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Moa Martinson (1890-1964) - original name Helga Maria Swartz


Self-taught novelist and journalist, who depicted the plight of the landless agricultural workers in the Swedish countryside. Born out of wedlock and growing up in the slums of an industrial town, Moa Martinson was the first woman writer among the worker-novelists, who gained international fame.  Martinson has been called a "female Maxim Gorky." Her writings were often autobiographical. Though the first half of her life was filled with poverty and misery, her memoirs were also full of warmth and humour.

"Paradoxically enough, I am mostly indignant not because I was denied the possibility to get a university education, but because I landed right in the same anonymous hell as my mother. Maybe it was even harder for me, for I was fully conscious that it was hell. I was clear about the injustice against all of us, and powerless." (from the foreword for My Mother Gets Married, 1936/1956)

Helga Maria Swartz (Moa Martinson) was born in Vårdnäs in Östergötland, the daughter of an unmarried factory girl, Kristina Swartz. Moa's stepfather – when he was not unemployed – worked as a farm laborer in around Norrköping.  He occasionally disappeared to drink with prostitutes. In Mother Gets Married (1936) Martinson wrote that her mother was her best and most reliable friend. She was six when her mother married for the first time.

After elementary school, Moa left home at the age of thirteen and worked amongst other things in a restaurant kitchen at the Norrköping Art and Industry Exhibition and as a cold buffet manager in Stockholm. In 1910 she married a cement worker, Karl Johansson, with whom she moved to a small cottage in Ösmo in Sörmland. The marriage was unhappy – her violent husband, who suffered from bouts of depression, drank and battered her. Between 1910 and 1916 Martinson gave birth to five sons. Two of her children drowned in 1925, and a few years later she was widowed, when her husband killed himself. In 1929 she married – her name was at that time Helga Johansson – the young sailor and debutant novelist Harry Martinson, who was fifteen years younger. He shared in 1974 the Nobel Prize for Literature with Eyvind Johnson.

In the 1920s Martinson started to write for Social Democratic newspapers and labor publications, including the radical the women's weekly Tidevarvet, edited by Elin Wägner. She became actively involved in the socialist movement, giving speeches and demanding better pay and living conditions for farm and factory workers. In 1922 she was elected as a local Social Democrat councillor.

Filling gaps in her education Martinson devoured such authors as Dostoyevsky, Zola, Gorky, and especially Martin Andersen-Nexø. Another turning point in her life came in the spring of 1928, when she attended the Women Citizen's School at Fogelstad: "Here I began using new strata of my brain. What I had read on my own at home turned out to be useful." In 1934 she participated in the first All Union Congress of Soviet Writers. In the congress Gorky was chosen as chairman, and the new literary doctrine known as Socialist Realism was formulated. Harry Martinson, who had separated from her for a period, reunited with her. In 1935 he escaped to the North, and this time Moa issued a warrant through the radio. After it everybody in Sweden knew about their marriage problems.

Martinson's first story, Pigmamma, written in 1924-25, appeared in serialized form in the journal Brand in 1927. Since the late 1920s, she had used the pseudonym Moa, which originated from the novel Bræen (1908, The Glacier) by the Danish author Johannes V. Jensen. At the age of 43 she entered the male-dominated literary scene with the novel Kvinnnor och äppelträd (1933, Eng. tr. Women and Apple Trees). It depicted the strength and solidarity of several generations of working-class women in their struggle with poverty and abusive, hard-drinking men. "It was a big farm with poor soil. Tough, that soil was, contrary as old women or as horses hard beaten. Soil that lay there, mossy and miry and matted, and only spited you. Soil that pliantly spread itself out for birch roots and useless wilderness, but set itself perversely against the ploughsgare, against the spade and hoe, like a woman in bed who hates her man." Women and Apple Trees was followed by Sallys söner (1934), Rågvakt (1935) and Drottningen Grågyllen (1937). Motsols (1937) was her only collection of poms.

Her most successful work is the autobiographical trilogy Mor gifter sig  (1936, Eng. tr. My Mother Gets Married), which a reviewer called "food for the dump," Kyrkbröllop (1938, Church Wedding), and Kungens rosor (1938, The King's Roses), about a young girl's relationship with her mother and and her path to independence. The books were reprinted in a low-price series by the publishing company Folket i Bild in the 1940s and 1950s. Church Wedding was printed in 1949 in a soft-cover edition of 90,000 copies. The protagonist, Mia Stenman, grows up in the slums of Norrköping. At the end, she is fifteen and her childhood is over. She decides never to marry. The last volume was written in the third person. Martinson emphasized in 1956 in her foreword for My Mother Gets Married, that everything in the book is true, but some things were too sad to tell.

