A Nordic Narrator: An Interview with Per Olof Sundman

Rick McGregor
University of Otago
New Zealand

Deep South v.1 n.3 (Spring, 1995)

Copyright (c) 1995 by Rick McGregor, all rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the New Zealand Copyright Act 1962. It may be archived and redistributed in electronic form, provided that the journal is notified. This consent does not extend to other kinds of copying, such as copying for general distribution, for advertising or promotional purposes, for creating new collective works, or for resale. For such uses, written permission of the author and the notification of the journal are required. Write to Deep South, Department of English, University of Otago, P. O. Box 56, Dunedin, New Zealand.

A man in his late 60's, broad-shouldered and with ruffled grey hair and glasses, came across Bergsgatan to where I waited outside the restaurant L'Escargot on Stockholm's Kungsholmen.In answer to my direct question, he said that he had no thoughts when he first read them of using the sagas, or their narrative technique or style, in his own writings. Rather he read them for their berättarglädje [delight in telling a story].

Snorri Sturluson's sagas of the Norwegian kings from earliest times to 1177, Heimskringla, he prefers to read in Norwegian, in Anne Holtsmark and Didrik Arup Seip's translation, Snorres kongesagaer [Snorri's Kings' Sagas] (1944), probably, he says, because it was the first translation of it that he encountered. In his afterword to Norrlandsberättelser [Stories from Norrland] (1984) he also comments, 'I received Heimskringla as a birthday present from my childhood friend Christer Strömholm, the photographer. It was a Norwegian version, and is now rather the worse for wear'.[2]

I recalled seeing somewhere that Sundman had said that he has read the sagas with the Old Norse originals alongside. When I asked him about this, he said that as there are no parallell texts readily available in Swedish or Norwegian, he has had both the modern translation and the Old Icelandic text open side by side so that he could compare the two. I have since relocated the original reference I had read: in her article "Per Olof Sundman on the expedition of truthtelling", World Literature Today 55 (1981), Brita Stendal quotes from a letter from Sundman of 18 June 1980, '"I don't read Old Norse -- but I have read reams of text with the original on the left page and the translation on the right. One can thus experience the extraordinary qualities of the original text"' (p. 255).

While Sundman was in the Swedish Riksdag he made a number of trips to Iceland. He says that he has been in Iceland about 30 times, for periods ranging from two days to two weeks. I asked him if he has learnt much Icelandic on these visits. He can't speak Icelandic, he said, but he can follow a conversation between two Icelanders if it is on a topic which he understands, and if they don't speak too fast; he can read the headlines in the Icelandic daily paper Morgunblaðið. He wishes he knew more of the language.

At the Book Fair Sundman mentioned as part of a discussion of his novel Berättelsen om Såm [The Story of Såm] (1977) that he had been involved in a couple of radio programmes which had to do with the original saga on which it is based, Hrafnkels saga Freysgoða. I asked him to elaborate. In the summer of 1976, he said, he had participated in the Swedish radio series "Sommarpratare", reading Hrafnkels saga in between playing recordings of Icelandic music (or as an excuse to play Icelandic music, as he put it). As a preparation for the programme he timed how long it took to read the saga, and found that it took thirty-five minutes. It was while working on the radio programmes that he formed the idea of retelling the saga from Sámr's point of view. He points out that in the novel (as in the saga), Såm is dependent on others. And the one time he makes an independent decision and ignores the advice of others, things go badly for him. But Sundman sees the saga as portraying the story primarily from Hrafnkel's point of view.

He also commented at the Book Fair that he felt that a new Swedish translation of Hrafnkels saga which came out in 1966 was 'ett strå vassare' [just that little bit better] than Alving's. It was by Sven B. F. Jansson, a distinguished scholar of Old Norse and of runic inscriptions (and known affectionately in Sweden as "Rune-Janne"), whose daughter Anna-Karin Sundman was later to marry.

