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by Bamber Gascoigne

Harry Martinson (1904-1978)


Prolific novelist and poet, a self-taught working class writer, who became one of the most important modern exponents of Swedish proletarian literature. Like Melville or Conrad, Martinson spent years at sea before becoming a writer. In 1974 Martinson shared the Nobel Prize for Literature with Eyvind Johnson. Martinson's poetry is characterized by linguistic innovations, precision of observation, and a brilliant employment of metaphors. Lyrical tone also marks his novels about vagabonds and under-privileged people. Several of Martinson's book have an autobiographical basis.

"Och världen skall långsamt förlora sig sjäv
när den berövat sig själv
ödslighetens kraft
och ödslighetens äventyr."

(from Passad)

Harry Martinson was born in Jämshög, in the southern Swedish province of Blekinge. He was the fifth of seven children. His father, whom Martinson later claimed to be a sea captain, died when Harry was six years old. Harry's mother abandoned the children, left them to public welfare, and emigrated to America in 1912. His childhood Martinson spent in different foster homes. There early years were filled with disappointments and hard work. He also attempted to ran away several times. At the age of sixteen, Martinson went to sea. In his youth and early adulthood, Martinson worked as a deckhand, stoker, coaltrimmer, laborer, and vagrant. Martinson worked on 19 ships. He lived periods in South America and India. After contracting tuberculosis, a common affliction of stokers, he settled in Sweden in 1927.

In 1929 Martinson married the fourteen years older writer Moa Swartz (see Moa Martinson). In the same year Martinson published his first book of poetry, SPÖKSKEPP, which was influenced by Rudyard Kipling's Seven Seas and Dan Anderson's works. Albert Bonniers, Martinson's publisher, helped the young writer financially. In 1931 appeared NOMAD, which secured his reputation as a promising poet. In PASSAD (1945) Martinson deepened his 'nomadic' philosophy from outward journeys to inward. "De flestas inriktning är att leva / inte att förstå," he wrote in a poem. Passad was dedicated to his wife Ingrid, née Lindcrantz, whom he had married in 1942 after divorcing Moa.

In his autobiographical book KAP FARVÄL (1933, Cape Farewell) Martinson sees the wind as a symbol of life. He rejects storm and still; his ideal is strong and powerful trade wind. Also later he returned to the theme. "There exists something universally compelling which still cannot be materialized. The wind is a good symbol of this, and among the winds the trade wind is the best symbol of human reasonableness and human desire for airing things. It symbolizes a mental set which takes the sea atmosphere for a model. with its openness uniting with the eye's openness for a new vistas and new lands." (from Vänkritik, 1959)

In the 1930s Martinson became closely associated with the 'vitalist-primitivist' literary group Fem Unga. Its other members included Arthur Lundkvist, Erik Asklund, Josef Kjellgren, and Gustav Sandgren. In 1934 he attended with his wife the writers' conference in the Soviet Union from which he returned politically disillusioned. The Soviet invasion of Finland in 1939 impelled him to enlist in the Swedish Volunteer Corps to fight for Finland. The novel VERKLIGHET TILL DÖDS is based on Martinson's experiences in The Finnish Winter War 1939-40, and gives his personal account of Soviet ideology. As one of the service personnel - he delivered mail - he could observe the spirit of the troops. The harsh winter months took their toll on his physical health. However, in January 1941 he participated in Sweden Week in Copenhagen, and visited the Niels Bohr Institute of Theoretical Physics.

Martinson's first novels are mostly autobiographical. Cape Farewell presented short impressions of his years at sea. In Chile he spends one night in 'calaboza', a police jail, where meets a young Indian woman. She has stolen a chicken, and is abused by the guards. After paying money to get her out, the narrator buys her a dress, new shoes, and a train ticket back to her home in Peru. In Bordeaux he tells to a 17-year old boy who is going to seas, that he was fourteen on his first jouney. After many years of wandering, the narrator realizes that his real self is only longing, shapeless, wordless longing to California. In NÄSSLORNA BLOMMA (1935, Flowering Nettle) Martinson returned to his childhood as a runaway orphan. The protagonist, Martin, is taken from his relatives at the age of seven to Vilnäs, where his foster parents get five crowns in a month to take care of him. Martin starts school, but he is then moved to a prosperous farm house in Tollene. After an escape, he is placed in an old peoples home at the age of 11. There he hears stories from old sailors, forgetting his surroundings. VÄGEN UT (1936) depicted Martinson's difficult childhood and adolescence years. VÄGEN TILL KLOCKRIKE (1948, The Road), was about tramps and vagrants. Through the protagonist, Bolle, a self-styled invididualist, Martinson mixes autobiography with social criticism.

