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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Collected Works

Lydia Sandgren

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To purchase Collected Works

Title: Collected Works
Author: Lydia Sandgren
Genre: Novel
Written: 2020 (Eng. 2023)
Length: 593 pages
Original in: Swedish
Availability: Collected Works - US
Collected Works - UK
Collected Works - Canada
Gesammelte Werke - Deutschland
La famiglia Berg - Italia
Obras reunidas - España
from: Bookshop.org (US)
  • Swedish title: Samlade verk
  • Translated by Agnes Broomé
  • Augustpriset, 2020

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Our Assessment:

B : solid and entertaining family novel

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Aftonbladet A+ 30/3/2020 C.-M.Edenborg
Financial Times . 31/3/2023 Catherine Taylor
The Guardan A- 30/3/2023 Barney Norris
El País . 12/5/2022 Javier Aparicio Maydeu
The Spectator . 15/4/2023 Jude Cook
Svenska Dagbladet . 30/3/2020 Therese Eriksson
Swedish Book Review . (2/2022) Kathy Saranpa
The Telegraph B+ 24/3/2023 Lucy Scholes
The Times . 24/3/2023 Susie Goldsbrough
TLS . 31/3/2023 David Annand

  From the Reviews:
  • "De nästan 700 sidornas lyskraft lägger det mesta av den svenska samtidslitteraturen i skugga. (...) Den är en lysande roman. Den vittnar om litteraturens rikedom och kraft. (...) Djupast ned växer texten ur frågor om litteratur och tänkande; om frihet och kärlek; om hur vi ska leva. (...) Samlade verk är livfull och rolig. Men dess grundmodus är vemod. Den föds ur trauman som dödsfall, försvinnanden, svek, förluster. (...) Om romanen iscensätter en boxningsmatch mellan livet och litteraturen, blev det uppenbart vem som vann på knockout. Lydia Sandgrens Samlade verk är helt enkelt den högsta formen av verklighetsflykt: den som gör verkligheten rikare, som skänker liv." - Carl-Michael Edenborg, Aftonbladet

  • "Although there is an inevitable marketing comparison to Karl Ove Knausgaard, the novel is more akin to a witty, toothy, family saga, unashamedly intellectual but rarely bogged down by the weight of its theories. (...) It’s refreshing to read such a confidently ambitious work that holds art, literature and philosophy close to its heart. The denouement rushes to meet us and is not entirely satisfactory, with too many hastily tied-up loose ends. Nevertheless, Collected Works is an assured, bittersweet novel that, like youth, seems to have it all -- energy, aspiration, and self-delusion." - Catherine Taylor, Financial Times

  • "It’s utterly gripping stuff, and if it didn’t weigh in at more than 700 pages, Collected Works would be one of those books one reads in a single sitting. Sandgren has constructed a delicious combination of a detective thriller with an achingly beautiful extended look at the way youth washes over a group of compelling characters in the last decades of the 20th century, only to leave them stranded in the 21st, wondering what happened. (...) So ending the book with the feeling that something has been taken away is not out of keeping with the rest of the work -- but it is maddening for the reader all the same." - Barney Norris, The Guardian

  • "At more than 700 pages, Collected Works is not without its shortcomings. With its Franzenian scope and amplitude, there’s an admirable confidence and ambition at work here. Yet one occasionally longs for more darkness, danger and psychological penetration. (...) Ably translated by Agnes Broomé, Collected Works is eminently readable and engrossing, demonstrating that the traditional pleasures of narrative and character often trump many a nebulous ‘experiment with form’." - Jude Cook, The Spectator

  • "Collected Works is a tour de force and it is hard to think of another debut novel with so much promise and heft. Longing and memory drive the story, but it's also a novel about writing -- something intimately involved with both of these." - Kathy Saranpa, Swedish Book Review

  • "Part bildungsroman, part psychological mystery and part family saga, Collected Works largely delivers on its grand ambition. Sandgren is great on detail (.....) The novel has the feel of one of Gustav’s mag­nificent oils; layer upon layer of careful brush strokes and colour that amount to something close to photorealism. (...) One thing I wouldn’t call this book, though, is propulsive. It proceeds at a leisurely, unhurried -- some might even say self-indulgent -- pace. It’s a novel to savour, not to tear through, and for this reason alone, I can’t honestly say that I loved it. " - Lucy Scholes, The Telegraph

