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Introduction: Per Olov Enquist
Ross Shideler

This article appeared in the 2004 Supplement, which Ross Shideler guest edited.

Having been a dominant figure in Swedish literary and cultural life since the 1960s, one would think that Per Olov Enquist might sit back and rest in the glow of renown that his novels, short stories, journalism, essays, and plays have won for him. However, as he told me in a recent phone conversation, he gets restless when he is not writing. So this long-time columnist for the Swedish Expressen and the Danish Politiken, this author who has become one of Sweden’s most celebrated dramatists, continues to write novels that have won him acclaim throughout Europe and the United States. He doesn’t like to talk about them, but the awards for novels and dramas that he has won in Scandinavia include the Nordic Book prize (1969), The Aniara Prize (1976), The Dablovsky Prize from the Swedish Academy (1991), the H. C. Andersen Prize (1992), The Eyvind Johnson Prize (1994), The Ivar Lo Prize (1995), and The August Prize (1999) among others. In Europe he has received the Prix du Meilleur Livre Étranger (2001), the Deutsche Bücherpreis (2002), the Premio Flaiano and Super Flaiano (2002) the Premio Mondello (2002), and in England he won The Independent Foreign Fiction Prize (2002). As this remarkable list suggests, Enquist’s works have been translated into more than twenty different languages. Given his international standing and his unique position in Swedish literary and cultural life, we devote this Supplement of Swedish Book Review to Per Olov Enquist; we want to recognize, first, the range and depth of his contribution to modern Swedish literature, and, second, to celebrate this acclaimed author’s 70th birthday.

We have chosen in this Supplement [2004] to focus on Enquist’s fiction, and we have been fortunate enough to be able to offer the reader a selection of excerpts that range from some of his earliest fiction to his two latest novels. An essay by Boyd Tonkin, the Literary Editor of The Independent, serves as an introduction to Enquist. Tonkin discusses the award of the 2002 Independent Foreign Fiction Award for Livläkarens besök (The Visit of the Royal Physician – published in America as The Royal Physician’s Visit), and places Enquist in an international context, comparing him to some of the world's major contemporary authors. Since The Visit of the Royal Physician has been widely read in Europe and America, we decided that an excerpt from it was unnecessary. For readers who have not yet read the novel, we hope that Boyd Tonkin’s essay will serve as an inducement to read this exciting work.

We have also had the good fortune to have Tiina Nunnally write an essay about working with Enquist during the process of translating his most recent novels. Happily, she and Overlook Press have also generously agreed to allow us to print an excerpt from a translation that is still in progress, Enquist’s latest novel, Boken om Blanche och Marie (The Book about Blanche and Marie), which will not appear in English until 2005 or 2006. This will be an important literary event and, based on the excerpt we are printing, the novel promises to be one of Enquist’s most fascinating works. The novel is based on two historical personages: Marie Curie, the famous Polish scientist who was co-discoverer of radium, and Blanche Wittman, a patient in J. M. Charcot’s care at Salpêtrière hospital during his studies of women who supposedly suffered from hysteria. After Charcot died, Blanche worked as an assistant to Marie Curie. The two women became close after Marie’s love affair with the married Paul Langevin became public, and during the period in which Blanche underwent several amputations because of exposure to radiation.

Enquist told me that he came upon the topic of Blanche and Marie as he was doing research for his Strindberg – ett liv. A scene in that book deals with Charcot and that eventually led to this novel. As most of Enquist’s writing, Boken om Blanche och Marie has a tremendous amount of research behind it; in this case his daughter helped him, but usually he does his own research, then has specialists in the field read the manuscript.

Having begun the Supplement with Enquist’s latest novel, it seemed logical to structure this volume as a circle: after beginning with the most recent work, to turn back and follow his development through some of his early and mid-career fiction, then to finish with another of his late novels. One of the difficulties of putting together this Supplement was trying to assemble a selection of texts that had not been translated into English and that would provide insight into Enquist’s major themes and techniques. We believe the essays by Boyd Tonkin, Tiina Nunnally and Anna Paterson will enhance the reader’s understanding of Enquist’s sometimes complex and challenging work. My own short review of Enquist’s biography in this introduction will help readers understand the connections between these diverse selections. Boyd Tonkin mentions some of these details in his essay. However, a good deal of Enquist’s work combines the history and culture of the Northern Sweden in which he grew up with the philosophical and psychological themes that grew out of his childhood, so here are a few more details.

