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Gunnar Ekelöf (1907-1968)


Swedish poet and essayist, one of the greatest poets of the 20th century in the Nordic countries. Ekelöf started as a modernist under the influence of French surrealism, but mostly he did not follow fashionable literary currents. An alchemist of words, Ekelöf followed his visions, and searched for inner, often mystical truths – "ändå tvingas jag söka / detta förlorade något, / osynligt, outsägligt, / detta som alltid / går mina känslor förbi." (from 'Ökenstämningar') His last years Ekelöf spent with his most ambitious work, the "Byzantine trilogy" – a product of his long-time interest in the history and cultures of the Near East.

Yes, I long for home,
Homeless I long for home,
Home to where love is, the one, the good,
Home to my real home!
That home is bright -
In my mind I open the door,
See everything awaiting me there.

(from 'One after one')

Gunnar Ekelöf was born in Stockholm into a wealthy family. His father, Gerhard Ekelöf, was a stockbroker. He had contracted syphilis in the 1890s, and in 1916 he died of general paralysis of the insane. At that time Ekelöf's mother Valfrid (von Hedenberg) had already separated from her husband; she married again in 1921. Ekelöf had worshiped his father, who had pampered him, and he did not accept his stepfather, Gunnar Hahr, and his new brother, Lennart, who, moreover began to sympathize with the nazis. Once writing of his mother he called her "en ond fé" (an evil witch); his frustrated love towards her, his disillusionment, and mystic ideas of a Virgin beyond good and evil, became recurrent themes in Ekelöf's texts. In 1920 Ekelöf traveled with his mother in France and Italy, and in 1921 in Germany. During the next decades he often visited Paris, and traveled in the 1950s and 1960s in the Mediterranean countries, Italy, Greece, Turkey, and Tunisia.

After graduating from a gymnasium in 1926 Ekelöf went to London, where he studied oriental languages at the School of Oriental Studies for a few months. He returned soon to Sweden where he entered the University of Uppsala. There he studied Persian, but did not graduate. In 1928 he received a share of his father's inheritance, becoming economically independent. In the late 1920s, Ekelöf lived in Paris. He studied music and came into contact with cubism and surrealism. In 1930 he met Gunnel Bergström; they married two years later in the summer. She left him for Karin Boye in the same autumn. Boye was a member of the Clarté circle like Ekelöf, and was married to her Clarté friend Leif Björck in a kind of friendship union.

Ekelöf's first book, sent på jorden (1932), was received with hostile reviews – the Swedish public was not ready for this kind of modernism, that had abandoned even capital letters. He had written the poems in Paris plagued by suicidal thoughts and listening to Stravinsky's Sacre du Printemps. In this nihilistic work Ekelöf asked for "poison to die or dreams to live". His following books were produced during a period which was marked by disappointments in love and hard drinking. Aware of the threat of Nazism, he visited in 1933 Germany and was convinced that "Hell is drawing near to Earth" and "the time of hate has come". Dedikation (1934) was his book of visions and dreams. Ekelöf supplied it with an epigraph from Rimbaud: "I say: one must be a seer, one must make oneself a seer." One of its poems, 'Fossil inskrift,' was about the Swedish artist Carl Frederik Hill (1849-1911), who suffered from schizophrenia. Ekelöf again returned to the artist in C.F. Hill (1946).

Ekelöf had lost most his inheritance when the Swedish financier Ivar Kreuger committed suicide in Paris in 1932 and his group of companies went into bankruptcy. Much of the money he still had he invested in the short-lived publishing company Spektrum. Its journal, bearing the same name and modelled after T.S. Eliot's Criterion, was edited by Karin Boye, Erik Mestertin and Josef Riwkin. Spectrum followed international literary currents and published works Harry Martinson, Arthur Lundkvist, and Eyvind Johnson. Also Ekelöf's early translations from al-'Arabí, Rimbaud, and Desnos appeared on its pages.

Ekelöf met in 1935 Maj Strindberg – their correspondence was published in 1989. He worked for a short time as a literary critic for Social-Demokraten; he had also started to write art reviews and established with Arthur Lundkvist and Knut Jaensson the avant-garde magazine Karavan. Ekelöf was too much of an individualist and outsider to join any political party, but labor union magazines printed his poems. They were, according to the working-class writer Ivar Lo-Johansson, incomprehensible for most of the readers. He had become friends with Ekelöf in the 1930s. "He had learned everything from books," Lo-Johanson wrote in Frihet (1985) of his friend, whom he considered a snob. "He mocked the masses, mocked trade unions, mocked all beliefs in progress and the vision of the poor and gullible workers that they could create a better world." In the 1930s Ekelöf had participated at least once in the traditional workers march on May Day, but his rebelliousness did not lead to political activism.