He says that he put a lot of effort into maintaining a purity of language in Berättelsen om Såm. The language was to be pure Scandinavian, and it cost him quite some difficulty to accomplish it. He says he received considerable help from his father-in-law. Never one to hold back an anecdote at his own expense, Sundman says that he later learnt from a mutual friend that Professor Jansson had wondered why on earth he wanted to rewrite Hrafnkels saga. He hadn't uttered a word of doubt or criticism to Sundman himself however.

Sundman has also on a number of occasions related Halldór Laxness's response to his novel. As he told it to me, he was about to make a trip to Iceland soon after the book came out, so he sent Laxness a copy of the novel in advance. Upon arriving in Reykjavík he took a taxi the 20 kilometers or so out to where Laxness lived. The Nobel prizewinner greeted him on the front steps with words to the effect that he had read Sundman's novel, and that he now planned to rewrite Selma Lagerlöf's Gösta Berlings saga, 'och det är nog snackat om din förbannade bok' [and that's enough talk about your bloody book].

Another who was given an early copy of the novel was Olof Palme, who read it overnight on a group visit to Helsinki, and next morning at breakfast commented on the dust cover note which Sundman (unwillingly, he says; he dislikes having to write the blurb for his own books) had appended, in which he says that 'the novel takes place in the present, but not entirely in the present' Palme said that he hadn't really set the novel in the present, but rather that he had borrowed various things from the present. He then proceeded to list a number of things from the present which did not exist in the novel, such as the telephone, radio, television. . . .

We touched on the subject of why the novel received such negative criticism from some quarters, and I suggested that readers in Iceland and Sweden were possibly already too well acquainted with the original saga, and were thus less prepared to accept a new version of the story than readers and critics in countries such as Germany and Japan, which Sundman had mentioned as places where Berättelsen om Såm seemed to be well-received.

I was interested to know whether he had read much secondary material on the saga. He said that he had read a certain amount in German, and some in English. However the articles he read were borrowed copies, so he could not underline in the text and make marginal notes as he otherwise prefers to do when he reads. As a result he only has vague memories of what he read on the subject.[3]

When I asked Sundman if he worked with Hrafnkels saga close at hand while he was writing his novel, he said there was no need: by then he knew it by heart.

We discussed the similarities of language which Sundman encountered in the northern Swedish provinces of Härjedalen and Jämtland and later in Iceland. It was during a winter spent in the small village of Gunnars in Härjedalen that Sundman first noted the language and the exotic behaviour which is given expression in stories such as "Skidlöparen" [The Cross-Country Skier]. And Sundman made the point that Jormlien, where he lived in Jämtland, celebrated its bicentenary not long after he arrived there. He stressed that it was a certain sort of person who had settled the area in the last 200 years; the inhabitants were descended from people with initiative, and a range of different abilities: mångsysslare [jacks of all trades] to use Sundman's own term. And in this respect he perceived similarities with the characters in the Icelandic family sagas, also descendants of settlers who had emigrated to Iceland within the preceeding two centuries.[4]

One area in which Sundman's narrative technique varies markedly from that of the Icelandic sagas is in his frequent use of an unreliable narrator. Particularly good examples are to be found in the short story "Främlingarna" [The Strangers] in the collection Sökarna [The Seekers] (1963), and in the novel Två dagar, två nätter(1965; translated as Two Days, Two Nights, 1969). In both cases the reader becomes aware of a discrepancy between what the narrator says, and what the author really implies. As a result the reader is forced to read between the lines and to weigh up the first person narrator's testimony very critically. I wondered whether Sundman had consciously adopted the technique from another author, or whether he had developed it by himself.

He began his answer by saying that his narrative technique stems from behaviourism, and that his early reading of Frans G. Bengtsson's Röde Orm (1941-45, translated as The Long Ships) made a lasting impression on him. He also remembered an essay by Bengtsson published in the late nineteen-forties in which he argued against depicting fictional characters' thought processes, and in favour of restricting oneself to dialogue and external descriptions of features and actions if one wished to maintain an illusion of reality. We worked out that it must have been the essay "Hur Röde Orm blev till" [The Genesis of Röde Orm], published in Modersmålslärarnas Föreningens Årsskrift (1948), and republished in the collection Folk som sjöng och andra essayer [People Who Sang and Other Essays] (Stockholm: Norstedts, 1955), pp. 11-21.

