Eyvind Johnson

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Gavin Orton

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["Stad i ljus" ("Town in Light") (1928)] is the apologia of a young Swedish writer, hungry and wretched in an illuminated and festive Paris. Eyvind Johnson described it as a chapter out of his own life—"two hundred pages of diatribes, reflections, prose-poems, and cries of woe". His hero declares that his generation has seen its revolutionary faith disintegrate into despair in the shadow of a generation of war-profiteers. He looks hopelessly for the meaning in the miserable life he has lived:

I want to arrive at my century. I mean, I want to know what it is like. Do we know what it is like? No. And I want to arrive at myself … I want to know who I am!

Not surprisingly "Stad i ljus" has often been compared to Hamsun's "Sult" ["Hunger"], whose hero finds himself in a similar predicament. But while Hamsun was compelled by his experiences of starvation and failure to create a new form for his novel, Eyvind Johnson could appeal to the theories of Bergson and Freud and use methods developed by others—among them Hamsun. Like Hamsun, the young Eyvind Johnson considered it is his duty to tell his backward countrymen that the contemporary novel must be devoted to psychological analysis. Following in the Strindberg-Hamsun tradition he dismissed the concept of "character", for man is an infinitely complicated structure of impulses and states of mind. And the whole is undergoing a continuous change, for every moment of experience alters the complex and creates a new person. (pp. 111-12)

"Stad i ljus", Eyvind Johnson's first tentative approach to the modern novel, was his third novel, preceded by "Timans och rättfärdigheten" ("Timans and Justice") (1925) with its somewhat abrupt changes of scene and motivation, and by a collection of predominantly satirical vignettes from a wintry Arctic town, "Stad i Mörker" ("Town in Darkness") (1927). Both novels reflect the author's political beliefs and his personal despair and disillusion, though in the second novel the anarchist schoolmaster comes to see human companionship as a defence against a cruel and pitiless universe. However absurd the town and its council may seem, however ridiculous its inhabitants, he feels a kind of love for them. But "Stad i ljus" showed that bitterness and nihilism were by no means conquered in Eyvind Johnson's works, and when he returned to a northern town in "Minnas" ("Remembering") (1928), existence proved to be more horrifying than ever. He could draw on Proust and Freud to portray people tortured by sexual desires and memories they try vainly to suppress. They seek escape in drink, in religious fervour, or in intellectual detachment, but when their guard is down some detail reawakes their memories, or they are ambushed in their dreams. The author himself withholds his sympathy, following them only with a desperate mockery. (p. 112)

"Kommentar till ett stjärnfall" ("Commentary on a Falling Star") (1929) repeats some of the themes from "Minnas" and composes them into a convincing demonstration of what Eyvind Johnson considered the modern novel should be. Like Gide he follows the untidy destinies of a group of characters whose paths meet and part in a random fashion. Like Joyce he presents their thoughts directly in all their apparent meaninglessness. At the same time "Kommentar" is a work of imagination, not a psychological document, for the author does not disguise his presence but comments on the course of events, plays with his characters, indulges in strange flights of fancy—in fact he sets the whole tale in motion by playing on the word "stjärnfall" (a shooting-star or an award of decorations). Technically speaking Eyvind Johnson has...

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now mastered his material, but the characters themselves are still unable to come to terms with the universe. Magnus Lyck provides a fitting example of this unhappy period in Eyvind Johnson's novels. He declares defiantly that he is no Hamlet; he is a clear-sighted revolutionary who knows love is merely a matter of biology. All the same, he goes to pieces because of a romantic attachment to a dissolute actress, and at the end of the novel, while the May Day processions pass through Stockholm, he stands aside, stripped of everything but the will to keep living—somehow.

Eyvind Johnson spoke of his next novel as a continuation of "Kommentar" but also a liberation from it, an effort towards a more positive social commitment. The title of "Avsked till Hamlet" ("Farewell to Hamlet") (1930) promises a greater determination than the contents justify. The character struggling with a Hamlet disposition is Mårten Torpare, who reappears in several novels of the decade. He is a man "who stands beside the author and sees what he sees and tries to look with his eyes". However doubtful his literary farewell to Hamlet, when he appears in "Bobinack" (1932) his personal difficulties seem to be overcome, and although he is sufficiently sceptical of society he is no longer nihilistic. The target for his criticisms in "Bobinack" is capitalist middle-class society, which, he thinks, is about to give way to a less inhibited form of life. (pp. 112-13)

In [his] novels of social criticism abstract discussion often gets the upper hand. That the abundant imagination Eyvind Johnson had shown earlier in his works was not lost is clear from two collections of short-stories: "Natten är här" ("The Night is Here") (1932), which includes some thoroughly unclassical and unheroic tales from Ancient Greece; and "Än en gång, kapten" ("Once More, Captain") (1934), with stories from his childhood province of Norrbotten…. Norrbotten immediately provided the material for the four-volume "Romanen om Olof" ("The Novel About Olof") (1934–37), which has established itself as one of the classics of Swedish literature.