As a poet Martinson created his best works after the war. Among them is his famous a 103-canto epic poem, Aniara, a tragic vision of a future. Its first poems appeared in CICADA (1953), forming a section called 'The Song of Doris and Mima'. The story follows the irreversible voyage of a giant, luxurious spaceship 'Aniara' with 8 000 evacuees after the earth has become uninhabitable. While taking refugees from the dying Earth to Mars, 'Aniara' goes off course and becomes eternally lost in space. Of central importance in the spaceship is the Mima, a highly advanced computer/robot with a soul - a predecessor to Arthur C. Clarke's HAL 9000. Martinson has explained that the rooms of 'Aniara' are different kinds of life styles or forms of consciousness. Mima represents 'The Memory', incurable longing, but also 'The History', guilt. In the end of the epic' the spaceship becomes a sarcophagus on its way to the Lyra constellation, a Titanic of outer space. Aniara also gained international fame as an opera, composed by Karl-Birger Blomdahl, who used pioneering electronic effects.

Martinson expressed his increasing unrest about the destructive potential of technology in GRÄSSEN I THULE (1958) and VAGNEN (1960), both collections of poems. When the reception of the latter was mixed, Martinson stopped publishing poetry for ten years. The success of Aniara had become a burden and in 1963 he complained that "to have written Aniara us like having done a large rya rung. After that you can only sit down and do little mats, and people say: Why doesn't he get a rya done instead of these lousy old mat-ends?"

In 1971 appeared DIKTER OM LJUS OCH MÖRKER, and two years later TUVOR, a collection nature poems. Martinson wrote several plays, among them TRE KNIVAR FRÅN WEI. His later year were shadowed by criticism of the younger leftist generation, and increasing demands that writers should engage politically. The attacks of Olof Lagercrantz, Sven Delblanc, and Karl Vennberg depressed Martinson deeply and he was hospitalized. The Nobel Prize did not ease his bitterness and feeling of isolation. He tried to commit ritual suicide by seppuku, but only managed to hurt himself very badly.

After his divorce and remarriage Martinson spent most of his life in Gnesta. He became in 1949 the first self-educated writer of working-class background to be elected to the Swedish Academy. At that time he was one of the best-known writers in Sweden and once compalained to Eyvind Johnson that he received an average of 40 letters daily and ten poetry manuscripts weekly from aspiring writers. In 1954 he received an honorary doctorate at the University of Göteborg. Martinson died in Gnesta on February 11, 1978.

For further reading: Studier i Harry Martinsons språk by Peter Hallberg (1941); Harry Martinson by Lars Ulvenstam (1959); Den unge Harry Martinson, ed. by Olof Lagercrantz (1954); Harry Martinson by I. Holm (1960); 'Aniara' by E.O. Johannesson in Scandinavian Studies, 32 (1961, ); Sången om Aniara by Johan Wrede (1965), 'Harry Martinson and Science' by S.A. Bergmann, in Proceedings of the Fifth International Study Conference on Scandinavian Literature (1966); Half Sun Half Sleep by M. Swenson (1967); Harry Martinson erövrar sitt språk by Kjell Espmark (1970); 'Harry Martinson: From Vagabond to Space Explorer' by L. Sjöberg, in Books Abroad, 48 (1974); Ombord på Aniara by Gunnar Tideström (1975); Harry Martinsons barndomsvärld by Sonja Erfurth (1980); Columbia Dictionary of Modern European Literature, ed. by Jean-Albert Bédé and William B. Edgerton (1980); Harry Martinson och vägen ut by Sonja Erfurth (1981); Diktens bildspråk by Peter Hallberg (1982); Harry Martinsons landskap (1985); Harry Hartinson och Moa 1920-31 by Sonja Erfurth (1987); Martinsons 30-tal by Sonja Erfurth (1989); Encyclopedia of World Literature in the 20th Century, vol. 3, ed. by Steven R. Serafin (1999); Harry Martinson - naturens, havens och rymdens diktare by Karl-Olof Anderson (2004) - See also: Viljo Kajava; Nordic Authors (Project Runeberg); Peter Nilson, winner of Harry Martinson Prize in 1986

Selected works:

  • SPÖKSKEPP, 1929 - Ghost Ship
  • NOMAD, 1931
  • RESOR UTAN MÅL, 1932 - Aimless Journeys
  • KAP FARVÄL!, 1933 - Cape Farwell - Hyvästi, meri
  • NÄSSLORNA BLOMMA, 1935 - Flowering Nettle - Nokkoset kukkivat
  • VÄGEN UT, 1936 - The Way Out - Tie maailmalle
  • PASSAD, 1945 - Trade Wind
  • VÄGEN TILL KLOCKRIKE, 1948 - The Road - Kulkijan pilvilinnat
  • CICADA, 1953
  • ANIARA, 1956 - Aniara, A Rewiew of Man in Time and Space (translated by Hugh MacDiarmid and E. Harley Schubert) - Aniara (suom. Aila Meriluoto, see after Lauri Viita)
  • GRÄSEN I THULE, 1958
  • VAGNEN, 1960
  • TUVOR, 1973
  • Friends, You Drank Some Darkness: Three Swedish Poets, 1975 (with others, ed. and tr. by R. Bly)
  • DORIDERNA, 1980
  • Wild Bouquet: Nature Poems, 1985
  • POETISKA TÖRNBUSKAR I MÄNGD. BREV 1929-1949, 2004 (ed. by Paulina Helgeson)

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