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by Bamber Gascoigne

Per Olov Enquist (1934-2020)


Swedish novelist, playwright, and journalist, who gained international fame with his "documentary-style" fiction. Several of Per Olov Enquist's novels depict his native Västerbotten, where the Laestadian, pietistic religious movement, deeply influenced everyday life. Enquist also wrote with expertness about sports – in his prime he was among the five best in the high jump in Sweden. His record was 1,97 meters. (Enquist was almost six foot tall.)

"But what in truth was a human being, who could be dissected or dismembered and hung up on the post and wheel, and yet in some way continued to live on? What was it that was sacred? "The sacred is what the one who is sacred does," he had thought: the human being as the sum of his existential choices and actions. But in the end it was something else altogether, something more important, that remained of Struensee's era. Not biology, not just actions, but a dream of humanity's possibilities, that which was the most sacred of all and the most difficult to capture, that which existed as the simple, persistent note of a flute from Struensee's era and which refused to be cut off." (from Livläkarens besök, translated by Tiina Nunnally, 1999)

Per Olov Enquist was born and raised in Hjoggböle in northern Sweden, the son of Elof Enquist, a lumberjack in winter and stevedore in summer, and Maria Lindgren Enquist, a schoolteacher. While he was still an infant, his father died. In the autobiographical novel Ett annat liv (2008, The Wandering Pine: Life as a Novel) Enquist recalled him as a pine tree that was cut down. One of his father's brothers, who broke down mentally, was put in solitary confinement in an attic. Most of the books at his home were religious. The Flash Gordon comic strip, which ran in the local newspaper, Norra Västerbotten, became a means of escape from his surroundings. It was not until the age of 16 that Enquist was introduced to cinema.

From 1955 to 1964, Enquist studied at the University of Uppsala, where he completed an M.A. and a thesis on the crime noves of Thorsten Johnsson. For a short period, he shared an apartment with the writer and scholar Lars Gustafsson (1936-2016), who studied philosophy at the university. Enquist's career as a writer started among the modernists of the 1960s generation, whose work reflected the influence of the French nouveau roman (Alain Robbe-Grillet, Claude Simon, Nathalie Sarraute, Michel Butor, Marguerite Duras).

However, in his debut as a novelist Kristallögat (1961, The chrystal eye), Enquist did not experiment with new forms of literary expression; the work was made in investigative style, which would become his trademark. In the United States Norman Mailer and Truman Capote developed a form of journalism, that combined actual events with the richness of a novel. At the Gruppe 47 meeting in Sigtuna in 1965, Enquist encountered writers such as Hans Magnus Enzensberger, Günter Grass, and Uwe Johnson, and realized that the gateway to European culture lay in Germany, not in France.

With his third novel, Magnetisörens femte vinter (1964, The Magnetist's Fifth Winter), Enquist received widespread public and critical acclaim. Set in a small German town, it tells of Friedrich Meisner, who resembles the famous experimenter in magnetism, F.A. Mesmer (1734-1815). The miracle worker is caught in a conflict between faith and disbelief, irrational and rational forces. Meisner helps the daughter of the townsman Claus Selinger to see again. Selinger falls under the spell of the doctor, but later reveals his dishonesty. But nobody can deny that his daughter is no longer blind. "I must show great circumspection in teaching her to see. She can see now; but no one knows what she sees." One of the author's documentary sources was P.G. Cederschjöld's report of 1821 – he was a doctor and utilized Mesmer's ideas in medical care.

Within the frameworks of Hess (1966), Enquist explored the solo flight of Rudolf Hess to England. In the story a researcher writes a treatise on the Nazi leader and other people who have the same name. Gradually he becomes fascinated with the puzzling character, breaking the principle of scientific objectivity.

Legionärerna  (1968, The Legionnaires: A Documentary Novel) won the prestigious Nordic Council literary prize. Based on documents, interviews, private letters and many other sources, it told of Sweden's deportation of 146 Baltic military refugees from the German army at the end of WW II to the Soviet Union. The original title of the book was supposed to be "Hess II".