Per Olov Enquist was born in 1934 in the village of Hjoggböle in Northern Sweden. His father, Elof Enquist, a laborer who sometimes worked in the local sawmills and sometimes as a stevedore in shipyards miles from the family home, died when Per Olov was an infant. His mother, Maria Lindgren Enquist, a schoolteacher, raised him in this isolated, pious rural community where much of the family on both parents’ sides had lived for generations. Enquist grew up there and did not leave until he had finished high school. This Northern Swedish environment, with its strong evangelical influences, has turned out to be not only the background for much of Enquist’s fiction, but also the stimulus for his lifelong search for truth, a search that many of his characters and narratives exemplify. While the early emotional and financial hardships that Enquist experienced may have shaped his intellectual life, many of the philosophical problems and complex narrative structures that he has explored as a writer derive from or are related to the religious texts and debates to which he was exposed as a boy.

Enquist moved to Uppsala in 1955 and began his studies in literature at the university there. He completed his Filosofie Magister degree in 1960 and his Filosofie Licientat degree in 1966. During his years as a graduate student at Uppsala University, he began writing for Svenska Dagbladet and, remarkably, also completed his first two novels. His early novels reflect the influence of the French nouveau roman popular then, but they also anticipate the themes that will continue to wind through his fiction for the next forty years. A metafictional representation of the author and his connection to the events he describes occurs in many of Enquist’s novels and plays, as does the search for truth, and the ability to find and accept one’s emotional and intellectual identity. Deeply rooted in the social democratic history of Sweden, he has also played an active role as cultural critic and at times public gadfly. Related to this political consciousness are themes such as the temptation to withdraw from life and the necessity to participate actively in it.

All these themes are tempered by various self-conscious narrators probing the relation of the author to the text and the mediating role of language itself. Historical facts and events serve as a constant source of inspiration for Enquist, but even in his most documentary fiction, the act of writing or communicating helps to define or to limit his narrators. His first historical novel, Magnetisörens femte vinter (1964, The Magnetist’s Fifth Winter) established Enquist as an important young author. Offering multiple and often contradictory points of view, the novel depicts the rise and fall of a physician, Friedrich Meisner, whose powerful personality and ability to heal people bring him great power. Meisner is based on Anton Mesmer (1734-1815), the eighteenth century physician whose ‘Mesmerism’ used what he called animal magnetism (we would call it hypnotism) to cure people. This novel, among other things a commentary on the rise and fall of Hitler, intermixes historical documents and fiction. It established several of Enquist’s early themes and techniques, such as the relation between the individual and society, the connection between art and politics, and the use of history as a means of bringing a deeper perspective to our understanding of the present.

Hess (1966), an excerpt of which is included in this collection, is a stylistic tour de force that helped to lay the groundwork for many of Enquist’s later works, though it was too complex and demanding a novel to be popular with the general public. Based on the story of Rudolf Hess, the deputy of Hitler who parachuted into England during the second world war, and his adjutant Karl Pintsch, this novel's multiple narratives – there are three manuscripts being written in the novel – offer various versions of the relationship between author, text, reader, and society. Jan Stolpe interviewed Enquist about the book and he claimed that it deals first with a feeling.

You know – that feeling we all have sometimes that everything we say or do is not our own, that we as people are only quotations from our environment, that we are carried along by the merciless stream of history and reality... The complications arise when one tries to give that feeling an identity. I do not think it can be done within a conventional novel form. When the narrator on the last page says, “it must be a quotation,” he is talking about precisely that problem; he has tried to create a being who is a quotation and the revolt against that.