The novel is the story of Olof Persson from the time he leaves his foster-parents at the age of 13 to the moment five years later when he leaves Norrbotten altogether. It is based on Eyvind Johnson's own experiences during adolescence. "Romanen om Olof" is usually considered to be the most straightforward of Eyvind Johnson's novels, but although the action is centred on one character and is unfolded in short scenes in chronological order, the author's main interest is in his subject's psychological development, and he follows Olof's thoughts in all their confusion of memories and impressions, backwards and forwards in time, hither and thither as his associations freely lead them. When Eyvind Johnson comes to describe Olof's environment he chooses what he called "a roundabout way"—"sagor" (fairy-tales), for the reality that surrounds Olof is so bleak and depressing that it can scarcely be approached directly. It needs a little romanticizing, since it is a world where tuberculosis rages, where dreams of love end in wretched seductions, and where emigrants' hopes of an earthly paradise, far from Norrbotten, end in Brazil in disease and snake-bite. (p. 114)

Eyvind Johnson's war novels are both exhortations to armed resistance and reservations about the use of force, while with his usual interest in psychological analysis he tries to discover the psychology of a free society and how it differs from that of his enemies. (p. 116)

The enormous "Krilon" trilogy … represents, its author declares, his military service…. Personal misfortunes have turned Krilon not into a neurotic with a grudge against the world but a balanced human being who has overcome the bitterness in his memories…. With Johannes Krilon, Eyvind Johnson said he had attempted to describe a human being as thoroughly as possible, and he used all his technical ingenuity to this end. In one section he describes Krilon's past in terms of his collection of keys. In another section he uses six pages for a description of Krilon's face—"I wanted it to be exhaustive". But Krilon is more than a Stockholm estate-agent, just as the novel is about the triumph over forces that threaten not merely the integrity of Krilon and his friends but that of all Europeans, and ultimately of all mankind. Krilon becomes the representative and saviour of humanity—for example, he is "crucified" on Good Friday. And he stands too for a particular person in a particular situation, since the novel is also an allegory in which the war is reflected in terms of the Stockholm property-market…. As an additional complication the novel contains a number of miscellaneous items, such as news bulletins on the real war, merciless satires on the Swedish government's inelegant antics in the cause of noninvolvement, an attack on one of Eyvind Johnson's personal antagonists, and even short stories which are told merely for their own sake. More directly here than in "Romanen om Olof" the author discusses the principles that have determined the style of the novel—its "half-realism" and its strange subtitle: "A Novel About the Probable". For reality is many-faceted, and the author can only see parts of it. His duty is to convey to his readers what he sees, which does not, strangely enough, mean that he should describe exactly what he sees. The reality behind Krilon, like the reality behind Olof, must be approached indirectly. The way to World War II leads through the fantastic allegory and morality-play that is "Krilon". (pp. 116-17)

Eyvind Johnson's next novel is a retelling of the "Odyssey", but bears the subtitle "A Novel About the Present". "Strändernas svall" ("The Swell on the Beaches") (1946, English translation "Return to Ithaca", 1949) is a grateful pupil's tribute to both Homer and Joyce. Eyvind Johnson has followed Homer's story closely, but his style is as devious as his hero's thoughts, and the actions and conflicts are essentially psychological, fought in a less resolute Ulysses and a less faithful Penelope, middle-aged mortals with time no longer on their side…. In telling the "Odyssey" in realistic terms, Eyvind Johnson revealed once more the ingenuity and imagination that accomplished the "Krilon" allegory. Yet here again reality and "saga" are scarcely distinguishable, for with all its down-to-earth pictures of the Greek heroes, "Strändernas svall" is, at the same time, a "saga" about the Second World War.

Eyvind Johnson's post-war novels develop naturally from "Krilon" and "Strändernas svall". He consistently defends principles of democracy and humanity, both in his literary and journalistic writings; but his narrative position constantly changes, as he attempts to capture and exhibit an elusive, transient reality. He comes to the conclusion that reality is no more than the result of a way of looking at the world, and consequently his novels generally include a number of narrators who view the same events from different angles, while his style reflects uncertainty, hesitation and qualification. The tangles of past and present in his earlier novels become even more confused as the historical past begins to play a crucial role in his characters' lives.

Eyvind Johnson's production since the war has included a number of autobiographical documents…. His greatest successes, however, have been with a series of historical novels.

