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"...och inne i dem alla öppnade sig valv bakom valv oändligt."

Via Flickr:
Roman arches - Tomas Tranströmer

Inside the great Roman Church the tourists found themselves
in the semi-darkness.
Vaults beyond vaults
Flickering candles.
There, the voice of a faceless angel caught me - filled me
whispering into my very body:
"Do not feel ashamed human, be proud!
Inside you, vaults are opening and new vaults beyond these - forever.
Never will it stop. Never shall it stop."
Blinded by tears I stumbeled out on the sunny piazza
together with with Mr and Mrs Jones, Master Tanaka and
Signora Sabatini
and inside all of them vaults beyond vaults were opening - forever.

Pentax K100D Super, Helios-44M 58|1:2 m42-lens.

Tomas Tranströmer: wild dream

A boy runs along with an invisible string which goes right up into the sky.
There his wild dream of the future flies like a kite, bigger than his
Farther to the north, you see from a hill the blue matting of fir
on which the shadows of the clouds
do not move.
No, they are moving.

Tranströmer becomes the eighth European to win the world's premier literary award in the last ten years, following the German novelist Herta Muller in 2009, the French writer JMG le Clezio in 2008 and the British novelist Doris Lessing in 2007.

Praised by the judges for "his condensed translucent images" which give us "fresh access to reality", Tranströmer's surreal explorations of the inner world and its relation to the jagged landscape of his native country have been translated into fifty languages.
Born in Stockholm in 1931, Tranströmer studied at the University of Stockholm and worked as a psychologist at an institution for young offenders. His first collection of poetry, 17 Dikter (17 Poems, was published in 1954, while he was still at college. Collections including Hemligheter på vägen (1958) and Klangar och spår (1966) reflected on his travels in the Balkans, Spain and Africa, while the poems in Östersjöar (1974) examine the troubled history of the Baltic region through the conflict between sea and land.
He suffered a stroke in 1990 which affected his ability to talk, but has continued to write, with his collection Sorgegondolen going on to sell 30,000 copies on its pubilcation in 1996. At a recent appearance in London, his words were read by others, while the poet, who is a keen amateur musician, contributed by playing pieces specially composed for him to play on the piano with only his left hand.
They turn the light off, and its white globe glows
an instant and then dissolves, like a tablet
in a glass of darkness. Then a rising.
The hotel walls shoot up into heaven’s darkness.
Their movements have grown softer, and they sleep,
but their most secret thoughts begin to meet
like two colors that meet and run together
on the wet paper in a schoolboy’s painting.
It is dark and silent. The city however has come nearer
tonight. With its windows turned off. Houses have come.
They stand packed and waiting very near,
a mob of people with blank faces.

Once there was a shock
that left behind a long, shimmering comet tail.
It keeps us inside. It makes the TV pictures snowy.
It settles in cold drops on the telephone wires.
One can still go slowly on skis in the winter sun
through brush where a few leaves hang on.
They resemble pages torn from old telephone directories.
Names swallowed by the cold.
It is still beautiful to feel the heart beat
but often the shadow seems more real than the body.
The samurai looks insignificant
beside his armour of black dragon scales.

Tranströmer has described his poems as "meeting places," where dark and light, interior and exterior collide to give a sudden connection with the world, history or ourselves. According to the poet "The language marches in step with the executioners. Therefore we must get a new language."

Tomas Tranströmer: Tracks 
2 am: moonlight. The train has stopped
out in the middle of the plain. Far away, points of light in a town,
flickering coldly at the horizon.
As when a man has gone into a dream so deep
he'll never remember having been there
when he comes back to his room.
As when someone has gone into an illness so deep
everything his days were becomes a few flickering points, a swarm,
cold and tiny at the horizon.
The train is standing quite still.

2 am: bright moonlight, few stars.

The landscape of Tranströmer's poetry has remained constant during his 50-year career: the jagged coastland of his native Sweden, with its dark spruce and pine forests, sudden light and sudden storm, restless seas and endless winters, is mirrored by his direct, plain-speaking style and arresting, unforgettable images. Sometimes referred to as a "buzzard poet", Tranströmer seems to hang over this landscape with a gimlet eye that sees the world with an almost mystical precision. A view that first appeared open and featureless now holds an anxiety of detail; the voice that first sounded spare and simple now seems subtle, shrewd and thrillingly intimate.

