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by Bamber Gascoigne

Karl Ivar Lo-Johansson (1901-1990)


Swedish author and social critic, who depicted the life of landless peasants and working class. Ivar Lo-Johansson's career is one of the longest in the Swedish literature, covering over 50 year. With his socially conscious work, Lo-Johansson helped to start improvements in the living conditions of poor and disadvantaged people.

"Det finns kvinnor på landet, kvinnor med mjukt hår, fasta höfter, vacker kropp, kvinnor som man inte förstår fortsätter att vara kvinnor på landet. De rör sig på ett särskilt sätt. Andra ser på dem med avund och beundran. I skoltiden har de haft dyrkare. I konfirmationsåldern har de haft friare. I en stad skulle de ha gjort ett gott val, gift sig till ett bekvämt liv med kaffe på sängen om mornarna. Men på landet stiger de som alla andra upp klockan fyra efter en obekväm natt, ibland efter obekväm kärlek De går till mjölkningen i godsladugården. Se gifter sig av en slump med någon tafatt pojke..." (from Bara en mor, 1939)

Ivar Lo-Johansson was born in Ösmo, Sörmland, where his parents lived as, statare, the lowest of the farmworker class, whose life had not changed much during the preceding centuries. At the time of Lo-Johansson's birth, they were poor crofters. Lo-Johansson left the school when he was eleven. He was a farm worker, and aside from two winter sessions at a people's college (1917 and 1920), he was self-educated. Partly due to Lo-Johansson's efforts, the school system for estate workers' children was eliminated in 1945.

In Stockholm Lo-Johansson earned his living as a postman, building worker, quarryman, and in other jobs. Between the years 1919 and 1923 he participated in the activities of the youth organization of the Social Democratic Party. He wrote for a small magazine Tankar och Syner, and attempted to become uncompromisingly truthful. On his spare time he studied on his own, especially languages. Occasionally he worked as a journalist in Nynäshamns tidning in the winter of 1922-23, and in Lidingö tidning in the winter of 1924-25. Like Eyvind Johnson a few years earlier, Lo-Johansson left Sweden to see the world and become a writer. From 1925 he travelled in France, Italy, Spain, England, Hungary, and Austria.

While in Rouen Lo-Johansson worked during the daytime at a building site – a Swedish company was building a church – and visited bordellos in the evening. For the church he made a relief of Christ. Accidentally he made Jesus smile subtly on the cross, and in vain tried to change the expression on Christ's face. In 1978, when Lo-Johansson visited again Rouen, he saw the sculpture. Christ was still smiling. During this four-year period of wandering, while earned his living in low-paid jobs, he dreamed of writing a book about how workers live in different parts of the world. In England he wrote articles about coal mines. In Hungary he spent time with gypsies. Several of his travel essays appeared in Stockholms-Tidningen. Before publishing his breakthrough novel in 1932, Lo-Johansson wrote travel books, short stories, and poetry.

Lo-Johannon's early works were travelogues and short stories. As a writer Lo-Johansson made his debut at the age of 26 with Vagabondliv i Frankrike (1927), a depiction of his travels. It was followed by Kolet i våld  (1928), an examination about miners life, Nedertstigen in dödsriket (1928), Zigenare (1928), which dealt with gypsies, and Mina städers ansikte (1930). All there early works were published by Wahlström & Widstrand.  Lo-Johansson gained fame with the novel Måna är död (1932), a story about a young man torn between erotic passion and his work. In the early 1930s the author also contracted gonorrhea from a young folk high school student.

Lo-Johansson collected his short stories of sharecroppers and farm laborers in Statarna (1936-37) and Jordproletärerna (1941). His revelation of the plight of the landless peasants helped to prompt extensive reform measures by the government. Godnatt, jord (1933, Breaking Free), published by Albert Bonniers Förlag, Lo-Johansson's new publisher, showed the wretched existence of day laborers, but at the same time gave an intimate portrait of the hopes and frustrations of the author as a child. To his readers Lo-Johansson made familiar an environment that up to the time had not treated much in fiction. To this group of works also belongs Traktorn (1943), an example of a collective novel with many characters but no main protagonist.

