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At the Mercy of the World

Written by: Birgitta Holm |

“Front against the Tyranny of Form!” was a resounding proclamation in Dagens Nyheter (News of the Day) 1960. Sonja Åkesson and P. C. Jersild (born 1935) were two of the young angry signatories. They accused contemporary Swedish literature of “rigid academe” and of “an increasing interest in form at the expense of the spontaneous and of commitment”. The proclamation turned against the dominating, lingering Swedish modernism of the 1950s. The four signatories stated that “it is far more important that literary creation regain its character of originality. Formal skills may not displace or overshadow the fundamental contents the writer attempts to convey”.

It is one of that period’s literary paradoxes that one side called for the democratisation of art, while the other called for a strongly academic, almost engineered experimental prose.

However, in a number of fields embryos could be found for the developments of the coming decades. A provocative new femininity was seen in prose. Literature approached sexuality, the heterosexual and the homosexual. Loka Enmark (born 1931) and Nine Christine Jönsson (born 1926) wrote novels in which attention was drawn to viewing people as sexual objects, and that thereby forged a new and sexually emancipated path into the literature of the 1960s. Britt Arenander (born 1941) went further with her rebellious and sexually outspoken Steget (1968; The Step) and Off (1969; Off).

Nina Östman (formerly Ericson): B&W photo. Published in: Tid & otid. Barndomsbilder. Nordstedts Forlag, Stockholm 1990

Interest in the world and in politics grew ever stronger, and fascination with other cultures assumed more conscious expression. Among the women writers who travelled the world was Birgitta Stenberg (born 1932), Annakarin Svedberg (born 1934), and Sun Axelsson (born 1935). These women explorers were not at first recording flaneurs or distanced analysts like many of their contemporary male colleagues. They committed themselves to the mercy of the world at an existential as well as a political level.

While fictional violence was translated into innovative detective novels by Kerstin Ekman, Maj Sjöwall (born 1935), and Jenny Berthelius (born 1923), among others, the Swedish literature was also opened to the factual violence of the real world.

There is a rancid smell of sex in Loka Enmark’s 1960s prose, and she has been compared to Agnes von Krusenstjerna. After thirty years of writing, she has produced a large collection of works in which Isgrottan (1961; The Ice Cavern) is one of the most notorious. A convicted murderess speaks in this novel: “How wonderful that I don’t have to continue living in this faded cheer and instead can just lie and reminisce. In this way I will, as such, be separated from mankind at a high level of friendship. I shall visit only with the best in each and every one of them.”

At the end of the Second World War, Sweden received a large number of Jewish refugees. Many had an advanced education and artistic skills. Zenia Larsson (born 1922) came to Sweden with one of the Red Cross transports. Two decades later she published her autobiographical books: Skuggorna vid träbron (1960; The Shadows at the Wooden Bridge), about the ghetto in Lodz in Poland; Lång är gryningen (1961; Long is the Dawn), a depiction of hell from Bergen-Belsen at the time leading up to the liberation; and Livet till mötes (1962; Heading for Life), which describes her initial time in Sweden.

On its centennial anniversary Lena Persson writes of Swedish detective fiction: “The real Modern Breakthrough came with Kerstin Ekman and De tre små mästarna (1961; Three Little Masters), which is perhaps the first real ‘psychological thriller’ in Swedish, and when Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö introduced their eventually world famous policemen centred on Martin Beck in Roseanna from 1965. Hereafter, the Swedish detective novel was never quite the same”.

The war had passed Sweden by and reports of the cruelty of WWII loaded the moral questions. The Cold War restructured world politics and the American war in Vietnam mobilised young writers to political resistance.

The 1960s was a time of expansion for Sweden: the world was opening. The decade opened up to development on all levels, the economic and the artistic, and a number of significant woman writers emerged: Anna Rydstedt, Majken Johansson, Ulla Isaksson (born 1916), Sara Lidman, Birgitta Trotzig, and Sonja Åkesson, all taking their starting point in the 1950s. In hindsight it was in many ways more a writer like Eva Alexanderson (1911–1995), who during the 1960s published the religious travel book Pilgrimsfärd (1967; Pilgrimage), the Roman Catholic conversion novel Fyrtio dagar i öknen (1964; Forty Days in the Desert), and Kontradans (1969; Counterdance), with its lesbian passion drama, who really acts as a representative of the intellectual women writers of the 1960s. Here are found the modern means of expression as well as the struggle with modernism, religiosity, travels, confessions, sexuality, silence, and the return.

