Chair no. 11 - Klas Östergren

Klas Östergren, born 20 February 1955 in Stockholm. Writer and translator. Elected to the Swedish Academy on 27 February 2014 and admitted on 20 December 2014. Östergren succeeded the art critic, author and musician Ulf Linde on Chair number 11. Östergren lives in the Österlen region of Skåne province, in southern Sweden. He was awarded the Eyvind Johnson Prize in 1989, the literary society De Nio’s grand prize in 2005 and the Selma Lagerlöf Prize in 2012. Until 2011, and longer than anyone else, he served on the awards committee of the Albert Bonnier awards fund for Swedish writers.

The youngest of four siblings in a working-class family, Klas Östergren spent most of his childhood on Lilla Esssingen island, an urban district of Stockholm. Admitted to the Södra Latin secondary grammar school on Södermalm, the city’s large southern island, he developed an eclectic cultural bent, grounded in earlier schooling. He drew and painted, joined a theatre group, led a book circle and edited a literary magazine, Loke. Södra Latin was a stimulating environment, inspiring a precocious youth to publicly share literary works influenced chiefly by Lars Norén, Göran Tunström and Jack Kerouac.

Not unexpectedly, the grammar school years figure prominently in Östergren’s early first novel. The Bonnier publishing house initially passed on a poetry collection but ultimately accepted his novel, Atilla, published only weeks before Östergren’s twentieth birthday in 1975. It has to be viewed as a typical early work. In his final year at school, the protagonist confronts not only politics and literature but also great (although schoolboy and short) love. Episodes merge into a larger, transcendent feeling of unity that resembles an (albeit youthful) epiphany, much like Kerouac’s satori, a concept borrowed from Zen Buddhism.

His next book, Ismael (1977) was plainly a sequel to Atilla, with two additional themes. Firstly, the advent of travel, where all roads seem to lead to Paris. Secondly, a couple of parallel historical plots, both referencing Ismael, the rejected one of the Bible, the loneliest of the lonely. On the whole, a more mature novel than Atilla. But greater literary strides were to be made with his next book, Fantomerna (1978).

The reason was that for the first time, Östergren chose to confront a real life trauma – the death of his father when Klas was nineteen. A father is the main ghost for both the angst-stricken main characters, the older Claudius whom we meet in third person as a narrator in Paris and Bretagne, and the young man introduced in the first person and who is undergoing a protracted breakdown that also summarises much of late-1970s youth culture. Clearly Östergren needed a layered distance in the shape of a fictional Claudius to be able to address the most painful issues, the malevolent phantoms of one’s past. Not least the bustling childhood years on Lilla Essingen, the island of phantoms.

Östergren has described Fantomerna (the phantoms) as the book that allowed him to take himself seriously as a storyteller; it is possibly the novel closest – at least in sections – to an unfiltered autobiography. The next book, in contrast, had the narrative itself as the core element, and it might be argued that fantasising is the real protagonist in Gentlemen (1980). Using an author forgotten at the time, Sture Dahlström, as a tool, Östergren staged a deliberate revolt against the rigid Seventies.

Few novels quickly acclaimed as capturing the Zeitgest of their time endure, but Gentlemen is truly one of Swedish literature’s most characteristic generation-specific novels. Like no one else, Klas Östergren successfully captured the historically so important transition from the 1970s to the 1980s, from folkhem (roughly: a home for our people) and left-wing agitprop literary dogma to deregulated, venture-capitalistic hegemony and liberated fantasising.

Even though the multi-pronged story of how author “Klas Östergren” is commissioned to deliver an updated version of August Strindberg’s The Red Room and meets the Bohemian Morgan brothers largely plays out in motion – both underground and above ground – it is still mostly about a mythical address, Number 29C Hornsgatan. A peculiar and grandiose apartment becomes the immutable centrepiece of the nonconformist Södermalm district as it undergoes drastic transformation – and thereby, in a sense, becomes the world’s navel.