In an essay of 1935 Ekelöf distanced himself from Rimbaud, who had inspired his earlier work. Now he turned to Edith Södergran's poetry. Ekelöf never knew her – she had died in 1923. However, he met Södergran's mother Helen, and later said that she spoke old fashioned Swedish. Even Edith Södergran had troubles with modern Swedish grammar. In 1938 Ekelöf with Elmer Diktonius visited her summer house in Finland, at Raivola on the Karelian Isthmus, where she had lived permanently from the eve of World War I. Ekelöf's poem from Opus incertum (1959), 'Jag skriver till dig' (Jag skriver till dig från ett avlägset land / Det har inger färg) has perhaps some connections with Södergran's poem 'The Country That Is Not' (I long for the country that is not, / For everything that is I am tired of desiring), but it also refers to Henri Michaux's long prose poem 'Je vous écris d'un pays lointain'.

Färjesång (1941) showed the influence of T.S. Eliot whose East Coker Ekelöf translated into Swedish. However, the two poets did not meet until 1948, when T.S. Eliot received the Nobel Prize for literature. Ekelöf has sometimes been called as Sweden's T.S. Eliot, but the famous American-English leader of the modernist movement in literature was one of those poets whom he at first found important, and then rejected. The illusionless Färjesång had connections with oriental poetry, Dhammapada and Lao-tse, but the opening song, referring to Charon's boat, had much to do with the massacres and atrocities of World War II. Sweden managed to remain neutral, but the neighboring counties, Finland, Norway and Denmark, were drawn into war. In this situation some authors, among them Eyvind Johnson, criticized the controversial policy of neutrality. Ekelöf's prose works, Promenader (1941) and Ulflykter (1947), reveal how much the slaughter on the European battlefields had depressed him, an outsider and individualist, who rebelled against all ideologies.

"I am a stranger in this land
but this land is not stranger in me!"

(from Non Serviam, 1945)

In 1943 Ekelöf married Gunhild (Nun) Flodquist; their stormy marriage lasted nearly ten years. After the war Ekelöf published Non Serviam (1945), a disillusioned examination of human aspirations. "In reality you are nothing," Ekelöf wrote, adding a hopeful note: "Det finns en skönhetsfläck i allt, / det enda verkliga jag sett: Jag håller mig till den." Ekelöf accepts that the world is not perfect. As a rebel he identified himself with Lucifer, like Milton. The Latin title of the book, in the words of the fallen angel, means "I will not serve". Om hösten (1951) contains one of Ekelöf's most famous poems, 'Röster under jorden' (Voices from underground).

Ekelöf's marriage eventually collapsed in 1951, when he started to live with his wife's sister Ingrid Flodquist, a published poet, whose collection Gobeläng had appeared in 1949. They married in 1952 and traveled in Holland, France and Italy. Their daughter Suzanne Charlotte was born in the same year. In the mid-1950s the family moved to Sigtuna.

In Strountes (1955), a Frenchification of the Swedish expression "sturnt" (nonsense), Ekelöf continued his attack on literary conventions which he started in his first book. He examined meaning and meaninglessness, and showed with his puns how nonsense has much sense, and how irrational and poor our language can be. As in his other collections, Ekelöf used paradoxes and contrast, but did not give any simple solutions or Hegelian synthesis. "What I wrote / I wrote between the lines," he states.

En Mölna-elegi (1960, A Mölna Elegy) was a highly personal collection of free-flowing associations, moods, and memories, supported by voices of such writers as Emanuel Swedenborg, August Strindberg, Edith Södergran, and Carl Michael Bellman. Ekelöf began to compose the elegy in the late 1930s but it was finally published in 1960. A Mölna Elegy has been called Ekelöf's most Joycean work – one of the voices actually is Joyce's Stephen Dedalus from A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916). The poems, dealing with the Proustian theme of memory, were set on one day during the Indian summer of 1940. The poet sits at Mölna dock in Lidingö, his thoughts leading to a vision of great fire.

