Thursday, 5 November 2009

Karin Boye - a biographical profile - 7

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3. 1933-1938

One of the ways in which Karin Boye sought to clarify the problems in her inner and emotional life, and even to seek answers to them, was the writing of prose fiction. In novels such as 'Crisis', 'Astarte' and 'Merit Wakes Up', she explored the themes of the strong woman and the weak man, of lifelong self-deception, of the 'doil's house', and other problems of inner and outer existence. These works, of which she wrote many, are less 'pure' than her poetry. They are often somewhat schematic, and the characters tend to be merely vehicles for the author's ideas. From many angles these works can even be viewed as commercial, which they were insofar as another aim of her writing them was to secure herself an income, a task made all the more pressing by the expense of analysis. Yet in these books she tackled themes that were controversial in their time, and she probably helped others by publishing them. This was particularly true of 'Crisis', a book which depicts her own adolescent religious crisis and discovery of her own bisexuality. Around 1933, at the time it was written, there was much discussion in Sweden about a liberalization of the laws on homosexuality, and her documentary novel was a contribution to the public debate. It is probably her strongest prose work after her masterpiece, Kallocain, and it was widely read and discussed.

Back in Sweden in 1934, the poet bought a small flat in Stockholm consisting of two rooms and a kitchen 'in an environment so devoid of tradition, more functionalistically cold and impossible than anywhere else in Stockholm... a hell of lines that gives not the slightest opportunity to the imagination.' According to Margit Abenius, however, the flat possessed a good view in summer of flowering gardens and a fountain, and it is possible that Karin Boye felt less lonely in a city than she might have done living alone in the countryside. There was, nevertheless, the fact that all her attempts to make a life with another human being had failed. Temperamentally unsuited to solitariness, she must have found her life at this time extremely difficult. In desperation, she decided to invite Margot Hanel to come from Berlin and live with her. At first the experiment went well: for the first time in her life, Karin Boye felt calm and reassured, and as if she had some sort of root in existence. But Margot Hanel was extremely jealous amd dependent, and as time went by she began to develop chronic illnesses, making Karin look after her and take complete responsibility for her. In a matter of months, the 'marriage' degenerated into a destructive symbiosis: while, out of jealousy, Margot refused to let Karin see her literary friends and tried to make her stay in the flat and talk about trivia, Karin repaid her with personal cruelty, talking to others condescendingly about her, and even calling their relationship 'ein ausgehaltenes Verhältnis'. Yet the couple stayed together. Karin evidently found in Margot, who made such very great demands on her, an outlet for her need for self-sacrifice and self-immolation. Margot Hanel also seems to have been a substitute for the child Karin Boye never had. And, while it must have been profoundly tormenting for both partners much of the time, the relationship also had its brighter moments. According to Margit Abenius, the couple 'became welded together in the way that cannot be avoided between two people who share life's troubles for a long time.' It was to Margot Hanel that Karin wrote the epigram 'To You':

You my despair and my strength,
you took all the life I owned,
and because you demanded everything,
you gave back a thousandfold.


At this time, also, Karin Boye wrote her novel Too Little. Its hero, Harald Måhrman, is torn between art and life, and ends by choosing neither, creating an atmosphere of disharmony and hostility wherever he goes. His failure is a failure to love - either his art or his family, or both. Margit Abenius quotes Karin Boye's diary of 1921, with its entry: 'I believe that what one receives in love is precisely what one gives - not necessarily from and to the other person, but from and to love.'

1935 saw the publication of Karin Boye's fourth book of poetry, För trädets skull ('For the Tree's Sake'). This met with a mixed response from the critics, many of whom saw in it a capitulation to free-verse modernism. In fact, however, the volume continues and develops many of the poet's earlier themes and concerns, though now with more austere technical means, and an almost 'neo-classical' restraint. The free verse poems give the impression of avoiding rhyme and metre in order to approach the truth more closely, not in order to shock, or to disrupt conventional modes of perception. One detects a shift away from Christianity, and at the same time away from the ideals of Clarté towards a more abstract, impersonal kind of art - yet the familiar themes of love, suffering, sacrifice, hope and betrayal are always present, too. Much of the negative thrust of the critcs' response to the collection - they wanted the 'old' Karin Boye back - was precisely because she had moved on from political radicalism towards an individually-conceived view of the world and of cosmic reality.

Margit Abenius describes a dream which Karin Boye related to Harry Martinson: 'She was dead and had come to paradise. Heavenly bliss was organized like a school. On the wall hung a timetable showing hours and lessons. Karin and the other blessed ones had to sit in the chalices of sweet-scented roses and God hurled the roses with their souls through the azure. A radiant, unutterable sense of happiness accompanied the rose lesson. After that came the "lily lesson". Brilliant white madonna lilies grew everywhere in large clumps and clusters as far as the eye could see. One could hear singing. Pilgrims walked in multitudes. But the lily lesson was not as eventful and highly-charged as the rose lesson; it led nowhere but seemed to stand still. Then an immensely large female figure appeared. She was wonderfully beautiful, but her hands were large and coarse like a charwoman's. Karin knew that this was Reality. She suddenly saw this hybrid of goddess and charwoman sitting on a throne, and seized by reverence she bowed down and kissed her foot. And then Reality asked: "Why are you kissing my foot? After all, you do not know me."'

In 1936, Karin Boye started work as a teacher at Viggbyholm boarding school, near Stockholm. The school's founder, a Christian pacifist named Per Sundberg, wanted to bring together children from different ethnic backgrounds, and many of the pupils were refugees from Hitler's Germany. There were also many children of divorce, and children with problems of development. At first, Karin Boye went on living in Stockholm and travelling to the school to teach, but eventually she moved to Viggbyholm and spent all her time there. It was a milieu that brought together several of the previous environments in which she had lived: the radical, pacifistic intellectual atmosphere was reminiscent of that of Clarté, while the Christian element in the teaching was similar to what she had experienced as a young theology student at summer camps. There was also the presence of trees and nature. Initially, Karin Boye taught very young children. There were problems attendant on this, however, for the children tended to laugh at their teacher and call her names. One little boy even said, when the children were asked why they laughed at her: 'because she looks like a little pig!' Thereafter, Karin Boye was transferred to the school's higher classes, the 'gymnasium', or grammar school, where she became a much-admired and loved teacher.

Far from being the 'school of reality', however, this was hardly an an ordinary environment. In many ways, it seems to have functioned in Karin Boye's life as a kind of continuation of her psychoanalysis: spending so much time in the company of children and young people, she found that new layers of her personality were constantly being opened. This process of 'opening' or 'being broken open' had become very important to her: 'All human beings want to be broken open', she wrote to her friend Anna Petri. At this time, too, she developed a lively interest in Gestalt psychology.

Biographical Profile - 1
Biographical Profile - 2
Biographical Profile - 3
Biographical Profile - 4
Biographical Profile - 5
Biographical Profile - 6

(to be continued)

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