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Göran Tunström (1937-2000)


Swedish novelist and poet, who depicted his native region, Sunne, in several novels. Among Tunström's best-known works is Juloratoriet (1983, The Christmas Oratorio), a Nordic tour de force in magic realism. The book was translated into twenty languages and filmed in 1996. "All stories, at the same moment as they are told, are true. As stories," has Tunström said. He has often combined in his works memories, autobiographical material, and dreams, which give his writing a nostalgic tone.

"Ingenting binder en, livet är ett provisorium, en leda. Man är fången i nånting man aldrig valt." (from Prästungen, 1976)

Göran Tunström was born in Karlstad, but he grew up in Sunne, Värmland. His father was a Protestant minister; he died when Göran was 12. This loss is one of the central issues in Tunström's work, the dialogue between a father and a son which was never finished. From the vicarage the family moved to a small apartment. During these years Tunström started to write. His first 'novel' was a thriller, 32 pages long, which he wrote in his teens.Periodically Tunström lived in Billingsfors with his maternal grandfather Oskar Persson, whom he later described in Prästungen (1976).

In 1957 Tunström graduated from a high school in Uppsala. Inringnin, his first collection of poems, came out in 1958. Maskrosbollen (1962), a story about a young man, his early love affairs, and his way out of Sunne, marked Tunström's breakthrough as a novelist. In 1964 he married the artist Lena Cronqvist, who illustrated among others their travel book Indien - en vinterresa (1984). Tunström also dedicated his poetry collection Dikter till Lena (1978) to his wife, their marriage and love was a basic theme in Tunström's poetry. In the 1960s, when Tunström was still an aspiring writer, he meet the singer and poet Leonard Cohen in Hydra, a Greek island, where he had lived since the late 1950s and worked as a tourist guide; the two remained friend through the decades.

Tunström's plainly autobiographical stories are presented with great narratological virtuosity. His early Sunne novels include De heliga geograferna (1973), Guddöttrarna (1975), and Prästungen. In the first two novels the central characters are the minister Hans-Christian Wermelin and his wife Paula, loosely based on Tunström's parents, and the third concerns their son Jacob, in search for his deceased father. "Alla historier, i och med att de berättas, är sanna. Som historier. Och för att du tvivlade, skall jag förelägga de in den verkligaste av alla verkligheter." (from De heliga geograferna) Tunström was first labelled as a regional novelist, expressing his nostalgia for a supposedly simpler and more authentic way of life. However, with the success of Juloratoriet and Tjuven (1986) critics realized that Sunne is Tunström's Macondo, an existential setting for his characters' loneliness, guilty conscience, dreams and hopes.

Tjuven blended fantasy, humor and mythology. It depicted an unconventional pair, Ida and Fredrik Jonsson Lök, and their 12 children. The story of the thirteenth child, Johan, followed the journey of an Swedish Orpheus into the Underworld to reclaim his Eurydice, called now Hedvig. Johan believes that he can rise from poverty and help Hedvig by stealing the Codex Argenteus, a national treasure. A strong Christian interest became apparent in Ökenbrevet (1978), Jesus' account of his life before he enters upon his public mission. "Öräkneliga är de krav människan ställer på människan." Tunström focused on Jesus' inner struggles to understand who he is and who is his real father. Jesus finds the meaning of his life in accepting that what has once taken place in one's life, it will always be part of it.

The idea for Juloratoriet (The Christmas Oratorio) was born in Nepal, where the author met a Swedish foreign aid worker, who rehearsed Thursdays with other Westerners Bach's Christmas oratorio. Tunström's novel centers on the characters and the destinies of three generations of Nordensson men, who are united by death and sorrow, music and fantasy. Also Marc Chagall, Selma Lagerlöf, and the Swedish explorer Sven Hedin appear in the story.

Juloratorioet opens with an accident, that casts its shadow far in the future. Aron Nordensson, a farmer, loses his beloved wife, Solveig – she is due to sing Bach's Christmas music in a church but she falls with her bicycle and dies. Through his DX hobby Aron gets in contact with Tessa, who lives in New Zealand. They exchange letters and Aron travels to meet her on the other side of the earth. Before they see each other, Aron takes his life when he realizes that he is chasing after a dream. Tessa waits for Aron without knowing his fate and loses her memory. Years later Aron's son Sidner meets Tessa. She learns what happened to Aron and regains her own lost past. Sidner's son Victor becomes a musician and he returns to Sunne to direct Bach's famous Christmas oratorio. The story ends in the soothing words of a choral: "You shepherd folk, be not afeared, / because the angel tells you: / this weak babe / shall be our comfort and joy, / thereto subdue the devil / and bring peace at last."

The play Chang Eng (1987) was about the Siamese twins Chang and Eng Bunker, who were exploited by the promoter P.T. Barnum, famous for the quote, "There's a sucker born every minute." From the late 1980s Tunström suffered from a writer's block. He was in three car accidents and had a lung cancer operated. Tunström's crisis ended with the novel Skimmer (Glittering), which was published in 1996. In the story of life and death Pétur and his father live in the world of music. Pétur travels to Paris, where his aging and ill father sends letters. In Berömda män som varit i Sunne (1998) the author again returned to his native region. Tunström died in Stockholm on February 5, 2000, at the age of 63. Because his father had died of a heart attack at the age of 54, Tunström had been decades afraid that he would not pass that age. Tunström received several literary awards, including the Nordic Literature Prize (1984) for The Christmas Oratorio, Selma Lagerlöf Prize (1987), August Prize (1998), and Tegnér Prize (1999).

