World Literature

Gunnar Ekelöf

 

BORN: 1907, Stockholm, Sweden

DIED: 1968, Sigtuna, Sweden

NATIONALITY: Swedish

GENRE: Poetry, fiction, nonfiction

MAJOR WORKS:

Late Arrival on Earth (1932)

Sorrow and the Star (1936)

Buy the Blind Man’s Song (1938)

Ferry Song (1941)

In the Autumn (1951)

A Molna Elegy (1960)

 

 

Gunnar Ekelöf. Das Fotoarchiv

 

Overview

Gunnar Ekelöf is often described as the most important poet of modern Swedish literature. His poetry is regarded as innovative in form and technique, especially in its adaptation of musical forms to verse. Some believe Eke- lof’s poetry will have a lasting place in the history of literature because of its originality and its relevancy to the problems of the modern age.

 

Works in Biographical and Historical Context

Privileged but Difficult Beginnings. On the surface at least, Bengt Gunnar Ekelöf’s childhood was privileged. He was born in Stockholm on September 15, 1907. Ekelöf’s mother, Valborg, nee von Hardenberg, belonged to a solid, upper-class family dating back five generations. His father, Gerhard Ekelöf, was from an extremely poor background with roots in the southern Swedish province of Smaland. Gerhard Ekelöf had come to Stockholm as a trained typographer but made a brilliant career for himself as a stockbroker. By the first few years of the twentieth century, he had become a multimillionaire.

Below the surface of upper-class wealth and privilege, however, Ekelöf’s family home was marked by conflicts. Ekelöf’s father was the indulgent parent, generous with his son, while his mother felt called upon to play the authoritarian role and to be the disciplinarian. Young Ekelöf seems to have been strongly attached to his father while his relationship with his mother was ambivalent from the outset.

Family Illness and Schooling Abroad. Valborg Ekelöf was more interested in traveling, staying in fashionable places, and pursuing her affairs with men than in ensuring a suitable environment for her sensitive and emotionally demanding only child. As a result, young Ekelöf spent a good deal of his childhood in private schools or under the tutelage of adult relatives. This lack of mothering and his accompanying sense of homelessness can explain why the motif of the Virgin Mary (the mother of Jesus Christ) came to play such an important part in Ekelöf’s work.

In 1910, Gerhard Ekelöf revealed that he had contracted syphilis through contact with a prostitute in the 1890s. This revelation led to open conflict with his wife, from whom he had withheld the information. The sexually transmitted disease had no cure until 1911 when Salvarsan came on the market, so it progressed in him and by 1913 had reached its advanced stages of total paralysis. Ekelöf describes the progressive debilitation of his father and the eerie atmosphere of his childhood home in the moving autobiographical essay ‘‘A Photograph,’’ first published in Bonniers Litterara Magasin in 1956.

At school in Stockholm, Ekelöf received the traditional European classical education, with studies in Greek, Latin, and modern languages, but there were few signs of his future brilliance as an artist. He was, however, able to read Greek and Latin writers in their original languages and was a competent translator of writers as difficult as Sappho and Petronius. He used these skills to write book-length satires of the literary establishment and Western Christian culture as a student.

Worldly Studies. After completing his school-leaving certificate by the narrowest of margins, Ekelöf went to London in 1926 to study Persian and Hindustani, but he returned shortly thereafter to Uppsala, Sweden, where he unsuccessfully continued formal Oriental studies. The years following Ekelöf’s graduation from the gymnasium were marked by uncertainty, emotional crises, and general aimlessness. He spent the next few years wandering around Europe, playing the dandy, dreaming of owning a coffee plantation in Kenya, and speculating on the unstable stock market with his inheritance. His important but troubled sojourn in Paris in 1929 and 1930, supposedly to study music and become a classical pianist, was a time of inner chaos, alcohol abuse, and suicidal urges. There, however, he came in contact with French modernism and began composing drafts of Late Arrival on Earth.

