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Eyvind Johnson (1900-1976)


Swedish working class writer – on his own from the age of 13 – who was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature with Harry Martinson  in 1974. Eyvind Johnson's early works dealt with his impoverished upbringing and social or political problems. In many of his later novels Johnson tested and questioned the many roles of the storyteller and experimented with time, the interaction between historical events and their interpretation. Often his hero is a battered but resilient humanist.

"His work, which mirrors the ideological and technical development of the novel from Hamsun to Faulkner, is pervaded by the political and cultural debates of his time. He regarded the dissolution of the form of of the novel as a necessary step in its development, and saw each of his novels as an experiment in expressing the dark and the bright sides on life." (Sven H. Rossel in A History of Scandinavian Literature, 1870-1980, 1982)

Eyvind Johnson was born at Saltsjobaden in Norrbotten, in northern Sweden. When his father, a laborer on the Lapland iron ore railroad, suffered from mental breakdown, Eyvind's mother entrusted her son's upbringing to relatives. At the age of thirteen., Johnson left school and earned his living in odd jobs, mainly as a lumberjack, but also as a sawmill worker, and a locomotive cleaner. Johnson educated himself by reading and in 1919 he settled in Stockholm, where he was for a short time at LM Ericsson's workshop. With some other aspiring young writers he founded the magazine Vår Nutid and wrote for the magazine Brand. He also participated actively in politics and trade unionism. In 1924 he broke with Socialism – the year marked also the beginning of his career as a writer. Uneployed, he decided to leave Sweden.

Most of the 1920s Johnson spent in Berlin and Paris, working among others as a dishwasher. During this period he seriously developed himself to become a writer. In 1921 he moved to Berlin, where he lived for two years. In Paris (1925-30) he wrote for Swedish newspapers. He read the works of John Dos Passos, Alfred Döblin, Marcel Proust, André Gide, and James Joyce, as well as Henri Bergson and Sigmund Freud. Through their influence he gradually took distance to traditional novel forms, which culminated in the publication of Kommentar till ett stjärnfall (1929), an attack on capitalist society. The work was a critical success. On his return visits to Sweden Johnson was distressed by its sense of isolation from the rest of Europe.

Johnson's first books appeared in the 1920s, among them Timans och rättfärdigheten (1925), Stad i mörker (1927), which pursued two intertwining stories, and Stad i ljus (1928), about an author starving in Paris. These early efforts showed the influence of Hamsun and expressionism.  Minnas (1928), which shows Johnson's familiarity with Freud's theory on repression, used the inner monologue, quite new in Sweden at that time. Although Johnson's books inspired discussion about modernism, they were not widely read. In 1927 Johnson married Aase Christiansen and returned to Sweden in 1930 as an established writer and the most important representative of experimental novel of his generation. Avsked till Hamlet (1930) began the series of five books about Mårten Torpare, a character with a background like the author's own. Mårten also learns to reject his ambivalence toward his simple past. Regn i gryningen (1933) was concerned with boring office jobs.

Between the years 1934 and 1937 he wrote Romanen om Olof. The four-volume epic of Olof, who leaved home at age fourteen, was based on Johnson's experiences as a logger and became a classic of Swedish literature. In the life of its young hero, Johnson blended fairy tale and realism. Typical modernist features include use of inner monologue, changing point of view, and preoccupation with the question of time. Before Romanen om Olof, August Strindberg's The Son of a Servant had  provided the model for most of the Swedish autobiographical novels. The tetralogy – Nu var det 1914 (1934), Här har du ditt liv! (1935), Se dig inte om! (1936), and Slutspel i ungdomen (1937) – tells of the story of a young Swedish boy growing up in the sub-Arctic during World War I.

Jan Troell's  faithful film adaptation of Här har du ditt liv premiered in July 1966. At that time it was the longest feature film made in Sweden. A critical success, it marked the breakthrough of Troell career as a director. Johnson also was happy with the screen version of his book. The tile factory in the film was the same factory where Johnson had worked at the age of 14. Following the shock of the assassination of Prime Minister Olof Palme, STV (the Swedish public service television company) broadcasted the film on May 1, 1968, instead of the scheduled humor programs.   

