Torgny Lindgren is one of Sweden’s best-known and most admired novelists. The whole of human existence that emerges as his stories unfold makes you feel that life’s mysteries are perhaps graspable. He attributes this largely to his childhood years spent in a rural part of northern Sweden.
For Torgny Lindgren, writing is a constant source of joy. Photo: Ulla Montan/Norstedts
A mountain close by, a lake and blue mountain crests stretching away into the distance was the setting in which Lindgren grew up in the northern Swedish province of Västerbotten.
“When I was young, I thought that if the snow was good for skiing, all you had to do was get on your skis and glide down to southern Sweden,” Lindgren recalls. “That’s how it felt — everything sloped downwards.”
Lindgren is speaking over a cup of coffee on a wintry day in Paris, where he is due to lecture at La Sorbonne and at the Swedish Institute in Paris (Centre Culturel Suédois). While his horizons have broadened considerably since he strapped on his skis as a young boy, his childhood environment remains an important element in his literary universe. He tries, however, to avoid giving nature and the landscape too prominent a place in his books.
“In fact, I suppose my novels contain a lot more philosophy and theology,” he says. “But I try to hide them in some sort of landscape.”
Relief from boredom
Lindgren’s breakthrough came in 1982 with The Way of the Serpent (Ormens väg på Hälleberget). Altogether, his books have been translated into 30 languages, and since 1991 he has been a member of the illustrious Swedish Academy. He has also won numerous prizes for his novels, including Sweden’s premier book award, Augustpriset, and the French Prix Femina.
Torgny Lindgren speaks in front of a captive audience at the Swedish Institute in Paris. Photo: Vinciane Verguethen
Lindgren tends to move literary embellishments and trappings to the sidelines and get to the heart of the matter quickly and effectively.
“Long, winding descriptions of how the water drips from the branches and the sun lights up the cobwebs in the bushes — that kind of thing’s absolutely unbearable!” he exclaims, managing to look both disgusted and amused.
In his own literary landscape, through a veneer of dirty washing, shabby cottages and discussions on the state of the snow, you glimpse the deeper issues — life and death, love and hate, deceit and forgiveness. You’d think a novelist would require great courage to confront such existential matters so openly and starkly, but Lindgren shakes his head at the suggestion and laughs.
“No, it has nothing to do with courage,” he says. “If I only concerned myself with everyday events and trivialities, I’d be bored to death, I’d go out and find something else to do if I had to write that kind of stuff.” His tone is earnest but he cannot help smiling slightly.
A typical aspect of Lindgren’s imaginary world is his singular conception of time. Events interweave seamlessly, or shift from one book to the next.
“My conception of time is not linear, I tend to mix times up,” he says. “Also, many of my books are based on a specific year, 1948.” It was a year of great personal importance to Lindgren, who was ill with tuberculosis at the time and not expected to live.
“I’ve realized afterwards that 1948 was a turning point in my life. It was the year life decided to keep me. It was also the year in which my wonderful grandmother died. She’d been able to explain absolutely everything in the world to me through her stories.”
A literary smile
In his own stories, where the present and infinity are in perpetual symbiosis, the most difficult questions of life sometimes seems explicable, and you find yourself wondering if perhaps he has understood the very meaning of life.
He goes quiet, then takes a sip of coffee and puts down his cup before replying.
The vast wilderness and peasant culture of northern Sweden has left a clear mark on the writings of Torgny Lindgren. Photo: Staffan Widstrand
“I think my early years had an influence in this respect. In the place where I grew up, in that peasant culture, the big existential issues were always a topic. You could talk about them in everyday conversation.
“In today’s urban culture, I think people are ashamed to discuss what we like to call the eternal questions of life. Which is a pity, since discussing God and the Devil, evil and death is great fun.”
This is precisely what shines through in Lindgren’s work. Even when the protagonist is human existence itself, neither more nor less, the tone seems unassuming and humor is never far away.
“I enjoy myself immensely when I’m writing,” he says. “I think there should be something of a smile, a streak of humor, in all literature. If it’s not there, I miss it tremendously.”
Torun Börtz is a Swedish freelance journalist. Living in Paris, she also spends time in an old house in Skåne in the south of Sweden. She writes about French society and about French and Swedish literature.
The author alone is responsible for the opinions expressed in this article.
Translation by Stephen Croall
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