He writes an exceptionally pure, cold Swedish without frills. It's very hard to specify why it's not prose but you would have to be deaf blind and dumb not to recognise it as poetry.
Mention of blindness brings up another problem. I find that he is a tremendously visual poet. To read him is to see what he describes. But how can this translate to people who have never seen a Swedish landscape, and don't know what the words refer to? That's not a question I can honestly answer, since I can't unsee ...
Englund admitted the choice of a Swede could "perhaps" be seen as controversial internationally, but added that "one should also keep in mind that is soon 40 years since this happened": the last Swede to win the literature Nobel was in 1974, when the Swedish authors Eyvind Johnson and Harry Martinson took the prize jointly. "It's not that we spread

them around on Swedes each and every year," said Englund. "We have been quite thoughtful about this - we have not been rash in choosing a Swede."

Although Englund said that Transtromer's production has been "sparse" - "you could fit it into a not too large pocket book, all of it" - the permanent secretary praised his "exquisite" language. "He is writing about the big questions -about death, hsitory, memory, nature," he
said. "Human beings are sort of the prism where all these great entities meet and it makes us important. You can never feel small after reading the poetry of Tomas Transtromer."

Tomas Tranströmer: From March 1979
Weary of all who come with words, words but no language
I make my way to the snow-covered island.
The untamed has no words.
The unwritten pages spread out on every side!
I come upon the tracks of deer in the snow.
Language but no words.

Tomas Tranströmer: Alone

One evening in February I came near to dying here.
The car skidded sideways on the ice, out
on the wrong side of the road. The approaching cars –
their lights – closed in.
My name, my girls, my job
broke free and were left silently behind
further and further away. I was anonymous
like a boy in a playground surrounded by enemies.
The approaching traffic had huge lights.
They shone on me while I pulled at the wheel
in a transparent terror that floated like egg white.
The seconds grew – there was space in them –
they grew as big as hospital buildings.
You could almost pause
and breathe out for a while
before being crushed.
Then something caught: a helping grain of sand
or a wonderful gust of wind. The car broke free
and scuttled smartly right over the road.
A post shot up and cracked – a sharp clang – it
flew away in the darkness.
Then – stillness. I sat back in my seat-belt
and saw someone coming through the whirling snow
to see what had become of me.
I have been walking for a long time
on the frozen Östergötland fields.
I have not seen a single person.
In other parts of the world
there are people who are born, live and die
in a perpetual crowd.
To be always visible – to live
in a swarm of eyes –
a special expression must develop.
Face coated with clay.
The murmuring rises and falls
while they divide up among themselves
the sky, the shadows, the sand grains.
I must be alone
ten minutes in the morning
and ten minutes in the evening.
– Without a programme.
Everyone is queuing at everyone's door.

Me ve la muerte, de cerca

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What’s Wrong With the Nobel Prize in Literature
Tim Parks

So the Swedish poet Tomas Tranströmer wins the Nobel prize for literature. Aside from a couple of long poems available on the net, I haven’t read Tranströmer, yet I feel sure this is a healthy decision in every way. Above all for the Nobel jury. Let me explain.

There are eighteen of them, members of an organization called the Swedish Academy, which back at the end of the 19th century was given the task of awarding the Nobel. At the time two members suggested it was a mistake to accept the job. The Academy’s founding brief, back in 1786, was to promote the “purity, strength, and sublimity of the Swedish language”. Was this compatible with choosing the finest oeuvre of “an idealistic tendency” from anywhere in the world?

All members are Swedish and most of them hold full time professorial jobs in Swedish universities. On the present jury there are just five women and no woman has ever held the presidency. Only one member was born after 1960. This is partly because you cannot resign from the Academy. It’s a life sentence. So there’s rarely any new blood. For the past few years, however, two members have refused to cooperate with deliberations for the prize because of previous disagreements, one over the reaction, or lack of it, to the fatwa against Salman Rushdie and the other over awarding the prize to Elfriede Jelinek, whom he felt was “chaotic and pornographic.”

How do these people decide who are the greatest novelists and/or poets of the day on the international scene? They call on scores of literary experts in scores of countries and pay them to put down a few reflections about possible winners. Such experts are supposed to remain anonymous, but inevitably some have turned out to be acquaintances of those they have nominated.

Let’s try to imagine how much reading is involved. Assume that a hundred writers are nominated every year—it’s not unthinkable—of whom the jury presumably try to read at least one book. But this is a prize that goes to the whole oeuvre of a writer, so let’s suppose that as they hone down the number of candidates they now read two books of those who remain, then three, then four. It’s not unlikely that each year they are faced with reading two hundred books (this on top of their ordinary workloads). Of these books very few will be written in Swedish and only some will be available in Swedish translation; many will be in English, or available in English translation. But since the English and Americans notoriously don’t translate a great deal, some reading will have to be done in French, German or perhaps Spanish translations from more exotic originals.

