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Judith Black and Jim Potts (eds.), Swedish Reflections. From Beowulf to Bergman.

Arcadia Books,  2003. ISBN: 1900850761

Reviewed by Karin Petherick in SBR 2004:2


The cheerful alliteration of the title indicates that the “reflections” are literary and theatrical, ranging from Seamus Heaney’s rendering of the medieval epic Beowulf to the contrasting accounts in the respective auto-biographies of (grumpy) Ingmar Bergman and (polite) Laurence Olivier in connection with Bergman’s Hedda Gabler at the National Theatre. The anthology marks the 60th anniversary of T.S. Eliot’s British Council tour of Sweden in 1942; a number of admiring Swedish modernist poets had translated work by Eliot, including The Wasteland. (There’s a nice photo of the tousle-haired Nobel Prize literary laureate of 1948 being offered coffee by Grand Hotel’s Lucia at an unearthly hour.) His visit was designed to bolster interest and sympathy for England at a perilous time, although Jim Potts reveals that there were intriguing rumours of a secret mission entrusted to him.
Dr Johnson writes of the downfall of the famous Charles XII, Daniel Defoe writes “An admiring account” of Charles’s life and deeds, as does Words-worth in his sonnet: The King of Sweden.
But there are some subversive pieces on famous Swedes. William Blake asserts (for he hated theology): “Now hear a plain fact: Swedenborg has not written one new truth: Now hear another: he has written all the old falsehoods”. And John Fowles’ reaction to visiting the garden of Linneaus, the great indexer of nature, was that this little 18th century garden is where “an intellectual seed landed, and is now grown to a tree that shadows the entire globe”. Much of science, Fowles maintains, is devoted to providing specific labels, explaining specific mechanisms and ecologies [...] thereby removing us a step from total reality; it “destroys and curtails certain possibilities of seeing, apprehending and experiencing”. In Clive Sinclair’s novel Augustus Rex, Strindberg on his deathbed is fought over by The Angel of Death and Beelzebub, with a nice final twist.
Michael Holroyd shows us Lytton Strachey struggling with diets and other rigours at Saltsjöbaden Spa Hotel in 1909 and Bernard Shaw meeting Strindberg. Evelyn Waugh is critical and snobbish: “Swedes are bloody dull”; on the other hand Michael Frayn writes engagingly. It is impossible to mention all the delicious plums.
In 1997 The Swedish Institute in Stockholm published Sweden and Britain: A Thousand Years of Friendship, 111 pages of parallel English-Swedish text, covering Migration, the Exchange of Ideas, Political Relations, and Cultural Links. Lucky the person who owns both books.

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