Nelly B’s Heart
ORIGINAL TITLE: Nelly B:s hjärta
AUTHOR: Aris Fioretos
ORIGINAL PUBLISHER: Norstedts, August 2018 (318 pages)
A woman’s destiny, a remarkable portrait of Germany’s first female aviator, as well as a magnificent period drama set in Berlin of the Roaring Twenties. But first and foremost, a love story as gripping as it is unusual.
Early twentieth-century Germany. Against all odds, Nelly Becker has realized her dream: to become the country’s first female pilot. She and her French husband live for aerial heights, among hangars and whiffs of gasoline, until World War One and a failing heart puts an end to it all. If she continues to fly, sooner or later, Nelly will fall from the sky.
She separates from her husband and moves into Mrs. Colding’s boardinghouse, a place that is home to as many singular destinies as souls. Nelly feels “muddy, without momentum”, a condition worsened by her love for Mr. Murphy (pilot slang for morphine). Thanks to her excellent mechanic skills, however, she finds work at BMW on Kaiserdamm, where she looks after the motorcycles in the show room. At the annual automotive fair in the fall of 1924 she meets Irma, thin and self-sufficient as a candle. An unexpected movement gives Nelly’s life a new direction, making her blood sting and sing.
Aris Fioretos’ new novel is the story of a muscle that cannot be deterred.
»I answered that the fair was closing soon and put down the kickstand. But she wasn’t in a hurry. Instead of following her colleagues to the exit she placed her hand on mine. For someone interested in learning how the clutch on a R32 works, it’s a natural movement. To me, it was a shock. Nonetheless, I felt calm. Calm yet electric.
In that moment I didn’t understand what was happening. Now I know that life as Completelycrazyyou began.«
“Aris Fioretos’ novel about Nelly B. is one of the most beautiful books I have read. It is about surging and falling. A sort of archeological excavation of euphoria and intoxication, the state of mind that arises in love as well as from drugs. I know of no other who so deftly performs the magic trick of evocing the biology of words. Here language turns into body (flesh), and body becomes language. “I know that passion is interesting mainly for the afflicted,” Nelly says at one point, and that is indeed true. But in Aris Fioretos’ rendition it affects each and every one of his readers.”
– Eva Gedin, Publisher at Norstedts
“Aris Fioretos is one of the best writers working today in Sweden. I propose this as an objective truth. He has an entirely unique ability to combine a gripping, close to melodramatic description of a fated life with a prose so sharp and clear it makes the whole world appear new. . . . Nelly B’s Heart is first and foremost a love story, and as such it is magnificent. It takes real intuition and flair to portray love in all its various dimensions — of the soul and the body — in such detail as Fioretos achieves without it becoming cloying. . . . [This is] passion as a state of emergency, at once supremely dangerous and yet containing everything that makes life worth living.”
— Amanda Svensson, Expressen
“Fioretos’ new novel Nelly B’s Heartbegins precisely at that moment when Nelly Becker, Germany’s first female aviator, becomes aware of the failure of the most important muscle in her body. Her heart is functioning so poorly that it forces her to stay on the ground. But how can anyone who has gained an insight into their own mortality respond, if not by trying to live as fully as possible? . . . [Fioretos] observes, describes, senses and reflects in a voice that is, by turns, detached and dreamlike. . . . It becomes all the more compelling towards the end, in pace with the deterioration in Nelly’s health in body as well as in soul, as she increasingly loses her grip on the reality beyond the sedative drops in a sugarcube. As her fervent wish for dissolution and fusion with eternity has only its final destructive course to run, the language and narration is distilled and focused. Finally she has well and truly arrived in this new persona, Nelly with the broken heart.”
— Jenny Aschenbrenner, Dagens Nyheter
“Reading Aris Fioretos is as beneficial to the soul as taking an evening swim in warm seas. It may sound dopey, but the boundary between the words on the page and myself as a reader becomes blurred, as Nelly B takes residence in my body and mind. I follow her around Berlin, noticing the details of her boarding room and memorising facial expressions around the dinner table, reading the book slowly to make sure that the pleasure lasts. It has been said by many others before that Fioretos’ prose is lyrical, sparse, concise and subtle. And so it is — his ability to allow each sentence to be precisely the length that it requires, as brief and replete as is needed, may not unique but is nonetheless remarkable. Similes and metaphors are never overbearing, but always precise and astounding. It’s quite simply wonderful.”
— Elin Claeson, Kulturnytt
“Fioretos often writes so beautifully that it makes one want to cry out loud with joy; ‘I will have been this wild muscle.’ And even if this book is not as unguarded as The Last Greekor Mary, the ending prompts, in its solitude and extinction, an utterly unguarded response from this reader: I bawl my eyes out.”
— Maria Edström, Göteborgs-Posten
“Aris Fioretos has written a novel about weightless passion. Nelly has given up life in the air for the sake of her heart, but being in love it flutters nonetheless dangerously, beating within her with a fervor that puts her fragile health at risk. His mastery as a writer is at its clearest in this description of infatuation, so desperately difficult to capture on an empty white page. Almost as difficult is it to describe the physical expressions of love. As known, there is a Bad Sex Award, but Aris Fioretos would receive the opposite — an award for the best description of lovemaking. . . . [He writes] with such sensuality that, as a reader, you feel the passion of the protagonists with your skin, rather than merely witnessing it with your eyes.”
— Kristian Ekenberg, Vestermanlands Läns Tidningar
“Aris Fioretos’ new novel is based on a love story — that between Nelly and Irma, which is the beating heart at the centre of the book. Earthly passion, instead of up in the air. Besides being a brilliant stylist, Fioretos is a champ at portraying the ‘rationale’ of lovers, the tendency toward self-deception. Irma constantly glides away from her, and Nelly, who yearns for freedom more than anything else, must experience what it is to feel dependent, to be someone who is pleading. Ready to love whole-heartedly, it’s a place from which the drop is as high as from any airplane imaginable.”
— Therese Eriksson, Svenska Dagbladet
“[Nelly B’s Heartis] a love story, and a fantastic one. . . . Aris Fioretos treats the Swedish language like a beautiful instrument, he makes it play as wonderfully as it possibly can. . . . Fioretos’s style is so strong and so rich it makes him one of our absolutely best writers. His books ought to be used as teaching material in Swedish.”
– Lennart Götesson, Dala-Demokraten
“That Aris Fioretos is one of Sweden’s absolutely best writers is something he proves once more in his new novel Nelly B’s Heart. The main character of the novel — partly based on a real person — is a pioneer. She was the first German woman who — in face of much prejudice — managed to qualify as an aviator. . . . This is an exciting and acutely observed portrait of a woman. Fioretos’s language and characterisation takes no shortcuts. Here, everything is new and fresh, every page is engrossing.”
— Anders Hjertén, Värmlands Folkblad
“I hope readers give Nelly B’s Heart all the time that the book deserves. It is so far from the chit-chatty and voluble nature of most contemporary literature. To navigate the sort of quality writing in which Aris Fioretos is engaged, requires attentiveness and concentration of the reader. In this he is much like his subject, the aviator Nelly Becker. Amidst the squalling winds and pressure changes caused by turbulence, he steers his craft with a swift and steady hand. It is a real accomplishment.”
— Åke Leijonhufvud, Sydsvenskan
“Aris Fioretos’s language has, indeed, a Strindbergesque richness, there is also the same psychological depth as in Strindberg, but his fire is calm, not grandiose. There are passages in Fioretos’s new novel where, as a reader, you only wish to remain within the mood, in that eternal twilight hour that his prose continually produces. Fioretosgives us the perhaps most beautiful prose in contemporary Swedish. There is an exact restfulness, an ability to sink deeper into a person’s being, to finally give the word ‘identity’ body, which it never aquires as a cliché on the daily political agenda. He imparts a marvelous, captivating identity to the flying ace Nelly Becker.. . . Nelly B’s Heartis an extraordinarily rich novel, its doubleness, the symbolical interplay between clouds and eroticism in an aviatrix’s life makes the reading of it shimmer, at the same time at which the text never loses narrative steadiness. It may be read as a gripping love story, as a modern didactic novel, as a romantic tragedy or a dream of freedom.”
– Jan-Olov Nyström, Upsala Nya Tidning
“Aris Fioretos has returned with a new, eagerly awaited novel . . . The book is called Nelly B’s Heart and if it doesn’t garner a multitude of prizes I will damn well eat my beret. . . . It’s quite simply magnificent. . . . Fioretos tells the story of Nelly’s life in an intelligent, precise, attractive and in the best sense of the word literary language, which makes its reading a restful and contemplative experience even as his language — just as the story requires — becomes denser and darkens towards the end of the book.”
— Kenneth Olausson, Bokhållarens läsblogg
“In many respects,Nelly B’s Heart is a hopeful and sensual novel, written in a lighter mode than Fioretos’ last book, Mary. Nelly’s new life teaches her to fly in a different way to that in which she has become accustomed: through the intoxications of love, but also through the drugs which ultimately will cause her downfall. Beneath it all lies the existential question: Ought we to live our lives up in flight, or should we remain earthbound? Is the heart a muscle or a machine? In short: the unavoidable consequence of that advice of yore, to ‘follow one’s heart’. It may sound like a cliché, but nothing ever becomes clichéd in the hands of Aris Fioretos.”
— Anina Rabe, Tidningen Vi
“Aris Fioretos succeeds like few others to depict the tempestuous, flickering state of infatuation, where the body becomes an adventure and each inch of bare skin a tale. Maybe love does exist, after all.”