Bargum, Johan 1943-

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BARGUM, Johan 1943-

PERSONAL: Born May 13, 1943, in Helsinki, Finland; son of Viveca Hollmerus Bargum (a writer).

ADDRESSES: Agent—c/o Editions Esprit Ouvert, 3 chemin de Mornex, 1003 Lausanne, Switzerland.

CAREER: Novelist, short story writer, and playwright.


Svartvitt (collection; title means "Black and White"), Söderström (Stockholm, Sweden), 1965.

Femte advent (title means "Fifth Advent"), Bonnier (Borga, Finland), 1967.

Tra två ett (title means "Three, Two, One"), Söderström (Stockholm, Sweden), 1968.

Finsk rulett (title means "Finnish Roulette"), Söderström (Tammerfors, Finland), 1971.

Tre skådespel, Söderström (Helsinki, Finland), 1974.

Mörkrum (title means "Darkroom"), Söderström, (Helsinki, Finland), 1977.

Den privata detektiven (title means "The Private Detective"), Norstedts & Söners (Stockholm, Sweden), 1980.

Pimeä huone, Tammi (Helsinki, Finland), 1977.

Pappas flicka (title means "Daddy's Girl"), Söderström (Borga, Finland), 1982.

Sommarpojken, (title means "The Summer Boy"), Söderström (Helsinki, Finland), 1984.

Husdjur (collection), Norstedts & Söners (Stockholm, Sweden), 1986.

Resor (collection; includes "Architekten," "Förläggaren," and "Regissören"), Söderström (Helsinki, Finland), 1988.

Matkoja, Tammi (Helsinki, Finland), 1988.

Den svarta portföljen, Söderström (Helsinki, Finland), 1991.

Sensommar, Söderström (Helsinki, Finland), 1993.

Charlie Boy, Tammi (Helsinki, Finland), 1995.

(With Phillippe Bouquet) La Mallette noire, Esprit Ouvert (Lausanne, Switzerland), 1996.

Also author of plays, including Som snort (title means "A Cinch"), Bygga bastu (title means "Building a Sauna"), and Virke och verkan (title means "Material and the Making"). Has written works for television, radio, and cabaret.

ADAPTATIONS: Mörkrum was the basis for Swedish director Lars Lennart Forsberg's 1979 film Kristoffers hus.

SIDELIGHTS: The novels and stories of Finnish writer Johan Bargum consistently explore themes related to family relationships of multiple generations, whether between parent and child, sibling and sibling, or inlaws. Early books and stories bear what George C. Schoolfield, writing in Encyclopedia of World Literature in the Twentieth Century, called Bargum's "hallmark" of the "interjection of sudden violence into normal and even humdrum circumstances." Throughout his career, Bargum has remained interested in the "psychological interplay of his characters," Schoolfield said. "He specializes in laconic but vivid descriptions of a series of events," wrote Gustaf Widén in Books from Finland, "and he fashions each episode with unusual skill."

Born in Helsinki, Finland in 1943, Bargum writes in Swedish, and is one of the few Finland-Swedish authors who has consistently been able to make his living solely by writing, said Widen. The writing life appears to be something of a family tradition for Bargum. His mother, Viveca Hollmerus, wrote a number of well-received novellas in the 1950s, and his maternal grandmother, Margaret von Weillebrand-Hollmerus, was a prolific novelist.

Bargum's first book, Svartvitt, consists of six novellas. His second, Femte advent, is a novel that "might better be called a collection of portraits, from the Christmas season, of lonely and unhappy people," Schoolfield remarked. Characters include a suicidal nymphomaniac, an intoxicated Santa Claus, and, more mundanely, a father ignored by his son. Bargum's third novel, Tre två ett, returns to themes of violence, and is the author's "closest approach to the aggressive social criticism so often practiced by other writers from the minority during the revolutionary 1960s," Schoolfield said. Bargum's 1971 novel Finsk rulett "demonstrates how the weak are inevitably abused by the relatively stronger," Schoolfield wrote.

Many of Bargum's works have displayed elements of the more sophisticated detective novel, as exemplified by Raymond Chandler or Dashiell Hammett. "Bargum likes to turn his audience into detectives," Schoolfield wrote in a review of Bargum's Sensommar in World Literature Today. "He creates mysteries, but, because of his lucid way of telling about events and memories of events, he is never a mystificator." Bargum began refining his own form of detective novel with Mörkrum in 1977. A freelance photographer discovers the body of a retired farmer, abandoned and dead in his apartment for many days. The photographer becomes obsessed with the man's death and embarks on an investigation to determine the cause of death, why the dead man was neglected by his children, and how someone could be left to rot in a modern, affluent city. Bargum's conclusion, Widén noted, is that "no one hears that someone is alive. No one hears when someone dies." For Widén, "a novel like Mörkrum is impressive for its sophisticated structure and the unswerving sense of composition informing it."

Sometimes Bargum's characters themselves become detectives, subtly or more blatantly, as in Den privata detektiven. The book follows an ex-police inspector Arnold Stroemburg as he attempts to learn a sordid secret held by his daughter, Eva. As Arnold searches for answers, Eva turns to prostitution to help finance her plans to leave for the United States with young drop-out and petty thief Skaedi.

