Written by Ida Henrikson
Translated from Swedish by André Sumelius
“I remember the meeting with Harry Martinson very well. It was a big event to get to know such a fabulous, creative person.”
The literary scholar and emeritus professor in Swedish literature at the University of Helsinki, Johan Wrede, was given the opportunity to interview the writer, Harry Martinson, at the beginning of the 1960s, through his work on his thesis, The song about Aniara: studies in Harry Martinson’s world of thoughts.
In his writing about Martinson, Wrede starts by telling of the writer’s generosity: Martinson lived in Gnesta, and had provided Wrede with detailed directions for his journey. Martinson had sent a taxi to pick up Wrede from the train station. After the interview, Wrede spent the night as a guest of Martinson and his wife at the time, Ingrid Lindcrantz (whom Martinson married after the marriage with Moa Martinson ended. Ed. note.).
“Harry Martinson was a genius with a completely unique ability of taking in information. I think he could read a page and photograph it in his mind. Additionally, he took a further step, and withdrew the most pertinent information from the text and put it in a current context; what does this mean to us right now?” Wrede explains.
His meaning is that the skill was doubly impressive, since the person in question was entirely self-taught. Martinson had only attended a few classes of lower primary school.
“It is unfathomable how he was able to achieve such an advanced level of skill, largely on his own.”
Martinson was from a poor, broken home with many children, from Jämshögs socken in Blekinge. He became an orphan early on, when his father, an alcoholic sea captain passed away, and his mother emigrated to the USA. Little Harry was placed in a municipal home for the elderly, where the wise matron took particular care of him.
Later on, Martinson took to the seas, and spent a few years as an able seaman, after which he lived as a vagabond traveler. These experiences, among others, served as the fodder for the vagrant novel The Road.
Wrede tells us that Martinson was very spontaneous, skilled at communication and a creative thinker. He was genuinely interested in the world.
Martinson had also participated as a volunteer in the Finnish Winter War, characteristically unarmed, as a mail carrier.
“He wanted to bring messages from home to the fighting Swedish soldiers on the front, which was very symbolic for Martinson”, says Wrede. He chose to not use violence, not even in his personal defense against war and the evil of the world.
Impulses are not the whole content
The epic Aniara was published by Bonniers in 1956. The first 29 songs were first published in the poem compilation Cikada in 1953, with the title The Song of Doris and Mima.
At the time, the Soviet Union, under the leadership of Malenkov, had just implemented their first Hydrogen bomb explosion. Up to that point, the USA had sole access to this devastating weapon. With the atom bombs which were used above Hiroshima and Nagasaki freshly in mind, the weapons race between the two superpowers the USA and the Soviet Union became a reality. Martinson viewed this as nothing less than a threat of the destruction of the world, which was not entirely unrealistic.
“It is clearly obvious that this nuclear threat was the inspiration behind the first 29 poems about the spaceship Aniara, which then grew into an epic. Additionally, Aniara is naturally also a guidebook on morals and ethics, in which Martinson – in a skilled, pedagogical manner – places the reader in fictitious situations, which can be quite extreme. “What would you do? This is the implicit question” says Wrede.
Aniara became a great sensation, immediately. Everyone wanted to read it. Written in verse form (albeit not fully in rhyme) makes it easy to memorize. All told, the lines of thought in Aniara’s world are perceivable and visual, which has surely been significant in the success of this work in poetry.
“I can’t imagine the work to ever become irrelevant, as long as the history of Swedish literature exists.”
“Alongside the press having so clearly indicated that this was the answer to the Russian Hydrogen bomb, the task of the work prevailed, and was canonized. Certainly, however, other impulses for writing Aniara could have been present. For example, Martinson made a connection with the sinking of the Titanic, which he had read about as a child; a great catastrophe which made a lasting impression on him. But Aniara is a review of man–in time and space–so its content is not fully comprised of its impulse,” says Wrede.
“Aniara is an attempt to map the human predicament, and the fact remains that we are a collective that doesn’t understand the need for collaboration; rather, we fall victims to our selfish pursuits of success, power and wealth.
The path to understanding the world
As a young able seaman, Martinson collected postcards, in the absence of other pursuits. He bought the postcards in the various harbors, and then wrote his notes in them, since that was the information available to him. He often visited libraries.
“He viewed his own experiences in the light of that which he could find out”, explains Wrede.
As an example, he offers the second verse of the first poem in Aniara:
She writes the cards, as five little nails shine
As dimmed lights through the shadows of the hall.
She says: write your name on this line,
where the light from my blonde hair shines.
