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Jan Myrdal’s speech 2013

This is the fifth year for this award ceremony. It is therefore worth a few words in principle before I start talking to this year’s award recipients.

Now after nine laureates, it is quite possible to see that they represent a certain traditional faction in Swedish cultural life these last centuries. Roy Andersson has pointed this out before. But which one? The Jan Myrdal Society has used words like “disobedient”, I myself have used words like “refractory”. Neither word really covers the content. But it is clear that this traditional alignment in our culture is very broad and yet properly defined. Like a hand fan.

Look at the names: Mattias Gardell, Roy Andersson, Kajsa Ekis Ekman, Maj Wechselmann, Martin Schibbye, Sven Lindqvist, Jenny Wrangborg, Maj Sjöwall, Gabriela Pichler. This is not a party. I also do not think they would be made to swear on any communal credo.

But the characteristic and communal became clear when the opponents acted. Their unreasonable rage was not unique it was also the traditional one. It was not just ordinary second-rate thinkers and miserable journalism of the usual kind who acted. Now, as in such conflicts before, the government and the Swedish Academy were the big guns. The attacks were led by the aristocratic excellence Bildt, deeply tainted by the Lundin Oil scandal and by the Swedish Academy’s permanent secretary, who adapted from youth radicalism to get to shake hands with the king. They were followed by the whole shebang of editorial writers with their own dubiosities in prehistory and shouting writers whose tone rose higher and higher until they seemed to be approaching a stroke.

But that is how they usually have been. Our Swedish culture is fundamentally divided. Read Vilhelm Fredrik Palmblad’s attack on Carl Jonas Love Almqvist. Especially what he wrote in his Tiden after Almqvist’s flight from the kingdom. Follow the Strindberg feud. Or order at the library David Sprengel’s critique anthology “the publishers, the authors, the critics on Agnes von Krusentsjerna and her latest work”. I was able to make an entire catalogue through the conflict over the “proletarian writers” and the war Tingsten and his entourage waged against politically deviant writers and artists to this day. But I do not need to repeat that in detail. The important thing is to be able to distinguish the deep divide right through the culture in this country as well.

But note that although some of these on the other side such as the poet Oscar II and the smaller ones in the academy entourage were as miserable as the editorial writers of our time and generally hollering celebrities, Palmblad, Wirsén, Landqvist, or for that matter Heidenstam, Hedin and Tingsten were not incompetents. Quite the opposite. But they were on the other side. That too should be kept in mind. The divide does not necessarily differentiate between good and poor quality.

Nor are our own homogenous. I just need to refer to Almqvist and Strindberg. I do not think anyone in this house can claim that they fully identify with all their words and views. However, they are ours and we are theirs.

The general media alarm includes outrage over the names Lenin and Robespierre. However, this is mostly an expression of lack of education. They were both versatile and fascinating historical figures. When both the entire existing labour movement and the bourgeois democratic organizations imploded in 1914 and the leaders drove their subordinate voters and members out in a horrific mass murder, Lenin belonged to the very few who resisted. Thus, part of the tainted and betrayed names of socialism and democracy was saved. We also had Swedish politicians, poets and artists – remember Ture Nerman and Naggen – who took a similar position. But Lenin’s greatness was that he was able to explain how this happened. It was the labour movement’s concern for the salaries of its officials and the party’s property that led the people into disaster. This still explains the inability of the Swedish labour movement at crucial moments. Before Lenin became completely incapacitated for work in 1923 and died the following year, he sought to force the new parties he helped to build to realize that the liberation of the colonized and dependent peoples on their own terms was the very precondition for the liberation of the working class in the “homelands” of imperialist states. He succeeded to some extent as long as he lived. But when the people of the “own” colonies took up arms, communist parties such as the French also faltered – for the same reasons as in 1914.

In addition, the democratic reforms in the state of Sweden after 1917 could not have been implemented without the terror the revolution in Russia put in such as the Bildt family’s officials.

As far as Robespierre is concerned, it’s easier still. It was his reforms – within capitalist society – that the reformist parties in Europe sought to realize after 1945. The reforms that are now being phased out.

