An afternoon with Tomas Tranströmer in Sweden
Monica and Tomas Tranströmer meet the International Press
October 6, 2011,
day of the Nobel Prize Award
February 2007, Steven Ford Brown traveled from Josep Tarradellas Barcelona-El Prat Airport in Spain to Stockholm, Sweden, to accept a Residency at the Swedish Writer’s Union Offices in the City Center. During his residency, Brown spent an afternoon with Monica and Tomas Tranströmer at their home in Stockholm.
I first met Tomas Tranströmer in 1983 in Texas when he came to a university to lecture. I was a graduate student at the University of Houston in the Creative Writing Department. The program had an excellent lecture series of visiting literary critics, playwrights, poets, translators, and writers: Ai (Florence Anthony), Edward Albee, Maya Angelou, Max Apple, Margaret Atwood, John Barth, Donald Barthelme, Marvin Bell, Rosellen Brown, Lorna Dee Cervantes, William H. Gass, Edward Hirsch, Richard Howard, Phillip Lopate, Cynthia MacDonald, William Matthews, Howard Moss, George Plimpton, Ntozake Shange, Edward Snow, and Peter Stitt.
I met Tomas and his wife Monica at Houston International Airport for transport to a hotel near campus. Students in the Writing Program did not know who Tranströmer was as his reputation was primarily in Europe. During the car trip to campus, we discussed his forthcoming week-long visit. As we talked, we discovered a mutual connection with writer Robert Bly as I had met him in the 1970s and published a profile feature on his poetry in a literary magazine. The Tranströmers were delighted as their close relationship with Bly dated to the 1960s when the two men began corresponding with each other between Minnesota and Sweden.
The arrival of Monica and Tomas on campus coincided with the visit of Howard Moss, Poetry Editor of The New Yorker magazine. Ambition is very much an American trait, and the writing students spent time with Moss on the chance he might choose their work for publication. That left the Tranströmers alone with me for a week, so I gave them a guided tour of the city. We visited a music store where Tomas could buy sheet music for piano to add to his growing library at home. Since childhood, Tomas had played piano and was as talented with music as he was with poetry. Tomas concluded his visit with a public reading before an enthusiastic audience.
As I talked with Tomas during the week, I gave him several books published by Ford-Brown & Co., Publishers, and Thunder City Press, two publishing companies I owned. Over a decade, I published literary work by Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai, Chinese poets Bei Dao and Shu Ting, Argentine Enrique Anderson Imbert (Department Chairman and Professor of Hispanic Literature at Harvard University), Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, Nobel Prize winner Greek poet Odysseus Elytis, and Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko. The published writers included American writers Mark Doty, Andrew Glaze, Pulitzer Prize poet Carolyn Kizer, John Logan, Dave Smith, and Paul Zimmer. Larry McMurtry, a screenwriter for movies and a novelist, contributed a personal introductory essay to a collection of literary criticism on the poetry of former Texas Poet Laureate Vassar Miller, published with a grant from the Texas Commission for the Arts in Austin. A beautiful edition of Winter Night: Prose Poems, translations from the German language of Austrian poet Georg Trakl, illustrated by artist Dennis Harper, also caught his eye.
An Answering Music: On The Poetry of Carolyn Kizer
Before the week finished and Tomas was to leave, he asked if I would publish an American edition of his poetry translated from Swedish to English. The book would be a small selection of prose poems from a book published in Sweden. I said yes, and the result was a bilingual (Swedish to English) book titled Det Blå huset (The Blue House). It included the original Swedish prose poems and translations to English by Göran Malmqvist, a prominent Swedish writer, literary critic, Nobel jurist for the Literature Prize, and friend of Tranströmer.
The Swedish Consulate in New York City assisted by providing a cultural arts grant to pay for publication. The book itself was typeset in English in America and Swedish text typeset in Stockholm. David Chorlton, an Englishman who had lived in Vienna, Austria, before moving to the United States to live in Phoenix, Arizona, designed the cover as a beautiful blue painting. Printed as a limited edition of 1,000 copies, I sent 300 copies to Tomas in Stockholm. Tomas liked his frequent American literary tours and wanted a small cache of books to give away as a gift to new people he enjoyed meeting in his travels through the American landscape from New York City to San Francisco and places in between.
In 2010, Tom Jönsthövel, my Dutch friend from Amsterdam, Netherlands, visited Boston, Massachusetts, where I lived. We met in Amsterdam and discovered synergy in our creative interests: filmmaking, international literature, and music. During his visit to Boston, we discussed a project for the forthcoming Official Tomas Tranströmer Website. Fond of the title poem of The Blue House book, I suggested we develop a video concept for distribution via the Youtube Channel. Tom had a reputation as a filmmaker and musician in the Netherlands. Tom asked his friend, Dutch actress-singer Louise Korthals to read the poem for video production in Amsterdam. Korthals is well known in the Netherlands for her music performances, television appearances, and theatre roles. Tom filmed and edited raw footage of the video and composed the soundtrack music. “The Blue House” video posted to YouTube has been viewed sixteen thousand times. Note: A PhD in Applied Mathematics from Delft University in the Netherlands, Tom Jönsthövel now lives and works as a Global Innovation Manager for Energy Transition for one of the largest corporations in Oslo, Norway.
wp-video text-align: center; margin-left: auto; margin-right: auto; “The Blue House,” YouTube Video Poem
It is night with glaring sunshine. I stand in the woods and look towards my house with its misty blue walls. As though I were recently dead and saw the house from a new angle.