Madeleine Gustafsson writes in a memorial article that Eva Alexanderson followed the path of inner necessity and never adhered to any contemporary spirit. “In her first book, Resa till Smältpunkten (1954; Journey to the Melting Point), she spoke of poverty in an underdeveloped country before the Swedish public started to take notice of third world problems. She wrote in the first person before the so-called confessional novels became a concept, and about questions that still retained their provocative, explosive nature: converting to Roman Catholicism, being homosexual.”

Dagens Nyheter 2.1.1995 (News of the Day)

The lesbian novel Kontradans (1969; Counter Dance) – “the only child I can give you” – was autobiographical and contained several taboos at once: two women, one younger and one older, meet in a passionate love affair set in a convent. “We are silent. Your brow against my brow, your nose against mine, your lips against my lips, your breasts against mine, your crotch against mine”, were lines from Counter Dance, and the scandal was combined with the fascination that a learned writer, well-reputed translator, and leading intellectual figure dared to expose herself to the type of attention that the novel’s publication caused.

With the controversial novel Kontradans Eva Alexanderson stopped as a writer. Not until the year before her death, in 1995, did she find a publisher for her last book. While many women writers attacked new subjects and used new literary measures in the 1960s, many of them also entered a literary dead end. Some were silenced for ever, including Kristina Widman (born 1929), who wrote the praised short story collection Ett glas campari (1965; A Glass of Campari), wherein she describes life in the psychiatric and social borderlands. Others, like Birgitta Stenberg, Sun Axelsson, Annakarin Svedberg, Gunnel Ahlin (born 1918), and Gerda Antti (born 1929) stopped writing for a while.

Gunnel Vallquist (born 1918) was one of many Swedish intellectuals who in the 1960s converted to Roman Catholicism. She made herself one of Sweden’s best qualified translators, most significantly translating Marcel Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu, (1913-1927; Eng. tr. Remembrance of Things Past)

Gunnel Ahlin was very productive in the 1960s, when she published her personal books of thought Röster en sommar (1960; Voices One Summer), Här dansar (1962; Here Dances), Puls (1964; Pulse), and Refuge (1967; Refuge). She had her definitive breakthrough with a historical novel about Hannibal, Hannibal sonen (1974; Hannibal the Son). It then took another eight years before the publication of Hannibal segraren (1982; Hannibal the Victor), co-written with her husband Lars Ahlin.

Gerda Antti emerged as a fully developed author with the short story collection Kväll efter kväll (Night after Night), 1965, but only returned a decade later as a widow, when she had her breakthrough with Inte värre än vanligt (No Worse than Usual) in 1977. Here she developed the ironic style and the factual indignation that was her trademark already in the mid 1960s. The short story collection was the start of an extensive and highly esteemed authorship.

The late 1970s did not just see the return of Gerda Antti. Several woman writers, who had debuted as anti-modernists in the 1950s and 1960s but fallen silent, like Sun Axelsson and Birgitta Stenberg, now returned and told their stories in a new and completely different tone of voice.

Cordelia Edvardson (born 1929) has her prison number from Auschwitz, A 3709, burnt into her skin, and when she publishes the novels Bränt barn söker sig till elden (1984; Burnt Child Seeks the Fire) and Viska det till vinden (1988; Whisper it to the Wind), she has already time and again in articles (she was the recipient of the Stora Journalistpriset, the Great Journalist Award, in 1983), on the radio, and on television spent decades narrating for the Swedish public what she had seen, heard, thought, and felt.

Maria Schottenius

The Market of Thieves

Birgitta Stenberg’s autobiographical novel Kärlek i Europa (1981; Love in Europe) begins in the late 1940s. The young Birgitta is at the Pagod patisserie in Stockholm:

“Every time I reached with my arm I felt the shoulderpad grate my skin through the thin lining of the jacket and the shirt. I was cinched in at the waist and must always think of pulling in my stomach […]. The sweat pads clung to my armpits. I held my thighs against each other to prevent the garter buttons from showing through the garment’s cloth.”

The great world out there, hotly desired, is no more than the exotic name of a Swedish pastry shop. The female body, enclosed and encumbered, is a prison for a spirit thirsting for freedom.

Wishman, Anne : Drawing from Sirene, no. 2, 1981

The door to that world is the man – and the ticket is sex. That was clear even to the confirmand Birgitta Stenberg, according to the autobiographical suite of novels published in the 1980s, Kärlek i Europa (1981; Love in Europe), Apelsinmannen (1983; The Orange Man), and Spanska trappan (1987; The Spanish Steps). The suite begins just before 1950 and stretches until 1964. The first part stops at the time of King Faruk’s deposing in Egypt in the summer of 1952, the second part takes a step back to events in Stockholm around 1950, and the third moves progressively through the years 1956–1964 in Stockholm and Rome. The perspective is always that of the young Birgitta, but technically it is variegated. Narration is woven with excerpts from the young Birgitta’s diaries and notebooks, some events are narrated through quotes from her own previous literary works, and documentary realism is mixed with dream-like sequences.

Eva Waldemarsson (1903–86) from Rinkaby outside of Kristianstad has been compared to Sara Lidman, in spite of being from the opposite end of Sweden. Himlavargen (1959; Sky Wolf), written in dialect, was the first in a long row of historical novels that continued being republished for three decades. With her sky wolf, Eva Waldermarsson won a competition for best Scania novel. During the 1960s, this and Himlaland (1961; Heavenly Country) and Madonneleken (1967; The Madonna Game) captivated critics and public alike.

Birgitta stole the world – and on top of that won her sex. The whole suite begins with the sound of intercourse united with the steps of a thief. But the theft in the book concerns language much more than the world. “Les voleuses du langage” is a French phrase with a double entendre: the women are ‘thieves’ of language while at the same time they are able to ‘fly’ in the language. The one who possesses language in young Birgitta’s world is the poet Paul

Andersson (1930–1976): “Oh Paul. He was a confluence of all lived and written poetry, in his person were poetry and magic. Word ecstasy.”

On the surface it is the tale of Paul Andersson who, with the rights of the genius, takes advantage of the young Birgitta. But in parallel the reverse takes place. What Paul brings home is a pittance – a beer, an amphetamine pill, a travelling case. And all the while it is as if the poetic riches he possesses bag by bag are transferred to Birgitta. Even the title, Kärlek i Europa (1981; Love in Europe), is revealed in the book as having been stolen from Paul Andersson.

The world of the 1950s was one of men. The Swedish Parliament had only forty women members, about ten per cent. In boardroom chairs, in the Swedish Academy, or the University Councils there were none. Nor were women on the pulpits, since they only gained access to priesthood in 1959.

Eleven out of twelve critics in the 1950s were men. The mandatory prose anthology of the decade, 50-tal (The Fifties), 1959, contained thirty-five authors in all, and of these only four are women: Ulla Isaksson, Sara Lidman, Birgitta Stenberg, and Birgitta Trotzig. The survey volume Moderna svenska författare (Modern Swedish Authors), 1959, including both poets and prose writers, lists forty-eight writers from the 1950s. Again only four of these are women: Sara Lidman, Birgitta Trotzig, Majken Johansson, and Tove Jansson.

In 1959 the photographer Lennart Nilsson gathered the best known persons of the 1950s for a group photograph. Of the thirty-five persons he gathered were five named women: the headmistress and detective novel writer Dagmar Lange, the ballet dancer Marianne Orlando, the journalist and home decorating expert Lena Larsson, the opera singer Margareta Hallin, and the actress Bibi Andersson. A sixth is seen, anonymously – a woman traffic warden, the sensation of the motorised 1950s.

But the suite proves that Birgitta Stenberg has her own deeds to the title. The basic position in Kärlek i Europa (1981; Love in Europe) is that of affirmative loving, a will to see that becomes a non-judgmental joy in everything that exists.

Object number one for this fundamental affirmation is the muse, Paul Andersson, the poet and traitor. He exists even at the start of the authorship, as one of the title characters of Mikael och Poeten (1956; Mikael and the Poet). The second character of the title is a photophobic Stockholm dweller, the drug and antiques dealer Mikael. In lyrical stylisation this is the same world that reappears in Apelsinmannen (1983; The Orange Man) – the netherworld of Stockholm at the start of the 1950s featuring, among other things, the so-called Kejne affair, a homosexual scandal with connections to the top levels of the civil service.

