Extract from a personal memoir of Göran Printz-Påhlson (3 March 1931 - 27 July 2006). Written in August 2006 and presented at the memorial event at Clare Hall, 2 June 2010.
This article appeared in the 2010:2 issue.
Göran combined shyness with conviviality, critical astuteness with a long-standing and even overgenerous tolerance, and a self-deprecating modesty with delight in the achievements of peers and contemporaries, both distant and close: for example Noam Chomsky and Raymond Williams. As a man of astute intellect who fitted well into many different contexts, spheres and traditions, both geographical and cultural, Göran never completely identified with any single one of them. His horizons entirely matched his unique and paradoxical personality. As a man with an insatiable gusto and curiosity, as an excellent practical linguist, and as a far-sighted theorist with a strong bent towards philosophy, linguistics and political theory, he was an unashamed cosmopolitan who excelled in thinking independently and out of the box. He was not only a dedicated socialist, but combined being a trans-Atlanticist and a Europeanist. In what passed for the literary-intellectual world of Cambridge of the 1960’s and 1970’s, with all its ineradicable insularity and prejudices and scarcely tolerable snootinesses, as a comparativist in literary studies several decades before it became fashionable to present oneself as such, Göran was insufficiently understood or appreciated, much to Cambridge’s loss. In a town of conventional individualists, he was perhaps regarded as a loner-of-loners. Perhaps even a sort of Lone Ranger? Yet I think that exile in England was somehow ‘good for’ Göran, and that, oddly enough, his most fertile and productive years as a mature writer were spent in Cambridge.
At the same time, Göran was rather typical of the Cambridge literary-intellectual establishment. He approved of the theory and practice of Empson, I. A. Richards and the poet W. S. Graham, especially as regards their multiple semantic layerings and self-conscious ironies and ambiguities. He appeared to have little time for neo-romantic or symbolist notions of poetry, which I personally think was a limitation on his own theory and practice. I do not think he was attracted by surrealism either, though I may be wrong. Of all the English-speaking poets who interested him, he was most strongly attracted to John Ashbery, whom he translated into Swedish in a brilliant and accomplished manner. His own poems, which are intellectually playful, linguistically dense, experimental, and sometimes uncompromisingly opaque, reflect these predilections. My impression is that he was intolerant of any view or interpretation, whether of the world, the human mind or literature, that smacked of the mystical or the religious, let alone the gnostic. He preferred a scholarly irony so light it was almost invisible, so that sometimes you could not tell if it was there or not, and a lightly debunking humour. ‘Rather English’, you might say. It is certain that he recognised the irrational, but I think he was frightened of its demonic power. There was a tendency to depression in him which suggested an intimate closeness to inner demons of his own and a lifelong struggle with them. But I am not yet sure to what extent - or how significantly - this surfaced directly into his work. I also wonder if his bouts of melancholic introversion and self-doubt prevented him from bringing projects to fulfilment.
Göran was immensely knowledgeable about many diverse things, from Woody Guthrie to rare malt whiskies. I benefited considerably from his expertise and connoisseurship in both these areas. As a teacher and friend, he had a gargantuan appetite for originality and was quick to recognise talent and to nurture it, and he had the gift of deep loyalty. In middle age, with his flowing white hair and beard, he looked like a splendidly distinguished Viking. At a Faculty drinks party at Sidgwick Avenue in the early 1970s, I remember a slightly inebriated Hugh MacDiarmid greeting Göran with the challenge: ‘Faither Christmas, I presume?’ That was the moment I met Göran. I feel glad and lucky to have been alive in his time.