Remember that we’re talking about poems as well as novels and they’re coming from all over the world, many intensely engaged with cultures and literary traditions of which the members of the Swedish Academy understandably know little. So it’s a heterogeneous and taxing bunch of books these professors have to digest and compare, every year. Responding recently to criticism that in the last ten years seven prizes have gone to Europeans, Peter Englund, the president of the current jury, claimed its members were well equipped for English but concerned about their strengths in such languages as Indonesian. Fair enough.

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Let’s pause for a moment, here, and imagine our Swedish professors, called to uphold the purity of the Swedish language, as they compare a poet from Indonesia, perhaps translated into English with a novelist from the Cameroun, perhaps available only in French, and another who writes in Afrikaans but is published in German and Dutch and then a towering celebrity like Philip Roth, who they could of course read in English, but might equally feel tempted, if only out of a sense of exhaustion, to look at in Swedish.

Do we envy them this task? Does it make much sense? The two members who a century ago felt the cup should be allowed to pass from them were worried that the Academy would become “a cosmopolitan tribunal of literature”. Something they instinctively felt was problematic. They were not wrong.

Now, let’s imagine that we have been condemned for life to making, year in year out a burdensome and near impossible decision to which the world increasingly and inexplicably ascribes a crazy importance. How do we go about it? We look for some simple, rapid and broadly acceptable criteria that will help us get this pain out of the way. And since, as Borges himself noted, aesthetics are difficult and require a special sensibility and long reflection, while political affiliations are easier and quickly grasped, we begin to identify those areas of the world that have grabbed public attention, perhaps because of political turmoil or abuses of human rights, we find those authors who have already won a huge level of respect and possibly major prizes in the literary communities of these countries and who are outspokenly committed on the right side of whatever political divide we’re talking about, and we select them. So we have the period when the prize went to Eastern block dissidents, or to South American writers against dictatorship, or South African writers against apartheid, or, most amazingly, to the anti-Berlusconi playwright Dario Fo whose victory caused some bewilderment in Italy.

It was an honourable enough formula but alas not every trouble spot boasts its great dissident writer (Tibet, Cecenia), to which we might add that since the prize is perceived as going to the country as much as to the writer, it’s not possible to give it to writers from the same trouble spot two years running. What a conundrum!

Sometimes the jury clearly got their hands burned. Having received so many major literary prizes in Germany and Austria, the left-wing feminist Jelinek seemed a safe choice. But her work is ferocious, often quite indigestible (she’d never win a literary prize in say, Italy or England) and the novel Greed, in particular, which appeared shortly before the prize was awarded, was truly unreadable. I know because I tried, and tried again. Had the members of the jury really read it? You have to wonder. Not surprisingly, after the controversy that winner caused they fell back on obvious choices for a while: Pinter, politically appropriate and half forgotten; Vargas Llosa who I somehow imagined had already won the prize many years before.

What a relief then from time to time to say, the hell with it and give it to a Swede, in this case the octogenarian acknowledged as his nation’s finest living poet and a man whose whole oeuvre, as Peter Englund charmingly remarks, could fit into a single slim paperback. A winner, in short, whom the whole jury can read in the original pure Swedish in just a few hours. Perhaps they needed a sabbatical. Not to mention the detail, not irrelevant in these times of crisis, that the $1.5-million-dollar prize will stay in Sweden.

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But most healthy of all, a decision like this, which we all understand would never have been taken by say, an American jury, or a Nigerian jury, or perhaps above all a Norwegian jury, reminds us of the essential silliness of the prize and our own foolishness at taking it seriously. Eighteen (or sixteen) Swedish nationals will have a certain credibility when weighing up works of Swedish literature, but what group could ever really get its mind round the infinitely varied work of scores of different traditions. And why should we ask them to do that?


"How do these people decide who are the greatest novelists and/or poets of the day on the international scene? They call on scores of literary experts in scores of countries and pay them to put down a few reflections about possible winners. Such experts are supposed to remain anonymous, but inevitably some have turned out to be acquaintances of those they have nominated.

Let’s try to imagine how much reading is involved. Assume that a hundred writers are nominated every year—it’s not unthinkable—of whom the jury presumably try to read at least one book..."

Wow! The lines quoted above simply indicate that you are totally ignorant of the actual nomination process and selection process (the rules are readily available at the Nobel website). If Parks can't even familiarize himself with the actual nomination and selection process before criticizing the Academy, there's simply no point in reading beyond the lines I quoted above? He can have nothing meaningful to say, because he is clearly ignorant of the subject.

