Lidman, Sara (1923—)

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Lidman, Sara (1923—)

Swedish novelist, dramatist and social commentator. Born Sara Adela Lidman in Missenträsk, Sweden, on December 30, 1923; daughter of Andreas Lidman and Jenny (Lundman) Lidman; educated at the University of Uppsala.

Sara Lidman was born in 1923 into a family of farmers in a remote village of the Västerbotten (West Bothnia) region in the far north (Norrland) of Sweden, an area that is regarded as part of southern Lapland. Later to describe herself as "a pious child," she grew up in a land far removed from the sophistication of Stockholm, and her isolation from the modern world was reinforced by the strict puritanical pietism of her conservative Lutheran parents and neighbors. A bout with tuberculosis in her early teens kept Lidman homebound for an extended period of time, and she became a voracious reader, immersing herself in works by Dostoyevsky and Kierkegaard as well as several Swedish regional novelists. At the same time, she began writing her own stories. Because of her fragile health, she continued her education through correspondence courses and completed her secondary education at a local private school. Moving to Stockholm in 1944, Lidman supported herself by working as a waitress, and she enrolled as a drama student at a local theater. In 1949, she completed her higher education at the University of Uppsala, having studied education, English and French.

After some years of searching for a style of her own, Lidman published her first novel, Tjärdalen (The Tar Well or Tar-Boiler), in 1953. Set in a poor village in her home region during the 1930s, it is the story of a malicious peasant known as The Fox who destroys an elaborate structure designed to extract barrels of tar, a valuable source of cash income for the entire community. Badly injured during his destructive act, the malefactor is allowed to die of gangrene as punishment for an action viewed by the village as not only vandalism but also a sin. In her premier book, Lidman raised moral questions about a community's "collective murder," presenting above all a strong critique of the Lutheran concept of a guilt-ridden humanity. The book also offers a strong critique of capitalist ethics, in that the only man in the village who speaks out against the murder of The Fox turns out to be under the thumb of a calculating neighbor for whom the entire tragedy is nothing more than an opportunity to make money.

After the critical and popular success of Tjärdalen, Lidman wrote three more novels set in the isolated village world of Sweden's Norrland. These were Hjortronlandet (Cloudberry Land, 1955), Regnspiran (The Rain Bird, 1958), and Bära mistel (Carrying the Mistletoe, 1960). In these books, she went beyond entering into the collective consciousness of a rural community as had been done so successfully in Tjärdalen. Hjortronlandet depicts a community even more desperately impoverished than that of her earlier novel and is the story of a talented young girl's desperate and ultimately tragic attempt to rise above her situation in life. Praised by reviewers for its characterization, Hjortronlandet became a bestseller and was chosen by a panel of critics as Sweden's best novel of the year.

The title of Lidman's third novel, Regnspiran or The Rain Bird, is a name which in her region of Sweden refers to the swallow, a bird regarded by local peasants as a magical creature in touch with the depths of the human psyche. The book's central character, a woman named Linda Stahl, has a magnetic personality that inflicts great harm on the people around her and ultimately on herself. One critic, Harold H. Borland, has remarked on this novel's power to unsettle and disturb readers, largely because of its subtle structure which creates an "obsessive, compulsive rhythm and pattern." In the last of her books set in her home region, Bära mistel, Lidman again probed the soul of Linda Stahl, who is more troubled than ever as she enters mid-life seeking ways to atone for her past sins.