Lived and Written

Birgitta Stenberg speaks of “the confluence of all lived and written poetry”. Early on, she dedicated herself to this duality of life – lived and written – but it is not until Chans (1961; Chance), her third novel, that this is reflected in her public image. And the effect was not positive. One might have imagined a certain positive celebrity preferment, as was the case for the authors Bo Setterlind and Per Rådström. But for Birgitta Stenberg the result was rather exclusion from the literary world, as an informer from a titillating half-prostituted and petty criminal world. As the ‘princess of the rabble’ and a debauched adventuress, she had no claim to the Swedish Parnassus.

The main character in Chans (1961; Chance) is a teenage girl escaping from a correctional institution. Her meetings with diverse milieus show up the class and gender barriers in the language and society of Sweden at that time. But the depiction also grows to something more, a drama with religious overtones. The girl, whose name incidentally is Mari, through exposure and degradation reaches an understanding of her own worth.

Våldgästen (1963; The Violent Guest) moves through the criminal world, while De frånvända (1964; The Reverted) contains well-informed descriptions of drug addiction. Rapport (1969; Report) writes itself into the wave of books reporting on various subjects in Sweden – Sara Lidman’s Gruva (1968; Mine), Carin Mannheimer’s Rapport om kvinnor (1969; Report on Women), Maja Ekelöf’s Rapport från en skurhink (1970; Report from a Scouring Pail), and so on. This one is about the rush granted by amphetamine, the passion and the paranoid phase.

With great proximity and efficiency, Rapport depicts the path from the first intravenous shot with its bursting sexual enjoyment, to the helpless recovery. In between is a complex and intense love affair with the drug addict and dealer Baku. Chronologically, Rapport (1969; Report) can be seen as the fourth part of the autobiographical suite. This book, however, as shown, is written in much closer proximity to its own time.

The road into the world goes through Birgitta’s body. Since the body has been released from the snaring skirt suit, the watchword for its inhabitant has become: “Use yourself”. The body’s function is to access experiences: the material for writing. It is certainly no seat for passion. The image of the body and the female sex is coloured by two of that time’s authorities on the subject: Bengt Anderberg’s outspoken novel Kain (1948; Cain), and the informational movie about venereal diseases Smygande Gift (Insidious Poison). Even though the body is a ruthlessly exploited instrument, it still begins to make its own discoveries. This may happen in the most unlikely places, as with the stinking man with the shoe-lace in Geneva, where Birgitta has her first exulting orgasms. But it also happens through conscious striving, as when Birgitta gains her joyful lesbian experiences on the Continent.

The Inner Path

If anyone can be claimed to be the genius of the 1950s it is Birgitta Stenberg – the extremes, the openness, the will to experience with all of one’s senses. What is achieved in the literature of the 1950s is social and psychological insights. The overview is still pending. This even goes for Annakarin Svedberg, who more than others can be said to embody the late 1950s and early 1960s. Vårvinterdagbok (Late Winter Diary), her 1957 debut, received a lot of attention. Weightlessness, grace, and purity were spoken of. Or indecency, pertness, and egocentricity. The book implied a new touch; one could speak of a technique of immediate recording. “Writing tap, tap, writing just to create that tapping, just to make a noise.” The horizon is no wider than what can be surveyed from the typewriter, the approach to the reader is direct and eager, the self-assertion disarmingly frank – “I want to be a genius! I want I want I want I want!”. The tone, however, is sincere rather than comic.

As “dishonourably discharged” from the Swedish Parnassus, Birgitta Stenberg has had the freedom to move about as she wished to between genres and forms of expression. She has written for television and film: Chans (1962; Chance); Katarina (1967; Katarina); Garderoben (1969; The Wardrobe); Raskenstam (1983), the story of a lonely-hearts racketeer who is truly able to make people happy; and parts of the first Swedish soap, Lösa förbindelser (1985; Casual Liasons). Her strong and rebellious women recur in her children’s books with their girl protagonists, among others Klara Färdiga (1976; Klara – Ready Steady Go), Emily och Eddy (1986; Emily and Eddy), Falkboet (1987; The Falcon’s Nest), and Billy och arga Lotta (1992; Billy and Angry Lotta). By the end of the 1980s she began a trilogy about the Swedish rural districts and the depopulating villages: Tusenbröderna (1988; The Thousand-Brothers), Detta med Doris (1989; The Thing about Doris), and Arabesk (1994; Arabesque).

