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Per Olov Enquist (b. 1934)


Swedish novelist, playwright, and journalist, who has gained international fame with his "documentary-style" fiction. Several of Enquist's novels depict his native Västerbotten, where the Laestadian, pietistic religious movement deeply influenced everyday life. Enquist has also written with expertness about sports – in his prime he was in Sweden among the five best in the high jump. Enquist's record was 1,97 meters.

"But what in truth was a human being, who could be dissected or dismembered and hung up on the post and wheel, and yet in some way continued to live on? What was it that was sacred? "The sacred is what the one who is sacred does," he had thought: the human being as the sum of his existential choices and actions. But in the end it was something else altogether, something more important, that remained of Struensee's era. Not biology, not just actions, but a dream of humanity's possibilities, that which was the most sacred of all and the most difficult to capture, that which existed as the simple, persistent note of a flute from Struensee's era and which refused to be cut off." (from Livläkarens besök, 1999)

Per Olov Enquist was born and raised in Hjoggböle in northern Sweden, the son of Elof Enquist, a laborer, and Maria Lindgren Enquist, a schoolteacher. While he was still an infant, his father died. Enquist studied at the University of Uppsala from 1955 to 1964, where he completed an M.A. and a thesis on the crime noves of Thorsten Johnsson. His career as a writer started among the modernists of the 1960s generation, whose works reflected the influence of the French nouveau roman (Alain Robbe-Grillet, Claude Simon, Nathalie Sarraute, Michel Butor, Marguerite Duras).

Enquist's first novel Kristallögat came out in 1961. "At a time when young writers were looking for new forms of literary expression, Enquist settled for an investigative style, an attempt to reconstruct events reported to have happened but where the truth is often too inaccessible, the facts too complex to yield anything but ambiguous answers. It was a style that was to remain Enquist's literary trademark, characterising both his novels and his plays." (Contemporary World Authors, ed. by Tracy Chevalier , 1993) In the United States Norman Mailer and Truman Capote developed a form of journalism, that combined actual events with the richness of a novel.

With his third novel, Magnetisörens femte vinter (1964), Enquist received widespread public and critical acclaim. The novel was set in a small German town and portrays a man, Friedrich Meisner, who resembles the famous experimenter in magnetism, F.A. Mesmer (1734-1815). The miracle worker is caught in a conflict between faith and disbelief, irrational and rational forces. Meisner helps the daughter of the townsman Claus Selinger to see again. Selinger falls under the spell of the doctor, but later reveals his dishonesty. But nobody can deny that his daughter is no longer blind. "I must show great circumspection in teaching her to see. She can see now; but no one knows what she sees." One of the author's sources was P.G. Cederschjöld's report of 1821 – he was a doctor and used Mesmer's ideas in medical care. Enquist's further experiment with the documentary approach is seen in Hess(1966), which explored the solo flight of Rudolf Hess to England to end World War II. A researcher writes a treatise of the Nazi leader and other people who have the same name. Gradually he becomes fascinated with Hess, breaking the principle of scientific objectivity. With Legionärerna (1968) Enquist won the prestigious Nordic Council literary prize. It was a story of Sweden's deportation of a number of Baltic soldiers who fled from the German army at the end of WW II. Both works have been translated into some ten languages.

Legionärerna was based on documents, interviews, private letters and many other sources. Enquist travelled in England, Denmark and the Soviet Union where he met the former legionaries and heard their stories. He even experimented with a hunger strike to feel what it meant for the Baltic soldiers. Surprisingly the book includes an open letter to Mao Zedong in which the author expresses his distrust in politics and confesses his difficulties to avoid subjective interpretation of the facts during the research process.  

Sekonden (1971) looked critically at society's need for progress, for new records and accomplishments, and weaved together the puzzle of a dishonest athlete and his son, whose relationship with an East German female athlete is paralyzed. As in Legionärerna Enquist approached his subject as a researcher, and used his own experiences from sport. The work contained numerous references to the novels of 1966 and 1968. Katedralen i München (1972) was based on a newspaper article Enquist wrote at the Olympic Games in 1972.

