Chair no. 18 - Katarina Frostenson

Katarina Frostenson, born 5 March 1953 in Brännkyrka (Stockholm county). Writer. She was elected to the Swedish Academy on 27 February 1992 and admitted on 20 December 1992. Frostenson succeeded the writer Artur Lundkvist to Chair number 18. She has been awarded, among other honours, the Great Prize of the Society of Nine in 1989, the Bellman Prize in 1994, and the Swedish Radio Prize for Lyrical Poetry in 1996.

Frostenson made her debut as a poet with the verse collection I mellan (1978; ‘Be-tween’). In the same year she also wrote the essay Raymond Chandler och filmen (‘Raymond Chandler and film’). While it is hardly until the verse collections of the 1980s that she finds her own voice, already in I mellan – not least in the title – the fundamental premises are in place. Samlingen ('The collection'), with its intralingually sounding title, is without doubt a foreign species in the Swedish poetical fauna of the 1970s.

As against this, in the poetry of the 1980s Katarina Frostenson set the tone. At that time she often had to represent the new feminine poetry that refuses to adapt to existing forms and instead seeks the innermost fibres of the language to uncover its earlier unheard tones and untouched dimensions. Above all it is image-creating, metaphorical poetry that is avoided; but also all forms of storytelling. Stories and metaphors are the ideologically burdened supporting pillars of literature. In Frostenson’s poetry one finds the strong mental energies of expressive poetry although they are consistently fixed to the movements and progressions of the language and not to hidden and separate levels of meaning. It is a poetry extremely wary of itself, which continually observes itself and immediately reins in when stuck in existing aesthetic structures. It is a poetry that takes nothing for granted and that follows only its own laws – and the laws reveal themselves during the writing.

During the 1980s Katarina Frostenson published several verse collections. Rena land (1980; ‘Pure countries’) may still be described as a relatively conventionally arranged verse collection, with certain fairly simple lateral textual shifts. What subsequently became one of her special features – the separated lines, the abrupt spaces between words – occurs only tentatively. But the tone was even from the beginning her very own, the playgrounds the ”demetaphorised” body and the much-frequented open places. All “normal” syntax has already collapsed, in favour of an entirely arbitrary textual voice which for example can sound “Mouth in earth sex in leaves. It / pulls. Now I feel / thirst / head body a member my foot / ground the tendons’ answer.”

Den andra (1982; ‘The other’) lets its hair down more. Here the aesthetic preconditions appear to be established; the frames are set up, the poetic self-confidence greater. “There is nothing behind your words. You throw yourself right out. Backless.” Here there is a demanding but clear address that demands that the reader invest himself and enter into something alien to be able to read at all. It is an address which does not meet the reader, but instead waits for him – and who “the other” is, is by no means evident.

Then came I det gula (1985; ‘In the yellow’) where the words are sometimes spread all over the pages. The textual voice is still more persistent but it is more unclear than ever what it really wants. All attempts to corral it in with current poetic descriptions are doomed to err. One can indeed speak of the play of the colourless against the yellow, of the compacted and contaminated body language (“Shaven heart-floor”, “barren, gendered ground”, “my mouth a stitch”) but it is not to that sort of conversation that Katarina Frostenson’s poetry invites one. What this conversation, this encounter, really looks like is the question the poem continually asks. Samtalet (1987; ‘The conversation’) gives no answer but continues the questioning. The poems here are in places more forceful, orchestral suites rather than string quartets, such as “Ställverket” (‘The signal box’), but here there are also small, toned-down a cappella pieces such as the slim “Broar” (‘Bridges’).

Between 1987 and 1996 Katarina Frostenson was editor of the annual literary calendar Halifax, and she has also translated from the French, including Emanuel Bove, Marguerite Duras and Georges Bataille. In 1992 she was elected to the Swedish Academy as the fifth woman ever.

