Sven Lindqvist is a Swedish academic and author who was born in 1932. He has an unusual style, which involves switching between different types of narrative. He goes seamlessly from personal anecdote to historical account to fictional dream sequence without batting an eyelid.
Sven wrote Bench Press in 1988 in response to his experiences of bodybuilding, which involved an attempt to fend off the inevitable decline of rapidly-approaching old age.
This attempt started in all seriousness after he struck up a conversation with a shaven-headed man in the sauna, who had started bodybuilding to fend off depression. Over the steam, their conversation moved gradually towards generalities. Soon, they started debating whether people should be encouraged to accept their current physical appearance for what it was or whether they should try and refine it through training.
Sven initially held the view that people should be encouraged to be comfortable with themselves. When he learned that Sven was a writer, however, his companion persuaded him otherwise. He compared the unrefined body to the first draft of a novel. Would you be content with your first draft of a novel? He asked.
Having won the argument, Sven’s shaven-headed companion then guided him through the new and strange world of the gym, just as Virgil guides Dante through the circles of hell. In time, Sven comes to appreciate the challenge and the transformations that he is able to create.
But far from being a simple book about his experiences, Bench Press ventures quickly and deeply into the underlying issues at stake in the sport of bodybuilding and the concepts of self-transformation and rebirth. What’s more, Sven melds his own experiences of lifting and what he reads about it with the unusual daydreams he enjoys while in the gym, historical accounts, fictional dream sequences, philosophical musings and the occasional snippet of scientific fact.
And so, in the book we take a number of concurrent journeys.
We travel with Sven on his own journey into the world of understanding his own body and how it responds to training. We walk with him through the gym and see his interactions with other lifters and visiting bodybuilders. We sit with him as he reads the biographies of famous bodybuilders and interprets their thoughts. We travel with him to the Olympia to see the top-level performers and listen as he considers how steroids have changed the game. We listen and nod sagely as he describes the other benefits that come with increased muscle size. His back is much stronger, he says, and he can do so much more.
We travel through Sven’s childhood in scattered pieces seen only in the dream sequences. We see his grandmother sitting in a chair, sleeping shortly to wake. We see his fractured childhood fantasy games of being in the desert, being trapped or fighting swarms of wasps.
We jaunt through history, taking in the accounts of Claudius Galenus, personal physician to Marcus Aurelius, the stories of the oldtime strongmen, including Eugen Sandow and Bernarr MacFadden, and the strange life and death of the novelist Yukio Mishima.
We embark on a discovery of the concept of transformation and how it applies to human life. Sven soon sees it everywhere. Even going out into the garden, his eyes are drawn to the compost heap, where everything natural undergoes a process of transformation and is renewed into food for other living things. Only the man-made items remain unchanged: the plastic bottle-tops and wrappers that sometimes slip in with the biodegradable food.
And Sven ties it all together impeccably but playfully, teasing thoughts out of the page where you least expect them. He throws in pictures and diagrams to illustrate his points. The shaven-headed bodybuilder becomes the symbol of rebirth, connected in appearance to the newborn baby. The process of change and transformation becomes a natural and inevitable part of life rather than a strange pastime carried out by the few at the fringes of society.
Bench Press is a strange and wonderful book and I recommend it to you.
About the author:
Chris Beardsley is a strength and fitness enthusiast from Nottingham, in the UK. He’s been clanking around in his garage gym for the last three years and has never been happier. He writes about his training, his homemade gym equipment and his quest to become a personal trainer at his blog The Garage Gym Online.