Translated from Swedish by Saskia Vogel
(New York: Other Press, 2019)
Acts of Infidelity is a novel about two very specific characters, the things they say to each other, and the complications that ensue. It is also a philosophical meditation on the concept of “the mistress” or other woman. The narrator posits that, within the male psyche, “the mistress as an idea constitutes a third counterpoint between the complementary woman/man. Her anatomy is a woman’s but her autonomy is a man’s. She is a third, the most frightening and most alluring, that which in the end must be pushed out of life’s bid for dualistic order.”
This theory implies that such affairs inevitably end in one of two ways: either the mistress is cast aside, or she comes to replace the wife. Acts of Infidelity depicts poet and essayist Ester Nilsson as she endeavors to reorient the life of married actor Olof Sten so that she becomes its center. The novel underscores the inherent power imbalance in Ester’s situation: for all her stratagems and schemes, the question of whether she will become a more permanent fixture in Olof’s life is his to answer.
The book has much in common with Andersson’s previous novel, Willful Disregard (Other Press, 2016), which examines Ester’s unrequited love for an older male artist, though one need not have read this earlier work to enjoy Acts of Infidelity. Still, the failure of this last pursuit does inform Ester’s attitude toward Olof, particularly in their relationship’s earliest stages. In one of their first conversations, Ester tells him matter-of-factly, “I want to share my life with you.” Though Olof protests, understandably, that she barely knows him, Ester feels it is essential “to be clear from the start,” wishing “to squash the possibility of Olof wriggling out … later by saying that her intentions had been nebulous.”
Ester strives throughout to maintain this high degree of precision in what she says. (It is fitting that, when not spending time with Olof, she devotes her energies to translating the work of German logician Gottlob Frege.) But she is also acutely attuned to linguistic ambiguity, and she obsesses over the various ways of interpreting Olof’s more laconic, noncommittal utterances. Indeed, much of the novel’s emotional drama turns on the issue of how wide a gulf exists between what is said and what is meant. So when Olof sends Ester a text message dissuading her from pursuing a romantic relationship with him, Ester interprets his seeming effort to distance himself as a signal that his interest has been piqued: “The act of sending the message could not be read as anything other than a wish to stay in contact, with all that this implied.” In a later scene, Ester spends New Year’s Eve apart from Olof and wonders if he’ll text her at midnight. On this occasion, she interprets the fact that he doesn’t text her as an auspicious sign, implying “what they had was so serious that it left no room for the banal.”
Acts of Infidelity invites readers to join Ester in trying to decide what actually constitutes an act of infidelity. In one scene, Olof brings Ester to an apartment where he is staying temporarily while pursuing one of his acting gigs. Entering the bedroom, she notices that it contains two beds, pushed slightly apart from each other, and she immediately begins to speculate on what this particular arrangement might signify: “Is this how he and the wife slept when she came to visit, or had he pulled the beds apart … so that Ester wouldn’t think that theirs was a marriage flaming with passion and she still had a chance? Or had he simply felt like getting her home with him tonight and in an ambivalent countermanoeuvre separated the beds so as to confound any forbidden thoughts and to demonstrate that he absolutely was not thinking anything erotic in spite of the invitation?”
Ester’s difficulties identifying Olof’s true feelings are compounded by the fact that he has his own distinct relationship to language: like the actor he is, Olof “believed that reality was created through statements.” He insists on calibrating his utterances in order to minimize his own culpability in the affair, speaking so that “an imagined audience would find it plausible that what had happened between him and Ester Nilsson was an accident in which he was barely involved.” Having invited her to the apartment with the separated beds, he shows her to the guest bedroom, saying, “Sleep well, Ester. If you get lonely, you can join me.” At one point, he sends her a blank text message — an act that exemplifies his desire to remain in contact with her without committing himself to anything specific.
As these descriptions of Olof’s behavior should imply, Acts of Infidelity powerfully captures the frustration of pursuing someone who wishes neither to commit nor to break things off. Ester is a captivating protagonist, and her efforts to produce consistently optimistic interpretations for Olof’s inconsistent actions are at once funny and poignant. There’s only one problem with the novel’s psychological realism: Olof himself. The power of Ester’s passion for this man is foundational to the story, but it’s not a passion readers are likely to share. Ester’s claim that they possess uniquely strong physical chemistry is belied by the novel’s underwhelming descriptions: “They lay close together. It was self-evident and needed no discussion”; “A few exceptional minutes of Ester’s life went by…” Even apart from these scenes, Olof does not achieve on the page the level of charm and irresistibility that would justify Ester’s enduring fascination with him. Still, the measure of our dissatisfaction with Olof is also the measure of our sympathies for Ester, as the novel vividly chronicles the emotional havoc he wreaks upon her otherwise logical, well-ordered life.
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Greg Chase is a writer who lives in Boston. His work has appeared in such forums as Harvard Review Online, Rain Taxi, Guernica, and The Millions. He holds a PhD in English from Boston University and currently teaches at the College of the Holy Cross. To read more of his work, go to gregchasewriting.com.