A desolate wind from the city
and nearer, further
the bell's burden, swinging fifths
- it's burning! it's burning! -
of the dread march:
We lived - just then!
We live now not at all,
we shall live - for the firs time!

(from 'Marche funèbre' in A Mölna Elegy, 1960)

Ekelöf became a member of the Swedish Academy in 1958 and received an honorary doctorate from the University of Uppsala. After is mother died in 1961, Ekelöf published En natt i Otočac, an excursion in the archaic Mediterranean world which ended with the lines: "On earth they become shadows / out of which dusk builds / that realm of Hades / where the dark violets grow." In 1966 he received the Nordic Literature Prize.

Diwán över Fursten av Emgión (1965) was the first part of Ekelöf's ecstatic Byzantine poem, which he continued in Sagan om Fatumeh (1966) and Vägvisare till underjorden (1967). Although it appeared during the cold war and the global juxtaposition of East and West, its historical vision was not political but universal. Already in the 1920s, Ekelöf had  been fascinated by Tarjúman al-Ashwáq, a collection of mystical odes written by Muhammad Ibn 'Arabi, who lived in the 12th-century. In A Mölna Elegy the Sufi poet says "Labbayka!" (At thy service!).

Inspired by the sight of a Byzantine icon of the Madonna, worn down by kisses, Ekelöf wrote 17 poems for Diwán during a single night in a hotel room in Istanbul. Its motto was taken from Tarjúman al-Ashwáq. In the first part he introduced one of his central images, the Madonna figure. In Non serviam he had written about the winged Virgin in the great ode 'Samothrake'; the image of the cosmic Virgin-Mother had appeared in different forms in several poems from Färjesång. In 1950 in a letter to his friend Rabbe Enckell he had presented his concept of divinity which he connected to feminine being. The narrator in Diwán is a Byzantine prince, Emgión, who is captured by his enemies, and is tortured and blinded. His guide is a young prostitute, Fatumeh, loved by the Prince, but her name also refers to fate and death. "I don't live / if you are dead," Ekelöf writes. In their story he examined his favorite dichotomies, blindness and visions, eroticism and mysticism, etc. against the background of the Manichean dualistic world of light and darkness. With the trilogy Ekelöf confessed his basically pagan faith in the love of the Magna Mater.

W.H. Auden, who translated Ekelöf's poems into English with Leif Sjöberg, translated also Pär Lagerkvist's poems from Aftonland. When he visited Ekelöf's house he found it "rather extravagant" for a poet. And the furniture were "expensive looking" antiques. Ekelöf himself seemed to be depressed, perhaps "due to a drinking problem." The conversation was diplomatic but cordial. They both also shared the same tendency towards mysticism. At the time, when Auden took a serious interest in Ekelöf's work, the poet was already fatally ill. His wife Ingrid read and commented the translations as they progressed. ('Translating with W.H. Auden: Gunnar Ekelöf's last poems' by Leif Sjöberg, in Comparative Criticism: A Yearbook. Volume 1, edited by E.S. Shaffer, 1979, pp. 186-190) 

Ekelöf died on March 16, 1968 in Sigtuna. His ashes were scattered in the river Sardis, near the cult of Artemis. The Gunnar Ekelöf Association was founded in 1989. Ekelöf's writings continued to appear in posthumous publications. The poet's work, full of references to philosophy, literature, history, and myths, has interested a number of scholars. Their studies have clarified Ekelöf's ideas for a wider public although in general he is still considered a "difficult" poet. Before his death Ekelöf planned to write his autobiography after the model of Stendhal's Vie de Henry Brular, but the plan was never realized.

