Saturday, 30 June 2018

Connecting Paths

Some time ago I mentioned two new biographies - one of Peter Weiss and another of Karin Boye - and said that I hoped to post a discussion of them here. Having read both, I find that I'm in something of a quandary: for one thing, Werner Schmidt's book is not really a biography in the traditional sense at all, more a critical appraisal of Peter Weiss's work during various periods of that author's career. For another, Johan Svedjedal's study of Karin Boye is in one important sense a polemic with Margit Abenius, the author of the only previous full-length biography of Boye, first published back in the early 1950s. This makes it hard to form a balanced assessment of these two new studies - they lead one too easily into metacritical terrain, where points of interpretation and biographical detail tend to overshadow the subjects themselves. Thus, Svedjedal writes in a somewhat laconic aside towards the very end of his book:
Störst genomslag har sannolikt skildringen av hennes sista tid i Alingsås i Peter Weiss Motståndets estetik (3, 1981) (som rätt ensidigt bygger på Margit Abenius tolkning)
Svedjedal is at pains to free Karin Boye from the aura that he feels has dogged the proper appreciation of her life and work over the decades, and that he attributes largely to the influence of Margit Abenius's portrayal. His emphasis is on the everyday aspects of the poet's life, and in general the book attempts to root her and locate her in her changing environments, whether in Sweden or in Germany. In doing so, however, it may be losing sight of the central meaning and message of her life and work, as outlined by Weiss's narrator in Werner Schmidt's retelling of the story:
Ausgehend von der Position des Erzählers wäre das Scheitern Boyes nicht mit dem Druck zu erklären, den die äuβeren Verhältnisse auf sie als Künstlerin ausgeübt hatten, sondern mit ihrem beeinträchtigten Vermögen, mit »der Kunst, also dem selbstständigen Denken«, einzuwirken auf die nur »scheinbar unerschütterliche Realität«.
In this respect I feel that Margit Abenius was more on target. While it's useful to remember that Weiss's Karin Boye as she appears in his novel is a reconstruction and re-characterisation of her personality, there can also be little doubt that his portrayal of her is an accurate one, based on his own acquaintance and friendship with her - even though the details of that friendship are not documented anywhere, and the evidence is purely and convincingly circumstantial and psychological. Karin Boye and Peter Weiss meet in these books, as they do in Die Ästhetik des Widerstands - but while in Schmidt's biography the encounter is acknowledged in terms of the aesthetic dialogue between the two writers, and its philosophical and historical meaning, in Svedjedal's book the meeting is only a brief one, and the opportunity of understanding it is unfortunately missed.

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