For further reading: Swedish Book Review, Supplement: Göran Tunström (1988); Aspects of Modern Swedish Literature, ed. by Irene Scottie (1988); Den svenska litteraturen by Lars Lönnroth and Sverker Göransson (1990, vol. 6); A History of Swedish Literature, ed. by Lars G. Warme (1966); Närvarande frånvaro by B. Larsson (1987); Röster om Göran Tunström, pub. by ABF (1994); A History of Swedish Literature, ed. by Lars G. Warme (1996); Svenska samtidsförfattare 1, pub. by Bibliotekstjänst (1997); Vem är vem i svensk litteratur by Agneta and Lars Erik Blomqvist (1999); Duets torg: Göran Tunström och tankekällorna by Stina Hammar (1999); 'Göran Tunström,' by Charlotte Whittingham, in Twelve Modern Novelists (2000); Såsom i en spegel: en studie i Göran Tunströms roman Juloratoriet by Anita Varga (2002); Prästunge och maskrosboll: en bok om Göran Tunström by Rolf Alsing (2003); Jag kräver en inre Columbus = Ich verlange einen inneren Columbus: Versuch über die Poetik Göran Tunströms by Karin Birgitta Adam (2004); Romankonst och berättarteori: en kritisk diskussion med utgångspunkt i Göran Tunströms författarskap by Ulrika Göransson (2009)

Selected works:

  • Inringning, 1958
  • Två vindar, 1960
  • Karantän, 1961
  • Maskrosbollen, 1962
  • Nymålat, 1962
  • Familjeliv. En berättelse från Tobobac, 1964
  • Om förtröstan, 1965
  • De andra de till hälften synliga, 1966
  • Hallonfallet, 1967 (as Paul Badura Mörk)
  • Samtal med marken, 1969
  • Ansgar. En frälsarhistoria, 1969
  • En dag i Robert Schummans liv, 1970
  • Granodlarna Wikmansson. Adventskalender, 1971
  • Broster, Broster!, 1971 (story)
    - TV series 1971, prod. Sveriges Radio, dir. and written by Lars Lennart Forsberg, starring Carl-Gustaf Lindstedt, Claire Wikholm, Halvar Björk, Magnus Härenstam, John King,, Rune Lindström, Åsa Österman, Hanny Schedin, Claire Wikholm
  • De heliga geograferna, 1973
  • Träffade också furst Kropotkin, 1973
  • En tid vid akademien, 1974
  • Stormunnens bön, 1974
  • Guddöttrarna, 1975
  • Hinden, 1975
  • Svartsjukans sånger, 1975
  • Prästungen, 1976
  • Sandro Boticellis dikter, 1976
  • Mitt indiska ritblock, 1978 (with Lena Cronqvist)
  • Dikter till Lena, 1978
  • Ökenbrevet, 1978
    - Erämaakirje (suom. Liimi Kyrki, 1992)
  • Sorgensånger, 1980
  • Stollen, 1982
    - Höperö: kuunnelma (suom. Aila Meriluoto, 1984)
  • Juloratioriet, 1983
    - The Christmas Oratorio (translated by Paul Hoover, 1995)
    - Jouluoratorio (suom. Arto Häilä, 1984)
    - film 1996, dir. by Kjell-Åke Andersson, screenplay by Kjell-Åke Andersson, Kjell Sundstedt, featuring Peter Haber, Johan Widerberg, Lena Endre
  • Indien - en vinterresa, 1984
    - Talvimatka Intiaan (suom. Arto Häilä, 1986)
  • Tjuven, 1986
    - Varas (suom. Arto Häilä, 1987)
  • Chang Eng. Ett skådespel, 1987
  • Det sanna livet, 1987 (contains Skenäktenskap)
    - Todellinen elämä (suom. Arto Häilä, 1993)
    - film: Skenäktenskap, 2002, prod. Cine-Qua-Non, dir. by Marcelo V. Racana, starring Tomas von Brömssen, Lisa Lindgren, Anki Lidén, Eivin Dahlgren, Örjan Landström, Åke Lindblom
  • Under tiden, 1993
  • Bakhållet vid Fort Riverton, 1994
  • En prosaist i New York´, 1996
  • Skimmer, 1996
    - Kimmellys (suom. Arto Häilä, 1997)
  • Berömda män som varit i Sunne, 1998
    - Kuuvieras (suom. Arto Häilä, 1999)
  • Att uppfinna ett århundrade: tio avsnitt ur en betraktelse över ett misslyckande, 2000
  • Krönikor, 2000 (foreword by Bo Strömstedt) 
  • The Changeling: A Dramatization by Göran Tunström, 2001 (in 5 x Swedish Plays for Children and Youth, based on the story by Selma Lagerlöf; translated by Anne-Charlotte Hanes Harvey)

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