Chair no. 4 - Anders Olsson

Anders Olsson, born 19 June 1949 in Huddinge. Writer, critic, professor of literary history at Stockholm University. He was elected to the Swedish Academy on 22 February 2008 and took his seat on 20 December 2008. Olsson succeeded the writer Lars Forssell to Chair No. 4. He was awarded the John Landquist Prize in 1997 and the Schück Prize in 2007.

Olsson attended upper-secondary school at the Rudbeck School in Västerås, at that time living next door to the writers Lars and Madeleine Gustafsson, who provided literary inspiration. He spent a year at high school in Huntingdon Valley, Pennsylvania before, having passed in the upper-secondary exam, starting Nordic linguistic studies, the literary history with poetics and theoretical philosophy at Uppsala University. After six months in Berlin in 1972 Olsson continued to read philosophy and the history of literature, the new designation of the subject, at Stockholm University. Among those he met there were Horace Engdahl and Arne Melberg, with whom he published the anthology Hermeneutik (1977) (Hermeneutics). This introduced the continental tradition in modern literary research, until then passed over in Sweden.

In the same year Olsson, together with the same circle of literary scholars and critics and a number of writers and artists, started the magazine Kris (Crisis). The importance of this for the renewal of the Swedish literary outlook during the nineteen-eighties can scarcely be overestimated. Following primarily the French pattern Kris laid bare what was in Sweden at that time unexplored territory at the interfaces between literature, art and philosophy and, by introducing a number of important thinkers such as Jacques Derrida, Paul de Man, Theodor W. Adorno, Maurice Blanchot och Roland Barthes, injected new blood into Swedish literary studies, literary criticism and literature.

At the time Anders Olsson had also started writing literary criticism and poetry and studying Gunnar Ekelöf’s poetry under the supervision of Kjell Espmark. He had also come into contact with Zen meditation and spent a month in Paris under the Japanese Zen master Taisen Deshimaru. Zen continues to play a large part in his life and output. He spent the summer of 1979 at the School of Theory and Criticism in Irvine, California with, among others, René Girard and Michael Riffaterre as his teachers. The controversial cultural critic Girard, in particular, made a lasting impression and Olsson often returns to him, most recently in his 2007 anthology Syndabocken (The Scapegoat).

Anders Olsson made his debut in 1981 with the essay collection Mälden mellan stenarna (The Grist between the Stones), the title a line from Gunnar Ekelöf. It consists of literary essays of an international nature hitherto scarcely appearing in Sweden, theoretically advanced yet close to the text, the nearest predecessor probably being Göran Printz-Påhlson. The essays were followed two years later by the doctoral dissertation Ekelöf’s nej (Ekelöf’s No), in which the newly-introduced thematic criticism (the art of identifying bearing themes in the whole of a writer’s output) was combined with great closeness to the text and also with intertextuality, which in Olsson’s words means “getting at the type of text he (Ekelöf) creates on the basis of  other texts”. This constitutes a unique dissertation which in many ways changed our picture of Gunnar Ekelöf and laid bare hitherto concealed layers of his wide-ranging literary production.

A short while later Olsson made his debut as a poet. With Dagar, aska (1984) (Days, Ashes) there emerged an austere, fastidious poet of melancholy imagery, meditative Zen inspiration and great intertextual awareness. An example is the short poem ”Inskription” (Inscription): ”vattenkannan är en mor // minnet formar en mun // din handled är naken // sömn är en drucken sten”. (”The watering can is a mother // memory forms a mouth // your wrist is bare //sleep is a drunken stone”).

Feeling confined in the Swedish academic world Olsson now moved to Berlin and wrote more poetry – De antända polerna (1986) (The Poles Set on Fire), relates closely to his debut, while the monumental Bellerofontes resa (1988) (Bellerofon’s Journey) evinces other dimensions.  Following the Iliad tale of the hero Bellerophon’s struggle with the fire-spewing monster Chimera, Olsson develops a considerably more multifaceted body of poetry than earlier. The same melancholy groundswell predominates (”Varje nu – / ett paradis / som vi just / försvann ur”) (”Each now - / a paradise / we just now / disappeared from”), but the textual types are broader and more varied than earlier.

Between these two collections Anders Olsson managed, however to write the his theoretically very influential work Den okända texten (1987). (The Unknown Text). This became his path back to the academic world. Here Olsson seeks a “third path” between hermeneutics (the science of interpretation) and deconstruction (the dispersal of meaning). But this is no theory-without-practice: the thread running through Den okända texten is the poetry of Paul Celan, perhaps the most obscure poet of modernism.

