Chair no. 16 - Kjell Espmark

Writer and literary historian.
Elected: 1981. Chair number: 16.

Kjell Espmark was born in Strömsund in 1930. His first collection of poems, Mordet på Benjamin (The Murder of Benjamin), was published in 1956, followed by Världen genom kameraögat (The World through the Eye of a Camera, 1958) and Mikrokosmos (Microcosm, 1961). Photographic and cinematic art made a strong early impression on his literary technique, as indeed did music; and his work displays an obvious kinship with T.S. Eliot. Espmark became known for his commitment to social issues and for his role-play style of poetry, which involved writing in the first person as someone other than the poet himself. In the trilogy Sent i Sverige (Late in Sweden, 1968–75), he combined use of the vernacular with an overview of the existential constraints and socially defined roles imposed upon the individual. His other notable collections include Den hemliga måltiden (The Secret Meal, 1984), De levande har inga gravar (The Living Have No Graves, 2002), Vintergata (The Milky Way, 2007), Skapelsen (Creation, 2017), Kvällens frihet (The Freedom of the Evening, 2019), En sky av vittnen (Clouds of Witnesses, 2020) and Återliv (Revival, 2021). A recurring theme is the return of destiny, here given new life in a poetically condensed form under the unifying motto ‘Lend me your voice’.

In the 1980s, Espmark expanded his fiction writing to include prose. In the suite of seven short novels collectively entitled Glömskans tid (The Time of Forgetfulness), published between 1987 and 1997, he employs a series of voices from different social backgrounds in presenting monologues for the reader and, in passionate defiance of the common threat of memory and identity loss, producing a kind of socio-analytical X-ray image of Sweden. Other notable novels include Béla Bartók mot Tredje riket (Béla Bartók against the Third Reich, 2004) and Hoffmanns försvar (Hoffmann’s Defence, 2013), which can be said to share the common theme of art as an act of resistance. Espmark has also published the essay collections Dialoger (Dialogues, 1985) and Albatrossen på däcket (The Albatross on the Deck, 2008), as well as the collection of plays entitled Marx i London och andra pjäser (Marx in London and Other Plays, 2011). In his autobiography Minnena ljuger (Memories Lie, 2010), he shares a number of memories that were of crucial importance to both his life and writing while, at the same time, highlighting the extent to which these are part of an uninterrupted dialogue with, and coloured by, later experiences in life.

Having received his PhD in Stockholm in 1964, Espmark became a professor of literary history and, from 1978–95, served as Professor of Comparative Literature at Stockholm University. In his research into the history of literature, he has specialised in poetic modernism, the traditions of which he has discussed in two books, Att översätta själen. En huvudlinje i modern poesi från Baudelaire till surrealismen (Translating the Soul. A Key Aspect of Modern Poetry from Baudelaire to Surrealism, 1975) and Själen i bild. En huvudlinje i modern svensk poesi (The Image of the Soul. A Key Aspect of Modern Swedish Poetry, 1977). A central theme in his research is the materialisation of mental state that appears in movements in poetry from modernism onwards, ‘the curious two-way traffic that exists between an inner spirituality and a tangible external reality’. His notable works on the history of literature include Livsdyrkaren Artur Lundkvist (The Life Worshipper Artur Lundkvist, 1964), Harry Martinson erövrar sitt språk (Harry Martinson Conquers his Language, 1970) and Resans formler. En studie i Tomas Tranströmers poesi (Formulae of the Journey. A Study of Tomas Tranströmer’s Poetry, 1983).

Espmark has served on the boards of the Swedish Authors’ Fund (1975-83) and the Royal Dramatic Theatre (1991-96). He was elected to chair number 16 at the Academy on 5 March 1981, succeeding Elias Wessén, and took up his post on 20 December that same year. In addition, he was Chairman of the Nobel Committee from 1987 to 2004 and has, demonstrating his considerable knowledge of the prize in question, authored the following books on the subject: Litteraturpriset. Hundra år med Nobels uppdrag (The Literature Prize. A Hundred Years of the Nobel Assignment, 2001) and Nobelpriset i litteratur – ett nytt sekel (The Nobel Prize in Literature – a New Century, 2021).