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by Bamber Gascoigne

Sven (Herman Axel) Delblanc (1931-1992)


Swedish scholar, novelist, and playwright, who mixed realism with fantastic. Recurrent theme in Sven Delblanc's work is the conflict between human freedom and overpowering social system. Delblanc's breakthrough book was Prästkappan (1963), a picaresque tale, based on the classical Hercules myth but turned upside down and set in the late 18th-century Germany.

"Besynnerlight ändå med denna lyx, som kan utvecklas bara i avskildhet, på en privilegierad restaurang, bak fördragna gardiner. Hit till vår stadsdel kommer ju ingen av "folket", bara enstaka infiltratörer. Den dolda lyxen är lastens hyllning till samhällslögnen. Utanför partiet och ledningen är människan svag och hjälplös, ett offer för onda rykten och dåraktiga impulser, inom partiet är människan god och tänker bara på folkets bästa. Vår nya överklass säger sig företräda samhällets och hela folkets intressen, som varje överklass sedan tidens begynnelse har sagt. Men vår tids nomenklatur har ett behov att dölja sin lyxkonsumtion: bara bak fördragna gardiner spisar Knubben från silverfat och stårtar i en elegant kostym, som jag aldrig sett på arbetet. Makt, ära, rikedom och vällust är deras egendom, med detta självklara förhållanden vill de inte visa upp för massan av maktlösa." (from Moria land, 1987)

Sven Delblanc was born in Swan River, Manitoba, Canada, the third child of an immigrant family. For some years, the family ran a farm, but then came the Depression, followed by drought and lost crops, and in 1935 they returned to their native country to live in a village in southern Sweden. Delblanc was raised in rural Vagnhärad, Södermanland. His childhood was difficult: his father, Siegfried, was a hard and violent man. Delblanc's parents divorced in 1942 and Siegfried moved back to Canada after the war. With his mother, Maria, Delblanc settled in Södertälje in 1944.

After graduating from the secondary school, Delblanc studied at the University of Uppsala, receiving his Ph. D. in 1965. His doctoral thesis, Ära och minne (1965), dealt with the Swedish 18th century literature. Later he returned to the period in his fiction. Delblanc worked the as docent in comparative literature in Uppsala and a visiting professor in Berkeley, California. Up to mid-1970s Delblanc combined his writing career with university teaching. One of his scholarly achievements was the literary history Den svenska literaturen (1987-1990), which he coedited with Lars Lönnroth. In addition, he published several pieces about the Swedish Nobel Laureate Selma Lagerlöf (1858-1940). Delblanc was criticized for his somewhat reserved approach to Lagerlöf's work. Referring to her novel Jerusalem 1-2, Delblanc said in his foreword to Selma Lagerlöfs skrifter i 10 band (1984): "Ett är säkert, här som annars har Selma Lagerlöf svårigheter med att hålla ihop det stora episka formatet. Hon var ett barn av den muntliga berättartraditionen, som arbetar med mindre, slutna enheter, lämpliga för en kvälls underhållning."

As a novelist Delblanc made his debut with the experimental Eremitkräftan (1962), which deals with the problem of submission, a central theme in the author's work. The protagonist of the story, Axel Weber, is in many respects Delblanc's alter ego. He tries to escape from the oppressive conditions of a society, in which citizens live like prisoners. He finds freedom in The White City, where people do what they want. Disillusioned, he returns to the Prison. Eventually he finds security in marriage and dreams of personal liberty and cooperation. "Only through the lack of freedom can we become humans," is the conclusion.

"I regard myself as being in the existentialistic tradition of the forties and fifties, a generally European phenomenon," Delblanc once said of his literary position. ('Delblanc, Sven Axel Herman,' in World Authors 1975-1980, ed. by Vineta Colby, 1985, p. 167) In the 1960s Delblanc's novels were inspired by radical movements in the U.S. and his California trip. In his political satire, Homunculus (1965), CIA and KGB chase Sebastian, an unemployed chemistry teacher, in Stockholm. Sebastian has managed to create a homunculus, a little man. In Nattresa (1967) the conflict between society and individual leads to rebirth. "Come to us; we have a task for you," he is told by his activist partner. Thus Axel escapes from the temptations of an Orwellian "big brother" organization, the San Francisco-based Brotherhood. Delblanc's revolutionary message is clear: "No outrage is meaningless." In Prästkappan the dreams of the protagonist, Hermann is crushed by Frederick the Great – Delblanc's view of the world was pessimistic as a rule. Hermann meets one defeat after another. Åsnebrygga (1969) was a diary novel, an fictionalized account of a guest professorship at the University of California at Berkeley. It was the year of student revolutions, Richard Nixon was president and Ronald Reagan had been elected two years earlier governor of California. Delblanc goes through his impressions of student revolt and other aspects of American society, which he finds tainted by fascism. He sees Nixon as Nicholas II, the last czar of Russia.