It has stood for more than eighty summers. Its timber has been impregnated, four times with joy and three times with sorrow. When someone who has lived in the house dies it is repainted. The dead person paints it himself, without a brush. from the inside.
On the other side is open terrain. Formerly a garden, now wilderness. A still surf of weed, pagodas of weed, an unfurling body of text, Upanishades of weed, a Viking fleet of weed, dragon heads, lances, an empire of weed.
Above the overgrown garden flutters the shadow of a boomerang, thrown again and again. It is related to someone who lived in the house long before my time. Almost a child. An impulse issues from him, a thought, a thought of will: “create. . .draw. ..” In order to escape his destiny in time.
The house resembles a child’s drawing. A deputizing childishness which grew forth because someone prematurely renounced the charge of being a child. Open the doors, enter! Inside unrest dwells in the ceiling and peace in the walls. Above the bed there hangs an amateur painting representing a ship with seventeen sails, rough sea, and wind which the gilded frame cannot subdue.
It is always so early in here, it is before the crossroads, before the irrevocable choices. I am grateful for this life! And yet I miss the alternatives. All sketches wish to be real.
A motor far out on the water extends the horizon of the summer night. Both joy and sorrow swell in the magnifying glass of the dew. We do not actually know it, but we sense it: our life has a sister vessel that plies an entirely different route. While the sun burns behind the islands.
“The Blue House,” prose poem by Tomas Tranströmer, from The Blue House, translated by Göran Malmqvist of Sweden, published by Thunder City Press in Houston, Texas, 1987. English translation Copyright © 1987 by Göran Malmqvist. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved. Video of “The Blue House” copyright © 2011, 2022 by The Lion Publishing Group LLP and Estate of Tomas Tranströmer for United States and Europe.
The Lion Publishing Group LLP, Copyright © 2007, 2022.
I corresponded with Monica and Tomas in Sweden after they left Houston. I would not see Tomas again until 1988, when I moved from Texas to Boston, Massachusetts. Having served as a Board member of the Houston Poetry Festival in Texas, Diana Der Hovanessian, President of The New England Poetry Club, invited me to join their organization as a Board Member. The New England Poetry Club, founded at Harvard University in 1915 by poets and undergraduate students Conrad Aiken, Robert Frost, and Amy Lowell, organized lectures and readings in Cambridge. Massachusetts. The Poetry Club has grown over the last 100 years into a prominent New England non-profit literary institution. The NEPC also underwrites the oldest continuous poetry reading series in the United States.
Within a year of joining the NEPC Board, I used my previous non-profit grant writing experience to write a successful request for $5,000 from the National Endowment for the Arts in Washington, D.C., to support the reading series. The NEA grant included support in general for the reading series and a stipend and travel expenses to bring Tranströmer from Sweden to Cambridge for a reading.
Tranströmer read to a large audience in a seminar room at Harvard University in Cambridge near the Museum of Natural History. More than 200 people filled seats and lined walls as he read. In reading, Tomas provided explanations of the poems and used his dry sense of humor to add levity. And then there were the poems: the beautiful, luminous, remarkable poems.
A year after Tranströmer’s visit to Harvard University, I encountered Diana Der Hovanessian, President of the New England Poetry Club, in a restaurant in Harvard Square. She told me she had received news from Sweden that Tomas had suffered a severe medical stroke in Stockholm. The details were unclear. This stunning news was a shock. I knew he was a man in his late 50s and had lived a healthy lifestyle. Details began to emerge later.
After a decade of employment in administration in the European Banks Department of a private investment firm in Boston’s Seaport District, I resigned and departed Boston in late 2006 to visit and live in various European cities: London, Amsterdam, Barcelona, Stockholm, and Paris.
The Royal Academy of Art de Lempicka Exhibit, London
My first trip to Europe in 2000 was for business. I flew to Keflavík, Iceland, Dublin, Ireland, and London. On the first day, I walked to an appointment from the apartment of a work colleague in London down Bond Street towards Piccadilly Square. Halfway to the Square, I saw banners hanging from a building advertising an art exhibit by Polish artist Tamara de Lempicka (b. Warsaw, Poland, 1898 – 1980, d. Cuernavaca, Mexico). I had known of the life and paintings of de Lempicka for many years and admired her careful craftsmanship and beautiful artwork. Enchanted by her exquisite Art Deco style and the avant-garde personality that informed her life, the exhibit was an extraordinary opportunity.