From 1970 to 1971 Enquist lived in West Berlin and in 1973 he was a visiting professor at UCLA. In Los Angeles Enquist started to write his most famous drama, Tribadernas natt (1975). The play depicts August Strindberg's sexual insecurity, and his relationship with his wife Siri von Essen and the Danish actress Marie Caroline David. Enquist used as his point of departure Strindberg's own rehearsal of his one-act play The Stronger. Enquist's interpretation is distinctly at odds with Strindberg's intentions. Tribadernas natt was translated into twenty languages, and had more than a hundred productions, including a short run on Broadway. Berättelser från de inställda upprorens tid (1974), a collection of pessimistic short stories, reflected the author's six months of lecturing in California.

In the late 1970s Enquist moved to Copenhagen, where his second wife, Lone Bastholm, worked as a chief of dramatic productions at the Royal Theater. Enquist co-authored with Anders Ehnmark the play Chez nous (1977), which borrowed its title from the name of a sex club in Stockholm. Enquist's and Ehnmark's targets were the world of high finance and the sensationalist newspapers, trade unionism and the sports world. The sex club worked as a metaphor for economic criminality. The play became a succès de scandale at Stockholm's Royal Dramatic Theatre. One of Enquist's finest works, Musikanternas uttåg (The March of the Musicians) appeared in 1978. It describes the lives and working conditions of non-union laborers in the early years of the 20th century, around the timber-mills of Bureå in northern Sweden. The title of the novel was taken from a story by the Grimm Brothers, 'Town Musicians of Bremen'. Controversially, Enquist does not glamorize workers or the agitator Johan Elmblad, who is chased out of the neighborhood. During the confrontation between the Social-Democratic Party and the Christian fundamentalist, Nicanor, a young boy, helps Elmblad. Nicanor realizes at the end that "there's always something better than death". Enquist argues that Social Democracy has not kept its promises and has abandoned Socialism.

In Nedstörtad ängel (1985) Enquist told three love stories through such characters as a Mexican born with two heads, a male and female, a schizophrenic murderer, and a woman, Bertolt Brecht's third wife, who was confined in a mental hospital. Enquist has also written short stories, travel books, a detective novel, and the script for Jan Troell's film Hamsun (1996). It focused on the late years of the Norwegian Nobel writer, which were shadowed by accusations of Nazi sympathies. The film was praised by among others director Ingmar Bergman. Enquist also collaborated with Troell in the film Il Capitano (1991) based on a true story dealing with the 1988 Åmsele murders. 

Enquist's literary criticism has appeared in a number of newspapers, including Uppsala Nya Tidning, Svenska Dagbladet, and Expressen. After the publication of Kapten Nemos bibliotek (1991) Enquist said in an interview that it was his last novel. The family tragedy was based on a real event in which the male babies were mixed in a hospital. When the mistake is found, the nameless disturbed narrator at the age of six is taken from his home, 'the green house', and sent to a less prosperous home. Another child, Johannes, takes his place. The narrator finds a refuge from Jules Verne's stories. Captain Nemo becomes the guide into his confused mind. "The birds slept, tightly wrapped in themselves and their dreams. Can it be that birds dream? The mist was so low that it left only water and birds to be seen, only a black unmoving surface of water, and endless sea. I could imagine myself on the outermost shore, and in front of me nothingness. An outermost boundary. And then the birds, wrapped tightly in their dreams."

However, in 1999 Enquist broke his silence as a novelist with Livläkarens besök, which won the August Award and the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize 2003. The protagonist is Johan Friedrich Struensee, a German doctor and advocate of the ideas of Enlightenment. Struensee became the personal physician to King Christian VII of Denmark (1766-1808), who suffered from mental illness. In his position Struensee gained huge influence, and he issued reformist statutes without the king's signature. His ally was the strong-willed and shrewd queen, Caroline Mathilde. She bore him a daughter. The scandalous business ended violently. Struensee was executed when the old power, led by a palace tutor named Ove Hoegh-Guldbergmade, made its counterattack. Enquist asks the question, "what if an intellectual and humanist were the ruler?" Struensee thinks he is a man of the people, but he is no politician, and in the same way that he believes in his reforms, his opponent Guldberg, politically more talented, also thinks that he works for justice. "Among this book's merits is its perceptive treatment of the collision between the sheer purity of absolute ideas, whether religious or philosophical, and the stubborn impurity, complexity, ambiguity of actual human lives. This collision generates an abundance of ironies. Struensee institutes freedom of the press, only to see it exploited mainly by his enemies." (Bruce Bawer in The New York Times, November 18, 2001)

