Johnson, Eyvind

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Eyvind Johnson

Swedish author and journalist Eyvind Johnson (1900–1976) drew on his tumultuous childhood, experiences as a laborer, and left–leaning political views to offer sharp social critique in such novels as Kommentar till Ett stjärnfall (Commentary on a Falling Star) and Hans nådes tid (His Day of Grace), which earned him a Nordic Council Literature Prize. He also expressed his strong political opinions in numerous newspaper articles and helped found the radical newspapers Nordens Frihet (Scandinavia's Freedom) and Et Håndslag (A Handclasp). Johnson shared the Nobel Prize in literature with fellow Swedish author Harry Martinson in 1974.

Johnson was born on July 29, 1900, in Svartbjörnsbyn, outside the railroad junction of Boden. It is in Sweden's northernmost province, Norrbotten, above the Arctic Circle. Johnson was the second–youngest of the six children born to Olof Jonsson, a stonecutter from Värmland, and Cevia Gustafsdotter from the southern Swedish town of Blacking. Olof Jonsson worked building rail lines, and his occupation brought the family to Norrbotten. Around 1904, however, he contracted the respiratory disease silicosis which, in turn, brought on depression. "I am told that he sang, that he was a cheerful and genial man, and I am happy to believe it," Johnson once remarked, as Gavin Orton recounted in his biography, Eyvind Johnson. "But he fell ill, he was ill for many years, and I never heard him sing. I scarcely heard him speak." Unable to work, the Jonsson family fell into poverty, and Johnson was sent to live with his mother's sister, Amanda, and her husband, Anders Johan Rost, who also worked building rail lines. Although the Rosts lived across the road from Johnson's parents, he missed his family immensely, though he did not always feel comfortable in their home. "When I was small I went home every day, it was nearby," he recalled, according to Orton. "I wanted to be with the others, be like them. I belonged there and I didn't want to be better off. I was intensely homesick all my childhood; when I finally came home I wanted to leave."

Johnson attended a village school until he was 13, then he moved about 45 miles north of Boden with his foster parents. In 1914 he left home and pursued various jobs throughout Norrbotten. First, he sorted timber near the town of Sävast, then he worked at the Björn brickworks. Between 1915 and 1919 he labored as a sawmill worker; a ticket–taker, usher and projectionist at a movie house; a plumber's and electrician's assistant; a locomotive cleaner at engine sheds in Boden; a stoker on cargo trains traveling between Boden and Haparanda; and a hay–presser. While an itinerant laborer, Johnson became involved with the Young Socialists, who believed in the necessity of economic revolution and promoted cultural literacy among the working class. In 1919 he borrowed money to move to Stockholm, where he remained unemployed until finding work at LM Ericsson's workshop in Tulegatan. Johnson also began writing for Brand, the Young Socialists' newspaper, contributing provocative articles and revolutionary poems under the name Eyving Ung. After joining the metal workers strike in 1920, he lived on the initially scant earnings from his writing.

Published First Books

Johnson met regularly with other socialists and writers. In 1920, with his friend and fellow writer Rudolf Väarnlund, Johnson founded a short–lived magazine, Vår nutid (Our Present). He soon set out on his own path, however, viewing the word more pessimistically than his revolutionary compatriots. He traced his lack of optimism to the lingering effects of World War I. "We saw most clearly the worst sides of our fellow men: how in the heat of the world conflagration the most wretched qualities of man—desire for profit, coarse desire for pleasure, vanity, greed, and cowardice—put forth buds and blossomed like tropical plants," he remarked, according to Orton. In late 1920, Johnson took work making hay and felling timber on a farm in Uppland, where he remained for a year. In October of 1921, he stowed away on a ship bound for Germany. "I suddenly realized that I was faced with a choice: of either sinking down into a lousy bohemian existence or freeing myself in some way or other, quickly, with one blow," Orton quoted Johnson as saying.

