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Frans G(unnar) Bengtsson (1894-1954)


Swedish essayist, novelist, poet, and biographer. Bengtsson was the first successful practitioner of the informal essay in Sweden, a genre that he virtually introduced to the literature of his own country. His best-known novel is Röde orm (1941-45, The Long Ships), a Viking saga written in an ornate and romantic style. The central character, Red Orm Tostesson, is captured by the Vikings in his youth. Orm's adventures take him to Spain, Ireland, England  and Russia, after which he settles down to live peacefully in his farm in Skåne.

"In his childhood Orm had once or twice fallen sick, ever since when Asa had been convinced that his healt was fragile, so that she was continually fussing over him with solicitous admonitions, making him believe that he was racked with dangerous cramps and in urgent need of sacred onions, witches' incantations, and hot clay platters, when the only real trouble was that he had overeaten himself on corn porridge and pork." (from The Long Ships, translated by Michael Meyer)

Frans Gunnar Bengtsson was born in Tossjö, near Kristianstad, the first son of Sven Bengtsson, an estate manager, and Elsa Maria Ljunggren. In his childhood in Skåne Bengtsson suffered from poor health  he had a chronic kidney disease. The problems later hindered his plans for an academic career. Moreover, he did not serve in the army, he was forbidden to practice physical execise, and he never obtained ski and went to skiing. Bengtsson's favorite books in his childhood were James Fenimore Cooper's The Last of the Mohicans and The Deerslayer. His father was interested in books on Napoleon and Swedish history.

At the age of twelve, Bengtsson penned his first poem. After graduating from a secondary school in 1912 he entered the University of Lund. Bengtsson did not hurry with his studies. Such philosophers as Schopenhauer and Hartmann deeply influenced Bengtsson's thinking, a combination of a stoic world view with aestheticism, anti-democtaric bias, and passionate Anglophilia. While living in Lund, he read extensively, wrote poems which he gave to his friends, and developed skills as an extemporaneous speaker and chess player. "I'm an aesthete when I read philosophy, and a philosopher when I read fiction," he once said. From this period dates his friendship with the literature historian and critic Fredrik Böök, who helped  Bengtsson in the beginning of his career. H is Licentiate in Philosophy Bengtsson received in 1930.

Bengtsson married in 1939 Gerda Fineman, who worked as a secretary at the Norstedts publishing house. Politically, Bengtsson leaned to the right, and tended to view progress with suspicion. While he seldom expressed his opinions on current world affairs, during World War II he became known for his criticism of Nazism and the Swedish sympathizers of Germany. When his German translator of Röde Orm approached him with a proposal to modify the background of Salaman, an Andalusian Jew, he did not accept any changes. The first part of the novel, Die rote Schlange: Abenteuer eines Seefahrers ums Jahr 1000, translated by Elsa Carlberg, was published in München in 1943. Bengtsson died in Ribbingsfors on December 19, 1954. Though he had often  criticized institutionalized  Christianity, and by his friends he had been considered nearly an atheist, on his death bed he read old Swedish psalms. As a side-effect of his long illness he had gradually lost interest in books, his dearest friends all his life.

"Han kände den demoni som besjälar historien, men han ville inte blamera sig som världsförbättrare eller moralist i vanlig beskäftig mening; han föredrog att tiga. Den som läser hans glada essäer rätt anar, att där bakom finns en allvar som inte alls är oförenligt med ett gott skratt åt tillvarons groteska intermezzon." (Sven Stolpe in 40 svenska författare, 1980)

Bengtsson made his debut as a poet in 1923 with Tärningkast, which was followed by Legenden om Babel (1925). Reacting against modernism, he revived such old verse forms as the canzone and the sonnet. In the 1920s Bengtsson began publishing historical sketches in the periodical Ord och Bild. His first collection of essays, Litteratörer och militärer (1929), contained several historical sketches, as well as pieces of literary criticism and literary history. Other collections include Silversköldarna (1931), De långhåriga merovingerna (1933), Sällskap för en eremit (1938), För nöjes skull (1947), and Tankar i gröngräset (1953), a selection.

