This interview was first published in Attitude issue 274, September 2016.
Harry Kvist isn’t your average anti-hero. The lead character in Clinch, the new book from Swedish writer Martin Holmén, is unapologetically bisexual. And the author is similarly fluid with his sexuality.
“I would say that I am an experimental guy. I love to try new things out,” Holmén tells me as we chat via Skype. “My preference is women, but I’ve had sex with men in the past. I think I’m settled now, but you never know. If Harry came along, I definitely would. I think he’s well sexy, but maybe I’m the only one in the world that thinks that.”
Unlikely, I’d counter. Kvist’s aggressively masculine, gruff, brooding manner is pretty much the fantasy of most gay men I know. What makes him even more interesting is that this isn’t some modern-day liberal-minded thug-for-hire, but a former working-class boxer living in 1930s Sweden. After being implicated in a murder he didn’t commit, Kvist heads out on a mission to prove his innocence, a journey that sees him dig into underground pre-war Stockholm — delving into secret drug dens and the domains of crime bosses, and encountering a hidden world of transsexuals and lustful young rent boys along the way.
The result of three years of research, Holmén found that the lives of homosexual or bisexual men in the working classes of that era were practically invisible. While some examples of bi/homosexuality in the wealthier classes existed, virtually the only facts surrounding poorer members of society involved police arrest reports.
“I found that working-class men were really over-represented in the legal system, through being prosecuted and so on. But they didn’t have a voice to speak out, they didn’t have the tools for it,” Holmén continues. What became apparent was the clandestine nature of queer sex during the period — just as the grip of Nazi Germany was starting to threaten Europe.
What Holmén, 42, delivers in his powerful debut novel is a vivid account of a working-class struggle for survival in a city that, in the 1930s, was still only just starting to crawl out of the 19th century, a place where poverty and corruption went hand-in-hand for the poor. The grim reality of life in Stockholm is evocatively portrayed, right down to the sexual encounters that Kvist enjoys. Holmén doesn’t shy away from the graphic descriptions around the sexual permissiveness of his lead character’s crab-filled crotch:
He’s a well-hung boy. We both make panting sounds as my lips envelope him. This is not the average, crappy sort of conscript I usually get to meet. I smack my lips. With my other hand I unbutton my trousers. The icy December night caresses me. I stick out my tongue and swallow him deep into my throat a few times. My eyes fill with tears, the boy pants and groans. He likes that …
“I stand up, grab him by the scruff of his neck and get him to bend forwards over the bonnet.
“Now it’s Kvisten’s turn.
“Slowly and confidently, I work my way into the boy, It’s warm and cosy, like stepping into the boiler room after a stint of freezing watch duty on deck. He yowls with pain, sobs and slithers, but it’s nothing to be concerned about. Soon enough it gets easier, and his protestations turns to lusty moans. I pick up speed. Young men of this type usually manage to come twice on the trot.
While detailed and intense, the sex never feels gratuitous, just real and raw. What’s even more surprising is that the book has been a huge hit in his native Sweden, while also winning praise from Lynda La Plante and other thriller luminaries, and being sold to nine other countries — the UK being the first. The publishers had such confidence in the story, they changed very little of Holmén’s original copy. Even the sexually charged (and eventually violent) scene, above, in the first chapter evaded the editor’s knife.
“That scene was important to me. And yes, it was discussed, but in the end everyone agreed to keep it. And it sort of made things layered.
“At the beginning, I am playing around with the stereotypes of really masculine men, but early on I wanted to make clear that this guy really likes other guys. Yet, at the same time, he is a bit ambivalent.”
As lead characters go, Kvist is quite compelling. He’s not a comfortable bloke to be around, but at the same time he’s not a villain — rather a survivor dealing with the hard knocks that life has dealt him.
To create Kvist, Holmén looked at the obvious tropes that create classic noir, in which there are certain rules to follow. “You sort of need a guy with a broken past: an outsider, an underdog. So I was playing along with some stereotypes, and then playing around with a lot of others,” he explains.
The author’s own bisexuality and circle of queer friends had an influence on the character’s sexuality. “He’s more than an underdog really, he’s shunned by society. More like an outcast, because at the same time, while you can’t go without this old-school macho guy in a noir story, you still need to update him in some way.”
Even as the character openly lusts after men, like most non-heterosexual men of the early 20th century, he’s still not wholly comfortable with his sexuality. He even has an intense affair with a wealthy woman he meets on his journey to prove his innocence.
While Kvist’s sexuality is not intrinsic to the plot, it is a propelling force for the narrative’s direction. “My theory is that if you push people on the wrong side of the road, criminal activities will follow because they don’t really have a choice any more.”
The concept of a queer community existing on the edge of “acceptable” society is not a new one, and it was, no doubt, even more prevalent a hundred years ago.
So, has Holmén created the kind of guy that he would himself find sexually attractive?
“I probably wouldn’t dare [approach him] because he’s quite scary, even a bit gross with his coughing.”
But with the tattoos, the bisexuality and the fact that Holmén and Kvist share one other detail — they both have a young daughter by a former partner — you wonder whether the author has simply recreated an extreme version of himself in this character. “I’m a bit of a loner. I’m really stubborn,” he admits. “I have to do things my own way. And then of course, there’s the parenthood. It’s a big part of it. [You] sort of build on your own emotions and experiences and it transforms them. And it creates something else, scenes and dialogues, around it.”
Holmén states he always felt a bit like the aforementioned underdog. “I had that point of view already and I have always been interested in outsiders, crazies, addicts, queers, whatever. It’s a special point of view from that perspective,” he grins.
Does the ongoing march towards acceptance and equality make it a bit more difficult to uphold that romanticised underdog of Kvist’s more dangerous Stockholm?
“Yeah. But being an outsider is a feeling that hasn’t really got anything to do with reality.”
While the fictional world of Harry Kvist and his future might already be defined, given that Holmén is currently finishing work on the final book of the character’s trilogy, the writer is only just at the beginning of what is surely set to be a huge career in the world of book publishing.
You read his name here first.
Clinch is published by Pushkin Press
Words by – Cliff Jannou
Photography: Peo Bengtsson