  • "This kind of self-centredness is hardly the exception in Collected Works, which pulls no punches when it comes to skewering the preening, posturing, down-punching Swedish intellectual elite. (...) Wittgenstein is just one of many philosophers and artists invoked, but the author doesn’t allow big ideas to overburden the plot: explosive revelations arrive with a slap whenever things begin to drag. Schrödinger also appears, and the novel’s interest in impish paradoxicality even attains a formal expression: this is a book that manages to be both far too long and, somehow, pretty much exactly the right length." - David Annand, Times Literary Supplement

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The central figure in Collected Works is publisher Martin Berg, of Berg & Andrén, an independent publisher putting out about twenty titles a year which, as the novel opens, is set to celebrate its twenty-fifth anniversary. A short Prologue introduces Martin -- turning fifty this year, and looking back on his work (and failure) not as a publisher but as a writer, surrounded by piles of: "papers, papers, and more papers", all of it notes and half-finished projects. He has only a single publication credit to his name, in an anthology "of promising writers born in the sixties".
       Martin lives in Gothenburg; he has a teenage son, Elis, and a daughter, university student Rakel ("tertiary education seemed to be what she was made for"), currently studying psychology. A gaping void in their lives is Martin's wife Cecilia, the mother of the children: "She left fifteen years ago and never came back. No one knows where she went". The one other person who looms large in Martin's life is successful painter Gustav Becker, whom Martin first befriended in secondary school -- and, as we soon learn, many of whose paintings feature Cecilia ("There are more than thirty portraits of her in Becker's catalog") or Rakel.
       The three-part novel moves back and forth between the present and (mostly) Martin's past, beginning more or less when he met Gustav. Interspersed throughout are brief excerpts from an extensive interview Martin gives to industry magazine Svensk Bokhandel (a Swedish Publishers Weekly or The Bookseller).
       The present-day scenes move towards and then include two major events that look to the past, the anniversary-celebration of the publishing house and a major museum retrospective of Gustav's work. There is also a book that Martin gives Rakel, which he asks her to prepare a readers report on, so that he can decide whether or not he wants to buy the Swedish rights for it. It is a novel by a German author, Philip Franke, titled Ein Jahr der Liebe ('A Year of Love'), and Rakel is slow in getting to it -- until she realizes that the woman in the novel very closely resembles her mother.
       The novel rambles along agreeably enough with its cast of quite interesting characters, for the most part contrasting past and present in an intriguing fashion. Young Martin is determined to become a writer, but determination only gets him so far; as readers can guess from the piles of unfinished work that represent his entire output, he was always lacking in follow-through. There's still that biography of (the fictional author) William Wallace he's working on, but he never seems to have gotten that much further with the novel that he hoped would be his magnum opus than trying out possible titles: "Via Au Revoir Antibes (too pretentious), Project X (an uninspiring provisional title), and Youth (nondescript), he'd circuitously returned to the incomprehensible but tantalizing title Night Thoughts". Meanwhile, the in every respect more casual Gustav also remains unfocused in his own way -- and: "never bought a computer, never had an email address, never a mobile phone" -- but fell very easily into a success that from the first he barely goes through the motions of playing along with (to his gallerist's annoyance).
       While Cecilia, is very much absent in the present-day, the scenes from years earlier chronicling her relationship with Martin do flesh her out well. She inherited the family's knack for languages -- and grew up in Ethiopia (and so also speaks Amharic), where her father worked as a doctor. She translated Wittgenstein's diaries, and published two books of her own before she disappeared (more than Martin ...). Intellectually curious, she also struggles some as a mother, with difficult labors and Elis, for example, being colicky. And:

One Saturday morning in April, the Berg family had woken up to find Cecilia missing. It was just a few weeks after she had successfully defended her doctoral thesis, and the plan had been for her to take up a position as a lecturer in the department the following autumn. She'd left a letter addressed to Martin in which she informed him she'd left. The police dropped the investigation since there were no signs of anything untoward having taken place. Everyone had figured she'd come back eventually, or at least be in touch, but they'd turned out to be mistaken. Thirty-three-year-old Cecilia Berg, mother of two and promising scholar, had vanished without a trace.
       It's a promising premise for a novel, a mystery that Sandgren builds her novel around from two sides: events leading up to it (albeit focused more on Martin than Cecilia) and then the situation fifteen years later. Both sides are quite fully developed, and at considerable length (the novel does clock in at just under six hundred pages). The before is something of a Bildungsroman, following Martin from adolescence to adulthood as father and semi-successful publisher. The present-day finds Martin's two children increasingly independent but still struggling to find their way, Gustav seemingly more or less unchanged, despite the great success he's had, and Martin wondering where it all went -- the years, his writerly ambitions, and, yes, his wife.
       Figuring also in all this is the book that saved the publishing house, the one breakout hit they lucked into, A Season in Hell by Lucas Bell (eventually also made into a film, starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Winona Ryder ...), as well as Ein Jahr der Liebe, with Rakel increasingly turning her attention to it -- she begins to translate it as well -- and then even seeking out its author.
       If the trappings of a kind of mystery are all elaborately there, Sandgren isn't all that interested in simple (re)solutions. Both what made Cecilia take such a drastic step and then also what became of her are more and less loosely addressed, and, of course, there's the suspense of whether she will pop back up into Martin and the children's lives in one way or another, but Collected Works is mostly built up on her absence. Clues that her disappearance isn't as complete as Martin has long believed do crop up from early on, not least in the form of Ein Jahr der Liebe -- but even these lead more to more questions than satisfying answers. Instead, Collected Works is a kind of assemblage of (connected-)character portraits, or indeed a collective portrait of a family in the largest sense of the word -- shaped, in no small part by Cecilia's presence and then absence, but hardly only so.
       Early on in his relationship with Cecilia Martin is shown wondering:
(W)hat is the point of family ? Family hemmed in individuals through arbitrary prohibitions and rules that had to be followed, not for any rational reason, but simply because that's how it was done, which was completely unintellectual. In fact -- this was something Martin had been thinking about for a while -- in fact, philosophy and family could be thought of as diametrical opposites. Families were collectives that acted according to obscure patterns and irrational justifications. Philosophers, on the other hand, were solitary creatures of the mind, soaring high above the mishmash of family in a celestial craft built of thought alone: by default, a philosopher worked alone.
       For better and worse, Martin can't escape family; the philosophical life is a kind of ideal that, like writing, he ultimately isn't equipped to follow through with. His failure as a writer show his limitations -- but also make him the man he is: a good family man, a good boss. Cecilia, on the other hand, proves to be cut out to be a (more) solitary mind-person -- even as she never entirely cuts herself off from other people.
       Collected Works long feels like it must be working up to a clarifying reveal -- presumably involving some resolution with or regarding Cecilia. Admirably, Sandgren doesn't opt for the easy course in the end: there is at least one surprising and very big turn, but the novel's build-up isn't to a simple resolution but rather a much more open-ended one. Without everything being tied up neatly, the novel doesn't offer easy satisfaction in its end, but that's not what Sandgren ever was after; so also the novel's bulk was to a purpose -- indeed, in some sense is its purpose. Like Martin's own 'collected works' there's an intentionally fragmented and unfinished feel to Collected Works -- reflecting life itself, after all, as it does not usually proceed or unwind in the neatest and most predictable way.
       Cecilia's life certainly seems more interesting than Martin's -- even before she left (and at least there are some glimpses of some of her formative experiences) -- but Martin's story is an often entertaining one, complete with year-abroad in France in his youth (with Gustav) and a variety of interesting experiences. Rakel, too, in particular, is given a significant role, and along with Gustav there's quite good breadth to the novel.
       It all makes for a good read -- though, despite its length, one can be left feeling there's less there than one would have wished. Sandgren writes her story well, and Collected Works is consistently engaging, but there could have been even more to it.

- M.A.Orthofer, 19 February 2023

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Collected Works: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Swedish author Lydia Sandgren was born in 1987.

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© 2023 the complete review

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