The Nobelist for Literature: A Pleasure Unknown to Americans

  • Share
  • Read Later
Maja Suslin / Scanpix / Reuters

Swedish poet Tomas Tranströmer at his home in Stockholm on Oct. 6, 2011, the day he won the Nobel Prize for Literature

Every year the London-based gambling company Ladbrokes sets odds for customers who want to bet on the next winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature. The list often features a litany of unlikely (at least to American ears) names like Ngugi wa Thiong'o (A Kenyan writer who has not been awarded the prize) and Gao Xingjian (the Chinese Nobel Laureate who won in 2000). There are also familiar names on the list like Alice Munro and Philip Roth. This year was a little different. Music legend Bob Dylan was Ladbrokes' favorite (five-to-one) beating out Syrian poet Adunis (six-to-one) and this year's recipient of the Nobel Prize in Literature, Swedish poet Tomas Tranströmer, who was an outlier at ten-to-one odds.

A perennial also-ran on the Ladbrokes' list, Tranströmer is the author of 15 collections of poetry and a memoir entitled Memory Looks at Me. The Nobel Committee's announcement was greeted by thunderous applause from reporters assembled in Stockholm, Tranströmer's hometown. The Nobel Committee cited Transtroemer's work for the way it created "condensed, translucent images" that "gives us fresh access to reality."

Although he suffered a stroke in 1990 that left him partially paralyzed and unable to speak, Tranströmer has continued to write poetry and play piano, including pieces composed for left hand specifically for him. His most recent volume of poetry entitled The Great Enigma was published in 2004.

Tranströmer's fame outside of the United States comes in part from his own ardent support of poetry in translation. He has worked with writers from around the world. This year's six-to-one favorite, Adunis, played an important role in the spread of Tranströmer's work in the Arab world as did the American author and activist Robert Bly in the United States. Bly met Tranströmer in the 50s, and he has translated Tranströmer's work since that time. Tranströmer's travels as a literary ambassador before his stroke took him to the Americas, Chad and famously India, where he was part of a group that visited Bhopal immediately after the Union Carbide gas tragedy in 1984.

I was 23 years old when I met Tranströmer, the same age he was when his first volume of poems 17 Poems put him on the literary map in Sweden. I lived in Stockholm, and was on leave from Oxford University where I studied English romantic poetry and was writing a heady thesis about the Sublime. I first came across Tranströmer's work by way of a Christmas present from my then girlfriend. The mass-market paperback was in Swedish, a language I barely understood, and yet the poetry streamed up from the ground pulpwood and through my primitive grasp of the language "like it was written on my soul" as this year's also-ran Bob Dylan once wrote. For me, Tranströmer's music of the soul existed above and beyond the language that carried it. The poems dazzled. Tranströmer became an enthusiasm.

The cover art of that first Tranströmer book was abstract; it was rainbow-colored and suggested a Rorschach test. I remember it because it was such a good advertisement for the work between those covers. Tranströmer's great gift is the way he transforms a common detail, from nature or the poet's immediate surroundings, through keen observation and simple description, while suggesting more abstract thoughts and feelings, conjuring memories deeply personal but also universal. A psychologist by training, Tranströmer naturally finds the human gestalt and deep resonances lurking just below the surface in the shape of things "out there."

My poets back then were William Wordsworth, Seamus Heaney and Yves Bonnefoy with grace notes supplied by rougher characters like Rimbaud. I saw a direct line back to Wordsworth in Tranströmer, and the work found resonances in many poets in the European tradition as well. It was deeply modernist, with allusions to music and art and other works of literature. It was self-conscious yet transcending the personal always. The experience of nature and the close observation of it yielded a limitless source of information about our place in the world and its expression through words that were constantly pushing against the limitation of those words, which was more or less my understanding of how the Sublime manifested itself in literature. Perhaps it was this understanding of the limits of language that made the work so accessible, the poet knowing that language could not do the job of the artist and so only using language as a passable vessel to convey essential information.

I wrote poetry back then, and had just had a piece included in an anthology that was edited by another Nobel Prize hopeful, Seamus Heaney, who won the Nobel Prize in Literature three years later. I was convinced Tomas would be next, and I wanted to meet him. I asked around (Stockholm is a small place), and it was all figured out in no time.

I met Horace Engdahl in Gamla Stan, or Old Town. This was a few years before he was named Permanent Secretary of the Swedish Academy, which awards the Nobel for literature. It was early fall, and we sat outside at a cafe overlooking the lock between Lake Maelaren and the Baltic Sea. It's a beautiful, busy place. At the time, Engdahl sat on Kulturradet for dance, and I was meeting with him to see if there was any way to get him interested in my girlfriend's choreography (it was grant-writing season). Along the way I told him of my own interests as an academic and a writer. He too was a Romanticist and was interested in poetry and we were soon talking about Tranströmer, who he insisted could never get the Nobel Prize. It wasn't personal animus. There had been a bit of an international dust-up around the last Swedes to get it, Eyvind Johnsson and Harry Martinson, who won the prize back in 1974 against the backdrop of detractors who screamed foul. Engdahl encouraged me to contact Tomas, and gave me the way to do that. It was that simple.

That next summer, after a few letters and a phone call with Tomas's wife Monica, my girlfriend and I were on a ferry to Runmaroe in the Stockholm archipelago where the poet spends his summers. We had a lunch of herring in cream sauce called Jansson's Temptation and then a walk in the woods to a giant ice-age boulder in the woods, which I scaled quickly, which seemed to please Tranströmer. And then we left. I saw him once more at a festival on another island off the coast of Sweden. Since then our communication has been by regular mail. Every once in a while I would say something about the prize in a letter, and the response would be a convincing sense that it would never happen.

Regardless, every year since I have waited with bated breath and every year the prize has gone to someone unexpected. I suspect many people had the same reaction to this year's recipient of the Nobel Prize in Literature, most of all Tomas.

A footnote about Engdahl. He held the position at the Swedish Academy until 2008 when he relinquished the post after making comments about the United States literary scene which he characterized as being "too insular and ignorant to challenge Europe as the center of the literary world." Those were fighting words. But I am certain he too is pleased for Tomas.