Ekelöf lost his inheritance in the so-called Kreuger crash of the early 1930s. By this time period, the world economy was suffering as the Great Depression took hold in the United States and spread to the rest of the world. The Kreuger crash was the Swedish equivalent of the Wall Street crash in the United States, as wealthy industrialist Ivar Kreuger committed fraud to secure massive bank loans later discovered by the Swedish government around the time Kreuger committed suicide. This financial situation forced Ekelöf to come to grips with the problem of economic survival in a Europe that was slowly moving toward the brink of economic and social collapse in the post-World War I period.

Return to Sweden. Ekelöf’s return to Sweden in 1930 marked the last time he seriously thought of escape from there forever, although all his life he harbored a love-hate relationship for his homeland. A disastrous impulsive marriage to Gunnel Bergstrom in 1932 ended quickly and unhappily when his wife left him for the writer Karin Boye. Ekelöf’s pioneering early poetry collection Late Arrival on Earth was published that same year and was the fruit of the author’s Paris stay. It brought him in contact with the currents of European modernism (an early to mid-twentieth-century literary movement that represented a self-conscious break with traditional forms and subject matter and a search for a distinctly contemporary mode of expression). However, in the retrospective assessment of his writing, Ekelöf refers to Late Arrival as a one expressive of his youthful, morose state of mind at the time. Late Arrival was, however, something so new and revolutionary, at least in the Swedish context, that it continues to fascinate readers. Throughout his literary life Ekelöf constantly returned to the original manuscripts to gain new ideas and impulses for later works.

Personal Poetic Breakthrough. Ekelöfs next two collections, Sorrow and the Star (1936) and Buy the Blind Man’s Song (1938), were favorably reviewed despite the conservatism of critics of the time. But his next work, Ferry Song (1941), was regarded by critics and Ekelöf himself as his personal breakthrough. Ekelöf created these works as World War II raged in much of Europe as many countries, including Great Britain, fought to contain the territorial aspirations of Nazi Germany, led by Adolf Hitler. Sweden was officially neutral, but because of its proximity to other Scandinavian countries such as Norway, which became controlled by Germany, it played a role in the conflict. Sweden both served as a haven for refugees from the Nazis and allowed Germany to transport troops through its territory to Nazi-controlled Norway.

Continuing to write in the post-war period, Ekelöf looked to the avant-garde. Following the success of Ferry Song, the long poem ‘‘Voices from Underground’’ from the 1951 collection In the Autumn became Ekelöfs most successful and best-known attempt to describe poetically a passage into the world of dreams—and, incidentally, into the world of surrealism. Surrealism was an early twentieth-century movement of art and literature that explored the subconscious and often featured dreamlike, if not illogical, juxtapositions of imagery.

New Travels, New Genres. Ekelöfs ‘‘anti-poet’’ phase is represented by his next three collections. In these works, Ekelöf expanded his genres to fables, word-juggling nonsense verse, parodies, grotesques, dream accounts, and travel poems based on his frequent visits to Italy. During this period, Ekelöf also developed his notion of ‘‘poetry in things,’’ a term that he borrowed from his compatriot Carl Jonas Love Almqvist, who emphasized the increasing value of concrete things and the decreasing value of words.

The Twenty-Three-Year Opus. In 1960, Ekelöf published A Molna Elegy—a work that has since been called the most advanced experiment in the use of the ‘‘quotation-allusion’’ technique in Swedish literature. Given the fact that A Molna Elegy was a work in progress over some twenty-three years, it is hardly surprising that the published version came as an anticlimax to many critics, some of whom had developed excessive expectations about the poem.

Inspiration in Istanbul. Ekelöf regarded himself as a poet in the style of Paul Valery, a diligent worker in the habit of producing sometimes fifty to one hundred drafts of a poem. Furthermore, in his essay ‘‘From a Poet’s Workshop’’ (1951), he expresses great skepticism about the reality of so-called poetic inspiration, even in the case of such improvisational geniuses as his fellow countryman, eighteenth-century poet and songwriter Carl Michael Bellman. The wave of poetic inspiration that came over Ekelöf in a hotel room in Istanbul in 1965 and out of which grew the trilogy Diwan over the Prince of Emgion (1965), The Tale of Fatumeh (1966), and Guide to the Underworld (1967) must therefore have been all the more surprising to the author himself.