The Exhibit in a second-floor gallery was a collection of 58 paintings. The collective narrative the paintings represented hid the chaotic life of a painter who traveled from Poland on her honeymoon to Moscow, Russia, only to be trapped in the middle of the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 as the government collapsed. Tadeusz de Lempicka, her husband, was arrested and detained in prison. She searched through the city amid the chaos and fighting and found her husband. With the assistance of the Swedish Consul and payment of a large sum of money from her wealthy family, her husband was set free. Together they fled Russia to Denmark, England, then Paris, where she established her new painting studio.
Her time in France would be one of the most productive periods of her creative life. She divorced Tadeuez in 1928. In 1933 she married Baron Raoul Kuffner and moved with him to his estate in Austria. In 1938 the Germans declared Anschluss Österreichs, a German term for the annexation of Austria into Germany, one of many regional actions by the German military as they prepared to launch a European war to conquer the entire continent. The couple departed quickly from Austria to escape the German Army.
Tamara de Lempicka
An avalanche of reviews from the international press celebrated the debut of the de Lempicka art show at The Royal Academy of Art. Published reviews appeared in a wide range of British and international magazines and newspapers: ArtForum International Magazine (USA), Casa da Artes (Italy) Contemporary Art Review Los Angeles (USA), CNN Style Video Profile (USA/ Europe), Culture PLC (UK), Daily Mail Newspaper (UK), The Guardian Newspaper (UK), and Kunstforum (Austria).
The reviews celebrated de Lempicka’s love affair with Art Deco’s brilliant colors and modernism’s sleek architecture and curves, as well as a rejection of various old and dusty motifs from the artistic past. Firmly entrenched in her artistic aesthetic was a celebration of women she painted as both modernists and equals to men in the society of their time (1920s and 30s). She did not shy away from painting women with a touch of eroticism rather than women as poseurs or limp, demure dolls who merely existed in paintings as decoration.
I concluded matters in London and took The Tube (subway) to Heathrow Airport to fly to Amsterdam, Netherlands. Arriving at Schiphol Airport, I passed through passport control and walked out of the airport for my first look at Holland. A taxi into Amsterdam entered the city and maneuvered through narrow streets that bordered the canals to an apartment I had rented for six months.
Beautiful Amsterdam at night
Often referred to as The City of Canals and Bridges, Amsterdam has a unique geological feature: one-third of the Netherlands lies below sea level, with the lowest point being 22 feet (6.7 meters) below sea level. The highest elevation in the country is a thousand feet above sea level, although the country as a whole levels out and is essentially flat.
The city has a wide variety of art galleries, business and shopping districts, music halls, museums, parks, and universities. An inescapable feature of the cityscape is that there are 100 canals and 1,700 bridges. The canals are utilitarian as they drain water from underneath the cityscape due to gravity and pressure that moves the overflow 275 miles to the Atlantic Ocean’s English Channel on the Dutch coast. Canal boats carry tourists and visitors through canals to other parts of the city. My apartment on the top floor in the Rembrandtplein Square was in a tall building ten floors up where I could see rooftops, blue skies, and clouds as they moved in and out of Amsterdam to the country and other cities of Holland. This centrally located district is one of the busiest in the city. The Square is named for painter Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn (1606 – 1669) who first established his painting studio to begin his painting career. Today Rembrandt is known only by his first name as the wunderkind 17th-century artist who became one of the most famous painters of Europe. It should be noted that Rembrandt was also an integral member of the Dutch Golden Age of Painting (1581 – 1672) that included Johannes Vermeer, Bartholomeus van der Heist, Pieter de Hooch, Paulus Potter, and Hendrick Corneliszoon van Vliet.
The Rembrandt and Anne Frank Museums near my apartment were on the Prinsengracht (The Prince’s Canal) parallel to the Keizersgracht (The Emperor’s Canal) in central Amsterdam. The Van Gogh Museum was nearby in Museum Square in Amsterdam South.
After six months living in Amsterdam, I departed by train at Centraal Station to Barcelona, Spain. Barcelona is the capital city of the Catalonian region of Spain. With a population of 1.6 million, it is the seventh-largest city in the European Union.
I rented an apartment in the Eixample District from a Catalan school teacher fluent in English. The location was ten blocks from one of the most remarkable churches in the world, The Basílica i Temple Expiatori de la Sagrada Família (Catalan name), a stunning Catholic church designed and built by Barcelona-born Catalan architect Antoni Gaudí ((1852 – 1926) beginning in 1852 and continuing until he died in 1926. Gaudí considered this project to be the singular achievement of his career. Unfinished after his death, work on the church continued until the intervention of the Spanish Civil War (1936 – 1939). Several other interruptions delayed work on the church that is now scheduled for completion in 2026, the 100th anniversary of the death of its architect, Antoni Gaudí.
