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the Complete Review
the complete review - biography / literature

Lars Gyllensten

Hans Isaksson

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To purchase Lars Gyllensten

Title: Lars Gyllensten
Author: Hans Isaksson
Genre: Non-fiction
Written: (Eng. 1978)
Length: 182 pages
Original in: Swedish
Availability: Lars Gyllensten - US
Lars Gyllensten - UK
Lars Gyllensten - Canada
  • Translated by Katy Lissbrant
  • Volume 473 in the Twayne's World Authors Series

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Our Assessment:

B : solid introduction to the author (as far as it goes)

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Scandinavian Studies . (54:1) Winter/1982 Barbara Lide
World Lit. Today . (53:4) Fall/1979 Brita Stendahl

  From the Reviews:
  • "For those unable to read his dissertation, this book is a more than welcome substitute -- an excellent introduction to the oeuvre, and the thought, of one of Sweden's most fascinating and difficult writers. (...) Katy Lissbrant's translation is satisfactory in places, disappointing in others. (...) Isaksson examines Gyllensten's works of fiction in chronological order, incorporating in his discussion parts of the extensive essays Gyllensten wrote to explain his works. (...) What is most disturbing is the structure of Lissbrant's prose, which often differs considerably from Isaksson's." - Barbara Lide, Scandinavian Studies

  • "Lars Gyllensten is an author of significant importance who is building an authorship that very well may stand at the summit of what is being produced in the Western world today. (...) Hans Isaksson's book about the works of Lars Gyllensten serves as a good introduction to the intricate tensions that keep them in balance. This is high praise for Gyllensten as well as Isaksson. (...) It would be a great thing if Isaksson's fine introduction would be the vehicle that started the train of translation of Gyllensten's works so that the English-speaking world could partake of a truly contemporary author." - Brita Stendahl, World Literature Today

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Lars Gyllensten's name popped up again at the beginning of 2022 when the Swedish Academy opened their archives for the 1971 Nobel Prize in Literature, revealing that year's nominations (warning ! dreaded pdf format !) . Among the authors nominated for the first time was Arno Schmidt; the person who nominated him was Academy-member Lars Gyllensten -- enough to pique my interest and lead me to try to find out more about the Swedish author.
       Regrettably, very little of the prolific author's work has been translated: The Testament of Cain (Calder & Boyars, 1967) apparently remains the only one of his works of fiction published in English, and there are also only a handful of German and French translations -- none, at this point, easy to find. For the English-speaking reader, Hans Isaksson's 1978 monograph -- published in the Twayne's World Authors Series -- remains the main source of information of any sort -- whereby it must also be noted that Gyllensten continued to be productive long after it was published (born in 1921, he died in 2006), so the study only covers the earlier part of a very long career.
       If Gyllensten's work is largely unfamiliar abroad, the name isn't entirely. A long-time member of the Swedish Academy, he was, as Permanent Secretary from 1977 to 1986, the public face of the institution in those years -- the man who announced and introduced the winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature each year. He was famously then also one of the three Swedish Academy members who abandoned the organization in 1989, over the dispute of how to respond to the fatwa issued against Salman Rushdie. (Technically, they all retained their seats in the Swedish Academy -- like the Hotel California, it's an institution you could enter but never (officially) leave -- but they no longer participated in the Academy's activities; Gyllensten had apparently already been at odds with the Academy and had stopped participating earlier.) As chairman of the entire Nobel Foundation from 1987 to 1993, he remained an active and public figure.
       Hans Isaksson's study is focused very much on Gyllensten's literary work, with the opening 'Biographical Sketch' barely covering three pages (though some additional biographical information does come up throughout the volume). Certainly of note is that Gyllensten studied medicine and became a doctor, and then a professor at the Karolinska Institutet; Isaksson notes that: "in several areas his results drew international attention" and mentions (in the Notes) that: "All in all he has published well over forty scientific articles". Gyllensten did resign from the Karolinska Institutet -- "to devote the remainder of his productive years to writing" -- but only in 1973. Apparently he was able to compartmentalize his two professions, but it's a shame that Isaksson does not really discuss or explore how and in what ways Gyllensten's scientific work affected his creative writing; it is one of the big questions left inadequately answered here.
       Isaksson does chronicle Gyllensten's writing career closely -- through the 1975 novel, In the Shadow of Don Juan. He discerns three different stages (or phases) of Gyllensten's work over this quarter of a century, distinguished: "on the basis of form" -- while noting, however, that:

     It is important to keep in mind that Gyllensten's novels are part of a whole in a more solid and conscious way than is the case of most authors.
       Gyllensten's first published work was, in a variety of ways, an outlier: co-authored (with Torgny Greitz) and pseudonymously published (under the name Jan Wictor), Camera obscura (1946) was a poetry collection -- and one that was essentially meant as a prank:
Their working "method" was that one of them picked out unusual words from textbooks and the other put them together in poems. Furthermore, they added material by means of free association. [...] By getting a meaningless collection of poetry published they wished to draw attention to the element of incomprehensibleness of the poetry of the 1940's. They especially noted such an extreme subjectivism that communication between author and reader no longer functioned.
       Throughout his career, it seems, Gyllensten was very much concerned with the relationships of writer, reader, and text. Isaksson points out that Gyllensten: "rejected the idea of identification", understanding that the author -- like everyone -- is always apart. Gyllensten rejected the idea of autobiographical writing -- he would clearly be no great fan of the currently so popular forms of 'autofiction', finding this kind of thing is: "all trivial, literary proud flesh, which has nothing to do with art" --, and so also Gyllensten repudiated (the prevalent notion of) realism, acknowledging "the writer uses material from reality, but at the same time forms this material into an artificial creation".
       As Isaksson then sums up:
With his narrative methods he rejects the supposition that the novel should reproduce reality or that it should create the illusion of reality. Instead, his novels are openly and demonstratively artifacts, whose most important function lies in the fact that they take a position in relation to reality. He does not hold up a corner of reality for the spellbound reader; instead his novels are a means for him to orient himself in reality.
       Eventually this also leads to Gyllensten adopting a form, in a number of works, which he described as: "a kind of collage-novel" but which Isaksson suggests may better be "characterized as montage", as:
The material he uses to construct his collages are texts which he has written himself. One could say that he works with the method of composition of the collage without making use of the technique of quoting. In somewhat different words than in Gyllensten's note, the form of the collage novel he works with can thus be described as a collection of different types of texts which he has first written and then put together.
       Among the most interesting of these types of novels that Isaksson discusses is The Palace in the Park (1970) -- described in its subtitle as a: 'Rhetorical Portrait in the Manner of Giuseppe Arcimboldo', after the remarkable painter who, as Isaksson puts it: "developed an allegorical art of portrait painting whose characteristic was that he composed the faces of the people portrayed with objects from their professions and occupations".
       Isaksson notes that: "Gyllensten has had a very strong theoretical interest in his own work as an author ever since he began writing", and this seems to manifest itself in many of the works themselves. Among the pieces Isaksson describes is also an essay "in which he discussed the problem of the form of the novel" which Gyllensten published a year before his novel Senilia (1956) appeared, 'Senilia. Reflections on Narration and Thomas Mann', in which he juxtaposed the works of Joyce and Mann -- preferring Mann's clear position (of: "an open recognition of the author's presence in the novel which is honest and which retains the basic epic assumption that someone narrates something for someone else") over Joyce's work (in which the author: "pretends to render reality as if himself did not exist").
       Mann is among the strong influences on Gyllensten that Isaksson identifies; Kierkegaard is another. As far as subject-matter goes, many of the novels build on familiar historical and mythical figures: Cain, in The Testament of Cain; Socrates, in The Death of Socrates (1960); Saint Anthony, in The Cave in the Desert (1973); Don Juan, in The Shadow of Don Juan (1975) -- though many of the novels are also contemporary in setting.
       Isaksson's summaries and discussion of Gyllensten's work, as well as the larger common themes, approaches, and influences, give a reasonable idea of the author's large body of work (which, it must be remembered, grew much larger still after Isaksson's cut-off date, with Gyllensten having just resigned from the Karolinska Institutet a few years earlier, to fully devote himself to his literary work). Lars Gyllensten is a useful, informative, and -- as far as it goes -- thorough introduction to the author but missing, of course, is the actual work, largely inaccessible to those who don't read Swedish. It seems a shame: as Isaksson's conclusion suggests, this is an author whose work seems well worth engaging with:
For his readers, therefore, his novels offer an opportunity to test their own experiences and points of view at a profound level. For himself, Gyllensten's writing is an intensive attempt at finding a tenable attitude toward life, and his readers can therefore in turn make use of his authorship to orient themselves in our increasingly threatened world.
       Gyllensten appears to be one of those many authors who slipped between the cracks, unable to decisively break through onto the international stage; the fact that his writing seems so much a (connected) 'body of work' probably makes it even less likely that one or another of his novels will still be translated in any foreseeable future -- though I, for one, could hardly resist one promising in its subtitle that it's a: 'Rhetorical Portrait in the Manner of Giuseppe Arcimboldo' ..... But apparently even in Sweden he has faded quickly, with Thure Stenström's recent biography titled: Den glömde Gyllensten ('The Forgotten Gyllensten'; Artos & Norma, 2018) .....
       Isaksson's monograph only goes so far -- in no small part because Gyllensten's literary career extended considerably beyond when it was published -- but covers its ground well. Still, even beyond the literary works, Gyllensten clearly led an interesting life about which it certainly would be worth learning considerably more. Better yet, of course, would be for his work to be more readily available (in translation).

- M.A.Orthofer, 29 March 2022

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Lars Gyllensten: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Swedish author and editor Hans Isaksson lived 1942 to 2015.

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© 2022 the complete review

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