Enquist: the multiple lives of a Swedish literary giant
Sunday 20 March 2011
In one life, Per Olov Enquist has been an oppressed child, an athlete, a journalist and a depressed and destructive alcoholic, but in another life - the one that really counts in his eyes - he is an author, a giant in the world of Swedish literature.
Spry for his 76 years, Enquist tells AFP in an interview that he is savouring "a different life", which is also the title of his latest work, an autobiography.
"The last 20 years have been a fantastic time. I've written a lot of books, more then I've done in my life before" that, he says.
Born in 1934 in Hjoggboele in Sweden's far-north, Enquist published his first novel, "Kristalloegat" (the crystal eye), in 1961.
It was his writing, he says, that finally pulled him out of the relentless "black hole" into which he had plunged for his first 56 years.
"I think I wanted to be a writer all my life and I didn't give up," he says, conceding however that much of the time "it wasn't so easy to survive."
In his large Stockholm apartment, bookshelves cover an entire wall, packed to bursting with poetry, plays, novels and fairytales, all by his own hand, in the original Swedish versions as well as the English, French, German, Russian and other translations.
"It's my egocentric bookshelf," he laughs.
"Every time I feel depressed that I'm not doing anything, I look at this bookshelf and say to myself 'well, that is seven metres (yards) and I have done a little bit, so I can die'."
Page after page is filled with observations about history - both his own and Sweden's - that repeatedly pick off scabs and reopen wounds since "I think people would be bored to death if you write a novel that everything is perfect in Sweden."
Enquist came close to death several times during his alcoholic years. After trying twice in vain to kick the habit, he managed on the third try after convincing his caregivers to let him use his computer and discovering to his delight that "I was still a writer."
"The most terrible thing about being a writer is not to write but to not write... I hadn't written almost anything for 13 years," he says.
"I think that in writing 'Captain Nemo's Library' I realised that I wasn't totally brainwashed," he says, insisting that working on the 1991 novel "saved my life".
Nonetheless, he feels that he lost all the years, especially the three he spent living in Paris, when he was constantly drunk.
"I was sitting in a beautiful apartment on Champs-Elysees and couldn't write... I remember the beautiful view from the balcony. Paris was beautiful to look at, but I couldn't use Paris," he says.
While his words are laced with regret, there is no trace of self-pity or denial.
He says he simply looks back in order to better move forward, as he does in the new autobiography written in the third person "out of honesty" so he can say anything.
"A Different Life," which appeared in Swedish in 2008, covers the first part of his existence, until his "rebirth" in 1990.
The process of writing it, he says, allowed him to work through and leave behind painful memories of sleeping in a bed meant for his still-born brother, of the void left by a father who died when he was not yet a year old, and of a strict mother who pushed him to invent sins to confess.
He has also come to terms with his times as a high jumper who just missed qualifying for the Rome Olympics in 1960, and as a journalist who, among other things, covered the 1972 Munich Olympic nightmare when Palestinian Black September militants took hostage then massacred members of the Israeli team.
If there is any continuity for Enquist, it is his support for the Social Democrats, Sweden's governing party for most of the 20th century and founder of its famous welfare state, which despite dramatic decline in recent elections remains the country's largest party.
Enquist's leftwing convictions suffuse his writings and he is proud to be a political writer like one if his greatest idols, August Strindberg, whom he calls "the first to create the (language of) Swedish prose."
But the author refuses to cross the line and become an actual politician.
"I'm an independent writer, writing about politics," he says, insisting he has absolutely no wish to "sit in the centre (of things) and be dependent."
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