"I själva verket ha i alla högre kulturer talspråk och skriftspråk föga med varandra att göra; de existerar som divergerande grenar från samma rot, i varje fall som två självständiga storheter, där skriftspråket minst av allt är ett talspråkets lydiga epifenomen. Talspråket är en samlig skäligen godtyckliga läten, och dess öden äro av underordnad betydelse; skriftspråket däremot är ett idealt konstverk, motståndskraftig mot tid och förvandling tills barbarer och utvecklingsmakare få hand om det, och dess förvittring och sönderfall är ett med kulturens." (from 'Konsten att stava')

Essays brought Bengtsson great success. His broad knowledge of history, large vocabulary, and masterful style were used most effectively in these works. Bengtsson also had a phenomenal memory, and he could quote by heart long passages from books he had read in his youth. The writer Sven Stople, Bengtsson's friend, had told that only the Swedish explorer Sven Hedin had a better memory. Bengtsson's subject matters varied from literary and military figures to historical curiosities and the art of lying. He was especially interested in men of action, such as François Villon, Oliver Cromwell and Napoleon. A skeptical pessimist, Bengtsson had no illusions about the modern world. Over the years his attitude hardened, and he was seen as a highly anachronist figure in the 20th-century modernist Swedish literature. He once said: "Joan of Arc, Carl XII, and Garibaldi are the persons I would like to meet  for them the truth was more important than intrigues."  

The two-volume Karl XII:s levnad (1935-36), published by Norstedt, won the Swedish Academys prize in 1938. It was a detailed study of the life of King Charles XII, one of the greatest military leaders in European history who defeated Denmark, Poland, Saxony, and Russia in a series of campaigns, and was killed while fighting in Norway. Bengtsson avoided psychologizing but created an epic character who was hailed by the extreme right as the model of a strong militrary leader. After his friend Fredrik Böök made some negative comments about the work, Bengtsson broke with him. Röde orm was written during the war years, but its tone was light, and it did not have excessive patriotic fervour. It became one of the most widely read Swedish novels. Posthumously appeared Folk som sjöng (1955) and Lycklig resa (1960). An English translation of Bengtsson's essays was published in 1950 under the title A Walk to an Ant Hill and Other Essays.

In The Long Ships, which covered approximately the years 980-1010, Bengtsson adopted a narrative technique familiar from the Icelandic sagas. This work drew a picture of men whose thoughts and feelings are seen in their action. Colored with humor and irony, Bengtsson parodied romantic Viking pageants, in poetry and prose. As a model he did not use such great narratives as Njáls saga or Laxdla saga but turned to the smaller stories called pættir. By some critics Röde orm was considered to have contributed to a reawakening of interest in Viking civilization.

For further reading: Frans G. Bengtsson och Hjalmar Gullberg: en bok om poetisk vänskap (2003); Vem är vem i svensk litteratur by Agneta och Lars Erik Blomqvist (1999); Encyclopedia of World Literature in the 20th Century, Vol. 1, ed. by Steven R. Serafin (1999); 40 svenska författare by Sven Stople (1980); Legenden om Bengtsson by Ivar Harrie (1971); A History of Swedish Literature by A. Gustafson (1961); 'The Sword Does Not Jest' by R.E. Sullivan, in Swedish Pioneer Historical Quarterly 11 (1960); 'Frans G. Bengtsson, 1894-1954' by L.S. Thompson, in Kentucky Foreign Language Quaterly 2 (1955); 'The Long Ships' by W.W. Gustafson, in Scandinavian Studies 27 (1955); Frans G. Bengtsson by Elof Ehnmark (1946); Frans G. Bengtsson, essayisten by A. Lundkvist (1941)

Selected works:

