Chair no. 16 - Kjell Espmark

Kjell Espmark, born 19 February 1930 in Strömsund (Jämtland). Writer and literary historian. Emeritus Professor of the History of Literature at Stockholm University. He was elected to the Swedish Academy on 5 March 1981 and admitted on 20 December 1981. Espmark succeeded the linguist Elias Wessén to Chair number 16. Among other honours he has been awarded the Svenska Dagbladet Prize for Literature 1975, the Schück Prize for 1980, the 1985 Bellman Prize, the 1998 Kellgren Prize and The Society of Nine Great Prize for 2000. 

While studying history of literature at Stockholm University College Espmark made his debut as a poet with Mordet på Benjamin (1956; ‘The murder of Benjamin’). There one may discern the contours of his major inspirer, T. S. Eliot. With the symptomatically entitled Världen genom kameraögat (1958; ‘The world through the eye of the camera’) Espmark appears as the most pronounced role poet of the 1950s. His poetry is a kind of lyrical story-telling, often in “I” form, where the “I” is a temporarily adopted I, observed from a certain distance. Eliot’s “objective correlate” and stance of impersonality become king-pins of what has been called “perhaps the least subjective poetry in Swedish post-war literature”. Espmark took his Licentiate of Philosophy in 1959 and then continued studies of the poetry of Artur Lundkvist.

Even though the 1950s roots of Espmark’s poetry are incontestable, it was predominantly from the 1970s that his writing developed – with a social and political orientation that was of its time yet departed from contemporary certainties. And even though he achieved a certain breakthrough with the critics with his collection Mikrokosmos (1961; ‘Microcosm’) – the last for seven years – the 1960s were devoted above all to literary research, with two fundamental studies of the genesis of the literary language. First, Artur Lundkvist’s path to a voice of his own was mapped in an extremely precise study, his doctoral thesis Livsdyrkaren Artur Lundkvist (1964; ‘Artur Lundkvist the worshipper of life’), and then Harry Martinson’s in Harry Martinson erövrar sitt språk (1970; ‘Harry Martinson conquers his language’). These are required reading in the art of capturing the writer’s many-faceted path to authorship.

That Espmark’s literary-historical writing then changed character was not independent of his return to poetry. In the trilogy Sent i Sverige (‘Late in Sweden’) his role poetry has been reinforced and provided with a thematic framework. Mikrokosmos points forwards to the trilogy both in its title, the art of shrinking the world, making it sensorily graspable in micro-format, and also through a theme more hinted at than executed, reflected in e.g. the title of the poem “Brev från ett avskärmat land” (‘Letter from a screened-off country’), where the following is said: “Much here has been crossed out / pending exchange. / We are helped on to a usable truth.” This “screened-off country”, which we may imagine is Sweden, is the theme of Sent i Sverige: what emerges is the crossed-out Sweden in micro-format. Alienated voices rise from the Swedish undergrowth. “Who lives only his own life?” it is asked in the introductory poem to the introductory volume Det offentliga samtalet (1968; ‘The public conversation’). The three volumes are symmetrically arranged, with 25 poems each, and the titles that follow, Samtal under jorden (1972; ‘Conversations underground’) and Det obevekliga paradiset (1975; ‘Implacable paradise’), suggest links to Dante’s Divine Comedy. The social criticism is aimed at domestic suffering, at the building of the welfare state that “helps us to a usable truth”, and concerns largely, as stated in a later interview, “an implacability in the structures in which we live, simply how one is shaped by the chair one is sitting in and how one lives in contexts that force words from one’s mouth”.

What Kjell Espmark was doing at this time in his poetry was thus a kind of “soul translation” – and this became for a time the direction his literary-historical writing took. He published a couple of important volumes which in a natural way led to the professorship at Stockholm University in 1978: Att översätta själen (1975; ‘Translating the soul’) and Själen i bild (1977; ‘Image of the soul’). This “materialisation of the state of the soul” – how the “inner” becomes the “outer” – is followed in the former book through international lyrical modernism (including Baudelaire, Mallarmé, Rimbaud, Eliot and Breton), in the latter through Swedish (including Ekelund, Lagerkvist, Södergran, Ekelöf, Thoursie and Tranströmer): “The will to materialise what is internal is all-pervading in turn-of-the-century symbolism, the avant-gardism of the 1910s and surrealism.”

Shortly after Espmark had received his professorship a new lyrical trilogy started. The perspective had now widened, and in Försök till liv (1979; ‘Attempt at life’), Tecken till Europa (1982; ‘Intimations to Europe’) and Den hemliga måltiden (1984; ‘The secret meal’) – once again symmetrically conceived (12 fairly extensive poems per volume) – it is Europe and successively the world as a whole that stand at the centre. His writing now takes a culture-historical turn, and one that is critical of civilisation. The “implacable structures” now concern to a greater extent power, the voices that rise from the underworld are not caught in the net of the welfare-state people’s home but are, rather, stifled by the power that down the centuries appears as the foremost driving force of mankind. His writing darkens.