There is from the first a strong identification with women in Annakarin Svedberg’s writing, which is noticeable in the writers appearing in the texts – Selma Lagerlöf, Edith Södergran, Karin Boye, Sara Lidman – and in the way the novels are constructed and peopled. The second book, Ack, denna själ! (1958; Yea, this soul!), was published just half a year after the debut: the first half contains an existentialist monologue addressed to a woman, while the second half contains an everyday account of existence between the I and another woman, recognisable as the poet Elsa Grave.

A different kind of breakthrough came with the third book, Vingklippta (1962; Wing-clipped); a beatnik novel from Stockholm thas has been compared to Jack Kerouac and Jackson Pollock, to Henry Miller and to Selma Lagerlöf. The debate and questions of the time flow directly into the novel: psychoanalysis and the sexual revolution, but also the then current notion that we live in a “psychological matriarchy”.

The path for the I is to seek alternate forms of life, options outside the middle-class patriarchal solution. Lesbian relationships. A female fellowship. What is shown in Vingklippta (1962; Wing-clipped) resembles Birgitta Stenberg’s attempt to depict a positive image of a lesbian relationship as early as in 1955, which proved too early.

On twisting roads – in part through a wonderful retelling of the myth of Ariadne – the novel reaches its conclusion with an image of the matriarchal communal bed, in which lie the recently delivered mother (father of child unknown), the nursing baby, the sleeping mistress, and – as an internal image – the comforting mother. A radical new order.

Taking a smoother path, Det goda livet (1963; The Good Life) explores the relationship between two artistically active women and a five-year old daughter – a quiet everyday depiction of a lesbian couple, and as such a precurser of Tove Jansson’s Rent spel (Fair Game) from 1991. From the same year, 1963, the ferocious Se uppför trollen! (Look out for the Troll!) is a further development of the interest in mythology present in Vingklippta (1962; Wing-clipped). With Din egen (1966; Your Own), Annakarin Svedberg for a while ceases to publish literature, and thus confirms the image of a 1950s that values the immediate living of life over the creation of art.

With more consistency than most, Annakarin Svedberg has made the inner path hers. Kärlek är det innersta av hjärtat (1976; Love is the Core of the Heart)is the characteristic title of a diary of nature and thoughts from 1976. Ideologically, she moved via Buddhism to a political-religious-feminist consciousness. Travels to India and South-East Asia were united with participation in the radical Kvinnobulletinen (Women’s Bulletin). Towards the end of the 1980s, she and others started Kvinnopartiet (The Women’s Party) in Sweden.

Two voices from the chorus of commenters on Annakarin Svedberg’s Vårvinterdagbok (Late Winter Diary), 1957. Olof Lagercrantz writes in Dagens Nyheter (News of the Day) 12 December 1957: “The promise in Annakarin Svedberg’s book above all lies in the linguistic purity of her wit, which sparkles like the late winter sun through her window, in the grace of her phrases, in the exquisite taste she demonstrates in every passage.” On the same day, Ingemar Björksten writes in Norrköpings Tidningar (Norrköping’s Newspaper): “It is not interesting to learn that the woman writer to her own mind is a genius, or that she is mad for men; perhaps she wished to shock, but who hasn’t already read that fairy-tale?”

Politics and Sexual Liberalism

Acting out erotically – albeit along unambiguously heterosexual paths – also characterises Nine Christine Jönsson’s works. Vulnerable characters and critical fates people the works. Nine Christine Jönsson comes from the working class. She changed horses mid-career from being a successful actress to writing. Vanhävd i Paradiset (Neglect in Paradise) was published in 1960.

