For decades, Tomas Tranströmer painted intricate details of the beauty of Swedish landscapes, touched by the colours of the seasons, and held up what may be considered regular daily routine as vignettes that inspired wonder. Chances are that his name and work were only familiar to literary academics and poetry lovers who subscribed diligently to journals.
However, in November 2011, this reticent octogenarian made the front pages of newspapers across the world. He had been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, and was the first Swede to receive the honour since 1974. Naturally, there has been tremendous interest in his life and works, and translations have been pouring out over the last month and a half.
He may be among the oldest Nobel Laureates, but Tranströmer published his first collection of 17 poems in 1954, when he was only 23, and a student of Stockholm University. He trained to be a psychologist, and counselled juvenile offenders after graduating. He would write poetry in his free time.
In the 1950s, he struck up a friendship with American poet Robert Bly, who was living in Scandinavia after being awarded a Fulbright Scholarship to translate Norwegian poetry into English. Bly translated Tranströmer in his journal in 1964, and the two kept up a regular correspondence till 1990, when a stroke left Tranströmer partially paralysed, and unable to speak or write without difficulty.
About 200 of these letters were published in the collection Air Mail in 2001, and an English version is due to come out in 2013; the subjects are said to range from political discussions over issues like the Vietnam War, to personal ones such as Bly asking Tranströmer to be godfather to his son.
The popularity of his work
Tranströmer’s work was a favourite in select circles, since it began to be published in English — some time in 1970. He has since been translated into more than 60 languages, but was arguably the least-read recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature, at least by the general public. He has received very few awards outside of Sweden, and the Nobel Prize was a very long time in coming — it was later revealed that he had been nominated every year since 1993!
Several collections, and revised editions, of his translated poems had appeared, mostly in the UK and sometimes in the US. His autobiography Minnena Ser Mig (The Memories See Me), came out as far back as 1993.
But once the announcement was made about the Nobel Prize, there has been a scramble to read him among puzzled booklovers, and a race to acquire rights to translations of his works by harried publishers.
Tens of thousands of copies of his works have sold over the past month and a half — his The Half-Finished Heaven notched up a sale of 15,000 copies — and works like The Deleted World, translated by Scottish poet Robin Robertson and Swedish writer Karin Altenberg, are being published in several continents.
Nature of Tranströmer’s poetry
Tranströmer is known for the vivid imagery in his poems, most of which are only a few lines long. Though his poetry doesn’t rhyme, it is hailed as musical, and translators have spoken of their struggles to retain this aspect of his writing. One reason could be that Tranströmer is an accomplished pianist.
The committee announced that the Nobel Prize had been awarded to him “because, through his condensed, translucent images, he gives us fresh access to reality”.
Some of his contemporaries have criticised him for looking within, and being obsessed with the workings of the human mind and nature, without engaging with politics and society in his writing. However, he has never compromised on his natural leanings, which is rather obvious from the title of his last published work — The Great Enigma, which came out in 2004.
It would be wrong to think Tranströmer was divorced from politics, though. He stood alongside the Indian poets who held a poetry reading session in Bhopal, immediately after the gas tragedy of 1984.
Reception of the Nobel Prize
Tranströmer was due to receive the Nobel Prize on December 10, 2011, exactly 36 years after he had watched and described in writing the ceremony at which Italian poet Eugenio Montale picked up his Nobel. Both Montale and Tranströmer would receive Nobels when they were 80.
Tranströmer said he would play a piano piece written for the left hand, which he still has use of, rather than make a speech of acceptance at the ceremony. His wife Monica accepted the prize on his behalf.