The first of these, "Drömmar om rosor och eld" ("Dreams of Roses and Fire") (1949), is based on the trial for witchcraft of a priest in seventeenth-century France. The author follows the historical documents closely but makes explicitly the reservation that he is a man from the 1940's attempting to interpret distant events. Man himself changes little over the centuries, but his way of seeing himself inevitably differs. Eyvind Johnson lets his characters explain in their own words how they interpret events in terms of witchcraft, and he explains how he sees it in a post-Freudian age; in addition he interleaves his own account with the entries of a contemporary diarist…. "Drömmar om rosor och eld" has, as the title suggests, an intensity unusual in Eyvind Johnson's works. Its characters are consumed by the fires of love and hate, destroyed slowly or violently by the aphrodisiac perfume of roses. (pp. 117-19)

"Lägg undan solen" ("Put Away the Sun") (1951) is not at first sight a historical novel, for it is the account of a group of twentieth-century Europeans as they are tossed about in an age of war and revolution. But some of the characters are uneasily aware that they are merely repeating a sequence of events acted out in a slave revolt in Ancient Rome. Here Eyvind Johnson develops the important concept of simultaneity. For many years he had worked with the knowledge that an individual's past was, through memories, as real in his consciousness as his present. Now he extends the idea to include the historical past, for the twentieth-century intellectual is so well aware of his historical background that it forms an integral part of his present.

It is almost impossible, Eyvind Johnson writes in "Lägg undan solen", for an author to convey the simultaneous presence of different periods of time in a man's mind, for however he shuffles his pictures from the past and the present he can never really convey them simultaneously to his reader's consciousness. He attempts one solution in "Molnen över Metapontion" ("The Clouds over Metapontion") (1957), which is formed of two stories, one centred on a retelling of the retreat of Xenophon's "Anabasis", the other on an Italian journey in the 1950's. (pp. 119-20)

The organization of "Molnen över Metapontion" is tighter than some critics have supposed, for the characters and events of the two distinct stories are everywhere related, the characters in their fates and emotions, the events in their order and outcome. (p. 120)

Eyvind Johnson's next novel, "Hans nådes tid" ("His Grace's Days") (1960), proved to be his biggest critical success since "Strändernas svall". It is a complicated story of Charlemagne's Europe, compiled from the accounts of a number of real or imagined chroniclers, whose words have to be interpreted with due allowance for their political and personal discretion. Consequently, the novel demands careful reading, but it can also be enjoyed as a straight-forward love-story. (p. 121)

"Livsdagen lång" ("Life's Long Day") (1964) is the lyrical complement to the Carolingian epic—again the themes are love and tyranny. The novel is an expansion of the technique of "Molnen över Metapontion". Here one basic story is repeated in seven different periods of time. It begins when a young man and a girl meet but are parted; the man falls into a hunters' pit, which he shares with a bear; later he returns to the earth's surface to pursue the girl and relate his search, as a different lover in another country and another century. The elements of this story reappear in ingenious guises. The pit, which is in a sense the grave, may reappear as a dungeon or a hostelry, while the bear, a symbol of man's less noble instincts, may be a prison-warder or a servant. One story flows so easily into the next that the separate periods of time merge into one, the characters become contemporaries, and even their relative individualities are blurred—the prisoner and his warder exchange roles, are ultimately man. The literary form is intimately connected with the ideas that the young man expounds from his pit. Man's great enemy, he declares, is time, and man's great dream to be liberated from time…. To be freed from time is, he says, to be like the Rhine, where the past flows into the present and the present bears the past into the future—"a river where many ages flow abreast". An additional exemplification of the theme is provided by the narrative frame-work, for the narrator who tells his story to a group of friends in a succession of Roman restaurants is himself part of his hero's destiny. (pp. 122-23)

[As a character from "Life's Long Day"] studies himself in his mirror, he echoes Eyvind Johnson's thoughts from "Stad i ljus":

I do not know who I am. No man will ever come to know who he is … No man can rest in his past, no old man in his childhood, there is no one who can be fully sure of himself. But we can grasp the present and say: "This is what I am like now, at this moment."

Eyvind Johnson's works reveal his untiring attempts to meet the challenge in these words, to present an intelligible picture of a bewildering world to his fellow-men, and to build up a common defence against its insecurity and impermanence. (p. 123)

Gavin Orton, "Eyvind Johnson—An Introduction," in Scandinavica (copyright © 1966 by Academic Press Inc. (London) Limited; reprinted with permission), Vol. 5, No. 2, November, 1966, pp. 111-23.

As an evocation of that special time when a boy is neither a child nor a man, eager yet troubled, hopeful yet afraid, 1914 is remarkable. Nor is it easy to cite among Scandinavian novels familiar to this country a more telling picture of the darkness of life on the edge of the Arctic Circle where people picture the south of Sweden as a warm place where apples grow…. It is clear, even from this first volume of the tetralogy [Romanen om Olof], that Johnson is a major contemporary European writer.

"Northern Lights," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd (London) 1971; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 3602, March 12, 1971, p. 285.∗

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