Increasingly disturbed by the rising totalitarianism in the 1930s, Johnson worked actively against the onslaught of Nazism and helped establish a link between Resistance in Norway and Sweden. In Nattövning (1938), portraying a group of Swedish Nazis, Johnson's alter ego, Mårten Torpare, gives his account of the times. Soldatens återkomst (1940) depicted the fate of a Swedish volunteer who had fought dictatorship in Spain. "One should prevent others from killing," says Mårten.

After his first wife died in 1938, Johnson married Cilla Frankenhauser, With her he collaborated in translating writers such as Albert Camus, Anatole France, Jean-Paul Sartre and Eugène Ionesco. During World War II Johnson coedited with Willy Bradt the newspaper Et Handslåg for the Norwegian resistance and wrote the Krilon trilogy (Grupp Krilon, 1941; Krilons resa, 1942, and Krilon själv, 1943). The work, which weaves together fictional, allegorical, and symbolic levels, condemns Nazi oppression and explores the controversial policy of Swedish neutrality during the war. In the story a real-estate broker, Krilon, represents Western democratic values. He establishes a discussion group with his friends and tries to keep it together as a counterforce against totalitarian and corporative pressures. Their enemies are Jekau and Staph, representing the Soviet Union ("tjekan") and Hitler's Germany (Gestapo). The Swedish- American Frank Lind symbolizes Franklin D. Roosevelt and the U.S. At the same time their struggle is an allegory of the events of World War II and the battle between idealism and corruption.

In 1947, Johnson condemned Bolshevism in a radio speech, when the Soviet Union celebrated the October Revolution: "Similarities between a Communist state and a Nationalist or Fascist state are greater than differences. The both rule by clichés and blood." Strändernas svall (1946, Eng. tr. Return to Ithaca) was a realistic retelling of Homer's Odyssey, but illustrated the moral dilemma after World War II – does good ends justify the means?

Following WW II Johnson traveled extensively in southern Switzerland, where he lived two years (1947-49). Its culture and landscape provided the setting for several of his novels. Moreover, his characters were not exclusively Swedish, but represented his ideal of European cultural unity. Johnson was elected a member of the Swedish Academy in 1957. In the 1960s and 1970s ideas of the rising leftists movements did not attract him, and in 1974 he resigned from the writers' association in protest. After Johnson and Martinson were awarded the Nobel Prize (decided by the Swedish Academy),  Olof Lagercrantz wrote in the newspaper Dagens Nyheter, that the Academy awarded itself. Johnson died in Stockholm on August 25, 1976.

Like the Icelandic Nobel laureate Halldór Kiljan Laxness, Johnson admired the work of B. Traven, calling him "one of the great writers of our era." Johnson's early novels show the influence of Marcel Proust, André Gide and James Joyce. Among his best-known novels is perhaps Hans nådes tid (1960, Eng. tr. The Days of His Grace), an analysis of the totalitarian ideology, seen through the eyes of the inhabitants of a nation, the Langobard people, conquered by Charlemagne. One one his sources of inspiration Historia Langobardorum, written by Paulus Diaconus, a Langobad historian; Johnson had read the book when he was living in Belin in the early twenties. Although the Stalin-like dictator manages to destroy freedom (in this case a revolt in Lombardy), love and hope remain in dreams. "I've always detested power and the book is about the curse of political power," Johnson said in an interview. Internationally famous is also Strändernas svall, translated as Return to Ithaca: The Odyssey Retold as a Modern Novel, which began a series of novels emphasizing the repetition of history, the illusion of chronological time and the similarity of man's condition under varying circumstances.

"Utan tidningar och radio skulle säkert stora delar av mänskligheten tro att allt är så bra som man kan gebärä – också på alla andra ställen på Jordklotet. Ja inbilla sej – kanske – att just de själva borde ha anledning till att vara, att de var lykliga. I brist på telegram och radionyheter och andra raporter skulle de kanhända vara fyllda av största lugn i själen. Människan är i hög grad outforskad. I brist på fantasi eller brist på kunskanp om de andra, skulle människor som har bara fem minuters promenadväg till Helvetet inte ha en aning om att Helvetet fanns så närä deras egen trygghet." (from Några steg mot tystnaden, 1963)

At age 46 Johnson began to write historical novels. Among them is Drömmar om rosor och eld (1949, Eng. tr. Dreams of Roses and Fire), which took place in Cardinal Richelieu's 17th-century France and looked at political trials and executions through the witchcraft trial of Urbain Grainier. The process also inspired Aldous Huxley's The Devils of Loudun (1952). Molnen över Metapontion (1957) combined three levels of time: the tale of Themestogenes from Xenophon's Anabasis with a Swedish survivor of a German concentration camp, and his visit to the places out of Anabasis. The story moves back and forth between four time levels, between events that happened 2,300 years ago and were retold by the Greeks, the concentration camps, and the 1950s. This narrative method was also used in Några steg mot tystnaden (1973), a novel about captives of the past. Livsdagen lång (1964) was an eight-episode chronicle spanning the 9th to 16th cs.

