Our white bookshelf in the house I grew up was packed full of books. As a child, I looked at the spines of the books, whispering titles I often didn’t understand. It was something exciting about all those words. The new ones I learned, and those I didn’t yet understand but would learn. It was comforting to think that one I day I would understand everything that was written in those books. They carried a promise of a life rich in content. Certain books were so well-loved that the pages came loose from the binding. Others were stiff and unused.
One of the books drew my attention more than the others, but it took many years before I dared to open it. It was thick and blue and the title on the spine said: From Drifter to Millionaire. The author was Alvar Lindmark – my grandfather who had died the same year I was born. I was keenly interested in him. There was something very special about my grandfather, I had understood that much. What it was, I didn’t know. Perhaps it was only that he was dead. I didn’t know that many dead people.
My grandfather had invented an elevator and founded the company Alimak. He had been a millionaire celebrity, it was said. Grandfather had been on television in 1970, something rare in those days. The Genius from Burträsk was the name of the documentary. Genius, that was someone who was really smart, and I wasn’t just curious about grandfather but proud as well. But that wasn’t encouraged. Father told me I shouldn’t run around talking about grandfather. People could take it the wrong way, he said. As if there was something beneath a very fragile surface that we had to protect and keep within the family.
When I was eleven years old I worked up the courage to take the thick, blue book from the shelf. I was home alone. I expected words, to get to know grandfather through the words. But what I found was something entirely different. The book consisted of empty pages.
I had never opened a book completely void of words and pictures. But this was no ordinary book and I had no ordinary grandfather. My grandfather’s story was large and heavy, like the book, and just as impenetrable. The book became a symbol for the story that was never told, but that now began to take up more and more space inside me.
Perhaps there were words, for adult ears, for family members aware of grandfather’s complexity. His life and personality had been so odd that people might doubt that the story of him was true. There could be misunderstandings. Gossip was dangerous; silence, a defence against that.
I was forced to contain my curiosity about my grandfather for many years. I posed fewer questions. Later, when father died a premature death, the silence became more painful. As an adult, the curiosity grew into an obsession when I decided to write the book, that after six years of work became the auto fictitious novel In the Shadow of a Genius.
The silence that earlier generations had left behind created this need for words. The absence of the words became fissures that I needed to fill, to know who I was and where I stood in the world. The silence seemed to have created riddles which became the fuel that helped me write my book. The fragments were scattered and difficult to find. I had to search in people’s verbal accounts, in written documents, and within myself. I pieced together one fragment at a time into a story not just about grandfather, but also about myself.
It feels almost sacred to visualise how I filled grandfather’s empty, blue book with content. Like a spiritual assignment I’d received. Why my grandfather had made an empty book, I still don’t know. Today, I no longer feel the need to know. The character in the novel I’d created through my writing had become so cohesive that I don’t need more facts to understand. My understanding is instead intuitive, birthed by a long chain of processed knowledge.
I have reconciled myself with that. Complexity is okay and the answers to certain questions need an entire book to be brought into the right light.
I know something else now as well. That my grandfather also wrote to process his experiences. During my writing process, I found another, equally thick, blue volume that did contain words – memoirs he wrote during a difficult time in his life. That book didn’t reach any readers outside the immediate circle of our family, and lay for many years hidden in a trunk. Perhaps the purpose of the story was mostly to provide him with an outlet for difficult emotions. Maybe grandfather wasn’t ready to allow a reader in. It turned out that we had writing in common.
However, unlike him, I continued to process my story and allowed it to become a book for the wider public. A book now sitting in other people’s bookshelves.
Anna is a writer, lecturer and workshop leader at Write Your Self. She believes in play as one of the most serious/important things we as humans can devote ourselves to, and that imagination is necessary to understand and repare our reality.
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