Jonas Ingvasson has argued that the novel is "a program, not a work"; it follows the structure of the new media: "the text shifts angles and puts together information from different sources all the time, and there is a constant disruption of chronology." ('Media and the Documentary Strategies' by Jonas Ingvasson, in Documentarism in Scandinavian Literature, edited by Poul Houe and Sven Hakon Rossel, 1997, pp. 83-84) Enquist travelled in England, Denmark and the Soviet Union where he met the former legionaries and heard their stories. He even experimented with a hunger strike to feel what it meant for the Baltic soldiers. Surprisingly the narrative includes an open letter to Mao Zedong in which the author expresses his distrust in politics and confesses his difficulties to avoid subjective interpretation of the facts during the research process. The Legionnaires was re-released in 2018 by the publisher Norstedt. In the preface the Norwegian reporter and author Åsne Seierstad argued that Enquist’s novel is a testimony against the rise of 'alternative facts'. ('Painful Neutrality: Screening the Extradition of the Balts from Sweden' by Lars Kristensen and C. Burman, in Baltic Screen Media Review, Volume 6, Issue 1, December 2018)

Sekonden (1971) drew from Enquist's own experiences from sport. It  looked critically at society's need for progress, for new records and accomplishments, and weaved together the puzzle of a dishonest athlete and his son, whose relationship with an East German female athlete is paralyzed. The work contained numerous references to the novels of 1966 and 1968. As in Legionärerna Enquist approached his subject as a researcher.  Katedralen i München (1972) was based on a newspaper article Enquist wrote at the Olympic Games in 1972.

Enquist lived in West Berlin from 1970 to 1971 and in 1973 he was a visiting professor at UCLA. In Los Angeles Enquist started to write his most famous and controversial drama, Tribadernas natt (1975, The Night of the Tribades), which opened at the Royal Dramatic Theatre is September 1975. The play depicts August Strindberg's sexual insecurity, and his relationship with his wife Siri von Essen and the Danish actress Marie Caroline David. The point of departure is Strindberg's own rehearsal of his one-act play Den starkare (The Stronger) about two actresses. But Enquist's interpretation is at odds with Strindberg's text and the way he has been generally portrayed: "this shy citizen, this little clerk [-] was a completely different Strindberg when he wrote his plays. And  when he is writing his letters he is yet another Strindberg. My picture of  Strindberg is simply a synthesis of my reading of Strindberg and I don't care a damn what he was like privately." ('Translating Docudrama: Per Olov Enquist's Tribadernas natt in English and French' by Egil Törnqvist, in Tijdschrift voor Skandinavistiek 19, 1998, p. 131)

Upset by Enquist's treatment of the author's private life, the influential critic and Strindberg expert Olof Lagercrantz dismissed the play as dirty, speculative, and caricaturistic. The Night of the Tribades has been translated into some twenty languages, and has had countless productions, including a short run on Broadway in 1977 – it was closed after 12 performances. "The Night of the Tribades is a play that stretches the mind, bares the nerves, challenges the ear, braces the imagination. Is that too good for Broadway? Possibly. Possibly not." (T.E. Kalem, Time, Oct. 24, 1977) A man of vendetta or not, Enquist's name is not mentioned in Lagercrantz's 600-page selection of articles, Vårt sekel är reserverat åt lögnen (2007).

The short stories in Berättelser från de inställda upprorens tid (1974) reflected Enquist's six months of lecturing in California. Enquist moved in the late 1970s to Copenhagen, where his second wife, Lone Bastholm, worked as a chief of dramatic productions at the Royal Theater. With Anders Ehnmark he co-authored the play Chez nous (1977), which borrowed its title from the name of a sex club in Stockholm. Their targets were the world of high finance and the sensationalist newspapers, trade unionism, and the sports world. The sex club can be seen as a metaphor for capitalist exploitation.  At Stockholm's Royal Dramatic Theatre, the play became a succès de scandale. In the second half of the 1980s, Enquist serves as a cultural ambassador in Paris, where he lived with Lone Bastholm in a seven-room flat on the Champs-Élysées and drank a lot of while alone.

From this period dates one of Enquist's finest works, Musikanternas uttåg (1978, The March of the Musicians). It describes the lives and working conditions of non-union laborers in the early years of the 20th century, around the timber-mills of Bureå in northern Sweden. The title of the novel was taken from a story by the Grimm Brothers, 'Town Musicians of Bremen'. Controversially, Enquist does not glamorize workers or the agitator Johan Elmblad, who is chased out of the neighborhood. During the confrontation between the Social-Democratic Party and the Christian fundamentalist, Nicanor, a young boy, helps Elmblad. Nicanor realizes at the end that "there's always something better than death". Enquist, who was a Social Democrat, argues that Social Democracy has not kept its promises and has abandoned Socialism. After the murder of Olof Palme in 1986, Enquist said in the essay 'Ett svenskt vintermord' (Kartritarna, 1992), that the pistol was raised a long time ago: "Jag tror att pistolen höjdes för ganska lång tid sedan, kanske för mer än hundra år sedan; jo, det tror jag."