Returning in this roundabout way to my question, Sundman said that as a rule he prefers to write in the first person. However those who employ the first person in a written narrative have a tendency to become omniscient, whereas normally those who narrate orally in the first person 'ljuger som regel som borstbindare' [as a rule lie through their teeth]. So in order for his first-person narratives to retain their characteristics of an orally-told story, Sundman was obliged to create narrators who did not tell the truth. He says that he puts considerable effort into achieving this effect, where the difficulty is that the reader must perceive the inconsistency, but lay the blame for the discrepancies at the feet of the narrator, rather than at those of the author.

I wondered to what extent Frænkel in Ingenjör Andrées luftfärd(1967; translated as The Flight of the Eagle, 1970) is to be seen as an unreliable narrator, and to what extent he can be seen as posing the questions that Per Olof Sundman would have liked to ask Salomon August Andrée. Sundman agreed that the situation as regards the narrator was not as clear-cut in that novel as in others. He says that he felt he needed a first-person narrator, because the feeling of intimacy would have been lost in the third person. He chose Frænkel partly because the diaries of the other two members of the expedition, found at their last camp, had already been published in Med Örnen mot polen.[5] But Frænkel was also the expedition member who had the most in common with Sundman himself. He enjoyed life outdoors, he was a gymnast in his younger days (Sundman commented that he too had been a very keen gymnast when he was younger), and he had spent a year of his childhood up in Jämtland. In addition Frænkel was noted for his good humour and his laconic remarks, and that he was popular is unmistakable from the published accounts of those who accompanied the expedition to Danskøya in 1897.[6]

In Ett år [One Year] (1967), a journal kept during the last year of his work on Ingenjör Andrées luftfärd, Sundman writes while working on the novel in June 1967 that 'The story must follow the known external framework, the fixed points in the events. Beyond that I give myself full freedom'.[7] Yes, he said, it is in general a fixed idea of his when using factual material to stick to the outer framework of what he perceives as the known facts. I made the comparison with the Icelandic sagas, in which the saga-authors may well have felt compelled to adhere to certain local traditions, but were free to be creative within that frame. Sundman agreed that there was a similarity in that respect.

I felt that to some extent there were discrepancies between the accounts of the events of Andrée's expedition as portrayed in the novel and as given in the collage book which Sundman put together from documentary materials and published the following year, Ingen fruktan, intet hopp: ett collage kring S. A. Andrée, hans följeslagare och hans polarexpedition [No Fear, No Hope: A Collage about S. A. Andrée, his Companions and his Polar Expedition] (1968). For instance, in the novel, all three men call White Island (where their last camp was later discovered) "New Iceland", while in the collage book Sundman points out that 'Andrée obstinately calls White Island "New Iceland" while Strindberg and Frænkel just as obstinately call it "White Island"', and surmises that this may reveal an otherwise unexpressed conflict (p. 221). Sundman has at times invented conflicts in the novel which are not mentioned in the surviving diaries, but here is a possible conflict which he seems to have only noticed at a later stage. Sundman agreed that to some extent the second book was a reevaluation of certain aspects of the Andrée story.

While on the topic of his books on S. A. Andrée's balloon expedition Sundman was keen to mention the British author George MacBeth's novel, Anna's Book (1983). Although MacBeth claims to have solely used the Andrée men's diaries as his material, Sundman commented that there were a number of turns of phrase in MacBeth's novel which indicated that he had in fact used the English translation of Ingenjör Andrées luftfärd (translated by Mary Sandbach) as his source of inspiration.[8]

As a continuation of the discussion of narrative techniques, Sundman mentioned his novel Expeditionen (1962; translated as The Expedition, 1967), in which he used two narrators in order to achieve a similar effect to that which he later developed into the unreliable narrators of "Främlingarna" and Två dagar, två nätter. One can also see the earlier technique with two narrators at work in the short story "Skidlöparen" in Jägarna[The Hunters] (1957).

