Wednesday, 11 November 2009

Karin Boye - a biographical profile - 9

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Kallocain, a strange, nightmarish novel of cells and staircases and corridors, is open to several interpretations. On one level, it may be read as a political satire in the tradition of Zamyatin's We or Huxley's Brave New World: it concerns events within a World State of the future, which resembles both the Third Reich of the Nazis and the Soviet Union of Stalin. A central role is played by a truth serum ('Kallocain') invented by Leo Kall, a worker in a state chemical plant, who seeks to overthrow the state and the lies with which it has indoctrinated humanity. On another level, however, the novel may be read as a meditation on inwardness and confession, or 'breaking-open'. It contains many passages of extreme power and evocativeness, underscored by the eerie presence of wartime Sweden, with its military personnel on the streets, its whispered conversations held in fear of being overheard.

When it appeared in the autumn of 1940, Kallocain met with enthusiastic reviews. Artur Lundkvist declared that it was in 'the international class', while another critic called it 'a thoroughly thought-through, thoroughly felt, one might even say thoroughly suffered work of art.' The poet herself wrote to Ingeborg Holst on 23 January 1941:

You asked me how it (the novel) had gone and how it had been received. It has had consistently excellent reviews and has even come out in a second edition... All kinds of people, friends and strangers alike, have written and thanked me...
As Margit Abenius writes in her biography, both Kallocain and the poems of The Seven Deadly Sins should be seen as the fruits of the liberation experienced by Karin Boye when she perceived that 'our most intimate and most extreme problems are and remain problems of life-philosophy and faith': 'It was an image of man that was formed in her view of life - an image that hads probably always been there in rough outline - a Spinozan image, in which man is a multiplicity of countless forces that strive towards the 'unity' which it reflects in its broken life-utterances. In 'Man's Multiplicity' the prophetess speaks as out of a dark Middle Ages:

We were born of mothers of heaven and earth
and of powers with no end in view,
nocturnal wills and wills of light
with names that no one knew.

May one of the many
not gain power over us,
though she be of heaven's race
and shine in magnificence.

In us a multiplicity lives.
It fumbles towards unity.
Its capturing, gathering burning-­glass
we were born to be.

Great is man's striving,
great the goals it has set ­
but much greater is man himself
with roots in universal night.

So give, that we shield a secret room
and never a flame do lack
on the altar of an unknown god,
that may tomorrow wake.

The last year of Karin Boye's life was one of tragic contrasts, paradoxes and deepening insight. Realizing the depth of her love for Anita Nathorst, she also realized that that love could not be returned to her. In a letter to a friend, she wrote:

That not even the times and the decline of the West should prevent one from collapsing like a house of cards and burning like a piece of tinder and that when one finally attains something that has lain in one for twenty years, the person concerned is dying of cancer and sufficiently exposed to radium not to have a spark of sex left. We agreed that life is macabre in a way that no reforms can ever remove, macabre to its innermost kernel.
Yet this was also the year in which she visited Denmark, which was now under German occupation. Conscious of the propaganda value of cultural visits, the German authorities in Copenhagen had arranged for a delegation of German writers and poets to come and give readings there. No one attended them. Then the Danish cultural authorities invited a group of Swedish poets and writers, including Karin Boye, to take part in a 'Swedish week' in the Danish capital. Karin Boye was introduced to the Danish royal family, and Kallocain was written about enthusiastically in the Danish press. This visit was perhaps the nearest the poet ever came to a direct political action, and it also set the seal on her fame and international reputation. She is now considered one of the major Swedish poets of all time, in the same tradition as Viktor Rydberg, Gustaf Fröding and Vilhelm Ekelund. She was also a seminal influence on the development of Swedish modernism, in particular the generation of 1940's poets that included Gunnar Ekelöf, Harry Martinson, Erik Lindegren and Artur Lundkvist.

The inner conflicts that split Karin Boye and which were reflected in her tortured love relationships gained the upper hand over the artist in her. Inwardly doubting about Anita, whose move away from Alingsås to Malmö may not have been entirely for medical reasons, and deeply ambivalent about Margot Hanel, who was still completely emotionally dependent on her, Karin Boye succumbed to an access of despair. On 23 April 1941 she left the house at Alingsås and walked off into the surrounding countryside, taking only a bottle of sleeping tablets with her. Some days later, after a police search of the district that proved fruitless, she was found by a passer-by, dead from exposure. A month later, Margot Hanel gassed herself. Anita Nathorst died of cancer in August.

(the end)

Biographical Profile - 1
Biographical Profile - 2
Biographical Profile - 3
Biographical Profile - 4
Biographical Profile - 5
Biographical Profile - 6
Biographical Profile - 7
Biographical Profile - 8

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