During the 1980s Frostenson also created a drama form of her own which was presented on the radio and on the stage. She called the genre “monodramas” and collected these in 1990 in the book 4 monodramer (‘Four monodramas’). These are compact, paradoxical monologues with their starting points in places still able to contain secrets, places with life, time, sorrow, calm – places with memories. Here an “I” speaks without addressing anybody, without turning to a “you”. This is a sort of pure voice, self-sufficient and with more or less restrained desperation.

During the 1990s, Frostenson’s drama moved in a less monological direction. The strange meeting that takes place in the play Traum (1992; ‘Dream’), with the subtitle “A grief and joy play of the language”, with its continual language games, proverbs, doggerel, turning inside out of words, shows that language is still Katarina Frostenson’s true chief character. The fuller-scale Sal P (1995; ‘Ward P’) has historical frameworks. At Charcot’s notorious Salpêtrière clinique thousands of what were termed “hysterical” women were made to exhibit their symptoms in the form of theatrical demonstrations in front of a strictly male medical corps. But Frostenson doesn’t bother about the male look and focuses on the women behind the scenes, untouched by looks from anybody except each other. In 1998 she wrote the libretto for Sven-David Sandström’s opera Staden (‘The city’) and 2000 saw the arrival of two further plays in book form: Kristallvägen (‘The crystal road’) and Safirgränd (‘Sapphire lane’).

Frostenson’s poetry of the 1990s also involves partly a new direction. One can speak with some justification of her “nineties poetry” as a phase of its own. The “three suites” in Joner (1991; ‘Ions’) constitute a larger and more coherent work than earlier; the words are less spread out and disconnected. With its rich allusions to myth and saga, Joner represents a new step in Frostenson’s poetic development. The great verse collection Tankarna (1994; ‘The thoughts’) and Korallen (1999; ‘The Coral’) can to some extent be described as more coherent and “clarified” – more traditional on one plane but also richer.

Frostenson’s prose, lastly, culminated in the strange Berättelser från dom (1992; ‘Tales from them’). “Them” is a people sunk deep somewhere in the distance and briefly rediscovered “like a kingdom that slowly rose from the bottom of the sea”. “They” lived before language became secondary, before words were to start depicting reality, and language is bent and stretched, turned inside-out and formed: seldom have so many different treatments of language been contained between two covers and nevertheless been united in such hypnotic prose.

Katarina Frostenson’s poetry underwent if not a transformation at least a shift after the turn of the millennium. The punning and language-twisting trait that had always been there was now allowed to blossom in a new manner, and her poetry opened out in a way previously inconceivable. The development started in Karkas (2004), five suites about the ego and the world, the countryside and memory, words and love; and the direction the Swedish language is taking. At one level it is about a return to the barren disintegration of language in the most inaccessible poetry collections of the nineteen-eighties, but at another level one suspects a new smile in the corners of her mouth.

Ordet (2006) (The Word) is of a different character. We meet a condensed, further reduced version of Frostenson’s poetry, pared down to the marrow, but this is primarily because Ordet is really an oratorio by the composer Sven-David Sandström. Out of this has emerged a forty-page-thin collection of poemtry, divided into seven scenes – or, rather, tableaux – with more or less strong links to the gospels. It is as if the whole of the concealed Christianity in Katarina Frostenson’s early writing is suddenly laid bare. Themes of suffering, love, sacrifice find their natural root system, the lyrical hovering falls into place in an archetypical narrative that contains largely all that Frostenson’s writing also contains. As painstakingly and as purposefully as possible, the author brings out the innate beauty of the Bible and the gospels.

In the companion volume to Karkas, entitled Tal och Regn (2008) (Speech and Rain), Frostenson goes the whole hog to a more high-spirited poetic form. She by no means compromises with her linguistic art: on the contrary the complexity is greater than ever – but the predominant seriousness has found its Siamese twin in the comical. Katarina Frostensson is joking, with anything from capital letters and exclamation marks to droll puns and rhymes, even a tendency to chatter, as if she must break her instruments to get them to produce more notes. The typical Frostensonian loftiness, clarity, purity remain – but in a profoundly attractive combination with something rowdier and noisier.

Jan Arnald
(Translated by Tim Crosfield)