In one sense the novel is epic; it only depends on where one begins. I have used Hess’ adjutant Pintsch as an entrance, and then the novel becomes easier to grasp. You know Pintsch, the poor adjutant who was tortured by the Russians, who presumably first of all told the truth but the truth was not enough, so he was forced to fabricate truths in order to survive. It was from this little footnote of Hess literature that I went into the problem; I would put myself in Pintsch’s place; like him I would be forced to create stories about Hess; like him in desperation I would look for material to use; the stories would become more and more like dreams, hallucinations, with parts of my own reality mixed more and more into the dream: a series of dreams about my own situation. Not a novel about Hess, but a novel about my own time. Like the dreams in “A Thousand and One Nights” created in desperation in order to live. (Per Olov Enquist – A Critical Study, 44)

This quotation gives a key insight into much of Enquist’s writing; he places himself in the mind of his character and then lets that character make up his or her own stories. At the same time, however, Enquist the author is aware of himself imagining the characters and reminds the reader of his presence in the text. These reminders serve to reinforce the reader’s awareness of his/her own participation in the creation of the narratives that shape both the character’s life and the reader’s.

Enquist’s next novel, Legionärerna (1968, The Legionnaires) is a powerful documentary demonstration of the fluid and constant interaction between past and present, and between the individual and society. The Legionnaires won the Nordic Council’s Literary Prize. Based on the true story of 167 soldiers from Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia who surrendered and were imprisoned in Sweden at the end of the Second World War, the novel traces the events that led up to their deportation and tries to discover what happened to them afterwards. Many of these soldiers had been drafted into the German army and they surrendered to the Swedish military at the end of the war hoping to stay in Sweden. However, treaties signed at the end of the war required that all prisoners be repatriated, even though many of these soldiers believed they would be executed by the Soviets, and they desperately fought their deportation. It caused a great outcry in Sweden, but the government finally sent these ‘legionnaires’ back to their homelands. Enquist’s novel, written in the style of a doctoral dissertation, shows the narrator, a Swedish journalist similar to Enquist himself, exploring all the public records about the case and then traveling to the Baltic countries to discover what actually happened to the men. Controversial at the time of its publication, since the Soviets invaded Czechoslovakia in 1968, the novel seems sympathetic to the Russians and demonstrates that for the most part the soldiers were treated fairly. Yet the narrator’s long search for the truth finally eludes him, as he discovers that the objective reality, the truth, that he had hoped to uncover seems buried in the subjective experiences and narrative representations of all those who participated either directly or indirectly in the events portrayed.

The Legionnaires still makes fascinating reading, and it may well be considered Enquist’s international “breakthrough” novel. It was widely debated in Scandinavia and it is one of the first of his works to be translated into English as well as several other languages. Nevertheless, one of my own favorite Enquist novels is Sekonden (1971, “The Coach” or “The Second” – the title plays on the dual meaning of the word “second”, because it can be applied to the coach or “second” who sits in a boxer’s corner and also to a son, numerically, instead of “junior”.) Since this novel has not yet been translated, we are happy to be able to give our readers an excerpt from it.

Sekonden grew out of Enquist’s experiences as a journalist in Berlin in 1970 and sections of it are derived from articles that he wrote for Expressen . The novel covers the period from 1930 to 1960, but the primary plot takes place between 1968 and 1971. This was a period of tremendous upheaval in Europe and the USA, a time in which Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King were assassinated; the Vietnam War became a subject of bitter national and international controversy; students demonstrated against the French educational system on the streets of Paris, and the Russians invaded Prague, an event which shocked socialists throughout Europe. In this political novel, Enquist uses sports as a metaphor for larger political dogmas and institutions; by doing so, he offers insight into the premises and social and cultural affects of the not so “cold war”, while at the same time coming to terms with his own disappointment at the violent suppression by Russia of the Czech revolt.

Based on an actual person, a Swedish hammer thrower who used an underweight hammer to set new records, Sekonden is narrated from the point of view of a son who is trying to understand why his father cheated and disgraced not only himself but the sport he loved. Though the novel focuses on the story of the father and the son, it progresses through alternating descriptions of the history of sports and of Swedish politics. This technique of putting together a puzzle allows Enquist to create a unique narrative about sports. The puzzle technique serves to structure the entire novel allowing the author to delineate the father’s story, the narrator’s own troubled life, the family history in relation to sports, and finally a complex and poetic symbolic dimension that ultimately helps to combine each of the above narratives. Hans Christian Andersen’s story of the Snow Queen serves as a kind of epiphany in the novel through which the narrator comes to understand and to forgive his father; at the same time, he learns to accept himself and his own flaws, and, finally, to accept the flaws of socialism. This novel seems to have represented a turning point in Enquist’s writing for his later novels tend less often to use alter-egos or self-conscious narrators trying to resolve personal problems.

