Literary Corner Cafe

Friday, October 7, 2011

Literary News - Swedish Poet Tomas Transtromer Wins Nobel Prize for Literature

Swedish poet Tomas Tranströmer, 80, is the winner of the 2011 Nobel Prize for Literature, “because, through his condensed, translucent images, he gives us fresh access to reality, said the Swedish Academy in announcing his win in Stockholm on Thursday, October 6th, while the assembled journalists cheered. Mr. Tranströmer has written more than fifteen collections of poetry, many of which have been translated into English and sixty other languages. Critics have praised his work for its accessibility and elegance, even in translation, taking special note of his beautiful descriptions of the long Swedish winters, the rhythm of the seasons, and the atmospheric beauty of nature.

Even though many of Mr. Tranströmer’s works have been translated into English, in the United States, very few persons have even heard of him, much less read him, however that is about to change. Jeffrey Yang, editor of Tranströmer’s The Great Empire: New and Collected Poems, published by New Directions, said, “It was already in a third printing – now we’ll probably do a quick turnaround short run, and a bigger run.” Yang estimates that because of Tranströmer’s Nobel win, New Directions will need to print an additional 5,000 to 10,000 volumes of Tranströmer’s book. New Directions published the first English translation of Tranströmer’s poetry in 1966 in its annual New Directions in Poetry and Prose, No. 19.

Green Integer Press, based in Los Angeles, California, plans to do just what New Directions is doing. Green Integer has a bilingual edition of Tranströmer’s Snow Gondola, with the poems appearing side-by-side in both Swedish and English. Demand for the book should be high all through the rest of the year, and perhaps beyond.

“I kind of thought it [the Nobel winner] should be a poet,” said Douglas Messerli, Green Integer publisher. “It’s been so long since a poet has been selected.”

On Friday, October 7th, Ecco announced that it would reissue the two collections of Tranströmer poetry it previously published: For the Living and the Dead: A Memoir and Poems, published in 1995, and Selected Poems, published in 1998.

Daniel Halpern, president and publisher of Ecco, an imprint of HarperCollins, praised Tranströmer’s win, saying, “So much poetry, not only in this country but everywhere, is small and personal and it doesn’t look outward, it looks inward. But there are some poets who write true international poetry. It’s the sensibility that runs through his [Tranströmer’s] poems that is so seductive. He is such a curious and open and intelligent writer.”

Mr. Halpern said that Selected Poems, which was originally published in 2000 by Ecco, would be re-released within days, while online retailer sites reported that print copies of Tranströmer’s books were already on backorder, and electronic versions were difficult to find.

Tomas Tranströmer was born in Stockholm in 1931 to a schoolteacher mother and a journalist father. He studied literature, history, religion, and psychology at Stockholm University, and graduated in 1956. He then worked as a psychologist at a youth correctional facility. In 1990, he suffered a stroke that left him, for the most part, unable to speak, though he eventually began to write again.

Journalists reported that Mr. Tranströmer, who appeared in the vestibule of his Stockholm apartment with his wife, Monica, was visibly overwhelmed at the news of his win. Speaking on behalf of her husband, Monica Tranströmer said, “That you happened to receive it is a great joy and happy surprise, but the fact the prize went to poetry felt very good.” she said.

Swedes, most of whom have read Tranströmer’s work since his first volume of poems was published, celebrated the win. Ola Larsmo, a novelist and president of the Swedish Pen Association said, “To be quite honest it was a relief because people have been hoping for this for a long time. Some thought the train might have left the station already because he is old and not quite well. It felt great that he was confirmed in this role of national and international poet.”

John Freeman, editor of “Granta” said, “He is to Sweden what Robert Frost was to America. The national character, if you can say one exists, and the landscape of Sweden are very much reflected in his work. It’s easy because of that to overlook the abiding strangeness and mysteriousness of his poems.”

When making the announcement of Tranströmer’s win, the Nobel committee noted that it had been many years since a Swede had won the prize. The last time was in 1974 when Eyvind Johnson and Harry Martinson shard the prize.

While Swedes celebrated Tranströmer’s win, others again criticized the Nobel for being too Eurocentric. Tranströmer’s win made him the eighth European to win in a decade. The last time an American won the prize was in 1993 when Toni Morrison won.

Peter Englund, responding to the “Eurocentric criticisms” said that the literature jury has increased its number of scouts to scour for books in non-European languages. In recent years, American novelist Philip Roth has been a favorite, but has not been selected.

Once again, the literature jury proved its unpredictability. Ladbroke’s, the British-based bookmaker, had favored France-based Syrian poet, Adonis, who writes in Arabic, for the win with odds of 4-1, though Tranströmer was the bookmaker’s second choice at 6-1. In previous years, the choice of relatively unknown writers like Germany’s Herta Müller surprised everyone, better and non-better alike. In other years, winners like Turkey’s Orhan Pamuk, have had some people questioning whether the Nobel is overly political. The first Nobel Prize in Literature was awarded in 1901 to the French poet and philosopher, Sully Prudhomme, whose poetry showed the “rare combination of the qualities of both heart and intellect.”

Mr. Tranströmer’s other prizes include the Neustadt International Prize for Literature, the Bonnier Award for Poetry, the Petrarch Prize in Germany, and the Bellman Prize.

The Nobel Prize carries an honorarium of nearly $1.5 million.

Below is a poem from Tranströmer’s collection Selected Poems: 1954-1986, edited by Robert Hass.

The Scattered Congregation

We got ready and showed our home.
The visitor thought: you live well.
The slum must be inside you.
Inside the church, pillars and vaulting
white as plaster, like the cast
around the broken arm of faith.
Inside the church there's a begging bowl
that slowly lifts from the floor
and floats along the pews.
But the church bells have gone underground.
They're hanging in the sewage pipes.
Whenever we take a step, they ring.
Nicodemus the sleepwalker is on his way
to the Address. Who's got the Address?
Don't know. But that's where we're going.

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