In the 1970s appeared semiautobiographical, ironic Hedeby series, including Åminne (1979),  Stenfågel (1973), Vinteride (1974) and Stadsporten (1976). The novels, set on a small community shortly before and during World War II, were also adapted into a popular mini-series for television under the title Hedebyborna. Although Delblanc's narrativ technique was complex, he had abandoned experimentalism familiar from his earlier works, and gave an account of the vanished way of life in small town Sweden. Delblanc' alter ego, Axel Weber, finds a safe harbor in his inner world. Feminist themes Delblanc pondered in Grottmannen (1977), which was received coldly, Jerusalems natt (1983), which pays attention to the fact, that the authors of the Gospels were male, and in Kära farmor (1979), in which woman rules the world as a matriarch of infinite power and strength. This novel was partly based on his father's family. Grottmannen attacked sexist cultural circles around the Stockholm Film Institute.

In the 1980s Delblanc started another series with Samuels bok (1981), which received the prestigious Nordic Literature Prize. It was followed by Samuels döttrar (1982), set in the early 1920s, Kanaans land (1984), and the final volume Maria ensam (1985). The semidocumentary novels dealt with Delblanc's family history, his maternal grandfather, his descendants, and a hereditary stain of mental illness. Samuels Book focused on the writer's maternal grandfather, Axel Nordfält, here called Samuel Eriksson, who was ordained a Lutheran minister in the Unites States, but was never accepted in Sweden. He died from pulmonary tuberculosis contracted in a psychiatric asylum. For the book, Delblanc used his diary and case record. (See other Swedish emigration series: Vilhelm Moberg) Samuel's daughter Maria, trained as a teacher, marries a Swedish American man, Fredrik Weber, and moves to Canada, the land of Canaan, where the writer himself was born. After a series of hardships, Maria loses her religious faith. in Maria ensam she returns to Hedeby, which is no paradise. Maria's husband is violent, the marriage ends, and she eventually commits suicide believing she was a bad wife and mother. Her youngest son is Axel Weber, who breaks out from his shell.

Other historical novels include Kastrater (1975), which featured in its cast of characters the great soprano castrato Luigi Marchesi, the besotted sometime "Bonnie Prince Charlie", and Gustaf III of Sweden, who stays incognito in Rome. Delblanc argued, that only art can liberate mankind's longing from its physical circumstances. Speranza (1980) depicted the journey of a slave ship across the Atlantic ocean. The narrator is Malte Moritz von Putbus, and idealist, who succumbs to the evil within himself.

Delblanc's plays include television drama Morgonstjärnan (1977) which did not give a very flattering portrait of the ruling aristocracy in the mid-18th-century. Robotbas (1963) was about love and politics, and Den arme Richard, a stage play about Richard Strauss, had its premiere in 1978. Delblanc has also written essays and memoirs Livets ax (1991), in which he tries to understand his tyrannical father, Agnar (1992), about his teenage years, and Slutord (1993), about the fear of dying. Delblanc died in Uppsala on December 15, 1992 – a few years earlier he had heard that he had incurable cancer. Bo Gräslund has argued in En mästare förklädd: Sven Delblanc som Bo Balderson (2009) that it was Delblanc who wrote mystery novels under the pseudonym Bo Balderson. The true identity of the writer has been the subject of much speculation.

For further infomation: Samtal med 60-talister by K.E. Lagerlöf (1965); 'Delblancs Hedeby als Kritik der Zeit' by R. Kejzlar in Scandinavica, 18 (1979); Symbolstudier i Sven Delblancs Hedebysvit by Brita Fritzdorf (1980); 'Delblanc, Sven' by L.S. [Leif Sjöberg], in Columbia Dictionary of Modern European Literature, ed. by Jean-Albert Bédé and William B. Edgerton (1980); Frihet och fakticitet by Beata Agrell (1982); 'Delblanc, Sven Axel Herman,' in World Authors 1975-1980, ed. by Vineta Colby (1985); Frihetens tragedi by Lars Ahlbom (1989); Wohltäder der Menschheit by Péter Madl (1989); Den svenska litteraturhistorien by Göran Hägg (1996); Sven Delblanc by Lars Ahlbom (1996); A History of Swedish Literature, ed. by Lars G. Warme (1996); Encyclopedia of World Literature in the 20th Century, Vol. 1, ed. by Steven R. Serafin (1999); Röster om Sven Delblanc, ed. by Lars Ahlbom (2001); Den politiske Sven Delblanc: en studie i hans skönlitteratur, litteraturkritik och debattartiklar 1956-1966 by Leif Risberg (2003); En mästare förklädd: Sven Delbanc som Bo Balderson by Bo Gräslund (2009); Svartsyn och humor: om Hjalmar Bergman och Sven Delblanc, ed. by Lars Ahlbom and Kerstin Dahlbäck (2013); Diktaren och målaren: om Sven Delblancs och Reinhold Ljunggrens samarbete och vänskap by Lars Ahlbom, Leif Risberg, Kewe Zahr (2014); Jag skriver till dig från ett avlägset land ... : mystik och livssyn hos Gunnar Ekelöf och Sven Delblanc, ed. by Lars Ahlbom och Karin Levander (2017); Den förtvivlade humanisten: nio essäer om Sven Delblanc, ed. by Lars Ahlbom (2019); Parallella liv: om Sven Delblancs och P.O. Enquists författarskap by Lars Lönnroth (2022)

