Steve Sem-Sandberg

All that is Transient is but a Likeness
All förgängligt är bara en bild
by Steve Sem-Sandberg
Bonniers (Stockholm)(1999) 286pp

The title of this book is a quote from Goethe's Faust 2: 'Alles Vergängliche ist nur ein Gleichnis'.


All that is Transient is but a Likeness is a courageous book which attempts to synthesise several currently unfashionable approaches to novel writing: the historical novel, the documentary novel, and the "novel of ideas". The central idea is that neither the intellectual nor the artist can avoid being involved in politically and socially significant events, each having to recognise the urgent need for moral imperatives.

This becomes vivid reality against the background of the collapsing Council Republics set up in Germany in 1918 and 1919 and run by communist workers' and soldiers' committees, the socialist response to the desperation of a starving, war-weary population. The Council Republics posed a threat to German cohesion, but by the spring of 1919, only the republic in Bavaria, with its stronghold in Munich, was still prepared to fight the Prussian-led armies sent to suppress the rebellion.

All that is Transient is but a Likeness parades historical figures in a loosely factual way. These include Lou Andreas-Salomé, a Russian writer who lived in Berlin and Vienna, a friend of Nietzsche and Rainer Maria Rilke, and Freud's student psychoanalyst. The intellectual hero of the novel is Ernst Toller, a writer and dramatist concerned primarily with political and moral issues.

Reaction to All that is Transient is but a Likeness has been mixed in the Swedish press. Maria Bergom-Larsson, arts editor of the Stockholm paper Aftonbladet, says "Sem-Sandberg raises important questions about the individual versus society" and goes on to show how Toller's dramatic and ultimately tragic life (he committed suicide in a New York hotel room in 1939) was an illustration of the themes he wrote and talked about.

Bergom-Larsson considers Ernst Toller to be the pivot around which the action revolves. In a brief debate in prison towards the end of the book with an anonymous political radical who has a death sentence hanging over him, Toller argues the case for humanism against the political determinism that believes the end must justify the means "a fascist credo, as relevant today as in 1919", says Bergom-Larsson.

Magnus Nilsson's review in the left-wing magazine Clarté is somewhat critical. Nilsson sees the conflict in the novel not as being between the aesthetic and the moral, but between two political views, Toller's and the communist leader Leviné's. The confrontation between Toller and Levine illustrates matters of historical necessity, revolutionary violence and the relationship between the individual and society. Toller's exchanges with the anonymous prisoner on the other hand "cause the whole debate to disintegrate into unreality". Nilsson, however, is impressed by the strength of the political analysis that perceives continuity between early 20th century European anti-communism and fascism. All that is Transient is but a Likeness has the courage of its political and moral convictions, and is a rich and fascinating picture of a period of cultural transition in Europe.


Anna Paterson








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