In both Mörkrum and Den privata detektiven, Bargum returns to the theme of inter-generation family conflict. Mörkrum concerns the relationship between a middle-aged man and his ten-year-old daughter, while Den privata detektiven centers on a fifty-year old man and his twenty-year-old daughter. "All attempts to communicate, at least between the generations, seemed doomed to failure," Widen observed.

The father-daughter theme becomes even more pervasive in Pappas flicka, as thirty-seven-year-old Sissy attempts to come to terms with the death of her beloved father. Structured as a series of long conversations between Sissy and her psychiatrist, the book examines the relationship between Sissy and her pragmatist husband, in contrast with that between her and her father. In the process, a twist on the father-child relationship is revealed through Sissy's illegitimate half-brother.

In Sommarpojken, a story of father-son conflict, the narrator decides, after his mother's funeral, to locate his long-absent father. This effort, Schoolfield wrote, "makes him relive the summers he spent as the poor-boy companion of rich children at a seaside cottage."

Husdjur, a collection of four stories, has an entirely different type of human relationship at its core: that between humans and their pets. In this collection, according to Schoolfield, Bargum reveals a new talent: "an ability to slide over into the credibly fantastic." Elements of the fantastic recur in Resor, a collection of three novella-length stories. In the first story, "Architekten," which Schoolfield deemed a "masterpiece," a young woman explores her father's diary after his sudden death by heart attack. To her surprise, the diary describes her father's mysterious bond with a giant elk. This animal, he writes, will one day lie down atop his chest and crush him. Sure enough, an autopsy reveals ribs that are slightly caved in. Less reliant on the fantastic are the collection's other two stories, "Förläggaren," which Schoolfield considered a "painfully comic account of a lazy poet, a phrase maker who cuckolds his long-suffering protector," and "Regissören" about "a flashback to a nasty childhood that has led to a severe disorder of personality."

Bargum returns to the structure of the mystery novel with Den svarta portföljen, in which a jaded reporter, hindered by his interfering mother and her dog, searches for clues to a mystery amid the dangers of the international drug trade.

In Sensommar, a Swedish matriarch returns to the family summer place to die. This she accomplishes with the help of her two sons, Olof, described by Schoolfield as "a faintly unsuccessful musicologist and journalist," and Carl, Olof's younger brother, "a businessman in San Francisco, as aggressive and vigorous as his artistic sibling is aimless and unathletic." Also present are Carl's wife, Klara, and two children, Sam and Sebastian, one of whom may be an illegitimate child of Olof's; their sister, Heidi; and Uncle Tom, a doctor and family friend who served, for a time, as Olof and Carl's surrogate father. During the novel, Carl's bullying of his brother persists, scandalous family sexual secrets are discovered, and family dynamics continue to seethe. "As is usual in Bargum's novels and stories," Schoolfield commented, "the reader is left to make up his mind about a great many suggestions and ellipses" in the story.

Bargum's 1995 collection of nine stories, Charlie Boy, finds the author returning to familiar ground with pieces that revolve around mysteries. Schoolfield said in a World Literature Today review that, "to date, Charlie Boy is his masterpiece in compressed prose." Schoolfield also cautions the reader that "the nine stories must not be read swiftly; doing so reduces them to entertainment literature." Another familiar Bargum theme surfaces, as "all the stories depict young people, often confronted by parental or quasi-parental figures" and almost all contain a "strong sense of place," Schoolfield wrote. The stories include "The Man from Manhattan," in which "innocent Nordic travelers" explore the sometimes menacing and often thrilling New York City; "Prince Valiant," an emotionally wrenching story of a shy young man infatuated with a female barber; "Sun Path," an equally strong emotional story about a father driving his daughter to the Helsinki depot and symbolically releasing her for her first trip on her own; and "The Spy," in which a cuckolded father, jailed for financial wrongdoing, convinces the titular Charlie Boy to undertake some sleuthing work on his behalf.

Also a playwright, Bargum has written for the stage, television, and cabaret. His plays include Tre skådespel, a collection of dramas about the difficulties of small businessmen, and Finns det Tigrar i Congo, a play about AIDS written with director Bengt Ahlfors in 1990. Bargum's "dramas are less intricately wrought than his narratives," Schoolfield remarked, "perhaps because they are often topical." But of Bargum's prose work, Schoolfield stated that "all of Bargum's narratives are compact," with the "deft suggestion of emotional nuances," and "deliberate craftsmanship."



Encyclopedia of World Literature in the TwentiethCentury, Volume 1, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1999.


Books from Finland, Volume 16, 1982, Gustaf Widén, "Johan Bargum's Analyses," pp. 66-76.

World Literature Today, fall, 1996, George C. Schoolfield, review of Charlie Boy, pp. 977-978; winter, 1995, George C. Schoolfield, review of Sensommar, p. 165; winter, 1990, George C. Schoolfield, review of Resor, pp. 132-133.*