Final Serious Illness. In 1967, after a series of illnesses but no successful diagnosis, Ekelöf was finally discovered to be suffering from cancer of the esophagus. He died at his home in Sigtuna on March 16, 1968. In A Molna Elegy, Ekelöf had written: ‘‘No, let me be cast into the sea / without cannonball, without banner / slowly disintegrate integrate / No, just be burnt to ashes / and cast into the sea.’’ In 1965 Gunnar and Ingrid Ekelöf had visited the ancient city of Sardis in Turkey and walked along the river Paktolos. Ekelöfs ashes were strewn over the waters of the Paktolos.

 

LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES

Ekelöfs famous contemporaries include:

Josephine Baker (1906-1975): African American expatriate dancer and singer who became an international celebrity and is regarded as the first African American woman to star in a major motion picture.

Simone de Beauvoir (1908-1986): French author and metaphysical philosopher, she laid the foundations for early feminism with her writing.

Rachel Carson (1907-1964): American marine biologist, environmentalist, naturalist, and science writer whose work Silent Spring (1962) was instrumental in the advent of global environmentalism.

Zora Neale Hurston (1903-1960): African American writer and folklorist who paved the way during the Harlem Renaissance for future African American women writers.

Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980): French philosopher, writer, and critic who is often attributed with pioneering modern existentialism.

 

COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE

Ekelöfs involvement with surrealist, dreamlike poetry had a profound impact on Swedish literature. Here are a few works by writers who have also influenced literature with similar efforts:

The Automatic Message (1933) by Andre Breton. In this important nonfiction treatise, the author discusses automatism (automatic writing) in the context of surrealism.

Blood and Guts in High School (1984) by Kathy Acker. This popular novel—one of the author's best-selling works—is representative of the modern experimental novel.

Last Nights of Paris (1929) by Philippe Soupault. This short surrealist novel features a protagonist obsessed with a woman who takes him deep into the underworld of Paris in the 1920s.

Djinn (1981) by Alain Robbe-Grillet. Using the form of the detective novel, as well as many liberties in regard to point of view, Robbe-Grillet creates a surrealist adventure featuring the character Simon Lecoeur and his vivacious love interest, Djinn.

 

Works in Literary Context

Influence on Style. Ekelöfs work, both difficult and demanding, reflects the influences of the mystical poetry of Persia and the Orient, Taoist and Indian mysticism, and movements of French Symbolism (where individual elements take on primary significance) and surrealism (where strange, dreamlike qualities characterize the images). Dedication, for example, reflects the influence of French Symbolism in that the author portrays himself as an interpreter, or ‘‘seer,’’ one whose vision and insight extends beyond the perimeters of surface reality. This poetry collection shows the author groping in symbols toward the truth he believes lies beyond reality. Ferry Song shows the influence of Symbolism and romanticism in its style. Ekelöf attempts to reconcile the ideal and the real. He examines the natures of both self and reality and questions whether traditional ideas about self and reality are valid.

Struggles between Ideal and Real, Good and Evil. In his examination of the ideal and real, Ekelöf comes to a certain conclusion. He finds that we live in a world where the forms of reality come solely from the compulsions of persons caught in the suffocating battle between good and evil. For him, there are the moralists, who help to perpetuate the good/evil system, who take sides and create forms and structures to aid their cause. There are also the uncommitted, who recognize but refuse to participate in the war between good and evil. By withdrawing from the struggle that structures all cultures and societies, however, the uncommitted must pay the price of complete isolation.

This kind of modern argument challenges readers to abandon their conventional perceptions of both poetry and reality. As is true of the work of the surrealists, Ekelöfs poetry also urges readers to explore the role of their subconscious (that part of the mind that dreams, for example) in their thinking. In keeping with this aim, his work is often filled with fantastic, dreamlike images and symbols that mock rational (or conscious) thought. It is against this background of thought that reality and self emerge as Ekelöfs major concerns, and freedom from the ‘‘idea’’ (from the mental struggle) of good versus evil becomes his primary goal.