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David Ottosson
being Swedish, I was at first hesitant to respond.
I was bothered by this piece, but thought it might just be misdirected pride, or protectiveness (Tranströmer, with his gentleness and incapacitated body will do that to you).

But reading this critique again today, the holes in Parks' arguments seem a little too transparent to ignore, at least posted here.

1. Parks first claim, that not having read Tranströmer is a good starting point for a critique of the prize, is beautifully adressed by a guardian commenter (davideks):
"I have yet to encounter a serious critic who has said something like
"I have read significant pieces of Tomas Tranströmer's work and my
informed opinion is that he does not deserve the prize".
comes a point at which someone who writes for a serious newspaper and
who drags up the old point of "I've no idea who this guy is" simply
embarrasses him- or herself."

2. Parks asks: "How do these people decide who are the greatest novelists and/or poets of the day on the international scene?"
The answer is, of course, that they don't.
shouldn't the impossibility of such a task be obvious to anyone who reads books at this level?

The current Academy have given a name to the aesthetic they use to chose authors - they look for authors that "bear witness". There are many valid ways of criticizing this aesthetic, the idea of "truthfulness", et.c. but this does not seem to be where Parks interests lie.

3. "Greatest writer" and "winner" are titles used by Parks. Neither are, or would be, used by the academy.
You do not win the prize, you are awarded it. The difference is quite significant, but does not seem to be understood by Parks. judging by this text.
The academy is open about the fact that the writers who are awarded the prize are not the "greatest writer" (whatever that word means in this context) and that for every laureate, an untold number of equally talented writers go without- there are simply not enough Octobers..

4. It is striking how Parks seems to get hung up on the idea that it is simply 16 Swedes deciding. Makes me think of Johnson's alleged quip about finishing his Dictionary so much faster than the French Academy, with its forty members and forty years to completion:
"Let me
see; forty times forty is sixteen hundred. As three to sixteen hundred,
so is the proportion of an Englishman to a Frenchman."
Could this be where Parks is coming from? Perhaps one Englishman would be preferable?
Would he have similar qualms about 16 Englishmen looking over world literature? The fact that he makes such a point of stressing the word "Swedish" makes me doubt.

Personally, I think an international group would be ideal. Perhaps Parks does as well. But as of yet, we do not have one, unfortunately.

5. "Why should we ask them to do that?"
Simple. Writers like money. Readers like recommendations. Critics like fighting.

If you're talking about Phillip Roth in terms of any prize or award whatsoever, or in any positive terms, then you have nothing interesting to say about literature. Phillip Roth is to some American would-be literati what L. Ron Hubbard is to Scientology -- you worship him, but everyone outside your weird little bubble thinks he's a repellent looney.

If you want to make a case for American literature, you might mention about Peter Matthiessen, who is a transcendent, world-class talent. If you prefer the dreary, semen-stained juvenilia of Phillip Roth then there's something wrong with you.

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Demian Vitanza
I'm an author, writing from Norway:

Do you have similar articles when an internationally acknowledged prize is handed out in the US to Americans as well? The whole world knows about Oscar too, but hey, they're missing out on the developments in Argentinean film. The world doesn't spinn around New York (and for sure not Sweden either), so let's just take these prizes for what they are. And let's be happy that at least the Nobel Prize is selected in a country where foreign litterature read is 50% of the litterature read, and not 5%, which is the case in the US.

By the way: I gave the complete Tranströmer poems to my girl-friend a year ago. We're both authors and recognize the genius in Tranströmer. You should look forward to discover it. And when it's "just one book", it's because he doesn't need more space to change your life.

Bjorn Kohlstrom
Since Swedish is a comparatively small language, we have to rely on translations, and I would say that the members of the academy are quite polylingual, with some member (Göran Malmqvist) an expert in Asian literature, some (Per Wästberg) in African literature, etc. Surely you have heard former secretary Horace Engdahl read the citation in perfect Swedish, perfect English, perfect French, perfect German, perfect Russian?

Although some of Parks´ remarks are valid, he is also guilty of a few misunderstandings. A literary prize is likely to be controversial, and there will always be someone who thinks that poems cannot be judged against the more solid novel writers. Fair enough. Tranströmer was nominated by a long list of former laureates, which must have some considerable weight. (The approval of colleagues ...) Parks´ assumption that the academy must read so many books each and every year is childish: e.g. Tranströmer has been nominated since at least 1993, and this must be the case for many authors, that they are perennial nominees.