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Nina Björk’s speech to Carl-Göran Ekerwald

I am going to give a speech to Carl-Göran Ekerwald – a speech that sounds. But I’ll start with a pantomime. The pantomime is called: “To read Carl-Göran Ekerwald” and it looks like this: (bounce, smile, frown, shake head, nod in confirmation). It doesn’t look like this: (just pretend to read without facial expressions).

That is to say: You get many feelings and thoughts from reading Ekerwald. You don’t get comfy. You never know what will come. It’s exciting and very good for the mood.

The first time I met Carl-Göran Ekerwald was on the bathroom floor in my childhood home. It was in the shape of an open book lying on the floor with the cover facing upwards. I had just learned to read so I was probably 7-8 years old, and I remember spelling my way through the author’s name, I never got to the title. I read Carl-Göran EkerWald (why should we have double-u if it was pronounced the same way as v?)

Now, many years later, I think it was an appropriate way to meet Ekerwald. The low, the bodily needs, the concrete – and at the same time the high, the large spaces, the freedom of thought. Quite simply: a writer spirit on a bathroom floor. And I could read his name!

It felt strange to discover that you were from Änge in Offerdal, Carl-Göran Ekerwald – because I am too! Two Lenin Award winners born in Änge! In relation to the number of inhabitants, it must be the place from which Lasse has picked the most people here to Varberg. When I found you on the bathroom floor, however, my family had moved to Halland a few years earlier. So maybe it wasn’t the lofty literary heights my parents were looking for when they read that book, but maybe they wanted to read someone from a now abandoned hometown. I know you would have approved of both reasons.

Carl-Göran Ekerwald made his debut in 1959 with a collection of short stories titled “The fire and the chick”. His latest book was the essay collection “That which does not exist” from 2021. In between, he has written novels, juvenile books, love poems, memoirs, made translations, worked as a literary critic. So, he has been a writer for six decades. It is a long period of time, and no man stands still in his head for so many years. Topics have changed as have attitudes.

But I still sense an Ekerwald-esque original question, one that follows him wherever he turns in the world – and it is the greatest of questions, namely “How shall we live?”. We have been given our time on earth, how to manage it?

It seems to me that Ekerwald himself needs that question. He needs to have it alive in his own life – not primarily to give his readers an answer. And he keeps the question alive by consorting with people – and he consorts with people by reading books. There he consorts with all people; it doesn’t matter if they live today or if they lived hundreds of years ago and it doesn’t matter if they lived at all or if they are people in novels. Everyone is equal and everyone gets the same question: “You who are human, how do you act? How do you act in your life; how do you act in your work?” Through literature, he gets what he calls a “comparison material”.

All of this is based on a view of human beings that says that I am not that original. You’re not that original either. That is based on the fact that we have something to say to each other. Across time and space, across gender, beyond power and status. The individual is not a unique psychological puzzle, but we are all doppelgangers of each other.

This does not mean that we can ignore the circumstances of the individual person. In a wonderfully concise analysis of Gustave Flaubert’s classic novel Madame Bovary, Ekerwald believes that what Flaubert does in this novel is that he says of his main character, “Let’s see how she was. This is how she was! Fini! It is literature of the great kind.”

How was she? All people are worthy of that question, from the smallest to the largest, from the one with the finest values to the one with the most horrible. The question “how was she?” is also at the same time the question “how could she live? What opportunities did she have to live how?” Here is the connection between society, politics – circumstances – and the life of the individual.

We meet so many people in Ekerwald’s books! That’s like what we do. On one page, we meet someone who makes a revolution. On the next page, we meet someone visiting a farm, looking at a sculpture and reading a book. We meet happy people, crazy people, playing, loving, working people. Although the meetings with all these people are sometimes short, the people are not reduced to constituting Examples of a Type. Yet we learn something from the totality of everyone we meet: we learn about the eternally human. We learn humanism.

Now I suspect, at least in the context in which we find ourselves here today, that some mutter: Oh, all this talk about the Human, about Humanism, this talk about Let’s stop polarizing and instead unite – isn’t there soon a risk that I suggest that we should all start singing “We shall overcome”?

Oh no – I won’t do that. Because it is important to distinguish between a watered-down humanism and a blood-filled one. The watered-down, non-committal humanism, it ignores circumstances and injustices. Instead, it likes to talk about tolerance. Ekerwald writes about this word of honour of our time in the book “Diogenes’ lantern” from 1983, the decade when neoliberalism really broke through in Sweden, where he writes like this: “There is a tolerance of condescension. Let them keep going… soon they get tired. Or – just keep talking… it will still be the way we want it to be. Tolerance – as a safety valve in society. Institutionalized by the indifferent.”