Enquist's play Systrarna (2000) is written for the Danish Betty Nansen theater. It is based on Anton Chechov's drama The Three Sisters (1901) and his characters. It continues the series in which the author has taken as his subject such figures as August Strindberg, H.C. Andersen, Selma Lagerlöf, and Victor Sjöström. Lewis resa (2001), about religion, love and taboos, was based on historical facts, documentary records, and interviews. Enquist himself has said, that the work in not a "documentary novel", although its protanogists are real-life characters – Lewi Pethrus, the founder of the Swedish Pentecostal Revival, and Sven Lidman, a poet. Enquist dedicated the novel to his mother, who was a member of a popular revivalist movement in Västerbotten. Also Lewi in the novel regards his mother as the most important person in his life.

For further reading: Per Olov Enquist by Erik Henningsen (1975); 'Introduction' by R. Shideler in The Night of the Tribades (1977); Per Olov Enquist: A Critical Study by Ross Shideler (1984); World Authors 1975-1980, ed. by Vineta Colby (1985); Per Olov Enquist och det inställda upproret by Henrik Jansson (1987); Contemporary World Authors, ed. by Tracy Chevalier (1993); The Rhetoric of the Documentary: Per Olov Enquist and Scandinavian Documentary Literature by Thomas Bredsdorff (1993); Ulkomaisia nykykertojia 1, toim. Ritva Aarnio jsa Ismo Loivamaa (1998); Encyclopedia of World Literature in the 20th Century, Vol. 2, ed. by Steven R. Serafin (1999); Mellan sanningen och lögnen: studier i Per Olov Enquists dramatik = Between Verity and Mendacity: Studies in Per Olov Enquist’s Dramatic Production by Gunnar Syréhn (2000)

Selected works:

  • Kristallögat, 1961
  • Färdvägen, 1963
  • Magnetisörens femte natt, 1964
    - The Magnetist's Fifth Winter (translated by Paul Britten Austin, 1989)
    - Ihmeparantajan viides talvi (suom. Elvi Sinervo, 1972)
    - films: TV play 1972, prod. Sveriges Radio, dir. Bengt Lagerkvist; 1999, script by Enquist and Jonas Cornell, directed by Morten Henriksen, starring Rolf Lassgård, Ole Lemmeke, Johanna Sällström, Gard B. Eidsvold
  • Bröderna Casey, 1964
  • Hess, 1966
  • Sextiotalskritik: en antologi, 1966 (editor)
  • Legionärerna: [en roman om baltutlämningen], 1968
    - The Legionnaires: A Documentary Novel (translated by Alan Blair, 1973)
    - Miehet ilman isänmaata (suom. Kristiina Kivivuori, 1969)
  • Sekonden, 1971
    - Kevyt moukari (suom. Liisa Ryömä, 1973)
  • Katedralen i München och andra berättelser, 1972
  • Berättelser från de inställda upprorens tid, 1974
  • Tribadernas natt: ett skådespek från 1889, 1975 (play)
    - The Night of the Tribades (translated by Ross Shideler, 1977; Gunilla Anderman, in Plays, 2004) 
    - Tribadien yö (suom. Pentti Saarikoski, 1975)
    - TV play 1978, prod. SVT Drama, dir. Per Verner-Carlsson, starring Ernst-Hugo Järegård, Anita Björk, Lena Nyman; TV play 1983, prod. Yleisradio (YLE), dir. Veikko Kerttula, starring Harri Tirkkonen, Liisamaija Laaksonen, Tarja Keinänen, Oiva Lohtander, Sulevi Peltola
  • Chez nous: bilder från svenskt församlingsliv, 1976 (with Anders Ehnmark)
    - film 1978, prod. Svenska Filminstitutet (SFI), dir. Jan Halldoff, screenplay Anders Ehnmark
  • Musikanternas uttåg, 1978
    - The March of the Musicians (translated by Joan Tate, 1985)
    - Agitaattori (suom. Rauno Ekholm, 1979)
  • Mannen på trottoaren: förundersökning angående mordet på doktor Plehve, 1979 (with Anders Ehnmark)
  • Till Fedra, 1980 (play)
    - Faidralle (suom. Pentti Saarikoski, 1980)
  • Från regnormarnas liv, 1981 (play)
    - Rain Snakes (translated by Kim Dambæk, in Plays, 2004)
    - Kastematojen elämästä (suom. Pentti Saarikoski , 1981)
    - TV drama 1984, dir. d Brinchmann, starring Lars Andreas Larssen, Monna Tandberg, Gisle Straume; TV film 1998, prod. SVT Drama, dir. Per Olov Enquist, starring Lena Endre, Tomas von Brömssen, Erland Josephson; TV film 2005, dir. Anders Ehnmark, starring Henrik Koefoed, Karen-Lise Mynster, Inge Molnes Heramb, Ole Wegener
  • En triptyk, 1981 (contains Tribadernas natt, Till Fedra, Från regnormarnas liv)
  • Doktor Mabuses nya testamente: en detektivroman från seklets slut, 1982 (with Anders Ehnmark)
  • Strindberg: ett liv, 1984
    - August Strindbergin elämä (suom. Raija Jänicke, 1985)
    - TV series 1985, dir. Johan Bergenstråhle, Kjell Grede, written by Per Olov Enquist, starring Thommy Berggren
  • Nedstörtad ängel: en kärleksroman, 1985
    - Downfall: A Love Story (translated by Anna Paterson, 1986)
    - Suistunut enkeli (suom. Liisa Ryömä, 1986)
  • Två reportage om idrott, 1986
  • I lodjurets timma, 1988 (play)
    - The Hour of the Lynx: A Play (translated by Ross Shideler, 1990; Kim Dambæk, in Plays, 2004)
    - Ilveksen hetki (suom. Pentti Saaritsa, 1987)
  • Kapten Nemos bibliotek, 1991
    - Captain Nemo's Library (translated by Anna Paterson, 1992)
    - Kapteeni Nemon kirjasto (suom. Antero Tiusanen, 1992)
  • Tre pjäser, 1994 (plays, contains Magisk Cirkel, Tupilak, Maria Stuart)
    - Tupilak (suom. Marja Kyrö, 1993); Maaginen ympyrä (suom. Antero Tiusanen, 1994)
  • Hamsun: en filmberättelse, 1996 (film script)
    - Hamsun: elokuvakertomus (suom. Antero Tiusanen, 1997)
    - film prod. Bayerischer Rundfunk (BR), dir. by Jan Troell, starring Max von Sydow, Ghita Nørby, Anette Hoff, Gard B. Eidsvold
  • Bildmakarna, 1998 (play, dealing with Selma Lagerlöf's father and his alcoholism)
    - The Image Makers, translated by Charlotte Barslund and Kim Dambæk, in Plays, 2004)
    - Kuvamaakarit (suom. Kristiina Lyytinen, 1998)
    - TV film 2000, dir. Ingmar Bergman, starring Anita Björk, Carl Magnus Dellow, Lennart Hjulström, Elin Klinga
  • Livläkarens besök, 1999
    - The Visit of the Royal Physician (translated by Tiina Nunnally, 2001; US title: The Royal Physician's Visit)
    - Henkilääkäri (suom. Antero Tiusanen, 2001)
  • Systrarna, 2000 (play)
  • Lewis resa, 2001
    - Lewi's Journey (translated by Tiina Nunnally, 2005)
    - Matkamies (suom. Antero Tiusanen, 2003)
  • De tre grottornas berg, 2003
    - Three Cave Mount; or, Grandfather and the Wolves (ill. by Stina Wirsén, translated by Tiina Nunnally, 2007)
    - Kolmen luolan vuori (suom. Marja Kyrö, 2004)
  • Plays, 2004 (introduced by Gunilla Anderman; The Night of the Tribades, translated by Gunilla Anderman; Rain Snakes, translated by Kim Dambæk; The Hour of the Lynx, translated by Kim Dambæk; The Image Makers, translated by Charlotte Barslund and Kim Dambæk)
  • Boken om Blanche och Marie, 2004
    - The Story of Blanche and Marie (translated by Tina Nunnally, 2006)
    - Blanche ja Marie (suom. Antero Tiusanen, 2005)
  • Ett annat liv, 2008
  • Den tredje grottans hemlighet, 2010 (illustrated by Katarina Strömgård)
    - Kolmannen luolan salaisuus (suom. Marja Kyrö, 2011)
  • Liknelseboken: en kärleksroman, 2013

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