Maj Sjöwall’s work has been of great importance in giving Swedish and international audiences an opportunity to see their time and their society more clearly. They are realistic, socially and humanely realistic, works. In addition, her and Per Wahlöö’s collaboration is a striking example of how one plus one does not have to settle for becoming two but can take the leap further to three and four. But that is a work for scholars of history of literature. (For intellectual purity, I do not use the misleading term “Literary science”.)

In the preface to the new edition on Piratförlaget, it is written as if the sixties were specific. I do not understand that. Fashion changes from year to year. Right now, men are unshaven to show their masculinity while shaving their chest so as not to be hairy. It is clear that one as a writer notice and use such things. If you write about Peace Day in Stockholm, you should not portray students with Lund style white hats. But that is technique and not literary decisive.

It is important that these books accurately and recognizably depict a transformation of society. One that is ongoing. I mentioned it in connection with Robespierre. The dismantling. But more importantly, the overarching title “The Story of a Crime” is directly linked to a major European tradition.

“The Story of a Crime” is explicitly part of this tradition. The one that is not the “detective novel’s”, a temporary side genre. To what was read on our side in the decades before, during and after World War II, was Egon Erwin Kisch’s “Prager Pitaval.” Text about the crime in its context. The word Pitaval was not an accidental choice.

François Gayot de Pitaval (1673–1743) was a lawyer and published twenty volumes in which he discussed well known and lesser-known cases. The special thing was that he was not, as was – and is – customary, only depicting the legal process. Instead, he described both the psychological and social conditions that surrounded and led to the crime. Friedrich Schiller in Germany translated and edited them. He described the collection as “a contribution to the history of mankind”. That’s how the word Pitaval got the special meaning that Egon Erwin Kisch used.

I do not remember that I discussed this with Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö at that time and I do not know if there is any direct connection in the reading experience. On the other hand, I think it is clear that Maj Sjöwall is part of this great European intellectual and literary tradition. “The Story of a Crime” is precisely this broad depiction that places the crime in its context.

That I have never succeeded in getting any Swedish publisher interested in publishing Pitaval is just a sign of the provincial backwardness of the “auntland”.

Gabriela Pichler’s film “Eat Sleep Die” is a great work of art. Those of you who have not seen it should do so. It raises issues I think it is necessary to address.

It’s a conscious film. To the Proletarian December 20, 2012, she said:

– In “Eat sleep die” I wanted to describe the pride in the work and the identity you create based on your work that is dissolved when you lose your job. I wanted to show how society blames the individual and that it in turn stirs up xenophobia and competition between people instead of solidarity.

To Expressen on October 8, 2012, she had clarified:

– It’s naive, but I want to change the world. In “Eat sleep die” the debate is raised about whether there are social classes in Sweden. For me, it is important to talk about these people because that is where both me and Nermina come from. Everything is not okay in this country right now.

Thus, a conscious contemporary portrayal of workers. This is where it is important to be careful. I have written about Swedish proletarian literature and its specificity. I think I see connections between Pichler’s film and works by authors such as Moa Martinsson and Ivar Lo Johansson. But more important is the genre itself.

There is a kind of story which in German is called “Armenleutelitteratur”. In Swedish we would say “Story of the poor impoverished”. There are actually great ones. Take Hans Fallada’s “Kleiner Mann – was nun?” from 1932. It explains the then current German events. But it hardly contributed to any consciousness that could lead to change.

Woody Guthrie was an artist who wanted to change the world with his music and his words. He pointed out that the bad and dangerous in all art was the one that made the audience feel inferior and miserable. Not that you cannot portray the misery. But it’s about the tone. Listen to the song “Tom Joad” that he was inspired to write after seeing Henry Fonda as “Tom Joad” in John Ford’s film version of Steinbeck’s novel “Grapes of Wrath”. Woody Guthrie is one of the most important class-conscious artists of our time. (In the early fifties when we tried to launch him in Sweden, it did not work out; the time was not ripe, but in the sixties, he became inspiring for a generation of young musicians here.)

I see Pichler’s film in that tradition. But this our tradition is manifold. That Raša in “Eat Sleep Die” is not – at least not yet – the rock-hard politically conscious “Rebel Girl” that Joe Hill wrote and sang in 1911 does not prevent them from in our meaning – not Kipling’s – being sisters under the skin.

I am now happy and proud to be able to ask first Maj Sjöwall and then Gabriela Pichler to come up to receive their awards.