The Basílica i Temple Expiatori de la Sagrada Família (Catalan name)
In 1984 UNESCO (United Nations Education, Scientific, and Cultural Organization) designated the church as a World Heritage Site. In 2010 Pope Benedict XVI consecrated The Basílica i Temple Expiatori de la Sagrada Família (Catalan name) in the Roman Catholic faith as a minor basilica. The four major basilicas in the Diocese of Rome are an essential part of the global network of major and minor basilicas of Catholic churches, totaling 1,810 worldwide.
While in Barcelona, I applied for and received a residency at the Swedish Writers Union in Stockholm. In February 2007, I flew from Barcelona to Arlanda Airport in Sweden. A train into the city center and a taxi to an older part of Stockholm delivered me to the four-story building owned by the Writers Union.
The Swedish Writers Union, established in 1893, is a central professional organization for literary translators and writers in Sweden. The Charter of the Union “safeguards the economic and moral interests of the members by defending the freedom of expression of journalists, media, and press by ensuring compliance with stipulations and laws regulating copyright” according to the requirements of the country of Sweden and the European Union. The office of the Writers Union is in Stockholm on Drottninggatan Street. The building also houses a guest apartment with rooms for visiting translators and writers.
I found the director waiting in a three-bedroom apartment on the second floor. The apartment was spacious and had large windows, private bedrooms, a kitchen, and a common area. I was the first to arrive to share the flat with a middle-aged German man from Berlin, Germany, who wrote plays for radio and television, and a charming young Russian woman named Anya from Moscow, Russia. She translated fiction by John Cheever, William Faulkner, and Kurt Vonnegut from English into Russian. Over dinner, we discussed our different experiences in the literary world.
I called Monica Tranströmer and arranged a meeting for the next afternoon at their residence located fifteen miles from the Writers Union on the Baltic Sea. Monica and Tomas lived in a building near Stockholm Harbor where ferry boats departed to carry passengers by sea 450 miles to Helsinki, Finland. I entered the building and took an elevator to the seventh floor. Monica greeted me at the door. I walked down a long hall to greet Tomas on a couch in the living room. As I entered, he became animated and happy to see me. The effects of the stroke had left him paralyzed on the right side of his body, and he could not speak. Monica assisted him in communicating with me as Tomas gestured with his left hand and silently mouthed words to her in Swedish.
I presented him with a book, Century of the Death of the Rose, my translation from the Spanish of Ecuadorian poet Jorge Carrera Andrade. I knew he would be sympathetic to the style of poetry. His eyes lit up as he directed Monica to retrieve a magazine from his study. The Danish literary magazine Bogens Verden featured his photos on the cover. Published in Copenhagen in 2006, the entire issue was devoted to his life and work to celebrate his 75th birthday. With his left hand, he directed me to a page. The text was in Danish, but there was a separate list in English of his top ten favorite poets and their poems. What a surprise! My poet Carrera Andrade was on the list. The list also included American poets Robert Bly, T.S. Eliot, W.S. Merwin, French poet Paul Eluard, and several other prominent European poets of the past century. The magazine included numerous literary articles, interviews, poems, and photographs.
Bogens Verden, Copenhagen, Denmark
I mention this gift book of Jorge Carrera Andrade to Tomas as his readings in world literature were more extensive than one might imagine. In the 1960s, when books from different parts of the world traveled slowly, it would be unusual for a Swedish writer to know of a Spanish writer from a distant country like Ecuador. Ecuador is a small country in northwestern Latin America, bordered by Colombia on the north, Peru on the east and south, the Galápagos Islands of Darwin and the Pacific Ocean to the west. Remarkably, Tomas found access to the poetry of Jorge Carrera Andrade from six poems translated to English by Thomas Merton in an anthology, Modern European Poetry, edited by Willis Barnstone (New York: Bantam Books, 1966), which was available at that time in Europe.
Modern European Poetry, 1966
As I talked with Monica and Tomas, the Swedish afternoon grew late. The windows of the apartment were gathering darkness into its rooms. I thought of lines from “The Couple,” a Tranströmer poem: “They switch off the light and its white shade/glimmers for a moment before dissolving / like a tablet in a glass of darkness.”
Tomas left the room to go to the bedroom to rest. Monica and I moved to the kitchen. She opened a closet to reveal a large stack of books. They were all the Tranströmer books of that time translated from Swedish into sixty other languages. The time of our meeting was exciting because new books had just been translated and published in Arabic and Chinese. There were five copies of my own The Blue House book in the stack.
