Chair no. 9 - Torgny Lindgren

Torgny Lindgren, born 16 June 1938 in Raggsjö (Västerbotten). Writer. He was elected to the Swedish Academy on 28 February 1991 and admitted on 20 December 1991. Lindgren succeeded the linguist Ture Johannisson to Chair number 9. He was awarded the 1983 Litteraturfrämjandet (‘Society for the Promotion of Literature’) Great Novel Prize for Ormens väg på hälleberget (‘The snake’s path on the rock’), the 1984 Aniara Prize for Merabs skönhet (‘Merab’s beauty’), the August Prize in 1995 for Hummelhonung (‘Bumble-bee honey’), the Gerard Bonnier Prize in 1999 and the Selma Lagerlöf Literature Prize in 2000.

Lindgren early left his Non-conformist home district in Västerbotten in the north of Sweden and made his way to Småland in the south, where he became a teacher. After his debut with the verse collection Plåtsaxen, hjärtats instrument (1965; ‘Plate shears, the heart’s instrument’) he changed direction towards his Småland surroundings and in 1970 wrote Dikter from Vimmerby (‘Poems from Vimmerby’), on-the-spot accounts from a coolly religious small town where everyone believes they know everyone else and class antagonisms are pedantically swept under the carpet. This was the start of Lindgren’s ideologically aware 1970s with its contemporary orientation. At the time he was an active but critical member of the Social Democratic party.

The following year, 1971, the searching role verse collection Hur skulle det vara om man vore Olof Palme? (‘What would it be like to be Olof Palme?’) appeared. Here Torgny Lindgren entered into the prime minister, making him into a restless, searching consciousness, “one of the last significant preachers”. During the first half of the decade there followed a series of contemporary satires from the world of school and politics. The collection of short stories Skolbagateller medan jag försökte skriva till mina överordnade (1972; ‘School trifles while I was trying to write to my superiors’) is a burlesque attempt to lay bare the inexplicit class structure of the school world, while his first novel, Övriga frågor (1973; ‘Any other business’) and its follow-up Hallen (1975; ‘The hall’) take place at political grassroots level, among “the anonymous but exclusive band of party members who keep life going in Swedish Social Democracy”. Criticism of the growing gap between party leadership and grassroots is a main theme of these two novels.

After publishing a book a year during the first half of the decade, Lindgren now fell silent for some years. This was a time of great change – and writer’s cramp. In the programme article, “På tal om att skriva” (‘Talking about writing’) in 1978 he wrote: “Just now I cannot write at all.” He planned “a large realist novel”, but noted that “I lack the disposition for realism”: “as soon as I have managed to put together a suitable number of realistic people and placed them in reasonably realistic surroundings where they can live realistic lives, they start to fiddle about, they behave as if they had never before been in contact with real life, but had only lived in a fantasy world. They commit frightful crimes, they die and are resurrected, they ascend to heaven and allow themselves to be misled into all the foolishness the language happens to lead them to, till at last, with oaths and curses, they escape from the planned novel.” This is a striking description of how his authorship continues.

In the same article Torgny Lindgren could still say: “The only belief I have managed to bring with me out into life and retain reasonably uncorroded is that in democratic socialism.” Not that he lacked religious faith – around 1980 Lindgren chose between churches and became a Catholic. This happened in connection with two novels that can be described as “transitional books”. The first historical novel Brännvinsfursten (1979; ‘The schnapps prince’) points forward to the great breakthrough of the 1980s, while the sizzlingly satirical novel of married life Skrämmer dig minuten (1981; ‘Does the minute scare you?’) to some extent sums up the contemporary orientation of the 1970s. Both novels exhibit a growing attraction towards more comprehensive vital issues.

But even if Torgny Lindgren with his large novels of the 1980s is deliberately distancing himself from the period and moving towards the world of myth, fantasy and history, his writing remains appreciably contemporary, dominated by issues of the fragility of systems, abuse of power, longing for order, the creative force of disorder and the endeavours to rationalise the world that are continually being upset by man’s and nature’s inherent irrationality.

In Ormens väg på hälleberget (1982; ‘The snake’s path on the rock’) Lindgren returned for the first time to the Västerbotten of his childhood. The novel portrays oppression and need in a Västerbotten village in the nineteenth century, but the main character is really the language. The return to child-land involves the genesis of a unique, artificial Lindgrenian language, barren, distinct, dialectal, unrestrained, full of macabre humour, and biblical, reduced to an absolute minimum. The novel, later filmed by Bo Widerberg, represented a major breakthrough, and Lindgren is today one of Sweden’s most translated writers.