Sundman said that he wrote Expeditionen during the Congo Crisis, which is part of the reason that he chose a Belgian in the form of Laronne to tell one half of the story. Jaffar Topan's character came from two separate people in H. M. Stanley's writings, and from other reading. Part of his character was based on Sundman's readings about an eastern race called the parsees who were 'läskunniga' [could read] and 'vägrade att döda' [refused to kill].[9] He said that Artur Lundkvist has a section on them in one of his books.

It had originally been Sundman's intention to write a continuation of the novel. He related the rest of the story of the Stanley relief expedition, of how the half-starving survivors emerged out of the jungle onto the shores of Lake Tanganyika to be welcomed by Eduard Schnitzer, the German Jew who had become Emin Pasha, Governor of Equatoria. The man the expedition had come to rescue was in good health and faultlessly dressed in a white suit. After the relief expedition's forces had rested up and eaten their way back to health, they proceeded with the "rescue" of the not-altogether willing Emin Pasha. In real life the affair ended with the latter falling from a second-storey balcony in Bagamayo during a drunken party and cracking his skull. He did not die of it, but Sundman had decided that in the second novel he would die. However Sundman says that it is now so long since he wrote the original novel that it would take too long to revise his background reading.

Everything in the setting of the novel was gleaned from written sources. He says that his only personal visit to such an area was to Ethiopia in 1974-1975. His wife Anna-Karin came down with cholera, and quite some time later Per Olof was troubled by what seemed to be influenza symptoms.[10] Hospital tests were unable to ascertain what the illness was, until someone noticed that Sundman's wife had been admitted with cholera earlier, and put two and two together: 'You've got malaria!' So as Sundman commented, 'We hit the jack-pot'.

At the beginning of Två dagar, två nätter is an epigraph which reads

Små stränder av sand
små sjöar
små är människors sinnen.
Alla män är icke jämnkloka
varje människa är halv.
[Small shores of sand
small lakes
small are the minds of men.
All men are not equally wise
every human being is half].

Although not labelled as such, it is a translation of strophe 53 of the Old Icelandic Eddic poem Hávamál. Despite all my searching, I had been unable to locate just this particular Swedish translation of what is generally acknowledged to be one of the more difficult-to-interpret and enigmatic strophes in the Elder Edda. I asked Sundman whose translation he had used.

It was the summer before the novel came out, he said, 'I was in my skrivarkula [writing den], and I decided that it needed an epigraph. I had a vague memory of some lines from Hávamál which might be suitable, so I rang Sven B. F. Jansson for help in finding them. Incidentally it was as a result of this meeting that I became acquainted with his daughter Anna-Karin, who later became my wife,' he added.

Professor Jansson located the relevant section, and together he and Sundman translated it with Sundman's description of his novel in mind. As it was a free translation, to suit the context of the book, Jansson was unwilling for it to become general knowledge that he had helped with the translation.[11]

In rereading Sundman's travel books from the islands of Lofoten in Northern Norway, Människor vid hav [People by the Sea] (1966) and Lofoten, sommar [Lofoten, summer] (1973), I was struck by how structured they in fact are, particularly through the use of repetition and of iteration with variation. For instance a number of the people (one could almost be excused for calling them "characters") in the later book mention a particularly memorable sunset which took place shortly before Sundman's arrival in Henningsvær, and the repeated occurrence of their (quite different) decriptions of it help both to portray their personalities, and to give the book a form or structure which works of reportage otherwise often fail to achieve. Another example is the way in which many (although not all) of the chapters close in Sundman and Anna-Karin's rorbu (traditional fisherman's accommodation in Lofoten) with the tide lapping on the wooden pilings beneath them. I questioned Sundman as to how consciously he had aimed for this structuring with the repetition, but he had no clear memory of it. His only comment was that the earlier book, in which he had contributed text to photographs by Yngve Baum, was 'styrd i någon mån av bilderna' [shaped to some extent by the photographs].