By the early 1960s, Lidman had largely completed a spiritual odyssey begun in childhood. She had abandoned the Lutheran faith and what she saw as its culture of guilt but still struggled to move beyond its "negative attitude toward man." Radicalized by the injustices that she believed continued to exist in Sweden and elsewhere, she felt that the ideology of Marxism held at least some of the answers to these problems. Lidman had direct contact with gross social evils during her 1960 trip to South Africa. Her response to what she would later characterize as the "true colonial misery … the hopelessness, the despair, the disorganization" of the apartheid system in South Africa was visceral, and she was expelled from that bastion of state-sponsored racism. In response, Lidman wrote Jag och min son (I and My Son, 1961), a novel so brimming with anger that she could barely organize its message. Determined to discover more about Africa and the burdens of colonialism, Lidman lived in Kenya and Tanzania from 1962 through 1964. This experience became the basis for another novel, Med fem diamanter (With Five Diamonds, 1964). Set in Kenya during its final years as a British crown colony, Med fem diamanter relates the travails of a young Kenyan attempting to acquire the goats he is required to possess as a bride-price for the girl he loves. In the background, Lidman depicts the ugly reality of post-colonial Africa, where a handful of whites continue to hold power and the introduction of a money-based economy and modern technology has eroded the stabilizing aspects of traditional society and culture. Although some critics felt the white characters in the novel were little more than cardboard caricatures, for others, including Ulla Folejewski , Lidman deserved praise for having written a satisfying volume many readers would discover to be "absorbing—funny, sad, occasionally grotesque."

Changed by her years in Africa, in the mid-1960s Lidman repudiated her early novels set in Sweden, asserting that because they had only dealt "with the minds of people" they could not possibly contain a coherent conception of society. Abandoning fiction because she saw the world in a state of crisis, Lidman became a reporter. While she could never completely neglect the need to maintain a modicum of stylistic quality in her prose, she was drawn to participate in the immense upheavals that changed the face of the world in the 1960s. "I'll write stories if I have time," she said during an interview, "but my imagination really can't compete with today's reality. Why make up stories when life is so full of fanciful and powerful events?"

During the mid-1960s, no event was more powerful than the American war in Vietnam. Completely in sympathy with the cause of North Vietnam, Lidman visited that beleaguered nation in 1966 and wrote her impressions in a series of articles for Swedish newspapers, which appeared in book form as Samtal i Hanoi (Conversations in Hanoi, 1966). In North Vietnam she observed not only destruction and suffering, but also evidence of a society united in a common cause, a situation she regarded as profoundly different from a West in which she saw private acquisitiveness and personal neurosis resulting from a lack of moral direction and social purpose. No doubt idealizing what she had witnessed in North Vietnam, Lidman spoke of that country several years later as a society in which "[e]ven in the factories or the fields the atmosphere was very human: everybody worked with zeal and self-confidence. They were truly happy. At times you could sense their hilarious feeling—the youths at night, for instance, playing their musical instruments and singing all the time. They had a sort of ecstasy." Some critics and readers believed that they had discovered in Lidman's Vietnam reportage a sign of her lifelong search for absolute truth and reality,

possibly a secularized form of the religious fervor of her childhood.

Lidman returned from witnessing the horrors of foreign wars to the north of Sweden that was her home. In the nonfiction work Gruva (The Mine, 1968), she provided her readers with chilling details of inhuman working and living conditions among Lapland's hardrock iron miners. Although officials of the state-owned mines disagreed with her critique of the workers' situation, Lidman was vindicated two years after the publication of her book when the miners of Kiruna went out on strike for better conditions. Lidman remained angry at the indifference of Sweden—celebrated throughout the world as the model of social progress—to countless injustices. She called for a total revolution of state and society, but despaired of finding a precise blueprint or ideology that might point the way to the desired transformation. She also remained a literary artist, stating, "I'm not a Communist. I don't think I deserve a proud title like that."

By the end of the 1970s, Lidman had moved away from political activism and resumed writing fiction. Between 1977 and 1985, she published a five-novel suite which returned to the setting of the desolate and isolated far north of Sweden. In Din tjänare hör (Thy Obedient Servant, 1977), Vredens barn (Anger's Child, 1978), Nabot's sten (Naboth's Stone, 1981), Den underbare mannen (The Miracle Man, 1983), and Järnkronan (The Iron Crown, 1985), Lidman presents a panoramic chronicle of Lillvatnet, which corresponds to an inland area in the Swedish far north called Jörn. In this "railway suite," the rural parish is examined in pitiless detail over a period from the 1870s until shortly before the 1894 inauguration of the railroad that radically transformed the region's way of life starting. In her northland epic, Lidman presents characters both sympathetic and unsympathetic to the modern reader, all of them serving to deepen the reader's understanding not only of the past but also of our own modern dilemmas. In her own words, Lidman presented in these books a view of the world "in defense of people and forests." Following this prolific period, Lidman did not publish for some years. In 1996, her novel Lifsens rot (The Root of Life) was published to critical acclaim.

