Eyvind Johnson Gavin Orton - Essay

Gavin Orton

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

["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 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'...

(The entire section is 2825 words.)