Harry Martinson (1904 - 1978)
Nobel Prize in Literature in 1974
"for writings that catch the dewdrop and reflect the cosmos"
Swedish poet and writer, who was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1974 together with Eyvind Johnson. His most famous works are the science fiction poem Aniara (1956, made into an opera 1959), and his autobiographies Nässlorna blomma (1935, Flowering Nettles) and Vägen ut (1936, The Way Out).
Growing up: homeless vagrant
Harry Edmund Martinson was born in Blekinge in the south of Sweden, on May 6, 1904. He was the fifth child of seven, and the only son. His father was a sea captain, and after his death in 1910 his mother found raising seven children on her own to be too hard. She emigrated to America and stayed in Portland, Oregon for the rest of her life. As so-called childs of the parish, Martinson and his sisters were then sold at an auction to the lowest bidders. He changed homes several times and kept trying to run away, wishing to sail over to America and his mother.
At the age of 16, Martinson embarked on a ship and spent the following seven years roaming sea and land as a deckhand, stoker, coaltrimmer, laborer, and vagrant. He spent some time in South America and India, before returning to Sweden in the summer of 1927, having also contracted tuberculosis. In Gothenburg and Stockholm he got to know several young modernist artists and working class writers, and was also engaged politically with the Socialist party.
In Gothenburg he also met the writer Helga Maria Johansson, who he married in 1929. She changed her name to Moa Martinson and is recognized as an author under that name. Now he finally had some time to write, and he started to become well-known with his poems, essays, and novels. Moa also introduced him to other poets and artists.
The couple attended the writers' conference in the Soviet Union in 1934, from which he returned politically disillusioned. They had already started drifting apart, and he abandoned her several times. In 1395 he ran off to the North, and Moa issued a search warrant through the radio, letting the whole country learn of their marriage problems. The tuberculosis he had contracted in his youth still caused him troubles, and after a stay in hospital he did not return to Moa. Their divorce became official in 1940.
In 1940, Martinson enlisted in the Swedish volunteer corps in the Finnish winter war, as one of the service personnel delivering mail to the soldiers. The harsh weather took its toll on his health, and he could see the effects on the soldiers as well. He later recorded his experiences in a novel, Verklighet till döds ("Reality to death").
In 1942 he married Ingrid Lindcrantz, and in 1949 he was elected to the Swedish Academy as the first member with a working class background.
Martinson did not have any formal education, having quit school at the age of 13 to start working. He had liked school, as he probably found it to be an escape from an otherwise hard life as an orphan, and he was good at spelling and reading. He was a good observer, with a good memory and a vivid imagination, and he had started writing poems to sell while waiting to get employment on a ship. He drew inspiration from his experiences from his childhood and from his years working in different places all over the world.
In 1929, his debut book Spökskepp (Ghost Ship), a collection of poems, was published. It was influenced by Rudyard Kipling's The Seven Seas as well as by the Swedish poet Dan Andersson. Two years later, he published another collection called Nomad, and after that he published around one book per year. Together with the writers Erik Asklund, Josef Kjellgren, Artur Lundkvist and Gustaf Sandgren he published the anthology 5 unga (5 young) in 1930, one of the first examples of Swedish modernist literature.
The drawbacks of recognition
By the 1940's his reputation as a writer had been fairly well established, and he found himself suddenly swamped with letters from other young aspiring authors. Having written several autobiographical novels, the 1950's saw him publish some of his best poetic works, Aniara among them.
He always felt there was a close connection between nature, culture, and human existence, and the too fast development of technology frightened him. This notion is also visible in Aniara, as well as in later poems he wrote, such as Vagnen ("The Wagon", 1960). Aniara is a spaceship bound for Mars when Earth is no longer inhabitable, but it gets thrown off course, with no means to turn back.
The strangest omens would be seen in space
but, since they were unsuited to the program
of our day, they were promptly forgotten. - Aniara
Unexpectedly, what should have been a great blessing became a curse. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature along with Eyvind Johnson in 1974, rightfully so given their status and skill as authors, but highly controversial also since both of them were members of the Swedish Academy, which awards the prize. The newspapers were soon full of articles debating the award, and both authors were hurt deeply by the criticism expressed.
Martinson suffered long periods of illness and depression. He was admitted to hospital in 1978 where he tried to commit suicide by seppuku, but failed. He died not long after, on February 11, 1978.
I shall relate what I have heard of glass
and then you'll understand. In any glass
that stands untouched for a sufficient time,
gradually a bubble in the glass will move
infinitely slowly to a different point
in the glazen form, and in a thousand years
the bubble's made a voyage in its glass.
Similarly, in a boundless space
a gulf the depth of light-years throws its arch
round bubble Aniara on her march.
For though the rate she travels at is great
and much more rapid than the swiftest planet,
her speed as measured by the scale of space
exactly corresponds to that we know
the bubble makes inside this bowl of glass.
From Aniara, translation by Leif Sjöberg and Stephen Klass.
Info and inspiration found at (some sites in Swedish)
- Harry Martinson, Aniara, 1953
- http://www.harrymartinson.org/ - The Harry Martinson society
- Peter Nilson, Rymdljus (Space light), 1992, Nordsteds förlag AB, Stockholm