As I’m writing this, I’m just about to set out on my annual trek to Sweden: off to see family, do as little as possible, and hopefully read a whole heck of a lot. To mark the occasion, I’m recommending 5 Swedish literary classics that are well worth reading: they are 5 of my personal favourites, and all available in English translations.
The Brothers Lionheart, by Astrid Lindgren
Astrid Lindgren is considered a national treasure in Sweden. Her books are read and loved by people by everyone: they’ve been turned into plays and films and TV-shows. Abroad, she is probably best known for her books about Pippi Longstocking, but my own favourite book by Lindgren is The Brothers Lionheart. It is a fantasy with a whole lot of sorrow and sadness contained in it: after all, it begins by two brothers dying and ending up in another country, Nangiyala, after death. While Nangiyala is something of a paradise, it is also under threat and the brothers have to fight a cruel tyrant and a monstrous dragon. To quote author Lloyd Alexander:
The Brothers Lionheart is a remarkable book. Astrid Lindgren surely gains new stature in a probing world far removed from Pippi Longstocking — this one is far deeper, and more demanding of courage, than any of Lindgren’s previous works. Even on a surface level, the story must be her most unusual and unexpected; but what sticks in the mind are the endlessly fascinating questions she raises. Lindgren is speculating not only on the human situation but on the very nature of what may or may nor lie very darkly beyond it. It may be unsettling, but that’s exactly as it should be.
Barabbas, by Pär Lagerkvist
This gripping and powerful book, one of Swedish author Pär Lagerkvist’s best works, is the story of Barabbas, the man who was set free instead of Jesus of Nazareth. It was first published in 1950, but it has lost none of its power over the years. It’s a taut and searingly told story, without the soft edges of faith, forgiveness and redemption that you might expect: Lagerkvist’s Barabbas is a man trapped in a darkness and emptiness he is unable to escape. Lagerkvist went on to win the Nobel Prize in literature in 1951, and he has written many other great books as well: for example, The Dwarf, published in 1958, is another unforgettable novel.
The Forest of Hours, by Kerstin Ekman
Kerstin Ekman is one of my favourite Swedish writers: her stories are often strange and haunting, and her language is singularly evocative and beautifully crafted. The Forest of Hours is one of her best. I won’t even attempt to describe it, I will just post the official synopsis:
This novel begins in the Middle Ages when Skord, a magical being who is neither man nor animal, finds himself in a forest with no memory, no past and no language. As he observes the behaviour of the human beings he meets in the forest, he begins to gradually understand human civilization and learn their language. Although he can pose as one of them, he is also able to assume the form of animals and cause things to happen simply by willing them. Skord survives for five hundred years and lives many different lives but, despite his learning, he finds it difficult to resist the call of the forest and returns there periodically to rejoin the band of forest outlaws who live outside human society.
The Saga of Gösta Berling, by Selma Lagerlöf
Selma Lagerlöf is one of those writers that is considered part of the national heritage in Sweden. Her face adorns the 50 kronor bill, and her books are still widely known and read, almost a century after her death. Gösta Berling’s Saga was her first novel, it was published in 1891, and turned into a silent movie in 1924, starring Greta Garbo. Yes, that Greta Garbo! Gösta Berling’s Saga is a sprawling, massive, romantic, dramatic, tragic, and compelling piece of literature. If you enjoy the works of writers like Dumas and Victor Hugo, this “sweeping historical epic” should be right up your alley. (I know I love it!) There’s an alcoholic, disgraced priest, beautiful women, doomed romance, depictions of Swedish aristocracy and small-town life, and lots of drama of every kind. It is, quite simply, a cracking good read.
Kallocain, by Karin Boye
Published in 1940, Karin Boye’s dystopian novel Kallocain is a novel that fits in with other dark visions of the future like Aldous Huxley’s A Brave New World and George Orwell’s 1984. Like Orwell, Boye was reacting to what she saw of terror and tyranny in the world around her. It was partly inspired by her visit to the Soviet Union in 1928, and a later visit to Germany during the rise of the Nazis. The book is a nightmarish, bleak tale of life in a future society where a drug, kallocain, is used to ensure that citizen’s remain subservient to the state. It’s a chilling and dark story, and definitely influenced by the horrors Boye saw all around her. Boye was also a celebrated poet, and her poetry is well worth reading too: her Complete Poems are available in English translation by David McDuff.