Chair no. 1 - Lotta Lotass

Lotta Lotass was born on 28 February 1964 in Borgsheden in Dalarna province. She is an author, essayist and literary scholar. She was voted into the Swedish Academy on 6 March 2009 and formally inducted on 20 December 2009. Lotass succeeded lawyer Sten Rudholm, taking over his Chair No. 1. She lives in Gothenburg and, alongside her writing, works at Litteraturbanken (the Literature Bank), which produces certified digital versions of Swedish literature classics. She is a member of the Royal Society of Arts and Sciences in Gothenburg (KVVS) and has been the recipient of several awards, including the Eyvind Johnson Prize in 2004, the Swedish Radio Novel Prize in 2005 and the Stina Aronson Prize in 2009.

Lotass’s literary debut came relatively late, at the age of thirty-six, but with that accomplished, her productivity has been unmatched in our time. After her debut in 2000 she has published about ten books, a number of plays for theatre and radio, and a series of publications on the Web. Her writing is thus firmly based in our millennium’s first decade.

After the compulsory nine years of basic schooling, Lotass took a series of casual jobs for several years before graduating from secondary school via the public adult education college in Borlänge 1989–90. She moved to Gothenburg in 1991 and read cultural studies, majoring in the history of literature. She then studied theoretical philosophy before returning to literature history, and research into the authorship of Stig Dagerman (1923 – 1954). She delivered her doctoral thesis in May 2002: Friheten meddelad – Studier i Stig Dagermans författarskap (Communicated Freedom — A Study of Stig Dagerman’s Oeuvre).

Her dissertation was narrative and discursive and in many ways can be seen as Lotass’s own mission statement. At the time, her writing comprised two books and was beginning to develop strongly along the lines of her analysis of Dagerman’s writing: that it treats “an aesthetic of the implicit” — briefly, that Dagerman’s readers are enticed into becoming co-creators as he progressively widens the span for the engaged reader so that writer and reader can journey together, in constant dialogue on the feasibility of humaneness in an inhumane world. The purpose is to clear the way and open up for the reader’s own add-on creativity.

In a sense, this is also the framework for Lotta Lotass’s own writing. Her debut was with a relatively traditional novel, Kallkällan (The Cold Spring, 2000), winning the Borås Tidning newspaper’s prize for a first book — although traditional is hardly the word for such a distinctively linguistic work. Lotass immediately established what language was for her: a continuous investigation of possibilities; an invitation to what is admittedly a fairly complicated conversation; a place where form and genre and discourse overlap. In four places, in four different contexts, Kallkällan lets an arid, inventive language steeped in regional Dalarna dialect evoke the fates of a number of solitary figures, and a number of basic themes. A polar landscape, a mental hospital, an evocative lunar landscape and, as touchstone, a remote village – in these forbidding but for the characters inviting places, portentous drama is suggested but never really uttered. Manifestly, Lotass is forcing the reader to draw conclusions and continue creating. In keeping with “the aesthetic of the implicit” she entices the reader to be co-creator. But she also seems to be saying: Creating is not easy, do not think otherwise; don’t romanticise the creative act, it offers stiff resistance and generally hurts.

The following year produced a different book. To be sure, we meet again solitary, taciturn, monomaniacal men (almost always men) grimly and stubbornly accomplishing their goals. But now the context is specific: namely, the history of manned flight, from the Wright brothers at the turn of the previous century to the period after the second world war. Aerodynamiska tal (Aerodynamic Speech, 2001) cannot be termed a novel. It has instead the dimension and appearance of a prose poem, and the individual texts can be termed variations on a theme. What emerges in the meeting between a poetic eye and cold machinery is a unique prose-poetry that also becomes a distinctive string in Lotass’s writing. It is Lotta Lotass’s own version of a uniquely Swedish tradition of documentarism.

Lotta Lotass harbours an incessant fascination for the history of technology and for men doggedly achieving their dreams, focusing on both technology and dreams. The next book on that theme came in 2004 and, largely, picked up where Aerodynamiska tal had ended. Tredje flykthastigheten (Escape Velocity) is about space, or the incipient dawn of the space age, with Yuri Gagarin as protagonist. Space pioneer Gagarin’s voice is however only one of a crowd of voices together producing a kind of lyrical oratorio on the period when man overcame “escape velocity”, that is, the speed believed necessary to propel a spacecraft out of the solar system. It is a celebration of the pioneers, a critical analysis of the Soviet Union and simultaneously a lament over lost dreams.

But in between the books on flight and space, what is perhaps the main motif in Lotta Lotass’s writing continued. It was in the oddly titled Band II. Från Gabbro till Löväng (Volume II. From Gabbro to Löväng, 2003). The title comes from the second volume of Lantmannens bok (The Farmer’s Book) a reference work in several volumes from the 1940s, also Lotass’s source for the text’s main entry. In this book, Lotass refines the isolated rural fraternity of Kallkällan. If one theme in her writing is about overcoming our earthly limitations to fly, the other is about being firmly planted in the soil — yet in a sense still managing to overcome limitations. Although in Band II. Från Gabbro till Löväng, imagination is the transformative power, but also organisation, the lexical love of lists and cataloguing that makes the rather muddy and grubby world of Kymmer Per and Pallas Valfrid, Fäktar Lars and the Lindgrens’ Viktor, astonishingly beautiful.