"Man kan säga vad som helst on Amerika tämligen ostraffat, men till sist kommer man fram till att USA:s styrka är den för närvarande enda fullviktiga garanten för vår egen trygghet. Om Amerika är starkt - och med det västerlandet – betyder det för oss att vi ännu har möjligheten till vår folkliga självbestämmanderätt kvar. Ifall den styrkan mattas eller drar sig tillbaka i isolationism, återtsår oss det andra: att omfattas av, pressas in i en östlig världs intressen, att bli provinsen eller guvernementet Sverige i protektoratet Europa. Förebilden är de so kallade folkdemokratierna med så kallade folkdomstolar inför vilka själva tanken på västerländsk demokrati betraktas som ett grov brott, som lands- och statsfientlig verksamhet, värd dödsstraff." (first published in Stockholms-Tidningen, on March 13, 1951)
For further reading: Eyvind Johnson by Jørgen Claudi (1947); 'An Interview with Eyvind Johnson' by L. S. Dembo and Eyvind Johnson, Contemporary Literature, Vol. 12, No. 3 (Summer, 1971); Eyvind Johnson by G.K. Orton (1972); The Ulysses Theme by W.B. Stanford (1963); Den tidlösa historien by S. Bäckman (1975); Eyvind Johnson's historiska romaner by O. Meyer (1977); Romantikern Eyvind Johnson by Thure Stenström (1978); Hamlet i klasskampen by Nils Schwartz (1979); 'Johnson, Eyvind' by G.O. [Gav Columbia Dictionary of Modern European Literature, ed. by Jean-Albert Bédé and William B. Edgerton (1980); Myt och verklighet. Berättandets problem i Eyvind Johnsons roman Strändernas svall by Merete Mazzarella (1981); A History of Scandinavian Literature, 1870-1980, by Sven H. Rossel (1982); Eyvind Johnson och Djävulen by Mona Kårsnäs (1984); Norrbottningen som blev europé by Örjan Lindberger (1986); Människan i tiden by Örjan Lindberger (1990); A History of Swedish Literature, ed. by Lars G. Warme (1996, pp. 349-353); 'Johnson, Eyvind,' in Encyclopedia of World Literature in the 20th Century, Vol. 2, ed. by Steven R. Serafin (1999); 'Eyvind Johnson and the History of Europe: Many Times in One Place' by Rolf Hugoson, in The Idea of Europe in Literature, edited by Susanne Fendler, Ruth Wittinger (1999); Berättaren Eyvind Johnson by Örjan Lindberger (1999); Eyvind Johnson och Norrbotten by Kjell Lundholm (2000); Eyvind Johnson: bibliografi by Per-Olof Mattsson (2000); Essays on Thorkild Björnvig, Eyvind Johnson, Harry Martinson and Erik Lindegren by Walter W. Nelson (2011); Omvägar till sanningen: nya perspektiv på Eyvind Johnsons författarskap, edited by Christer Johansson & Anders Lindström (2015); Det materialiserade ordet: medium och mening i Eyvind Johnsons författarskap by Christer Johansson (2021) 

Selected works:

  • De fyra främlingarna, 1924 [The four strangers]
  • Timans och rättfärdigheten, 1925 [Timans and justice]
  • Stad i mörker, 1927 [Town in darkness]
    - Kaupunki hohtaa pimeässä (suom. Eino Heinivaara, 1946)
  • Stad i ljus, 1928 [City in light]
  • Minnas, 1928 [Remembering]
  • Kommentar till ett stjärnfall, 1929 [Commentary to a falling star]
  • Avsked till Hamlet, 1930 [Farewell to Hamlet]
  • Bobinack, 1932
  • Natten är här, 1932 [Night is here]
  • Regn i gryningen, 1933 [Rain at dawn]
  • Än en gång, kapten!, 1934 [Once more, Captain!]
  • Nu var det 1914, 1934 (Romanen om Olof, 1934-37, 4 vols.; published together in 1945)
    - 1914 (translated by Mary Sandbach, 1970)
    - Elettiin vuotta 1914 (suom. V. Hämeen-Anttila, 1938)
  • Här har du ditt liv!, 1935 (Romanen om Olof; He you have your life)
    - Tällaista on elämäsi (suom. Werner Anttila, 1939)
    film: Här har du ditt liv (1966), dir. by Jan Troell, screenplay by Bengt Forslund, starring Max von Sydow, Eddie Axberg, Holger Löwenalder, Ulla Akselson, Gudrun Brost
  • Se dig inte om!, 1936 (Romanen om Olof; Don't look back)
    - Älä katso taaksesi (suom. Werner Anttila, 1940)
  • Slutspel i ungdomen, 1937 (Romanen om Olof; Finale in youth)
  • Nattövning, 1938 [Night maneuvers]
  • Den trygga världen, 1940 [The safe world]
  • Soldatens återkomst, 1940 [The soldier's return]
    - Sotilaan paluu (suom. Yrjö Iso-Puonti, 1945)
  • Grupp Krilon, 1941 [The Krilon group]
  • Krilons resa, 1942 [Krilon's journey]
  • Krilon själv, 1943 [Krilon himself]
  • Sju liv, 1944 [Seven lives]
  • Strändernas svall:  ett drama i tre akter och ett antal bilder om den a°terva¨ndande, 1946
    - Return to Ithaca (with a pref. by Mark Van Doren, 1952)
    - Rantojen tyrskyt: romaani läsnäolevasta (suom. Katri Ingman, 1947)
  • Pan mot Sparta, 1946
  • Dagbok från Schweiz 1947-1949, 1949 [Swiss diary]
  • Drömmar om rosor och eld, 1949
    - Dreams of Roses and Fire (translated by Erik J. Friis, introduction by Monica Setterwall, 1984)
    - Tulta ja ruusuja (suom. Arvi Kivimaa, 1953)
  • Valda skrifter i folkupplaga, 1950 (12 vols.)
  • Ett vårtal 1951, 1951
  • Lägg undan solen: roman, 1951
  • Romantisk berättelse, 1953 [A romantic story]
  • Vinterresa i Norrbotten, 1955 [A winter journey in Norrbotten]
  • Tidens gång: en romantisk berättelse, 1955 [The course of time]
  • Molnen över Metapontion, 1957 [The Clouds over Metapontion]
  • Vägar över Metaponto - en resedagbok, 1959 [The clouds over Metaponto]
  • Hans nådes tid, 1960
    - The Days of His Grace: A Novel (translated by Elspeth Harley Schubert, 1968)
    - Hänen armonsa aika (suom. Gerda Lindgren, 1962)
  • Spår förbi Kolonos - en berättelse, 1961 [Traces past Colonus - a story]
  • Livsdagen lång, 1964 [Life's Long Day]
  • Stunder, vågor - anteckningar, berättelser, 1965 [Moments, waves - notes, stories]
  • Favel ensam, 1968 [Favel alone]
  • Några steg mot tystnaden. En roman om fångna, 1973 [A few steps toward silence]
    - Kohti hiljaisuutta: romaani vangituista (suom. Kyllikki Villa, 1975)
  • Olibrius och gestalterna: tidiga berättelser, 1986 (edited by Björn Gustavsson)
  • Personligt, politiskt, estetiskt, 1992 (edited by Örjan Lindberger)
  • Och så vill jag prata med dig: brevväxlingen mellan Eyvind Johnson och Elmer Diktonius, 1997 (edited by Örjan Lindberger)
  • Herr Clerk vår mästare: en gruppering, 1998 (edited by Örjan Lindberger)
  • Resebrev 1921-1952, 2006 (foreword by Björn Gustavsson)
  • Kritik. 1, 1921-1931, 2009 (edited by Björn Gustavsson)
  • Kritik. 2, 1932-1935, 2011 (edited by Björn Gustavsson) 
  • Kritik. 3, 1936-1946, 2016 (edited by Per Anders Wiktorsson)
  • Resebrev 1921-1952, 2018 (förord & kommentarer: Björn Gustavsson; brev & fotografier: Eyvind Johnson)

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