Enquist’s next major work of fiction is a collection of short stories, Berättelser från de inställda upprorens tid (1974, Stories from the Age of Cancelled Revolutions). Many of the stories are based on his visit to Los Angeles in 1973 as guest professor at UCLA. The short story we have included in this volume is a charming little example of Enquist’s ironic humor, and his ability to capture how a sense of adventure and hope turns into disappointment. The title of the volume refers to Enquist’s belief that the social revolutions that had begun in the 60s in America and Europe had somehow all been muted or cancelled. Many of the stories in this collection describe people in Germany and in America who once had hope for change, but lost it.

I knew Enquist well at this time and was with him during some of the events that became short stories in this collection. His fascination with individuals and his ability to see how those individuals reflected fundamental characteristics of the society in which they lived was always striking to experience. On the other hand, his ability to take events and lives around him and turn them into fiction was sometimes surprising-we all read everything he wrote in the 70s with a combination of excitement and terror of what representation we might see of ourselves or of others at UCLA. While I did not go with him on his trip to Nevada, details of my life slipped into one of his stories. My colleagues and I sometimes read articles that he wrote for Expressen which seemed distortions of what we thought he was experiencing in Los Angeles, yet his combination of political and psychological insight was unique and penetrating, if sometimes irritating.

In a 1979 interview, he told me that he was concerned with showing the invisible threads that guide people’s lives (POE, 107). “Conversation in Tonopah” may be an example of those invisible threads. It tells the sad but amusing story not only of an American who visits Sweden, but of a Sweden with heavy-handed government authorities and a big-brother attitude toward alcoholism that was unacceptable to an American, and perhaps distasteful to a Swedish journalist. Yet the American lived in a place that was like the end of the earth for the Swede, and Sweden, for the American, was just as bizarre and barren.

Enquist taught courses on Strindberg during his time at UCLA and from those courses grew Tribadernas natt (1975,The Night of the Tribades). I won’t discuss his plays in this essay, but it is important for the reader to know that Enquist is recognized as a major contemporary playwright. The Night of the Tribades was his first play and it is connected to his study of Strindberg while he was preparing to teach classes. Strindberg constitutes a giant shadow hanging over any Swedish writer, and Enquist decided to confront that figure by turning him into a character during a rehearsal of one of his own plays, The Stronger. Enquist’s feminist play within a play with its comic parody of the chauvinism common to Strindberg and the men around him was highly successful. I was fortunate enough to translate it for the American edition and he I had great fun deciding how shocking the swearing should be. At the time, the curse words and vulgar images we used were surprising, though they are commonplace on the stage nowadays. Translated into more than twenty languages, the play was performed throughout Europe and the U.S. In America, after a successful run at the McCarter Theater in Princeton, New Jersey, with a fine American cast, it went to Broadway for a brief run with Max von Sydow, Bibi Andersson and Eileen Atkins. Though that production received mixed reviews (we sat in the famous Sardis restaurant and waited for the reviews to come out), the play was named one of the ten best plays of 1977 by Time magazine; the revised edition, which came out after the Broadway production, is still in print and performed.

Enquist published seven more plays over the next eleven years, some of them were very successful and were produced throughout Scandinavia and Europe. From his experiences as a playwright and a director in the theater, he became involved in television and film, and this led to two major works: Strindberg: ett liv (1984, Strindberg: a life) and Hamsun – en filmberättelse (1996, Hamsun – story for film). Strindberg: A life is a “television novel”, and it is the manuscript of the six part television series that was shown on Swedish television in 1985. I’ll return to the Hamsun book because we have an essay by Anna Paterson about it as well as an excerpt from it.

From the perspective of this Supplement, however, the novels are what continue to establish Enquist as a great author. The Night of the Tribades contributed to his status as a pre-eminent figure in Scandinavian literature, and The Legionnaires had already established him as one of the leading documentary writers of Scandinavia, but Musikanternas uttåg (1978, The March of the Musicians) gave him a place in the tradition of Swedish historical novelists. From the 1930s working class authors such as Vilhelm Moberg, Ivar Lo-Johansson and Jan Fridegård to modern writers such as Sven Delblanc, Kerstin Ekman, Lars Ardelius, and Sara Lidman, Sweden has a powerful tradition of historical novelists.

