1974 Nobel Prize in Literature Presentation Speech

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1974 Nobel Prize in Literature Presentation Speech

by Karl Ragnar Gierow, of the Swedish Academy
(Translation from the Swedish)

Your Majesty, Your Royal Highnesses, Ladies and Gentlemen,

Eyvind Johnson’s education–that is, the education provided by society at that time–ended when he was thirteen and was imparted to him at a little village school north of the Arctic Circle. The future awaiting the young Harry Martinson opened up to him when, at the age of six, as a so-called child of the parish, he was sold by auction to the lowest bidder–that is, to the person who took charge of the forsaken boy for the smallest payment out of parochial funds. The fact that, with such a start in life, both of them have their places on this platform today, is the visible testimony to a transformation of society, which, step by step, is still going on all over the world. With us it came unusually early; it is perhaps our country’s biggest blessing, perhaps, also, its most remarkable achievement during the last thousand years.

Eyvind Johnson and Harry Martinson did not come alone, nor first. They are representative 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. To that extent they are representative also of the similar breakthrough that has later occurred in the whole of our cultural world. A new class has conquered Parnassus. But if, by a conqueror, we mean the one who gained most from the outcome, then Parnassus has conquered a new class.

To determine an author and his work against the background of his social origin and political environment is, at present, good form. And what is good form is seldom particularly to the point. “Eyvind Johnson’s literary achievement is one of the most significant and characteristic of a very fruitful period in the whole of Europe.” This last sentence is not mine; it was written thirty years ago by Lucien Maury. Even then, the boy from a primary school in a remote village in the far north of Sweden was an experienced and self-assured European, never forgetful of his origin (of which his autobiographical stories provide a lasting document), but still less bound and inhibited by the environment where he took his first steps. International perspective distinguished Eyvind Johnson’s further writings, and it is matched by an equally wide outlook in time, over the destinies and ages of the human race. The renewal of the historical novel which he has carried out on his own, and perhaps exemplified most clearly in great works like Days of His Grace and Steps Towards Silence, is based not only on extensive research but also on a clear-sightedness which, expressed briefly, sets out to show that everything that happens to us has happened before, and everything that took place once in the world is still taking place, recognizable under changed signs, a constant simultaneity of epochs which may be the only wisdom the past can teach us in our attempts to survey the present and divine an era which we have not yet seen.

If, nevertheless, we are to point to a special phase and one particular mental environment whose traces are ineffaceable in Eyvind Johnson’s work with his pen, it is that very period when Lucien Maury discovered that in this Nordic writer, Europe had one of its important intellectuals. The French time analyst described this epoch as very fruitful. What was it that made it so productive? Not favourable conditions, but the indomitable resistance to the conditions that prevailed. D-day had not yet dawned; Nazism still had a stranglehold on Europe. It was in that predicament that Eyvind Johnson spoke out. His attitude was so passionate that its fervour has never since vanished from what he wrote. He retained his European perspective, but, naturally, it was Scandinavia’s liberty that was dearest to him just then. He endorsed his conviction with a handshake across the border. Together with a co-editor on the Norwegian side he was responsible during the occupation years for a mouthpiece of the new Scandi-navianism, called– A Handshake. As from today the two publishers of that little paper are both Nobel Prize winners. The name of Eyvind Johnson’s co-editor on the Norwegian side of the frontier was Willy Brandt.

Both Eyvind Johnson and, still more, Harry Martinson have a lot in common with the oldest, and perhaps, greatest of all proletarian writers, the subtly wise and charming author of ingenious fables, Aesop. Like him, they spin webs, capturing you with beguiling words that always contain other, and more, than what they literally say. But the differences between this year’s two literary prizewinners are greater than the similarities. Beside Eyvind Johnson, whose writing is based so very much on his fiercely defended citizenship in a free society, Harry Martinson may appear to be almost a purely asocial individual, the incorrigible vagrant in our literature. No one has succeeded in putting him under lock and key. The philosophic tramp, Bolle, in The Road is, in many ways, the author’s spokesman, and he is not homeless at the gate. He is homeless only when he gets inside four walls. He is the bearer of asocialism as a wish and a principle that brings good luck; he is a vagabond of his own free will, in agreement with life’s sound instincts and in spontaneous revolt against what is trying to stifle them–that which is governed by calculation and established by force. He already has his home; it is beyond and outside, and he is always on the way towards it. From this starting point, though in a different key, we can also conceive the tragically beautiful vision of Aniara, of the spaceship which heads away from an increasingly hostile existence on a frozen earth and itself loses its rudder, cut off from its home port and with its destination lost.

“I don’t want to have real what most people want to have real,” Bolle remarks. In saying this he has also said quite a lot about Harry Martinson’s writing. Realism is to be found there to the extent that it can be called elemental: it is based on the closest familiarity with the four elements. Harry Martinson got to know earth and air as a tramp on the roads, fire and water as a stoker at sea. Yet the world of imagination is more important and more real to him than that of reality. Where realism plods methodically along, his imagination races with the swallow-winged glide of the skater. However, it is not a flight from truth; on the contrary. “We must learn the essential difference between what is factual and what is truth,” he has said. “We have facts everywhere. They whirl in our eyes like sand.” But it is truth we are concerned with, and that is something else. It is a state in nature and in the receptive human being; it is

the good will with presence and peace of mind to keep watch and to be.

For Harry Martinson fact and fiction are one, and, without any aphoristic hair-splitting, an entire outlook on life is summed up in these pregnant words. The last two, most emphasized, form the simple verb of mere existence: to be. But existence is only fit for human beings if it gives them pleasure, and for that, good will and vigilance are needed. So, in the end, the truth to which this wanderer’s path has led him is a gratitude, round-eyed as a child’s, for the generous life that has constantly given him trials, riddles and joy in good measure.

After this quickly cut-out silhouette of two remarkable literary profiles, it is my very pleasant duty to express the heartfelt congratulations of the Swedish Academy to Eyvind Johnson and Harry Martinson and to ask them to receive the emblems of the 1974 Nobel Prize for Literature from the hands of His Majesty, the King.

[© The Nobel Foundation, 1974.]

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1974 Nobel Prize in Literature Presentation Speech

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1974 Nobel Prize in Literature Presentation Speech