Martinson borrowed these lines from himself, as they were notes from his first visit to a library, and his meeting with the librarian.
“The librarian opened up his path to understanding the world. This is something which we are prepared for when we read Harry Martinson. He doesn’t collect words from just anywhere, but rather, everything stems from memories, meanings and experiences, which makes reading him an exceptionally rich experience, for each person that loves literature.
Sexuality as a language
Wrede says that sexuality is a strong motive for Martinson. In Aniara, Martinson very clearly presents the the contrasts of sexuality.
“The instinctive embrace of the lovers not only furthers the creation of life, biologically, but also gives love itself a natural, holy significance, feeling and tone”.
“This is also why Martinson strongly judges sexual violence, as in the seventy-second poem in Aniara, The Song of Karelia. In the song–which is otherwise paradisiac–Mimaroben remembers a crime that he himself has committed, in order to defend his love in the pleasant, happy land, Karelia; from which he is later banished:
Was it because I used a knife
that I do not win my love.
I plunged it deeply into the breast of my father-in-law
as he self-lovingly left the sauna
and cupped the breast of the young lass with his hand…
But ninety centuries ago
one evening, I sat quietly in the meadow
with my lass, before it happened.
before the priest sent me away
from the meadows of Karelia
“That was a healthy reaction, for sure. But to go and kill the man, is that why he is now forced to live on”? questions Wrede.
Here, we see how Martinson develops and simple theme using an epic question.
“We can assert that Martinson – under all circumstances – protests the use of violence and using power over others, in which he sees the embodiment of the profanity of life itself, complete with all of its inner values.”
Already in the next poem, Martinson continues to the sex goddess Libidella, who “knows the navel jewel like a wound”. Turned away from its blessing, the sexuality in Aniara’s world becomes an abuse of the gift of nature.
“They aren’t his words, but I would say that Martinson views sexuality as a language. What you like, that the person you love is doing it. Then you can develop the language together, if you are happy and may live with the one you love.”
A vulnerable person
Martinson himself did not consider his works remarkable; but rather – according to Wrede – he was in the constant pursuit of learning more. Already, in his time, his writing was lauded by critics, readers and most of his colleagues alike. In 1974, Harry Martinson was awarded the Nobel prize in literature for “writing that catches the dew drop and mirrors the cosmos", a prize which he shared with Eyvind Johnson that year.
However, Martinson and Johnson were criticized for having been acting members of the Swedish Academy at the time of having received their Nobel prizes; even if the matter in question was not an exception to any principle which was adapted by the Academy.
“It is understandable that this custom within the Academy, which seems self-congratulatory, was criticized for having been one which was not fully considered. However, since many precedents existed, no personal accusations of the prize-winning members were anticipated. But that is what actually happened,” explains Wrede.
This criticism, among other factors, is what finally led to Martinson’s suicide, he thinks.
“Unfortunately, I didn’t meet with Harry Martinson during these last, difficult times. The attacks was completely horrifying and harrowing. As gentle as he was as a person, he must have been very vulnerable.
Aniara continues to inspire
Wrede wants to be careful of speaking of symbols in relation to Aniara. Symbols have defined meanings established things, while metaphors are more open. This, among other reasons, is why Aniara is so fascinating: it speaks so strongly to your imagination that you, as the reader, become a co-creator.
“Martinson paints concrete images which indicate a larger context. This allows for several opportunities for interpretation, which is one of the reasons for it being such a living work”.
“Martinson raised a theme which was unavoidable in the ‘50s. The world has changed a lot since Aniara was published, but it still reflects our current time”.
“If we consider today’s headlines in the news, with Trump wanting to start competing with Russia; the missiles are to be created in larger numbers, and larger… Yes, those metaphors also work today”, says Wrede.
He also doesn’t want to speak directly about the language in Aniara, but rather, about its style.
“A language system is what it is, but the question is how you use it.”
“Martinson’s style is uncoerced and disrespectful, alive and imaginative”, says Wrede. “In Aniara, Martinson presents a world which we, in fact, have never seen. This is why a certain danger can exist in, for example, making a film of the book” says Wrede, who has not seen the internationally noted film by Hugo Lilja and Pella Kågerman, from 2018.
Harry Martinson’s space epic,Aniara has become a classic which has inspired countless numbers of artists, not least Karl-Birger Blomdahl and Erik Lindegren, whose space opera from 1959 became the greatest success in the history of Swedish opera. In addition, despite this suite of poems now being 60 years of age, it still continues to interest and influence artists of various genres.
“It is the depth of space that fascinates us”, says Wrede. “That we’ve gotten lost in the ocean of space”.