Like Godnatt, Jord, the novel Kungsgatan (1935, King's Street), was adapted into screen. It dealt with a farm boy's experiences in a big city, and created a sensation for its frank description of prostitution. In 1939 appeared Bara en mor (Only a Mother), also filmed, a sad story a young woman, named Rya-Rya, from the statare class. After her spontaneous nude bath in a lake on a hot summer day she is ostracized by her peers. In despair she marries an irresponsible man, and worn out by childbirth and hard labor she dies young. During World War II Lo-Johansson published little. In Frihet (1985) he mocked those writers, who signed manifests attacking Nazis, but secretly planned leaving Sweden, if the country was drawn into war. However, he mentions that Vilhelm Moberg, a highly visible defender of democratic values, was not among them.

Lo-Johanson's later works include a series of autobiographical novels and memoirs, beginning with Analfabeten (1951), a portrayal of his father, an honest man whose poor education made him an easy victim of a cruel social forces. Other novels in the series include Gärdfarihandlare (1953, Peddling My Wares), Stockholmaren (1954), Journalisten (1956), Författaren (1957), Socialisten (1958), Soldaten (1959), and Proletärförfattaren (1960). Lo-Johansson's memoirs, Pubertet (1975), Asfalt (1979), Tröskeln  (1982), and Frihet (1985) focused on the formative years of the author. With these work, Lo-Johansson cemented his position as one of the major representantives in the tradition of (post-Strindbergian) writers who drew on their own self and the lives of those near him as the basis of their work. Lo-Johansson empasized that everything in the books were true, but Moa Martinson criticized the truthfulness of Journalisten, in which Lo-Johansson told about his time as a journalist in Nynäsham: "Lo-Johansson har lagt fram en förvriden förljugen bild," she wrote in Nynäshams Tidning in 1957. "Lögnerna saknar all konstnärlig uppbyggnad."

Lo-Johansson continued to travel eagerly, and his autobiographical books depict often his experiences abroad. In 1962 he had met Ann Smith, who worked in a bookshop. With her Lo-Johansson went next year to the Soviet Union, where he was impressed by the innocent idealism of the young people. As a westerner he felt that he was skeptical about everything. In Jalta he lived comfortably at the writers' house, enjoying all the privileges arranged for politically correct writers.

Ålderdoms- Sverige (1952), a protest against the treatment of pensioners led to reforms of old people's homes. Lo-Johansson had started to examine the subject in 1948, a decade after his own mother had moved to an old people's home. The author's autobiographical series continued in the 1980s with memoirs. Pubertet won him the Nordic Council Literary Prize in 1979. Lo-Johansson died in Stockholm on April 11, 1990.

In his novels and short stories Lo-Johansson expressed a deep feeling of man's existential loneliness. He often described sensual and erotic elements of life, forces that drive man to actions beyond reason and will. With John Steinbeck he shared a similar social pathos when he attacked oppression. Lo-Johansson had also an unusual sense of humor. His own past, youth in Ösmo and first steps as a working-class writer, Lo-Johansson looked with satire and tenderness, in spite of the poverty and misery he experienced. However, like the Finnish writer Kalle Päätalo, who portrayed in a series of autobiographical novels his way from the backwoods of northeastern Finland to a celebrated writer, Lo-Johansson did not express nostalgia for the past, full of struggle and hardship.