An author who has defined her role as one of sending uncomfortable messages to the complacent at the end of the 20th century, Lidman continued her lifelong struggle to find answers to perennial problems. It has been her hope that her labors as a writer and citizen might play a role in the emergence of a more just social order and a less destructive relationship between people and nature.


Bäckström, Lars. "Eyvind Johnson, Per Olof Sundman, and Sara Lidman: An Introduction," in Contemporary Literature. Vol. 12, no. 3, 1971, pp. 242–251.

Bethke, Artur. "Regionales, Nationales, Internationales in der schwedischen Gegenwartsliteratur," in Ingeborg Imig, ed., Nordeuropa: Wissenschaftliche Zeitschrift der Ernst-Moritz-Arndt Universität Greifswald. Studien Nr. 19, 1985, pp. 5–11.

Borland, Harold. "Sara Lidman: Novelist and Moralist," in Svensk Litteraturtidskrift. Vol. 36, no. 1, 1973, pp. 27–34.

——. "Sara Lidman's Progress: A Critical Survey of Six Novels," in Scandinavian Studies. Vol. 39, no. 2. May 1967, pp. 97–114.

Forsas-Scott, Helena. "In Defense of People and Forests: Sara Lidman's Recent Novels," in World Literature Today. Vol. 58, no. 1. Winter 1984, pp. 4–9.

——. "Sara Lidman's Järnkronan—An Introduction," in Swedish Book Review. Vol. 1, 1990, pp. 34–36.

Grave, Rolf. Biblicismer och liknande inslag i Sara Lidmans Tjärdalen. Lund: Studentlitteratur, 1969.

Holm, Birgitta. Sara Lidman: I liv och text. Stockholm: Bonnier, 1998.

"An Interview with Sara Lidman," in Contemporary Literature. Vol. 12, no. 3, 1971, pp. 252–257.

Lide, Barbara. "Lidman, Sara," in Virpi Zuck et al., eds., Dictionary of Scandinavian Literature. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1990, pp. 380–381.

Lidman, Sara. "The Heart of the World," in They Have Been in North Viet Nam. Hanoi: Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1968, pp. 9–13.

——. Naboth's Stone. Translated by Joan Tate. Norwich, U. K.: Norvik, 1989.

——. The Rain Bird. Translated by Elspeth Harley Schubert. NY: George Braziller, 1962.

Mawby, Janet. Writers and Politics in Modern Scandinavia. London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1978.

Scobbie, Irene, ed. Essays on Swedish Literature. Aberdeen, Scotland: Aberdeen University Press, 1978.

Tchesnokova, Tatiana. "Sara Lidman and the Art of Narration in The Tar Valley," in Paul Houe and Sven Hakon Rossel, eds., Documentarism in Scandinavian Literature. Amsterdam and Atlanta, GA: Rodopi, 1997, pp. 174–178.

Thygesen, Marianne. Jan Myrdal og Sara Lidman: Rapportgenren i svensk 60-tals litteratur. Grena: Forlaget GMT, Eksp.: Erik Bjorn Olsen, Lovenholm Kollegiet, 1971.

"The View from Left to Right," in Newsweek. Vol. 75, no. 12. March 23, 1970, pp. 41–42, 44.

related media:

"Modern Swedish Writers, Part 7: Sara Lidman," Radio Sweden International/Swedish Broadcasting Company sound-reel tape, c. 1985.

John Haag , Associate Professor of History, University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia