Print Article

Outside Civilisation, at the Centre of Modernism

Written by: Lisbeth Larsson |

“It cannot be argued that someone was born to be a writer”, a critic writes when Birgitta Trotzig made her debut with the novel Ur de älskandes liv (1951; Out of the Lives of Lovers), but with this book he is prepared to make an exception. He is not alone, and Birgitta Trotzig is not the only woman writer of the 1950s and 1960s to be received with similar enthusiasm. Throughout these decades a series of women writers took centre stage in Nordic literature. They stood forth as full-fledged modernists on a stage where the performance had turned to routine, and they were greeted with ovations.

“She has skipped the stage of promise and stands forth as a mature and artistically complete author”, a critic writes about Sara Lidman’s debut in 1953. Her novel Tjärdalen (1953; The Tar Kiln)behaves like a stellar explosion, a surprising super-nova on the literary sky. “An event”, they write, “a debut of rare brilliance”. The release of the Finnish lyricist Eeva-Liisa Manner’s collection of poems Tämä matka (1956; This Journey), is met with similar terms. It is described as “a rocket against the pale gray sky of the book harvest. Everyone with an interest in lyrical poetry was immediately aware that a new poet had been born”. The same certainty was seen at Inger Christensen’s debut collection Lys (1962; Eng. tr. Light), 1962. Immediately one heard “a new central voice in Danish poetry”, and she was directly placed in “the category of the chosen few”. Also met with tremendous enthusiasm, but fewer immediate declarations of genius, which only materialised a decade later, were the poets Sonja Åkesson, Kirsten Thorup, and Eldrid Lunden. Sonja Åkesson made her breakthrough with the sharp irony of Husfrid (1963; Domestic Peace); Thorup’s debut collection, Indeni – udenfor (1967; Within – Without), behaves like something completely new and unusual with its cool tone; and Eldrid Lunden becomes a mass media success with f.eks. juli (1968; July for instance), and even she is appointed Poet with a capital P for the collection hard, mjuk (1976; hard, soft).

Rydin, Sara: Untitled. Oil on canvas. In: Sara Rydin: Ödets hus

The women writers of the 1950s and 1960s transform the modernist outsider’s aesthetics anew. They break with the modernist tradition by advancing it, augmenting it, and developing it. They rewrite the isolation of modernism, while placing themselves at the forefront of the literary stage, and they will be its guiding stars not just during the 1950s and the 1960s, but even through the following decades, where they consciously place their literature at the service of the outsider. They write themselves into the tradition where the poet is a stranger on the outskirts of, or just bordering, society, but they also place themselves outside this literary tradition and constantly butt their heads against its accepted definitions, symbols, and use of language. “The cracks, the blunders, the silences, the mistakes, the stuttering outbursts in a conversation are what show the direction – these provide a feeling that another more real language is starting to move inside the impersonal machinery of formulas,” Birgitta Trotzig writes in the collection of essays Jaget och världen (1977; The I and the World). With these woman writers, one finds an almost monomaniac preoccupation with language, with silence and the non-linguistic, even more than with what is actually written and spoken. They scratch their signs onto the wall of language and congenially renew its writing with their own incomprehensibility.

“The mystery of birth takes a central position in the book, or rather the frequent miscarriages and abortions: I cannot recollect another book where such have occurred in so many variations as here, and have been visualised with such naturalistic persistence. (For a person knowledgeable about obstetrics En berättelse från kusten (1961; A Tale from the Coast) would be a worthwhile study). Life is rather difficult and Birgitta Trotzig is obsessed with the poles of life: birth and death”, a critic writes about Birgitta Trotzig’s third novel. Bodily awareness is a very important motif for the women modernists of the 1960s. They do not just rewrite the language; they are also rewriting the female body.

“I recognize once more / a glade in the language / the enclosed words / that exist to be loved / and repeated into simplicity”, Inger Christensen writes in the debut collection’s title poem “Lys” (1962; “Light”), and throughout her writings one can read this longing for and impotence concerning ordinary language. In collection after collection she investigates and develops the magic of words and writing, while she also – which may be the most remarkable – continually redefines the position from which the actual writing is possible without losing the existential authenticity. “With my back to my poem, to myself, to my / word I leave my self, my poem / my word, and move closer into my / word, into my poem, into my self” (1963; “Meeting VII” in Grass), she formulates the paradox of existing, in the words form the title of Kirsten Thorup’s debut collection, Indeni – udenfor (1967; Within – Without), as a stranger in the language and yet seeking one’s self through this language. Christensen breaks the line between ‘my’ and ‘word’. Her I has no direct access to the language. “I am Anna, I have / a fleck on the tongue / there is a word there, that / I know”, Eldrid Lunden writes as an expression of the same faith and powerlessness about ten years later.

“the alphabets exist”, Inger Christensen writes almost as a mantra in the collection of poems called precisely alfabet (1981; Eng. tr. alphabet), which was her comeback after a long silence. Here she seeks, as so many times before, to define her writing. “I write as if” is the refrain of one of the longest poems of the collection, and the movement is from the untouchable wind to the air, the sea shore, early spring, childhood summer, death-marked fall, to ice cold winter, and directly into the centre of the body to finally conclude three times: “I write as the heart”, “I write as the heart”, “I write as the heart”.

The strong I of Modernism must continually be sought by the authors. The authoritative, clearly separable and very successful poetic voice paradoxically speaks of a voice that has been silenced, a body that has been denied and life that has been fragmented and become incomprehensible. “But I want to be in the thick, I want to be in the thick of people”, Linda cries in Sara Lidman’s novel Regnspiran (1958; The Swift; eng. tr. The Rain Bird). Her mother has, due to the unanimous dislike of the congregation, been compelled to remove the little girl from a prayer meeting, because she “yodelled her own melodies during the psalms”. When, the following Sunday, Linda interrupts the male reading of the text to fill in her own words it is the last straw, and she is expelled for good from the congregation.

Sara Lidman’s first four novels take place in the far-removed rural areas of North Sweden. She moves in the geographical borderlands as well as those of genre and linguistics. Linda in Regnspiran is filled with longing for the town and the common language, but is unable to give up her own voice. Her imitation of the conventional language sounds like a blasphemous parody. In her mouth the male text is transformed into something ridiculous, and she arouses fascination as well as horror and hate.

By the 1960s Sara Lidman ceased to write novels and for a while worked with documentary. Many believed that the modernist novel and fiction were exhausted. New means had to be found to translate the ethical commitment that drove Sara Lidman’s authorship and that of many of her generational comrades. During the 1980s, Sara Lidman returned to fiction to write a gigantic Norrland epic, where the stylistic devices are again being used.

“Does it annoy you that you do not understand me? / Do I injure you when you don’t understand”, Eeva-Liisa Manner writes in the poem “Kassandra” (Cassandra) from Orfiset laulut (1960; Orphic Songs), and Cassandra’s visionary truths and concurrent incomprehensibility, her compelling need to name the unnameable, is in many ways emblematic for this generation of women modernists.

Sara Lidman, while being praised by a unanimous corps of critics, was also exposed to massive critique via letters to the editor of Norrland newspapers. The Norbottnian dialect and the many Bible quotes that lend a particular weight and aura to her narratives were seen as derision by many who themselves used this language. She herself concluded that she had offended against the central taboo in the culture of reticence that exists in (North) Sweden. She had spoken where silence should reign. It is possible that the criticism of Birgitta Trotzig, which grew increasingly stronger during the 1960s and 1970s, may have had the same background. Her pervasive pessimism provoked several leading critics with religious beliefs, and her religiosity – she converted to Roman Catholicism at the beginning of the 1960s – in turn provoked the new, materialistic left wing generation of critics who took charge of the cultural pages during the 1970s. And while she was still being hailed as a great writer, a widening distance evolved to her subjects and to the view of life she expresses.

“I have a story to tell. A woman comes walking. She comes from the remotest countryside where everything is in strange cages. She is on her way to the city. She has her reasons”, Birgitta Trotzig begins her novel Dykungens dotter (1985; The Marsh King’s Daughter), which became her great popular breakthrough. She depicts a woman’s way towards the urban centre of modern society, where her estrangement will be fully revealed. This movement from the margins towards the centre recurs in novels by women writers in the 1950s as well as in the 1960s and 1970s. Many of the writers who were first published in the 1950s and 1960s were also regionalists in various ways. They had grown up in the countryside and undergone this move towards the city. But in their literature they still find themselves outside. They write about estrangement, often about woman as foreign to civilisation. A common theme is the culturally marginalised, that which among post-war and even more among post-modernist philosophers has been defined as ‘the female’.

Translated by Marthe Seiden