Selected works:

  • Eremitkräftan, 1962 [The hermit crab]
  • Robotbas 1963 (play)
  • Prästkappan: en heroisk berättelse, 1963 [The priest's gown] 
    - Papinkaapu: herooinen kertomus (suom. Katri Ingman, 1965)
  • Ariadne och påfågeln, 1964 (play) [Ariadne and the Peacock]
  • Homunculus, 1965
    - Homunculus: A Magic Tale (translated by Verne Moberg, 1969)
  • Ära och minne, 1965 (doctoral thesis)
  • Göm dig i livets trä, 1965 (play) [Hide Yourself in the Tree of Life]
  • Nattresa, 1967 [Night Journey]
  • Åsnebrygga, 1969 [Asses' Bridge]
    - Aasinsilta (suom. Ulf Erik Qvickström, 1970)
  • Åminne: en berättlese från Sörmland, 1970 [River memory]
    - Kertomus Sörmlannista (suom. Juhani Koskinen, 1974)
  • Zahák - persiska brev, 1971
  • Trampa vatten, 1972
  • Primaverta: en konstnärlig berättelse, 1973
  • Stenfågel: en berättelse från Sörmland, 1973 [Stone bird]
    - Kivilintu: kertomus Sörmlannista 2 (suom. Juhani Koskinen, 1976)
  • Vinteride: en berättelse från Sörmland, 1974 [Winter lair]
    - Talviuni: kertomus Sörmlannista 3 (suom. Juhani Koskinen, 1977)
  • Kastrater, 1975
    - The Castrati: a Romantic Tale (translated by C. W. Williams, 1979)
  • Stadsporten: en berättelse från Sörmland, 1976 [The town gate]
    - Kaupunginportti: kertomus Sörmlannista 4 (suom. Juhani Koskinen, 1978)
  • Grottmannen, 1977 [The cave man]
  • Morgonstjärnan, 1977 (television play) [Morning star]
  • Gunnar Emmanuel: en tidlös berättelse, 1978
  • Den arme Richard, 1978 (play; Poor Richard)
  • Gröna vintern, 1978 [Green winter]
  • Kära farmor, 1979 [Dear Grandmother]
  • Speranza: en samtida berättelse, 1980
    - Speranza (translated by Paul Britten Austin, 1983)
    - Speranza, laiva: aikalaiskertomus (suom. Timo Hämäläinen, 1994)
  • Samuels bok, 1981 [Samuel's book]
    - Samuelin kirja (suom. Juhani Koskinen, 1983)
  • Samuels döttrar, 1982 [Samuel's daughters]
    - Samuelin tyttäret (suom. Juhani Koskinen, 1985)
  • Senecas död: sorgespel, 1982 (play) [The death of Seneca]
  • Minnen från Kanada, 1984
  • Kanaans land, 1984 [The land of Canaan]
    - Kanaanin maa (suom. Juhani Koskinen, 1986)
  • Jerusalems natt: en berättelse, 1983 [Jerusalem's night]
  • Maria ensam, 1985 [Maria alone]
    - Maria yksin (suom. Juhani Koskinen, 1989)
  • Fågelfrö, 1986
  • Moria land, 1987
  • Den svenska litteraturen, 1987-1990 (7 vols., ed. with Lars Lönnroth)
  • Änkan, 1988
  • Damiens, 1988
  • Sörmland i minnet, 1989 (illustrated by Reinhold Ljunggren)  
  • Ifigenia: berättelse i två upptåg, 1990 [Iphigenia]
  • Ragnar Johansson, 1991
  • Oanat - osett: en överblick av Reinhold Ljunggrens bildvärld, 1991
  • Slutord, 1992 [Conclusion]
    - Päätössanat (suom. Timo Hämäläinen, 1993)
  • Livets ax: barndomsminnen, 1991 [Gleanings from life]
    - Elon tähkä (suom. Kyllikki Härkäpää, 1992)
  • Agnar, 1993 [Chaff]
  • Homerisk hemkomst: Två essäer om Iliaden och Odysséen, 1993
  • Kära Alice!, 1995 (ed. by Lars Helander)
  • Broder Ville, Käre snälle Sven: 26 växlade brev mellan Vilhelm Moberg och Sven Delblanc, 2006 (ed. by Lars Ahlbom, Inger Nettervik)
  • Strindberg - urtida, samtida, framtida: texter, 2007 (ed. by Lars Ahlbom & Björn Meidal)
  • Kritik och essäistik 1958-1991, 2007 (ed. by Lars Ahlbom; introduction by Karl Erik Lagerlöf)
  • Det är du själv som bestämmer!: politik, samtidskritik och litteraturdebatt från tre decennier, 2009 (ed. by Lars Ahlbom and Crister Enander)
  • Mest personligt: minnesbilder, dagboksblad, porträtt och andra texter, 2010 (ed. Lars Ahlbom)
  • Sprängstoff och episk urkraft: Sven Delblancs texter om Selma Lagerlöf: debatten, komparationer, 2019 (ed. by Lars Ahlbom, Anna Nordlund)

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