The keynote of tolerance is “you don’t concern me; I do not care. Take care of your own business and don’t mind others”. Tolerant is someone who says “my children and other people’s kids” – for them, completely different things apply indirectly. And sure, they may have completely different conditions, but some conditions are better, and others are worse for a person to be able to enjoy life.

Tolerance, indifference, is based on the fact that we know nothing about what is better and what is worse. That I can’t know anything about what you need or you anything about what I need. Everything goes!

In an essay on the Marxist Lukács, Ekerwald writes about that attitude within traditional literary research. This is how he writes: “Do you think that Konstanze is behaving properly? – What a question? Everyone lives their life, isolated from others, enclosed in the lead sheath of subjectivity – who can then take a stand on what Konstanze or anyone else is doing. Everything is ultimately incomprehensible, and powerlessness is the word that comes closest to the truth about man. It is against such a resigned, anti-life attitude that Lukács rises up with all his knowledge and with all his experience.”

And in this Lukács has a comrade in Ekerwald. He says that things can be understood, that man can be understood.

The opposite of tolerance is not punishment and prohibition against, or cancellation of, those who hold different views than us, against those who have different customs than us, those who deal with life in different ways than us. The opposite is commitment and struggle to convince, to get people on our side. Blood-filled humanism says that there are circumstances that enable people to flourish. And there are circumstances that make it difficult, if not impossible.

It requires us to be honest and open with our worldview, our view of human beings and what we believe constitutes a good life. That we don’t hide behind the tolerance that borders on indifference, and that says I can’t know anything about you and what you need.

In the book “Diogenes’ lantern”, Ekerwald also writes about when this 4th-century Greek philosopher went out with his lighted lantern even though it was broad daylight. He writes that he believes that what Diogenes was looking for was not a tolerant but a sincere human being. An undisguised one.

And then you can say: how lucky Diogenes found Carl-Göran Ekerwald! It is true that it took 2400 years, and perhaps it was Ekerwald who found Diogenes and not the other way around. But still – good meeting.

To me, Ekerwald appears as a sincere person. It is noticeable both in what he writes about; he really wants to know something himself about Horace or about Jämtar1 or about Goethe. And it shows in the way he writes, his style. Ekerwald does not use the words as if they were flags that should signal something. Signal “I keep up with the times”, or “I belong to this camp”. At one time, perhaps such signal words were “production conditions” and “surplus value”. Today they are “brown bodies”, “tolerance”, “inclusion”.

But the words Ekerwald uses don’t work that way. The words he uses he uses because he needs them; they come from within. It can be big words, abstract, solemn, existential. Heavenly words. But they are combined with the concrete earth words.

There is no showmanship in his texts – even though I find it hard to believe that there are many people in Sweden who are as cultivated and as skilled in languages and as well-read as he is. It’s as if he, “man of culture” as he is, has a very small ego.

In Johan Lovén’s interview book with Ekerwald, The Time Witness in Svindalen, Lovén gives him an offer to be what he calls a “time witness” (Ekerwald himself does not want to claim to be this). Lovén suggests that Ekerwald is the kind of honourable person who “dares to say what is uncomfortable when others remain silent for one reason or another?” Ekerwald answers: “The honourable thing lies primarily in the fact that you say something that your fellow human beings take to heart as a stimulus to intellectual vitality. It does not mean that you, as a reader, are in favour of a certain opinion that the time witness argued, but that your thinking has been put in motion. You have been vitalized in your mindset.”

He, this cultivated man, also dares to be childishly amazed, as when he writes in an essay: “That which for man is such an immensely pleasant condition, namely, to inhale air after exhaling, must for a whale that has held its breath perhaps a little over half an hour be extremely pleasant.” You haven’t thought of that, have you? What is it like to breathe in if you are a whale?

Ekerwald is not, it seems to me, that fond of writing theory or making generalizations. But I am, and since I am, I will end here by making a reducing generalization of something that I think I have glimpsed in Ekerwald’s always concrete embodiments of the question of life and meaning.

Like this: In relation to what makes life meaningful, people can take two different positions. Some think that what puts life in a flashlight and makes us understand what it’s all about, what the meaning is – it’s the exceptions, the unusual. It is the ecstasy, death, the party, the battle, the speed. Others think that it is the everyday life, the plod, that gives life meaning. The sun that rises every morning, the daily bread, the daily work, the still and small. The blade of grass. Maybe it has a dewdrop on it this morning?

It is probably not any conscious, intellectual decisions that lie behind which of these two positions a person takes. It’s probably a matter of temperament.

My temperament is such that I like to give answers. So, how should we live? We must existentially try to live so that we create “a love relationship with life”, which is a formulation Ekerwald uses in his essay on Nietzsche. We must live politically so that we give all people at least an opportunity to create a love relationship with life.

Ekerwald is a great help in both cases. Congratulations Carl-Göran!

1 Inhabitants of the Swedish province Jämtland.