Something Calamitous: On Hanna Johansson’s “Antiquity”

By Anna GacaMarch 29, 2024

Something Calamitous: On Hanna Johansson’s “Antiquity”

Antiquity by Hanna Johansson

AT FIRST, IT may appear that nearly nothing happens in Antiquity (2020; English translation, 2024), the debut novel from Swedish writer Hanna Johansson. “I was waiting for something calamitous, something that would change everything,” writes the narrator, in an instance of the thoroughgoing disavowal of dramatic agency that gives the book its anxious charge. Translated by Kira Josefsson, Antiquity belongs to that familiar genre wherein a cinematically idyllic summer home roils with unspoken tension. Nameless fear magnetizes around its protagonist, a magazine writer from Stockholm, in her thirties perhaps, who accepts an invitation to Greece from a former interviewee: Helena, a middle-aged artist from a wealthy family. Joining them on the island of Syros is Helena’s daughter, Olga, a quiet 15-year-old who likes to read and draw but has dropped out of two high schools and recently shaved her head.

The back cover of Antiquity calls this (spoiler alert!) “a queer Lolita story,” and Johansson’s narrator appears conscious of the connection as she tries out the sound of Olga’s name: “I tasted it on my own tongue, the tongue that whipped the palate over the g and turned it into a k, Olka, the O an aspiration.” She hears the same breath of the h ahead of their destination, Ermoupoli, “city of Hermes,” a name she instantly associates with Hermopolis, in ancient Roman Egypt, near a temple the emperor Hadrian built to his late young lover Antinous. In her telling, Ermoupoli appears closer to the afterlife than to this one: from the fated ferry ride into the harbor, the town’s buildings appear like “an audience before the stage that was the sea,” the temporary platform erected on its main square for a harpoon fishing competition “like a ruin” soon to be abandoned.

Lacking a face or name, the narrator is beautiful, erudite, and well prepared to fool you. Through her, Johansson writes lovely descriptions of “the taste of life’s first coffee: lots of sugar, lots of foamed milk, like drinking sand,” and a deliciously cruel definition of a tourist as “a guest with bad taste.” But this protagonist belongs to a rich tradition of unreliable villains: she writes retrospectively and only paraphrases; there’s hardly any real dialogue. When Helena confides Olga’s difficulties at boarding school, the narrator’s mind leaps to Thérèse and Isabelle (1966), Violette Leduc’s gasping, groping classic of teen lesbian autofiction. She educates Olga not about the writings of Sappho but about The Songs of Bilitis (1894), the 19th-century Sapphic literary hoax. The word she uses most often to describe her experience is “disappointment”: like a bad review on Tripadvisor, she is disappointed both coming and going.

And she came hungry. The narrator’s desire is crassly Freudian, total oral fixation stuff: among the fruits in Helena’s garden, she comes to associate her hostess with oranges (“too bitter, too many seeds”) and Olga with that ancient symbol of fertility, the persimmon. “I loved the sound of the peel breaking open, the chambers of the fruit, the membrane, like a heart you could hold in your hand,” she lusts in another of Johansson’s diaphanous descriptions. In a different story, the image would be yonic and luscious, but in this context it feels perverse and somehow gratuitous—who is this woman who finds no pleasure in life, only in the spectacle of its ripe product? Sex occurs off-screen, concealed behind another Nabokovism (“[p]ale fire beneath the skin”), while the butchering of an octopus is nearly obscene.

At the root of the narrator’s urge to violate and consume lies a jealous insecurity that feels disconcertingly familiar. She is jealous of those who live better than she, those who are loved better, and she feeds on their approval. Her friendships back home, she writes, “often felt like a contest with rules only I knew but points only they could award.” Before traveling to Ermoupoli, she is jealous of Olga, an unknown and unworthy object, and contemptuous of her own attraction to Helena, who is aging, who has money to spare, who sometimes erupts at her daughter in volatile outbursts. “I thought I could become Helena’s daughter, Olga’s proxy, a better version of her, one much more worthy of love,” she recalls. How easy life could be, with Olga out of the picture. Helena and then her vacation home become the new objects of the narrator’s secret contest. “I wanted her to invite me to the house. The two of us, alone,” she says. “I wanted to have her house. I wanted to be her daughter.”

