This week, I picked up a book that has languished in my towering to-be-read stack for a year. It’s called The Love Story of the Century and it was written in 1978 by Finnish-Swedish author Märta Tikkanen, translated by Stina Katchadourian, and republished in 2020 by Deep Vellum. The book is a novel-in-verse about living with an alcoholic, based on the author’s experiences with her writer husband, Henrik Tikkanen, and I read it in one gulp, until two in the morning.
How I love reading about love. Not thirty pages in, I took to the internet to see a photo of the pair. I found a few black-and-white images of Märta, fair and pretty, and Henrik, who had a handsome ruggedness and looked like trouble. There was one color photo of them together at a party in 1975, she in a floor-length denim dress. I peered at their faces, looking for evidence of struggle.
For years, I’ve collected books, films, and songs about living alongside alcoholism and addiction. And I’ve always wondered why there weren’t more. Most stories about addiction are hero’s journeys. They’re typically written by the addict himself. They have a conventional — predictable — arc. Usually: childhood, first taste of chosen substance, precipitous fall from grace, years of riotous dysfunction, redemption. But for many who suffer in the midst of the disease, like spouses and children, the trajectory is messier. Codependency, which has been called a “disease of relationships,” eludes a neat arc. It seeps into all of a person’s dealings with all of the people in her life.
Early on, the medical establishment saw alcoholism as a two-person disease. There was the primary symptom-bearer, the alcoholic, and the “co-alcoholic,” typically the man’s wife. The problems of the “alcoholic wife” were recognized as a discrete disorder (what came to be known as codependency), but it was less studied, less understood, and less treated. Which may be why I cling to literary and cinematic representations of the experience: there are startlingly few.
Märta Tikkanen’s prose is refreshingly honest, spare and clean — the book would feel airy if its theme wasn’t so devastating. In its dark humor about the circumscribed domestic world of a tired mother, it also feels very contemporary, like a work of autofiction that could have been published last month.
The depiction of life with an alcoholic, however, feels neither now nor then: it’s timeless. And not simply because Tikkanen’s narrator gives vent to irritation and resentment. This is a nuanced — and to me, deeply comforting — portrait of codependency, of hope, concern, fear, despair, resignation, hatred. There is also nostalgia: within many expressions of the narrator’s exasperation is the kernel of a memory, of a time when she believed she could accept the drinking, or that she could save him, that it would all be okay. Beneath every resentment is a small, sweet dream, now lost forever. The effect is like that of a nesting doll of sadnesses. She writes:
At one time
I was hiding bottles
and quickly emptied
into flower pots and ashtrays
and out the window
as soon as you turned your back
Nowadays I don’t give a damn
The quicker you pour the stuff into yourself
the sooner you’ll pass out
and the sooner I’ll be able to continue with
the things I’d rather be doing
The narrator is stricken with grief as she sees her children come into a greater awareness of their father’s disease, his heartbreaking limitations. His drinking chips away at their marriage. There is the grand devastation of an affair, but those dramas aren’t what erode their love. “It isn’t the great betrayals that kill love,” Tikkanen writes, “love expires from pretty small and imperceptible betrayals / When all these years / without even noticing / you have me handle / responsibility and garbage / by myself / love has trouble / surviving.”
Reading The Love Story of the Century sent me down a rabbit hole. There is little written in English about Tikkanen, but I found a 2019 profile of the writer, now in her 80s, in a Finnish women’s magazine. Google translated the piece for me, and despite a few awkward phrasings, I could almost entirely understand it. The truth is, I relate to Tikkanen’s experience so much that I felt I could understand its meaning even when the words didn’t make perfect sense.
In the piece, Tikkanen talks about her old age, her daily writing habits, and her work. She says she wrote The Love Story of the Century “to help Henrik understand what it’s like to live alongside an alcoholic.” That struck me as sad at first, but it’s also part of why I wrote my memoir of a relationship with an addict. It reflects the paradoxical experience of codependency. Of course, when his charisma is in full effect, an alcoholic is bewitching. But even when your alcoholic mate is remote, detached, unreachable, for the time you are partnered in that sick dance, he remains the center of life. His mood, his hangover, is like the weather inside the house.
How much more of this can I take, we think when we love an alcoholic, and then we take more. We even come to pride ourselves on just how much more we can handle. Judging by this book, Tikkanen could handle a lot. “Life alongside Henrik was a great adventure,” she told the Finnish magazine. “He was a very surprising man, good and bad. I once wrote: Välj en Varg och diska själv. Choose a wolf and do the dishes yourself. The strengths of the wolf are elsewhere than at home.”
She says she was going to leave the marriage because of “the booze,” but then Henrik fell ill with leukemia. She stayed. He died in 1984 at age 59. Märta, widowed at 49, never married again.
I feel sad for her that she didn’t get to leave, to savor the priceless moment of slamming that door for good. But I do like Märta’s honesty, her perverse loyalty, and the fact that she lived the second half of her life on her own, enjoying the love of children and grandchildren but not needing to try again with a man. “Cohabitation with Henrik was so laborious that I thought ‘ tack, det räcker,’” she told the magazine, “thank you, enough. I can no longer wash anyone’s socks. It is wonderful to be independent.”
It is wonderful. Less gripping, perhaps, than life with a wolf, but wonderful to be through with responsibility and garbage.