Beyond the Circles and Dots
by Thos Henley
Walk into any airport bookshop, the smell of a thousand perfumes in the air, and you’re guaranteed to see tall piles of fatted paperbacks among the bestsellers—a front cover shows a silhouette walking away in the snow, shoulders hunched against the cold, a hint of blood trickling through the ice, and the author’s name has weird little circles and dots above the letters. Swedish noir has become the freezing cold, page-turning face of Swedish literature in general… But there is so much more.
Swedish literature has two incarnations: Pre-War and Post-War. The Swedes were notoriously neutral during the Second World War and this neutrality, plus the echoing guilt and paranoia of the Cold War, determined the output of Swedish authors before and after.
Take Stig Dagerman, for example. Dagerman was a novelist and journalist. After the war ended in 1945, he visited Germany to report for a newspaper, and was one of the first people not to jump on the bandwagon of regarding all Germans as murderers. Instead, he reminded his readers that the Germans were humans too—many of whom had suffered from Hitler’s crazed rule just as much as any. His depictions of bomb-riddled straßes and stranded families are hauntingly sad and real. And sure, this is non-fiction, but really it’s more faction; a true story told by a gifted prose writer. Equally, his 1948 novel “Att döda ett barn” (“A Burnt Child”) is an incredible book about the death of a mother, a father’s attempts to move on, and the anger and lust of a son. But Dagerman—as dark as he gets—never truly ends up in the shadows. The beauty of Sweden is still there; midsummer sunshine hitting the Baltic Sea where the mirrored reflections of birch trees shine out.
And if the war had an echo, Dagerman was its aftershock. Many Swedish authors took inspiration from his dark humour and existential novels—like P.C. Jersild, whose novel “Barnens ö” (“Children’s Island”) is easily one of my favourites of all time. Some people call it the Swedish “The Catcher in the Rye” but it’s its own unique novel, beautifully written, with such a strange array of characters, as if the front cover of Sergeant Pepper’s had come alive and lived in the Swedish capital for one bizarre summer in the 70s.
And there are so many other Swedish writers publishing right now that need to be translated into English. Certain books spring to mind: Lena Andersson’s “Egenmäktigt förfarande—en roman om kärlek” (“Unauthorised Procedure—A Book About Love”) or “Gangsters” by Klas Östergren.
Now let’s backtrack a bit. It’s 1891 and a school teacher by the name of Selma Lagerlöf writes her country’s first great modern novel:“Gösta Berling’s Saga.” It’s epic and weird and poetic and romantic at the same time. And after her come Eyvind Johnson, Vilhelm Moberg, Harry Martinson, Lars Gustafsson, Sara Lidman, Torgny Lindgren, Karin Boye, and a hundred other incredible authors.
This is why the airport paperbacks with their stories of alcoholic detectives frustrate me a bit. These books cast a long, overly general shadow over the geniuses who came before them in the land of pickled herring, skinny dipping, snuff, and forever winters.
So I implore you, put down that book with the silhouetted figure on the front, get on that plane, and fly over to Paris—then come to Shakespeare and Company and buy yourself some real Swedish literature! If you’re still craving crime, well, there are compromises… Kerstin Ekman’s “Händelser vid vatten” (“Blackwater”) is a perfect book about murder in a small town, written by an author who is in control of every sentence.
Thos’s Favourite Swedish Novels:
Island of the Doomed by Stig Dagerman
Blackwater by Kerstin Ekman
Gösta Berlings Saga by Selma Lagerlöf
The Serious Game by Hjalmar Söderberg
Gentlemen by Klas Östergren
The Emigrants by Vilhelm Moberg
The Visit of the Royal Physician by Per Olov Enquist
Kallocain by Karin Boye
The Death of the Beekeeper by Lars Gustafsson
Naboth’s Stone by Sara Lidman