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by Bamber Gascoigne

Karin (Maria) Boye (1900-1941)


Poet, novelist, and short-story writer, translator of T.S. Eliot, one of the most original trailblazers of Swedish modernism. Karin Boye's poems were written in a confessional tone and reflected her moods of despair and exaltation, and yearn for spiritual freedom. Her work from the 1920s show the influence of Vilhelm Ekelund (1880-1949), an advocate of Nietzschean heroism in Sweden. Boye also introduced psychoanalytical ideas into Swedish literature. She died at the age of 41 – her death was apparently a suicide.

"Bryt upp, bryt upp! Den nya dage gryr.
Oändlig är vårt stora äventyr."

(from 'I rörelse')

Karin Boye was born in Göteborg, but she grew up Stockholm where her family moved 1909. The family originally came from Bohemia. Boye was brought up in comfortable conditions, her father Fritz (Carl Fredrik) being a civil engineer, who had a managerial position in an insurance company, the Svea-Fire-Life Company. Because of nervous breakdown, he went into premature retirement. Boye's mother, Signe Liljestrand, was some eighteen years his junior. She was active in women's issues and politics. Boye was the first of their several children.

Already at a young age, Boye began to write and participate in cultural debates, mostly from religious stand point, and then rebelling against conservative cultural policy. She read the works of Dumas, Rudyard Kipling, H.G. Wells, Maurice Maeterlinck, and Rabindranath Tagore. For a period, Boye was drawn to Buddhism, but she eventually reaffirmed her Christian faith. At the same time, she struggled to come to terms with her own sexuality. She read Vilhelm Ekelund and Viktor Rydberg, sharing their fascination with the aesthetic ideals of the ancient Greeks, a world where loving the same sex was not a sin. "I don't know if I'm a Christian , but I do know that I belong to God", she wrote in an letter to her friend in 1920. The mythological characters of Lilith, Lucifer, and Ilmatar (virgin spirit of the air) from the Finnish epic, the Kalevala, made an appearance in her poems.

After receiving a diploma from a teacher's college in 1921, Boye studied at the Univerity of Uppsala, where she had a brief love affair with the poet Nils Svanberg, and the University of Stockholm, receiving her M.A. in 1928. While in Uppsala she joined the Socialist Clarté organization, founded in France by the novelist Henri Barbusse, and wrote for its magazine. In 1929 Boye was a teacher in Motala. From 1936 to 1938 she was employed as a teacher at the Viggbyholm school, an educational reform school near Stockholm.Boye was highly esteemed as a teacher. In her spare time she wrote prose and poems feverishly and contributed to many periodicals. Eventually Boye had to leave the job due to exhaustion.

Between the years 1929 and 1932, Boye was married with her Clartéfriend Leif Björk in a kind of friendship union. Together they visited the Soviet Union. She broke in 1932 the marriage of the poet Gunnar Ekelöf, whose wife Gunner Bergström left her husband for her. Later Boye lived with her German friend in Stockholm. After the divorce, Boye went to Berlin for psychoanalysis – her work also reflected different ideas in psychoanalytical study of the human mind. Walter Schindler (1896-1986), a pioneer of group psychotherapy, considered her a difficult patient. Boye continued her analysis  with Grete Lampl. While in Berlin, she began an affair with a German-Jewish woman named Margot Hanel (1912-1941). It has been claimed that Boye gave a Hitler salute in an election meeting in the Sportpalast, where the main speaker was Hermann Göring. In Stockholm Boye lived with Margot in a small apartment consisting of two rooms and a kitchen. Boye wrote in De sju dödssynderna (1941, The Seven Deadly Sins) in the epigram 'To You' (Till dig): "You my despair and my strength, / you took all the life I owned, / and because you demanded everything, / you gave back a thousandfold." (Complete Poems by Karin Boye, translated by David McDuff, 1994)

The critic Margit Abenius has placed considerable emphasis on the role of Boye's sexual orientation to her literary production. Boye's early poems were influenced by the songs of the Edda and Buddhism, later by Schopenhauer, and finally by Nietzsche. Her first collection of verse, Moln (1922, Clouds), published by K.O. Bonnnier, was filled with idealism and a sense of new-found identity: In 'Inward' (Inåt) she said: "Naked I stood, / washed by waves / of cold truth, / cold, strong, / contemptuous truth – / my Truth / and my God." (Complete Poems by Karin Boye, translated by David McDuff, 1994) Moln was followed by Gömda land (1924) and Härdarna (1927), her youthful works responding to the thirst for life and celebrating the powers of renewal. "You do not become happy because you have reached a certain point", Boye once wrote in her diary. "Steady development, movement, brings happiness." In För trädets skull (1935, For the Tree's Sake) she changed from the strict classical style to a modernistic, expressionistic style. Her symbolic and tragic poetry, which was traditional in form, dealt with existential themes, the dualism of life, the outer and inner self, the split personality. Boye's novels and short stories also were serious in tone.