In The March of the Musicians, Enquist brings all of his skills together in a meticulous depiction of life in Northern Sweden at the turn of the 20th century. Interestingly, this was not the novel he had intended to write. Originally, he was doing research on the Swedes who had emigrated to Brazil and he wrote hundreds of pages on that project. Finally, however, he decided it wasn’t working and turned to the source of the idea: the families in northern Sweden who had emigrated. Once again the novel builds on a puzzle-like structure related to the novel’s title, and though there is a narrator trying to understand why a group of Swedes emigrated to Brazil at the turn of the century, he is not a self-conscious narrator like those in “The Second” and The Legionnaires, but rather a spokesman. The story takes place between 1903 and 1910, but it is told by a writer named Enquist in the 1970s. The novel’s central characters are a labor organizer, named Johan Elmblad, and a young boy named Nicanor Markström. In 1903 Nicanor helps to capture Elmblad so that a group of loyal and pious sawmill-workers can scare him in order to stop him from trying to organize unions. Six years later, after those same workers have become even more downtrodden and oppressed, Nicanor writes to Elmblad asking him to return. When he returns he and Nicanor go on one short and unfortunate labor-organizing trip. Ultimately, the novel is about Nicanor and his family and the tragic events that shape their lives. Each of them is eventually lamed or driven to death or emigration; thus, Enquist’s novel must serve as the voice of those isolated and impoverished people who cannot speak for themselves.

This notion of speaking for others goes back in Enquist’s thinking as far as the quotation I cited earlier regarding Hess. While it is imperative to recognize that Enquist is first and foremost a writer of fiction (see Anna Paterson’s interview with him), history and the people in it obviously serve as a constant source of inspiration for him. The consistency with which Enquist has used history in his plays and novels has placed him in the vanguard of European “documentarist” authors, and in 1994 a conference was held in Cerisy-la-Salle, France that focused primarily on Enquist and the literary context of his writing. This intimate connection between fiction and history has been sustained in the years after The March of the Musicians.

There are a number of plays and novels between that novel and Hamsun – en filmberättelse (1996). Captain Nemos bibliotek (1991, Captain Nemo’s Library), for instance, represented a kind of personal rebirth for him, and its success, he feels, gave him his first true international recognition. However, given the necessary limitations of this introduction, let me turn finally to Anna Paterson’s introduction to Hamsun and the excerpt from it. By the time Enquist wrote this work in 1996, he was established as one of Sweden’s major living authors, and he was recognized as having a unique ability to write for theater, film and television. In Strindberg – ett liv he had followed in the tracks of filmmakers like Ingmar Bergman, whose scripts had been published as books. Similarly, he had a particular ability to write about major Scandinavian authors; one of his other major plays, Från regnormarnas liv – En familijetavla från 1856 (1981, From the lives of earthworms – a family portrait from 1856) is about Hans Christian Andersen. So when he added Hamsun to the list of Scandinavian authors whose lives he wanted to depict, it was not surprising. The results offer a fascinating and complex portrait of Hamsun and his wife. Anna Paterson’s essay and excerpt provide an insightful commentary on Enquist and on the book, so I will not attempt to add to what she has said.

The final translation that we offer is from Lewis resa, (Lewi’s Journey), a novel that has been commissioned by Overlook Press for publication in English, and they and Tiina Nunnally have agreed to let us print an excerpt from it. When I asked Enquist where this project came from, he talked about how deep Petrus Lewi’s influence is throughout Sweden, and how he had an indirect connection to it, as the novel itself reveals, through his mother. He was particularly happy that the Pentecostalists in Sweden were pleased with the book. There was a large public gathering where he discussed it with them and, though he himself is not particularly religious, this meeting and the interest in that book was a deeply satisfying experience.

The fact that after writing such a complex and voluminous work he could turn quickly to Boken om Blanche och Marie is a tribute to his creativity and energy. On a deeper level, however, what all the selections in the Supplement reveal is Enquist’s profound commitment to humanity, especially to those individuals, good or bad, who cannot speak for themselves and who deserve a voice. From his earlier novels to his most recent works, Enquist has tried to let his characters speak, so that we as readers might hear them and profit from their experiences.