In the 1940s Martinson published several books, which were based on her own experiences, including Armén vid horisonten (1942), Bakom Svenskvallen (1944) and Kärlek mellan krigen (1947). Her later novels were about proletarian characters of the 18th and 19th centuries. Den osynlige älskaren (1943) was about a young woman who has idealistic dreams about an ideal man while her everyday life is overshadowed by her brutal husband. However, she manages to raise her family out of poverty. The "Östergötland Epic", consisting of Vägen under stjärnorna (1940), Brandliljor (1941), and Livets fest  (1949), was set in Martinson's home province, on a single farm, and traced the lives of its occupants through several generations.

Moa Martinson served as a role model for woman writers in the Nordic countries as late as in the 1970s, and feminist criticism has refreshed her reputation – in the 1960s she was dismissed by Erik Hjalmar Linder in Fem decennier av nittionhundratalet as "the cheerful chronicler of misery". Usually her female charaters are strong and they strive for independence, but they are bound by their gender to bear and care for children. Starting from the first novel, Martinson explored female sexuality exceptionally boldly. Another central theme was the friendship between women. "Lita på en karl, man skulle ha stryk" (trust a man – you ought to get a good hifing), she once wrote. Martinson died in Södertälje on August 5, 1964. A film based on her life, Moa (1986), was directed by Anders Birkeland, Anders Wahlgren. Gunilla Nyroos played the title role.

Officially Moa and Harry Martinson divorced in 1940. The writer Ivar Lo-Johansson was a very good friend to them both, and depicted in Tröskeln (1982) their marriage problems. Moa often wrote or called Lo-Johansson, when she did not know her husband's whereabouts, or wanted to leave a message for him. "Do not take wandering so seriously," Harry Martinson used to say. Moa was jealous, and Harry – who needed a mother figure – did not want to settle down and live an ordinary family life. There were also literary differences – Moa was considered an unpolished realist and Harry a talented modernist, although new readings have pointed out the modernist traits in her novels.

For further reading: Om Moa Martinson by Marika Stirnstedt (1946); Orädda riddare av penna by Carl Johan Björklund (1960); Moa i brev och bilder, ed. by Glann Boman (1978); Columbia Dictionary of Modern European Literature, ed. Jean-Albert Bédé and William B. Edgerton (1980); Kvinnornas litteraturhistoria by Barbro Backberger (1981); Harry Martinson och Moa by Sonja Erfurth (1987); Moa by Britt Dahlström (1987); Moa Martinson by Ebba Witt-Brattström (1988); Moa Martinson: ordet och kärleken by Kerstin Engman (1990); 'Livets egen runsten,' in Nordisk kvinnolitteraturhistoria 3: Vita Världen 1900-1960, ed. Elisabeth Møller Jensen (1996); Swedish Women's Writing, 1850-1995 by Helena Forsås-Scott (1997); Vem är vem i svensk litteratur by Agneta & Lars Erik Blomqvist (1999); Mätt med främmande mått: idéanalys av kvinnliga författares samtidsmottagande och romaner 1930-1935 by Gunilla Domellöf (2001)  

Selected bibliography:

  • Kvinnor och äppelträd, 1933
    - Women and Apple Trees (translated by Margaret S. Lacy, 1985)
  • Sallys söner, 1934
  • Rågvakt, 1935
    - TV drama (1974), prod. Sveriges Radio, dir. Göran Bohman, teleplay Göran Bohman, starring Christina Evers, Leif Grönvall and Ernst Günther Jr., Krister Hell, Bo Larsson, Maj-Britt Lindholm, Rolf Nordtröm, Tord Peterson, Sif Ruud, Arne Tolgraven
  • Mor gifter sig, 1936
    - My Mother Gets Married (translated by Margaret S. Lacy, 1988)
    - Äiti menee naimisiin (suom. Eila Pennanen, 1978)
    - TV mini-series (1979), prod. SVT Drama, dir. Per Sjöstrand, teleplay Per Sjöstrand, starring Gurie Nordwall, Nina Ullerstam, Hans Wigren
  • Drottning Grågyllen, 1937
  • Motsols, 1937
  • Kyrkbröllop, 1938
    - Kirkkohäät (suom. Kyllikki Villa, 1981)
  • Kungens rosor, 1938
    - Kuninkaan ruusut (suom. Katri Vala, 1943)
  • Vägen under stjärnorna, 1940
  • Brandliljor, 1941
    - Tulililjoja (suom. Pentti Lahti, 1945)
  • Armén vid horisonten, 1942
  • Den osynlige älskaren, 1943
  • Bakom svenskvallen, 1944
  • Kärlek mellan krigen, 1947
  • Livets fest, 1949
  • Jag möter en diktare, 1950
  • Du är den enda, 1952
  • Kvinnorna på Kummelsjö, 1955
  • Klockor vid Sidenvägen, 1957
  • Hemligheten, 1959
  • Moa berättar: antologi, 1986 (ed. Torsten Eliasson)
  • I egen sak, 1990 (eds. Kerstin Engman and Ebba Witt-Brattström)  

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