Boye, Karin 1900-1941

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BOYE, Karin 1900-1941

(Karin Maria Boye)

PERSONAL: Born October 26, 1900, in Gothenburg (Göteborg), Sweden; committed suicide, April 24, 1941, near Alingsås, Sweden; daughter of Carl Fredrik (a vice director of an insurance firm) and Signe (Liljestrand) Boye; married Leif Bjork, 1929 (divorced, 1932); companion of Margot Hanel, beginning 1934. Education: Teaching diploma, 1921; attended University of Uppsala; University of Stockholm, M.A., 1928. Politics: Member of left-wing organization Clarte.

CAREER: Poet and novelist. Cofounded literary journal Spectrum. Taught in a secondary school from 1936–38.

MEMBER: Clarte.



Moln (title means "Clouds"), Bonniers (Stockholm, Sweden), 1922.

Gömda land (title means "Hidden Country"), Bonniers (Stockholm, Sweden), 1924.

Hädarna (title means "Hearths"), Bonniers (Stockholm, Sweden), 1927.

För trädets skull (title means "For Love of the Tree"), Bonniers (Stockholm, Sweden), 1935.

Dikter (title means "Poems"), Bonniers (Stockholm, Sweden), 1942, translated by David McDuff as Complete Poems, Bloodaxe Books (Newcastle upon Tyne, England), 1994.

Månsång: ungdomsdikter (title means "Moonsong: Poems for Young People"), illustrated by the author, compiled by Barbro Gustafsson, Bokad (Stockholm, Sweden), 1979.

Det stora undret (title means "The Great Wonder"; Children's Poetry) compiled by Barbro Gustafsson, Zinderman (Gothenburg, Sweden), 1981.


Astarte, Bonniers (Stockholm, Sweden), 1931.

Merit vaknar (title means "Merit Wakens"), Bonniers (Stockholm, Sweden), 1933.

Uppgörelser (short stories; title means "Reckonings"), Bonniers (Stockholm, Sweden), 1934.

Kris (title means "Crisis"), Bonniers (Stockholm, Sweden), 1934.

För lite (title means "Too Little"), Bonniers (Stockholm, Sweden), 1936.

Kallocain, roman från 2000-talet, Bonniers (Stockholm, Sweden), 1940, translated by Gustaf Lannestock as Kallocain, with an introduction by Richard B. Vowles, University of Wisconsin Press (Madison, WI), 1966, Fromm International Publishing (New York, NY), 1985.

Ur funktion (short stories; title means "Out of Commission"), Bonniers (Stockholm, Sweden), 1940.

Bebådelse (title means "Annunciation"; short stories and sketches), Bonniers (Stockholm, Sweden), 1941.

Samlade skrifter (collected works), Bonniers (Stockholm, Sweden), 1947–50.


Det hungriga ogat: journalistik, 1930–1936: recensioner och essär (title means "The Hungry Eye: Writings for Newspapers 1930–1936: Reviews and Essays"), selected and edited by Gunnar Stahl, Legus (Stockholm, Sweden), 1992.

Translator, with Erik Mesterton, of T. S. Eliot's The Waste Land.

SIDELIGHTS: Karin Boye was one of Sweden's preeminent writers of the first half of the twentieth century, with her reputation built primarily on her internationally acclaimed novel Kallocain. Critics have praised that book as one of the classic works of the anti-utopian genre, alongside Aldous Huxley's Brave New World and George Orwell's 1984. While Boye's novels are very highly regarded, many scholars have stated that her best form of expression was her poetry, exemplified by such works as "De sju dödsyndarna" ("The Seven Deadly Sins"), a work that was published posthumously in Dikter. Boye's poetry has been described as combining an intense lyricism with a passionate search for answers to the many riddles posed by human existence.

Boye was born in Gothenburg, an industrial center that is Sweden's second largest city. Her father, who was German, worked as a civil engineer; she enjoyed a comfortable, middle-class upbringing. She began writing at an early age, showing a keen interest in a variety of subjects, including religion and philosophy. Boye obtained her teaching certificate and then went on in 1922 to Uppsala University. Her first volume of poetry, Clouds, was also published that year. While at the university, Boye also became known as a political activist with a philosophical bent. Initially fascinated by Christianity, she turned to the passionately anti-Christian philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche, whose ideas about the struggle between instinct and intellect in human culture inspired Kris ("Crisis"), a quest for self-understanding written in the form of a dialogue between two aspects of her personality. Sven H. Rossel, in his book A History of Scandinavian Literature, termed it "one of the most disquieting religious books of the interwar period."

In 1925, Boye turned to socialism. She was apparently disillusioned with traditional religion and philosophy, but still captivated by an intense desire to understand the individual's place and destiny in the universe. She became a member of Clarté, an international worker movement founded by noted French writer and socialist Henri Barbusse. Her belief in socialism was shattered in 1928 when she visited the U.S.S.R. Unlike many of her fellow intellectuals, she immediately realized that the Soviet Union, far from being a true socialist state, was a brutal totalitarian dictatorship.

