Astrid Lind­gren

Irish Independent - Weekend Review - - FRONT PAGE -

Was there ever a fic­tional hero­ine like Pippi Long­stock­ing, the lit­tle girl with odd stock­ings, car­rot-coloured pig­tails and su­per­hu­man strength who lives by her­self with a pet mon­key and a horse? When bur­glars try to steal her stash of gold coins, first she ties them up with rope, then teaches them how to dance a polka.

On one of her very rare for­ays into a school, she de­clares to the class that, at schools in Ar­gentina, chil­dren sim­ply eat sweets all day. She makes gin­ger snaps by rolling out dough on the kitchen floor and sleeps the wrong way round in bed.

When the first Pippi Long­stock­ing book was pub­lished in 1945 (there would be three in all), a few con­ser­va­tive com­men­ta­tors in Swe­den de­nounced this merry in­sub­or­di­nate as “de­praved”. Chil­dren in­stantly saw in her a kin­dred spirit. A year later, her cre­ator Astrid Lind­gren was al­ready talk­ing about her “fright­en­ing pop­u­lar­ity”. “’Tell us about Pippi Long­stock­ing’ was all I ever heard wher­ever I went,” she said in 1946. “I felt as though this fan­tas­ti­cal char­ac­ter must have hit a sore spot in their child­ish souls.”

Lind­gren orig­i­nally be­gan telling sto­ries about naughty Pippi to amuse her young daugh­ter Karin, born in 1934, while the lat­ter was stuck in bed with a fever. But in this re­flec­tive bi­og­ra­phy, Jens An­der­sen ar­gues that Pippi — who re­jects all forms of author­ity and is par­tic­u­larly adept at dis­arm­ing BI­OG­RA­PHY Jens An­der­sen Yale, hard­back, 360 pages, €13.99 dis­plays of male ag­gres­sion — owes her cu­ri­ous com­bi­na­tion of ex­u­ber­ance and patho­log­i­cal paci­fism to Hitler.

Lind­gren’s ha­tred for to­tal­i­tar­ian ide­olo­gies — those of Stalin and Mus­solini, too, as well as of the Führer — is de­tailed at length in the ex­cel­lent A World Gone Mad: The Wartime Di­aries of Astrid Lind­gren. In the story Pippi Goes to the Cir­cus, Pippi tri­umphs over the dic­ta­to­rial, whip-crack­ing ring mas­ter who bears a strik­ing re­sem­blance to Hitler, right down to his nar­cis­sis­tic ob­ses­sion with his hair. In 1944, in a let­ter to her first pub­lisher, Lind­gren re­ferred to Pippi as “a lit­tle Über­men­sch in child form”.

An­der­sen paints an en­tic­ing pic­ture of Lind­gren as an in­stinc­tively self-suf­fi­cient woman, as de­ter­mined to buck against gen­der con­ven­tions as her hero­ine Pippi is. Born Astrid Eric­s­son in 1907, in the ru­ral back­wa­ter of Vim­merby, she was the el­dest of four in a fam­ily of farm­ers. By 16, she had chopped off her hair, favour­ing trousers and a cap, in trib­ute to La Garçonne, the eman­ci­pated hero­ine of Vic­tor Mar­gueritte’s best­selling 1922 novel. Al­ways am­bi­tious and bright, af­ter school she be­came a trainee jour­nal­ist, only to be­come preg­nant at 18 by her mar­ried ed­i­tor.

She had the child, Lars, in Den­mark in 1927, and for the first few years of his life, a fos­ter fam­ily brought him up. Her lover got a di­vorce, but Lind­gren re­jected his of­fer of mar­riage in 1928, partly be­cause she found him con­trol­ling and partly be­cause it would mean mov­ing back to Vim­merby to be­come step­mother to his seven chil­dren. In­stead, she chose the emo­tional and fi­nan­cial chal­lenges of life as a sin­gle mother, work­ing her­self to the bone in Stock­holm to earn money to sup­port Lars, and mak­ing the long trip to Den­mark to see him as often as she could.

Th­ese years were tough. Money was so tight she could rarely af­ford a bed on the overnight train to Copen­hagen, so spent the night sit­ting up. She was de­pressed, telling her brother she felt “lonely and poor, and lonely”. In a let­ter to her sis­ter in 1929, af­ter the worst ap­peared over, she de­scribed her­self as “a soon-to-be-ex can­di­date for sui­cide.”

Yet aw­ful though much of this pe­riod was, An­der­sen ar­gues that it gave Lind­gren much of the emo­tional ma­te­rial she later re­lied on to sus­tain one of the most suc­cess­ful writ­ing ca­reers of mod­ern times. Her en­forced ab­sence from her son dur­ing the first three years of his life left her with a pro­found and fas­ci­nated em­pa­thy for lonely or aban­doned chil­dren.

For all the an­tic dis­po­si­tion of many of her fic­tional cre­ations, they are often vul­ner­a­ble, too. Sev­eral “iso­lated” chil-

Lind­gren re­jected his pro­posal, partly be­cause she found him con­trol­ling and partly be­cause it would mean be­com­ing step­mother to his seven chil­dren

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