Espmark was elected to the Swedish Academy in the middle of the trilogy, and in his inaugural address on his predecessor he draws a strikingly indirect self-portrait: “Elias Wessén is present on every page of his work, yet he is not visible there. He has entered his work and is one with it.” During the 1980s his literary studies once again take a new direction. He allows himself to be influenced by the new hermeneutic orientation in some of his better-known students (Horace Engdahl, Anders Olsson et al.) and writes a thematically oriented study of Tomas Tranströmer, Resans formler (1983; ‘Formulae of the journey’), and makes use of an intertextual perspective (termed “dialogicity”) in the essay collection Dialoger (1985; ‘Dialogues’). The fixed point is “the dialogistic element in literature”.

Towards the end of the 1980s Espmark becomes a novel writer. He has talked of his authorship in terms of “insidious simplicity”, and nowhere does this become as clear as in the solid but glass-clear, seven-volume, suite Glömskans tid (‘Time of forgetfulness’). His sharp glance is turned now back onto the ruins of the Swedish people’s home. Once again with Dante’s realm of death as model and with role poetry as a basis, a whole series of representatives of different social classes is allowed the floor in the short novels Glömskan (1987; ‘Forgetfulness’), Missförståndet (1989; ‘Misunderstanding’), Föraktet (1991; ‘Scorn’), Lojaliteten (1993; ‘Loyalty’), Hatet (1995; ‘Hate’), Revanschen (1996; ‘Revenge’) and Glädjen (1997; ‘Happiness’). Glömskans tid is a novel suite drawn in the darkest possible colours and without counterpart in our time.

It was entirely logical for the suite to be followed by the abandoned satire Voltaires resa (2000; ‘Voltaire’s journey’) with the unsurpassed introductory sentence: “When Voltaire was in the process of waking up, he noticed that he had got his teeth back.” The two verse collections of the 1990s, När vägen vänder (1992; ‘When the road turns’) and to an even greater extent Det andra livet (1998; ‘The other life’), give an – of course indirect – picture of loss and restarting in life: “Like standing beside a burned-out car and seeing one’s own body slumped over the steering-wheel.”

The turn of the millennium saw an espmarkian production that by no means ran dry. On the contrary production was appreciable and during the twenty-hundreds Espmark has written some of his greatest works, not least via the process of grieving for his deceased wife in the collection of poetry De levande har inga gravar (2002) (The Living have no Graves). The whole text comes from the mouth of a lost wife, and other dead people also emerge, determined not to be silenced: “Whoever has just died / lingers a timeless moment / under a billowing leaf vault of stone / to comfort those who remain” as the introductory poem concludes.

The following year Espmark included De levande har inga gravar in a larger context when under the title Utanför kalendern (2003) (Off the Calendar) he published his three most recent poetry collections in collected form, thus showing a strong inner connection between them. All three collections, in different ways, support the themes to be found in the title of the collection: something important, perhaps the most important thing, takes place outside the everyday, outside the “ordinary”.

When Espmark then returned to one of his earliest and most persistent literary kinships, this occurred in biographical form. The sober and nuanced biography Harry Martinson – Mästaren (2005) (Harry Martinson – The Master) manages not only to do justice to Martinson’s controversial last years, between the Nobel Prize and his suicide, but also in the highest degree to Martinson’s so uneven but also at times so gleaming poetic world. As the concluding words of the book run: “In his happiest moments the lyricist Harry Martinson belongs to world literature”.

With Motvilliga historier (2006) (Reluctant Stories) Espmark, at the age of seventy-six, made his debut as a short-story writer. While the book deals with a new – and cunningly devised – genre, short stories with a framework, the theme is familiar: just as in the long series of novels Glömskans tid (A Time of Forgetfulness) which came out in a one-volume edition in 1999, the disease is forgetfulness. A number of people with severe delusions write letters to a psychiatrist. The fifteen stories rise in a crescendo to the frightening denouement in which a man with his brain eaten up by cancer comes back to life to blame those left behind for the forgetfulness and inability to live that mark their lives in a society paralysed throughout by forgetfulness.

When Kjell Espmark then returned to poetry with the powerful Vintergata (2007) (The Milky Way) it was from a perspective beyond forgetfulness – or rather from a whole spectrum of posthumous perspectives. Inspired by the epigrammatic art of Den grekiska antologin (The Greek Anthology) and by Edgar Lee Masters’ Spoon River, Espmark has the dead speak once more. They are taciturn and particular, they bring only a few words and they speak only of what is important, of the moment’s reprieve, of epiphanies, revelations. The poems are no fewer than one hundred pieces, fenced off with a refrain: “There lies a radiance round that hour”. “I wandered like an unhappy fragment / robbed of its mumbling context / Late, I grasped: just as a fragment / I can reach you. My dumb ecstasy / rings obstinately in your ears.”

The essays in Albatrossen på däcket (2008) (The Albatross on the Deck) deal with Espmark’s double roles as a creative artist and a commentator, poet and literary historian. They constitute a literary self-declaration, on what has afforded him impulses as a writer, on what is lost and what arises in the translation of a poem. The twenty-five essays show that the borderline between poet and commentator is by no means absolute. It is exactly here that they are united.

Jan Arnald
(Translated by Tim Crosfield)