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What the Swedes Read: Harry Martinson and Eyvind Johnson

by Daniel Handler
Illustration by Charles Burns

What the Swedes Read: Harry Martinson and Eyvind Johnson

Daniel Handler
16 Snaps
  • LAUREATES: Harry Martinson and Eyvind Johnson (1974, Sweden)
  • BOOKS READ: Martinson, Views from a Tuft of Grass (translated by Lars Nordström and Erland Anderson); Johnson, The Days of His Grace (translated by Elspeth Harley Schubert)

Ladies and gentlemen, we have a tie! That’s probably not how they announced it back in October of 1974. A tie is not even the proper term for the rare occasions when the Nobel Prize in Literature’s gone to two people at once. Sharing the honor is the phrase that seems to crop up, and these shared honors look like political moves—when the prize is going to a country that the Nobel committee might not get back to in a while. (The novelist António Lobo Antunes, for example, was reportedly heartbroken when the Nobel went to José Saramago, because he knew they weren’t going to give it to Portugal again in his lifetime.) Still, there’s something about a shared prize that feels slighting, the A-minus of literary glory. I picture scenes like this:

EYVIND JOHNSON: Frans Eemil Sillanpää! Hey, dude! We’re both Nobel Prize winners. Cool, huh? Let’s party!

FRANS EEMIL SILLANPÄÄ: Hell yeah—wait, didn’t you share the prize? Give me that beer back!

But it’s not just the imaginary humiliations. There’s just something off-putting about deciding that two bodies of work are of exactly equal merit. I’m all for the notion that literature is such a varied seascape that it’s impossible to get your bearings, let alone arrange things in order; and I’m comfortable with the idea that, of course, some writers are better than others. But once the scorekeeping gets specific, it just feels wrong. What’s better, Guernica or Citizen Kane? The Velvet Underground and Nico or really good Mexican food? The Great Gatsby or your best friend in high school? These are ridiculous questions, and the fairest answer—ladies and gentlemen, it’s a tie!—somehow muddies all the contestants, even the enchiladas.

The Swedes feel differently, though. The presentation speech lays out a “cut-out silhouette of two remarkable literary profiles,” drawing parallels between two writers whose work is not very similar, but whose lives curiously are. Both ­Eyvind Johnson and Harry Martinson come from hardscrabble backgrounds and emerged as unlikely, startling literary figures. “They are representative,” the speech tells us, “of the many proletarian writers or working-class poets who, on a wide front, broke into our literature, not to ravage and plunder, but to enrich it with their fortunes. Their arrival meant an influx of experience and creative energy, the value of which can hardly be exaggerated.”

Well, first of all, everything can be exaggerated, so calm down a little, Karl Ragnar Gierow. But also there’s a tone here that doesn’t sit well with me. Certainly the literary world has a tendency to calcify—the people who have enough time to write books tend to be from the ­upper classes, so literature’s concerns and perspectives invariably get narrow without new blood. But those sidebar reassurances that working-class poets aren’t here to ravage and plunder seem nervous and uptight, and not really reassuring to boot. It seems to me that we want a little ravagement and plunder in our literary traditions. Why else would we welcome a stirring new voice, if it didn’t stir us up a little? And if it doesn’t stir us up, is it really a new voice, even if it comes from a place most of us haven’t visited? “To determine an author and his work against the background of his social origin and political environment is, at present, good form,” the speech continues, and that’s OK as far as it goes. But if you’re going to decide that two authors are tied for literary merit, surely we can find some criterion besides their socioeconomic origin stories.

Therefore, as I read these two books, I decided to be much more exacting in my evaluation process than my usual experiential woolgathering, and I tallied up a few figures, in categories that seem equally obvious and problematic as the authors’ humble beginnings.

FIRST CATEGORY: Genre of work

Eyvind Johnson’s The Days of His Grace is a historical novel, chronicling the lives of an extended family at the time of Charlemagne’s tumultuous reign. A sweeping saga always runs the risk of being too sweeping, but the novel’s only three hundred-something pages. Out of a possible ten points for literary genre, I give the not-overlong historical novel a seven.

Harry Martinson’s Views from a Tuft of Grass is a collection of short essays, mostly on the natural world. I give this a three.

SECOND CATEGORY: Title of work

The Days of His Grace has an ironic tinge—Charlemagne’s not a man of much grace—but still, a dull title. I give this a five.

Views from a Tuft Of Grass—a little twee, but also charming. Definitely no other book has been called this. Let’s say seven.

THIRD CATEGORY: Tone of work

The Days of His Grace: Grandiose, shadowy, fraught. Representative passage: “She turned quickly to the other and met his eyes, feeling a sudden fear of unwillingness—as though he were peering at her through the crack in the door, or through a keyhole. He’s trying to get at me through my eyes, she thought.” As far as one can grasp, given a translation that feels a little stumbly, I give this tone a seven.

Views from a Tuft of Grass: Deadpan, exacting, discursive. Representative passage: “In our time hope must be manufactured. It is no longer available ready-made. Especially in that prolonging of winter which the Nordic spring has increasingly become, pain intrudes with a more damaging effect on the mind than during the summer.” Five.

FOURTH CATEGORY: Theme of work

The Days of His Grace: Life was hard under the reign of Charlemagne. One must retain one’s personal integrity during hard times. As far as a theme that surprises the reader and serves as a platform for further contemplation, I give this
a three.

Views from a Tuft of Grass: The modern world is at odds with nature. You don’t say. Two.

FIFTH CATEGORY: Ability of work to mesmerize the reader, particularly on public transportation, where these books were largely read

The Days of His Grace: Soap opera of a plot, enlivened by some fiery dialogue, but slowed by too much landscape description. Five.

Views from a Tuft of Grass: Short essays, enlivened by the occasional wacky aside—“The builders of perpetual motion machines seem almost extinct; there were many more letters from them just seven or eight years ago”—but slowed by heady bouts of abstraction. Six.

SIXTH CATEGORY: Level of reader satisfaction upon completion of work

The Days of His Grace: A mighty ending, like a long Russian book. Seven.

Views from a Tuft of Grass: That’s a nice poem he closed with. Six.

SEVENTH CATEGORY: Packaging of these particular editions (n.b.: This is a particularly unfair category.)

The Days of His Grace: Hardcover by Vanguard Press. Looks like the sort of book you find in a rental cabin and never, ever read. Three.

Views from a Tuft of Grass: Green Integer paperback. These always look smart and swell. Eight.

EIGHTH CATEGORY: Class origin of author

I’ll let Sweden handle this. Both authors apparently get a ten.

And there you have it. It’s a crude way of evaluating literature, of course, but it doesn’t seem much cruder than the methodology used by the people who chose these two
authors in the first place.
And which author is better, you ask? Well, let’s see, seven plus five, another seven, carry the one—hey!
Ladies and gentlemen, we have a tie! 

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