A man and a woman, both of them lonely, meet and fall in love. Both of them crave companionship and family; both are intelligent and good-humored. As Benny and Desirée (a.k.a. Shrimp) are about to discover, all that can stand between them and happiness is—everything.
Benny is a dairy farmer struggling to keep his late parents’ farm alive in a modern world. Desirée is a small-town librarian who has retreated even further into her shell after the death of her young husband. They live in Sweden, and their love story begins surprisingly enough in a cemetery: it is there, visiting their loved ones’ graves that they first spot each other. Their differences are obvious immediately—she’s appalled by the tacky decorations he so carefully arranges around his mother’s grave and he’s turned off by her peaked bookworm looks—but lust and longing drive them into each other’s arms. Just when it looks like love could conquer all, reality rears its ugly head with a vengeance. How can Desirée (whom Benny promptly nicknames “Shrimp”), with her love of high culture, independence, and postmodern theory, be happy in a creaking old farmhouse that’s stuck in the 1950s? And how can a man like Benny, who sings to his cows on Christmas Eve and longs for a buxom woman to come along and help run the farm, reconcile himself to store-bought meatballs and evenings at the opera?
In Benny and Shrimp, Katarina Mazetti allows her two characters to speak for themselves in alternating chapters, giving readers an intimate look inside the minds of two people as they struggle to bridge the gap between their separate worlds for the sake of true love. The farmer and the librarian could be two figures in a pastoral fable, but here they spring to life in all its sexy, infuriating, confounding messiness. Will modern-day practicality keep them apart, or will the unlikely couple live the fairy tale ending? Either way, their path is a universal one of love, heartbreak, and hope.
ABOUT KATARINA MAZETTI
Katarina Mazetti began her career as a teacher and later moved into broadcast journalism. She is a prize-nominated author, commentator, musician, poet, and the producer of “Freja,” a program for women on Swedish radio. Benny & Shrimp has sold more than 450,000 copies in her native Sweden.
A CONVERSATION WITH KATARINA MAZETTI
Q. What was the original seed or inspiration for this story?
Actually, a funeral. I was living on a farm at the time, married to a farmer. One of our neighbors died a horrible death, crushed under a tractor. It was a tragic funeral, but I knew that his wife had been considering divorce. I thought, can you really feel grief for someone you are about to leave, or would you fake it?
One day at work I was expecting a phone call from abroad and could not leave my desk. Slowly I started writing a short story about a woman who is ashamed that she cannot grieve for her husband properly. Suddenly, there was this man sitting on a bench nearby on the cemetery. . . . And the book started writing itself.
I think he entered the story somehow because I was getting more and more annoyed that town people know so little about the hard work of farming and ask stupid questions like: “So tell me—what do farmers do during the winter?” As if dairy cows go into hibernation!
Q. Each chapter begins with a bit of poetry taken from Desirée’s notebook. You’re a poet yourself; did you begin this story with the poems, or did they come later? How difficult was it to write poetry in Desirée’s voice, as opposed to prose?
Actually, like Desirée, I am quite a mediocre poet but I am willing to fight for everyone’s right to write even bad poetry! But neither Desirée nor I had really any plans to publish; writing it is really more a state of mind, a relief, a consolation, or a way to cope with everyday life and need not be published. Excellent poetry would really have been out of place here.
Q. Did you do a lot of research about the daily lives of Swedish dairy farmers? Do you have a personal connection to farming yourself?
Yes. I lived on a small dairy farm in the north of Sweden for nearly twenty years, while working as a radio producer. But the book is not really autobiographical—like most books, it is a compost, “decomposed remnants of organic matter” of experiences and ideas.
Q. Benny and Shrimp each seem like real, complex individuals, while at the same time they are representatives of certain “types,” the taciturn farmer and the bluestocking librarian. Are either of these characters based on people you’ve met?
All the characters are of course based on people I’ve met, sometimes in the mirror.
Q. Desirée’s ambivalence about her husband’s death and her real feelings for him might come across as rather unsentimental to American readers. Do you think there are cultural differences in how the emotions of characters (particularly female characters) in novels are portrayed? Or is this ambivalence unique to Desirée?
Desirée does her best to be a good wife and to grieve properly for her husband—would American readers really blame her that she can’t? Do they think feelings can be strictly controlled? (That is not the impression you get from reading great American literature.) But in a general sense—yes. I do think there are cultural differences in what emotions readers expect from characters in a book. (Russian men, for example, tend to find this book horrifyingly feministic!) Though in most cultures women are expected to be more sentimental and softhearted than men, I find than in real life, men are often the more sentimental ones.
Q. Desirée’s library colleague Inez has an unusual role to play in this love story—how and why did you develop her character and her impact on Desiree?
I am glad that you asked that question! Inez is really my favorite character—a spectator, someone who watches human life like a bird watcher—she does not really feel she is a participant but she finds it very interesting. And she has no hidden agenda. This makes her a reliable observer, not in the least sentimental. Desirée feels this and trusts her judgment. I have met Inezes, though they are quite rare. I should like to become one myself one day.
Q. You write from the perspective of both the man and the woman in this love story. How did you, as a woman, get yourself inside Benny’s head in order to portray him so realistically? Is there a stereotype of the “bachelor farmer” in Sweden that you were playing with?
One of the things that amuse me very much is that male readers often ask me who has helped me with “the Benny bit.” “That is exactly how guys think,” they say. But I have had no expert male to help me, I just tried to imagine how I myself would feel and act in Benny’s situation, being reared in a certain gender tradition. (Something like what Flaubert might have meant when he said, “Madame Bovary, c´est moi!”) Their reaction tells me, though, that there is no real difference between how men and women think, it is all a matter of upbringing. (Simone de Beauvoir would have agreed.)