Gentlemen was written by an author still young in years but his narrative maturity had progressed to another level, as had the ecstatic love of life, the feeling that anything was possible. Östergren also dared take a step perhaps best described by Horace Engdahl [later, the Swedish Academy permanent secretary] in his review for the evening daily Expressen: “On offer here is that shameful ingredient that once made great literature read: entertainment.”

The book enjoyed a second appreciation with the tardy arrival of its successor, Gangsters (2005; see below) and another in connection with the even more overdue but thereby all the more welcome film version by director Mikael Marcimain (2014).

The explosive breakthrough of Gentlemen led to Östergren’s voluntary exile from Sweden where he found himself locked in a destructive pattern. He settled in Paris for several years, launching a sideline in translation with Nigel William’s play Class Enemy, and began work on a follow-up to Gentlemen. It turned out not to be a follow-up, seeking instead a distinctly different aesthetic trail, deliberately distant from his grand succé.

The novella Giganternas brunn (1981) has little of the narrative flow of Gentlemen. Instead, Östergren tightened the plot considerably, accepting inspiration from the relative nakedness of drama dialogue (it was originally written as a play), and instead of the thrill of living, a muted melancholy bears this small novel, with episodes of straightforward horror, and, not least, telling criticism of Sweden’s wartime passive-neutrality. Three men working for the defence establishment are in a remote guesthouse on Gotland island. A fourth man arrives, claiming to have rowed ashore. This results in a series of confessional accounts which ultimately, perhaps, indicate what the men are occupied with in that godforsaken spot.

Placing Giganternas brunn in 1957 implied a nascent interest in history. When Östergren returned, a couple of years later, to more extravagant and untamed contrivances, he did so in a historical novel. But neither was Fattiga riddare och stora svenskar (1983) a Gentlemen follow-up, rather an attempt to put the same fabulist energies to use in a completely different context, namely the nascent modern Sweden of 1937, the era of the historic employer-union consensus sealed at the resort of Saltsjöbaden.

If Gentlemen represented narrative flow, Fattiga riddare och stora svenskar was a web of intrigue. Complex twists involving the illegitimate son of Felix Krull, Thomas Mann’s antihero in the eponymous novel, lead in myriad directions. Florian Krull finds himself in a grotesque, conspiratory inferno after having accepted a contract-killing job targeting a film-maker, Bolin. In his film “Stora svenskar” (Great Swedes), Bolin has revealed that a deal between the social democrats and the suicided hyper-capitalist Ivar Kreuger had allowed the Sicilian mafia to establish in Sweden. And that’s just the beginning of the increasingly outrageous intrigues.

Fattiga riddare och stora svenskar was a powerful tour de force, the only book Östergren himself has, a touch ironically, labelled “postmodern”, and it became a bookend for a wildly inventive epoch, at least for the time being. His next book was restrained and precise.

That restraint and precision would reappear frequently in Östergren’s work, but in Plåster (1986) his language leans in a unique way towards the hard-boiled and genuinely unsentimental. In this small novel about a man in a hospital suspecting that his every utterance may be his last, we see a new maturity in Östergren. He is still only thirty but we might perhaps construe the dawning responsibility of fatherhood from the strongly existential narrative of arduously recovered love and of grumpy men with a taste for one-liners.

Klas Östergren had become a father and now bade Stockholm farewell, both physically and in choice of theme. He moved to Skåne, Sweden’s southernmost province, delved further into translation and along the way wrote three short novels set in the Österlen region of Skåne. But all things considered, Ankare (1988), Handelsmän och partisaner (1991) as well as Under i september (1994) – later grouped as the Österlen Trilogy in 2010 – could have been set anywhere remote. To be sure, all three novels are anchored in the rich soil of Skåne, but the external world is deliberately curtailed, and ultimately they are about different kinds of compressed contemporaneity with the past continuously present.

In general terms, there is a new aesthetic, concentrated and more precise than earlier, arguably paradoxical considering how central euphoria is to all three novels. But it was clearer than ever for Östergren that a crystal-clear consciousness was needed to describe the inebriated ditto’s desperate and startling actions.