How uncomfortably close the verbs: have, be, wanted. The narrator wants so badly to be wanted. Twist back the lens on Antiquity and you can glimpse its distorted mirrors in Todd Haynes’s May December (2023): Julianne Moore’s Gracie sobbing over spare cake because a client has had the audacity to cancel their order due to a family emergency, a pitiably selfish display met with weary sympathy by Charles Melton’s Joe, the young husband she has preyed upon since he was just 13. Like Gracie, the narrator of Antiquity is anxiously attuned yet startlingly naive, almost infantile. She doesn’t plan, she doesn’t negotiate. Through domination, she seeks dependance: she is a black hole of yawning need, operating from infantile urges and a fear of abandonment.

Though queer desire is primary to Antiquity’s appeal and foundational to its story, I hesitate to assign it to that canon so quickly. The only time the narrator explicitly mentions sexuality, she describes a frozen inner homophobia, a conflicted fear of her own desire that makes its exercise impossible: “Homosexuality made me terrified of homoeroticism. It was too real. Nothing is innocent when you have something to hide.” We may be tempted, too, to wonder about Olga’s identity. Her conflicts at the girls’ school, the too-big suit she wears to a family funeral, her mother’s distress at the shaved head—these could all be avenues for budding queer self-discovery or just garden-variety teen rebellion. Olga is immature, not yet fully defined; in this sense, the illicit lovers are reading from the same page. “At night she came loose from her age and so did I; I left my chronology behind and found a new order of time, a chronology of love,” the narrator writes, leaving the fact of Olga’s childhood in daylight and claiming another truth under cover of darkness.

But when it comes time for the narrator to attempt to justify her actions to herself, her excuses are textbook. “[S]he was in charge, she was the one wielding her power over me,” she says of Olga, an ominous echo of Gracie’s frantic question to Joe—“Who was the boss? Who was in charge?”—the first line cribbed from Mary Kay Letourneau and the true crime story that partially inspired May December (as well as Alissa Nutting’s 2012 novel Tampa, which depicts a still more craven female predator). Moments earlier, the narrator of Antiquity casually reveals that she is lying to Olga, telling her they share “a great love,” buying the girl’s time and attention until summer inevitably ends.

It’s this deep-seated unreliability, one the work itself cannot communicate entirely reliably, that makes Antiquity, like May December, so fascinatingly deceptive. The stories keep unfolding; to pay attention is to continuously question what truly qualifies an action as unpremeditated. Haynes makes available the possibility that Gracie first met Joe as a classmate of her own elder son, that she schemed to hire him at the pet store with ulterior intent. He doesn’t quite suggest that Joe, having lost his own mother at 20, thus remained vulnerable to Gracie’s influence well into adulthood; he leaves open the equally unappealing question of Gracie’s own childhood victimization. How much did the narrator of Antiquity anticipate? Her feigned, one-sided sibling rivalry with Olga looks like an elaborate screen for the simpler awareness that Helena and Olga are each lonely while vacationing together, each susceptible, each ready to cast themselves onto the blank slate of a near-stranger, someone prepared to show them what they want to see and omit what they don’t: artists outwitted by artifice.

The trio’s failure to visit the spectacular ruins at Delos—Helena promises a day trip that never materializes—suggests a mutual, unconscious denial of the damage wrought at Ermoupoli. The harpoon fishing stage is only temporary. Olga finishes the story mute, closed off, still unknowable. Foreboding opening, foregone conclusion: a beautifully drawn portrait where everything is wrong.

LARB Contributor

Anna Gaca is a Brooklyn-based cultural critic and journalist. She is currently a senior editor at Pitchfork.


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