Boye won increasing fame for her poetry throughout the 1920s, but she turned to writing novels, perhaps "to meet the social demands of a new decade," as Richard B. Vowles wrote in his introduction to the 1966 English translation of Kallocain. Her first novel, Astarte, not only surprised readers who had known her as a poet, but also won an important Scandinavian literary award. Her following two novels, Merit vakner ("Merit Wakens") and För lite ("Too Little"), explore the paradoxical, frustrating, even depressing aspects of love. The story was perhaps inspired by the author's unhappy marriage. Kallocain, Boye's last novel, drew great praise from Swedish critics. It provides a haunting description of a person's progressive dehumanization in a totalitarian technocracy.

Kallocain is a science fiction novel and, as noted by Franz Rottensteiner in Twentieth-Century Science Fiction Writers, it is "one of the few dystopias written by a woman." It tells the story of Dr. Kall, a chemist who lives in the twenty-first century and is a citizen of a militaristic world state. A loyal follower of this regime, Kall develops a drug that induces people to confess their innermost thoughts. Not only does Kall, who convinces his superior that the drug should be named after him, launch a campaign encouraged by the state to criminalize private thought, but he turns his invention into a weapon of private revenge.

In writing Kallocain Boye may have been influenced, as critics have speculated, by the works of Franz Kafka and Aldous Huxley. Written several years after Huxley's Brave New World, Kallocain foreshadows elements of George Orwell's 1984, including total loss of privacy—even private thoughts. In addition to her general knowledge of conditions in countries such as Nazi Germany and the U.S.S.R., Boye had information about Russian and German experiments with truth serums, and this knowledge, as critics have observed, certainly influenced her narrative. While critics have generally emphasized the dark, pessimistic outlook of Kallocain, Rossel wrote that although it ends tragically, this novel "is, like Karin Boye's lyric poetry, the expression of a defiant hope in the future of humanity." A writer for St. James Guide to Science Fiction Writers noted of Kallocain, "The psychological conflicts of the hero are depicted powerfully, and the novel reflects a deep fear of the rise of totalitarianism."

Despite the immediate and lasting success of Kallocain, many critics ultimately judged Boye's poetry superior to her prose. "It is possible to admire Karin Boye's prose," wrote Vowles, "for its color, texture, and precision, but by and large fiction was not her medium." Commenting on the "intensely personal" nature of Boye's poetry, Vowles described her poems as the passionate exploration of the inner worlds constituting her self, an exploration leading the reader through realms rich and enigmatic, but unlike anything in the world of everyday reality. "The world of Boye's poetry," Vowles wrote, "is the world of the self; it subsists on its own almost confessional vibrancy. The lyric strain may be narrow, but it has a depth and a kind of lyric purity. To read much modern poetry is to go by train, absorbing all the shocks, glimpsing the sordid and the lovely alike…. To read the poetry of Karin Boye is to force oneself Alastor-like up the river of the soul, where a torment of vegetation thrusts back a somber sky, where all nature is a reflection of the poet's mind, a vista of the poet's anguish."

In 1931 Boye cofounded the journal Spektrum, which introduced Swedish readers to prominent contemporary poets such as T.S. Eliot. The essays she published there "marked the beginning of a distinguished journalistic career," commented an essayist for Dictionary of Literary Biography. She also translated Eliot's The Waste Land with Erik Mesterton. Like Eliot in The Waste Land, Boye lamented the destiny of a world which, as the political events of the 1930s progressed, seemed headed toward despair and destruction. Her mental state may have reflected the general mood of the 1930s. Suffering from severe depression, she saw a psychoanalyst during the early 1930s. After several nervous breakdowns, she committed suicide in 1941, just a year after the publication of Kallocain.



Albenius, Margit, and Olof Lagercrantz, editors, Karin Boye: minnen och studies (title means "Karin Boye: Recollections and Studies"), Bonnier (Stockholm, Sweden), 1942.

Algulin, Ingemar, A History of Swedish Literature, Swedish Institute (Stockholm, Sweden), 1989.

Buck, Claire, editor, Bloomsbury Guide to Women's Literature, Prentice Hall General Reference (New York, NY), 1992.

Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 259: Twentieth-Century Swedish Writers before World War II, Gale (Detroit, MI), 2002.

Fleischmann, Wolfgang Bernard, editor, Encyclopedia of World Literature in the Twentieth Century, Ungar (New York, NY), 1967–75.

Gustafson, Alrik, A History of Swedish Literature, University of Minnesota Press (Minneapolis, MN), 1961.

Rossel, Sven H., Skandinavische Literatur, W. Kohlhammer (Stuttgart, Germany), 1973, revised edition translated by Anne C. Ulmer as A History of Scandinavian Literature, University of Minnesota Press (Minneapolis, MN), 1982.

St. James Guide to Science Fiction Writers, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1996.

Walsh, Chad, From Utopia to Nightmare, Geofrey Bles (London, England), 1962.

Watson, Noelle, and Paul Schellinger, editors, Twentieth-Century Science Fiction Writers, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1991.


Bulletin of the American Swedish Institute, vol. 7, 1952, pp. 3-8.

Library Journal, August, 1966, p. 3763.

Scotland on Sunday, December 7, 1997, Martin Seymour Smith, review of Kallocain, p. S28.

Slavonic and East European Review, vol. 40, 1961, pp. 220-228.