In 1931 Boye founded with Erik Mesterton and Josef Riwkin the avant-garde magazine Spektrum, introducing T.S. Eliot and Surrealists to Swedish readers. The magazine was modelled on Eliot's Criterion. Her most important essays published in it include 'Dagdrömmeriet som livsåskådning' (Daydreaming as philosophy of life), 'Om litteraturkritiken' (About critic of literature), 'Språket bortom logiken' (Language beyond logic) and 'Rädslan och livet' (Fear and life). Together with the critic Erik Mesterton, she translated T.S. Eliot's influential poem The Waste Land into Swedish. Her ties with Spektrum were loosened after spending a long period in Berlin. Boye also contributed the magazine Arbetet (1932-33).

In the 1930s, Boye turned to prose. The fragmented Astarte (1931), in which then ancient goddess is now a mannequin in a department store window, was runner-up in a Scandinavian novel competition. Kris (1934) was a psychoanalytical case history, where Boye depicted the religious crisis and lesbianism of her alter ego, Malin Frost. Other figures include a Theologian, a Humanist, a Cactus Grower; Superego is represented by the God of the established Lutheran church and by the principal of a teacher's college. At the end, Malin leaves the school accepting her own sexuality.

Kallocain (1940), Boye's science-fiction novel, was a picture of a male-dominated totalitarian society around the year 2000. It drew from  her impressions while traveling in Germany and the Soviet Union. The introspective novel can be seen as a link between Huxley's Brave New World and Orwell's 1984. Moreover, Boye had read Yevgeny Zamyatin's We (1924), which had inspired Orwell's famous work.

The story, written during the summer of 1940, was set in a World State, which has wiped out all individualism. Leo Kall, a loyal citizen, invents the eponymous truth drug, 'kallocain', which forces patients to betray their innermost thoughts. Besides its obvious negative uses, Kall realizes after some hesitation, the drug can be employed for good. It breaks down the defenses that prevent human contact. Linda, Leo's wife, reveals her opposition to official policy. Kall suffers then consequences in his own being, but in his tragedy there is also a seed for hope. Kallocain reveals Boye's disgust of totalitarianism, the dominating ideology in the central Europe at that time.

Although Sweden remained neutral during World War II, and was not ravaged by war, the political developed and outbreak of hostilities had a profound effect on Boye's mental condition. She visited Denmark after German occupation and was intriduced to the royal family. Kallocain   appeared  in Finnish already in 1943; the Danish translation by Jørgen Claudi was published  in  1946.

Boye had a considerable impact on Scandinavian poets. The posthumously published collection of verse, De sju dödssynderna, about life, death, and destruction, is often considered Boye's best work. In 'Lust' (Vällust) Boye wrote resigned that "Human forms and names are transient / drops from the ecstasies' spate." (Complete Poems by Karin Boye, translated by David McDuff, 1994) 'Still in 'Porten' (For trädets skull) she had hopefully believed, "jag orkar" (I endure). Boye was found dead in the woods outside Alingsås on April 25, 1941; she had committed suicide by taking an overdose of sleeping pills. On the same year Virginia Woolf drowned herself and Marina Tsvetaeva hanged herself. Margot Hanel committed suicide by gas in Stockholm in May 1941. Boye's last love, Anita Nathorst, whom she had known since her student days, died of skin cancer in August. 

Literary association Karin Boye sällskapet has cherished her literary heritage. Boye's importance as a feminist writer has been recognized and her exploration on the male and female role-playing in such works as Merit vaknar (1933) and För lite (1936) have been studied. Boye's play, Hon som bär templet, which was published in Bonniers Litterära Magazin in 1941, portrayed a woman in an occupied country, who must choose between her family and escape and her willingness to continue with the resistance – her choice is to fight.