The following novel, skymning:gryning (dusk:dawn, 2005), represents a turning point. An anonymous group of people is travelling in a remote landscape. It is evocative to the point of terror. There are no time or location markers, the landscape is archaic, volcanic and almost old-testament, and the figures totally lack psychology or character in the normal literary meaning. A feeling of metaphysical abandonment is all there is. In one sense, it is as though all the shabby figures from Kallkällan and Band II had been gathered and sent off on a prolonged desert trek. On the other hand, a new kind of metaphysical anonymity is present, and these even blanker characters point a way forward in Lotass’s writing, towards writing that transfers to the reader an ever-greater responsibility for creativity; towards the trilogy.

But published (in paperback) before the trilogy was Min röst skall nu komma från en annan plats i rummet (My Voice Will Now Come from Another Place in the Room, 2006), which in a way concludes her series about men defying limits — in this case, every imaginable moral limit. Five serial killers meet in the American southwest, four of them authentic —Ted Bundy, John Wayne Gacy, Ed Gein and Jeffrey Dahmer (or the Rabbit, the Clown, the Apostle and the Monster, as Lotass names them) — one her own invention. It becomes a peculiarly lyrical road movie with deeply disturbing undertones. It is simply about humanity’s utmost extremities.

By this stage Lotta Lotass had begun writing drama, both in the form of radio plays and as theatrical plays, and in the following years several volumes of drama were published. Her theatrical debut was with the critically lauded Samlarna (The Collectors, 2005), a tense psychological drama about an authentic pair of brothers in New York who lived a strangely detached life, amassing a hundred and ten tonnes of debris in their apartment before they were found buried under their hoard in 1947. Lotass’s understated lyrical laconism is closely related to Samuel Beckett’s drama, not least in her suite of six radio plays, Arkipelag (Archipelago, 2007), where the naked human voice is exposed from wildly varied and yet very similar perspectives. Her drama writing continued with two full-scale stage plays: Dalén (2008), where the inventor of the flashing lighthouse, the incurable optimist Gustaf Dalén, reviews his life from the darkness of blindness, and the mysterious Speleologerna (The Speleologists, 2009), where ten people dressed for cricket wait for a “game” — whatever it is — to begin.

In recent years Lotta Lotass has also established herself as a Web writer, with a number of web-based prose texts under the umbrella of Autor Eter, a forum for online literature connected to the Literary Composition course at the University of Gothenburg. In 2008 came Redwood, a number of lyrical variations based on old photographs of the giant redwoods of California, and in 2009 both Hemvist (Residences), similarly based on historical photographs of mental hospitals, and Kraftverk (Power Stations), pivoted on historical images of power station interiors.

Her major work in the second half of the century’s first decade – and for her oeuvre as a whole – is without question the trilogy consisting of three daring experimental novels based on Immanuel Kant’s three critiques: Den vita jorden (The White Earth, 2007), Den röda himlen (The Red Sky, 2008) and Den svarta solen (The Black Sun, 2009).

Den vita jorden was controversial, since the work consisted of 148 unsorted texts on unnumbered pages, presented in a box instead of between normal book covers. For those who have followed Lotass’s development, this step was scarcely a surprise. The trilogy is where she allows her old Stig Dagerman premise, “the aesthetic of the implicit”, to blossom fully, in different ways. The texts in Den vita jorden, stretching from one to twenty pages in length, cover Lotass’s favourite themes — journeys of discovery, industrial vision, mining — and play out in her favourite settings: endless hills and plains, and fatally doomed landscapes. Her threnodies on mankind versus nature, and control versus calamity, emerge in infinite variations.

In contrast, Den röda himlen consists of a single, enormously long sentence that winds, bloodshot and anxiety-ridden, across a hundred pages. The book was published on 11 November 2008, exactly ninety years after the end of the first world war, and is set in the claustrophobic insanity of the trenches. The entire book is a description of arrested time, a frozen moment of fear, and is unremittingly hair-raising — one of Lotta Lotass’s major literary achievements.

Den svarta solen, finally, suggests by its very aspect Peter Weiss’s The Aesthetics of Resistance, and if Weiss exhibits traces of monomania, it overflows in Lotass. Three hundred and forty monotone texts are used to describe a building and the people in it. They have names such as the Other, He, the Witness, the Soldier, and the path through the unnumbered pages and, to be sure, the completely unsystematic texts is indicated by various arrows and markers that support the structure in a way strongly reminiscent of George Perec’s Life: A User’s Manual. Den svarta solen is, in its provocative, monomaniacal form, a real challenge, also blurring the distinction between reader activity (in accordance with “the aesthetic of the implicit”) and reader indifference. But even here, on a meta-level that demands a kind of higher grade of reader activity, the reader is called on to adopt a position.

Jan Arnald
(Translated by Kim Loughran)