In other words, it was not illogical that Östergren’s next book was his first proper collection of short stories, Med stövlarna på och andra berättelser (1997), even though these had mostly been written earlier. He returned now to the city milieu he knows best. Not long afterwards, Östergren reworked one of the short stories, “Veranda för en tenor”, into a film script, launching a period when he wrote mostly for films and television. For a while, he was even convinced that Under i september would be his last proper book. It was not until 2002 that he resumed writing novels although this did not imply that the final years of the last millennium were idle.

Alongside a constant flow of play translations – chiefly Ibsen and his twelve major dramas – Östergren concentrated on film and television. This produced movies such as Veranda för en tenor and Syndare i sommarsol, the TV dramas, Offer och gärningsmän and Soldater i månsken (directed by Tomas Alfredson) and the history drama series Gustav III:s äktenskap.

He returned to prose with three novellas, grouped as Tre porträtt (2002). This was rich story-telling, inventive and entertaining and with the author himself – as in Gentlemen – in a role between observer and participant. The stories – “Kvinna i starkt ljus”, “Kamrat i blå uniform” and “Kollega med gul skål” – combine light comedy with almost supernatural suspense for a virtually complete unit.

It may have been the recurrence of the active narrator that prompted Östergren to return to Gentlemen. Gangsters (2005) is very much a meta account where the entire veracity of Gentlemen is questioned, although the novel is more than that. Firstly, it is a masterpiece of intrigue with a plot that takes its departure from the final scene of Gentlemen, to crash down twenty-five years later with “Klas Östergren” now on a farmstead in Österlen, and with the gritty experience of middle-age, analysing himself at half his age, and his own progress through a snare of intrigue that includes a complete reappraisal of the mysterious Henry and Leo Morgan, the brothers in Gentlemen. And secondly, the fascinating narrative handling of time. Östergren once claimed that “time is the only subject of novels”, very plain in Gangsters where every separate now seems to uncover numerous layers of the past. On top of this, the book takes on a current political issue, “capitalism’s triumph and carnival parade”.

Östergren was back again to broader-brush narrative, and even if his next novel was a commissioned work for the international series, “Myths Retold” his contribution, The Hurricane Party (2007) has an important position in his works. The Hurricane Party is a genuine dystopia from a future without winters and where all trade has stagnated. It is a retelling of the Norse myth of Loke, but even though – or perhaps because – Östergren is fettered to a mythical monster he succeeds more keenly and compellingly than ever in capturing a parent’s limitless love for a child. It is Klas Östergren’s most beautiful novel.

The Hurricane Party is both a divergence in his work and a refinement of it. Still, Östergren subsequently returned to a more familiar contemporaneity with “himself” as active facilitator. This is seen in the imposing novels Den sista cigarretten (2009) and Twist (2014), both worthy of being seen as Gentlemen’s mature relatives.

Den sista cigaretten is Östergren’s appraisement of the 1980s. In the sinister plot, the recreation of a painting by [early 20th-century Swedish artist] Nils Dardel, “Den döende dandyn” (The Dying Dandy) plays an important part, the author employing its re-creation to criticise the attitude towards art prevalent in the ‘80s – partly its art-capitalism and partly its postmodernist conviction that nothing original could be created anymore. The prose has more of a thriller pulse than ever, at the same time as the narrator puts more distance than ever between himself and the proceedings.

Twist has much the same drive, although it this case the action is set in our own day and involves strained and therefore quickly abandoned ideals, Stasi spies, gas pipelines under the Baltic Sea and Russian operatives the narrator stumbles upon while carrying out innocent research on an ancestor in the theatre. Instead, the past is activated on many fronts, and the narrator comes up against the will-o-wisp Anne-Marie (Ami, Anna, Annie) who, having died, is therefore even more opaque than the women in Östergren’s work usually are. But more than anything, Twist is a story about the endless fallibility of memory.

Jan Arnald
(Translated by Kim Loughran)