Blomma blomma Bitterhet
hur står du nu så full
av guldmogen honung
för all din beskhets skull.
Hur dignar du av skänker,
som ängarnas mandelblomma
väl aldrig kunde bära,
den blidhylta fromma.
Plåga och välsignelse -
var har väl sin.
Inte vet jag livets mått,
men vet att du blev min.
Din kalk var som eld.
Din saft var som galla.
Du bjöd sju bedrövelser,
och jag drack dem alla.
Blomma blomma Bitterhet,
hur blev du sist så rik
på varmgyllne honung,
som är solljuset lik.
Här står jag, matt av sötman
i din klarnade gåva.
Med Adam vill jag jubla.
Med Job vill jag lova.
For further reading: Karin Boye. Minnen och studier, ed. by M. Abenius and O. Lagercrantz (1942); Drabbad av renhet. En bok om Karin Boyes liv och diktning by Margit Abenius (1950, 2nd ed. 1965); A History of Swedish Literature by A. Gustafson (1961); Introduction to 'Kallocain' by R.B. Vowles (1966); ' Translator's Note to 'Poems by Karin Boye' by I. Claréus, in Swedish Books, 2,4 (1980); Kvinnor och skapande (1983); I oss är en mångfald levande by Gunilla Domellöf (1986); Upprorets tradition by Claes-Göran Holmberg (1987); Guide to Women's Literature throughout the World, ed. by Claire Buck (1992); 'Karin Boye: A Biographical Profile' by David McDuff, in Complete Poems by Karin Boye, translated by David McDuff (1994); A History of Swedish Literature, ed. by Lars G. Warme (1996); Swedish Women's Writing, 1850-1995 by Helena Forsås-Scott (1997); "Att skapa en ny värld": samhällsyn, kvinnosyn och djuppsykologi hos Karin Boye by Barbro Gustafsson Rosenqvist (1999); Bryt upp! Bryt upp!: Karin Boye 1900-2000 by Björn Julén, Pia-Kristina Garde, Örjan Svedberg (2000); Karin Boye och hennes man by Kaj Björk (2011); Karin Boye och människorna omkring henne: en fotobok by Pia-Kristina Garde (2011); Framkallning: skrift, konsumtion och sexualitet i Karin Boyes Astarte och Henry Parlands Sönder by Caroline Haux (2013); Den nya dagen gryr: Karin Boyes författarliv by Johan Svedjedal (2017); '"Du, meine Verzweiflung und mein Streben": Margot Hanel (1912–1941)' by Raimund Wolfert, in Lambda-Nachrichten 39, 169 (May-June 2017); Själens krypta: en essä om Karin Boyes självbiografiska roman Kris by Peter Jansson (2017) 

Selected bibliography:

  • Moln, 1922 [Clouds]
  • Gömda land, 1924 [Hidden Lands]
  • Härdarna, 1927 [The Hearths]
  • Astarte, 1931
  • Merit vaknar, 1933 [Merit Awakens]
  • Kris, 1934 - Crisis (translated by Amanda Doxtater, 2020) 
  • Uppgörelser, 1934 [Settlements]
  • For trädets skull, 1935 [For the Tree's Sake]
  • För lite, 1936 [Too Little]
  • Kallocain, 1940 - Kallocain (tr. by Gustaf Lannestock, 1966; David McDuff, 2019) - Kallokaiini: romaani 2000-luvulta (suom. Maija Savutie, 1943)
  • Ur funktion, 1940 [Out of Commission]
  • Hon som bär templet, 1941 (play, in Bonniers Litterära Magasin)
  • De sju dödssynderna och andra efterlämnade dikter, 1941 (ed. by Victor Svaneberg and Hjalmar Gullberg) [The Seven Deadly Sins]
  • Dikter, 1942 [Poems]
  • Samlade dikter, 1943 [Collected Poems]
  • Samlade skrifter, 1947-49 (11 vols., introduction by Margit Abenius)
  • Till dig, 1963 (ed. by Sven Lindner)
  • Dikter, 1971 (in Den svenska lyriken)
  • Månsång: ungdomsdikter, 1979 (ed. by Barbro Gustafsson)
  • Det stora undret: ungdomsdikter, 1981 (ed. by Barbro Gustafsson)
  • Soldrottningens gudson: berättelser och skådespel, 1982
  • Det hungriga örat: journalistik 1930-1936: recensioner och essäer, 1992 (ed. by Gunnar Ståhl)
  • Complete Poems, 1994 (translated by David McDuff)
  • Resedagbok i Grekland: från Hitlers Berlin till Apollons Olympia, 1994 (ed. by Paul Åström)
  • Ett verkligt jordiskt liv: brev, 2000 (ed. by Paulina Helgeson)
  • Till dig: Karin Boye i bild och kalligrafi, 2000
  • Karin Boye: ett urval dikter, 2008
  • Snäckors sorl: ett urval noveller, 2008
  • Ja visst gör det ont: dikter i urval, 2012 (efterord: Pia-Kristina Garde)
  • Karin Boye: okända brev och berättelser, 2013 (en bok av Pia-Kristina Garde)
  • Karin Boye: nycklar och samtal, 2016 (en bok av Pia-Kristina Garde)
  • Dagboksanteckningar, 2018
  • Samlade dikter, 2019
  • Resedagbok i Grekland, 2021
  • Presentask Karin Boye: noveller, dikter, 2021
  • Före debuten: dikter, 2021
  • Dikter i urval: volym 1, 2021
  • Dikter i urval: volym 2, 2021

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