Enclosed in a frame story, the collected short stories Merabs skönhet (‘Merab’s beauty’) from 1983 is, linguistically and to some extent in its motives, the somewhat more cheerful twin of Ormens väg på hälleberget. This is short-story writing at its best, and the book is considered by many – including Torgny Lindgren himself – to be his masterpiece. In the frame story we hear of the tailor Molin who starts to embroider biblical quotations, which his beautiful wife Judith goes out to sell. However, she takes up with a man. Now Molin’s words brim over from the embroideries and he starts telling stories. He wanders from farm to farm with his tales, and these are the tales we hear in Merabs skönhet. By no means the least, the title story of the beautiful cow is a remarkable piece of modern black myth.

In his novel Bat Seba (1984) and the short story collection Legender (1986; ‘Legends’), Lindgren cultivated the biblical in his writing. The allegorical Ljuset (1987; ‘The light’) opens yet another scene in the far north. Following a frightful pestilence, only a few people survive in a small village. The disease has also swept away all moral notions. Then a stranger arrives in the village and turns all concepts upside-down.

In Till sanningens lov (‘In praise of the truth’) which came out the same year as he was elected to the Swedish Academy, 1991, Lindgren returned to the present and to the biting social satire, and in the major novel Hummelhonung (1995; ‘Bumble-bee honey’) – which became an opera in 2001 with music by Carl Unander-Scharin – he returned to Västerbotten. Here, a woman writer is confronted with two brothers caught in lifelong mutual dependence and hate.
Following the collection of short stories I Brokiga Blads vatten (1999), (In the Water of Many-coloured Leaves) later included in the collection of narratives Berättelserna (2003) (Tales), there appeared the major novel Pölsan (2002) (Hash 2004), a bluff but subtle tall story involving tuberculosis and meat hash. It is presented as a long news item starting in 1947 when the country’s most tubercular village, in Västerbotten naturally, is visited by the German Robert Maser, a traveller in ready-to-wear ladies’ and gentlemen’s garments. But it turns out that Maser is really Martin Bormann, the war criminal who went up in smoke after the second World War.

In 2003 it came out that the nom-de-plume of detective writer Hans Lamborn, author of the crime novel Den röda slöjan (1990) (The Red Veil), which was awarded a prize by the Swedish Crime Writers’ Academy, concealed two authors, Torgny Lindgren and Eric Åkerlund. The novel was published in a revised and expanded edition under the name Döden ett bekymmer (2003 ) (Death a Bother), under the authors’ real names.

A few years late it became clear that the major novels Hummelhonung and Pölsan not only belonged together but were part of a triptych concluded in 2005 with Dorés bibel (Doré’s Bible). In 2006 the triptych was published as a single volume entitled Nåden har ingen lag (Necessity Knows no Law).

The chief character in Dorés Bibel is a good storyteller but cannot read or write. He lands up in a home for the uneducable and all he has, all that keeps the stories alive, is the classical Bible illustrations of the French artist Gustave Doré, which were in his childhood home but subsequently disappeared. So as not to forget the stories he starts using “a recording apparatus model SONY MZN seven-hundred-and-ten” to record his exceedingly free interpretation of Bibeln i bilder (1865) (The Bible in Pictures). This has afforded extremely powerful prose, simple and yet with hidden depths, laid back, humorous, sometimes aphoristic and very, very compact.

Two years later, in 2007 the novel Norrlands Akvavit (Norrlands Akvavit) appeared. It is about the last great religious revival in Västerbotten. In the centre stands the Revivalist priest Olaf Halverson, now past his prime but once a powerful saviour of souls who disappeared when the revival came to a halt. Then he suddenly returns. Both the district and his preaching have altered substantially and Halverson looks back on his life’s work: “It was me who brought about the last great revivals. I preached in all the seven congregations. Between nineteen-hundred-and-forty-seven and nineteen-hundred-and-fifty-five I converted four-hundred-and-sixteen souls in these parts. Some of them twice”. In addition he introduced tooth-brushing into the area: “’A preacher cannot permit his teeth to decay’, said Olaf Halverson. ‘When you’re preaching you cannot have false teeth that clatter’”.

Jan Arnald
(Translated by Tim Crosfield)