Sweden's Literary Nobelists

Claire Hayward

The Nobel Prize for literature is awarded annually by the Swedish Academy to writers whose body of work has provided the ‘greatest benefit on mankind’. Since its inauguration in 1901, seven of the 108 individual winners have been of Swedish birth. We take a look at these seven Swedish writers, each of whom has left their own significant mark on the literary world.

Selma Lagerlöf

Selma Lagerlöf (1858-1940) was not only the first Swede to receive the prestigious award, but also the first woman. It was awarded to her in 1909, ‘in appreciation of the lofty idealism, vivid imagination and spiritual perception that characterize her writings.’ Having written poetry since a young age, Lagerlöf had pursued a teaching career. When she did finally publish her first work in 1891, this paved the way to great success. Lagerlöf entered a few chapters of The Saga of Gösta Berling into a competition in a Swedish magazine, and subsequently won. It went on to become her most popular and widely acclaimed work. In 1924, the story was adapted into a Swedish silent film, starring the then-unknown Greta Garbo. Other works by Lagerlöf, such as the children’s book The Wonderful Adventures of Nils, follow the adventures of a boy travelling amongst a flock of geese, vividly showcase the writer’s prolific imagination. In addition to her writing, Lagerlöf was a passionate pacifist who supported the women’s suffrage movement in Sweden, leaving a lasting mark on many aspects of Swedish public life.

Verner von Heidenstam

Verner von Heidenstam’s (1859-1940) poetry drew inspiration from both his extensive travels and from the landscape of his homeland. Born to a noble family, he travelled as a young man throughout Europe, Africa and Asia, which heavily influenced his first collection of poems, Vallfart och vandringsår (Pilgrimage and the Wandering-Years). However, it was his work based on his homeland and its history that truly marked him as the most significant Swedish poet of his day. His nationalistic views led him to write his most popular work, Karolinerna (The Charles Men), a poetic novel about Sweden in the reign of Charles XII. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1916, ‘in recognition of his significance as the leading representative of a new era in our literature.’ Many of his works were translated into English, and his naturalistic poems continue to show the beauty of Sweden’s landscape and history.

Erik Axel Karlfeldt

Erik Axel Karlfeldt (1864 -1931) received the Nobel Prize for Literature posthumously in 1931. The presentation speech noted that Karlfeldt used his talents and wrote ‘with a rare instinct for the fruitful, the solid, and the genuine.’ He had written poetry extensively since in school, and continued to do so whilst studying at the University of Uppsala and becoming a librarian. He was elected to the Swedish Academy in 1904 after finding success with his poems, and continued to have an influence on Swedish literature until his death in 1931. He produced six collections of poetry, the first of which was Vildmarks-och kärleksvisor (Songs of the Wilderness and of Love), published in 1895. Selections of his poetry were also translated into English and published under the title Arcadia Borealis. The Swedish Academy stated that Karlfeldt’s poetry was ‘created for the comfort and joy of all receptive hearts’.

Illustration of Tomas Tranströmer

Tomas Tranströmer (1931-), poet and psychologist, is the most recent winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, having won in 2011. According to the Academy, ‘through his condensed, translucent images, he gives us fresh access to reality.’ With delicate, concise language, Tranströmer captures the essential qualities of the Swedish landscape, from its long, harsh winters to the immensity of its barren plains, as well as the spiritual and sensory aspects of humanity.

His poetry has been translated in over sixty languages, and he is widely thought of as Sweden’s most important poet. 17 Dikter (17 Poems) was first published when he was still in university, and he has continuously published collections since, despite having had a stroke in 1990. The first collection after the stroke, Sorgegondolen (The Sorrow Gondola), published in 1996, has sold over 30,000 copies in Sweden alone. Tranströmer’s collected poems in English show the influence the Swedish landscape has had on him, with exploration of nature being a strong focus point. His later work, such as The Deleted World, is considered to be more personal, drawing from his experiences.

Pär Lagerkvist

Pär Lagerkvist (1891-1974), novelist, poet, playwright and essayist, was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1951. A versatile writer, he had a strong influence on the Swedish literary world. The Swedish Academy lauded him ‘for the artistic vigour and true independence of mind with which he endeavours in his poetry to find answers to the eternal questions confronting mankind.’ His philosophical nature could be seen in all of his work, especially Barabbas (1950), his first international breakthrough and most popular work. Based on the biblical story of Barabbas, a murderer and prisoner who was pardoned in exchange for Jesus, the work questioned faith, and mankind’s relationship with God. One of Lagerkvist’s earlier works, Dvärgen (The Dwarf), written in 1944 as a reaction to World War II, is now considered one of the great Swedish works of all time.

Eyvind Johnson

Eyvind Johnson (1900-1976) was a man of many trades, having left his foster parents’ house to work at the age of fourteen. In between his itinerant life doing odd jobs as an usher, farmhand, dishwasher, haymaker, among others, he also wrote for various publications and co-founded a literary magazine, Var Nutid (Our Present Day) with other aspiring young writers. Johnson’s semi-autobiographical series of novels, Romanen om Olof (The Novel About Olaf) drew from his early years and told the tale of a working-class boy growing up in Sweden. The second instalment of this series, Här Har du ditt liv! (Here’s Your Life!) became his most noted work, and was made into a film of the same name in 1966. His later Krilonromanen series (The Novel of Krilon) drew from his experiences in the anti-Nazi underground of Sweden during the war, which further highlighted him as a notable historical author. In 1974, Johnson was jointly awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature alongside fellow Swede Harry Martinson; as both were Nobel panelists that year, their prize award was the subject of criticism. The Nobel Prize celebrated his ‘narrative art, far-seeing in lands and ages, in the service of freedom.’

Harry Martinson

Harry Martinson (1904-1978) had a similar childhood to his Nobel Prize co-winner, Eyvind Johnson. Orphaned at a young age, he lived with different foster parents until he ran away at the age of sixteen. He signed up as a ship worker and travelled the world whilst working various manual jobs. His working life was not as stable as Johnson’s, however, and he lived as a vagrant for some time on returning to Sweden. His upbringing and worldly experiences influenced his semi-autobiographical Nässlorna blomma (Flowering Nettle), but it was his epic poem, Aniara (Aniara: A Review of Man in Time and Space), for which he is best remembered. Written in 1956, it was later adapted into an opera and tells the story of a spacecraft that ultimately drifts through space directionless, which dwells on the increasing despair, emptiness and hopelessness of its passengers.
He was jointly awarded the 1974 Nobel Prize ‘for writings that catch the dewdrop and reflect the cosmos.’ Yet Martinson struggled to deal with the great controversy surrounding the 1974 Nobel award, as both Martinson and Johnson were on the Nobel panel, and descended into depression. As a writer, he has had a deep and lasting influence on Swedish literature and his works remain widely admired.
By Claire Hayward

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