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Where Words Fail: An Intimate Encounter With Nobel Laureate Tomas Tranströmer

Sweden claimed the 2011 Nobel Prize for Literature for one of its own. But a visit to the home of Tomas Tranströmer finds a complex road to communication, as the ageing poet relies on a few spoken words and gestures, his wife's aid -- and, of cou


STOCKHOLM – It's early winter, and under a sky of lacy clouds, Rinkeby confirms its reputation as a modest suburb, dully planned, with banal architecture. Located just 10 kilometers from downtown Stockholm, this town has nearly 15,000 residents, the overwhelming majority of whom are foreign or the children of immigrants. Shades of Babel – several dozen different languages are spoken in Rinkeby besides Swedish, it's said maybe even 100: an approximate number, unverifiable but symbolic. The argot born in the late 20th century on the outskirts of Swedish cities like Stockholm, Malmö, Göteborg is called Rinkebysvenska ("Rinkeby Swedish") or förortssvenska ("suburban Swedish").

On this mid-December day, the Rinkeby town library has an astonishing event on its program, one that has been scheduled regularly for the past 20 years. A few days after the Nobel prize for literature is handed out, the laureate is received at the library by the students of a nearby school. The exchange -- an easy-going blend of Christmas spirit, social action and poetry -- is as unexpected as it is gripping, even for the most cynical members of the audience.

In front of this year's laureate, Tomas Tranströmer, relaxed and sometimes mischievous teens recite, embroider on and illustrate texts by the author that have been chosen especially for the occasion. There's a lot of laughter. Sitting in the first row, silent – a stroke suffered in 1990 has left Tranströmer with limited ability to speak -- cheerful, the poet is savoring every minute of it.

As night falls, I think of a poem his wife Monica recited at the Nobel ceremony just four days earlier: "Tired of all who come with words, words but no language…" (From "March "79," The Wild Square, 1983). What coursed between the poet deprived of words and Rinkeby's polyglot young people was language. In fact, the next day as I head for the interview that Tranströmer has agreed to grant me at his home, I'm afraid of being far less gifted at it then the school kids from the Stockholm suburb.

Nobody seems much concerned, though. That morning, Tranströmer's publisher, Eva Bonnier, also tells me not to worry – and stresses how important this 2011 Nobel prize is for Swedes, "a national pride." The reward makes up in part for the controversy stirred in 1974 when the prize went to Harry Martinson and Eyvind Johnson, two members of the Swedish Academy.

"Tomas has been very popular for a long time," Bonnier says with a smile at stating the obvious, "and he's our best-known poet outside Sweden." Tranströmer's work has been translated into 54 languages. His last collections have been published in editions of 20,000 on average, 70,000 for the standard edition of the complete works and 100,000 for pocket size. The numbers speak for themselves.

Every detail

At 3:30 p.m., the light is fading in a still snowless Stockholm. Monica Tranströmer had asked me to show up mid-afternoon, when her husband feels best. The Tranströmers' cozy little apartment is on a hilly street. The poet is not in a wheel chair today. He moves with difficulty, leaning on a cane, and is clearly amused by my presence, and probably by my awkwardness. He can only say a few words, like mycket bra, "very good." He has a way of speaking -- modulating certain intonations, varying the intensity -- all his own. Sitting near him, his wife Monica interprets. Or more precisely she dialogues, suggesting replies to her husband who approves them – or not, and always energetically. It rapidly becomes evident that nothing escapes Tomas Tranströmer, and that every detail counts.

Monica makes several attempts at relaying certain things her husband wishes to express, saying she's not sure. When something is entirely unclear to her she says so. "A couple of hours later, I'll suddenly get it -- or in the middle of the night," she says smiling. Her husband laughs with her.

Although sometimes disconcerting, the conversation is unusually clear. Often, Tomas Tranströmer shores up his answers by indicating passages from his poems. Pointing to the importance of certain French poets in his work, he mentions "Hommages' (Bells and Tracks, 1966): "Eluard touched some button and the wall opened and the garden showed itself." An "epiphany." It couldn't be a better description.

"At the time, this was his bedtime reading," says Monica Tranströmer, showing me an anthology by Erik Lindegren and Ilmar Laaban : 19 moderna franska poeter (19 Modern French Poets, 1948). Later on, after a reference to Dickens (and The Pickwick Papers), "Hommages' also mentions Belgian novelist Georges Simenon. I'm asked: "Is he still read in France?" A triumphant mycket bra meets my affirmative answer.

When he was younger, Tranströmer's goals were more oriented toward music, and a career as a pianist and composer. "It was only later that poetry took over." He undoubtedly held on to a way of arranging words like musical notes: "In fragments, from one piece to another, like a musician." Mentioned often, the musicality of the poet's phrases is evident, sometimes explicit even down to the titles of poems: "C Major," "Lamento," "Allegro," "Nocturne" (to mention only a few, from The Half-Finished Heaven, 1962). The musicality blossoms in quick rhythms, in the intimate pieces but also in the long symphonic works like Baltics (1974). But the sonorities remain concrete, based on a look or a reality turned into a poem.

As a young psychology graduate, Tomas Tranströmer worked first at a psychotechnical institution, then in a prison, with young delinquents. Although the arrangement got in the way of his writing regularly, and he would eventually move on to a half-time job to be able to write more, he now says that his work as a psychologist influenced his poetry. "At the time, when people asked me that question, I lied and invariably replied that it didn't," he says with a smile as his wife translates.

An accident

As a psychologist he couldn't reveal his sources, who were sometimes his patients. By way of example: a long poem "The Gallery" (The Truth Barrier, 1978), that took him ten years to write, is "full of those people and their stories." The text is a "demand for truth." A search. One word then another, thrown down on paper, macerated by time before a "very concrete" composition and sometimes several of them emerge.

The catalyst is "an image, an accident." The process is always the same, and has been since Tranströmer's earliest work. Thus, in "After An Attack" (Secrets on the Way, 1958): "The sick boy. Locked in a vision with his tongue stiff as a horn. He sits with his back turned to the picture of the cornfield."

Monica Tranströmer explains : "Tomas saw the boy when he was a young psychologist in Stockholm. There was a reproduction of a painting by Van Gogh behind him." With a mycket bra and a poem, the couple evoke other "accidents," other decisive events, at the heart of the poet's work. Among them are his friendship with American poet Robert Bly – readings, tours, translations of each other's poems, "obviously" these were an influence. Or the stroke that pushed him, from the 1990s, to opt for briefer forms such as the haikus of the past few years: "a necessity." More than that: "a possibility."

Nominated every year for the Nobel, Tranströmer wasn't setting a lot of stock in winning this year. "Our hope was that the prize would go to Adonis Syrian poet Ali Ahmad Said Asbar," says Monica Tranströmer with a smile. "He's a friend, and a great poet." Her husband signals agreement and remembers with amusement the "circus' of journalists after he was announced the winner.

As our interview winds to a close, the couple animatedly recalls the previous day's meeting with the teenagers in Rinkeby. Very moved by it, they spent a long time at the little suburban library despite being tired from all the excitement of the past few weeks. Tomas Tranströmer says something about it that his wife doesn't get. He repeats it, mimes it, tries out words that he hasn't yet used that afternoon. To no avail. And this time he doesn't have a poem to fall back on that could explain what he means.

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