Her debut depicts the disintegration of a family and its farm, an “Orestiad” transported into a Swedish village, according to the critic and writer Artur Lundkvist. The novel is composed of juxtaposed monologues. The style recalls William Faulkner, and that is how Nine Christine Jönsson appeared: as a Swedish William Faulkner, the only one to compete with him in matters of intensity, heat, and cruelty. Erotic and sexual obsession becomes something of a red thread through her works. Likvaka (1962; Vigil), the second novel, is a recorded monologue led by a woman doctor while she is dying. Symbolically, she dies from pregnancy toxaemia after a failed attempt at abortion. The man who drove her into this final abyss is a modern, de-romanticised Gösta Berling – Per Maria, a hard-boiled psychopath with an irresistible power of attraction for all sorts of people.

Annakarin Svedberg’s choice of inner path is perhaps best captured in the book about Indira Gandhi, “the world’s most powerful woman” but also one of the world’s most controversial figures. Annakarin Svedberg chooses the voice of love, the impulse of attraction that drives her to seek out Indira Gandhi and gain her own opinion of her, outside all political convictions. The book charts the development of the fragile friendship until Indira Gandhi resumed her position as Prime Minister in 1980 and until the death of her son Sanjay Gandhi in a plane crash the same year. Indira Gandhi – en bok om kärlek (Indira Gandhi – A Book about Love)was published in 1980.

Somewhat less intense is Kärlekar (1963; Loves), although even this is a depiction of erotic obsession. En katt i munnen (1965; A Pussy in the Mouth) describes a different kind of obsession. An eleven-year old girl is obsessed with ‘falling’, here represented by a death-leap from the Katarina Lift in Stockholm, which to her mind is the only alternative to ‘falling’ into adult sexuality. In a drawn-out and skilfully produced final scene, drifting between dream and reality, the young girl hangs in the grip of a male lunatic outside the railings of the Katarina Lift, and is only saved at the very moment her body is benumbed by a faintness caused by her first menstruation and her first adult erotic feeling.

The indecents of the 1950s defend their position. Nine Christine Jönsson and Loka Enmark are the two women writers who are most diligent about publishing in Kärlek (Love) 1–14, 1965–70, a publication which in the spirit of the time’s sexual liberation, offered pornography of a literary quality. Nine Christine Jönsson and Annakarin Svedberg represent the female input in the first volume, each with a short story that reflects their respective dispositions. Nine Christine Jönsson’s “Kösamhället” (“Waiting in Line”) depicts what is basically a chilling rape, while Annakarin Svedberg rewrites Little Red Riding Hood as a pacifistic and smoothly promiscuous pastiche.

When Ann Smith (born 1930) published her first collection of poems Två i stjärnan (Two in the Star), 1963, her erotic poetry caused quite an uproar. “In one of the most piquant pitfalls of the ongoing women’s emancipation, one girl after another has looked around and understood that one undoubted way of making an impression in male society is to readily vent one’s love life”, Urban Torhamn wrote in his review in Expressen (The Express).

Loka Enmark is far from peaceful and idyllic in her writer’s disposition. Like an “obscene scrutinising face”, her works are characterised by this phrase from one of her books. Here, too, we find the sexual outspokenness and promiscuous life style. The difference from the other two lies in the total cynicism that evolves. The main environment consists of sleazy, artsy parties with casual liaisons initiated while drunk. The men are lab rats. The women’s enjoyment lies in their observations, intercourse being solely the means to that end.

In a presentation of herself in the third person, Nine Christine Jönsson writes in Författare om sig själva (1993; Writers on Themselves): “The background and interests of the parents granted class consciousness, a politically radical attitude, and an artistic and Godless foundation. Illness in childhood caused the impression of at once being afflicted and chosen.”

In her debut, Bedrägeriet (1960; The Fraud), the woman lets the murderer of her lover move in with her. By the end of the book she has even accepted his proposal – just for the “pleasure of saying one word too much”. Her own ice cold observation is contrasted with her fiancé’s moods on the eve of engagement: “Alex stuck to the newly engaged’s worthwhile emotions: his moist, meaty fingers closed around mine again and again.” In Isgrottan (1961; The Ice Cavern) it is the woman herself who kills a casual lover, driven by his incurable innocence and romantic view of eroticism. The energy in Loka Enmark’s books is driven by revenge. Revenge on men, revenge on society, revenge for an unexpressed but fundamental violation.

Birgitta Holm

Translated by Marthe Seiden