The novel Uke 43 (2000; Week 43, 2002) exemplifies a central theme in the writings of Hanne Ørstavik. The novel relates the story of Solveig, a newly hired lecturer of literature at a university college in Norway. Solveig admires her elder colleague and role model, Hilde, greatly and constantly seeks her approval. Solveig feels a close affinity to Hilde, and she endeavours to use articles written by Hilde as the guiding principles in her teaching. However, as time passes, Solveig comes to realise that Hilde’s views and convictions have changed, and her disillusionment steadily increases until it reaches a final climax during a party at Hilde’s. Her illusions shattered, Solveig finally loses control in an emotional outburst, unleashing her pent-up frustration.
An important theme in Finnish Women’s Literature is the criticism of child-rearing. The idyllic surface is broken, and no family member is exempt. One of the theorists who influenced the new literature is Alice Miller, whose works were translated into Finnish in the 1980s. In the new family tales the mother often turns out to be the exploiter, but a child might equally well be found in the role of the unappeasable tyrant. Standard impressions and interpretations of growing up a girl are twisted and turned, and myths are reinterpreted.Many important women writers in Finland in the 1970s and 1980s concentrate on the eternal existential questions that go with being human. Often, the human being is placed in borderline situations, separate from others, or near to grief and death. The main themes are guilt, identity, frustration, mental breakdowns, and the possibility of changing in one way or another. In the background are problems relating to growing up, living in a marriage, or professional life.
The Swedish author Carola Hansson’s oeuvre is at the centre of the aesthetic turn of the tide and epistemological turbulence of the 1980s, but her novels still deviate from the main literary path. The books, like so much of the decade’s prose, deal with an identity in dissolution, a lost language, and the evasive nature of memory. The focus of Carola Hansson’s novels is the modernist anti-hero: a homeless, alienated human being seeking his identity without ever finding it.This same dissolved identity becomes a theme in the work of Åsa Nelvin, who already in her debut children’s book, De vita björnarna, (1969; The White Bears), depicts the conflict between the self and the world that will underpin her entire body of works. The hackneyed and ironic traits in her texts multiply and destabilise the ‘I’. They also draw the reader’s attention to the fact that the depiction of this dissolved female ‘identity’ is a means for Åsa Nelvin to discuss women’s relations to language, creativity, and a possible but not yet realisable new femininity.
During the 1970s, Agneta Pleijel was one of the leaders of the generation of critics that stood up for a new literature that was to be better adapted to society. Like Anna Westberg, she takes her starting point in the aesthetics and ethical ideals that were prevalent in the 1970s. But where the ethical ideals were maintained through the oeuvres of both Pleijel and Westberg, an almost immediate distancing from the predominant realistic aesthetics took place.In the beginning of the 1980s their style became far more tentative and fragmentary. They abandoned objectivity and surrendered instead to a more lofty tone and deeper resonance in their works, which were initially light and optimistic about development and now gradually darken.
A number of Kerstin Söderholm’s traits qualify her as a Finland-Swedish counterpart to Karin Boye and Virginia Woolf: the privilege of working at the core of avant-gardism, as well as vulnerability, failing physical and mental health, and a death wish that eventually led to suicide.Like many other Finland-Swedish modernists, Söderholm wrote poetry that largely centred on nature themes. Poetry is her way of defining a tentative self and an evasive, inaccessible other.
Karin Boye’s most inspired poems are born at the juncture of “the world of appearances – a world that depicts”, and “the other world, the heavy, transformational world that did not ask for superficial flourishes”. Their tension oscillates between “that which breaks” and “that which bars” and is instantaneously released in a euphoric cry of freedom, for “fear can live no longer”, and the ego surrenders unconditionally to “the trust that creates the world”.Her suicide in 1941 has affected the way that people look at her life and her art. She has been portrayed as “tragic” and “consecrated to death”. Her work has been interpreted throughout as that of someone who struggled heroically against her “death wish”. Her writing often resides between sleeping and waking, an unreal kingdom in which dream and desire reign, a place that human beings never completely leave and always yearn for deep within.
Based on the new research in women’s studies being conducted at Danish universities in the 1970s, a league of female reviewers arose who wrote about new – and old – women’s literature. They functioned as the propagators of reader experiences as well as the new norm-setters with regard to interpreting women’s literature.The notion of the importance of the woman’s experience, in particular, became an artistic driving force. It led to the creation both of the confessional genre, in which the subjective experience served as a way for the writer and the reader to conquer identity and ‘I’-power, as well as of emancipation literature, in which experience paradigmatically leads to awareness, resistance, and liberation, from marriage or from mental self-oppression.
In 1937 Tove Ditlevsen first had a poem published. The poem can be read as an allegory of her writing career, which was to produce one of the most significant bodies of work written by a woman in the Danish post-war period. Underneath the extremely simple surface, the poem anticipates recurring themes such as female identity, memory, and creativity. Loss of childhood, and especially of the symbiotic relationship to the mother, is the foundation of Tove Ditlevsen’s melancholy poetics.Her writing is one long memory process, first in the form of fiction, but gradually also in essays with an autobiographical reference point and in essayistic fragments of memory, until she published her autobiographical works proper. Once the autobiographical material had been exhausted and all the key characters in her childhood universe – her mother, her father, and her brother – were dead and her husband had left her, Tove Ditlevsen ended her life as she had presaged.
In the work of writers in 1930s Denmark connected to the arts journal Linien – such as Hulda Lütken and Bodil Bech – the power and expressivity, the new, demanding ego that was given voice in Södergran’s writing, first made its mark. In their writings, inspiration from Södergran is seen as an intense provocation of the traditional late-Romantic verse language and poetic fixtures.It is tempting to say that the Södergran influence takes their writing to the verge of breakdown, whereas the third woman poet of the 1930s, Tove Meyer, lives and writes for long enough to accomplish the difficult manoeuvre out of late-Romanticism and into a new modernist style.
Sweden was the first among the Nordic countries to allow women access to a university education. Female students ostensibly lived under the same conditions as their male counterparts: they shared ideas, instructors, visions of the future. In reality their situations could not have been more at odds. Men were the beneficiaries of longstanding traditions and the innate right to public support. Like extraterrestrial creatures, women found themselves in an alien world. Women asked themselves whether they should try to blend in and focus on what they had in common with men or accentuate their own special qualities. In the 1880s and early 1890s, any term or concept suggesting that they somehow deviated from the norm was scrupulously avoided. Just before the turn of the century, they switched strategy, placing ‘femininity’ in the spotlight and adding the notion of ‘difference’ to their repertoire. The tide turned in 1896, the year Ellen Key published Missbrukad kvinnokraft (Misused Female Power). Demands for emancipation and equal opportunity were supplanted by the concept that women should enrich society and culture with their unique qualities. Love and emotional liberation took centre stage. Women acquired a fresh sense of dignity, as well as new responsibilities, by virtue of their gender. And the women academics of the time did not remain unaffected.