He did mention however that hardly a summer passes without him receiving a postcard from 'till mig helt okända personer' [people quite unknown to me] who have been inspired to visit Lofoten through reading his books on it. He said that the first card he received was from Olof and Lisbet Palme, who had found his book in a bookshop in Northern Norway, although he did admit that he had helped them choose their itinerary for the journey, their first to the area, so it did not come as a complete surprise. There was no mistaking Sundman's enthusiasm when the topic of conversation moved to Lofoten in the winter, and the excitement of the Skrei-fishing season (skrei are cod which are caught in the late winter or early spring when they are found in large schools in the waters surrounding the Lofoten islands).

I had been working on a translation of Sundman's short story "Skidlöparen", but had been unsure as to what was meant by a "mask" in the discussion of methods for slaughtering reindeer at the end of the story. Per Olof explained that originally the Saami in the south had slaughtered the reindeer with a knife-thrust in the neck and one in the heart, while those in the north preferred to use the knife-thrust in the heart on its own. In both cases the knife was used to kill the reindeer, but the reindeer continued to run for some time after it was stabbed, while the blood was in effect pumped out of the meat. As a supposedly improved method of slaughter in the late nineteen-forties the slaughter-mask was introduced. It is placed over the head of the animal, and a pin placed over its forehead is hammered in to render it unconscious or to kill it. The meat is then drained of blood by cutting the head off the beast and hanging the carcass by the hind legs. This was considered more humane, although it did not find universal favour amongst the Saami. While we were on the subject of the Saami or Lapps, I mentioned that I had read a novel by Erik Nilsson Mankok, Mitt lassokoppel [My Lasso Rope] (1962), which Sundman had praised in a review.munnjulastet, and that he received help in deciphering Mankok's novel from Professor Israel Ruong, himself a Saami, when he was working on his review.[13]

He also talked about Mankok himself, and the background to the novel. He said that Mankok was unhappy both in Uppsala during his student days and when he started work in Stockholm after them. He felt that people stared at him for his "typically" Saami appearance. A feature in the novel which Sundman had not been able to decipher, 'the house with the four columns' suddenly made sense one day when he noticed the architecture of Kanslihuset [the Government Offices] in Stockholm where Mankok had worked. Others of Mankok's periphrases are explained in Sundman's review.[14] Sundman said that he had not been in contact with Mankok for many years, but that the last time he had been was when the latter was in the process of publishing a Saami dictionary, and had needed help to find finance for the project.

For many years Per Olof Sundman had been reported as working on a novel on Alfred Nobel, but I had recently read an interview in which Sundman confessed that he had gathered too much material on the topic, and that it had become impossible for him to write the book.[15] So as we shook hands and said goodbye on Bergsgatan outside L'Escargot I asked him what his current literary project was.

'Short stories,' he said. 'A collection of short stories set in Norrland. One was published in Artes a year or so ago, and three were published by Norstedts in a limited edition for the Book Fair in Göteborg in 1987'.[16]

'I've read all but the one in Artes', I said, 'and I look forward to reading the rest of the collection'.