In Nedstörtad ängel (1985) Enquist told three love stories through such characters as a Mexican born with two heads, a male and female, a schizophrenic murderer, and a woman, Bertolt Brecht's third wife, who was confined in a mental hospital. Enquist also written short stories, travel books, a detective novel, and the script for Jan Troell's film Hamsun (1996). It focused on the late years of the Norwegian Nobel laureate, shadowed by accusations of Nazi sympathies. The film was praised by among others director Ingmar Bergman. Moreover, Enquist collaborated with Troell in Il Capitano (1991) based on a true story dealing with the 1988 Åmsele murders. 

Enquist's literary criticism  appeared in a number of newspapers, including Uppsala Nya Tidning, Svenska Dagbladet, and Expressen. Upon the publication of Kapten Nemos bibliotek (1991) Enquist said in an interview that it was his last novel. The family tragedy was based on a real event in which the male babies were mixed in a hospital. When the mistake is found, the nameless disturbed narrator at the age of six is taken from his home, 'the green house', and sent to a less prosperous home. Another child, Johannes, takes his place. The narrator finds a refuge from Jules Verne's stories. Captain Nemo becomes the guide into his confused mind. "The birds slept, tightly wrapped in themselves and their dreams. Can it be that birds dream? The mist was so low that it left only water and birds to be seen, only a black unmoving surface of water, and endless sea. I could imagine myself on the outermost shore, and in front of me nothingness. An outermost boundary. And then the birds, wrapped tightly in their dreams."

However, in 1999 Enquist broke his silence as a novelist with Livläkarens besök, which won the August Award and the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize 2003. The protagonist is Johan Friedrich Struensee, a German doctor and advocate of the ideas of Enlightenment. Struensee became the personal physician to King Christian VII of Denmark (1766-1808), who suffered from mental illness. In his position Struensee gained huge influence, and he issued reformist statutes without the king's signature. His ally was the strong-willed and shrewd queen, Caroline Mathilde. She bore him a daughter. The scandalous business ended violently. Struensee was executed when the old power, led by a palace tutor named Ove Hoegh-Guldbergmade, made its counterattack. Enquist asks the question, "what if an intellectual and humanist were the ruler?" Struensee thinks he is a man of the people, but he is no politician, and in the same way that he believes in his reforms, his opponent Guldberg, politically more talented, also thinks that he works for justice. "Among this book's merits is its perceptive treatment of the collision between the sheer purity of absolute ideas, whether religious or philosophical, and the stubborn impurity, complexity, ambiguity of actual human lives. This collision generates an abundance of ironies. Struensee institutes freedom of the press, only to see it exploited mainly by his enemies." (Bruce Bawer in The New York Times, November 18, 2001)

Systrarna (2000), based on Anton Chechov's drama The Three Sisters (1901) and his characters, was written for the Danish Betty Nansen theater. It continued the series in which Enquist took as his subject figures such as August Strindberg, H.C. Andersen, Selma Lagerlöf, and Victor Sjöström.

In Bildmakarna (1998, The Image Makers) Enquist suggested that Lagerlöf's creative work was linked to her troubled relationship with her father. Lewis resa (2001), about religion, love and taboos, drew on historical facts, documentary records, and interviews. Enquist himself argued, that the work in not a "documentary novel", although its protanogists are real-life characters – Lewi Pethrus, the founder of the Swedish Pentecostal Revival, and Sven Lidman, a poet. Enquist dedicated the novel to his mother, who was a member of a popular revivalist movement in Västerbotten. Also Lewi in the novel regards his mother as the most important person in his life.

Ett annat liv, narrated in the third person, earned Enquist his second August Prize. "The book's blending of fact and fiction does raise questions. Are we judging the character of P O Enquist, or P O as a character (and is there a distinction)? Is the distance between life and artifice a strategy for Enquist to assess his actions with pitiless clarity or to detach himself from his failings?" (James Kidd, Indepedent, 29 January 2015) Per Olov Enquist died on 25 April, 2020, aged 85. He had suffered from cancer for a long time.

