I can’t imagine a more special book of poetry. Start off with the poems of a Swedish Nobel Prize winner. Have them translated by WH Auden. And already you are interrupting. Yes, I know. You didn’t know that Auden spoke Swedish. Well he doesn’t. This book has a go-between, Leif Sjoberg, who gave a plain literal translation of each poem, with alternatives for words when appropriate.
It’s a bi-lingual edition and, as a compulsive researcher who always wants too much information, I have to say my disappointment with this book is that I would like a third version of the poem: Sjoberg’s. Then, without having the ability to speak Swedish I could better judge how each poem has ended up, what Auden has done with them. In fact I spent some time lying in bed on the weekend wondering how to go about this. Might I find the originals in Auden’s papers wherever they are kept? Or Sjoberg’s? I played the literary detective in my sleep.
For I think it is important to know at the outset, this not being explained in the book's introduction, that Sjoberg is no pedantic dull chooser of words himself. A rivet man he is not. He had an important career as teacher and academic while single-handedly doing more than anybody else in the period to see Swedish literature made accessible to the English-speaking world with the help of many, including Auden.
Upon the death of Sjoberg, the novelist Folke Isaksson, said:
As I write this on a dark November day, Leif becomes again visible to me, a man with light above his brow. There was a fresh wind in his life but also consistency, fidelity to the assignment, his way of speaking at once hesitantly and eagerly, as if each syllable had its meaning. There was something pure-heartedly beautiful in him that one never can forget.
Elsewhere his ‘blinding intuition and liberating humour’ were remembered.
So, I think we can say that it is not unreasonable that this book is listed as having two translators, both Auden and Sjoberg.
There is only so far an Australian could go in terms of a meaningful critique of this book. It is a book of the most delicate laments and gentle regrets that get under your skin and stay there. How to compare it with Ikea and Abba? I just don’t know. And, yes, we do have Bergman retrospectives on TV from time to time, but. Somehow right now as I finish this book, Bergman seems like a chap with a big hammer.
I can’t do better than present a couple that especially moved me.
Who walked past the window of my childhood
and breathed on it?
Who walked past in the deep night of childhood,
that still was starless?
With his finger he made a sign on the pane,
on the moist pane
with the ball of his finger,
and then passed on to think of other things,
leaving me deserted
How should I be able to interpret the sign,
the sign in the moist afterwards of his breath?
It stayed there a while, but not long enough
for me to be able to interpret it.
For ever and ever would not have sufficed to interpret it.
My friend is a stranger, someone I do not know.
A stranger far, far away.
For his sake my heart is full of disquiet
because he is not with me.
Because, perhaps, after all he does not exist?
Who are you who so fill my heart with your absence?
Who fill the entire world with your absence?
It was serendipity at work that I got to read this book. A customer ordered it, it is missing four pages and thus it is mine. I don’t know how one otherwise goes about acquiring a copy…but if you live anywhere near me and ask nicely, you may borrow it. Well...I think you can...right now I feel a bit like I can't part with it, even for a minute, but I should get over that.