  1. The interview took place on 15 October 1990; a less-detailed version of it has appeared in Swedish Book Review no. 2 (1991): 2-10. [Back]
  2. Per Olof Sundman, "Efterord", Norrlandsberättelser (Stockholm: Norstedts, 1984), p. 471. [Back]
  3. See Sundman, Ett år: anteckningar och kommentarer i dagbok, körjournaler för bil och i största allmänhet september 1966 til augusti 1967 kring arbetet med romanen Ingenjör Andrées luftfärd [One Year: Notes and Comments in Diary, Car Journals and in General September 1966 to August 1967 Concerning Work on the Novel Ingenjör Andrées luftfärd] (Karlskrona: J. A. Krooks Bokhandel AB, 1967), for a similar comment on how he prefers to have his own copies of books: 'Jag tycker inte om lånade böcker, man får inte göra anteckningar i dem' [I don't like borrowed books, one can't write comments in them] (p. 7). [Back]
  4. Compare Sundman, "Mitt Norrland" [My Norrland], in Peter Gullers and Thomas Wingstedt (photos), Det nya Norrland [English language edition The Top of Sweden] (Stockholm: Gullers, 1986), p. 6. [Back]
  5. Svenska Sällskapet för Antropologi och Geografi, Med Örnen mot polen (Stockholm: Bonniers, 1930). Translated by Edward Adams-Ray as Andrée's Story: The Complete Record of his Polar Flight, 1897, from the Diaries and Journals of S. A. Andrée, Nils Strindberg, and K. Frænkel . . . (New York: Viking, 1930). [Back]
  6. Concerning Frænkel's interest for gymnastics, see Sundman, "En ballongseglats mot döden" [A Balloon Voyage to Death], Nordisk tidskrift för vetenskap, konst och industri 60 (1984), p. 9: 'Han var en vältränad gymnast i Lings anda' [He was a well-trained gymnast in the spirit of [Per Henrik] Ling]. See also Ingen fruktan, intet hopp [No Fear, No Hope] (1968) pp. 52-53, and Med Örnen mot polen (1930), p. 34. [Back]
  7. Ett år, p. 39. [Back]
  8. See also "En ballongseglats mot döden", p. 2. The other novel mentioned there by Sundman as being (very loosely) based on the Andrée story is The Balloonist (1976) by MacDonald Harris. [Back]
  9. See also Lars G. Warme, Per Olof Sundman: writer of the North (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1984), p. 127. [Back]
  10. See Sundman, "De är infödingar och jag är vit" [They are Natives and I am White], Veckojournalen no. 3 (1975): 3, and "Och framtiden ligger mycket långt bort" [And the Future is a Long Way Away], Veckojournalen no. 5 (1975): 3. [Back]
  11. Compare Björn Norström, "En studie i tre förvandlingar" [A Study in Three Transformations], Dramaforskning. Meddelande från Avd. för dramaforskning vid Litteraturhistoriska institutionen, Uppsala 3 (1967): 313: 'Det var Olofssons beroende av Stenssons aktiva aggressivitet som drev Sundman att ta några rader ur "Havamal" som motto . . . Olofsson är "halv" då han inte kan utöva ett legalt, nödvändigt våld utan just Stensson. Också Stensson är "halv", då han saknar mnsklighet och mjukhet. Denna översättning av Havamal-strofen är gjord av Sundman själv i samråd med professor Sven B. Jansson' [It was Olofsson's dependence on Stensson's active aggressiveness that led Sundman to choose a few lines from Hávamál as epigraph . . . Olofsson is "half" as he is unable to use legal, necessary violence without Stensson's support. Stensson too is "half", as he lacks humanity and gentleness. This strophe from Hávamál was translated by Sundman himself in consultation with Professor Sven B. Jansson]. [Back]
  12. Sundman, "Ett samiskt kryptogram" [A Saami Cryptogram], Ord och Bild 73 (1964): 356-359. [Back]
  13. Sundman, "Om att övertolka" [On Over-Interpreting], Bonniers Litterära Magasin 39 (1970): 415. [Back]
  14. For another review of Mitt lassokoppel which also deciphers some of Mankok's riddles, see Lars Thomasson, "Samerna och verkligheten" [The Saami and Reality], Perspektiv 14 (1963): 279-281. [Back]
  15. Peterson, Lena Maria. "Mitt författarskap bygger på muntliga berättelser" [My Writing is Based on Oral Stories], Helsingborgs Dagblad, 2 June 1985, p.2. [Back]
  16. Sundman, "Något om gränsen mellan Sverige och Norge" [Something about the Border between Sweden and Norway], Artes: tidskrift för litteratur, konst och musik 14 (1988): 22-33, and Tre berättelser [Three Stories] (Stockholm: Norstedts, 1987), comprising the short stories "Gunnar, Vägmästaren" [Gunnar the Roading Engineer], "Oskar", and "Utdrag ur Berättelsen om J'Orschen" [Extract from the Story of J'Orschen]. Illustration: Jormliens Fjällgård in Frostviken, Northern Jämtland (the tourist resort hotel which Sundman owned 1949-1963). [Back]

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