January 2012

What the Swedes Read

A Reader Makes His Way Through One Book By Each Nobel Laureate

by Daniel Handler
  • LAUREATE: Carl Spitteler (1919, Switzerland)
  • BOOK READ: Two Little Misogynists (translated by Mme. la Vicomtesse de Roquette-Buisson)

It’s an odd side effect of my booky life that I find myself with huge, empty chunks of time free in cities in which I do not know a soul, leaving a slick hotel to walk around a neighborhood not built for walking, until at last it’s time to be picked up for the reading. I won’t name the city, because I have no wish to insult my charming hosts, and the city doesn’t matter anyway, because these neighborhoods I’m talking about—neighborhoods isn’t even the right word, they’re really developments—are in just about every city I’ve visited. It’s either where a downtown died and then was torn completely down and replaced with this, or where nothing was, which was then torn completely down and replaced with this, some miles from the downtown, which is too deserted and spooky even to demolish. There are bland office buildings with wide, shiny staircases, and huge chain restaurants with speakers outside playing pop tunes from years increasingly close to the years I went to high school. There are home-furnishings stores with specific fantasies in the windows—Let’s have an ice-cream party! Let’s have an all-green living room!—and clothing stores with mannequins in flat, gleamy clothing. There are wide promenades suitable for nothing so much as skateboarding, which is not allowed, and there are sidewalks that stop suddenly at parking lots and leave me squeezing between clean parked SUVs. There are art galleries with Marilyn Monroe in them. There’s a Whole Foods. I might have five or six hours to kill.

These places are really weird, and I’m always berating myself for finding them weird. It’s not as if I haven’t bought garlic presses and dining-room tables and Granny Smith apples from these exact businesses, I remind myself, and it’s not that my life at home is so fascinatingly revolutionary that a few hours of bland capitalism should give me the shakes. But it does. It’s weird. It’s a fancy and managed world, so carefully constructed that there’s no sign of anything other than the developers’ plans. It makes me feel utterly adrift. I always tell myself that I could call a cab and find the part of town that wasn’t built from a kit, but I hardly ever do. I usually just have a huge lunch and then, soaked with calories, read on my hotel bed.

That’s how I read Two Little Misogynists, a short, apparently autobiographical work by Carl Spitteler about three children taking a walk.

We hope you enjoy this excerpt.

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Daniel Handler writes books under his own name and as Lemony Snicket.

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