Antiwar demonstrators in Washington, October 1967
We sat and talked about Robert Bly and Samuel and Ann Charters, Americans they came to know in their travels to the United States. Greatly troubled as they watched on TV, the 1960s protests in the streets of the the lack of Civil Rights for black Americans and Vietnam War protests, Sam and Ann Charters left America and moved to the Årsta district of Stockholm. I should point out the Charters both were activists in their own lives and agreed with the protests, but there was growing unease throughout the U.S that the violence and protests were spreading. There were also protests world-wide against the U.S. involvement in Vietnam, including Britain, France, Germany, Japan, and Australia. The Charters in Sweden continued their research and writing projects and enjoyed a peaceful life in Sweden. Ann continued her writing and published several new books on the American Beatnik writers of the 1950s and ’60s. Sam continued his passion for producing and writing about American blues and folk music. He also translated from Swedish to English an acclaimed edition of a long book-length poem Baltics (Östersjöar) by Tomas Tranströmer (Oyez Press, Berkeley, California 1975).
Our conversation shifted to Robert Bly, now also in his seventies, and Monica remembered the first time they met Bly in the 1960s. She likened the relationship of the two men during those years to young schoolboys, inflamed by the passion of their explorations in the new global modernism of poetry. Both Bly and Tomas shared Nordic heritage, as Robert was born of emigre Norwegians in Minnesota. Bly would become the most reliable ally of Tomas, his dear friend and translator, translating the best- known collections of Tranströmer books. Bly was essential in helping establish the reputation of Tranströmer in English in America and throughout the world.
The interesting aspect of the piano is that it has only been an instrument for the playing of music since its invention in 1700 by Bartolomeo Francesco of Tuscany. The piano is widely known for its versatility and the wide range of styles of music it can adapt to. Experts opine the piano is one of the most accessible musical instruments due to the keyboard’s linear design that makes it easy to remember keys and chord progressions. The piano is one of the most emotive of musical instruments and is a staple of classical orchestras through the world.
A brief explanation about Tomas and the one-handed playing of the piano is there is historical precedent. In the history of the world of music, there is a genre of piano compositions written for just one hand. Géza Zichy (1849 – 1924, Hungary) was renowned as the world’s first professional one-armed pianist. He lost his right arm due to an accident and taught himself to play piano with only his left hand.
Copyright © 2015 Louisiana Channel,
In the nineteenth century, more European composers wrote piano music charts for the left or right hand. As a result of World War I in Europe (1914 – 1918), there was an extraordinary increase in the number and kinds of combatant wounds. Modern mechanized weapons (airplanes, heavy artillery, machine guns, tanks) and close hand-to-hand combat increased the number and severity of injuries to surviving soldiers.
A musician in Vienna, Austria, Paul Wittgenstein enlisted as a Second Lieutenant in the 6th Dragoon regiment of the Austro-Hungarian army. Dispatched to the Eastern Front of the war in Poland against the Russians, he was seriously wounded in the battle of Galicia, Ukraine (also known as the Battle of Lemberg). Captured by the Russian army, his right arm was amputated at the shoulder in a hospital in a prisoner of war camp in Osten, Siberia.
After the war, Wittgenstein not only trained himself to play piano with one hand: “he devised novel techniques, including pedal and hand-movement combinations, that allowed him to play chords previously regarded as impossible for a five-fingered pianist.” (Wikipedia)
Wittgenstein plays Ravel’s “Concerto for One Hand”
at the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde Concert Hall, Vienna, Austria, 1932
The innovation of writing sheet music for piano for the left hand was not limited to Wittgenstein. The Czech violinist Otakar Holimann lost the use of his right hand in World War I and switched from violin to continue a musical career playing piano with his left hand. Numerous prominent composers also produced original music scores and arrangements for pianists with handicaps. Composers who took up the challenge included Frenchman Charles-Camille Saint-Saëns, Lithuanian Leopold Godowsky, Frederic Mompou Dencausse (a Catalan from Barcelona), German Richard Strauss, Manuel Ponce of Mexico, and Russian Sergei Prokofiev.
Despite his handicap as a result of his stroke, Tomas continued as an accomplished pianist and performed a few piano concerts in small venues in Sweden. He recorded a compact disc of readings of poetry, the poetry recorded before his stroke, with his performances on the piano of well-known compositions for left hand by notable composers. The complete recordings are included on a compact disc Klangen sager att friheten finns (The Sound is a Declaration of Freedom), Bonniers Forlag, 2002.
Beacon Press: Boston, 1975
In the 1960s in America, the hip college crowd and cultural intellectuals of the era might know of Sweden from the films of Ingmar Bergman, actors Max von Sydow and Ingrid Bergman, or novels, plays, and poetry of August Strindberg, but no one knew anything about Swedish poetry. Robert Bly began translating and presenting the poetry of Tomas Tranströmer to English language audiences.
In 1975 Boston’s Beacon Press published Bly’s edition of Friends, You Drank Some Darkness: Three Swedish Poets: Harry Martinson, Gunnar Ekelof, and Tomas Tranströmer. The book was immediately influential by introducing several generations of poets who filled in the lineage of modernism in Swedish poetry. Bly also translated and published early American editions of Tranströmer English poetry collections, including Twenty Poems, Night Vision, Truth Barriers, and The Half-Finished Heaven. In 1979, Ironwood, a literary magazine edited by Michael Cuddihy in Tucson, Arizona, published a special issue on the literary career of Tranströmer in essays by prominent American and Swedish writers.