  • Tärningkast: dikter, 1923
  • translator: Henry David Thoreau, Skogsliv vid Walden, 1924 (original title: Walden, or Life in the Woods)
  • Keltiskt och irländskt, 1925
  • Legenden om Babel: dikter, 1925
  • translator: John Milton, Det förlorade paradiset, 1926 (original title: Paradise Lost)
  • Litteratörer och militärer: essayer, 1929
  • Stonewall Jackson, 1929
  • translator: Rolandssången, 1929 (Chanson de Roland)
  • Silversköldarna, och andra essayer, 1931
  • translator: Eric Linklater, Juan i Amerika, 1931 (original title: Juan in America)
  • translator: Eric Linklater, Männen från Ness, 1933 (original title: The Men of Ness)
  • De långhåriga merovingerna, och andra essayer, 1933
  • translator; Eric Linklater, Poeten på "Pelikanen", 1933 (original title: Poets Pub)
  • translator: Eric Linklater, Magnus Merriman, 1935
  • Karl XII:s levnad 1-2, 1935-36
    - The Life of Charles XII, King of Sweden, 1697-1718 (tr. Naomi Walford, 1960) / The Sword Does Not Jest: The Heroic Life of Charles XII of Sweden (US title)
  • translator: Eric Linklater, Juan i Kina, 1937 (original title: Juan in China)
  • translator: Joan Grant, Jag var Egyptens drottning, 1938 (original title: Winged Pharaoh)
  • Sällskap för en eremit: essayer, 1938
  • translator: Joan Grant, Jag var Carola, 1939 (original title: Life as Carola)
  • translator: Christopher Morley, Kitty Foyle, 1940
  • translator: Aldous Huxley, Efter många somrar, 1940 (original title:  After Many a Summer)
  • translator: Eric Linklater, Judas, 1941
  • translator: Joan Grant, Solgudens återkomst, 1942 (original title: Eyes of Horus)
  • Röde Orm 1-2: Sjöfarare i Österled, 1941; Hemma och i Österled, 1945
    - Red Orm (tr. Barrows Mussey, 1943), The Long Ships: a Saga of the Viking Age (tr. Michael Meyer, 1954)
    - Orm Punainen: länsireittien merenkulkijoita (suom. Emerik Olsoni, 1942), Orm Punainen kotona ja idän retkillä (suom. Emerik Olsoni, 1946)
    - film The Long Ships, 1964, prod. Avala Film (UK, Yugoslavia) dir. Jack Cardiff, starring Richard Widmark, Sidney Poitier, Russ Tamblyn, Rosanna Schiaffino, Oskar Homolka . "A Viking adventurer and a Moorish prince fall out over a golden bell.  Stilted medieval epic with some visual compensations but more chat than action." (Halliwell's Film & Video Guide, 2000)
  • Tärningkast och Legenden om Babel, 1944
  • För nojes skull: essayer, 1947
  • A Walk to an Ant Hill and Other Essays, 1950 (tr. Michael Roberts and Elspeth Schubert)
  • Dikter, 1950 (illustrated by Gunnar Brusewitz)
  • Silversköldarna: essayer, 1951 (illustrated by Gunnar Brusewitz)
  • Tankar i gröngräset, 1953
  • Den lustgård som jag minns, 1953
  • Samlade skrifter, 1950-55 (10 vols.)
  • Folk som sjöng, och andra essayer, 1955
  • Konsten att läsa, 1960
  • Lycklig resa, 1960
  • Inför kvinnan ställd: efterlämnade dikter, 1964 (selected by Hjalmar Gullberg)
  • Mest för nöjes skull: [essayer 1929-1955], 1984 (foreword by Teddy Brunius)
  • Breven till Tristan, 1985 (edited by Rolf Arvidsson)
  • Äreräddning för Campeadoren, 1986 (afterword by Rolf Arvidsson)
  • Valfrändskaper: artiklar i Svensk uppslagsbok, 1989 (introduction by Rold Arvidsson)
  • Lyrisk slutlikvid: jämte Breven till Göran, 1990 (edited by Rolf Arvidsson)
  • Fyra texter om liv och läsning, 1991 (foreword by Rolf Arvidsson)
  • Epistlar till vänner: Frans G. Bengtssons brev till Olle Holmberg, Algot Werin och Fredrik Böök: tre brevsviter, 1993  (edited by Rolf Arvidsson)
  • Myt och medeltid: essayer, artiklar, översättningar, 1998 (edited by Jonas Ellerström)  
  • Frans G. Bengtsson: en brevbiografi, 2005 (edited by Jonas Ellerström, Svante Nordin, Bertil Romberg)

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