Åsa Beckman: Sweden has lost a magnificent writer

12 oktober 2019

One August afternoon in the late 80’s I was sitting with Sara Danius outside the restaurant Prinsen in Stockholm. 

”I have made a decision: I am never going to be a dilettante,” she said, making a fiery speech, about how we should always aim higher, always make sure to build from a foundation of knowledge and education. 

No one could really accuse Sara Danius of ever having been a sloppy dilettante. 

We got to know each other in our literature classes at Stockholm University. Sara was noticed in the seminars; short hair with a hint of orange, a fluffy Angora cardigan with shoulder-pads, writing a sharp essay on the poet Tomas Tranströmer. 

It’s melancholic to think back on that summer evening at Prinsen, when she was just in the beginning of her writing and thinking life, which would take her so far. 

Sara Danius was the oldest of nine children in Anna Wahlgren’s family. When the controversial author launched her bestselling ”For the love of children” in 1983, several children of various sizes were often on the podium. Sara Danius has described her childhood as characterized by incessant departures, and new siblings. You got the feeling that she had to take on an adult’s responsibilities at a young age, picking up children and working in the home. 

She valued education, something that came from her father, Lars Danius. He had been Anna Wahlgren’s teacher, and when he married a student 35 years his junior it caused a scandal. For Sara he was a beloved and safe person. She has often referenced her almost museal upbringing in a home with an older, academic father who hated her mother’s music (”controlled insanity”), who played the organ and valued the old musical masters. 

Illustration: Stina Wirsén

She followed his lead, educating herself meticulously and purposefully. After a few years at Nottingham University she proceeded to go to Duke University, where Fredric Jameson, one of her biggest intellectual role models, was a professor. Her dissertation ”The senses of modernism”, which described how technological advances had influenced authors like Gustave Flaubert, Marcel Proust and James Joyce, was put forward both in Sweden and the U.S. After that she wrote several collections of essays, such as ”Den blå tvålen” (2013) and ”Husmoderns död” (2014), where she gathered articles, among them ones she had written during her years as at DN.

Early on, one could see what would become Sara Danius signum: her pregnant style of writing. She had an excellent ability to lead the reader through her analyses in an entertaining way, always with acuteness and elegance. She also had an unusual sense of humor in her writing. She often defined education as an ability to connect ”high and low”, a perfect example of this when she delved deep into Honoré de Balzac’s ties or Marcel Proust’s chocolate cakes. 

And anyone who has heard Sara, with her deep chuckling laugh, recite the end of one of her favorite movies, ”National Lampoon's Vacation”, will never forget it. 

In 2013, when she was chosen as a member of the Swedish Academy to sit on Selma Lagerlöf’s chair number 7, you could see that the group would soon have its first female Permanent Secretary. She became Permanent Secretary in 2015. During her time in that role more female members were chosen than ever before, and she held the position with a strong-willed style. In an interview she talked about being chosen, saying: ”You can’t reject, you can’t be rejected.” 

She would be proven wrong. On April 12, 2018, the Academy voted her out, after she had decided to conduct an extensive investigation into allegations of sexual assault and leaks. 

But the Swedish people never rejected Sara Danius. She became a rare breed; a beloved and admired academic. The story of her cancer, which she told on the radio show ”Vinter i P1” enthralled the listeners, her spectacular dresses made fashion experts shower her with praise. People who followed her on social media could see how her followers praised her as a queenlike role model, as a modern female icon. 

But many members of the Academy couldn’t stand that. They thought she was allowing her personality and her creations to take too much space, since the Permanent Secretary traditionally had a low profile and represented the Academy rather than themselves. But I also think they were annoyed by her undeniable star quality. Sara Danius was a perfect example of visibility, the natural visibility that the American author Susan Faludi describes as so provocative to many men. Danius had a combination of intelligence, social competence and visual luminosity, which is more common in women, and which the public loves. 

Other male members, who were just as vain as her, knew that they could not compete with this. 

No wonder they clenched their fists in their pockets. 

It is hard for me to write this. We were close during a few formative years, it wasn’t always an easy relationship. The last time we saw each other was the night before she was voted out. The Nordic prize was being awarded to Agneta Pleijel, and when Sara Danius made her entrance to Börssalen, the ovations wouldn't stop. One could see how she, so often careful about being composed in instances like this, was deeply touched as she realized the people were applauding her courage. That was moving.

When I left the reception afterwards, she was standing alone in Börssalen. I said something about her now having to be very strong.

”I know”, she said.

I recognized the Sara I had known when I was younger, a woman whom I both respected and felt tenderness towards.

An image which many people will never forget is when Sara Danius was sitting on the stage of the Concert hall at the Nobel Prize Ceremony in 2018. She wore a huge orange dress. The crisis in the Swedish Academy had resulted in them not awarding a prize in literature, but she was seated on stage as a member of the Nobel Foundation. 

Sara Danius looked unaffected, while reading the program in her spectacular creation, but everyone who has known her knew that she was acutely aware of what impression she was making. She was the moral winner, majestic. Wherever the members who voted her out were sitting during that night, her colour explosion must have been visible to them. 

Bild 1 av 2

Illustration: Stina Wirsén

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Illustration: Stina Wirsén

So Sara Danius knew how to control the image of herself. It was just like her to say no to all interviews during the months after she left Börshuset, in a white tied blouse, with Sara Stridsberg by her side, and to then give her version of what happened in her own radio program. She made sure the program would be broadcasted live so that none of the chilling details could be leaked. 

Sara Danius understood that if you don’t take control of your own story, someone else will. 

I think she learned that from her mother. A young Sara had seen how men in the world of culture and publishing treated a woman who was intelligent but who had been married seven times, had nine children and had been featured in the tabloids. They thought they had the right to grope her and make indecent proposals. Sara Danius never forgot that. In her research she always prioritized canonized male authors, but during her last years she often said that her insight into the brotherhood that protected Jean-Claude Arnault had made her an even more dedicated feminist. 

A few years after that evening at Prinsen we took a walk around Årstaviken, with our children in prams. We talked about Marlen Haushofer’s novel ”The wall”. For both of us the book had unleashed a deep fear of, just like the author, being snatched away from our children too early. Sitting on a bench by the water, Sara lifted her son up, wearing winter clothes. She told him that she would always be by his side. 

Now she is gone. Leo has lost his mother. All her readers have lost a magnificent writer and a literary educator. But her memory will live on, as the brave woman in a tied blouse who demanded that the Swedish Academy scrutinize itself. As a woman she was especially touched by the testimonies of the 18 women, and she understood that we are living in a time when testimonies about assault can not be dismissed. 

She finally let the light in.

Translated from swedish by Evelyn Jones.

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