Over the next four decades, translators published new Tranströmer books in America, Australia, Brazil, China, Croatia, Israel, Poland, Ukraine, United Kingdom, and Vietnam. He also became popular on the American poetry reading circuit. He was not used to the celebrity he suddenly had in America. His popularity was strong enough that he could lecture and read on the East Coast in Boston, New York City, Pittsburgh, and Washington, DC, move on to several universities in the Midwest, and then schedule West Coast appearances in Seattle, Berkeley, San Francisco, and Los Angeles.
Stockholm bookstore celebrates Tranströmer’s Nobel Prize
I had developed a friendly relationship with Anya at the Swedish Writer’s Union, and as I prepared to depart from Stockholm to Paris, she offered her email and suggested we stay in touch for possible future literary events in America, Europe, or Moscow. On my way to Arlanda Airport, I stopped at Drottninggatans Bok & Bild bookstore to look for a French Edition of Tranströmer’s Poèmes sélectionnés (Selected Poems), published by Éditions Gallimard in Paris. A man who spoke English owned the bookstore crowded with books from Europe and Russia. Moving through the literary section, I ran my finger over spines of shelved books as titles glowed and my imagination took flight in the music of the Czech, French, German, Polish, Russian, and Spanish languages. I imagined the voices of Gloria Fuertes, Günter Grass, Victor Hugo, Milan Kundera, Anna Swir, and Leo Tolstoy, famous writers of Europe and Russia, calling out to me through history and time!
Paying for three books, I discovered later I dropped the slip of paper with Anya’s name and email as I pulled out my credit card. Two weeks later she visited the same bookstore on her way back to Russia. She later emailed and explained the bookseller found my slip of paper on the floor and held it. The bookseller seeing her name on the credit card as same on the slip returned it to her. A month later, she continued contact to update me on her translation of the John Cheever short story she was translating in Moscow.
I flew from Stockholm to Paris and checked into a hotel next to the Seine River on the Rue de la Légion d’Honneur. A bridge for locals and tourists across the river provided access to a historic church and famous Louvre Museum. The next day, I visited the global Headquarters of UNESCO (The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) as I had questions about possible future projects with the staff. I stood before the Eiffel Tower that soared 1,083 feet into the sky to touch the clouds as they passed. I also toured the Left Bank for lunch at Café de Flore, the historic home of bohemian artists, intellectuals, painters, photographers, and writers, who made the city famous as a home and refuge for anyone who wanted to experience the best of the city.
UNESCO in Paris celebration of heritage in all of the member countries
As I had dreamed of Paris for years, I was looking forward to my trip there. The collective countries of Europe are the birthplace of a Western civilization that traces its birth to ancient Greece and Rome. As I studied European history, my romance blossomed as exotic names of cities I had never been to were like music: Barcelona, Berlin, Brussels, Copenhagen, Lisbon, Madrid, Prague, Rome, Vienna. Paris was legendary for its extraordinary architecture, remarkable cuisine, painters, writers, and legendary historic characters. More importantly, there was a deep connection between the United States and France due to assistance provided to the Americans against the British during the American Revolutionary War (1775-1783), led by future president George Washington. Frenchman Marie-Joseph Paul Yves Roch Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de La Fayette (b. 1757 – d. 1834), known in the United States as Lafayette, volunteered to fight with the American army against the British. Born into a wealthy family, he believed each individual citizen had human rights and a right to natural personal dignity. In 1779 on return to France, he brokered a commitment from the government of France to provide the Americans with financial support, ships, and weapons. An experienced officer in the French military he was appointed a commanding officer and led Colonial soldiers into battle. He served brilliantly under General George Washington in numerous victorious battles against the British, became close to Washington, and after the war and his return to France, named his only son George Washington Lafayette.
Plaster bust of Lafayette by Jean-Antoine Houdon (France) from The Boston Athenæum
From the hotel, I left to meet a French writer and we drank in a cafe in the Left Bank district. We also sang with the locals and tourists celebrating the arrival of the end of a good day. Like a timely taxi pulling up to the restaurant, the French evening with its companion stars and moon stepped out to join us. In the nearby River Seine, the water’s dark glass surface reflected the moon and stars like a photograph.
Drinking with a local Parisian in a café in Paris is a centuries-old tradition for foreigners if you want to truly sample the spice of life in Paris. The next day I stood under intense sunlight from the glass roof of the nearby Musée d’Orsay (a former Beaux-Arts railway station converted to a museum on the Left Bank of the Seine River), before I moved into the galleries to fall in love with glorious paintings by Mary Cassatt, Vincent Van Gogh, Jean-Auguste Dominique Ingres, Gustav Klimt, Henri Rousseau, and Georges Seurat.