In Berlin, Johnson associated with Austrian avant–garde painter Oskar Kokoschka, radical poet Ernst Toller, and other revolutionary artists. He also met many political refugees who fled to western Europe to seek asylum, and read the influential works of such writers as John Dos Passos, Alfred Döblin, Marcel Proust, André Gide, James Joyce, Henry Bergson, and Sigmund Freud. In 1923, Johnson returned to Sweden where he wrote his first book, the short–story collection Denfyra främlingarna (The Four Strangers) and began his first novel, Timans och rättfärdigheten (Timans and Righteousness), which was published in 1925. By the time the novel was published, Johnson had relocated to Paris, where he made a meager living writing novels, short stories, and articles for Swedish newspapers. In 1926, Johnson traveled to the Bay of Biscay, where he wrote his second novel, Stad I mörker (City in Darkness). "The breakers rolled in from Biscay and broke in high, wandering walls of water on the endless sandy beaches," Johnson recalled, according to Orton. "I often walked there, listened and observed." In 1927 he married Aase Christofersen and the couple moved to Saint–Leu–la–Forêt. Their son, Tore, was born the following year. Tragedy struck at the same time when Johnson's younger brother died in the United States. His next novel, Minnas (Remembering) reflects his bitterness. The story, published in 1928, involves two half–brothers, one of whom is brutally murdered. Bitterness and disillusionment carried through to his next work, Kommentar till ett stjärnfall (Commentary on a Falling Star), published in 1929. His next novel, Avsked till Hamlet (Farewell to Hamlet), published the following year, expressed a renewed affinity for working–class struggle. "In Avsked till Hamlet, written after a short visit to Sweden, I seemed to see a way," Johnson remarked, as Orton recounted. "It was a liberation from the state ofaffairs after Commentary, and in a way a continuation. . . . I again tried consciously to become involved in the wider scheme of things."

Johnson returned to Sweden in 1930 and joined "Trettonklubben," or "group of thirteen," a discussion group focusing on political issues of the day. While his 1940 novel, Den tryggavärlden (The Secure World) reflects his critical take on world affairs, it also draws upon childhood themes, as do earlier works Johnson published upon his return to his native country—Änengång kapten (One More Time, Captain), and Romanen om Olof (The Novel about Olof). Romanen om Olof, an autobiographical tale, was made into a film, Här har du ditt liv (Here You Have Your Life).

Opposed Fascism

As World War II approached, Johnson, long a pacifist, openly criticized the Swedish government's refusal to fight the spread of Nazism. He helped found the oppositionist newspaper, Nordens Frihet (Scandinavia's Freedom), which circulated from 1939–1945, and the Norwegian Resistance newspaper Et Håndslag (A Handclasp), from 1942–1945. His anti–fascist views surfaced in his novels of this period. Nattövning (Night Maneuvers), published in 1938, tells of a pacifist who joins the Spanish Revolution, while Soldatens återkomst (The Soldier's Return), published in 1940, hails soldiers who fought for democracy in Spain, Finland, and Norway. Johnson's most ambitious project addressing similar themes is his Krilon trilogy, published between 1941 and 1943. Employing realism, fantasy, allegory, symbolism, and journalism, the story begins with a discussion among a Trettonklubben–style group and evolves into an epic tale of one man's struggle against evil, mirroring the Allied forces fight against Nazism. In 1947, Johnson denounced the rising Russian Bolshevik political movement in a radio speech, following that country's October Revolution. "Similarities between a Communist state and Nationalist or Fascist state are greater than differences. They both rule by clichés and blood, "he said, according to the literature Website Pegasos. Johnson's wife, Aase, died in 1938, and two years later he married Cilla Frankenaeuser, with whom he later collaborated on translations of numerous authors, including Albert Camus, Anatole France, Jean–Paul Sartre, and Eugàne Ionesco. The couple had two children: Maria and Anders, born in 1944 and 1946, respectively.

Johnson drew on the World War II theme in his 1946 novel, Strändernas svall (The Swell of the Beaches), an updated take on Homer's The Odyssey. The books were subtitled "A Novel about the Present." Johnson followed this work with four historical novels, among other projects: Drömmar om rosar oc. eld (Dreams of Roses and Fire), published in 1949; Molnen över Metapontion (The Clouds over Metapontion), 1957; Hans nådes tid (The Days of His Grace), 1960; and Livsdagenlång (Life's Long Day), 1964. He received the Nordic Council Literature Prize in 1962 for Hans nådes tid. In 1957, he was named to the Swedish Academy, which annually awards the Nobel Prize in Literature. Johnson received the Nobel Prize himself in 1974, sharing it with fellow Swedish author Harry Martinson. "Eyvind Johnson and Harry Martinson did not come alone, nor first," Academy member Karl Ragnar Gierow said in his presentation speech. "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." Johnson died in Stockholm on August 25, 1976.


Nobel Lectures in Literature 1968–1980, edited by Sture Allén, World Scientific Publishing, 1993.

Orton, Gavin, Eyvind Johnson, Twayne Publishers, 1972.


"Eyvind Johnson," Pegasos—A Literature Related Resource Site, (November 29, 2004).

"The Nobel Prize in Literature 1974" (presentation speech), Nobel Prize website, (November 29, 2004).