Gustaf Hellström: Snörmakare Lekholm får en idé (Lacemaker Lekholm Has an Idea)
Hellström’s best-known novel is the only one of his novels to be translated into English, though it is long out of print in both languages. It is a family saga, told with great humour but also clearly a certain amount of sympathy for the people of his region in Skåne. It starts with the arrival in Sweden of Dr Charles Holmes, born Kalle Lekholm. He has not been back home for twenty years and, indeed, has had no contact with his family since his departure. We soon learn that he was not always well-behaved as a child and that he left after committing some unspecified crime, the reason for his precipitous departure. We only learn the details of the crime towards the end of the book. He agonises about seeing his father again – it soon becomes clear that the crime involved his father in some way – and hesitates to contact him. Meanwhile, we get the story of the family.
The Lacemaker of the title is Pehr Anders. His claim to fame is that he fought for Denmark in the First Schleswig War, specifically at the battle for Kolding. His continual telling of his military exploits, however, does not win him renown but ridicule, particularly from his family, who are tired of his stories. However, even soon after his return he is mocked. There is only one man in town who listens to his tales and he becomes close to this man and eventually marries the man’s daughter, Augusta. Augusta is not happy with the marriage but she was not an attractive woman and had had no other offers so reluctantly accepts him. Theirs is not a happy marriage, not least because she is always mocking and criticising him. Hellström tells us several tales of their marriage. For example, he was accustomed to going out once a week with his friends and returning drunk. Eventually, Augusta locked up his smart coat, which he used to wear to these events. However, to her surprise, he made such a fuss and said it would reflect badly on her if he appeared in a rough coat that she handed over the coat. When he returned home, late and drunk, he found the door locked. He managed to get in via the attic.
Pehr had a much younger brother, Oscar. As their parents had died when Oscar was still a child, Pehr looks after him. When he learns from the teacher that Oscar is bright, he agrees, to Augusta’s annoyance, to fund Oscar’s studies initially for the priesthood but then in medicine. This carries on for many years, as Oscar never quite gets around to taking his exams but does seem to enjoy the bright lights and runs up large debts which, of course, he calls on his brother to pay. Indeed, Pehr has to take out a mortgage to pay the debts but assures Augusta that it will be worthwhile when Oscar qualifies as a doctor. But then things go wrong for Pehr. Much of his work is doing lacework for the regimental uniforms of his former regiments. However, he is underbid and loses the contract. As they have the mortgage for Oscar’s debts and the loss of the contract, the family is suddenly in great debt. They move to a smaller house and Augusta is very good at cutting costs. For much of the rest of the book, Lacemaker Lekholm sits in a corner doing very little. He is still alive, aged one hundred, when Charles Holmes returns. He does have one further claim to fame. When the King visits the town, Pehr puts on his old uniform and stands conspicuously in the centre of the town. The King notices him and speaks to him and even gives him a further medal.
Pehr and Augusta have many children, including Pehr, Carl and Anders. It is Carl who is father to Charles/Kalle. He joins the army at a lowly rank, to his father’s horror. Lacemaker Pehr had hoped that, with his lacemaking success, the family had gained more status in the town but their misfortunes had knocked them back down again. In his spare time, Carl teaches maths both to aspiring lieutenants as well as to children and hence is nicknamed The Mathematician. He is also strict, so much so that his younger brother, Anders, is scared of him. Anders is musical but he also joins the army, playing in the band. Anders, however, is a drunk and, while he gets away with it for a while, even joining the Good Templars Lodge, being drunk while on duty gets him thrown out of the army. He is also something of a composer and has a moderate success with a march that he writes. Carl is more successful and manages to buy a house for his wife but she sadly dies soon afterwards. Lacemaker Pehr’s brother, Fredrik, had emigrated to the United States and it is his visit that inspires Kalle to emigrate there when he gets into trouble.
It is a fairly straightforward tale but full of charm. Hellström shows the problems – premature deaths, financial misfortune, black sheep – as well as the close nature of the family, particularly at the end when Kalle is welcomed back, despite his past. It is told with humour and affection as well as giving us a fascinating portrait of a late nineteenth/early twentieth century Swedish town.
First published 1927 by Bonniers
First English translation 1930 by Allen & Unwin