Les souvenirs m’observent (Memories Watch Over Me)
I should point out that Swedish poet Tomas Tranströmer also had a presence in Paris, as his books can be found in most European bookstores. I visited a bookshop and found four different books from two major publishers in Paris, translated from Swedish into French. Les souvenirs m’observent (Memories Watch Over Me), a memoir of his life, was the book most significant, as it had not yet been translated into English and published in the United States.
Arc de Triomphe de l’Étoile, August 26, 1944: American troops liberate Paris
In my hotel room, as I packed for departure from Paris, I thought back to August 25, 1944, when Adolf Hitler, leader of the Nazi Party and 1944 commander of the German Army in Berlin, ordered the burning and destruction of Paris. Hitler sent a telegram to German General Dietrich von Cholitz in charge of Paris and the occupying German Army as Free French armed forces had surrendered on June 14, 1940. Under the occupation of the German Army, French citizens suffered for four years. But this was now 1944, and a weakened German Army across Europe could not confront the combined American, British, and Russian militaries. Hitler retreated to his headquarters in a bunker in the capital city of Berlin. Surrounded by 1.5 million Russian soldiers, Hitler knew his plan to conquer Europe had failed.
As a young man in Austria, Hitler aspired to be a painter but failed art school. This failure left him obsessed with art and culture. He also knew artworks and other valuable artifacts of human life and religion were invaluable. As the German war machine plowed its destructive trail through country by country, he ordered all artworks and valuables be removed from private holdings and museums and moved to storage in Germany. He then had the cities destroyed. Paris was the most coveted prize. If he could not complete his plan to dominate Europe from the Rhine River to Paris, he wanted the city burned to the ground. The telegram message to von Cholitz was only thirteen words long and ordered that all of Paris be destroyed, including demolition of thirty-seven bridges across the Seine River. Hitler’s text ordered:“Paris must not fall into enemy hands except as a field of ruins.” General Cholitz ignored the telegram knowing the war was over.
General von Cholitz, born in Prussia to an aristocratic family, served in the German army in World War I. By the beginning of World War II he had risen in the ranks of the military and was one of Hitler’s most trusted Commanders. Educated and cultured, he had a personal affection for the historic French city. The end of war across Europe was near and von Cholitz ordered his troops to disarm, surrender, and turn the city over to the Americans and Free French armed forces led by General Charles de Gaulle. The armistice was signed August 26, 1944, and for Paris and its citizens the war was over
At the end of my long trip to Europe, I found everything in Paris I was looking for. My dream of the city was complete. Traveling by taxi to De Gaulle Airport, I remembered the 1951 film An American in Paris starring Gene Kelly and Oscar Levant. The musical dedicated to Paris is a full-hearted valentine of a movie from America of songs and dance celebrating a city that after the war was over was again a place people came to from all over the world to be charmed by.
An American in Paris, a film that received world-wide admiration
The film itself was entirely an American production filmed in Paris by America film studio Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. The production was led by legendary film director Vincent Minnelli, written by Alan Jay Lerner, with songs composed by George Gershwin, including the title song. Actors in the film also included European stars Leslie Caron (France), Nina Foch (Holland), and Georges Guétary (France) who were introduced to the world.
The film became a world-wide sensation and received numerous awards including Best Movie of the year (1952) at The Academy Awards in Hollywood. The film was released in 1951, only six years after the end of World War II. I was in Paris in 2007, and with the the signing of the armistice to stop the war May 8, 1945, peace had now reigned across the European continent for sixty-two years.
As I departed from the airport by Air France, the airplane turned west to fly over the city towards the Atlantic Ocean to take me home to America. Looking down at Paris, I wished like Gene Kelly in the movie. I could perform a dance step and tip my hat to the City of light!
The Seine River in Paris is 776.6 kilometers (472 miles) long and flows north to the Port City of Le Havre into the English Channel, an arm of the Atlantic Ocean that runs north towards Belgium, Holland, Norway, the North Sea. and Artic Circle. The river runs through the 7th arrondissement of Paris that includes the Eiffel Tower. The river channel veers away from the Arc de Triomphe de l’Étoile and is embraced on the right bank by the Louvre Museum and left bank by the Musée d’Orsay as if the two museums were beautiful jewels connected by the blue water of the Seine as a bracelet in the embrace of the river. Victor Hugo’s Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Paris is one kilometer downriver from the two museums. The National Library of France (Bibliothèque Nationale de France), the largest and oldest library in Europe, has a collection of 40 million books, 5,000 Ancient Greek manuscripts, and contemporary manuscripts of French writers Apollinaire, Collette, Diderot, Proust, and Sarte. The Bibliothèque Nationale de France is a distance of four kilometers from the Musée d’Orsay and Louvre Museums.
Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Paris
My trip to Paris in 2007, was the end of my trips to Europe. A visit with Monica and Tomas had been meaningful as they had become friends in both my life and imagination. At the Writer’s Union in the garden, I sat with Anya on a bench and we talked about our mutual interest in the American and Russian writers of our reading histories. As we talked the world around us expanded as literary angels looked down upon us and listened to our conversation. The sky above was busy towing its infinite, luminous blue cargo net of birds, clouds, human dreams, and sunlight towards the end of the day. We said goodbye and separated in two directions: I would return to America and Anya back to Moscow.
Inspired by the fullness of this trip on the way to the airport, I suddenly wanted to sneak aboard a train and continue on a night trip to Portugal, to the capital city of Lisbon, to enjoy more Europe! Not less, but more Europe. Yes, the French and then the Portuguese! But I had been gone from America for an extended period, and many people and work were pulling me back home.
I first met the Tranströmers in 1983, at a university in Texas, and then again in 1990 in Boston when Tomas read at Harvard University. Over the years, I left Boston and flew across the Atlantic Ocean to Dublin, Ireland, and London, visited Amsterdam for six months, took a train to Barcelona to live for a year, and then flew across the European continent to Sweden for a residency at the Swedish Writers Union. Paris was the last of these many trips that began in year 2000. The combined years of travel totaled six thousand miles, six cities, one Atlantic Ocean (the only one!), two continents, and covered seven years.
It was reassuring to know Tomas was still in good spirits despite the severe medical misfortune he’d suffered. Every day he wrote and practiced piano, and Monica was a constant loving presence at his side. During my visit in Stockholm, I understood he insisted on not the defeat of disability, but an embrace of the victory of an active and continuing life. He still performed piano concerts and readings, although he would now have Monica or fellow poet read for him.
NOTE:Tomas Tranströmer passed away 26 March 2015 at his residence in Stockholm after a brief illness. His wife Monica and two daughters were with him in his last days. He was 83 years old. His legacy is as one of the most respected poets in Europe and the world. Widely read in many countries, his books have been translated into more than sixty languages.
Announcement of the Nobel Prize, October 6, 2011
Boston 8:30 a.m
Sweden 2:30 PM
Gambling in the United Kingdom has been a recreational activity for three centuries, and the British will bet on almost anything. In book mad London, the betting parlors on an annual basis post odds on the potential nominees and winners of the Nobel Prize in Literature. As recently as October 5, 2011, the odds at Ladbrokes Coral, the leading London betting parlor, to win the 2011 Nobel Prize for Literature were on either Syrian poet Adonis (Ali Ahmed Said) or Tranströmer. This morning in the few hours before notification of the winner, it looked as if the odds had swung to American poet and singer Bob Dylan or Japanese writer Haruki Murakami. Several European newspapers were reporting online Bob Dylan. The news (at 2:51 PM Swedish time, 8:51 AM Boston time) came early this morning in Boston: It’s Tranströmer!
Tranströmer Winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature!
The Nobel announcement on European television was thirty-six seconds long. The Secretary of the Nobel Committee in reporting Tranströmer as the winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature referred to Tranströmer’s “luminous poems that show us all a new window of reality.”
Tomas Tranströmer is one of the few poets today to have a global readership. Translations of his poetry into sixty global languages are popular in those countries. An idea or image in a line of poetry by Tranströmer translates very well into the Arabic, Chinese, Greek, or Hebrew heart and mind. Imagine a room of college students in Brazil, Croatia, Indonesia, or Thailand debating the meaning of “After a Death,” a well-known Tranströmer poem written after the death of John F. Kennedy.
Tomas Tranströmer Nobel Citation
A Tranströmer poem will indeed include windows and striking images of perception that communicate across cultural, ethnic, and linguistic barriers. He is a populist poet, a traditional role in global societies that has declined in a modern world tied together by technology. Among scholars and the general reading public in countries such as Egypt, India, Japan, Korea, Lebanon, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia, there is still great respect for poetry and its tradition. In the West, we have given ourselves over to technology. We are wired into the grid twenty-four hours a day.
Tomas Tranströmer receives his Nobel Prize
from His Majesty KingCarl XVI
December 10, 2011
Against a daily backdrop of a blizzard of words and images from global news, the internet, and social media, we need natural impulses to resurface to help return us to a connection to the natural world. Everywhere we travel and at home the flickering screens of cell phones, tablets, and computers consume us. In international cities around the world on platforms for modern high-speed bullet trains hundreds of passengers hold high cell phones fishing for an internet cloud connection. In this digital age, the staggering flood of images and texts have overwhelmed all other forms of communication. Consider that in this era, Twitter is the digital version of yesterday’s haiku.
Tomas Tranströmer is an international literary figure of great stature. With translations of his poetry in more than sixty languages, he is the most widely read poet in our lifetime. He has helped bring Sweden to the world and the world to Sweden. His poetry offers opportunities to see things in new ways, to view ourselves against the backdrop of cities and landscapes, the inner and outer worlds in which we simultaneously live. His poetry speaks to us of what it is to live, love, and thrive as a human being in this troubled world.