Martinson, Harry 1904–1978
Martinson was a Swedish novelist, poet, essayist, and dramatist. Travel motifs run throughout Martinson's work, stemming from his early years as a seaman. His verse contains many symbolic references, and critics have compared him stylistically to Strindberg. Martinson received the 1974 Nobel Prize for Literature along with his colleague Eyvind Johnson. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 77-80.)
Hardly ever has a Swedish author led a life more fantastic than that of Harry Martinson; in Swedish literature no exoticism is more captivating than that in his autobiographical books and travelogues; and the tender devotion to Swedish nature expressed in his naturprosa is unsurpassed—which is apparent in such works as Svärmare och harkrank (1937), Midsommardalen (1938), and Det enkla och det svåra (1939)…. In later writings such as Utsikt från en grästuva (View from a Tussock, 1963), the author has still managed to retain the larger, even cosmic, perspectives. (p. 364)
After his autobiographical books Martinson broadened his view of people on earth and became a humanist (in the traditional old European sense) and a scholar. There were ups and downs (especially Verklighet till döds, about the war in Finland, "a subject that was too close") and Den förlorade jaguaren which satirized the hyper-efficiency of contemporary times, his first real novel ("written in too great haste"). But if there is a common denominator in his many-faceted work, it is his belief that everything is interrelated, which is "why one can feel secure in it."… (p. 365)
Martinson the humanist did not neglect the study of the natural sciences. In the essay "Tekniken och själen" ("Technology and the Soul," published in Daedalus, 1955), he admits...
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It remains to be seen if even a very considerable author like Harry Martinson will be able to make an impression on the English-speaking literary world—and, if not, it is not at all his fault …, yet it is beyond any discussion that he has been of great importance to the Swedish (and Scandinavian) literary world. Indeed, he has helped form a specific consciousness for an entire generation of his compatriots at large and not just the literary gourmets. (p. 478)
The storyline of The Road is occasionally extremely thin, and miraculously, as in folk tales, sometimes it disappears and becomes entirely invisible. What made The Road such a great success in Scandinavia and such an average affair in the English-speaking world? Part of the answer, no doubt, is Martinson's poetic language. He is a stylistic innovator comparable to Strindberg and an imaginative coiner of words…. Martinson's assertion that translation is impossible (?) is not entirely an exaggeration. Dealing with facts and subtleties, proceeding with his stories and meditations, in a most leisurely way, Martinson's book cannot possibly be read in a hurry, like an ordinary novel. The Road is a book one must read slowly, with pauses, and to which one must return as to a book of maxims….
Why did Martinson select a tramp as the main character [of The Road]? Possibly because in his rather extensive...
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Martinson, now well over seventy, is (or was) a genuine proletarian poet who served for years as a merchant seaman and made his mark in the 1920s and 1930s with splendidly simple yet perceptive poems and prose memoirs, a sort of Swedish W. H. Davies. Sadly, there exists a deep-seated belief among Swedish critics that to achieve top rank a writer must prove himself djupsinnig (literally "deep-minded"), which in practice means writing [a kind of woolly pseudo-philosophy] …, and after the war Martinson turned to this depressing genre, producing novels such as The Road to Klockrike and poems like "Aniara", both of a pretentious emptiness. (But they paid off; had he stayed simple, I am sure he would never have won the Nobel Prize last year.) Fortunately, Mr. Bly [editor and translator of Harry Martinson, Gunnar Ekelöf and Tomas Tranströmer: Friends, You Drank Some Darkness] has avoided this side of Martinson's work and stuck to the simple poems, like "Out at Sea":
At sea you know spring or summer just as a faint wind.
Sometimes in summer the drifting Florida-weed puts out blossoms,
Or one spring evening a spoon-billed stork flies in towards Holland.
Michael Meyer, "The Call of the Deep," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1975; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 3842, October 31, 1975, p. 1287.∗
The first thing one notices about Harry Martinson's poems is their precision and over-all exactitude…. Always the precision takes on its own life, moves from impression to expression but without disturbing its own clear-pond-like surface…. [His] attention to actual "things" is nothing less than reverence, the everyday magic that keeps banality out of the everyday and out of Martinson's poems. Thus he can write a difficult (borderline sentimental) Wright-like elegy like "No Name for It" [in Friends, You Drank Some Darkness] with almost frustrating ease….
The second thing one notices about these poems is stillness. It is the blood of every word Martinson writes, and it winds without a seam around a major theme in Scandinavian literature from Strindberg to the present: the holy solitude of travelers. The small lyric "March Evening" … is a made-to-order example…. (p. 76)
Using precision, stillness, and the solitude of travelers, Martinson strings a tense, thin field between the mechanized, human-dominated world and the dance of nature. Like all lyric poets, Martinson draws heavily on his place in the natural flow. Nature, therefore, is in his poems true power. All else is counterfeit. In the poem "Hades and Euclid," it is the human world, the mathematical and mechanical one, which is flat and burning. Life, in Martinson's work, is depth, depth is power, and power is at its most luminous in the natural world. Though this conviction can be seen in nearly every poem collected here, nowhere is Martinson's moral ecology more explicitly outlined than in the poem "Winds of Passage."… [The] source of the tragic in Harry Martinson's work [is that new worlds do not exist—but in the world being left behind and in dreams]. It is not personal tragedy … but the unutterably huge sorrow of our species and, ultimately of our gleaming planet as well. (pp. 76-7)
Salvation? If Martinson believes in it, he locates it in the solitary mind, the unconscious surfacing from deep down without letting go the soil-clogged roots of existence. All things (even planets, species) die, but the deep-given perceptions of a reverent life stop time and are deathless…. (p. 77)
Christopher Howell, "Swedish Mystics," in Moons and Lion Tailes (copyright © 1976 by The Permanent Press), Vol. II, No. 1, 1976, pp. 75-82.∗