For further reading: Ivar Lo-Johansson by Ragnar Oldberg (1957); A History of Swedish Literature by A. Gustafson (1961, pp 515-19); Ivar Lo-Johansson i trycksvärtans ljus by L. Furuland and R. Oldenberg (1961); Ivar Lo-Johansson. En bildbiografi by Ragnar Oldberg (1964); 'Crusader in Social Justice' by J.-A. Paulsson, in American Scandinavian Review, 59 (1971); Äran, kärleken, klassen by Mauritz Edström (1976); 'Lo-Johansson, Ivar' by T.L. [Torborg Lundell], in Columbia Dictionary of Modern European Literature, ed. by Jean-Albert Bédé and William B. Edgerton (1980); Samtal med Ivar Lo-Johansson by Bertil Palmqvist (1985); Röster om Ivar Lo-Johansson (1989); A History of Swedish Literature, ed. by Lars G. Warme (1996); 'Lo-Johansson, Ivar,' in Encyclopedia of World Literature in the 20th Century, Vol. 3, ed. by Steven R. Serafin (1999); Ivar och Eyvind: en bok om relationen mellan Sveriges två största arbetarförfattare by Hans Lagerberg (2003); Fattighusliv i ensamhetsslott: Ivar Lo-Johansson och de äldre i samhällsdebatt och dikt by Margareta Wersäll (2006); Ivar Lo-Johansson och kärleken: kvinnorna i hans liv och verk by Margareta Wersäll (2010); 'Utvandraren Ivar Lo-Johansson,' in Från Haile Selassie till Bert Karlsson: 88 nostalgiska möten med känt folk som du kanske glömt att du kommer ihåg by Uno Grönkvist (2018). Other Swedish working class writers: Harry Martinson
Selected works:
  • Vagabondliv i Frankrike, 1927
  • Kolet i våld: skisser från de engelska gruvarbetarnas värld, 1928
  • Ett lag historier, 1928
  • Nederstigen i dödsriket: fem veckor i Londons fattigvärld, 1929
  • Zigenare: en sommar på det hemlösa folkets vandringsstigar , 1929
  • Mina städers ansikten, 1930
  • Ur klyvnadens tid: dikter, 1931
  • Jag tvivlar på idrotten, 1931
  • Måna är död, 1932
  • Godnatt, jord, 1933
    - Hyvää yötä, maa (suom. Pentti Lahti, 1946)
    - Breaking Free (translated by Rochelle Wright, 1990)
    - TV series 1979, dir. by Keve Hjelm, starring Bengt Eklund
  • Kungsgatan, 1935
    - Kuninkaankatu (suom. Pentti Lahti, 1945)
    - film 1943, prod. Film AB Imago, dir. by Gösta Cederlund, starring Barbro Kollberg, Sture Lagerwall, Marianne Löfgren, Lisskulla Jobs, Stina Ståhle, Viveka Linder
  • Statarna: noveller, 1936-37 (2 vols.)
  • Statarskolan i literaturen, 1938
  • Jordproletärerna: berättelser, 1941
  • Statarklassen i Sverige, 1939
  • Bara en mor, 1939
    - Hän oli vain äiti (suom. Lauri Kemiläinen, 1944)
    - Only a Mother (translated by Robert E. Bjork, 1991)
    - film 1949, dir. by Alf Sjöberg, starring Eva Dahlbeck, Ragnar Falk, Ulf Palme, Hugo Björne, Åke Fridell, Mona Geijer-Falkner, Max von Sydow
  • Traktorn, 1943
  • Statarnoveller, 1945
  • Stridskrifter, 1946
  • Geniet, 1947
  • Statarna i bild, 1948 (with Gunnar Lund)
  • Ungdomsnoveller: ett lag historier: tidiga noveller, 1948
  • Monism, 1948
  • Ålderdom, 1949 (with Sven Järlås)
  • Romaner och noveller i folkupplaga, 1950-51
  • Analfabeten: en berättelse från min ungdom, 1951 (En proletärförfattares självbiografi; first in a series)
    - Nimetön mies: kertomus nuoruudestani (suom. Aira Sinervo, 1951)
  • Ålderoms-Sverige, 1952
