential struggle articulated in the famous line from Dante’s Inferno, “Midway in the journey of our life I found myself in a dark wood, for the straight way was lost.” (Bohman quotes it for Eventide’s epigraph.)
But is a well-drawn character enough to sustain a novel? She’s vain and opportunistic, and she admits she’s deceived everyone she has ever known. But what does that have to do with her? But she wasn’t in love with Karl, so she broke up with him. Herein lies the allure of Karolina Andersson, the protagonist of Eventide, Swedish author Therese Bohman’s third novel to be translated into English by Marlaine Delargy. The man she really wants is Anders, with whom she had a sustained affair while she was with Karl. You’re not supposed to mix emotion and beliefs with scholarship. You’ve really made a mess of things now.”
But that’s just the thing that’s attractive about Karolina. These men can date and marry and have children at any age, while she feels like “a failure, as if I’ve wasted years that I can never get back. Maybe the most important kind. Particularly as I’m a woman, and that […] damned biological clock is ticking away.” Yes, for an original thinker Karolina still has such commonplace thoughts.