 

Works in Critical Context

Critics today describe Ekelöf as a profound thinker and praise his ability to incorporate diverse influences into a coherent pattern of thought. Some also marvel that he remained, in spite of these influences, a distinctly Swedish poet in that the landscapes and aura of his native country haunt most of his work. Early critics, however, had more diverse responses to his work, indicating the uncertainty during this period about the role surrealism would play in modern culture.

Late Arrival on Earth. The original reception of this work by professional critics was overwhelmingly negative and dismissive. The style of the work and its abstractness alienated and confounded the readers of the time, and Ekelöf was branded as a surrealist, something that he later denied. In Late Arrival, Ekelöf abandons sonnet structure and the conventional verse line for free, associative prose poems somewhat reminiscent of Arthur Rimbaud. No capital letters appear in the poems, punctuation is used sparingly, and inanimate objects are personified: ‘‘the flowers doze in the window and the lamp gazes light / the window gazes with thoughtless eyes out into the dark / paintings exhibit without the soul the thought confided to them / and houseflies stand still on the walls and think.’’

Late Arrival, despite appearances, is a work of great artistic deliberateness, one that performs a balancing act between the two poles of feeling and calculation, free association and a strict application of musical principles to poetry. In short, what Ekelöf succeeded in doing in his first poetry collection was to free words of their job of referring and to create freestanding verbal constructs of great density and musicality, which transformed the language of twentieth-century Swedish poetry.

While many contemporary critics praise Ekelöfs complex poetic innovations, they also note problems of translation. Thus, remarks Leif Sjoeberg in his Reader’s Guide, ‘‘Some sensitive English speaking readers of Ekelöfs poetry are put off, because he is allegedly ‘strange’ or ‘weird’’’ As Joseph Garrison concludes in his Library Journal review of Bly’s Friends, You Drank Some Darkness, Ekelöfs ‘‘radical’’ works in translation ‘‘should be read carefully, very carefully.’’

 

Responses to Literature

1. Ekelöf had great interest in history and the influence of the past. Discuss where this interest is reflected in his poetry, using examples from the text (poem or collection) you choose.

2. Ekelöf’s Ferry Song came about during one of the bleakest periods in European history, when communist and fascist forces were taking hold of large parts of Europe. With a partner, do a Web search for information on either communism or fascism, and find evidence (if possible) of these forces’ impact on the poet’s work.

3. Go to the Louvre or another major metropolitan museum online. Look at surrealist art such as that of Salvador Dali, Giorgi De Chirico, Edgar Jene, or Max Ernst. Discuss with others what you find to be surrealist about their work (or a particular work). Then, using the same list of surrealistic characteristics, find as many incidences of surrealism as you can in Ekelöf’s work. For example, what is dreamlike in his writing? Discuss with others, so that you might each point out something the others in the group did not see and so you can collectively come up with your own understanding of surrealism.

 

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Books

Ekelöf, Gunnar. Score: Poetry. Stockholm: Bonniers, 1969.

Sjoeberg, Leif. A Reader’s Guide to Gunnar Ekelöf’s ‘‘A Molna Elegy’’. New York: Twayne, 1973.

Sommar Carl Olov. Gunnar Ekelöf: A Biography. Stockholm: Bonniers, 1989.

Periodicals

Garrison, Joseph. Review of Friends, You Drank Some Darkness. Library Journal (April 1, 1975).

Web Sites

Books and Writers. Gunnar Ekelöf (1907-1968). Retrieved April 25, 2008, from http://www.kirjasto.sci.fi/ekelo.htm.

Gunnar Ekelöf Society. Gunnar Ekelöf (in Swedish). Retrieved April 25, 2008, from http://www.gunnarEkelöf.se/.

Gunther’s Block. Gunnar Ekelöf’s ‘‘Elegy.’’ Retrieved April 25, 2008, from http://guntherquinte.blogspot.com/2004/02/gunnar-Ekelöf.html.