  • Gårdfarihandlaren: självbiografisk berättelse, 1953 (En proletärförfattares självbiografi)
    - Kulkukauppias (suom. Aira Sinervo, 1953)
    - Peddling my Wares (translated by Rochelle Wright, 1975)
  • Stockholmaren: självbiografisk berättelse, 1954
  • Okänt Paris, 1954 (photos. by Tore Johnson)
  • Journalisten: självbiografisk berättelse, 1956 (En proletärförfattares självbiografi)
  • Författaren: självbiografisk berättelse, 1957 (En proletärförfattares självbiografi)
  • Att skriva en roman: ett självbiografiskt avsnitt, 1957
  • Socialisten: självbiografisk berättelse, 1958 (En proletärförfattares självbiografi)
  • Soldaten: självbiografisk berättelse, 1959 (En proletärförfattares självbiografi)
  • Proletärförfattaren: självbiografisk berättelse, 1960 (En proletärförfattares självbiografi; last in a series)
  • Lyckan: en roman om kärlek på jorden, 1962
    - Onni: romaani rakkaudesta maan päällä (suom. Elvi Sinervo ja Ilkka Ryömä, 1963)
    - Bodies of Love (translated by Allan Tapsell, 1971)
  • Astronomens hus: en roman om kärleken och äran, 1966
    - Rakkaus ja kunnia (suom. Erkki Impola, 1967)
  • Elektra, 1967
  • Passionerna, 1968 (Passionssviten)
  • Martyrerna, 1968 (Passionssviten)
  • Girigbukarna, 1969 (Passionssviten)
  • Karriäristerna, 1969 (Passionssviten)
  • Vällustingarna, 1970 (Passionssviten)
  • Lögnhalsarna, 1971 (Passionssviten)
  • Stridsskrifter I-II, 1971
  • Vishetslärarna, 1972 (Passionssviten)
  • Statarskolan i litteraturen:  idéer och program, 1972
  • Folket och herrarna: noveller ur Sveriges historia 1-2, 1973 (ed. by Mauritz Edström)
    - Herrat ja rahvas: novelleja Ruotsin historiasta (suom. Pirkko Talvio-Jaatinen. 1973)
  • Ordets makt, 1973
  • Nunnan i Vadstena:  sedeskildringar, 1973
  • Furstarna:  en krönika från Gustav Vasa till Karl XII, 1974
  • Lastbara berättelser, 1974
  • Dagbok från 20-talet, 1974 (2 vols.)
  • Dagar och dagsvedrken, 1975
  • Den sociala fotobildboken, 1977 (photos by Gunnar Lundh, Sven Järlås, Anna Riwkin, Tore Johnson)
  • Pubertet, 1978 (Memoarer)
    - Veräjä (suom. Pirkko Talvio-Jaatinen, 1979)
  • Asfalt, 1979 (Memoarer)
    - Asfaltti: muistelmia (suom. Pirkko Talvio-Jaatinen, 1981)
  • Tröskeln, 1982 (Memoarer)
    - Parnasso (suom. Pirkko Talvio-Jaatinen, 1984)
  • Frihet, 1985 (Memoarer)
    - Vapaus (suom. Pirkko Talvio-Jaatinen, 1987)
  • Till en författare, 1988
  • Skriva för livet, 1989 (edited by Stige Hansén och Clas Thor)
  • Blå Jungfrun. En roman om diktens födelse, 1992 (written in 1960)
  • Tisteldalen: dikter, 1992 (afterword by Jan Fogelbäck)
  • Tillträde till den nya tiden: fem berättelser om när Sverige blev modernt: Ivar Lo-Johansson, Agnes von Krusenstjerna, Vilhelm Moberg, Moa Martinson, 2002
  • Ur traktorn, 2006 (Serie: Meddelande / Veterinärhistoriska museet i Skara, 45)
  • Kungsgatan, 2015 (med ett nyskrivet förord av Susanna Alakoski)
  • Handslag och hälsning: brevväxlingen mellan Lars Furuland och Ivar Lo-Johansson 1955-1989: en vänskap kring den svenska arbetarlitteraturen, 2015 (ugiven och kommenterad av Gunnel Furuland)
  • Den nya skolan, 2019 (Serie: En novell från Novellix; No 12)

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