Q. Did you struggle with how to end the story, or did you always have this particular ending in mind?
The whole book was more like a rodeo! I tried to stay in control but towards the end, it got out of hand. And suddenly it was all over. (That’s why I felt I had to write a sequel, which I did a few years later.)
From the author: An important fairy tale theme is the longing for a child (such as in Dornröschen, or Sleeping Beauty in English. And quite a few other traditional tales). But in the twenty-first century, men also can feel that longing, like Benny does. There is an element of Beauty and the Beast—though it is an open question who is the beast—modern life or traditional ways. Inez may be the fairy godmother in her own bizarre way—she also helps Desirée against teasing colleagues. The neighbors Violet and Bengt are really stereotypes, but the funny thing is that stereotypes do exist in real life, sometimes to a degree that you could not write about them because no one would believe in them as characters! Then there is, of course, the Hans Christian Andersen saga of The Princess and the Swineherd. Princess kisses the swineherd for his magical gifts and everybody is shocked. When she realizes he is really a prince she wants him, but he rejects her because she did not appreciate the simple rose he gave her. I mean, Desirée discovers Benny is a Prince under the dirt, but she cannot accept his farmer life and tries to change him. Then Benny rejects her. Too many readers think that is what happens and are irritated with Desirée, but to my mind, Benny does nothing to accept or like Desirée’s way of life either! And Desirée is modern enough to say so. As if the princess would have said to the Swineherd: But I am not reared to appreciate a simple rose! Can’t you accept that I prefer exclusive things? The theme is: how much can lovers really expect each other to change?
From the author: I do agree with Desirée that it must be a human right NOT to be able to make meatballs. A female right to keep your job, at least to the same extent that Benny does. It does not seem to have occurred to him that he might have to sacrifice something too. But if he realizes that, all other conflicts could be solved.
From the author: Women today help supporting the family—but men have not taken on the burden of housework to the same extent. Though something seems to be going on among young people in Sweden today, men take “paternal leave” and share responsibilities at home. Statistics show that those marriages are the happiest ones, least prone to divorce. Interesting, huh!
From the author: I don’t really agree there is much of a class barrier between them. Desirée never thinks of Benny as “beneath her” and they have probably attended the same kind of school. Money is not the issue either—on paper, Benny might be seen as a rich landowner and a librarian’s salary is very modest indeed. (Her father is an officer, not very upper class in Sweden today.) The real barrier is Lifestyle: intellectual or practical? Town or country? And above all gender: Desirée finds it hard to accept that she is expected to give up her own life in a traditional marriage.
From the author: It is funny to note that French readers and critics are quite fascinated by Inez (“That is Kafka! You must write a separate book about Inez!”) Meanwhile, Swedish critics have not made any comments whatsoever about her. They are all quite somber and had great problems with the fact that the book sometimes is too “funny.”
From the author: Interesting observation! Yes, maybe it is all composed as an old fashioned musical “operette,” with a serious couple and an amusing couple? But I think Marta’s passion goes to show that even she, being world wise and cynical, can be blind in love. And she is also an example of the fact that you can survive an impossible passion (“unlike mechanical toys, people can go on, and mend, even if the feather is broken”).
From the author: Desirée is very aware that her parents’ ice cold marriage has left her handicapped—she has not a clue to what a loving relationship should be like. (That is why she makes the mistake of marrying a man she does not love.) But Benny has, because he has seen the love between his parents. But the picture of Benny´s parents caressing each other makes Desirée uncomfortable. Too personal! Benny realizes that even if his father’s tombstone is tasteless, all his mother’s love has gone into decorating it. It actually amused me to write a love story where the man understands true love better than the woman does. He is emotional, even sentimental, where she is not.
From the author: Well, when relationships are in trouble, strong sexual attraction is a good help to solve conflicts. But attraction fades when conflicts seem too big and then there is very little to lean on. Compare this to arranged marriages that start out without much attraction, but where you might have many other good reasons to stay together. I do think there is more between Benny and Desirée than sexual attraction. The ability to laugh together is a very strong bond.
From the author: There is really an answer to that. Familjegraven, the sequel to Benny & Shrimp appeared in Sweden in 2005.
- Benny & Shrimp presents some hard truths about modern relationships in a fairy-tale-like setting (or maybe it’s the other way around). What are some themes, characters or images that seem to come from fairy tales and what seems distinctly twenty-first century to you?
- Of all the seemingly irresolvable conflicts that Benny and Desirée encounter, which did you have the most sympathy for—and which seemed unimportant to you?
- Do you think one of them should compromise more than the other to make a life together work? If so, which one?
- Is it surprising to you that the barriers between Benny and Desirée are issues of class, money, and education, considering that the story is set in the present and in a country (Sweden) that is thought by many to be particularly egalitarian?
- Desirée’s colleague Inez archives the lives of the people around her. What does she represent to you in this story? Do her archives or her peculiar use of them symbolize something to you?
- Marta, Desirée’s best friend, seems to be playing out an operatic version of Benny and Desirée’s own love story in the wings. How does the relationship of the two title characters compare to that of Marta’s with her “Grand Passion”?
- Both Benny and Desirée were deeply influenced, though in very different ways, by their parents. (For examples, see pages 55-56 and 95-98.) How do those influences play out in their relationship? How aware do you think they are of those influences and their effects?
- Benny and Desirée’s attraction for each other starts off as primarily (and strongly) sexual—as opposed to Desirée’s relationship with Orjan or Benny’s with Anita. How do you think this beginning affects the way their relationship unfolds?
- What did you think of the ending? What do you hope or imagine will happen to these two characters in their future?