Olsson’s work on Celan’s poetry also marked the volume of translations Lila luft (1989) (Lilac Air) and was the start of extensive literary translation (often in collaboration with others, as in this case Håkan Rehnberg). He later also translated, for example, the romanticist Novalis and the cultural critic Thomas Bernhard, in collaboration with Daniel Birnbaum. Also with Birnbaum, he wrote Den andra födan (1992) The Other Food), “an essay on melancholy and cannibalism”, an extremely varied book of essays on the varying forms in which melancholy becomes manifest.

But Olsson saw in the nineteen-nineties with the poetry collection Solstämma (1991) (The Voice of the Sun. The difference, so central for Olsson, has nothing to do with fixed opposites, nor hardly with dialectics and synthesis. Rather it forms the basis for a situation-determined game that constitutes the world, the ego, language: ”det enda jag ser / är en korsning av motsatser” (all I see / is a crossing of opposites” as it runs in Solstämma, a tauter, more precise, more beautiful and less whining, less suggestive collection than Bellerofontes resa.

Two years later the next major poetical work arrived, Det vita (The White), a remarkably “vertical” collection in which the majority of the poems stretch upwards and each line consists of one or a few words. It is as if the poems shrink sideways to nothingness, towards “the white”. And indeed another five years were to pass before Anders Olsson returned to poetry with his last collected poems so far Ett mått av lycka (1998) (A Measure of Happiness), and here his verse looks entirely different. Ett mått av lycka is clarified in an entirely new way and moreover it consists exclusively of haiku verses, the stringent, exact Japanese metre (three lines of 5+7+5 syllables). This in Olsson’s hands becomes a sign of a fresh-caught happiness: ”Att ta in ge ut / bygga upp och lämna hän: / ett mått av lycka” (”To take in give out / build up and then abandon:/ a measure of joy”. Anders Olsson abandoned poetry, but persistent rumours have it that he has now, ten years later, started writing poetry again.

Olsson was now working more with others’ words than with his own. He started an extensive research project on the Finno-Swedish poet Gunnar Björling, which was not only to lead to the major dissertation Att skriva dagen – Gunnar Björlings poetiska värld (1995) (On Writing the Day – Gunnar Björling’s Poetic World but also brought him editorship of the publication of Björling’s Skrifter I-V ((1995) (Works I-V). All in all, this is a monumental contribution to the understanding of Björling, the spare master of this abrupt, knotty poetic form.

There followed a few more accessible presentations of authorship close to Olsson’s: the volumes Ekelunds hunger (1996) Ekelund’s Hunger), on Vilhelm Ekelund, and Gunnar Ekelöf (1997).

Olsson has subsequently been engaged in various research projects on the nothingness of mysticism and nihilism, on the literary fragment and on the exile literature of modernism.

The former project resulted in the grand study Läsningar av Intet (2000) Readings of Nothingness). Here Olsson examines with great precision various mystical and secular traditions that have dealt with Nothingness, with particular reference to nihilism. In addition this book includes separate studies of the writing of e.g. Mallarmé, Rilke, Wallace Stevens, Edith Södergren and Birgitta Trotzig. This was also the decisive work when, a few years into the new millennium, Anders Olsson was appointed Professor of the History of Literature at Stockholm University.

In 2006 there appeared Skillnadens konst (The Art of Difference), subtitled “Six Chapters on Modern Fragments”, in which Olsson not only places the poetic fragment in a larger historical perspective but also scrutinises its occurrence in modern writing such as that of Bengt Emil Johnson, Katarina Frostenson and Ann Jäderlund. The route runs from the Renaissance interest in the fragment to the Romantics’ introduction of the fragment as a separate literary genre; and here Olsson links the nineteenth- and twentieth-century fascination with aphorism with the considerably longer tradition of the fragment. The concluding chapter takes the form of a discussion of the debate on incomprehensibility that has afflicted many exponents of fragmentary writing from Friedrich Schlegel to Ann Jäderlund.

The current research project (September 2009) on exile and poetic modernism, dealing with the oeuvres of Nelly Sachs and Paul Celan among others, has so far attracted attention in e.g. the journal Ailos’s double issue on Exile (nos. 30-31 2007), of which Anders Olsson was joint editor.

Jan Arnald
(Translated by Tim Crosfield)