For further reading: Per Olov Enquist by Erik Henningsen (1975); 'Introduction' by R. Shideler in The Night of the Tribades (1977); Per Olov Enquist: A Critical Study by Ross Shideler (1984); 'Enquist, Per Olov,' in World Authors 1975-1980, edited by Vineta Colby (1985); Per Olov Enquist och det inställda upproret by Henrik Jansson (1987); Contemporary World Authors, edited by Tracy Chevalier (1993); The Rhetoric of the Documentary: Per Olov Enquist and Scandinavian Documentary Literature by Thomas Bredsdorff (1993); Andas fram mitt ansikte: om den mytiska och djuppsykologiska strukturen hos Per Olov Enquist by Eva Ekselius (1996); Documentarism in Scandinavian Literature, edited by Poul Houe and Sven Hakon Rossel (1997); 'Translating Docudrama: Per Olov Enquist's Tribadernas natt in English and French' by Egil Törnqvist, in Tijdschrift voor Skandinavistiek 19 (1998); 'Enquist, Per Olov,' in Encyclopedia of World Literature in the 20th Century, Vol. 2, edited by Steven R. Serafin (1999); Mellan sanningen och lögnen: studier i Per Olov Enquists dramatik = Between Verity and Mendacity: Studies in Per Olov Enquist’s Dramatic Production by Gunnar Syréhn (2000); 'The Phenomenon of "Otherness" in Per Olov Enquist's View of Strindberg in The Night of the Tribades' by Gunnar Syréhn, in August Strindberg: Critical Approaches, edited by Poul Houe, Hakon Rossell and Göran Stockenström (2002); I berättandets makt: om tre romankroppar av Per Olov Enquist by Freja Rudels (2016); Parallella liv: om Sven Delblancs och P.O. Enquists författarskap by Lars Lönnroth (2022)

Selected works:

  • Kristallögat, 1961
  • Färdvägen, 1963
  • Magnetisörens femte natt, 1964
    - The Magnetist's Fifth Winter (translated by Paul Britten Austin, 1989)
    - Ihmeparantajan viides talvi (suom. Elvi Sinervo, 1972)
    - films: TV play 1972, prod. Sveriges Radio, dir. Bengt Lagerkvist; 1999, script by Enquist and Jonas Cornell, directed by Morten Henriksen, starring Rolf Lassgård, Ole Lemmeke, Johanna Sällström, Gard B. Eidsvold
  • Bröderna Casey, 1964
  • Hess, 1966
  • Sextiotalskritik: en antologi, 1966 (editor)
  • Legionärerna: [en roman om baltutlämningen], 1968
    - The Legionnaires: A Documentary Novel (translated by Alan Blair, 1973)
    - Miehet ilman isänmaata (suom. Kristiina Kivivuori, 1969)
  • Sekonden, 1971
    - Kevyt moukari (suom. Liisa Ryömä, 1973)
  • Katedralen i München och andra berättelser, 1972
  • Berättelser från de inställda upprorens tid, 1974
  • Tribadernas natt: ett skådespek från 1889, 1975 (play)
    - The Night of the Tribades (translated by Ross Shideler, 1977; Gunilla Anderman, in Plays, 2004) 
    - Tribadien yö (suom. Pentti Saarikoski, 1975)
    - TV play 1978, prod. SVT Drama, dir. Per Verner-Carlsson, starring Ernst-Hugo Järegård, Anita Björk, Lena Nyman; TV play 1983, prod. Yleisradio (YLE), dir. Veikko Kerttula, starring Harri Tirkkonen, Liisamaija Laaksonen, Tarja Keinänen, Oiva Lohtander, Sulevi Peltola
  • Chez nous: bilder från svenskt församlingsliv, 1976 (with Anders Ehnmark)
    - film 1978, prod. Svenska Filminstitutet (SFI), dir. Jan Halldoff, screenplay Anders Ehnmark
  • Musikanternas uttåg, 1978
    - The March of the Musicians (translated by Joan Tate, 1985)
    - Agitaattori (suom. Rauno Ekholm, 1979)
  • Mannen på trottoaren: förundersökning angående mordet på doktor Plehve, 1979 (with Anders Ehnmark)
  • Till Fedra, 1980 (play)
    - Faidralle (suom. Pentti Saarikoski, 1980)
  • Från regnormarnas liv, 1981 (play)
    - Rain Snakes (translated by Kim Dambæk, in Plays, 2004)
    - Kastematojen elämästä (suom. Pentti Saarikoski , 1981)
    - TV drama 1984, dir. d Brinchmann, starring Lars Andreas Larssen, Monna Tandberg, Gisle Straume; TV film 1998, prod. SVT Drama, dir. Per Olov Enquist, starring Lena Endre, Tomas von Brömssen, Erland Josephson; TV film 2005, dir. Anders Ehnmark, starring Henrik Koefoed, Karen-Lise Mynster, Inge Molnes Heramb, Ole Wegener
  • En triptyk, 1981 (contains Tribadernas natt, Till Fedra, Från regnormarnas liv)
  • Doktor Mabuses nya testamente: en detektivroman från seklets slut, 1982 (with Anders Ehnmark)
  • Strindberg: ett liv, 1984
    - August Strindbergin elämä (suom. Raija Jänicke, 1985)
    - TV series 1985, dir. Johan Bergenstråhle, Kjell Grede, written by Per Olov Enquist, starring Thommy Berggren
  • Nedstörtad ängel: en kärleksroman, 1985
    - Downfall: A Love Story (translated by Anna Paterson, 1986)
    - Suistunut enkeli (suom. Liisa Ryömä, 1986)
  • Två reportage om idrott, 1986
  • I lodjurets timma, 1988 (play)
    - The Hour of the Lynx: A Play (translated by Ross Shideler, 1990; Kim Dambæk, in Plays, 2004)
    - Ilveksen hetki (suom. Pentti Saaritsa, 1987)
  • Kapten Nemos bibliotek, 1991
    - Captain Nemo's Library (translated by Anna Paterson, 1992)
    - Kapteeni Nemon kirjasto (suom. Antero Tiusanen, 1992)
  • Tre pjäser, 1994 (plays, contains Magisk Cirkel, Tupilak, Maria Stuart)
    - Tupilak (suom. Marja Kyrö, 1993); Maaginen ympyrä (suom. Antero Tiusanen, 1994)
  • Hamsun: en filmberättelse, 1996 (film script)
    - Hamsun: elokuvakertomus (suom. Antero Tiusanen, 1997)
    - film prod. Bayerischer Rundfunk (BR), dir. by Jan Troell, starring Max von Sydow, Ghita Nørby, Anette Hoff, Gard B. Eidsvold
  • Bildmakarna, 1998 (play, dealing with Selma Lagerlöf's father and his alcoholism)
    - The Image Makers, translated by Charlotte Barslund and Kim Dambæk, in Plays, 2004)
    - Kuvamaakarit (suom. Kristiina Lyytinen, 1998)
    - TV film 2000, dir. Ingmar Bergman, starring Anita Björk, Carl Magnus Dellow, Lennart Hjulström, Elin Klinga
  • Livläkarens besök, 1999
    - The Visit of the Royal Physician (translated by Tiina Nunnally, 2001; US title: The Royal Physician's Visit)
    - Henkilääkäri (suom. Antero Tiusanen, 2001)
  • Systrarna, 2000 (play)
  • Lewis resa, 2001
    - Lewi's Journey (translated by Tiina Nunnally, 2005)
    - Matkamies (suom. Antero Tiusanen, 2003)
  • De tre grottornas berg, 2003
    - Three Cave Mount; or, Grandfather and the Wolves (ill. by Stina Wirsén, translated by Tiina Nunnally, 2007)
    - Kolmen luolan vuori (suom. Marja Kyrö, 2004)
  • Plays, 2004 (introduced by Gunilla Anderman; The Night of the Tribades, translated by Gunilla Anderman; Rain Snakes, translated by Kim Dambæk; The Hour of the Lynx, translated by Kim Dambæk; The Image Makers, translated by Charlotte Barslund and Kim Dambæk)
  • Boken om Blanche och Marie, 2004
    - The Story of Blanche and Marie (translated by Tina Nunnally, 2006)
    - Blanche ja Marie (suom. Antero Tiusanen, 2005)
  • Ett annat liv, 2008
    - The Wandering Pine: Life as a Novel (translated from the Swedish by Deborah Bragan-Turner, 2015) 
  • Den tredje grottans hemlighet, 2010 (illustrated by Katarina Strömgård)
    - Kolmannen luolan salaisuus (suom. Marja Kyrö, 2011)
  • Liknelseboken: en kärleksroman, 2013
    - The Parable Book (translated by Deborah Bragan-Turner, 2016)
  • 'Mannen i båten,' 2017 (in The Dark Blue Winter Overcoat: And Other Stories from the North, edited and introduced by Sjón and Ted Hodgkinson)
  • Dramatik. 1, Kammarspelen, 2017
  • Dramatik. 2, De politiska, 2017
  • Legionärerna: en roman om baltutlämningen, 2018 (foreword by Åsne Seierstad; originally published in 1968)
  • Musikanternas uttåg, 2019 (foreword by Ola Larsmo; originally published in 1978)
  • Magnetisörens femte natt, 2019 (foreword by Peter Høeg; originally published in 1964)
  • Nedstörtad ängel, 2019 (foreword by Agneta Pleijel; originally published in 1985)
  • Kapten Nemos bibliotek, 2019 (foreword by Karolina Ramqvist; originally published in 1991)
  • Livläkarens besök, 2019 (foreword by Anne Enright; originally published in 1999)

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