For further reading: Till det omöjligas konst bekänner jag mig: Gunnar Ekelöfs konstsyn by Ann Lundvall (2009); Die Entwicklung der Lyrik von Gunnar Ekelöf als Ausdruck sich wandelnder sprachphilosophischer Konzepte by Petra Lyon (2001); Tradition och originalitet hos Gunnar Ekelöf by Anders Mortensen (2000); Ekfraser: Gunnar Ekelöfs billedbeskrivende digte by Annette Fryd (1999); Gunnar Ekelöf framför bilden by Ulf Thomas Moberg (1999); Ekelöf, Proust och Conrad: tre valfränder by Olof Lagercrantz (1998); Polyederns gåta: en introduktion till Gunnar Ekelöfs Färjesång by Bengt Landgren (1998); Gunnar Ekelöf by Anders Olsson (1997); Föreställningar om det omedvetna: Stagnelius, Ekelöf och Norén by Cecilia Sjöholm (1996); Jag bor i en annan värld men du bor ju i samma: Gunnar Ekelöf betraktad by Olof Lagercrantz (1994); Gunnar Ekelöf och antiken by Paul Åström (1992); Gunnar Ekelöf: en biografi by Carl Olof Sommar (1989); Turkiska resor, ed. by Ulf Thomas Moberg (1989); Gunnar Ekelöf, en motståndsman: marginalanteckning by Ulf Thomas Moberg (1986); Konstnärens hand: en symbol hos Gunnar Ekelöf by Brita Wigforss (1983); Ekelöfs nej by Anders Olsson (1983); A History of Scandinavian Literature, 1870-1980 by Sven H. Rossel (1982); Gunnar Ekelöfs dikt Samothrake by Ingmar Stenroth (1982); Den poetiska världen: strukturanalytiska studier i den unge Gunnar Ekelöfs lyrik by Bengt Landgren (1982); L'alto, il basso, la seppia e la spirale by L. Koch Ausili Cefaro (1977); Livskänsla och självutplåning: studier kring framväxten av Gunnar Ekelöfs Strountesdiktning by Pär Hellström (1976); Gunnar Ejelöfs "Nacht am Horizont" und seine Begegnung mit Stéphane Mallarmé by C. Perner (1974); Tre lärodiktare: studier i Harry Martinsons, Gunnar Ekelöfs och Karl Vennbergs lyrik by Marie Louise Ramnefalk (1974); A Reader's Guine to Gunnar Ekelöfs "A Mölna Elegy" by L. Sjöberg (1973); Voices under the Ground by R. Shideler (1973); Ensamheten, döden och drömmarna: Studier över ett motivkomplex i Gunnar Ekelöfs diktning by Bengt Landgren (1971); Gunnar Ekelöf: en bibliografi by Reidar Ekner (1970); I den havandes liv: åtta kapitel om Gunnar Ekelöfs lyrik by Reidar Ekner (1967) - Suomennoksia: Runoja, suom. Tarmo Manelius (1968); Epätasaiset runot, suom. Pentti Saarikoski (1981); Trilogia, suom. Caj Westerberg (1994)

Selected works:

  • Two poems from Robert Desnos's Corps et Biens, 1931 (translator) 
  • Sent på jorden, 1932 [Late arrival on Earth]
    - Late Arrival on Earth (translated by Robert Bly and Christina Paulston, 1967)
  • Rimbaud Les illuminations / A. Rimbaud, 1932 (translator)
  • Falskmyntarna / André Gide, 1932  (translator)
  • Fransk surrealism, 1933 (introduction)
  • Kärleken och döden: 3 noveller / Marcel Proust, 1933 (translator)
  • Brott i San Fransisco / Luc Durtain, 1933 (translator)
  • Dedikation, 1934
  • Hundra år av modern fransk dikt: från Baudelaire till surrealism, 1934 (ed. and tr.)
  • En tid i helvetet / Arthur Rimbaud, 1935 (translator)
  • Sorgen och stjärnan, 1936 [The sorrow and the star]
  • Köp den blindes sång, 1938 [Buy the blind man's song]
  • Promenader: småprosa, 1941 [Promenades]
  • Färjesång, 1941 [Ferry songs]
  • Dikter / T. S. Eliot, 1942 (ed., with Ronald Bottrall)
  • Four Poems / Guillaume Apollinaire, 1943 (translator)
  • Förtvivla ej / André Malraux, 1944  (translator)
  • Ivan Aguéli, 1944
  • Non serviam, 1945
  • C.F. Hill, 1946
  • November / Gustave Flaubert, 1946  (translator)
  • Utflykter, 1947 [Excursions]
  • Dikter, 1949 [Poems]
  • Om hösten, 1951 [In autumn]
  • Strountes, 1955 [Nonsense]
  • Dikter 1932-1951, 1956
  • En bok om Gunnar Ekelöf, 1956 (edited by Stig Carlson and Axel Liffner)
  • Blandande kort: essäer, 1957 [Shuffled cards: essays]
  • Berömda franska berättare, 1957 (ed., with Östen Sjöstrand)
  • Verklighetsflykt: valda promenader och utflykter, 1958
  • Opus incertum, 1959
  • Postflyg syd / Saint-Exupery, 1960 (translator)
  • En Mölna-elegi: metamorfoser, 1960
    - A Mölna Elegy (translated by Muriel Rukeyser and Lief Sjöberg, 1979)
  • Valfrändskaper: omdiktningar, 1960
  • En natt i Otočac, 1961 [A night in Otočac]
  • Sent på jorden, med Appendinx och En natt vid horisonten, 1962
  • Promenader och utflykter: Samlad småprosa, 1963
  • Diwán över Fursten av Emgión, 1965 [Diwan about the Prince of Emgión]
  • Sagan on Fatumeh, 1966 [The tale of Fatumeh]
  • Vatten och sand: dikter genom åren, 1966 (edited by Reidar Ekner)
  • Vägvisare till underjoden, 1967
    - Guide to the Underworld (translated by Rika Lesser, 1980)
  • Selected Poems of Gunnar Ekelöf, 1967 (translated by Muriel Rukeyser and Leif Sjöberg)
  • Three Poems of Gunnar Ekelöf, 1967 (translated by Muriel Rukeyser)
  • I Do Best Alone at Night, 1968 (edited and translated by Robert Bly with Christina Paulston)
  • Lägga patience, 1969 [Playing solitaire]
  • Partitur: Ett urval efterlämnade dikter 1965-1968, 1969 (edited by Ingrid Ekelöf)
  • Urval: dikter 1928-1968, 1968 (edited by Ingrid Ekelöf)
  • En självbiografi: efterlämnade brev och anteckningar, 1971 (edited by Ingrid Ekelöf)
  • Selected Poems, 1971 (translated by W.H. Auden and Leif Sjöberg)
  • En röst: efterlämnade dikter och anteckningar, 1973 (edited by Ingrid Ekelöf)
  • Lyrik och prosa / Arthur Rimbaud, 1972 (editor and translator)
  • Friends, You Drank Some Darkness: Three Swedish Poets: Harry Martinson, Gunnar Ekelöf and Tomas Tranströmer, 1975 (edited and translated by Robert Bly)
  • Dikter 1965-1968, 1976
  • Grotesker: opublicerade och publicerade dikter, 1981 (edited by Roger Fjellström)
  • Cahier I, 1982 (edited by Ulf Thomas Moberg)
  • Songs of Something Else: Selected Poems of Gunnar Ekelöf, 1982 (translated by Leonard Nathan and James Larson)
  • Gunnar Ekelöf skriver om konst, 1984 (edited by Ulf Thomas Moberg)
  • Commedia dell'Arte, 1984
  • Frysom: lysom!: Elmer Diktonius och Gunnar Ekelöf brevväxlar, 1984 (edited by Ulf Thomas Moberg)
  • Variationer: dikter ur tidningar och tidskrifter, 1986 (edited by Anders Mortensen)
  • Brevet till Maj Sandman, 1989
  • Brev 1916-1968, 1989 (edited by Carl Olov Sommar)
  • Drömmen om Indien och andra prosastycken, 1989 (edited by Carl Olov Sommar)
  • Gunnar Ekelöf och Gottfrid Walldén: en brevväxling, 1990 (edited by Paul Åström)
  • Brev från Gunnar Ekelöf, 1991
  • Gunnar Ekelöf, Skrifter 1-8, 1991-1993 (edited by Reidar Ekner)
  • Modus Vivendi: Selected Prose of Gunnar Ekelöf, 1998 (edited and translated by Erik Thygesen)
  • Krönikor i Svenska familjetidningen 1940-43, 2001 
  • Gunnar Ekelöf: kritiker i BLM, 2003 (introduction by Magnus Halldin; afterword by Lars Gustafsson)
  • Gunnar Ekelöf: kritiker i Socialdemokraten, Vi & Dagens nyheter, 2003 (foreword by Göran Martling)
  • Enquête: Gunnar Ekelöf svarar: valda intervjuer och enkätsvar, 2005 (introduction by Magnus Halldin; edited by Göran Martling and John Swedenmark)
  • Gunnar Ekelöf och Evert Taube: en brevbetraktelse, 2011 (edited by Bo Alström and Astrid Linder)

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